The gospels show us that Jesus brought joy to many of the people he met. In our lesson for today, Jesus tells his followers “These things I have spoken to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Jn. 15:11). To this end, Jesus often tells people not to fear or worry because God will provide and care for us (Matt.6:25-29).
This means, not that we won’t have work to do, but that our burdens will be light (Matt. 11:30). In fact, when we set aside our worries and fears to follow Jesus – and we all face worries and fears about following him – the result looks very much like a very new life, an abundant life (Jn. 10:10) because, for us, a new order truly has begun (2 Cor. 5:17) and our lives begin to sing a new song to the Lord (Ps. 98). In this Easter season, I am sad to see some of my Christian friends dragging with anguish and exhaustion through days of overwork and anxiety, while others are light and joyful.
Someone once said of George Bush (the first President Bush), that “He was born on third base and thought he’d hit a triple.” The implication is that Bush had never been told that he was actually born on third base and thought he had earned it on his own. We can stretch this ballgame image to include those born with one, or even two, or (can it be possible?) three strikes against them. In my spiritual support group, I observe that those who were born with strikes are way more joyful and grateful to God than those without strikes. Furthermore, while their burdens are heavier, they mostly carry them with less struggle than some of my other friends.
Let’s go further and imagine that there is another ballgame, this one of the Spirit where nobody is born on base and nobody is born with strikes against them. Those of us who were born on base in society’s game have to find our way to the start of this new game of the Spirit, learn to swing a bat, and practice to even get into the game. I know nothing of President Bush’s spirit, and little of Mother Teresa’s, but I find their public images useful to illustrate a point. In this new ballpark, President Bush might look very much like a camel gazing in dismay at the eye of a needle. By contrast, Mother Teresa may well have been on third in the Spirit’s game, but it looked to her a lot like first, and she always kept a sharp eye out for the pick-off. In his day Jesus looked especially for those who had struck out, took some of those strikes away, and got them back on a team. I find the baseball image helpful, and wonder where I fit into it.
Some of the factors that determine which game we’re playing and where we stand in it have to do with the luck of birth. But there are other reasons why some of us have trouble appropriating joy in the Easter season. I want to address two of them.
Personification of God. The first is our Christian habit of thinking of God as like a person in some ways. We spend quite a bit of energy trying to figure out what God is like, what God loves and hates, how and when God acts, etc. Once we start to personify God in this way by imagining that God thinks and feels along the same general lines as we do we are on thin ice. That is because we begin to think we understand God, try to stay on God’s good side, and perhaps even maneuver around God. As modern, Western people we are much more comfortable with the idea of a God whom we can understand, even a little bit.
By contrast, our Jewish cousins begin with a scripture written in Hebrew, in which God is not even named, simply referred to by an acronym for “I am what I am”. The language used to describe God is different as well. Walter Brueggemann in his book Old Testament Theology notes that Yahweh is always shown as the subject of powerful, transformative verbs, such as Yahweh creates, Yahweh leads, Yahweh saves. And the objects of these verbs are Yahweh’s partner people. But at the same time Yahweh’s partner people also impinge upon and affect Yahweh, even causing Yahweh to change. Brueggemann says, “Yahweh is fully available to Yahweh’s partners, but in such ways that it is always the Yahweh of the transformative verbs who is available.” We humans can know Yahweh by what Yahweh does for us and with us. Yahweh is clearly beyond our analysis and understanding, a totally free being who, nevertheless, cares passionately about us.
The fact is, we Christians don’t know as much about God’s “personality” as we imagine we do. And because we imagine a God which is much closer to our tiny, limited selves than is the case, our efforts to impress God, or to game God’s system (whatever we imagine that to be) go for naught. In addition, as we feel on quasi-familiar terms with our imagined God, we are no longer in a worshipful frame of mind. Worship is very much an interaction in which one is in the presence of an overwhelmingly more powerful being, and one knows that one is in correct, real-time relationship with that being. It is an affirmation and a restoration of right relationship. It is very hard to worship someone you’ve cut down to your own size!
