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Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ -John 20: 27-29
Although it seems odd, after last week’s resurrection, with the bright, glowing light of the rolled-away stone and angelic apparition, we find ourselves, now, in Eastertide, back in the dark. We find ourselves closed in with the disciples, who are still hiding, still fearful, still locked up together even though they have experienced the resurrection and witnessed the risen Christ. They remain behind closed doors, venturing out as needed, but furtively, carefully, it seems.
These ideas of light and darkness are traditional in Christian language, and have been used in just this way for centuries. As Barbara Brown Taylor notes in a recent op-ed for Time Magazine, “From earliest times, Christians have used “darkness” as a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death.” That’s precisely the darkness that these disciples are in, even after the resurrection. Which is, perhaps, normal, when the light doesn’t look like we expect it to.
Now, certainly, this metaphoric language of light and darkness is problematic: it has negative implications for those who are physically blind, as well as for people of color. Both groups have felt the weight of being labeled inherently sinful, an experience that we need to state and have on the table, before we dissect the language any further. For it is problematic language on another level, as well; Barbara Brown Taylor continues: “It divides every day in two, pitting the light part against the dark part. It tucks all the sinister stuff into the dark part, identifying God with the sunny part and leaving you to deal with the rest on your own time.”
It is easy – and done many times over, in our lives and in our tradition – to divide light and dark into God and non-God. It is easy to see God, and feel the divine presence, only when life looks a certain way, only when that presence is expected. So what do you do when you’re a disciple of the Risen Christ, but still feeling bereft of God? When things didn’t go as you’d thought they should have? When death and grief had been so present, and you are still trying to understand how they might be reversed, and what that might mean for you, hidden away in that room? What do you do when fear still seems more palpable than joy? How do you encounter God in that unexpected place, especially when you’ve made sure to lock the door?
How do any of us encounter God when we’ve locked the door for fear of the dark?
It is not surprising, that this metaphorical language of light and darkness should gain such traction within our religious traditions – for it is not just present within Christianity. We humans are diurnal creatures, and our senses are made to best function in sunlight. We tend to feel off kilter in the darkness; to be disoriented, less confident in our abilities, more aware of our limitations. We fear the dark because it shows us as we really are: vulnerable creatures who are not as independent as we prefer to believe ourselves. We fear the dark because it renders us helpless, reliant upon one another for comfort and security.
When’s the last time you went out for walk at night, in real darkness? No streetlights, no light pollution, no iPhone to light your way? It’s disconcerting. Even when our eyes have adjusted, we are less likely to see danger coming. Even if we are in familiar territory, we are more likely to trip, to walk into things, to get hurt. And so our use of the metaphor seems reasonable: for how can God be someplace so inhospitable, so fearful to us? How can we be sure where God is, if we don’t even know where we are?
Brené Brown is a professor of Social Work at the University of Houston, who specializes in the study of shame and vulnerability. Part of her research regards those people who seem to have the ability to love wholeheartedly, fearlessly: across the board, such people tend to be confident, lacking in a sense of internalized shame, believing themselves to be inherently worthy of love. All these are qualities – confidence, clarity, vision – that we tend to associate with light. Brown asks the question, in an interview with Krista Tippett: “does this mean our capacity for wholeheartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted?” In other words, our capacity to dwell in light can never be greater than our ability to endure darkness; to be vulnerable, even wounded, and to seek God in those places of fear and disorientation. Our willingness to risk ourselves, to be heartbroken, to be courageous, depends entirely on our willingness to dwell in vulnerability: “think of the last time you did something you thought was really brave… as a researcher, 11,000 pieces of data, I cannot find a single example of courage – moral courage, spiritual courage, leadership courage, relational courage… that was not born completely of vulnerability.”
I wonder what Thomas would think of that.
Thomas, Jesus’ disciple, who is still sitting in darkness, fearful and bereft. Thomas, who alone turned away from not one, but two chances at vulnerability; whose fear, whose wounds kept him not just from hoping for the promised resurrection, but even from belief in the testimony of his closest colleagues. Thomas, who was called to be the first demonstration of courage in this post-resurrection ministry; who was called to faith; to believe despite darkness and disorientation; to strip away the confidence born of human senses and human judgment; to trust that God is equally present in our darkness; to see Jesus, even unexpectedly, even without seeing him.
Thomas was called; and so are we.
