Monday, May 18, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "The Wings Wherewith to Fly High"

John 20:11-18

Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. 13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.  (Common English Bible)

“The Son of Man: When Poetry Testifies to Christ,” Week Five

I want to try something different to kick off today’s sermon…I want you to try something, actually.

I want you to remember something, anything.  It can be happy or sad, relatively recent or a long time ago, but I want you to fix on a particular memory, of an event or a person or a place, something tangible that your mind carries with you...a wedding or a birthday or a baptism or a vacation destination, or even when the Mariners last won the World Series (oh wait, they haven't done that yet?  Carry on, then).

Got a memory?

Okay, now, what if I told you that you’re not remembering the thing you’ve got in mind, but that you’re remembering the last time you brought that memory up?  That’s what the latest science suggests, per the website that might have the best URL name on the web, FactualFacts:

A Northwestern Medicine study involving 70 people has shown that every time we remember an event that has happened from our past, our brain networks change in ways that actually alter the recall of the event.  This means the next time you remember it, you might not remember the original event but what you remembered the previous time.

As postdoctoral fellow Donna Bridge explains, “A memory is not simply an image produced by time traveling back to the original event—it can be an image that is somewhat distorted because of the prior times you remembered it…”

(T)he reason behind the distortion is that human memories are always adapting and that memories do actually change over time, e.g. if you think back to an event that happened to you a long time ago, like your first day of school, you actually may be remembering the information you retrieved about that event at some later time, not the original event itself.

So basically, when you strive to recall something, you’re recalling not that thing, but your latest recollection of it.  Imagine, then, the importance of our tangible memories: the photographs, the letters, the heartfelt notes (don’t tell my parents this, or they’ll arrange for another family photo session after this) to our spiritual well-being as creatures designed by God to love and be loved.

Imagine, as well, then, the sheer need of Jesus’s followers to adhere to that commandment given by Christ around the Passover table, to “remember Him.”  And how did they end up remembering Him?  And was it the same way that we remember Jesus?  Because honestly, it probably isn’t.

This is the end of a sermon series that has lasted us now almost fifty days!  Just like Christmas and its 12 days, Easter is much more than Easter Sunday itself, and it lasts for much longer: fifty days, in fact.  That’s fifty days of hearing, bearing, and proclaiming the good news of the resurrection, long after the Easter Bunny has come and gone and the egg dye has been put back into the pantry for another year.

As a part of my own work and ministry in proclaiming to the world a risen Savior, this sermon series will take a new tack for me: talking with all of you about Jesus as He is revealed in poetry, of all things.  If you’ll recall my sermon series from a couple of years ago that I centered around several of the writings of C.S. Lewis, well, this series will be structured fairly similarly, except instead of C.S. Lewis’s books, it will be around Khalil Gibran’s poetry about Jesus Christ, of which there is a great amount, in the volume Jesus: Son of Man, from which this series derives its name.  Gibran was a Lebanese poet during the early 20th century who was raised Christian but was also influenced by Sufi mysticism, and that mysticism, much like that of many other Christian mystics, comes through in his poetry about Jesus.  Jesus: Son of Man tells the stories of the gospels, but in Gibran’s soaring words, through the eyes of various supporting characters: the disciples, the female followers of Jesus, even some of Jesus’s opponents (although Gibran reserves his best poetry entirely for Jesus’s adherents).

We begin this series, then, two weeks ago with Gibran’s retelling of the Sermon on the Mount made famous in Matthew’s Gospel, and of how Gibran tells the story of Jesus teaching His disciples how to pray.  After skipping a week, we read from Gibran’s version of the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8, which Gibran assigned to the voice of the apostle Andrew, and then we arrived at Jerusalem itself, as Jesus preached and Gibran, through the voice of Joseph of Arimathea, transcribed.  Last week, we talked about the crucifixion, as Gibran, through the voice of Barabbas, the terrorist chosen for freedom by the crowd, narrated the Via Dolorosa, the way to Calvary, and now, at long last, to end this series, we reflect on the Resurrection, as written by Gibran through the voice of Mary Magdalene, an older Mary thirty years after the ministry of Jesus Christ:

Once again I say that with death Jesus conquered death, and rose from the grave a spirit and a power.  And He walked in our solitude and visited the gardens of our passions.