And so worship comes far more naturally to people who were born with a few strikes against them. They know quite well that the system’s deck is stacked against them, that they are not accorded full personhood in society’s game, and that it is only because of God’s care that they were lucky enough to wake up this morning. In contrast, people who were born on base tend to figure that their odds are pretty good of making it to home if they stay on their toes and work hard. They prefer to stay in their imagined familiarity with their miniaturized god.
The early Israelites knew themselves to be slaves who made it to a land of plenty only by virtue of Yahweh’s rescue and patient care over 40 years of wandering in the desert. They knew that they could easily find themselves right back where they started if they ignored Yahweh. They found ways to keep the memory of slavery and the miraculous contingency of their precious homeland alive. It was easy to worship this amazing and overwhelmingly powerful I Am who somehow cared for them.
How could we undo our modern, privileged approach to God?
I understand a trip into space often does the trick.
For us, perhaps we could begin
by practicing gratitude,
by studying earth scripture,
by watching Brian Swimme’s videos and lectures,
by starting every day in recognition of our good fortune.
The problem with theology. The second reason why I believe it can be hard for good Christians to open themselves to Easter joy is theology. I am serious! For example, if we are of the frame of mind to try to figure God out, then Jesus’ death and resurrection gives us a lot to chew on. Jesus offered no explanation for his impending death other than to tell his friends that he must go on ahead to prepare a place for them (John 16 ). And in his post-resurrection appearances he was mum on the subject. But early Christians, and especially Paul, gave it a lot of thought, and his letters offer various explanations. Who exactly was Jesus of Nazareth, and what was his relation to Yahweh? Over the years several theories have been put forward and taught to little children as reasons why Jesus had to die. Taking the reason why, whichever one, as the truth of the matter, some judge the reason to be unworthy of God and therefore dismiss God. This is appalling to me!
I have spent years shopping around in the literature for a theory that makes sense to me, and I have found a couple that I like. There’s only one problem with this. I believe that Jesus never told us why because either it doesn’t matter, or we would not understand it if he did. Eventually we have to give up and let it be okay with us that we don’t understand what God does or does not do or does not show us on any particular day. I have come to believe that the important lesson to take away from Jesus’ resurrection is this: His death showed us that death, even a tortured death, is not worth worrying about and that Jesus is still alive and accessible to us now, but in a different state.
In another example, I was shocked to discover that the concept of original sin seems not to have existed before Jesus’ resurrection. It is something that we Christians invented and laid on top of the Jews’ creation story in Genesis! When I think of how many lives have been twisted as a result…!
I do not dismiss all theology because it can so easily damage our tender souls. We do, after all, have to figure out how we shall live as faithful disciples in a different world than the one Jesus knew. The irony for me is this: that Jesus gave us quite a clear example and specific teachings about how to live as faithful disciples (Matthew 5-7, for example). His teachings do not seem to me contingent on time and place; they are more about attitudes of the heart. They are both very simple and very difficult to do, difficult enough without theologians adding speculative frills and false obstacles.
Conclusion. Within Jesus’ circle of friends there were no bases and no strikes. Everyone shared what they had. Everyone had fun and fellowship. There was always more work of teaching and healing and talking with suspicious outsiders to be done than the day was long. There was no question that Jesus was the leader, teacher, model, comforter and peacemaker. Their life together was a new song, sung to the mysterious Creator/Sustainer/Protector who was also Jesus’ Abba.
This circle of friends is open to us, here and now. Together we will work with Jesus’ lessons to his followers which are written in the gospels. Together we will find and feed Jesus’ sheep – the ones born with strikes against them. Together we will gently relieve people of the bases they drag along so they can stand on them. Together we will live among the temptations and the miseries of our world, and be content with Jesus’ kind of life together and ever more grateful for it, for Jesus is still right here, in the center of our circle. Jesus’ love shines brighter the darker it gets, and his power which comes from his open heart still flows from the mystery that is Yahweh, through his Spirit, into us. It brings our lives into that new song which the whole universe rejoices to hear.
Easter Sermon by Andrea Burgard