As we are reminded in this parable, we are called to be people who believe without seeing, without the necessity of light. We are called to be people who believe from within the darkness, from a place of vulnerability; and then to believe in ways that make us vulnerable, that do not shut and lock the door on God. We are called from that vulnerability to be people of courage; risking ourselves for the Gospel: the good news that is the light and life of the resurrection.
And that is hard. We see it in Peter’s speech to the crowd, on that Pentecost Sunday in Acts, where he is already back in the light, already in a place of power, already entirely dependent upon the confidence of human perception. Just fifty days after the resurrection, Peter is already in the midst of the crowd, rather than on the margins where his Teacher spent so much of his own ministry. I wonder what Thomas would have preached, in that moment. I wonder what any of us would have done, or said; where we would have taken that light, and Spirit, and linguistic ability.
We, who are called to vulnerability, and to courage. We, who are called to be the ones who see God in unexpected places; to hone our senses until we can have the confidence to walk in and with the dark. We, who are called to walk in all those places of fear, of disorientation; places where we may stumble or where our hearts may be broken, and seek, there, the Christ who was raised in darkness of tomb. For Christ’s return to the light did not heal his woundedness, or remove the vulnerability of his spirit, but touched and healed the woundedness of the fearful disciples.
We are called to find God in the brokenness from which we may be made whole; in the broken-heartedness from which we may love more fully; in the darkness in which we can find God’s light, even where we least expect it.
But the angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” This is my message for you.’ -Matthew 28: 5-7
There was a fair amount of angst in my circles, this week. Something about having to preach a sermon to a larger crowd than usual had a lot of clergy more anxious about Sunday morning than they might usually have been. The sermon this week had to be spectacular – something that would really speak to those whom we don’t see every week, something that would get them through until Christmas. This week’s message had to be a homerun… and that’s enough to make anyone nervous.
But really? We all know that’s silly. No matter who is sitting in front of us, there’s only one sermon we should ever preach, and we should preach it all year. For if we preachers are doing our jobs well, then we’ll simply say this, every Sunday, in different iterations: death has lost its power, and love prevails.
It’s the simplest sermon ever, and the most complicated. Because the questions that this statement brings up are both simple and complicated; these questions of life and death that speak to us from the empty tomb. And because, as it was noted at a recent church gathering, the whole idea of resurrection is huge and kind of scary… perhaps because death and life are also huge and kind of scary, so the eventual reversal of them becomes overwhelming to us.
Because the resurrection is more than “Jesus died so we get a ‘Get out of Death Free’ card”. If that were the case, our lives would have no meaning – we could be as crazy as we want, as selfish and hurtful as we want, for there would be no finality, no consequences. Yet that is not how we are expected to live, even now. We are still called to follow, to live as disciples. We are called to be people of the resurrection, people who live in the promises of new life, here and now. We are called to leave the graves we have constructed for ourselves, to roll the stones away and step into the light.
We are called to leave the grave of power, and of privilege, and of comfort, where we, like Romans, believe in power of force to change the world; were we, like religious authorities who manipulated the crucifixion into being, grant ourselves power to rule over others, and judge their actions. To leave the closed-in space from which we can believe that we are better than those whom we might encounter: that we are right and they are wrong, without having to understand anyone else’s point of view.
We are called to leave grave of economic status, and to abandon both our love of money and the concurrent fear of never having enough: the let’s-leave-enough-aside-just-in-case attitude that keeps us not only from frivolity, but from doing the good that we might otherwise do. We are called to abandon the reduction of everything to economic value; to be the ones who would not only allow, but welcome the anointing of Jesus, rather than resenting (as Judas did) the waste of costly ointment and the pouring out of a possible source of revenue. Let us not be like Judas, who could measure even human life in monetary terms; let us not be those who are blind to less tangible returns on our investment: returns like equity, justice, opportunity, or life.
We are called to leave grave of anger and resentment; that place where we trap ourselves in an us-vs-them mindset, and where we perceive difference as akin to attack; where it is unthinkable to break bread with those whose fear might lead them to hurt us. Rather, can we be people of the open table, willing to incorporate Christ? Can we be people who set aside anger; who can be gracious when attempts to understand and be supportive, are exhausting? and when those whom we have asked to watch, and to pray with us, fall asleep instead? Can we, in the light of a new day, choose forgiveness of betrayal over resentment, and welcome those who abandoned us?
