A Homily by Jill Joseph


During this season of Easter we journey with the apostles, beginning at the sealed tomb, disappointed in ourselves, grief-stricken with loss, gathered in small groups, stunned by death…..an ordinary, brutal Roman death, torturing even as it kills.


And then something happened and for 40 days we liturgically explore what this “something” is, as story, as shared bread and cup, as theology, as invitation.


The Word comes to us today during the fifth week of that exploration.


And this sermon is brought to you by a woman who has journeyed with this community for well over a year, is now a member of the Learners and Teachers mission group, has carried your prayers and ribbons twice to Eritrea, and is pondering a call to become a Steward.  I have come to know some of you at least a bit, and rely in many ways on the support and strength of this community.


Having said all that, it is also true that the Easter story is a difficult one for me.


Or, maybe more honestly, the Easter story appears to answer a question I do not ask.  I find myself deeply affected by stories of exodus and exile, of epiphany and discipleship.  I think I understand at least a bit of foot-washing and Passover meals, and even of brutal death willingly accepted.  Of teaching and sharing and forgiveness.


But the idea that a death by crucifixion somehow “redeemed” humanity for all time, and that the resurrection is required to make sense of the Christian life……these are notions that remain uncomfortable and, frankly, inauthentic for me.  I find myself little concerned with promises about life beyond the grave or eternity.  It is of no importance to me whether the resurrection “really happened” or is just a wonderful story, as if such stories would not be enough.


Yet it is also clear that something astonishing happened to the apostles after Easter.  That reluctant, competitive, seemingly dimwitted gaggle of Galilean fishermen and peasants became inspired, energized, emboldened, and passionate.  And this invites careful attention by any of us who know ourselves to be in need of similar transformation, who choose spiritual lives in the tradition of Jesus the Christ.


So it was with a sense of humility as well as reluctance that I accepted the invitation to preach during this season of Eastertide.


How do our readings today speak to me, and perhaps to you, as we ponder the meaning of Easter?


I begin with our initial readings from the Acts of the Apostles and Revelation.  Here, I see as an embedded theme of relationship as a mechanism for transformation.  Paul was summoned by a man of Macedonia in a dream or vision, following which his life and that of others are changed forever.  It was one of 7 angels who visited John, attributed as the author of Revelation, and then carried him to the great high mountain where he saw a heavenly Jerusalem.


Although dramatic, the stories make a definite point about the need for the other, the “not I”.  It is easy to trivialize this point or sentimentalize it.  Certainly, we can claim that at Seekers we understand the importance of relationship.  We can point to our Mission Groups, the School of Christian Living, to collective efforts on behalf of Bokomoso Youth, and manifold other examples.  Indeed, it was your commitment to community and your ability to laugh together that first struck me when I began worshiping with you.


But, at least for me, relationships are a mechanism for transformation not only because they provide support.  More deeply, relationships provide an opportunity for the honesty that is essential if we are to see ourselves as we are.  And understand, a life in relationship to God, a spiritual life, or religious life, is wholly dependent on such honesty about oneself.


Nothing fails more quickly than a fraudulent understanding of self.  Someone once remarked to me that prayer too often consists of setting up a lovely, false image of oneself in front of a tidy statue representing a convenient image of God, and then being both perplexed and irritated because “nothing happens” between these two false images.


But learning about oneself is no easy task.


About a year ago I was beginning to take seriously a growing sense of responsibility in prayer for those whose lives had touched mine.  I take the liberty of telling you a bit about my first three prayer intentions, because of what they may reveal about the ways in which relationship supports transformation.


The young adult daughter of a colleague at work had taken her own life and I found myself, for a variety of reasons, involved with the family, both at a beautiful and terribly affecting funeral and in more private circumstances.  It became important to pray for this man and his family, although he’d never been among my favorite workmates.  I’d seen him as somewhat formal and hierarchical.  Not at all like myself who was, of course, marvelously egalitarian and wonderfully informal.  I learned a lot about my colleague, about his values, about his family, about his life.  I learned enough, in point of fact, to be embarrassed by my assumptions and my pride.  I learned enough to begin to see ways in which my informality and availability can mask an arrogance I don’t want to see in myself.


