Double Vision

Thomas and Peter are this writer’s favorite apostles. Thomas because he refused to believe unless he saw with his own eyes and confirmed “an idle tale” with his own hand; Peter because he was impetuous, quickly stepping onto the sea at Christ’s invitation only to plunge like a stone when his faith failed him.

It was through these two very different eyes — one of Thomas, the other of Peter — that we viewed Dennis Aubrey and PJ McKey’s Two Churches in the Cliffs on Via Lucis this morning.

The two churches on the cliffs appeared differently to these different eyes of faith.

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Apse, Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) Photo by PJ McKey

The apse of Église Notre-Dame-de-l’Assomption with its narrow vertical window immediately elicited a Petrine sense of immediate belief. It held Peter’s eye for a long time.

Perhaps it was held by the yearning for the vertical, that which transcends the horizontal banality to which a mass culture has shrunk everything not of its own making. Perhaps it is the delight of hope from above that trembles the spine of the despairing. Or perhaps it’s the beauty of the apse’s proportionality, the genius of the central Christian symbol: the intersection of the horizontal by the more gracious vertical — the horror of human cruelty interrupted and transformed by the unexpected shaft of light and the still small Voice heard by Elijah in his cave.  Or all of the above and more.

But Thomas is never far beyond Peter. It is the Thomas in us that asks the hard questions, insists on separating fact from fiction, reality from illusion, good faith from what Sartre called bad faith. It is Thomas whose faith couldn’t make itself piggy-back on the shoulders of the other apostles’ story of having met the risen Christ. It was Thomas who insisted that he see for himself the evidence for “seeing” or believing in hope beyond the horror of the suffering, cruelty, and death his eyes had seen days before on the Hill of Skulls.

800px-Chapelle_Notre-Dame_de_Beauvoir

Chapelle Notre Dame de Beauvoir, Moustiers-Sainte-Marie (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence ) Photo by ICE-Marseille, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

 

 

Which brings us to the second church on the cliff — the story of the stillborn in Via Lucis‘ post that awakens Thomas’ skepticism.

“Notre Dame de Beauvoir was known for its suscitations – stillborn children were carried up and baptised there, at which time they would immediately come to life and would be granted a place in heaven. This was a well-known phenomenon in the region and also known at two neighboring churches.”

While the thought of stillborn children immediately coming back to life appeals to Peter, it offends Thomas as an idle tale for the feeble of heart and mind. It’s either true or it’s not. And, if it’s true, what kind of cruel God would deny the same to the stillborn children and grieving parents who have not carried them up the steps to Notre Dame de Beauvoir for suscitations? Or is the tradition of Notre Dame de Beauvoir a sacred story of love and hope beyond what the empiricist eye of Thomas can see?

We have a left brain and a right brain, and sometimes it is true that never the twain shall meet. Likewise, faith has two eyes: Peter the believer, and Thomas the doubter — its own kind of double vision — looking out and up from one small brain.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 6, 2017.

 

 

Naming the (step)grandchild

When the Chinese waitperson who has mixed two Kettle One martinis with twists and a yellowfin tuna roll listens carefully to the reason you’re at Sake Sushi — your pregnant step-daughter is being induced into labor two weeks before her due date because of high blood pressure — responds to your inappropriate question about a good name for the baby (it’s a boy) with “PETER!”, could she be the voice of God?

Just wondering. I’ve enjoyed two Kettle One martinis!

By morning I expect the baby to leave the womb. We shall see whether he is Jackson, Elijah, Eli, Micah. . . or Peter!

Pray for the mother, the child, and the weary grandmother at the hospital.

  • Gordon, safely home from Sake Sushi in Chaska, MN, May 20, 2017.

The Tree of Life and the Other Tree

Something happened in church yesterday on Easter. Call it an “aha” moment.

Hidden away in the first reading of Easter is a curious reference that draws no attention: “They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him…” [Acts of the Apostles 2:5]. Yesterday the “tree” shined like a diamond attracting full attention.

The reference to “a tree” seemed strange. This wasn’t a lynching in Mississippi – they hadn’t hanged him from a tree. It was a crucifixion. The Roman cross was made of wood, but why would Peter call it a tree? Unless, perhaps, the tree calls something else to mind, a reference point within Hebraic scripture and theology that puts the cross in the greater light of a tree. Like the stories of creation and fall in Genesis 1 and 2.

There are three references to a tree in the Genesis narrative.

