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April 18, 2021 (Scott Walters)

 

As most of you know, I spent my career teaching and doing theatre, and so now I still tend to see things in the Bible like a director would look at a script. I see the scene, and visualize the staging; I insert the pauses and the way the characters feel and move. Sometimes this is very dramatic: I visualize, for instance, the apostles in the upper room after the crucifixion, sitting there, staring, silent, filled with horror and despair.

But sometimes – well, sometimes the Bible makes me laugh. Is that OK? A lot of people would probably say I wasn’t showing the Bible enough respect if I laughed, but I can’t help it – sometimes it’s funny!

Sometimes it is words themselves – like my favorite line from the Psalms, when it says that the voice of the Lord “makes Lebanon skip like a calf,” which makes me laugh every time I hear it, and when the Contemporary English Version translates it as “God makes Mount Lebanon skip like a calf,” I totally lose it. What does that even mean??? How do you make a mountain skip?

Sometimes it’s the situation. Like in Genesis 18 when Abraham suddenly sounds like Columbo – remember that TV detective played by Peter Falk – I just imagine Abraham as Columbo negotiating with God over the fate of Sodom. “ “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes, 28 what if the number of the righteous is five less than fifty? Larry sometimes says, “That’ll preach.” In my language, I say, “that’ll play.” We can get a few laughs on that.

Sometimes – and this is peculiar to me and my 50 years directing theatre – sometimes it is how I imagine the scene staged that makes me laugh. That’s what makes me laugh about Luke 24, our gospel reading today, when Jesus shows up in the upper room where the disciples are hanging out. The whole start of that scene is comic gold. Like a lot of my favorite comedy, it’s a repeating joke. It’s the third of Jesus’s attempts to figure out a way to show up again after the resurrection. And if you think about it – or at least if you think about it like a director might think about it -- this is a really hard problem from Jesus. I mean, everybody thinks you’re dead, so how do you make your entrance? Do you walk in slowly, or suddenly appear poof? Do you knock? Maybe clear your throat? Maybe you’re like Kramer on Seinfeld: Hey guys!

Jesus tries several different ways. His first attempt was to Mary at the tomb on Easter morning, and that time he’s trying to be subtle and not obvious. She’s weeping and despairing, and he tries to not freak her out. “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” And she’s still crying all over the place, and says, ““Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” And he can’t get her attention, because she thinks he’s the gardener – the gardener! – finally he’s like, “MARY!” That snaps her out of it. And then she wants to hug him and he’s like, “Whoa! Whoa! No hugging, I haven’t ascended yet” but also that wound in his side is gonna hurt if she hugs him, right?

The second time he tries to make an appearance is also in Luke just before today’s reading, on the Road to Emmaus, when he sort of sidles up to two of his followers who are walking down the road talking about everything that went down. Again, they don’t recognize him. So what are you gonna do? He just keeps participating in the conversation – which is hilarious. “17 He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” Playing ignorant, and you know he’s waiting for them to look at him and go, “Lord!” But no, “They stood still,” Luke writes, “their faces downcast. 18 One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you the only one visiting Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” What a hilarious line. Who knows better than Jesus what happened? I imagine him doing a deadpan take to the audience, maybe raising an eyebrow.

Then he decides to just play along: 19 “What things?” he asked. So they explain it all to him. And they still don’t recognize him until after they invite him to supper, and he finally mimes it for them by breaking bread. Like, “Remember this?” And then he disappears!

And today’s gospel reading is the third time, when he appears to the apostles, and by now he’s totally given up on the subtlety. The apostles are standing around talking, and suddenly Jesus is standing among them – poof! – and he says “Peace be with you,” which is sort of the 1st-century version of Bugs Bunny saying “What’s up, doc?”

And this is where my director’s mind kicks in, because I read “They were startled and terrified, and thought they were seeing a ghost.” And in my mind I’m seeing them totally freaking out, and running around bumping into each other, getting stuck in the door trying to get out – I mean, a total 3 Stooges kind of thing – while Jesus looks on, probably shaking his head and thinking, “I work with chimps.”

And then he’s like, “Check this out: holes in my hands and feet – touch me – I’m not a ghost” And then my favorite moment: Jesus says, out of nowhere, “You have anything to eat in this place?” And the apostles are like, yeah, yeah, we have some broiled fish.” And then Luke writes, “he took it and ate it in their presence.” He’s really working it. Everything’s normal – just a guy eating broiled fish. I mean, how can you read this without laughing?

But what connects these three events is a single theme: being seen.

Everybody is so self-absorbed that they don’t recognize him, even though he’s right in front of their eyes. And isn’t that us every day? Jesus says our name every time somebody who loves us says hello, as Larry said, and we don’t recognize him.

Jesus is present in every aspect of the world. In the Heaven and the earth, In the light and the darkness, In the dry land and the waters, in the grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit. In the sun and the moon and the stars and the fish in the sea and the birds in the air and in the beasts of the earth, and the cattle, and the creeping things, and in our fellow human beings.

But like Thomas, we insist we won’t believe until we can stick our fingers in Christ’s wounds. Jesus joins us as we drive along the road in conversation with a friend, and we don’t recognize him. We only think he’s with us at communion and the breaking of the bread. Jesus says in our ear, “Peace be with you,” and we can’t hear it because the TV is on too loud. Jesus has a meal with us, and we don’t recognize his presence

One of my favorite definitions of the purpose of art is “to make the stone stony.” Because in order to function in the world, we have to create mental categories for things, otherwise it’s overwhelming. We see a big, green leafy thing and we think, “Tree” and we don’t really see it – it’s just a tree, one of thousands we see every day. And art – a poem, a novel, a piece of music, a play, a movie – slows us down so that we can see things more fully

Seeing. Jesus.

