Everything we look for in a sermon is here—scripture made relevant to immediate need, vivid drama, emotion, and, in this case, a personal confession—from a minister to mariners in Melville’s Moby Dick. His text comes from the familiar story of Jonah and the whale. The sermon not only is a spiritual experience for the listeners (or even a reader today)—that stormy night in Nantucket, Father Mapple underwent a spiritual experience giving it.
FATHER MAPPLE rose, and in a mild voice of unassuming authority ordered the scattered people to condense. ‘Starboard gangway, there! side away to larboard—larboard gangway to starboard! Midships! midships!’ 1
There was a low rumbling of heavy sea-boots among the benches, and a still slighter shuffling of women’s shoes, and all was quiet again, and every eye on the preacher. 2
He paused a little; then kneeling in the pulpit’s bows, folded his large brown hands across his chest, uplifted his closed eyes, and offered a prayer so deeply devout that he seemed kneeling and praying at the bottom of the sea. 3
This ended, in prolonged solemn tones, like the continual tolling of a bell in a ship that is foundering at sea in a fog—in such tones he commenced reading the following hymn; but changing his manner toward the concluding stanzas, burst forth with a pealing exultation and joy:--
‘The ribs and terrors in the whale Arched over me a dismal gloom, While all God’s sun-lit waves rolled by, And lift me deepening down to doom.
‘I saw the opening maw of hell, With endless pains and sorrows there; Which none but they that feel can tell-- Oh, I was plunging to despair.
‘In black distress, I called my God, When I could scarce believe him mine, He bowed his ear to my complaints-- No more the whale did me confine.
‘With speed he flew to my relief, As on a radiant dolphin borne; Awful, yet bright, as lightning shone The face of my Deliverer God.
‘My song forever shall record That terrible, that joyful hour; I give the glory to my God, His all the mercy and the power.’ 4
Nearly all joined in singing this hymn, which swelled high above the howling of the storm. A brief pause ensued; the preacher slowly turned over the leaves of the Bible, and at last, folding his hand down upon the proper page, said: ‘Beloved shipmates, clinch the last verse of the first chapter of Jonah—“And God had prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah.” 5
‘Shipmates, this book, containing only four chapters—four yarns—is one of the smallest strands in the mighty cable of the Scriptures. Yet what depths of the soul does Jonah’s deep sea-line sound! what a pregnant lesson to us is this prophet! What a noble thing is that canticle in the fish’s belly! How billow-like and boisterously grand! We feel the floods surging over us; we sound with him to the kelpy bottom of the waters; sea-weed and all the slime of the sea is about us! But what is this lesson that the book of Jonah teaches? Shipmates, it is a two-stranded lesson; a lesson to us all as sinful men, and a lesson to me as a pilot of the living God. As sinful men, it is a lesson to us all, because it is a story of the sin, hard-heartedness, suddenly awakened fears, the swift punishment, repentance, prayers, and finally the deliverance and joy of Jonah. As with all sinners among men, the sin of this son of Amittai was in his wilful disobedience of the command of God—never mind now what that command was, or how conveyed—which he found a hard command. But all the things that God would have us do are hard for us to do—remember that—and hence, he oftener commands us than endeavours to persuade. And if we obey God, we must disobey ourselves; and it is in this disobeying ourselves, wherein the hardness of obeying God consists. 6
‘With this sin of disobedience in him, Jonah still further flouts at God, by seeking to flee from Him. He thinks that a ship made by men will carry him into countries where God does not reign, but only the captains of this earth. He skulks about the wharves of Joppa, and seeks a ship that ’s bound for Tarshish. There lurks, perhaps, a hitherto unheeded meaning here. By all accounts Tarshish could have been no other city than the modern Cadiz. That ’s the opinion of learned men. And where is Cadiz, shipmates? Cadiz is in Spain; as far by water, from Joppa, as Jonah could possibly have sailed in those ancient days, when the Atlantic was an almost unknown sea. Because Joppa, the modern Jaffa, shipmates, is on the most easterly coast of the Mediterranean, the Syrian; and Tarshish or Cadiz