Returning from Eritrea and at the Frankfurt airport, I met a young African-American soldier named Eric who was returning on leave from Afghanistan to his wife and five children in North Carolina.  Tall and thin and gentle and quiet, he offered JoAnne and me access to his electrical converter so we could use our laptops. He called us both “ma’am”, so I suspected that he was more used to offering respect than receiving it. He asked if we had been missionaries in Eritrea. Boarding his flight long before ours departed, he softly insisted that we keep his expensive converter so we could continue working, and then asked quietly if we might pray for him.  Eric was not a member of the US armed forces, but rather employed by one of those private security firms which are so distasteful to me.  This kind black angel would, of course, be in a category of individuals I hold in angry contempt, although I like to think of myself as a gentle pacifist.


Finally, many of you know the story of Zufan, our friend in Eritrea. She’s a wonderfully kind and capable nurse who works at the American Embassy, supporting her husband as well as three adolescent children. Because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses, all are at risk for imprisonment and she is particularly terrified for their two sons. Her husband was apprehended by the government in October, 2008 and they know only that he’s been moved to a very remote desert location. There’s been talk of imminent release a number of times, but nothing has happened and they have virtually no communication with or about him. Zufan is also helping to raise a cousin and her child. By this point, I suspect it won’t surprise you at all if I tell you that I have no time for Jehovah’s Witnesses. I find their theology abhorrent, their proselytizing obnoxious, and their homophobia offensive, but Zufan asked me to pray for her, as I do to this day.  As John Morris suggested in his homily during this Eastertide, our inclusive Christianity has little room for my contemptuousness.


Indeed, it is angels who carry us away to a great high mountain where we can see a holy city.  And there nothing accursed will be found, and we will need neither light of lamp nor sun for God will be our light.


And these angels may be Brenda, who early on took a heartbroken call from me and consoled me during a difficult time with my father.  More surprisingly, they are also the colleagues and strangers and friends who hold a mirror that permits us to see ourselves as we are, deeply flawed, profoundly needing transformation, and utterly dependent on the abiding love of our God.


This brings us then to the Gospel of John.  Interestingly, today’s reading is actually a holy week discourse, a pre-Gethsemane soliloquy spoken to that ragtag group of disciples: Peter who will deny him, Thomas who will doubt the resurrection, and Philip who only asks to be shown God that he might believe. This makes it a little easier for me to be willing to preach from this text, knowing that these words were intended for a group of followers perhaps little more committed or insightful than I.  The discourse is complex, and is traditionally used to begin discussing Pentecost and the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the apostles and of the early church.


As I think about the process of transformation that characterizes Easter, I choose, however, to focus on the words, “I am going away, and I am coming to you.”  Compellingly, these words are so important that they actually repeat an earlier promise made by Jesus.


As virtually all of you are aware, I know a bit about going and coming, about the disruptions of loss, and being unsettled.  I’m always going away.  My home, my family, my heart are all in California, although I work two to three weeks every month here in Washington, DC.


When I’m with you, I am not at home.  Furthermore, within the next year or two or three, I will return to California permanently.  I am only now learning the ways of this community, building a committed Christian life based on your support (and yes, the painful opportunities you provide me to see myself as I am).  Therefore, I envy you the years and decades many of you have had to build a deep life of faith together.


But, Jesus said “I am going away,” and the reality of human existence is that it is transient, unpredictable, disrupted.  Even in the short time that I’ve been with you, JoAnne has said, “There seems to be someone leaving Seekers every time I’m there.”  Can such community leave-taking (occasioned by jobs relocations, planned retirements, new commitments) actually be an opportunity for transformation?  I’m sure that for each of us the answer will differ, but I would offer a few observations.


A few moments ago I suggested that a spiritual life requires honesty about oneself, although this is often painful.  The corollary is, of course, that it also requires honesty about life itself.  And I repeat that life is transient.  I’ve worked in hospice and it is clear to me that most of us are shielded for much of our lives from the reality of death.  If we go back but three or four generations, it was not at all unusual for a family to bury half of the children that were born to them because of the ravages of illness among infants and children. Men outlived their wives who frequently died in childbirth, often along with the infant they were carrying. Epidemics raged and fatal injury was too common in brutal working conditions.


Certainly among us are many who have known loss, but this is nonetheless probably the exception rather than the rule.  Yet there were medieval monks who went to bed every night in their caskets, not as a grim reminder of death, but as invitation to gratitude with each awakening dawn.  Understanding the impermanence of life can be fostered by an impermanent community, serving an invitation, not to grim regret, but to joyous gratitude for all that is, and therefore transformation.


In community, impermanence can also provide a compass orienting us back to our relationship with the one who calls us and is our home, to our relationship with God that will endure beyond the upheavals of loss and change.  Community supports us, community challenges us, community strengthens us.  Community is not God.


Nonetheless, it can become more important to me that I complete a Spiritual Report on time (thus pleasing Marjory) than I lead a spiritual life.  At least for me, it is tempting to become a seeker of human goodwill rather than a seeker of God’s will.  Let us always help one another remember that it is God to whom our lives are directed.  In that relationship is found the Easter hope of transformation.


Finally, because the spiritual life is a real life, not that fantasy of oneself meeting a fantasy of God, it is also fraught with times of darkness and confusion.  There are times that we are lifted to that high mountain and there are others in which God may seem utterly absent.  Our ability to cling in sturdy confidence to the knowledge that we are loved may grow as we learn to abide a community that shifts and changes, is affected by loss, is different from what it had been or what we hoped it would be.  We do not, for example, currently have 60 children in our Sunday school and I see that this is a heartache for some of the community.


Yet we remind ourselves that God is present in all things.  It’s just that we like some of these things better than the others. Easter transformation calls us to fidelity amid the inevitable ups and downs of the spiritual life, and community losses are one way of “practicing” for those inner times of darkness.


But of course, “I am going away” was only the first half of that Gospel quotation.  Ironically, Eastertide is also a time of waiting for the fulfillment of the promised gifts not yet realized: “I am coming to you.” Loss and yet fulfillment, repeated again and again.


What a marvelous story Easter is and how thoroughly the experience of it changed the lives of those first ones, the apostles.


For us the task remains as it has always been: children of an utterly unknowable God, we nonetheless work earnestly, together and alone, to grow into the love that we know has been granted us.  This is the Easter hope.


It is actually remarkably simple and on this Mother’s Day I will conclude with the commentary of my son, Matthew. He was 11 years old and I dragged this half Jewish, half Christian, wonderfully articulate boy to Mass each week.  Not to make him a Christian, but to provide an environment in which we could, at least for an hour a week, focus on tasks considerably more important than my success at work or his grades in school.


I didn’t ask that he participate in any way, only that he be present. But because I was often a reader, we typically sat in the first row where the intimate details of the mass and communion celebrated by wonderful Irish priest were very available to him.  He typically said nothing about the service, but one day during Sunday dinner turned to me and remarked, seemingly out of nowhere, “I like what the priest says when he gives out that little piece of bread.”  I was frankly astonished and could think of no reason why the softly repetitive Irish murmur of “body of Christ” would be of any interest to my son.  I think my surprise showed on my face because he immediately clarified, “you know, Mom, how he says to every person ‘buddy of Christ’.”


He’s right of course.  As we stare in astonishment at the empty tomb, as we are surprised by the wonder of resurrection all about us, but particularly as we strive to create lives worthy of this amazing story, it is enough that we work to become ever more a buddy of Christ.

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