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The Good News of Easter: Disorienting, Unsettling, Terrifying

This is so strange, so disorienting.
We’ve never experienced anything like this before.
It’s hard to know what to think, how to behave, how to navigate our relationships and communities—it’s all so unsettling and even frightening.

You might guess that I’m describing our current lockdown condition during this Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps. But I might also be describing the immediate aftermath of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.

Here are those same words, again; think about them in relation to Easter:

This is so strange, so disorienting.
We’ve never experienced anything like this before.
It’s hard to know what to think, how to behave, how to navigate our relationships and communities—it’s all so unsettling and even frightening.

Easter is a very peculiar season, and the stories about the risen Jesus are some of the strangest stories in the Bible. So strange, in fact, that these stories simply wouldn’t be suitable for Hollywood blockbuster movies; the biblical storytellers refuse to give us the kind of neat and tidy endings big movie directors crave.

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Mary Magdalene and Risen Christ (Ivanov)

Imagine with me a director trying to film scenes from, say, John’s account of Easter:

Cut! Hey, Mary, you know what? Just go ahead and touch him! No, really. I’m wanting the soundtrack to build right there toward a big crescendo, and we can’t have Jesus just wandering off! Could you hug him, or something?

Or this:

Cut! Hey, Thomas! For heaven’s sake, don’t put your finger in there! That’s gross! Speaking of which—makeup! Get over here! Could you make that scar look a little less…I don’t know…icky? We’re going for happy here, not macabre!

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“Doubting Thomas”

The oddness of these Easter stories and the oddness of this virus lockdown—what might one have to say to the other?

The story many heard yesterday in church for the third Sunday of Easter offers at least three things that might illustrate particularly well the unsettling and therefore hopeful character of Easter. The story comes from Luke, and it features two disciples of Jesus on a road toward a village called Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). These two disciples are then joined on their journey by a stranger. Those familiar with the story know that this stranger is none other than the risen Jesus. But don’t rush ahead to Emmaus quite yet. Pause and ponder this rather curious feature that shows up in other accounts of the resurrection as well: even Jesus’ closest friends don’t recognize him.

We’re not told why Jesus is unrecognizable and there could be multiple reasons. But it seems to me that the unrecognizable Jesus is one way for the Gospel writers to remind us that the risen Jesus is not a ghost nor is he a resuscitated corpse; he is instead something new.

Pope Leo the Great pondered this back in the fifth century and suggested that the hearts of these disciples burned within them along that road, as Luke describes it, because they caught a glimpse of “their own glorified humanity.” We do not yet know, in other words, what the fullness of human life in all its flourishing actually looks like, and yet that is precisely what God intends for us all, a life of thriving into which the risen Jesus leads the way.

A second feature of this story is hospitality. But here again, it is not the welcoming of what is known and familiar that Luke describes but instead the increasing intimacy of these disciples with a stranger—sharing with the stranger their inmost anxieties and griefs, and then extending an invitation to lodge with them, and finally sharing food with this stranger. Not just in the breaking of bread, in other words, but in this whole arc of extending hospitality, the risen Jesus eventually becomes known.

And third, this risen Jesus who eventually becomes known in this story is also the one who quickly disappears. Without so much as a teary embrace for a stunning reunion or a “Whoa! It’s really you!” from the disciples, Jesus simply vanishes.

All of our grasping after God, all of our yearnings for certainty just slip through our fingers, like trying to catch water with a net, as one theologian puts it. Whatever the future of God’s promise of new life holds for us, it won’t be reducible to the known objects of our faith, not even the most familiar and cherished ones, the ones we can control and manipulate.

Many biblical writers and theologians of all kinds return to this cautionary note quite frequently, the caution against idolatry. As Gregory of Nyssa once wrote, centuries ago, “concepts create idols; only wonder understands anything.”

So I’ve been pondering these and other features of a very disorienting set of stories, these stories we hear every year during the Easter season and that we insist on calling “Gospel,” or good news. And it occurs to me that the news of Easter is truly good not because everything is put back in exactly the way it was before, but because everything is made new.

As Christians, we are not baptized into nostalgia; we are baptized into the hope of the “new creation,” the first fruits of which God gives to us by raising Jesus from the dead—a Jesus we cannot at first recognize, a Jesus who becomes known to us by extending hospitality to a stranger, a Jesus we cannot seize and put on display like a museum artifact.

Luke spells this out for us, actually, in the opening verses of Part 2 of his account of the Gospel, what we call “The Acts of the Apostles.” There, when the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, they ask him, “Lord, is this the time you will restore the Kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).