We are called to leave grave of fear; to set aside the fear of what others might say or think; of what might happen to us. To abandon fears that keep us from speaking up, from doing what is right; the fears that keep us feeling alone, and that make us deny our best selves – that make us say, with Peter, “I don’t know him!” Can we let go of the fears that keep us silent in the face of suffering and despair: distant from one another and from God? We are called to abandon even the fears of our own suffering, for some discomfort on our part – refusing the pleasures of power and status, choosing to set aside fear and anger, being willing to dwell in the unknown, uncertain spaces outside our comfort zone – may have us praying “let this cup be taken”, indeed, but might bring us to the new understandings that permit the rest of that prayer: “not my will, but thine be done”. We are called to uncurl ourselves from the confinement of fear, in order to open doors to new light; to roll away stones to new life.
Can we abandon these graves for the love and grace that we are offered this day? The love that can walk us through the valley of the shadow of death, but by which we cannot be held there? The love that no power, no money, no anger, no fear can kill? The love – grace and forgiveness – that mark us as disciples and invite us out of the graves we are so adept at digging, and into new life? Can we accept the love that reanimates us, reinvigorates us, so that we may follow anew the one who is love incarnate, into the resurrection that may seem huge and scary and overwhelming, but that is ours to choose?
Can we accept the forgiveness offered this morning: forgiveness of all that kept us back, during the bleak times of despair? Can we accept the grace that invites us out of ourselves, into relationship with one another and with God?
For the tomb is broken open: death has lost its power over us and love prevails!
Christ is Risen! do not look for him in places of death: in those small, human graves we frequent.
Christ is Risen! and we by grace are called to share in the new life of the resurrection.
Christ is Risen! may we follow where he leads us: out of the death we would so often choose, and into the grace of new life.
Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, ‘So, could you not stay awake with me one hour? Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ -Matthew 26: 40-41
Were you there?
It seems an odd question, although it’s a hymn we often sing during the latter part of Holy Week. It’s odd, because really, the whole point is that no one was there. There is tremendous desolation in the way that the synoptic gospels talk of these final days – there are no disciples present at cross, only soldiers and criminals. Even before the actual crucifixion, the sense of loneliness is pervasive: the desertion of Christ by the disciples begins before Jesus was even alone, in the resentments of Judas, in the fears of Peter and the others.
Were you there?
It’s an odd question on another level, as well, of course: these things happened 2000 years ago. Of course none of us were there. But if we had been? For us, to whom this story is familiar; for we who know ending: do we tend to say yes, knowing the grief of these days but also the triumph that is to come? Are we tempted to say, yes, we’d have been there, right at the foot of the cross, bearing witness to the grief, the pain, the torture of crucifixion?
Perhaps we would, and there are some that do; some who are able to be present in such complete pain and loss. We are certainly reminded this week of those people who run towards disaster – the people who ran towards the blasts at last year’s Boston Marathon, who disregarded the very palpable danger to themselves in order to care for the wounded.
Yet this month bears other reminders, as well: of the genocide that occurred in Rwanda, 20 years ago, when no one was present. Of the Earth, whose resources we are sacrificing at an astonishing rate despite the knowledge of the pain it is causing us all. This month, we are reminded of all the times that we’ve turned away from suffering; when we’ve distanced ourselves from one another’s experiences. We are reminded of those times when relationship has been sacrificed, love set aside; of the times that human life, and the commandment to love our neighbor, are trumped by quest for power – or or even just the ease of maintaining our own ideas, and the comfort of the status quo. We are reminded, this month, of all the times we have been silent as Christ has been crucified again.
Rev. Laura Everett, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, blogged recently about her thoughts, approaching the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing:
This past Friday night at St. John’s Missionary Baptist Church on Warren Street in Roxbury, I joined about 100 people, mostly from Boston’s predominantly black neighborhoods to pray for all those who have suffered violence in the year since the Boston Marathon bombing. We prayed hard. We sang fiercely. The collection was taken up to pay for the funeral for a young man in the neighborhood who had just been killed. A Mother asked, “Where is our One Fund? Why does his death mean less than any other death? What is my son’s life worth?”…
Jamarhl Crawford [a Boston journalist] speaks of the “regular violence,” a violence that becomes expected in “those places, to those people.” Part of what made the Marathon bombing so communally disruptive was that we don’t expect such violence on Boylston Street as we do on Bluehill Ave…
The Boston Marathon is and can be a potent symbol of our common life: As you stand alongside the route that leads into the city, spectators help cheer the runners along. You hold up your sign to be seen. That’s what I heard these families asking for: to be seen. They are asking to be seen in their grief, in their need, in their mourning and loss.