The first is from the third day of creation:

“And the earth brought forth grass, and herb yielding seed after his kind, and the tree yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind: and God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the third day.” [Gen. 1:11-12]

The second reference juxtaposes two trees. One gives life. The other is the tree of death.

“And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” [Gen. 2:8-9]

The third reference describes the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as the one tree that is forbidden in the garden:

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (Gen. 2:15)

It is always the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that gets us into trouble. It is the tree of divine presumption. Hubris. The tree that produces not life but death. It destroys, almost always in the name of goodness, and what goodness seeks to kill is evil. The knowledge of good and evil is beyond human capacity.

The Jesus who is hanged from this killing tree exposes the folly of the tree on which he hangs. As foe to the global imperial claims of the Roman Empire, his killing tree becomes for one and all the tree of life.  On the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the crucified-risen One becomes the tree of life, “yielding fruit, whose seed was in itself, after his kind; and God saw that it was good. And the evening and the morning were the third day.”

Perhaps that’s the rich history, the diamond, that shines like a diamond in the Easter text from The Book of Acts. No one would know the juxtaposition better than Peter, the only disciple to deny knowing Jesus, and the only disciple specifically named in the instructions to the three women at the empty tomb: “Go and tell the disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him… [Gospel of Mark 16:7]

Christ “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; he descended into hell; The third day he was raised again from the dead” [Apostles’ Creed]. And by this fruit of creation restored is all creation blessed.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 6, 2015

The Way to Love Jesus

A sermon three years after Deep Water Horizon on love, freedom, and caring for each other, the oysters and the crabs in the Gulf of Mexico.

The Garden Outside Pleasantville

This is the manuscript of the Easter sermon yesterday at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN. The sermon was an exploration into the contemporary meaning of the text: The Gospel According to John 20:1-18.

In some way or other, I think it’s safe to say that we all have a kind of nostalgia for the innocence and purity of the Garden of Eden…before what we call “the fall.” We have a sense that we are not supposed to be outside the gates of the Garden…out here. At the expulsion of the man and the woman in the story from Genesis, .the cherubim (angels) are posted at the gate to be sure that those who have been expelled cannot get back in. The cherubim and a twirling, flaming sword keep Adam, Eve – you, me, all of us – on this side of the gate, outside the Garden of Eden.

Well it’s a story, of course, but isn’t it our story? Nostalgic for a world where nothing ever goes wrong But illness comes, a marriage goes bad, a relationship with someone you love falls apart just when you think it’s to lead to something more permanent, you lose a job, you suffer depression, you suffer from an illness, you’re left alone in grief over the loss of a loved one. Or you yourself are dying, and there are wars and rumors of wars. We watch the children and wish that we could protect them, but we can’t, even though we are parents and grandchildren, aunts and uncles. Out here…outside the Garden…it’s rough sometimes.

In this morning’s Gospel (John 20:1-18), the Risen Christ’s appearance to Mary takes place in a garden The garden is outside the empty tomb. Until Mary turns and sees the One she supposes to be “the gardener”, the text has said nothing about Jesus being laid to rest in a garden. It says only that Jesus was laid in a tomb in which no one had yet been buried.

Mary has already been there by herself in the early morning darkness. When she sees, to her great horror, that the tomb is empty, she runs to tell “the other disciple” and Peter.

What do they do? Well…these are guys, you know. They race each other to the tomb.

We don’t ever compete, do we, guys!? And Peter loses! The other disciple gets there first, and then Peter follows, huffing and puffing. Peter, bold man that he is, goes in. Peter in this story is like detective Joe Friday in the old Dragnet series: “Just the facts, Ma’am; just the facts!” He sees the facts. The burial cloths are lying there as though the body had evaporated out of them, but the napkin that had covered Jesus’ face, was neatly rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple goes in, sees the same thing. He believes…and then…they just…go home.

Well…what happened to Mary? They leave Mary there? By herself? And it is Mary who gets it – because Mary continues to stand there, weeping. She’s feeling her grief, feeling her sorrow, and it is as she is feeling her sorrow and her grief. It is as she goes down into the horror of the cross, the horror of having stood helplessly at the foot of the cross that she experiences the Risen Christ.

It is there that there is suddenly a garden, a new garden of Paradise.

