I’ve chosen the John and Revelation texts for my word this morning. For many years I’ve struggled with the physical Jesus arising from the dead, as in John 20. I do believe in the resurrection, but how that took place is a mystery to me. Have you ever laid your hands on a loved one who was long dead and departed, or seen that dead one alive in some form, or heard a voice from that dead loved one telling you, “I am not dead.” Well, I have, and I believe strongly in dreams and visions. Doubting Thomas was, I believe, an intellectual person, not one to believe in fantasies. It is no wonder he couldn’t go along with the other disciples.
But in the end, he did, after satisfying all his doubts. And what did Jesus say? “Because you have seen me you have found faith. Blessed are those who have never seen me and yet have found faith.” But I do believe in a resurrection. How or what kind I don’t know.
A lot of us have trouble with the physical presence of Jesus after his death. John Crossan, in the book, A Long Way from Tipperary, writes that he has trouble with the conventional Biblical interpretation. But he makes the resurrection larger for me by suggesting that Jesus was made alive in a deeper, fuller way than the physical. Perhaps the presence those first disciples felt was a larger-than-life presence that gave them a power they never had before. Certainly they were re-energized. And we often feel that energy at certain times in our church. Energy that has a source beyond us. Call it God, Christ, the Holy.
The book of Revelation is a difficult book in my opinion. It was written by John, who lived on the Isle of Patmos in Asia Minor sometime before 100 of our Common Era. It was a bad time for new Christians. Some were Jews. Some were gentiles. But the Romans, who were growing in authority in Asia Minor, wanted all people to bow to Caesar and to worship as they said. The new little churches in Asia Minor—seven of them—were looked down on by the powerful of their day. John, the author of Revelation, was imprisoned and tortured for his faith. Much of the Book is dreamlike, as though John was so close to God he was getting messages from God.
In today’s passage he quotes God: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come.” Was that a dream, or did he really hear God speaking? Some believe that John wrote this book to keep Christians from leaving their churches. They were probably leaving in droves because their rulers were occasionally beheading them. John was trying to make martyrdom attractive. I don’t know what I would do if given such a choice—stick with my faith and risk beheading, or abandon it. But I think it’s important to listen to John. We have this faith of ours because those people of long ago were willing to give their lives for it. And of course the central person of our faith, Jesus of Nazareth, gave his life for us. So John wrote this book, full of symbolism, to give Christians courage to stand firm.
Here we are almost 2,000 years later in the U.S., worshipping in a church that trusts persons like me to deliver a sermon. Well, I believe in the open pulpit, but many Christians would find such uncredentialed preaching a mistake. We may not have the courage of John, but we do believe as he did, that God is the Alpha and Omega and gives messages to us all.
There are two French writers I have been attracted to because of their faith and courage. The one is Jeanne Goyon, and the other is François Fenelon. They lived in the late 1600s. Fenelon was of royal blood and was a tutor to King Louis IV’s grandson. He was attracted to Goyon’s writing, and he asked her to be his spiritual advisor. Several books contain many of these letters between the two of them. One of the reasons I was attracted to these writers was because, just like us, they believed in the same sort of spiritual direction we use in our mission groups. At a time when women were so dishonored, it is a wonder to me the Fenelon would take the advice of a woman, especially given his royal status. Well, they both got into trouble for it. Fenelon was exiled, kicked out of the palace, and Goyon was imprisoned by the Church for nine years.
Just think. What if we were imprisoned or exiled for our spiritual reports? Such freedom we have, and yet others have paid the price for it.
What was the result of Goyon’s and Fenelon’s faith? I have read more of Goyon than of Fenelon, but she was blamed by the Church of her day for her quiet, constant, contemplative evoking of God, and writing about it—something that later was known as Quietism, and even later, Quakerism. How much we owe those brave Christians who said it and wrote it as they believed it!
Two weeks from now, a number of us will be on silent retreat at Dayspring. Our leader will be Emmy Lu Daly, and the assistant, Nancy Lawrence. The theme will be “Playing in the Fields of the Lord.” Emmy Lu knows what plans she has for this playing/praying retreat, but I am intrigued by the theme. However, we’ll be doing pretty much what Goyon and Fenelon were punished for—contemplating, writing in journals, and perhaps later passing on our learnings to a spiritual director. Maybe. You never know what a retreat will do for and to you.
And we’ll be doing our meditations in so many different ways. Some will be writing what God is saying to them. Some will express God’s presence in art. All of us will be walking around that beautiful countryside if it doesn’t rain, or sitting on the porch in the morning, a cup of coffee by our side, or taking walks and seeing the Almighty in flowers, listening to God in the voices of frogs and geese. And only Emmy Lu knows what other plans she has for us. I will be sitting on a rock by my favorite creek that feeds into a pond below the lodge. One time as I sat there I was given a poem about my father, who was a woodsy man. I felt his presence, and I thanked God that though he was physically dead, he was still alive in the murmur of the stream, the purple skunk cabbage, and those wonderful water striders that we used to watch together when I was a child. I went back to my room and wrote the poem almost exactly as it had been given to me.
On these retreats, which for Stewards are part of our annual commitment, we often discover a new dimension of the Holy. Sometimes it comes in dreams. Dreams are our friends. They take us to our within. So long ago St. Augustine said that it wasn’t just believing in God in the Outer: We should look just as deeply into the Inner. I hope to do that on this retreat, and in my life in general.
But I often forget, during the day-to-day, to remember that God who dwells within. Usually I take a walk early in the day to say hello to God and to pray. When I was having trouble with this sermon, and especially with the computer, I called Emily from my mission group and asked her to pray for me. She asked, “Have you had your walk?” I said no, not yet. She said, “Go, take your walk.” And after I came back, even the computer behaved better. I know that sounds too simple, and how well I know it is a mystery how God does, or does not, answer prayers. And we see this all over the world: People screaming for help, and not getting it.
Frank Laubach, known as the Each-One-Teach-One literacy pioneer, also a mystic and Christian missionary, said, “I am feeling God in each movement, by an act of will—willing that God shall direct these fingers that now strike this typewriter—willing that God shall pour through my steps as I walk—willing that God direct my words as I speak . . . .”
I am thinking of our e-mails that fly like birds back and forth every day. Where is God in our e-mails? Often we end them with Love or Peace or Keep Praying. Let’s mean it. Remember, the Alpha and Omega is much more present in our lives than we can ever know with our brains.