Sunday, April 16, 2017
© Stacey Steck
In the middle of the night, or maybe it was in broad daylight, nobody knows for sure, a tomb went from filled to empty. Sometime between Friday evening and Sunday dawn, God did something as amazing and unobserved as the very creation of the world itself. Matthew tells us there were security guards posted at the tomb, guards that were still there even when the two Marys arrived to pay their respects on Sunday morning. But they didn’t see anything. And so, somehow, into the darkness of that sealed, guarded, sacred tomb, flowed spirit and light and life, the very spirit and light and life that God used to bring all of this world into being the first time, and then in that secret moment, whenever it was, into the fullness of being. A creation. A resurrection. A Christ present for both occasions.
If it’s true that the guards didn’t see or hear a thing that would tip them off that something was happening, we have to conclude that the resurrection was a silent affair, like the wind, like our breath, like the murmurings of our hearts. There is that earthquake Matthew records, but you see the earthquake doesn’t happen at the moment of the resurrection, but when the angel arrives to roll back the stone that sealed the tomb. The resurrection is a fact by that time, so the earthquake is really just a trumpet’s blast, announcing God’s glorious deed, a loud exclamation point on the word of life God spoke in silence. I’m struck by that contrast between the silence of the resurrection and the sound of the earthquake, the imperceptible movement of heaven and the violent shaking of the earth. We might imagine it would be the reverse, that an explosive sound would accompany an explosive deed, with the silence of reverent awe following. But no, the resurrection of Jesus Christ took place more like the way our lives in Christ unfold, a silent, imperceptible movement of heaven followed by the shaking of our foundations as we realize just what has happened to us.
No, the guards didn’t see or hear a thing. Maybe it happened while they were eating lunch. Maybe it happened while they were drinking. Maybe it happened while they were sleeping. So much happens while we’re sleeping, doesn’t it? Crocuses and daffodils, our flowers that signal spring is here, break through after their long winter’s sleep while we are sleeping and we find their beauty suddenly, unexpectedly, in the morning. Dreams stir the imagination, and plant seeds for action, while we are sleeping. Parents are praying, while children are sleeping. The stars move in their courses, while we are sleeping. On the other side of the world, children are born, and their elders pass away, all while we are sleeping. So much happens beyond our ability to perceive it, whether we are literally asleep or just sleepwalking through life. And God is in the midst of it all.
Maybe you remember that romantic comedy from a few years ago that starred Sandra Bullock, called “While You Were Sleeping.” It’s about a single woman who would fantasize about a relationship with a certain man who passed by her workplace every day. Well, one day, she has the chance to actually meet him when she saves his life following an accident. When she accompanies him to the hospital to check on him, the man’s family assumes she is his girlfriend whom they’ve never met. Of course, the man himself is in no position to confirm or deny this fact since he is in a coma, and she can’t bring herself to disappoint the family who thinks that she needs to be by their loved one’s side. And so the farce begins. Of course, what happens is that she ends up falling in love not just with the injured man’s brother, but with his whole crazy family too. And all of this has taken place, the man learns when he wakes up, “while you were sleeping.”
It’s a cute premise for a movie, but it’s also true in our lives, that amazing changes take place while we are busy doing other things like studying or working or even brushing our teeth. I didn’t plan to become a pastor when I started college, but as I made my way through school, the opportunities that appeared before me had less to do with my formal studies, and more to do with leading me, and others, to recognize in myself things I hadn’t seen before. Looking back, I see how I really ended up majoring in Habitat for Humanity rather than the Communications that appears on my official transcript, but it didn’t really occur to me until after it was all over. Silently, I was being prepared for communicating in a completely different way than I had imagined, but only when the earthquake struck, did I realize what had been happening to me. That earthquake was the response to a letter I had written about a matter of interest to the campus ministry community. Someone I admired wrote back complimenting me on my ability to present the difficult news I had shared in my letter. And as I read what he had written to me, I realized that God had been preparing me for something that I was not preparing for myself. While I did pretty well in my filmmaking classes, I did even better in becoming myself, and who God wanted me to be. And I knew then that I would never win that Oscar for Best Director I had always dreamed about.
In the Bible, sleep is a metaphor for death. We have to be careful how we use that metaphor, especially around children, but I think it can be a useful one. You see, when we talk about resurrection, we can also talk about waking up from our sleeping, coming back to life, or coming into new life. Christ’s resurrection wakes us up. The Apostle Paul writes in Romans, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us” but he could also have written, that “while we were yet sleeping, Christ died for us.” Yes, we were asleep in our sin, dead in our sin, and yet the spirit and light and life of God was in that tomb of ours bringing us to life once again, unbeknownst to us, to those guarding us in our sin, perhaps even to those who were hoping and praying that we would wake up and join the living, the truly living. While we were sleeping, God was doing amazing things!