Were you there? Are any of us?
It seems an odd question, but it is the right one. Jesus calls us to a ministry of presence and of witness: of conscious, active presence – prayerful presence, if it keeps us awake and aware. Of presence beyond ourselves, and our own needs and desires, whether they are for sleep, or for comfort, or for simplicity, or for the status quo. Jesus calls us to a ministry in which we can we be present even when it makes us uncomfortable, even when it demands something of us. Can we be present, even when it takes us beyond our comfort zone and our known world: when it requires our energy, our attention, our love? Can we be present, even when that presence calls us to be in relationship with someone we may never know? Can we bear witness to the suffering of this world, and through our witness, send God’s light, and God’s love to counter the despair?
Can we, by our presence – our acknowledgement, our voices lifted in prayer and support – show the suffering they are not alone? that the one crucified in desolation, the one who prayed that lonely prayer in Gethsemane, is present in us? Can we shine our light so that others see, and bear witness as well?
The ministry to which Christ calls us forces us to engage in self-reflection – to ask why we distance ourselves from the pain and suffering of this world, why we can turn aside from the brokenness that doesn’t directly affect us. We are called to open our hearts: to engage in discernment, education, outreach, and love wherever we see Christ crucified, so that we may be, not Boston Strong, but Humanity Strong. We are called to bear with one another, to be as present as the one who has borne our deepest pain, so that we might truly be made one Body in Christ.
We are called to presence, in the Gethsemanes of this life, so that when we are asked “were you there”, we might be able to say, “Yes we were.”
“A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!’” -Matthew 21: 8-9
This week, a friend blogged about something that’s really been frustrating him. Shay is a priest and an activist, and for both aspects of his life has done a lot of study and reflection. He has devoted a lot of his life to learning about theology, gender, sexuality, embodiment, and the intersections of all of these. And he is always willing to talk to those who might be new to any of those subjects; to begin to teach, to recommend resources. But he is not willing – or able! – to do it all of that work for someone else; to take all that he knows and just dump that information into someone else’s consciousness: as he reflects, “New understandings can’t just be handed to you. A one-hour conversation in a coffee shop or an email exchange won’t cut it. There are some things you can only understand by studying.”
You’ve got to do the work.
Sometimes I wonder how often Jesus thought something similar. I wonder how often he wished his new interpretations, his unpacking of scriptures, would lead people to actually study the law and the prophets; to go deeper in their faith, to really enter relationship with God.
Today, we encounter Jesus entering Jerusalem for what he knows will be the last time. For this is the moment when the gauntlet is thrown, this mocking procession that so nearly mimics a warrior’s triumphal entry, according to the Psalms:
This is the gate of the Lord;
the righteous shall enter through it.
I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvellous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
up to the horns of the altar. (Psalm 118)
In keeping with the Psalm – familiar enough to be recognizable to the people of Jerusalem! – Jesus is treated like royalty, like a savior, like a conquering hero – but what does that mean to the very people who are throwing down branches and cloaks? What do they expect, as they see Jesus claiming the mantle, the authority of the Messiah, in the face of power? This is Jesus as many have long hoped to see him, but for a far different end result than most may be hoping for. Expectation trumps all that they have heard from him over the course of his ministry; appearances in the moment speak louder than the most poignant sermon. And so the people cry out: Hosanna! which means, Save us! Save us from the immediate problems we are facing – the occupation, the taxation, the struggle of daily life. Hosanna, Son of David, be the savior for this generation.
I wonder how many of them were still following with shouts and palms after he reached the Temple? For it was at the end of this procession that tables got turned and people got rebuked… how many were brought up short in their praise of the man who suddenly seems scornful of their religious practice?
How many stayed to hear his teaching in Jerusalem, which seems to take on a particular urgency in this week. The audience will be large, for it is Jerusalem at the Passover: there are many who might hear. But there is a deeper urgency, not just to be heard, but to get the people thinking enough, interested enough, to study and to follow: to go beyond immediate, to do the work, not for the Kingdom of Judea, but for the Kingdom of God.