I don’t know how it is with you, but sometimes I want to live in a perfect world. I want everything to be in its place. I don’t want any problems. I don’t want to feel anything. Someone I love much once said, “I hate feelings!” This is about feelings, brothers and sisters.
There is a certain kind of Christianity that says “No, no, no!” to every “negative” feeling. It wants everything to be happy. Like Steve Martin dancing around with happy feet. All we want is happy feet. But you don’t get happy unless you know sadness. You don’t get to laughter unless you know what it is to cry real tears of sorrow.
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This distorted kind of Christianity, this preference for the perfect world without any negative feelings or experience is humorously by the film Pleasantville.

David, who is played by Toby McGuire, and his sister Jennifer (Reese Witherspoon) lead very different high-school social lives. Jennifer is popular and shallow. David is introverted, keeps to himself, and spends most of his time watching television. David’s favorite show is Pleasantville, a nostalgic throw-back black and white television series about the idyllic Parker family in the late 1950s. The little imaginary town of Pleasantville is, for David, a kind of Garden of Eden in which nothing ever goes wrong. Everyone is nice. No one ever feels pain. They are just, well… so nice.

One evening David and Jennifer fight over the TV. Jennifer wants a concert. David wants to watch Pleasantville. As they fight, the remote control breaks.

A mysterious TV repairman, played by Don Knotts, shows up, quizzes David about Pleasantville, and replaces the remote control with a strange new one. When the TV repairman leave, David and Jennifer resume their fighting, and are sucked through the television set into the black white gray, colorless world of the Parkers’ Pleasantville living room.

They are no longer David and Jennifer. They must pretend to be Bud and Mary Sue Parker, the son and daughter of the Parker family of Pleasantville.

David and Jennifer witness the wholesome nature of the town, such as a group of firemen rescuing a cat from a tree. David has to remind Jennifer that they must stay in character and not disrupt the lives of the town’s citizens, who don’t even notice the difference between the show’s original characters of Bud and Mary Sue, and their role replacements, David and Jennifer. In keeping with the show’s plot, Jennifer dates a boy from high school, but when she has sex with him, a concept unknown to the boy and to everyone else in town, the spell of colorless innocence is broken.

Slowly, Pleasantville begins to change from black and white and grayness to color. Flowers and the faces of people who have experienced bursts of emotion begin to have some color.

David becomes friends with Mr. Johnson, who owns Pleasantville’s cheeseburger and soda fountain. He introduces Mr. Johnson to colorful modern art via a book from the library, sparking in him an interest in painting. Mr. Johnson and Betty Parker fall in love, causing her to leave home, throwing George Parker, Bud and Mary Sue’s father, into confusion. The only people who remain unchanged are the city fathers, led by Big Bob, the mayor who sees the changes eating away at the values of Pleasantville. The city fathers resolve to do something about their increasingly independent wives and their rebellious children.

As the townsfolk become more colorful, a ban on “colored” people is instituted in public places. A riot begins when a nude painting of Betty, painted by Mr. Johnson, appears on the window of Mr. Johnson’s soda fountain. The soda fountain is destroyed, books are burned, and people who are “colored” are harassed in the street. As a reaction, the city fathers announce new rules preventing people from visiting the library, playing loud music, or using paint other than black, white, or gray.

When David and Mr. Johnson protest by painting a colorful mural on a brick wall, depicting their world, they are arrested. Brought to trial in front of the town, David and Mr. Johnson defend their actions, arousing enough anger and indignation in Big Bob, the mayor, that Big Bob becomes colored as well.

Having seen Pleasantville change irrevocably, Jennifer stays to finish her education, but David finally manages to return to the real world by use of his magical remote control.
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Easter is about a full color world. FULL of color. Full of emotion. Ups and downs. It has nothing to do with this imaginary, utopian Garden of Eden that never was and never will be, in which we no longer have to feel much of anything. “I hate feelings!”

There is no return to the Garden in which the man and the woman live in unconscious innocence, no way back into the black and white and gray world of the Garden of Eden from which humankind is expelled.

But this morning we see a colorful woman. She is a colorful woman, this Mary of Magdala, who stays with Jesus all the way through.

According to one tradition in the Church, this Mary was a prostitute. Mary Magdalene comes to Jesus, stays by Jesus, is healed by Jesus. Now she is in deep grief on this morning when, so far as she knows, her Lord was still buried in that tomb following a Roman crucifixion, dead and gone.

It is this Mary who goes out early in the morning, “while it was still dark.” Women don’t go out in the night; they don’t go out unescorted in the dark. But Mary does! And when the other disciple and Peter, the two heroes to whom she had gone for help, abandon her, she is there by herself.

“Why are you weeping?” ask the two angels, one where Jesus’ feet and been and one where his head had been. The cherubim!

