Witnesses to These Things

Luke 24:35-48
Rev. Alice Fleming Townley
April 15, 2018

Rumors, yes, but what they knew for certain was Jesus crucified.  His friends huddled together, with dashed dreams, crushed hope, and their own lives crucified.  Uncertainty stretched endlessly before them.

And then, Jesus stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.”  And as Luke wrote, ‘they were terrified.’

Jesus continued, “Look . . .touch . . . see . . .” and he opened his hands and his feet.  What would they have gazed upon?  Smooth, untouched skin?  I don’t think so.  They knew Jesus crucified.  They would know his hands and feet only if they were deeply wounded.  And as he opened himself to them, their shattered lives met his.  Jesus Christ held their flesh in his flesh, their hearts in his heart.  Joining them in crucifixion and inviting them into something more.

“While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering,’ Jesus asked, ‘Do you have anything to eat?’” (41)  Jesus came, again, as at his birth, with vulnerability.  He needed them, and some food.

And then Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures. (45)  As Rob said in his newsletter article, God is about resurrection not just once but throughout the scriptures.  Think of Sarah and Hagar, Joseph story, and Moses and the people of Israel too.  Think of Ruth and Naomi.  God’s pattern is to sweep across deep chaos and bring forth life.  Remember the prophets: Jonah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah.  Remember the Psalms, “Yea thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death . . .” (Psalm 23) Thus, the Messiah as fully human and divine, is to suffer, yes; and to rise, yes.  Risen in the flesh, yet still with the marks.  The freedom of repentance and the healing of forgiveness is to be proclaimed in Christ’s name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem, among them. And power from on high makes this possible.

This week I held this story alongside this poem by Jan Richardson:

The Hardest Blessing

If we cannot
lay aside the wound
then let us say
it will not always
bind us.

Let us say
the damage
will not eternally
determine our path.

Let us say
the line of our life
will not forever follow
the tearing, the rending
we have borne.

Let us say
that forgiveness
can take some practice,
can take some patience,
can take a long
and struggling time.

Let us say
that to offer
the hardest blessing
we will need
the deepest grace,
that to forgive
the sharpest pain
we will need
the fiercest love,
that to release
the ancient ache
we will need
new strength
for every day.

Let us say
the wound
will not be
our final home;
that through it
runs a road,
a way we would not
have chosen
but on which
we will finally see
so long practiced,
coming toward us
shining with the joy
so well deserved.[i]

And so, we become witnesses to these things, to crucifixion, yes; and to something more.  To wounds that won’t always bind us, to painful injustice that won’t always determine our path, to journeys that won’t always travel along the places we are torn.  To forgiveness that takes practice, patience and struggle.  To the deepest grace, the fiercest love, and new strength for each day.

Father Greg Boyle, has worked with former gang members in Los Angeles for over 30 years. He’s the founder of Homeboy Industries, which was created to help former gang members and people transitioning out of prison create stable lives.  Over time he has come to realize that employment alone won’t necessarily change someone’s life.  When stress or crisis return, old coping patterns can be destructive.  Without the opportunity to heal their deep suffering and trauma, they may end up back in prison.

In an interview last fall on Fresh Air, Terry Gross asked Father Boyle about how they do that.

“Well, part of what we have at Homeboy is this irresistible culture of tenderness, you know, where people kind of hold each other. It’s a place of containment, a place where people can regulate. And they all come with, you know, kind of chronic, toxic stress that’s attached to them like a big, old heavy backpack. And if they can find relief then they no longer have to actually operate out of survivor brain, and then they can find our place as something of a sanctuary, and they can come to terms with what was done to them and also what they did.

And then we always say at Homeboy if you don’t transform your pain, you’re just going to keep transmitting it. So it breaks this cycle, and pretty soon, if they cooperate and surrender to it then they become the sanctuary that they sought there. And then they go home and they provide that sanctuary to their kids, and suddenly you’ve broken a cycle.”[ii]

Perhaps it’s not just former gang members in LA that need this.  This week I prayed and studied this scripture text with my Wednesday morning class.  One of you said, and then another, “I really needed this message of resurrection.  I need to hear I won’t always be bound by what has happened.” And we nodded, “us too.”  Like those early disciples, we know struggle, despair, and everyone, at some time, deep loss.  We carry our own burdens, and those of whom we care for, and the needs of the world, and sooner or later we are utterly overwhelmed.  Hopeless.  Even crushed.  Jesus comes among us and takes our crucified lives into his.  “Come . . .See. . . touch. . . Peace be with you.” By the power from on high, we are filled with transformative grace, love and strength.  And we become witnesses to these things to all the world.

I remember one Easter morning at our church in Portage, watching Sarah sing.  I had recently gotten to know her story. Sarah was caring for her husband who had early onset Alzheimer’s, working as a nurse, parenting two teenagers, fighting cancer, and answering a call to ministry. The words she sang about the power of resurrection took on so much meaning for me knowing this.  Her very presence, was a witness.

This Lent, Sue Abent was taking out her trash when a neighboring church dropped off an invitation to worship with them during Holy Week.  “No thanks,” she said, “I have a church.”  And then the stranger says, “ok, but take this.  There’s a gift card inside.”  And she opened the envelope there was a $5 Bigby gift card with the words, “take someone out for coffee this week.  Talk about something you love or hope for.”  In this time of increasing anxiety and polarization, what would that be if we intentionally sat down with someone and listened to their hopes and fears and shared our own.   What if that someone was on the margins?  Or someone we might not normally sit down with?  What if that space became like a sanctuary?

We as a church are to nurture an ‘irresistible culture of tenderness,’ as Greg Boyle says.  We are to be the hands and feet, and the voice and the ears of Jesus.  Wounded, yes.  Uncertain, afraid, overwhelmed, even crucified, yes, that we know.  But not limited or defined by these.  Like Sarah or the homeboys, and those early friends of Jesus, we know something more.  Hungry, we share something like fish and coffee, or bread and wine at table.  Together, in listening and sharing and praying, we draw on the Power of Life.  We become living sanctuaries.  Filled with ‘the fiercest love, and the deepest grace and strength anew,’ we bear witness to these things.

[i] 157, Jan Richardson, “The Hardest Blessing,” The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief.

[ii] Priest Responds To Gang Members’ ‘Lethal Absence Of Hope’ With Jobs, And Love, November 13, 2017, Heard on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, https://www.npr.org/2017/11/13/563734736/priest-responds-to-gang-members-lethal-absence-of-hope-with-jobs-and-love