Or, we might say, is this the time, Lord, when you will make America great again?

I’m not trying to be politically partisan here because, indeed, the urgency to return to so-called “normal life” in this country infects both sides of the political aisle. And Luke would urge us to resist it mightily. Luke is pretty clear about this: the Gospel doesn’t restore anything at all but instead, as he says toward the end of Acts, it “turns the world upside down” (17:6).

A recent editorial in the New York Times noted something similar, and rather pointedly: the United States was already suffering from severe pre-existing conditions long before this novel coronavirus arrived to our shores. This pandemic has simply made those conditions starkly and painfully visible, whether the shameful gap between rich and poor, the shocking fragility of our health care system, the house of cards called our economy, the near-total disregard for ecological sustainability and vitality—these are just a few of the features of what many assumed was “normal life” and to which we must not return.

Even when we realize the need to go forward rather than back, this in-between moment is filled with anxiety.

Let’s be honest with each other: we are living through a terrifying moment and we can’t see what kind of future it will bring. Luke appreciated this as well. The chapter from which this morning’s story comes begins with the women who discover that the tomb is empty and their first response is terror (24:5).

Whatever new thing God is always bringing about will always startle us, will always make us uneasy, and will sometimes terrify us. This is why, it seems to me, Luke is so keen to narrate new life around a shared table of hospitality, and why so many Christians are so eager to return to the table on Sunday mornings—we need each other as we let go of what has been and try to embrace what is, even now, emerging.

When we do that faithfully, with a posture of hospitality, Luke assures us that we will eventually recognize that future as the dear companion we have always longed for, the love that renews us, and the life that will make us thrive.

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Daniel Bonnell, “Road to Emmaus”

 

 

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Divine Solidarity

The traditional service of Stations of the Cross traces the journey Jesus made from condemnation to crucifixion and burial. I noticed something new on that journey after reflecting on it through the frame of pandemic.

At the fifth “station,” we remember Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross of Christ for him, for at last part of that excruciating journey. The gospel accounts from Matthew, Mark, and Luke all include Simon, but something from Mark’s version caught my attention.

As Jesus struggles to bear the weight, not only of his cross but his impending death, Mark says that the soldiers “compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus” (15:21).

A simple verse, but it’s a poignant moment, with multiple layers.

I’m indebted to a Jesuit priest who reminded me, in connection with this Gospel encounter, of the Blanche DuBois character in A Streetcar Named Desire, and her often quoted line: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

How much kindness had to do with Simon’s assistance in this story is an open question—Mark says he was compelled to carry the cross. But Jesus must have been grateful nonetheless for the temporary relief from shouldering that burden all alone.

COVID-19 disease is inspiring many of us to offer assistance to strangers in ways we hadn’t imagined even just a month ago. Perhaps we feel compelled to do so; perhaps it feels like kindness when we ourselves receive help from a stranger who just happens to be passing by.

For Mark, however, this Simon of Cyrene was not much of a stranger at all. And only Mark among the gospel writers makes this plain. Simon of Cyrene, Mark says, was the “father of Alexander and Rufus.” Today we have no idea who Alexander and Rufus were, but back then, Mark’s readers must surely have known—you know, that guy from Cyrene, Rufus and Alex’s dad; that Simon.

When the novel coronavirus first appeared in Wuhan, I was concerned but not terribly troubled; it was, after all, far away in China, across a vast ocean. Then it got closer, in South Korea. Then closer still, Washington State. A few days ago, I heard from someone I actually know who is ill with the disease.

It matters differently somehow, with more texture and depth, to know someone who knows someone who was there; to know a friend of a friend who is in trouble; to know someone directly caught up in the drama, because then we are, too.

One more layer, because every story about Jesus is also a story about God. And this story, Mark seems to be saying, is a story about the astonishing nearness of God. God is not far off and distant, involved only with people we will never know and places we will never visit. Look, even old Simon from Cyrene is in the story—you know, Rufus and Alex’s dad!

Look, Mark seems to be saying, look how close God is; how near to us.

Look how deep God’s solidarity runs with us all.

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“Simon of Cyrene,” by Sieger Koder

 

I’m grateful for the ecumenical, online offering of this year’s Stations of the Cross co-hosted by a number of congregations here in the San Francisco Bay Area and during which I offered a version of these reflections.