Maybe you remember that old story of a shoemaker and his wife, who had become quite poor through no fault of their own. They were down to their last meal and their last bit of leather. Before bed, the shoemaker carefully cut the leather so that he might sew it the next morning and try to make a sale. They went to bed committing their cares to God and looking forward to the next day. When they awoke, the shoemaker went into his shop surprised to find the leather gone, but a beautifully made pair of shoes in its place. Perplexed but thankful, he placed them in the window of his shop and hoped for the best. Well, along came a rich man who was so enamored of the shoes that he bought them on the spot, and even paid extra because they were of such fine quality. The purchase was enough for the shoemaker to buy two shoes’ worth of leather, and so he did, and went to bed once again, leaving his work ready for the next day. Of course, the same thing happened while he was sleeping, and he found two fine pairs of shoes on his workbench, the sale of which allowed him to buy four shoes’ worth of leather, and so it went for many days.
Near Christmas, curiosity and gratitude got the best of the couple and they wanted to find out who was helping them, and so they stayed up late one night hiding in a closet and learned that it was a pair of elves who came silently in the night, did their fine work, and left before dawn. And they decided that as a gift of gratitude, they would make a set of fine clothes and shoes for the elves, which they did, and hid themselves to see what would happen. Well, the elves came as usual, and seeing the clothes, dressed themselves as fast as they could, and began to dance and sing, “Now, we are boys so fine to see. Why should we any longer cobblers be?” And they danced away out the door and never returned, leaving the shoemaker and his wife back on their feet for the rest of their lives.
And so it is with us, perhaps, that while we are sleeping God’s favor finds us unexpectedly, undeservedly. And then one day we discover the nature of our mischief-making God who has put us on our feet and opened up our future for us. It’s the grace that found its way silently into Jesus’ tomb and raised him from the dead. It’s the grace that finds its way into our sleepy hearts and minds and wakes us up. It’s the grace that slips past every stone and every security guard to transform our lives while we are sleeping, that we may awake to find a new day full of hope and justice, and love. It’s the grace that Helen Keller described when she said, “The most beautiful things of the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.”
This Easter, may you feel with your heart the earthquake that reveals the new life that the silent resurrection of Jesus Christ has brought into your life, while you were sleeping. Amen.
Sunday, April 09, 2017
© Stacey Steck
A large crowd was gathered that day, 8000 by some count and still more were arriving. The early arrivals had packed in up front. Excitement was building, and the hum of the crowd grew. Many had come a long way and were anxious to see the curious attraction. Local security officials were concerned about the size and nature of the crowd, and had tried to put measures in place to avoid a disturbance, but they were ill-prepared for what took place next. As long-hoped-for words reached their ears, the crowd, as one, surged forward, but there was no room for them all. Yet those in the back could not see what was happening up front and so in their excitement, they pushed even harder to get up front. And when people began to fall, the crowd simply surged forward on top on them, trampling them underfoot, an obstacle below the same as an obstacle ahead of them. When it was all over, eleven people were dead of asphyxia, and another 23 lay injured. But the show went on.
And what were the words that spurred the crowd on, that drove them into such a frenzy that they lost all control of their faculties? Were those words, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord”? or “Blessed is the coming Kingdom of our ancestor David!”? Was it, “There his is! There’s Jesus!”? Not exactly. They were more like “The Who! The concert is starting!” although it could have been “Welcome to Walmart” too. No, the event in question was not Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but a concert by the British rock band, The Who, in 1979 in Cincinnati, Ohio at which some of the tightly packed general admission crowd waiting at the doors mistook the band’s sound check for the beginning of the show, and began their stampede, thinking nothing of their fellow concertgoers who were unfortunate enough to fall to the floor. Yes, we’ll trample each other to death for a front row seat, or a fifty percent discount on Black Friday. All you have to do is say a few magic words, and our instincts will do the rest.
To be fair, some of the people in these cases of death by trampling were probably just trying to save their own lives, to make sure they didn’t end up on the bottom of the pile. What choice did they have but to continue running? But most probably believed that it was just survival of the fittest, that if you can’t run with the big dogs, you’d better stay home. After a crowd shouting “push the doors in” did just that at a Walmart one Black Friday and trampled to death a Walmart employee, when told that “they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling, ‘But I've been in line since Friday morning!’ ” and just kept on shopping. No such tragedy or attitude was reported when Jesus entered Jerusalem, but the situation could have gotten out of hand. As it is, later in the week, the darker side of the crowd mentality took over and the cheers of the first Palm Sunday turned into the jeers of the first Black Friday, and Jesus was the one trampled to death by a miscarriage of justice.
