Year B, Easter 3 April 15, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“They were startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost.”
Happy Easter, everyone!
I am trying to emphasize Easter as a season this year. Easter is not one day, it is 50; so feast on! The Paschal Candle is lit the whole time. The flowers are lovely. We don’t say the confession in this season. It’s bare feet in the soft grass. Life is free and easy. Well, obviously there is lots to be worried about; in your life, in the world, there are lots of things to fear if you are paying attention, but that is not the only story, and in Jesus Christ that is certainly not the end of the story. And that’s what we remember in the Easter season. In the end, as St. Julian reminds us, “all will be well, all will be well, every manner of thing will be well.” Easter is all about remembering that, that it will be well. But that does not just mean that in the end, in the fullness of time, in the sweet hereafter that it will be well. No, no, no, no… That’s as bad a Christian misunderstanding as we have ever had. The Easter story assures us not only that it will be well, but also reminds us that it can be well. And not just well for you, or for us, or them, but well, straight up well for everyone, for God’s whole creation. And the wonder of God in Christ with the Holy Spirit even goes further than that: the Easter story teaches us that it is well. That heaven and earth are already aligned. We, are the misaligned. If we had the eyes to see it, the ears to hear it, and the courage, humility and will to be and let it be as God intends, we would know that all is well, that the Kingdom of God is at hand. That is the promise and the lesson of Easter. That’ll take at least 50 days to absorb.
And then I read the paper this morning. Missiles are raining on Syria in response to nerve gas attacks on civilians; evil answered with evil. More than 1000 Gazans have been wounded by the IDF since Passover began; 30 or 40 killed. That’s barley in the paper. Our government… no one is rising to the occasion, barely anyone in public life is except maybe the Rev. Dr. William Barber, God bless him. And as wealth concentrates beyond the proportions of the Gilded Age, poverty trickles down into our city, our neighborhood, our congregation. Part of me says that if this is what well looks like, I’d hate to see mediocre! It is scary, sometimes.
Rob’s great sermon last week reminded us that doubt has deep roots in the Christian tradition. From day one, literally, from the day Jesus rose from the grave, even the most dedicated, the closest to Him, doubted. Doubted what the women told them, doubted what Jesus had promised, doubted their own experiences, just doubted. As religious people, conventional wisdom would say, we are supposed to have faith and not doubt. I have grave doubts about that statement. Doubt is real, it is a common experience, and it is a healthy sign of God’s gift of free will which gives us the impetus to wrestle with faith, to consider to whom and what we give authority, discern what we bring into our hearts and minds and bodies, and those of our children. We shouldn’t settle with doubt, but we need to deal with it here and now just as the disciples dealt with it in their time and in their ways.
The very same thing goes with fear. As religious people, we are not supposed to be fearful, right? In Scripture we are told to “not fear” something like 365 times. Our faith is supposed to carry us through, “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil…” “Be Not Afraid.” That’s the hymn, right? And yet, right back to the very first day of Christ’s rising, ‘…terror and amazement had seized them.” Or today, St. Luke’s telling of the first time the 11 saw the risen Lord, “They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” Christians have a long and storied tradition of fear.
Like doubt, fear happens. It is a fact of life even amongst the most faithful, God-fearing of us. (Obviously God-fearing has little to do with being scared of God, it means awe, reverence or worship, there is a little trembling in there, but just enough to remind us of what awesome really means). There is a lot to doubt, just as there is a lot to be scared of in this world. Fear is part of our existence, a lot more for some than others, but it is a universal human experience. Today’s Gospel, among other things, is about fear.
As Luke tells it, on the first day, the women went to the tomb and Jesus was not there. Two men in “dazzling” clothes appeared and asked, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Remember? They tell the Eleven and Peter verifies it (not trusting the women). And then there is the stranger on the road to Emmaus. The two followers of Jesus didn’t recognize the man at first, but as he opened the scriptures, and then joined them to eat, taking, blessing, breaking and giving the bread, they recognized Him, Jesus, and then instantly He vanished. They turned right around and went back to Jerusalem to tell the 11 what had happened. That’s where we pick up the story today.
How scared they must have been! Jesus arrested in the night. Tried, tortured and horrendously executed. Then His body came up missing. Disappeared, not even the closure of preparing Him for burial. Lucy was just in Argentina with her son. She told me that across the country, mothers of the disappeared still gather weekly, decades after the bad times, remembering those lost, mourning the disappearances, lamenting the injustice, and I can imagine, gathering together to tend to their fear. The followers of Jesus were in their bad time.
As the two from the Emmaus road told everyone what had happened, Jesus appeared. Their first reaction is fear. Even though He had told them this would happen, even though they were supposed to have faith, even though their friends had just told them about what they saw on the road, they were scared. I am so glad they were scared; it humanizes them, because what a scary thing! What a completely natural and healthy reaction, to be startled by the appearance of a dead friend and to be terrified by it. We are told what, 365 times not to fear? That’s because we need to be reminded over and over and over again, because there is a lot to fear in this world.
And here Jesus Christ begins to offer us a facet of our salvation. What does He do? “Beloved, we are God’s children now” is how Peter puts it. Jesus acts like a good parent, a very good parent. He meets them, God’s children, where they were. And where were they? Scared. Fearful. An understandable response to life in precarious times or crazy situations. But as the whole field of trauma studies is learning and teaching us, living in fear is dangerous, it is damaging to our psyche’s and bodies and can inhibit the living of life as you know it. So much of the trauma suffered on the street by homeless folks and by everyone in a war zone, combatants and non-combatants, is due to being scared for long periods of time. It is very bad for you to be scared all the time, which is a dilemma if your life is full of fearful people and conditions. That’s where the disciples were, and had been for months, years maybe? And it had just gotten so much worse.