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A Contagious Hope in Times of Peril

We’ve been fussing and tinkering the last few days at Good Shepherd, the congregation where I serve in Berkeley. Fussing with how best we might offer an opportunity for prayer and worship without meeting together in person. We tinkered, too, because we wanted to get this right, or at least do the best we can with online worship because we’ve been realizing of late, as so many others have as well, that spiritual practice and religious traditions really do make a profound difference in our shared sense of wellbeing.

At its best, religious practice binds us together as a community—to shape us, challenge us, admonish us, and also to reassure us and comfort us in moments of distress and peril. For all of these reasons and more, we were committed to connecting in some fashion, to be encouraged and fortified by the sense of being woven together, even online, as a single Body with many members—to evoke one of St. Paul’s favorite images.

In this time of pervasive anxiety and unnerving uncertainty, the lectionary—one of our religious tools as Christians—the lectionary gave us some rich biblical texts for worship this morning.

From the Hebrew Bible, we heard the story of how David was chosen over and above his much more likely brothers to be Israel’s king (1 Samuel 16:1-13). The storyteller quite directly tells us what we should learn from that moment of divine selection: do not judge by size or outward appearance alone.

Here’s just one of many ways to take that lesson to heart: let’s notice how astonishing it is that something microscopically small is right now bringing nation-states to their knees; how a virus, invisible to the naked eye, is toppling a global economic system.

What we humans build and construct, even what looks sturdy and seems permanent, is actually quite fragile and temporary. This moment seems ripe, in other words, to ponder anew where we ought to place our hope and trust.

Let’s be very clear about where, at least in part, our hope just now belongs: science.

A recent op-ed in the Washington Post by retired Navy Seal and Admiral William McRaven offered some powerful words of reassurance in that regard, a reminder that some of the smartest scientific minds on the planet are working on a vaccine, on treatments, and a cure for COVID-19; that some of the most experienced people in epidemiology and public health are mobilizing at all levels; healthcare providers are courageously and heroically tending to the sick. These are indeed hopeful signs for what are surely very troubling days ahead.

In addition to that great list, let me also note where I hear hope from the story about David: it’s a reminder that God often chooses the least likely tools, the most unexpected methods, and the usually overlooked people to accomplish what God intends in the world. Put in another way: hope appears precisely at that moment when it seems the most unwarranted.

Or as Admiral McRaven put it, “because the only thing more contagious than a virus is hope.”

Hope where there seemed to be none at all takes on flesh in the story from John’s account of the gospel that was also appointed for today (John 9:1-41). As some early Christian commentators have noted about this story of giving sight to a man born blind, Jesus is the one who seeks him out, not the other way around.

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Jesus offers sight to a man born blind.

This is what God is like, those commentators suggest, always pursuing us with more gifts than we even thought possible to ask for.

John tells a rather complex story about this man born blind, about his parents and the wider community to which they all belong. The complexity of this story, it seems to me, reflects the complexity of life itself and the very real perplexities we encounter in our relationships with God and each other.

Even the notion of healing is multilayered, both in this story and in our own lives. Of course, we stand in need of healing from this new coronavirus; and we also need a healing balm for our collective anxiety; and we also need healing for the deep social and political divisions in our society; and still more, we need to heal and revitalize our relationship to Earth, with her many interconnected ecosystems and habitats and species, “this fragile Earth,” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, “our island home.”

Yet one more layer from this story deserves attention: the perennial human response to suffering by asking why. The frequent assumption humans so often make in such moments is captured perfectly in this story, an assumption continues in some quarters to this day. It is the assumption, in the face of suffering, that someone must have sinned.

Typical for John’s Jesus, he does not respond in any neat or tidy way to this question, except to say that sin has nothing to do with the man’s blindness.

John’s Jesus is crystal clear about this and it deserves repeating: Neither that man nor his parents sinned to cause his blindness.

Hope where there seemed to be none.
Hope in the flesh, seeking us out.
Hope for more than we could think to ask.

These reminders about hope were beautifully framed this morning with the familiar words from the 23rd Psalm, which was itself a balm to hear in the congregation of the Good Shepherd.

As we confront still more difficult days ahead, let us hold fast to the assurance offered by the psalmist: God is with us. God is actually our shepherd, leading us to places of unexpected refreshment and renewal—green pastures and still waters.

And still more: God accompanies us through even the darkest valley, reassuring us that not even death can separate us from the shepherd’s care.

In the days and weeks ahead, may hope itself become the unstoppable contagion we spread for each other’s comfort and consolation…

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“The Good Shepherd,” Kelly Latimore