"Hope Raised Up " by Muriel Lipp
April 26, 2009, the Third Sunday of Easter
I hope you missed us last Sunday – – the 13 of us who were on silent retreat at Dayspring. We missed you, but I’m sure there were many prayers sent up for you in the silence out there at that beautiful place, and probably here for us. David Lloyd led us in meditating on "Hope in a Time of Uncertainty," and Nancy Lawrence was the assistant. Both of them were gifts. I came away feeling deeply nurtured. One thing Dave said that sticks with me. Though faith, hope, and love are all important, hope seems lost in the middle of these three. Last weekend we gave hope its due consideration.
The Luke text for this Sunday focuses on Jesus’ resurrection and the utter surprise of his disciples at seeing him. They thought they were seeing a ghost. "Touch me," Jesus says, and then later, "give me something to eat." What can we make of this? I must confess I have some trouble believing in the physicality of Jesus’ resurrection, but I do believe in his coming back to life in some form. Whatever form that takes, I do not know, but so many people have experienced the presence of Jesus in their lives. It must be true.
Jesus was a person of light in a dark world. He used metaphors, similes, and parables for his language. The language of poets. So why wouldn’t he arise from the dead in some metaphorical form and say, "Touch me?" The ending of his life was the darkest we could ever imagine. Yet God, and maybe Jesus himself, turned it to light.
The theme for these Easter Sundays is Hope Raised Up – very much like our retreat theme. But the words "raised up" I’m sure are about resurrection. The Acts Scripture focuses on healing. Here again, as in Luke, an unbelievable thing happens – a lame man is healed by Peter. And Peter gives Jesus the credit for it. Peter infers that the man was healed through him, but by Jesus. Through- that amazing word. So many things happen "through" us, but "by" God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit. We Seekers, like many churches, have a healing group, and that group prays specifically for the needs of those who attend. We don’t know how that help comes, but we trust that it comes through us and by God.
I like what Simone Weil, a French mystic, wrote in her notebook in 1942: "God establishes a conventional language with his friends. Every event in life is a word of this language… The meaning common to all these words is: I love you… God loves not as I love, but as an emerald is green."
I feel the long line of succession extending from that first community, with Jesus and his circle of friends, down through Paul and the growth of churches, through the early heresies and martyrdoms, the establishment of creeds, the growth of a hierarchy, and later many hierarchies – including Christians killing their brothers and sisters. And some of it to say, "This is how Jesus meant it to be." Also, there has been much revision in Biblical texts. So it is not easy to form one’s own theology. We usually go along with the theology of whatever group we are part of.
What is Christianity? What is the Church of the Saviour – and we Seekers who claim to be in the tradition of it? Given that we accept the inward and outward journeys, disciplines, including prayer and tithing, mission groups, study, and regular silent retreats, how should we in 2009 practice what was given to us 2,000 years ago? How can we really know the truth of it? For me that truth comes from God – and God is so huge, so enormous, and also so small that his/her presence can be seen and felt in a flower or a blade of grass. God also comes to us in dreams and nighttime visions. God comes to me especially in coincidences – when something happens that I’ve been concerned about and then another thing comes along to contribute positively to that. This often happens through (there’s that word through again) through a phone call or an email. After our son’s death it was dreams. Dreams of assurance that he was in a good place.
A big coincidence was how in the 1950s I was led to the Church of the Saviour. Living in New York and, as most young people, I was confused about religion, love, marriage – life in general. Ed and I were trying to decide whether we could make it as a couple, and since he was at that time living and working in Washington, we thought that if I moved to Washington we could better decide. Meanwhile, I met a young man in N. Y. who was still in love with a woman in Washington, and he asked me, when I moved to Washington, would I give her a picture he had of a horse. (He said she loved horses.) I agreed, got her address. He said I could find her at 2025 Mass. Ave. NW, and she worked for a minister named Gordon Cosby. He said it was a strange church. It had cells, he said, and later I knew he meant small groups. So one Sunday, Ed and I, with the horse picture, went to the Church of the Saviour. When we walked in the door at 2025, I knew I was in a different realm. It was before the service began, and there was much laughter. There is a difference between polite laughter and the laughter of intimacy. This was the latter, and I was hungry for it. I knew that after all the churches I had tried, I would make this one my home. The young woman to whom we gave the horse picture was somewhat bemused because she was in love now with another man, a C. of S. member.
Another C. of S. tradition is keeping things small. But this is a Catch – 22 because we need a certain number of children of all ages to have a viable Sunday school. Can you believe that in 1955 we had 84 children in the Church of the Saviour Sunday school – and two services? Every parent had to help out in the Sunday school in order to enroll his/her child. The reason for this tremendous growth was that in the ’50s and ’60s so much was written about the C. of S. – articles in magazines and newspapers, and Elizabeth O’Connor’s books. Hungry Christians came from all over the U. S., some of them ministers who left their parishes. The problem with success is that you often lose the very kernel that made you a success – and with the C. of S., the loss was smallness and intimacy. So Gordon called for the New Lands. The resulting split caused me to join Seekers. Ed and I had four children, and Seekers was the most interested in children, and also Fred Taylor, founder of FLOC, of which I was a member, was one of our leaders.
No one can take away from me what I have received from the C. of S. and now from Seekers. I came here searching for God, who eluded me (and still does in many ways) and found a group of seekers (small and large S ) on the same journey.
Now what does all this church talk have to do with our Easter texts, which are about Jesus and his resurrection? All that we know about Jesus is that he was closer to God than we can ever imagine. The theologian John Crossan makes the resurrection larger for me by suggesting that the resurrected Jesus was made alive in a deeper, fuller way than the physical. Perhaps those first friends of Jesus in the Acts Scripture saw a larger-than-life presence that gave them a power they never had before.
I think we need to put ourselves in the place of the disciples after Jesus’ death. What was their world like now with him gone? He was everything to them. How would they live their lives now? And then to see him in whatever form they saw him… What joy, what questions.
When we think about the Christian Church – all Christian churches – what would they be without Jesus, his death and resurrection? The very name Christian comes from our reference to Jesus as the Christ, or Messiah. Of course he left behind so many wise words, so many examples of healing and love that I must ask: Would these alone be sufficient without his resurrection? I keep thinking it is his life that feeds me more than his death and resurrection. And I realize if I said those words in a sermon in a more conservative church, I might be booted out. How can 20 centuries of Christianity be dependent on this wonderful man’s death – and yet to many people that is the only basis of their faith.
It is not easy to be a Christian and to deal with the skeptic within. But my believer self tries to love that doubter, who is constantly ready to ask the next unanswerable, perplexing question. For instance: Who or how is God? Who am I? When the union of a sperm and an egg could have produced so wide a selection – why me? For me the answer to these unanswerable questions is what we did last weekend on retreat: Pray, contemplate. Open our hearts to God, and let God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit come alive in us.
The poet John Keats sums up some of these unanswerables in his poem, Ode to a Grecian Urn: `Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty. That is all you know on earth, and all you need to know." I would suggest to Keats that both Beauty and Truth are expressions of God’s presence.
Soon we’ll be celebrating Communion, the feast that Jesus first shared with his friends before he died. He said of the bread, "This is my body broken for you," and of the wine, "This is my blood poured out for you." For the latter we say, "This is the cup of the New Covenant," or "This is the cup of blessing." There have been many revisions in how various churches handle Communion, what they say, and what it means to them. Some use grape juice, some use wine. We use home baked bread, some use wafers. I challenge you to meditate on it as you receive these elements. What do they mean to you, and how do you connect with Jesus, God, or the Holy Spirit through this ritual?