So Jesus meets them where they were. “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” He recognizes where they were. Then He reached out, slowly like to jumpy a cat. “Look at my hands and my feet…” Then He got a little closer, “Touch me and see…” There was joy. I can imagine them like “Wow! Is this real?” looking furtively to each other, “…disbelieving and still wondering.” And then Jesus just scooped them up in his ever-loving arms, “Have you anything to eat?”
Food, eating doesn’t cure everything, but other cures don’t work without it. One of the great blessings that the folks who work Egan and the family shelter offer our guests is the hospitality of the table. The food here is good. It is all made here, by you all and others in the wider community. It is fresh, wholesome, home-cooked, familiar and comfortable, served on real plates, with real forks, real napkins, table cloths. We need some new table cloths, but those stains were earned the honest way, through real and loving use, and the life and light and love that spills all over those tables with the knocked over coffee and spilled soup can, will save the world. Many of the folks we welcome here have a lot to be scared of. But sometimes, maybe even just for a minute or two, you can see shoulders relax. Or someone settle back into the chair. Or a flash of relief that dinner smells good and their daughter likes roasted chicken and will eat well, today. That is fear loosening its grip. That is the love of God slipping in.
Fear itself is not really the problem. Being controlled by the fear, is. Being dominated by it. We have more to fear than fear itself, but the fear of fear is right at the top of the list. The disciples were being controlled by their fear. They were holed up, in some accounts behind locked doors. They were not going out and proclaiming the Word as He had told them to, repeatedly, before and after His execution. They had much to fear, and that fear got the best of them.
The bravest amongst us are acutely aware of fear. Not to be is foolishness, and not in Jesus-foolishness but get yourself hurt foolishness. The brave aren’t fearless, they recognize their fear, and meet it. Looking at His hands. Touching his cloak. Handing Him a piece of fish, maybe having some with Him. Jesus sets that table and welcomes his scared friends in. The Good Shepherd. The good parent. The good friend.
Jesus helps not in taking scary things away, the temple authorities still had it in for them, but helps by making fear itself less scary. No matter how much you believe, no matter how brave you are, bad things can (and will) happen to you, to those you love, in the world you inhabit. Jesus can’t change that. Well, if a critical mass of us followed Him like He asks it might all change, but until the coming of the Kingdom, Jesus can’t change that, but can, does change us. We’ll still feel fear, still have doubt, but not be dominated by it.
Not being controlled by fear. Oh what a wonderful world it would be! When we are dominated by fear, the primary reactions are what? Fight, flight or freeze. They each have their use, but those are not the only options available, just the only ones apparent when under the control of fear. Some feminist psychologists have described other paths, paths much more accessible when we are not dominated by fear. These paths have been described as gathering and tending. That just sounds better than fight, flight or freeze.
I think this is what Jesus did with His friends. He gathered them together. He was always doing that, gathering everyone around, bringing them in close. I always imagine His voice being solid, but quite; you needed to lean in to hear, and you didn’t want to miss a word. Everyone felt safe close in around Him. Then He died, and was back. As a hen tender gathers her chicks, they must have wanted to crowd around Him. They did. There was already food about, and He ate. I can imagine others dropped their guard a bit followed Him in eating. “You want to go fast, go alone, you want to go far, go together,” says the proverb. Gathered they went far.
Gathered together, what did Jesus do for them? He tended them. He cared for them, gave them what they needed. He approached them gently. Showed His body. Offering for them to touch and see. They needed that holding, that care, that tending. Then gave them more, He taught them. He “…opened their minds to the understanding of the scriptures…” He gave them understanding about what was going on around them, and then, gave them a great gift for the traumatized: agency. He sent them. “…repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are the witnesses of these things.” He gave them something helpful, useful, edifying to do, that they had control over. You are powerless in fear. Being powerless is scary. Having control, having a say in what you do and what happens to you is incredibly important for those who are scared. The mission, the great commission Jesus gave them was just that sort of thing.
Some of it is just having meaningful work. Read the Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture by Wendell Berry if you want to consider more about the salvific nature of meaningful work in and of itself. It saves. (Or at least the lack of meaningful work destroys). What Jesus has on offer in the gospel work He charges us with is forty and sixty and one hundred times more powerful, simply because it is done in the name of God. That changes everything. Be you the mightiest of the mighty or the lowliest of the low, all are equal in the eyes of God, Jesus’ life demonstrates that. So working in the name of God brings you (humbly) eye to eye with the whole creation. Jesus was an un-landed peasant, a gnat in the Roman imperial ointment, and yet He bested Pilate on his judgement seat. What that rag-tag group of Galilean dissenters started outlasted the Roman empire (before that converting it in less than 350 years). Proclaiming repentance and forgiveness in the name of God… that sending, that mission saved those scared men and women as much as it did anyone they in turn saved. The martyrs of the church, great and small met, meet their fear in the love of God and in the power and the glory of offering God’s love and forgiveness to the world. By that we can be saved. So many are.
Gathered and tended. Sending and serving. Take. Bless. Brake. Give. That is the mission that Jesus gave to those doubtful, fearful people 2000 years ago. And the love, the gathering and tending that He did has been passed down from generation to generation in the church, and happens again each week at this table we gather around. That is an Easter message worth celebrating for 50 days.
There is a lot to be scared of in this world. And that is not the end of the story. Happy Easter! AMEN