This week especially, we are made aware, in the urgency, of the demands of discipleship. The twelve are about to discover that the discomforts of three years spent tramping around Galilee, Samaria, Judea were nothing at all, compared with this week in Jerusalem. We are made aware, in these days, that the triumphal entry of a humble King was not the culmination of Jesus’ ministry, but the beginning of the end, the beginning of the real demands of discipleship. This week is the crucible in which discipleship is tested, in which we find out who had done the work, incorporated the lessons… And we watch, as one by one, Judas, Peter, James, John and the others disappeared from Jesus’ side, and even the women, Mary Magdalene among them, remain in the distance. This is the week in which we are reminded of the cost: that we are called to bear witness to suffering, even at risk to ourselves.
It’s hard to talk about the cost of discipleship without evoking Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran theologian and pastor. After serving churches in Spain, Germany and England during the 1920s and 1930s, Bonhoeffer found himself teaching at Columbia University at the start of the war. I don’t think anyone would have blamed him for breathing a sigh of relief at his situation and continuing in his comfortable life in New York City, but that was not the discipleship that he knew himself called to. And so he went back to Germany. He went back into the Third Reich to found a Christian community – a community that would bear witness to the great suffering of all Germans during those years; that would serve as a bulwark of love against the pervasive hatred of the Nazi regime. In Germany, Bonhoeffer could live out what his discipleship called him to do: to stand at the foot of the cross, as Body of Christ was crucified before his very eyes. To leave comfort and security for community, relationship, and vulnerability. He had done the work, had traced the path that lay ahead of him and prepared his heart. He well knew the cost of discipleship (it would be the title of his most famous book), but knew as well the joy and the freedom that the cost made possible.
Did any of those waving palm branches and shouting Hosanna in Jerusalem have such understanding? Those shouting Save us! so that we needn’t do the work, needn’t bear the cost ourselves. Save us, as well as our comfort, our security, our familiar lives. Hosanna! Save us! they cried, but how many would follow, to the point of salvation? To the point where love won?
How many would do the work, and put their prayers – Hosannas – into action? How many would look beyond the immediate situation, beyond themselves?
How many would study, wondering at the warrior in humility, looking like an idiot on a donkey, and search for deeper meaning?
How many would study their own lives in this new lens of love and grace and humility, until they could stand at the foot of the cross and bear witness to the worst that humanity can inflict upon itself? until they could forgive the cruelty, the mockery, again and again?
And we, who are also waving palm branches today? We, too, cry, Hosanna! Save us! We, too are called to do the work: to follow, even to the unexpected places, to the unexpected results. We, too, are called to a demanding discipleship; perhaps even more than the population of Jerusalem. For we know the results of this week: the promises that only began with this procession.
Will we do the work, delve deeper into those promises, and learn their place in our own lives? Will we be disciples, accepting the cost, setting aside comfort and security to work for God’s kin-dom? Will we work to ensure that the abundance of food that this creation provides will feed all who need, without human judgment attached? Will we work to ensure that adequate housing is not a privilege but a birthright? to view the “other” – the imprisoned, the ill – as ours to care for rather than to shun and punish? to actively remember that we are not the owners but the stewards of this holy creation in which we live?
Will we do the work, and learn to speak the truth – of love, of grace, of justice, of equality – to power?
Will we do the work? will we pray, Hosanna! Save us!, and then put that prayer into action?
For we do have work to do.
Blessed, indeed, is the one who comes in the name of our God; the one who has blessed us and called us, not to the triumph of a King’s arrival, but to the humility and vulnerability of love beyond us; to the demands and the freedom of understanding, and choosing this path. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of our God, and blessed are we, who set aside our palms, and follow.
“Thus says the Lord God; I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves…” – Ezekiel 37: 12
“But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” -Romans 8:9
I have heard it said that Ezekiel is one of the hardest books in the Bible to read through, as modern people. The imagery can be difficult, for those of us uncomfortable with mystery and ambiguity; today’s text is a good example. An entire valley of dry bones, restored and renewed by means of prophecy – when even the idea of prophecy, the idea of having this direct, wordy exchange with God, seems to us almost inconceivable. This is one of those texts that seem to fit best in an historical context, removed from our realty.
