Disbelieve for Joy
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The Tamil word for “praise be to God” is “nundri thothiram.” Praise be to God. It’s so good to have Vatsala here.
What do you suppose is the hardest part about delivering a sermon? Imagine yourself up here this morning; you are delivering the sermon. What do you think the hardest part is? Do you think you forgot your notes? Do you think you slept in and you are late? Do you think you can’t find your way to the church? I have dreams about all those things. Do you think you forgot to put on your clothes? Or do you think the hardest part of preaching is that you are standing up in front of a congregation and you’ve got nothing important to say. That’s the hardest part.
Rev. James Howell is the pastor at the Myers Park Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, and he has written a wonderful new book on preaching. It’s just fabulous! In the book, he suggests, “Do not write one more word of one more sermon until you have found something important and big to say.” Good words of advice.
It’s not that you stand up here and give a weather report. You stand up here and talk about matters of life and death. You talk about the meaning of life. You talk about who we are as God’s people. You talk about God.
I think there is nothing more irritating for a congregation than to hear sermons and words that are trite and superficial. You come here expecting lobster and it’s like having Twinkies tossed at you. Speaking of Twinkies being tossed at you, there was, for a time, a story going around on the Internet and among pastors’ circles about the hope that when you die you have a fork buried with you It was that old image of going to the church potluck, and they say, at the end of the potluck, “Save your fork, the dessert is yet to come.”
So the fork story had been going around and Jim Howell was talking about it when he went to a funeral and sat next to the widow. The widow worked on his staff and had asked him to come to the funeral to offer support and to be next to her. As he was sitting next to the widow, the pastor brought out the fork story and said, “Now Jim, has enjoyed the meal of his life, but was hanging onto the fork because he is getting ready for dessert.” At the end of the service, when Rev. Howell was walking out with the widow, she said to Rev. Howell, “Oh, that darned fork story! Why would Jim want to go and have dessert without me?”
In situations when we are dealing with something so profound as the burden of death, something light and trivial like the fork story can be downright insulting and irritating. When something significant has happened in your life, we look for something substantial, something important.
How many of you have seen the play, “Steel Magnolias?” Are there any of you who have been to the community theatre and seen Steel Magnolias? There is a wonderful movie that is based on the play. In the movie there is a woman, Shelby, who is 27 years old. She dies leaving a young son behind. Sally Field plays the role of Shelby’s mother in the movie. There is an unforgettable scene at the graveside burial at the cemetery. At the cemetery, Shelby’s mother is lingering at the grave and her friends surround her and try to help her. One of them, a very religious woman named Annelle, who is a hairdresser, comes to her and tries to comfort her. She says to Shelby’s mother, “It should make you feel better that Shelby is with her King. We should all be rejoicing!” At which point, Shelby’s mother says to everyone at the burial, “You all go on ahead, I don’t feel like rejoicing right now. It might be selfish, but I’d rather she would just be here with me.” A few moments later, she cries out and falls down and she sobs and sobs and she says: “Why, why, why? Why has God taken my daughter? It’s not supposed to be like this.”
At moments like this, we are called to name the pain in the community. We are not called to have simple jokes and inane answers but called to speak out of the depths of who we are. Like the call of the Psalmist in Psalms 22: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
There is such a temptation in our society to look for easy answers and for quick fixes to the problems of our lives. Thinking about answers, by the way, a couple in our church was sitting in a coffee shop in Lawrence a couple of weeks ago. As they were sitting having their coffee they were overhearing a conversation at the next table. It was a couple of pastors —I don’t know who the pastors are, and I don’t know what church they are in— but they were talking about our church. That’s interesting—strangers at a coffee shop talking about Plymouth Church. What they said was: “You know what’s wrong with Plymouth Church?” Now that would get my attention! “You know what’s wrong with Plymouth Church? They don’t have any answers!”
What would you say to that? How would you respond to that conversation if you were sitting there overhearing that conversation at the next table? (A resounding Amen is heard from the choir loft). You can’t do much better than that! But what I would like to say is the following: I’d like to say, you know what, you are absolutely right. We don’t have easy answers. We don’t have quick fixes to the challenges of life. We don’t look at the Bible as an answer book. We look at the Bible and the Gospel as a window; as a lens with which we look at the world, look at reality, look at our lives. We look through the gospel to find truth.
And the truth I want to share this morning is not a truth that you can easily put on a bumper sticker. It’s not a truth about which you can easily say, “Isn’t this answer so simple.” But the truth is that we have at the core of our faith in our theology, two tracks and two stories that are paradoxical and seem almost to contradict each other. Yet, we must embrace both.
What are they? On the one hand, we as human beings are broken, and yet, on the other hand, we are beloved. On the one hand, we are fallen and on the other hand, we are filled with God’s grace. On the one hand, we are a mess, and on the other hand, we are in all of creation as holy and good and infused with the presence of God.
Friends, if we go off on one hand, and only admit our fallenness, we are in for despair and cynicism. But on the other hand, if we go off in the other direction and forget the first, then we are naïve. Simple answers to complex problems. How can we in our lives embrace both the reality of the crucified Christ and stand on the ground of the Easter hope and resurrection. That’s the challenge! That’s the challenge for this text this morning.
