April 11, 1999

Church of the Covenant

Palmer-Wasilla

The Rev. Dianne O'Connell

 

I Peter 1:17-23

Psalm 16

Luke 24:13-35

Acts 2:14a, 22-32

The Sunday After Easter

What Does It All Mean?

Good evening. It is the Sunday after Easter, for us. Easter Day, if you happen to be Serbian. Apart from the global concerns of our times, which we will get to later, for some reason this has been a very personally stressful week for my family and myself.

One would think that after the spiritual hullabaloo of Holy Week and Easter that one would settle down into a contentment and joy at the message of salvation, hope of resurrection, even the coming of spring and, if we are lucky, maybe even summer. All will be well.

But it's not that easy, I'm afraid. It has been an emotionally tough winter on me. The illness and death of my mother has been the biggest stressor in my life these past wintry months, but not the only stressor. I won't bore you with the laundry list, but after a while enough issues and questions and problems pile up to make one feel pretty confused, if not hopeless, that any of it will ever be untangled, straightened out.

I was counting on the celebration of Easter and the change of weather to bring me out of my doldrums. Instead, this week has found me deeper and deeper in confusion, and near despair over many minute issues and concerns.

We expect a lot out of our rituals and celebrations. Statistics, of course, show the biggest increase in depression comes around the Christmas holidays and immediately thereafter. Everything is supposed to be great; everyone is supposed to be happy; we get the Good News That Christ is Born - or later that Christ Has Died and is Now Alive - and then, plunk, we're back into our Regular, Often Lock-Step World, wondering what really happened, and what did it all really matter? Life is much the same, maybe worse.

We've been working on this individually and collectively for a long time. Days and Years. Even a couple millennia.

The Easter message is great. It was a message that took fire and spread around the world. Eventually, we will be redeemed from the struggles of this world; we will be reunited with our God and our loved ones; we will not evaporate. It will be okay. I believe all of this.

But that's then. What about now? And now starts, well, Now. The Scripture reading from Luke tonight focuses on that first Easter evening. Two disciples are walking down the road to Emmaus, a village about seven miles from Jerusalem, wondering out loud to each other what on earth had actually happened that morning. There's some excitement, some mystery. Lots of wonder, lots of speculation.

A man walks up beside them and asks what they are discussing and they tell him their story -

"Jesus of Nazareth!" they begin excitedly. "He was a powerful prophet. He was going to redeem Israel, but the authorities killed him three days ago. Some women saw some angels just this morning - and well, they said that our friend Jesus was still alive. He came back to life. And it's true, the tomb's empty. We're excited and perplexed to say the least."

"Ah," says Jesus, "How foolish you are. Go back and read your Torah and the writings of the Prophets. This all had to happen to fulfill what they predicted." The stranger accompanies the two disciples to dinner that evening. As he breaks bread with them - the whole scene no doubt reminding them of the last time they dined with their teacher -they realize that they are, indeed, in the company of their Master. Then he disappears.

Jesus didn't stay long enough to explain everything. He always had let them struggle with parables and stories, applying what he told them through their own ways of understanding. But the disciples had to wonder just what were some of these prophecies of which Jesus spoke? They began reading and talking with one another and reflecting. They began their personal search for understanding. A few weeks later, on the day of Pentecost, Peter shares his developing thoughts with the crowd. He quotes the Prophet Joel:

"In the last days," Joel quotes God, " I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams…a great deal of blood and a great deal of fire and billows of smoke will be poured out … but everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."

In other words, there will be good times followed by bad times followed by good times.

Peter emphatically reminds the crowd of Jesus, recently crucified: "God raised him from the dead", he firmly states, "freeing him from the agony of death…" Of this much, he is now certain.

Peter also reflects that King David, many generations before, had predicted that one would come who would enable everyone to live in hope, knowing that we would not be abandoned to the grave, but finding the "paths of life", we would be filled with joy.

The "paths of life", I could not help but notice, were not clearly defined. I did notice that "paths" was plural in the Acts passage. It had been singular in Psalm 16.

The message of Christianity spread. Not all the answers were yet determined; all the questions had not yet been asked. People were and are still struggling to find the "paths of life". In those early years, Peter wrote to various churches throughout the Mediterranean He reminded them that they had been blessed with the knowledge of Christ's salvation, but now it was time to go beyond personal belief and hope -- and to prepare their minds for action.

What action? All they needed for Eternal Life was to trust in God, believe in his Son. But what about these "paths of life". I'm thinking of those two disciples who traveled to Emmaus in total excitement and wonder. While there, they experienced spiritual reflection time with their Master. But eventually, didn't they have to walk back to Jerusalem? What did they think about on that walk back home? Nothing had changed in Jerusalem. Rome was still in control and would be throughout their life times.

What now? What next? What did it, does it, all mean when I go back to work Monday morning? Everything will be fine when I'm dead, this I understand - but today I'm alive.

Apparently, some other Christians had similar questions. In his letter, Peter answered them: "Obey the Truth", he told them. What truth? "Live a purified life so that we have sincere love for one another," he replied. "Deep love, from the heart kind of love."