How do we slow down enough – how do we look closely enough, listen attentively enough – to see Jesus peering out at us through every bush, every tree, every McDonalds Happy Meal and Little Debbie Donut Stick (OK, I’m a little hungry right now.)

How can we stop running around bumping into each other so that Jesus can get our attention? Because once we can see him, he has so much to tell us. Back in Luke, now that he’s eaten lunch and got their attention, now that they can see him, he goes back and tells the story again, because now it is understandable – all that stuff that he told them before the crucifixion that none of them understood at all -- because now His story on earth is over and can be seen whole

I’m not sure how many of you know that I am the co-author of a textbook on analyzing plays that is cleverly titled Introduction to Play Analysis. And in the chapter focused on figuring out how the plot is structured, one of the most important things to figure out is the climax of the play. The climax is the moment when the conflict is resolved, and the Major Dramatic Question is answered. In Hamlet, the Major Dramatic Question is “Will Hamlet avenge the murder of his father?” And the climax is when Laertes says, “The King’s to blame,” and Hamlet launches himself and stabs the king and then pours poisoned wine down his throat. So the answer to “Will Hamlet avenge the murder of his father?” is pretty clear: “Yes!” And that’s pretty much the end of the play. Hamlet dies, and Fortinbras shows up to find the stage strewn with about a dozen dead people – the end! Let’s have a drink!

The climax helps us understand what the play is about. Carl Sandburg said, “A tree is best measured when it is down – and so it is with people.” You don’t really know the meaning of someone’s life until the life is over. As long as there is life, people can change, can do something different. That’s the ending of A Christmas Carol, right? After the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come shows Scrooge his abandoned and unmourned grave, Scrooge is completely transformed!  But if we make the climax of the story when Scrooge sees the grave – well, we’ve missed the point! The point is the transformation!

In the Gospel story, the disciples have the climax wrong! As far as they’re concerned, the climax happened on Good Friday when Jesus said, “It is finished” and gave up his spirit. The answer to their Major Dramatic Question “Will Jesus save Israel” (or whatever they thought he was up to) is a clear “no.” The Roman Empire and its collaborators won. Jesus is dead – period. End of story. It’s a tragedy. Oh, sure, Mary told them that the body was gone and that she saw him, and the guys on the Road to Emmaus told them the same thing, but come on, really? Risen? Pfft. These people are clearly a little overwrought. They can’t handle the truth!

And then, suddenly they’re standing around talking about going on with their lives, and poof! – there he is. And even then they still hold onto their incorrect story: he’s a ghost!!! But finally Jesus gets them calmed down and convinced that he is who he says he is, and at this point he explains the plot of the story and the meaning of everything that happened.

All everything written about him in the scriptures must be fulfilled – check; the Messiah is to suffer and rise from the dead on the third day – what day is today? OK: check; and now, what happens next: repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Marching orders! Start here in Jerusalem, then hit the road and tell the story. And the disciples probably go, “Ohhhhh!”


 

And then he really brings the point home: “You. Are. Witness. Of. These. things.”

You have SEEN IT. Seen Jesus. Seen the story. Seen the meaning. Seen the future, and what you’re supposed to do. Let go of all your old stories and preconceptions and see the world differently

And the book of Acts is where we get to see whether the apostles really got it. So in the first 11 verses of Acts 3, that immediately preceded today’s reading, we see Peter and James heal a man who can’t walk by seeing him.

There he is at the Temple Gate called Beautiful begging when Peter and James are heading in to pray, and the beggar asks them for money, and then “Peter looked straight at him, as did John. Then Peter said, “Look at us!” So the man gave them his attention, expecting to get something from them. Then Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.” Taking him by the right hand, he helped him up, and instantly the man’s feet and ankles became strong. He jumped to his feet and began to walk.” 

Healing happens when you see people. When you give up all your old stories and preconceptions and see what is in front of you. Healing happens, as Larry pointed out on Easter, when you speak someone’s name. Your voice is the voice of God calling to the wounded. And it isn’t until you see someone, and speak their name, and give them the gifts that you have to give, which are not always the gifts they think they want, but only then can you proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins. Because that’s the true healing.

And that’s what Peter and James do in today’s reading. Once they’ve healed the beggar and he’s gone into the Temple with them and everyone is amazed, they preach to the people in the Temple courtyard. Their words are prophetic speech as described by Walter Breuggemann. First you preach the law, then you preach the gospel.

They tell the Israelites: you killed the Author of Life, you chose Barrabus over God. That’s a pretty horrifying accusation. I’ve spent a lot of time in prison rooms with people who did a lot of bad things, including people who have killed other people, but none of them killed God. Can you imagine the look on their face if I told them that they had not only killed somebody, but that they killed god???

And then Peter and James tell them what Jesus told them to say “you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” We SAW it. We SEE it. And look at this guy – “by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong…the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.” You are witnesses. You saw it. Do you believe your eyes?

And then I imagine that they look directly at the people, look at them like they looked at the beggar at the gate. Look at them and see them. And they say: “I know you acted in ignorance, as did your rulers.” Which echoes Jesus’s last words: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” In fact, they explain, you were part of the plan. “God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer.” You played your part.

And then they heal them, by bringing the Gospel. So now that you see, “turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.” What a relief!And what is unspoken is: once you have seen, and once you know that the climax wasn’t Good Friday’s words of defeat – “It is finished” – but rather Sunday’s Hallelujah, He is risen! Once you have witnessed the miracle of healing through Christ, then it is YOUR turn to proclaim in his name repentance and forgiveness of sins.

Pay attention – see Jesus everywhere. Then go forth and serve the Lord.

Amen.

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