Given the cries of Hosanna that accompanied his entrance into Jerusalem, it is clear that some in the city, maybe even many, believed that their King had finally arrived. Their shouts came from Psalms used for the entrance of the kings as did the practice of spreading cloaks or branches for the king to ride in upon. They clearly had high hopes for a brighter future under a new regime. But why would this have been so important for them? They had a “king” in Caesar. He was about as powerful as they come, with armies the likes of which good old King David could never have mustered. There was peace for the first time in a long time, even if it was peace that came with the price of a military occupation. Sure, taxes were high, and it wasn’t exactly a democracy, but hey, things were stable. Why did they need a King riding in on a donkey? Well, maybe it’s because they felt like the donkey.
Maybe you remember the classic Palm Sunday poem by G.K. Chesterton called “The Donkey.” It goes like this:
When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.
With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.
The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
Yes, this people needed a king who cared about them. This crowd needed Jesus. They needed someone who could take their curse away, give them hope, someone to treat them not like the misfit donkeys of the world but as the beautiful and noble sons and daughters of Adam they were created to be. They needed for a lifetime the dignity and the compassion and the courage Jesus showed for those three short years he spent with them. It is no wonder they were as excited as teenagers headed to a rock concert. If they’d started a stampede to get close to him, you couldn’t have blamed them. And so they did what they had always done. They cried loud hosannas and they threw their cloaks upon the road in front of him, and hoped that Jesus would trample the Romans who had been trampling on them. The only problem was that Jesus came not to trample, but to be trampled.
In one way or another, we are all just as wretched and pathetic as that donkey. If it is not poverty or disease or domestic abuse or the lack of an education, it’s having too high an opinion of ourselves, or being judgmental or selfish or wasteful. We are either the Pharisee or the tax collector. Remember that parable Jesus told? “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ And Jesus said, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” We are all caught up in the cycle of sin the prophet Amos described when we prophesied, “Thus says the LORD: ‘For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes--they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted.’ ” We’re all donkeys. Some of us are just already aware that we are.
Theologically, we can affirm that God loves the donkey just as much any animal we consider from our human point of view to be either lovelier or uglier, but we don’t always think about ourselves the way that our Creator does. Our self-image doesn’t match the divine image. We either think too highly or too lowly of ourselves, we trample others or we get trampled, all while we spend our lives seeking or waiting for that one fleeting hour in which that donkey took delight, when its feet trod upon something soft and it felt at last worthy.
Back in the sixth century, Saint Andrew, the Bishop of Crete, offered a provocative Palm Sunday image that still illuninates today. He said, “Come then, let us run with Jesus as he presses on to his passion. Let us imitate those who have gone out to meet him, not scattering olive branches or garments or palms in his path, but spreading ourselves before him as best we can, with humility of soul and upright purpose. So we may welcome the Word as he comes, may God who cannot be contained within any bounds, be contained within us. So it is ourselves that we must spread under Christ’s feet, not coats or lifeless branches or shoots of trees, matter which wastes away and delights the eye only for a few brief hours. But we have clothed ourselves with Christ’s grace, or with the whole Christ…so let us spread ourselves like coats under his feet.”
Normally, we are the ones doing the trampling under foot, whether from greed or from fear. But as followers of Christ, we are called to be the ones trampled, not in the sense of just allowing ourselves to be walked on so others can do whatever they want, but so that on our backs, others might be lifted up. Isn’t this what Jesus did for us? Isn’t this what Gandhi and King and so many others in the non-violence movement did for others? Isn’t this what those who care for young children or parents with Alzheimer’s do for others? Isn’t this what we can do for others when we see them struggling with depression or doubt or even hubris or pride? Christ came for the wretched of every kind, not that they might endure their whole lives for that donkey’s “One far fierce hour and sweet,” but that they might have abundant life, divine life. And if we can, by laying ourselves down as Christ laid himself down, give the world’s donkeys something soft to walk upon, not just for one sweet hour, but for a season, or better yet a lifetime, then we will have followed Jesus not only into Jerusalem, but to the cross and on to resurrection and glory. That’s our task this Holy Week, to remember how we have trampled others, to give thanks for the one willing to be trampled for our sakes, and to lay down not only our cloaks for the world, but our very lives. Amen.