Not a new message. Almost a boring message, frankly. Letter after letter, sermon after sermon - love one another. Love one another. Why didn't Jesus or his disciples share more of What Actually Happened that Easter? That's what Christianity's detractors want to know. Tell us about this virgin birth thing. Don't just tell us it happened; tell us HOW it happened. Prove it. Tell us more about how this After Life works. Where is heaven? Where is hell? How many souls can actually fit there? What was it EXACTLY we have to believe in order to get into this place? Those who don't believe it just right, can't be there - right? Oh yeah, repentance, yeah. But that can wait until just before we die, right?

Peter, Paul, the others - Jesus himself - never presented a systematic theology providing answers to all these "important" theological questions. They didn't provide the answers because the questions weren't all that important. We weren't told exactly what we had to believe in order to be redeemed - but we were told over and over again how we must feel and behave toward one another, if we really wanted this redemption, this salvation. We had to behave, at the very least, with civility toward one another. Love was the actual demand. Love. For some, that's either too simplistic, or too complicated. Surely, the message of Christianity is something deeper, something more academically challenging, than that.

The March 29th issue of Time magazine had a cover story entitled "2000 Years of Jesus". The thesis of the article was that the Life of Jesus has had a profound impact on Western Civilization regardless of what any particular individual or individuals may believe about his person, his teachings, his life, death and/or his resurrection.

In an attempt to make the Message of Christianity more academically challenging, theologian David Tracy of the University of Chicago Divinity School explains,

"All monotheists tend to make God into a transcendent individual standing outside time and outside all relationships." He has explained earlier that one of the differences between Christianity and other monotheistic religions was the concept of the Trinity. Three realities or personages in one.

"Now, as in modern physics, we are coming to see that all of reality is interrelated. The doctrine of the Trinity says that even the divine reality in all its incomprehensible mystery is intrinsically relational."

In other words, God for the Christians, became Human, lived and died, and continues to work in the world through yet another persona, the Holy Spirit. God was in relationship not only within God's Self, but also in personal relationship with us, not only as ethnic groups and/or family units, but as individuals. Where there previously had been gods of particular ethnic groups, or of particular families, Christianity's approach was one of a personal relationship between God and individual. And that relationship was one of Love.

As Christianity developed, the article noted, society changed accordingly. Woman's place in society began to change; wars still went on, but now they had to be justified; Christians cared for their sick and infirm; and they often worked diligently to further the Kingdom of God the best they could here on Earth. Christians tried to love one another - starting, and often ending with, only those Christians most like themselves.

Christians have traditionally been very bad about this. We, as a group, have often been toughest on groups or individuals who claim Christianity but just don't DO Christianity the way we feel it ought to be done. In fact, we continue to spill a lot of blood and burn a lot of villages over the matter, in our attempt to make people fit our specific understanding of what a person should believe, what language they should speak, and just exactly what rituals should order their individual lives. It has gotten so bad in some places that whole groups of people have abandoned Christianity and embraced another faith all together.

A case is point is that of the Albanians. I've been reading up on Albanians and Serbians via the Internet lately. When the President of the United States asks me to take down my Atlas and look up a couple of obscure geographic areas in the world - well, I do it.

I've learned that the Serbian tribes - originating from "beyond the Carpathian Mountains" - invaded and occupied Kosovo during the late Middle Ages. The Kosovars were the indigenous people of the area. The Kosovars - later known as Albanians -- fought their Serbian, Bulgarian and Greek oppressors for generations - never becoming assimilated, always fighting for their individual Albanian identity. The Albanians did not wish to become Serbs nor did they wish to become Greeks. When the Moslem Turks invaded, the Albanians quickly came to understand that if they embraced the Moslem faith, they would have one more point of difference from the Orthodox Christian Serbian, Bulgarian and Greek - their traditional enemies.

According to one Albanian writer, the Albanians had had to practice their previous Orthodox Christian religion in Serbian or Greek churches, and were in danger of being absorbed through religion. The conversion to Islam was dictated by the necessity to preserve their Albanian nationality, to be different from Serbians and Greeks, and not because they had any particular problem with Jesus Christ.

The issue for the Serbians and Greeks before this conversion, was obviously not one of religious difference - the Albanians were already Orthodox Christian, just like themselves. But that wasn't good enough. They had to be Serbian or Greek in outlook, as well. Language, culture, political alliances, and always land - those were the real issues. In answer, over the centuries, the Albanians said, "Fine. We not only don't want your culture and your language; we don't want your religion either. We are now Moslems. And we'll keep our land, too, thank you very much."

Before we take too many shots at our neighbors in the Balkans, however, I'd like to add that we aren't much better here in America, as much as we'd like to think we were. And, it doesn't look like we'll get a heck of a lot better in time for the millennium.

In that same March 29th issue, Time magazine published a poll among American Christians asking which one of the following they thought should be Organized Christianity's Top Priority in the next millennium?

The list included "returning to traditional moral values, "spreading the faith," "increasing tolerance," and "righting social ills."