Here’s why this is important: I’ve been reading lately about trauma, about people who have been victimized by trauma in their lives. There is a wonderful book by Serene Jones, a systematic theologian, President of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She has written a book called Trauma and Grace: Theology in a ruptured world. I highly recommend that you go out and get it and read it. It’s a fabulous book. She has done tremendous study of trauma, of the trauma that has occurred in people’s lives. People who have been victimized by violence, soldiers serving in our armed forces in places like Afghanistan, post-traumatic stress syndrome. People that have experienced in their lives some kind of brush with violence or horror that has even threatened their own being; when they have worried about their own annihilation.
The trauma studies revealed that after one has been a victim of trauma, it is very hard to get back to a place of hope or to find joy again in life because the trauma is so difficult and so pervasive. She writes in her book about a woman in her UCC congregation in New Haven, Connecticut, who was a witness to a drive-by shooting. This woman, because she was a witness, was called to court to testify and to share her story and her experience of what she saw in the drive-by shooting. Serene Jones talked about how difficult that was for this woman to constantly retell of this traumatic experience in her life and how important it was for that faith community to come together to support that woman in that traumatic event.
As a country, we went through the traumatic event of September 11th—all of us traumatized by it. I think especially of our own Jane Tedder, as an eye-witness. How does one get over such a traumatic event? How can one ever find grace and hope again in their lives? That’s the challenge that Serene Jones places before us in her book, Trauma and Grace.
But what Serene Jones does in her book, is point to this morning’s text, read a few moments ago, and suggests that we read that text through the lens of trauma and recognize as we read that text, that the disciples gathered there in the upper room are victims of trauma. They have been through the experience of violence. They have seen Jesus brutalized, seen him tortured, seen him crucified. The women were so victimized by the violence, they say in the Gospel of Mark, that they were filled with fear, and they were afraid and they told no one.
There are so many ways we can look at the Gospel lesson and see the power that trauma has on people, has on the disciples. Yet, in the midst of the trauma, Jesus comes into the upper room and says: “Peace be among you.”
What’s important about this text is the risen Christ is not denied the reality of the crucifixion. Jesus comes to his friends and says, “Look at my hands, look at my feet, see the imprint of the nails on my hands and feet.” Why is he doing this? To tell them and to tell us that the same one who is risen among you, the risen Christ, is the one who experienced the depths of degradation, of the trauma of the crucifixion, and that this is a bodily resurrection of Christ. This is not some spiritual embodiment.
What does he do after he says: “Look at my hands and look at my feet”. He says, “Come, let us have a meal together. Do you have something to eat?” What could be more compelling truth in the bodily presence of the risen Christ than the fact they come together and eat a meal together.
Do you see in that text how the tension of the reality of the crucifixion and yet, the hope of the resurrection are tied together in one narrative of the gospel? My favorite quotation in that text is that it says that the disciples in Luke’s view “ disbelieve for joy.” What a beautiful image. Disbelieve for joy. In other words, they were still traumatized and cynical and not able to believe, and yet there was a part of them that was already beginning to be filled with joy.
How is it that we in our lives move from trauma to grace? How is it that we move from brokenness to experiencing our belovedness? Friends there are so many times in our lives when eyes and our ears are not open, when we are closed to the new reality that may be among us.
How many of you have seen the u-tube video of Susan Boyle? Does that ring a bell with anybody? Some of you have seen it. This is based upon an American Idol version in Britain called Britain’s Got Talent. When people come on this show they sing or play a song and there are some judges who vote you up or down. It’s just like American Idol.
A woman named Susan Boyle came on the show on Britain’s Got Talent. She is 47 years old; she comes from some tiny town in Scotland; she is the very antithesis of what a star would look like. She’s kind of dowdy, and the audience is already geared to discounting this person, to writing her off and they are laughing at her. They are thinking, “What can this person possibly do.” They are so sure that she is going to flop and they are laughing. Then she begins to sing, “I Dream the Dream” from Les Miserables and by the third note of her singing, the whole audience is transformed. They go from being a group of cynical disbelievers to people who are enthralled by the power and the voice of Susan Boyle.
On a dime, the crowd turns from cynicism and disbelief to wholehearted support, embracing this woman and embracing her dreams. The goodness of this woman’s gift given by God made her radiantly beautiful in the eyes of those who watched and listened. Now Susan Boyle didn’t change at all. She is the same person before she went on the stage and is the same person that left the stage. The same wonderful person filled with the grace of God and a beautiful voice. What changed was the audience. They were the ones who were transformed. They were the ones whose eyes were opened and their ears heard in a new and fresh way.
Just like that audience listening to Susan Boyle, may it be to the disciples and all those who encounter the risen Christ. Through all the moments of our lives and even the most traumatic moments, may our eyes be opened, may our ears hear anew a wondrous reality and everything change.
Never be so cynical as to imagine there is a trauma that the grace of God cannot touch or transform. As for having dessert forks in our coffins—who cares? What it is about is God raising us up in our lives here and now giving us new life. Amen.