A New Song
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – ©2017
Second Sunday in Easter/A • April 23, 2017
Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached
What Do You Know?
“I know what I know if you know what I mean.” It’s a line in a song by Neil Diamond, recorded some years ago by Edie Brickell that has rattled around in my mind ever since. How do I know what I know? What do you know? How do you know it?
I asked the ushers to hand out objects today so you’d have something to touch while we thought about this. After all, a basic way we know things is through our senses. So take a moment: touch what you have, feel it, is it sharp, smooth, what does it feel like? What does it smell like? I won’t ask you to taste it but if you’ve ever cared for a small child you know that we start out with no inhibitions about putting things in our mouths; is there any parent who hasn’t had to run at least once yelling, “Take that out of your mouth”?
So we know what we know because we touch it or taste it or smell it. We connect those things with memories. If I walk into the house on a day Jacquelyn is home and smell garlic, I know we are having something Italian for dinner and I smile: not only because of the future food but because I remember how nice it is to have dinner with the family. Just the scent of the garlic is enough to bring on a whole raft of memories: I know what this time will be like in some way.
Pictures can do the same thing sometimes.
The last few years have seen an explosion of photographs. There was a time when a standard 35 mm camera shot a roll of film with 36 exposures. So if you were out taking pictures you had to think: is this scene worth one of those frames? Now it’s common to shoot 36 exposures of the same scene just to make sure you got the shot. Why are pictures so important? Because they remind us of what we know. This past week, I went to see Taxi Driver, an old 1970’s movie about a lost soul in New York City in 1973. Sitting there in the dark, with the pictures of bell bottoms and vaguely Indian hippy clothes and the tawdry culture of pre-Giuliani New York, I felt as well my own memories, I remembered experiences of those times. I think that’s why our ancestors drew pictures of hunting on cave walls: it was their photography. What do you know? How do you know it?
I’m asking this question today because it’s a core problem of the resurrection. Of all the things we know, one of the most basic is that dead is dead. Benjamin Franklin said in a letter to a friend once, “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” The resurrection flies in the face of that certainty. What are we to do with it? What are we to do about it? What are we to believe?
The Disciples and the Resurrection
This isn’t a new problem. The gospels depict Jesus telling his disciples several times that he would be crucified, die and then rise again. John has him saying,
So the Jews answered and said to him, ‘What sign do you show to us, since you do these things?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Then the Jews said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he said this; and they believed the Scripture, and the word which Jesus had spoken (John 2:18-22)
Matthew quotes this saying:
An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:39-40).
and then again,
From that time Jesus began to show to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day (Matthew 16:21).
One might have thought there would have been a crowd of witnesses at the tomb if his disciples had believed him. Evidently they didn’t since only the women go and they go to prepare a corpse, not acclaim a risen Lord. It’s only in the moment of finding the tomb empty and meeting Jesus again that the women believe in the resurrection and when they do, they tell the disciples, disciples who apparently don’t believe them. So if in your heart of hearts, you don’t believe the women, the Easter story, take heart: neither did the first people to hear it.
We Are Toddlers
The problem we have is the same as the one Thomas the Twin has. Remember him? In the reading today, he says,”Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Doesn’t that describe most of us? We want to see: we want to touch. Like a toddler with a toy, we only know what we can get our hands around, we only believe what we can get in our mouths. The resurrection flies in the face of everything we’ve ever been told or known or seen. “I know what I know,” we say to it, like Thomas. Want me to change? Show me something. I wonder if that isn’t the same problem many of us have with the resurrection. We are toddlers too: before we believe in something impossible, we want to see it, touch it.
Of course, no one saw the resurrection. Search the scriptures, there’s not a single eyewitness account, not one. Instead, what we have accounts, many accounts, of the experience of encountering the risen Lord. Paul says more than 500 people, both men and women, had such experiences. So the key to understanding what John is telling us may not be Thomas’ question but the earlier experience of the disciples. Remember that moment? They are locked in a room. Now there’s one reason we lock rooms: we’re afraid of something. The leader of this movement has been executed for a political crime; surely the authorities will be after his followers. They’re afraid, meeting secretly behind a locked door and suddenly there he is, the Lord, coming through the door. No grave can keep him down; no door can keep him out. “Peace be with you,” he says. And it is.
“I know what I know.” What these followers of Jesus know is simple: that when they get together, he’s still present with them. When they sit down to dinner, as they did with him, he’s still present with them. When they love each other, he’s still present with them. When they share his love with others, he’s still present with them. They feel it; they know it. Perhaps for Thomas it is seeing this acted out that matters. Perhaps for you it is and if that’s true, look around, look for him: he comes and goes wherever people live in love and remember him.
There is a game small children play at a particular moment: it’s called peek-a-boo. You’ve played it, we all have. You know how it works. You cover your eyes, say, “Where’s Maggie? Where’s Andy?” and then open your eyes or uncover them and there they are. The child does the same thing.
Peek a Boo
Peek-a-boo, it turns out, is a very important game. We don’t come believing the world is permanent; we don’t come believing things stay here when we are asleep or close our eyes. That’s one reason children cry so inconsolably at bedtime. Wouldn’t you cry if you thought the whole world would end when you closed your eyes? So we teach them. Look: it’s still here, I’m still here. Peek-a-boo. Close your eyes: it’s safe. Open them: still here. Over and over again, until they know it, believe it, until we don’t remember not knowing it.
It’s like learning a new song. One of the first times I went to my church youth group, Harry Clark, our minister sang a cool song called, “Dem Bones”. It has endless verses and no one ever wrote them down. It has a chorus: “Dem Bones gonna rise again: I knotted it, knowed it, knowed it, Dem bones gonna rise again!” I didn’t know that song but gradually, over years of listening to Harry, I began to learn it. I learned the verses and even though I’m not much of a singer, I learned to lead it. I knew I had it one day when I was a newly minted youth minister and I had to lead a song at a retreat and I started it up. “Dem bones gonna rise again”.
Learning resurrection life isn’t about pretending to believe some event hundreds of years ago. It is about learning to move to a new rhythm, sing a new song. It is like being a child who has discovered that just as the world doesn’t go away when you shut your eyes, God’s love doesn’t go away when you die. Peek-a-boo: still there, always there, permanently there.