38 percent said "returning to traditional moral values" was their top priority.

32 percent said "spreading the faith" was their top priority.

In other words, 70 percent of those Christians responding indicated that their first two priorities for Christianity were a standardized moral tradition and the spreading of that tradition. There may have been division on which morals and which values were of prime importance. This we are not told. But we are told that uniformity of belief and standards is a major goal of many people.

20 percent of the Christians polled had a different opinion. Now I know that 70 from 100 equals 30 percent - but only 20 percent offered opinions.

Thirteen percent of the Christians polled thought that "increasing tolerance" was of prime importance; and seven percent of the Christians polled believed that "righting social ills" should be top priority for the next millennium.

13 percent in favor of tolerance and seven percent in favor of changing society for the better. And 70 percent in favor of working toward making us all alike, or very similar.

I had a two-hour conversation with a young Catholic priest this week. He has a master's degree in ecumenics and is very active in both ecumenical organizations and in interfaith work here in Alaska. He wanted to make sure I knew the difference between interfaith dialogue among persons of completely different faith traditions, and ecumenical striving for unity among the various Christian expressions.

As I listened to him speak, I began to strangely feel that perhaps I wasn't as ecumenical as I once thought I was. My goal in working with other Christian expressions has been to seek common ground, yes; but not unity where unity is not, in my mind, even advisable. The Catholic and the Protestant understanding of communion is an area, for instance, where I would just as soon we each kept our individual beliefs - yet allowing for a "live and let live" attitude toward one another. On the social level, I would like to be able to work together against the death penalty, for instance, yet part company on many family and sexual issues.

You see, we can get so caught up in 100 percent right and wrong positions, and an "Us versus Them" approach toward life, that we lose sight of a larger goal.

There was a small sidebar article in the same Time magazine, the title of which caught my eye: "A Conservative Argues that the Religious Right is Going Wrong By Focusing on Politics Instead of Prayer."

"Right on", I said to myself. "I'm glad they finally realize they've been wrong." I read the article, expecting a flush of self-righteous gratification.

But the author, Cal Thomas, was sort of balanced in his approach, which threw me off balance. He acknowledged that the Right had been too partisan -- obsessed with President Clinton's impeachment to the detriment of building and maintaining working political relationships to further other agenda items. He spoke of the positive motivation behind prohibition, yet recognized its failure and, worse, it's contribution to the birth and growth of organized crime.

He did acknowledge the positive role of Christians in the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement. He was not stating that Christians should not be politically concerned and involved, but he called for an activism on issues, severely questioning religious leaders' involvement in partisan politics.

Hmmmm. I experienced a few moments of uncomfortable personal reflection.

Then I re-read and paraphrased the opening line of the article. "A Liberal Argues the Religious Left is Going Wrong by Focusing on Politics Instead of Prayer."

I'm not sure I believe that. I really am not. It's a tough message to consider. But since I had this sermon to write, I thought I'd better consider it - and maybe even try to keep an open mind.

A few thoughts began to take a patchwork shape in my poor mind.

Wherever and whatever we are struggling with, we have to get past the "Us versus Them" mentality. That's one thought. The Liberals versus the Conservatives; the Democrats versus the Republicans; the Moral versus the Immoral; the Serbian versus the Albanian. Yeah, right, I said to myself. Fat chance.

A woman came in to volunteer at the hospital this week. We got to talking and she indicated that she and her husband had just moved to Anchorage from a small, outlying city. She and her husband were the resident "liberals" and this other couple were the most outspoken "conservatives" in town. The town itself could not understand why the two couples spent so much time together - they were obviously close friends. My visitor explained that the connecting element was music. All four were musicians. And they did not allow their wildly differing political views interfere with that music. Harmony was what was really important.

Cal Thomas calls for a person-by-person individual conversion. That's the way to change the world, he says. One or two Irish Catholic mothers begin talking to one or two Irish Protestant mothers, and something begins to change.

One grumpy old businessman visits his underpaid and unappreciated employee's home on Christmas Eve - and something changes. One hospital administrator visits the home of a single mother - the woman works split and unpredictable shifts as a nurse. Maybe something could change by Wednesday?

What on earth would it take in Kosovo?

Centuries of hate don't just melt under one NATO-sponsored Diversity Training Program. But hate does sometimes begin to melt - although not often in the face of bombs. We have much to do.

Folks, the Easter Message of Redemption and Salvation is, indeed, Good News. But a week after Easter, I'm here to tell you I'm not sure just how best to live that out. I'd like to either Save the World all in one day, or be a hermit - nothing in between.

It's so easy if there is a right way and a wrong way, a true approach and a false approach. It would be so easy if bombing were always bad or if diplomacy always worked.

As we slowly walk along the road from Emmaus back to Jerusalem, or in my case, from Wasilla back to Anchorage, somewhere in between may very well hold the answer.

The Easter Message is one of Hope and Life After Death. The Emmaus Message for me is that along the way there are only partial answers, more questions, and a longer walk. The Good News is that Christ walks with us.

Amen.

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