These cherubim, who guard the way back into the lost paradise of the Garden of Eden, are there in the tomb. “Why are you weeping?”

Mary’s voice breaks into a stammering primal cry of horror. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him! Tell me where he is! Let me hold him!”

She turns around. The gardener greets her. The Risen Christ greets her, but she does know that it is Jesus. She supposes him to “the gardener”. She is in a garden where only the gardener would be early in the morning. The One she assumes to be the gardener greets her. She doesn’t recognize him. He asks the same question, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Mary gives the same answer.

Then he calls her name. “Mary!”

Rabboni (Teacher)!!! It’s YOU!!! Is it really YOU?”

How about you? Why are you weeping? ask the Cherubim and Jesus.

“Mary, Mary, Mary!’ Her name is called. Your name is called, the name of the real you. Not some black-and-white-and gray, colorless character in a Pleasantville world, but the real flesh-and-blood, colorful you, the real Mary. The real Bob. The real Jane. The real you in living color.

“Do not hold me,” he says, “for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and sisters and tell them I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

”Go! Go! Go now!”

Tell each other. Tell each other it’s not over. Tell each other you have seen me. Tell each other that Caesar did not have the last word. Tell each other that life is greater than death, greater than might. Tell each other that you have heard the cherubim, standing guard from within an empty tomb, asking you why you are weeping. Tell them that you have heard the Gardener’s own voice in the New Garden outside my empty tomb!

Today the tears of sadness and the cries of horror are turned into the tears of gladness and shouts of exuberant joy:

“Christ is risen!” brothers and sisters, “Christ is risen! Christ is risen!” Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”

Verse – Habemus Papam

Bishop of Rome? Why him? Hot head!
Remember how he swore and cursed
when he thought no one was around?
Who could be more stubborn? “Rock head,”

was what we called him (when he was
not anywhere near by–he has
a temper and he always wears
a sword.) He should stick with his boats

and nets. Remember how he sank
when he looked down? How could he walk
on water with his size and bulk?
Yes, Jesus said he was a rock–

how we all laughed–a pile of sand
perhaps, just blowing in the wind…
a braggart till a serving maid
caused him to deny our Lord.

No one in school could ever teach
him how to talk right. Can he preach?
He will not ever help the Church–
Peter will not amount to much…

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, March 14, 2013

DENIAL

Peter's denial

Peter's Denial by Carl Heinrich Bloch

Any faith worth its salt recognizes our capacity for denial, betrayal, and flight, as well as our capacity for truth, love, and courage. Steve Shoemaker’s poem about the Apostle Peter, “the Rock” who crumbled, takes us into the heart of the matter. It;s a reflection on Peter denying that he knew Jesus (represented by Carl Bloch’s painting where he looks away from the woman who claims he knows him) and the post-resurrection appearance where the resurrected Christ offers forgiveness.

“DENIAL” – Steve Shoemaker, 2012

 

The future Bishop began badly.  He

was “rude, crude and lewd,” as they say.

His fist would shake, would hit,

his mouth could often be a sneer, or leer…

but Jesus chose him first.

 

The fisherman was big and brash, yes,

bold as well at times.  But after the arrest

a servant girl confronted him and

told those listening that Peter was with Christ.

He swore and then denied it, then again

and still again–she would not stop.

 

The cry then came of rooster telling of the dawn,

and he wept because he had told a lie.

But Peter felt forgiveness full and deep

when Jesus three times told him,

“Feed my sheep.”

Peter “the Rock” was no rock. Nor are we. He was sinking sand. So are we.

Like “the future Bishop,” we slip badly and yet we are raised up. Betrayal, denial, flight are part of every human story. But grace… even more….so much more, abounds! And to the likes of Peter and of us, there comes to our three-fold denial the Voice of forgiveness with a gentle but bold command: “Re-gain your courage. Live in love!”

The Charcoal Fire

As the sun rose this morning, a few of us warmed ourselves around a fire outside the church. Two charcoal fires were recalled, involving Peter, “the Rock” who crumbled like a piece of shale, and the risen Christ, who would re-create the scene to change the story from denial to welcome, forgiveness, and a commissioning to love.

THE CHARCOAL FIRE

Charcoal fire

Three times

Denial.

I do not know the man

I do not know the man

I do not know the man

 

Charcoal fire

Three times

Forgiveness.

Do you love me?

Do you love me?

Do you love me?

 

Charcoal fire

Three times

Commission:

Feed my sheep

Feed my sheep

Feed my sheep.

  • Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL