Let Us Not Mock God With Metaphor
Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.
- John Updike: Seven Stanzas at Easter
Hope is what you get when you realize that a different worldview is possible, a worldview in which the rich and the powerful, and the unscrupulous do not after all have the last word.
- N. T. Wright.
A few years ago, while on a mission trip to Mexico I had a sacramental experience in the middle of a trash pile.
We were working in a neighborhood quite far from our usual haunts, repairing a roof for a very needy family (which could be almost every family in the area where we were working). The neighborhood was full of people without running water, electricity and with no way to pay for trash pickup. The road into the neighborhood was the dump. Walking the road was a trial. It was like running a garbage gauntlet. The trash was piled high on both sides of the road--and sometimes in it. The stench was unbearable. The place was strewn with dead animals and cast off chicken parts. In an area where almost nothing use-able is thrown away, the garbage along the road gave garbage a bad name.
As I walked down that road one day, with a bandanna over my face to keep out the nauseating smell, I happened to look down and saw a sunflower bursting through the piles of garbage all around me. I saw that defiant flower, and I thought of Jesus. A word came to me in that moment.
Later that day, as I wrote in my journal about what I had seen, somethingn Anne Lamott write came to me, "...this is how we make important changes--barely, poorly, slowly. And still [Jesus] raises his fist in triumph."
I was instantly transported back in time to another sunflower moment that reminded me
When I was a kid my mother bought me a gerbil, too. And as gerbils tend to do, the little thing died. We buried her beside our house in a solemn ceremony. I went through the five stages of grief pretty quickly and was soon happily playing with my Star Wars figures, and watching an episode of the "Incredible Hulk."
A few weeks later I noticed that something appeared to be growing where we had buried the gerbil. A few weeks after that the things that were growing began to show signs of being very sunflower-like. Before long it was very clear that they were, in fact, sunflowers. Apparently, I had buried sunflower seeds with the little gerbil, and sunflowers grew as a result. I can remember standing there by the corner of my house and realizing that something very important had happened. I wasn't sure what it was, but I knew that somehow I wouldn't be able to think about things in the same way any more.
Isn't it interesting that the predominant emotions on the first Easter were not certainty and unbridled hope? Instead, the disciples were filled with anxiety and fear. One of the most frequent things that Jesus says to his disciples after the Resurrection is "Do not be afraid." There's a reason for that. They weren't exactly sure what had happened, but they knew that somehow everything was going to change for them.
I have always been fascinated with John's Gospel and its preoccupation with "seeing" and "believing." One can't help but notice that throughout John's account there are all kinds of people who see Jesus, but don't really believe--don't really see him for who he really is. Even the disciples don't seem to get it. They are constantly asking the wrong questions, making the wrong assumptions and generally fumbling around in the dark.
When "the Beloved Disciple" in John's account realizes that the tomb is empty he believes. Interesting. What he doesn't see causes him to believe when what he was able to see didn't do the job. He doesn't completely get the Scriptural reasons why he must believe--he believes because of the evidence in front of him that the tomb is empty.
I wonder what that was like. Maybe I sort of know.
When I was in my late teens and early twenties I thought that my dad was so irrelevant, and just not bright at all. His advice was archaic. His approach to things was so... old.
When I was twenty three years old I found myself developing a drinking problem, I was divorced and had a score of other failed relationships to boot.
I realized that my dad's advice had been pretty good. He got a whole lot smarter and more relevant that day. My experience helped me to understand. It changed our relationship and the way I looked at the world.
How sobering that must have been for the disciples in the midst of all the elation they would have felt. All of a sudden all of the things that Jesus had been telling them ("Turn the other cheek...walk the second mile...give all your possessions to the poor...become less...take up your cross...") were more than just sayings.
They realized, perhaps for the very first time, that everything had changed.
This is what makes the Resurrection so much more than just a nice idea about eternal life. This is what makes the Resurrection so much more than simply an occasion to wear better-than-usual Sunday clothes and festoon our church sanctuaries with flowers. This is what makes Resurrection not just about some future hope.
This is what makes the Resurrection something far more than just a metaphor.
The Resurrection is about how everything is different. The fact that Jesus is loose in the world should give us all pause. Jesus didn't simply say challenging things that are neatly packaged in dusty, old pages where we can ignore them if we so choose. The Resurrection assures us that Jesus is saying things right now. The Resurrection assures us that Jesus is risen, at work in Creation reconciling it to God, redeeming it, reclaiming it...saving it.
Sometimes I can almost hear the whisper of the voice of Christ. I can hear it in the wind that blows the smell of orange blossoms into my face.
"Risen." it whispers.
It's like the whole word is speaking it, breathing the words in and out--despite our best efforts to drown it out with our noise, with our shrill, warring voices, our machinery, our pollution...our busy-ness and self-centered racket.
My friend went to a prestigious aerospace engineering school and spent five years getting his engineering degree. He spurned offers of six-figure salaries to become a campus minister, who has to raise his own support. This is what he told me, anyway.
What he was really saying was, "Risen."
I was in downtown Chicago and a young woman entered the deli where I was buying a cup of coffee accompanied by a filthy, homeless man who exuded shame and the smell of the street. "Order what you want." she told him.
What she was really saying was, "Risen."
A parishoner came up to me and told me. "I don't know why, but I feel like God wants me to minister to people who are divorced or single parents." Another came to me and told me that he was feeling led to begin a food ministry in our church. "I feel like this may be what God wants me to do with the rest of my life," he said.
What they were really saying was, "Risen."
Whenever we hear people speak words of peace in the middle of conflict. Wherever there is the sound of swords being beaten into plowshares.
When we hear it, when we really hear the whispering--we know what it is. We are like Mary, who, when hearing her own name spoken by the Savior, knows the voice.
But we have to be small enough, quiet enough, broken enough to listen. When it finally comes to us, we have to have the courage to admit that everything is going to be different from now on--now that we have heard.
In the Easter Oratorio, Tom Wright translates the words of Thomas in his moment of doubt like this:
The sea is too deep
the heaven’s too high
I cannot swim
I cannot fly;
I must stay here
I must stay here
Here where I know
How I can know
Here where I know
What I can know.
When Jesus appears before him at last and invites Thomas to believe, he says, "Come here with your finger, and inspect my hands; come here with your hand, and put it into my side. Do not be faithless, but believe."
Thomas does not touch him. There is no need.
It was enough to hear the voice of his Lord...
And what he heard was, "Risen."