He lies not there in that cleft rock behind the stone.

We who love Him beheld Him with these our eyes which He made to see; and we touched Him with these our hands which He taught to reach forth.

I know you who believe not in Him.  I was one of you, and you are many; but your number shall be diminished…there is a gulf that yawns between those who love Him and those who hate Him, between those who believe and those who do not believe.

But when the years have bridged that gulf you shall know that He who lived in us was deathless, that He was the Son of God even as we are the children of God; that He was born of a virgin even as we are born of the husbandless earth.

How do we remember Jesus Christ?  Well, first of all, how do we remember Mary Magdalene?  While Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code thriller was an abominably bad piece of Biblical research, he did at least get one thing right: it is a fiction that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute.  There is nothing in Scripture to suggest that she is one.  Instead, it is far more likely that she was, in addition to one of Jesus’s many female disciples (such as Susanna and Mary, the mother of James the Just), a financial backer of Jesus’s ministry, something that a marginalized sex worker could likely not afford.

But we remember her as a prostitute because it suits our narrative and predispositions about her.  And, in all truth, we do the same to Jesus.  We recall Him not for who He was, but for who we want Him to be, who we wanted Him to be the last time we remembered Him, and then the time before that, and the time before that.

Yet it is the nature of our memory to skew towards particular instances and circumstances; it is why we can remember some singular events remarkably well even as entire weeks or months are largely a blur to the hard drive that houses our mental data storage.

And for far too long, our memories of Jesus served our narratives and agendas, not His.

We have continually made Him into things He isn’t, and never was—a supporter of money, a shamer of women, a preacher who cared far more about “saving souls” than about bringing the kingdom of God to God’s own earthen creation.  We remember Him as those things because it is more convenient for us to do so, because it takes some of Jesus’s rougher edges off and makes Him easier for us to follow in the time and place we live in now, not the time and place He arrived in.

In other words, we remember Him as such because it is far easier for us to worship a version of ourselves, 21st century Americans, than to worship a 1st century Israelite Jew.

So really, we are all as Mary Magdalene in Gibran’s poem, unbelievers in Jesus Christ, because we do not yet believe, not really, in who He really was: a spirit and a power who conquered death to enable us to reach forth and heal, reach forth and make whole, and reach forth and resurrect.

And we are all as Mary Magdalene in John’s passage today, unable to recognize Jesus for who He really is, at least, not at first.  Not until He calls out to us, and we respond affirmatively.

In this way, far from casting Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, we should in fact all see ourselves as her: blinded by our own humanness, for better and for worse, to the point that we cannot see Jesus for who He is, and can only see Him starkly when we accept the reality that we did not recognize Him properly the first time around, or even the second, or the third.

It may sound like I am asking an awful lot of you, to humble yourselves to the point of admitting that you may have not completely understood the fullness and greatness of Jesus.  But I do not ask it lightly.  Because I have come to know in my own walk of faith that with that depth of humbleness comes incredible liberation, to be able to accept that I cannot and will not ever have all of the answers, and that I am free to be freed, to be made free and freer, by Jesus’s love for all.

Because of that love for all, He lies not there in the cleft rock behind the stone.

The stone has been rolled away.  It will forever remain rolled away.

With it, one more obstacle to our own embrace of God’s greatness and goodness in all its grace and splendor has been set aside, for now and eternity.  With it, the stones of our hearts and our souls, the stones that we prop up to block ourselves away from God, can one day be rolled away as well, so that we too may lie not entombed forever behind them, that we too may one day live.

And it is with these words of Gibran’s that I end this sermon, and this series:

It is passing strange that the earth gives not to the unbelievers…the wings wherewith the fly high and drink, and be filled with the dews of her space.

But I know what I know, and it is enough.

Amen.  A thousand times, Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
May 17, 2015

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