In that historical context, it makes more sense, and the image seems more resonant when we remember that Ezekiel was speaking to a people in exile. The Israelites have been shipped off to Babylon, by their captors from that empire. These people who had understood themselves, for generations, to be God’s people, living in the land that God had prepared for them, worshiping in the Temple that was built to be God’s location on Earth, had been conquered – abandoned by the God in whose protection they had trusted. Worse still, their rebellion against the occupying forces had resulted in the destruction of the Temple and their removal from the Promised Land. It was impossible to comprehend: was God not still with them, protecting them? Was the covenant broken? How could they be the people of God without the Temple, the very place where they could be in the presence of God?
The lament of this exile, this separation from God, is poignantly heard in Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung our harps. For their our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (vv. 1-4) Removal from the Promised Land, from Jerusalem and from the Temple was removal from God. Separated from the source of life, any wonder they dried up and broke apart?
Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know.
I wonder if it wasn’t at least a little bit easier for the Israelites, having some awareness of the cause of their exile and abandonment? I wonder if it is easier to have clear source of grief, a discernible beginning for the descent into confusion and chaos?
I wonder, because we certainly don’t have that tangible starting point.
Walter Bruggeman, in a recent interview on the public radio show On Being, noted that the most polarizing issues in church – this church, any church – are no more than façades for the real issues we face. It’s not really about whether women should speak in church or be ordained; it’s not really about whether we should ordain or marry LGBT folk. The real question behind all of these issues – behind any issue we argue, political, religious or social, using religious language – is impending chaos. It’s the sense that “if we change this, will all hell break loose?” If we begin to change, are we at the start of a long, slippery-slope descent into chaos?
Part of this sense is due to the rapidly changing culture of the 20th and early 21st centuries. Technology is developing at such a rapid rate, launching us into a world that would have been totally incomprehensible in 1914, let alone 1900, and we have had nearly no time to process these changes. We’re still trying to find our footing on the shifting sands of the social landscape, and there is no end of the technological development in sight.
The other part – likely the more important one – is the culture of fear into which our consumer society has manipulated us so deftly. The ubiquitous nature of news blurbs that talk about a horrifying situation, and end with the implication, or outright statement, “it could happen to you!” Even if it’s a one in a million chance; hey, it could, so you need to watch out. Such rampant fear keeps us always alert, always afraid; it encourages us to produce constant low doses of adrenaline… and fourteen years of war should make us all very aware of the lingering effects of constant doses of adrenaline.
We are bombarded by this culture in which fear sells and anxiety is encouraged and safety is our most important good, until we believe in fear more than we believe in anything, and grace becomes the fairy tale we teach in Sunday School, but are too savvy to believe in ourselves.
Through fear, we are convinced that we live in a more dangerous time than did our parents or our grandparents – a conviction that those very people often share with us. But it is not true. There is no research at all to indicate that the odds of any one of us becoming a victim have increased, that we are not every bit as safe as we were fifty years ago. There is, however, research to explain why we don’t feel as safe: we are saturated with a constant visual of violence and hostility. The news has become more fear-based (once again, fear sells), and the prevalence of gritty, gory crime shows has increased… and there is a direct correlation between those who watch a lot of TV to a sense of fearfulness.* The more TV we watch, the more we are inclined to believe that our neighborhoods are unsafe, the more we are sure crime rates are rising, and the more we believe ourselves to be likely victims of violence or crime. There is also a correlation with the perceived need to own a gun.
Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know.
Whether we’re talking about the Israelites or about us, the human reaction to fear is fight or flight. But when fear is internalized, where do we flee? We turn inward, becoming protective of ourselves and our inner circle – our closest friends, our family, perhaps our church. It’s what we so often do now; it’s what the Israelites had actually already done, before the exile, during their long years of war and infighting before the Babylonians ever took an interest in them. We see it in their abandonment of the hospitality and grace that had marked them as God’s people; the division of the Promised Land into two opposing Kingdoms, where even their fellow Israelites were not welcomed into Jerusalem.
Fear puts us in the flesh, as Paul would say: it traps us within ourselves so that we see to our own needs first. We become suspicious of outsiders, seeking and creating difference and barriers to maintain security. We break ourselves apart into fragments as brittle as dry bones, burying ourselves in graves of distrust, self-centeredness and fear, from which it is impossible to be people of the Gospel.
On about September 13, 2001, members of many New York City choruses were invited to stand on the steps of Lincoln Center to sing Mozart’s Requiem. It was the best tribute that a bunch of musicians could come up with. Organization, however, eluded us – no one brought a copy of the score – but we sang songs of peace and hope, songs that we all knew well enough. We sang “Dona Nobis Pacem”: grant us peace, O God. After a while, in the chaos of New York in those early days – in the chaos of Manhattan at rush hour – someone noted that there was a fire station around the corner, and that it would be nice if we went to sing there. We got as close as we could, given the flowers and cards and outpourings of love and support, and found ourselves staring directly into the face of grief, vulnerable and helpless. It seemed too hard, in that moment, to sing peace and grace to such raw devastation, and the songs changed, from peaceful to patriotic. And the mood changed, as we went from one fire station to another. I watched as anger replaced grief, hate shut down hope. I watched as these musicians, who had just been singing of peace, turned inward, becoming protective of those who had been lost, and feeling murderous towards those who had caused such pain.
There were not many bodies that came out of the September 11th attacks, but there were many graves dug in the days that followed, more just than the ones I witnessed among a bunch of musicians. People dug deep in a quest to feel safe from this new threat made real; safe from the helplessness we felt when faced with such profound vulnerability, grief… and all those other painful, tender things we feel when we dare to love.
Paul, speaking to Romans, may as well be speaking to us. We are not called to be a people of the flesh, inward looking and safe. We are not people of the grave, we who are dry bones upon this earth, disconnected from one another. We have become caught up in fear, clothing naked in a sanitized way, without actually having to see them; building prisons far from our communities, rendering the idea of visitation impractical and burdensome; blaming hungry and the homeless for their plight, granting them only the scraps from our heaping tables, begrudgingly given because we fear taking food out of the mouths of our nearest and dearest. We bury ourselves in graves of suspicion and doubt, and only welcome stranger who looks like us – which sounds a lot more like hanging out with our friends, than it sounds like a Christian practice of hospitality.
We were created as people of the Spirit: people who remember that we have been infused by God from the very beginning of this creation, and over and over again, renewed and sustained by God’s very presence within us. We remember that the breath that animates us binds not only the flesh to our bones, making us bodies, but binds us one to another, in one Body, and therby binds us to God and to life: a life we cannot live from the fearful little shelters to which we regularly flee.
We are called to abandon the graves we dig ourselves, feeling ourselves besieged and abandoned, where it is easy to forget that we, in our inward-turning, in our fear, are the ones doing the abandoning, living as we try to, in safety, confining ourselves to the known, certain, similar, and leaving no room in our fear for God to move.
God, who doesn’t play it safe. God, who went to the cross. God, who tells us to take up our own crosses.
God, who is hovering right outside our sheltering graves, calling us back, waiting to breathe life into our bones; waiting to call us out of ourselves and into community, out of individual desires and into systemic needs, out of fear and into love.
Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know.
Because you, O God, have made us people of resurrection. We have been made into one Body: the body of the one who showed us death doesn’t have last word, and can never have the last word. We have been made as a people of incorporation, putting flesh on the bone, joining together in body and spirit, and trusting – trusting! – in God’s presence and guidance, even when it calls us out of safety. Even when it calls us into the chaos of the new and unexpected, and the possibility of all hell breaking loose. Even when it calls us into the uncertain, the untried, the exciting and scary realms of possibility. Even when it calls us into Holy Mystery: that place where certainty dissolves in God’s presence.
We who have been scattered, brittle and broken, are renewed by the breath of God, and the the grace that calls us over and over from our fears, our “no’s”, our inward-turning into new life, again and again; the grace that calls us back to God, no matter how often we abandon our covenant, how far we flee or how deep we dig. We are renewed by the grace that says yes, every time we would say no; that speaks love, every time we would live in death.
We are called to be people of the God of beginnings who can raise us from our graves – our nice, safe, certain hiding spaces; who can take us out of the flesh and into the spirit, and who can pour that spirit into our bodies and send us – fed, nourished, and united – out to clothe the naked, to visit the sick and imprisoned, to feed the hungry, to house the homeless, to welcome the stranger among us, all without counting the cost.
We are called by grace to love in a fearful world; to say Yes, to this culture’s prevailing No.
Mortal, can these bones live? O God, you know we can.
*Bader-Saye, Scott: Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. Brazos Press, 2007. p.15