more than two thousand miles to the westward from that, just outside the Straits of Gibraltar. See ye not then, shipmates, that Jonah sought to flee world-wide from God? Miserable man! Oh! most contemptible and worthy of all scorn; with slouched hat and guilty eye, skulking from his God; prowling among the shipping like a vile burglar hastening to cross the seas. So disordered, self-condemning is his look, that had there been policemen in those days, Jonah, on the mere suspicion of something wrong, had been arrested ere he touched a deck. How plainly he ’s a fugitive! no baggage, not a hat-box, valise, or carpet-bag,—no friends accompany him to the wharf with their adieux. At last, after much dodging search, he finds the Tarshish ship receiving the last items of her cargo; and as he steps on board to see its captain in the cabin, all the sailors for the moment desist from hoisting in the goods, to mark the stranger’s evil eye. Jonah sees this; but in vain he tries to look all ease and confidence; in vain essays his wretched smile. Strong intuitions of the man assure the mariners he can be no innocent. In their gamesome but still serious way, one whispers to the other—“Jack, he ’s robbed a widow”; or, “Joe, do you mark him; he ’s a bigamist”; or, “Harry, lad, I guess he ’s the adulterer that broke jail in old Gomorrah, or belike, one of the missing murderers from Sodom.” Another runs to read the bill that ’s stuck against the spile upon the wharf to which the ship is moored, offering five hundred gold coins for the apprehension of a parricide, and containing a description of his person. He reads, and looks from Jonah to the bill; while all his sympathetic shipmates now crowd round Jonah, prepared to lay their hands upon him. Frighted Jonah trembles, and summoning all his boldness to his face, only looks so much the more a coward. He will not confess himself suspected; but that itself is strong suspicion. So he makes the best of it; and when the sailors find him not to be the man that is advertised, they let him pass, and he descends into the cabin. 7
‘“Who ’s there?” cries the Captain at his busy desk, hurriedly making out his papers for the Customs—“Who ’s there?” Oh! how that harmless question mangles Jonah! For the instant he almost turns to flee again. But he rallies. “I seek a passage in this ship to Tarshish; how soon sail ye, sir?” Thus far the busy captain had not looked up to Jonah, though the man now stands before him; but no sooner does he hear that hollow voice, than he darts a scrutinising glance. “We sail with the next coming tide,” at last he slowly answered, still intently eyeing him. “No sooner, sir?”—“Soon enough for any honest man that goes a passenger.” Ha! Jonah, that ’s another stab. But he swiftly calls away the captain from that scent. “I ’ll sail with ye,” he says,—“the passage money, how much is that?—I ’ll pay now.” For it is particularly written, shipmates, as if it were a thing not to be overlooked in this history, “that he paid the fare thereof” ere the craft did sail. And taken with the context, this is full of meaning. 8
‘Now Jonah’s Captain, shipmates, was one whose discernment detects crime in any, but whose cupidity exposes it only in the penniless. In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers. So Jonah’s captain prepares to test the length of Jonah’s purse, ere he judge him openly. He charges him thrice the usual sum; and it ’s assented to. Then the captain knows that Jonah is a fugitive; but at the same time resolves to help a flight that paves its rear with gold. Yet when Jonah fairly takes out his purse, prudent suspicions still molest the captain. He rings every coin to find a counterfeit. Not a forger, any way, he mutters; and Jonah is put down for his passage. “Point out my state-room, sir,” says Jonah now, “I ’m travel-weary; I need sleep.” “Thou look’st like it,” says the captain, “there ’s thy room.” Jonah enters, and would lock the door, but the lock contains no key. Hearing him foolishly fumbling there, the captain laughs lowly to himself, and mutters something about the doors of convicts’ cells being never allowed to be locked within. All dressed and dusty as he is, Jonah throws himself into his berth, and finds the little state-room ceiling almost resting on his forehead. The air is close, and Jonah gasps. Then, in that contracted hole, sunk, too, beneath the ship’s water-line, Jonah feels the heralding presentiment of that stifling hour, when the whale shall hold him in the smallest of his bowel’s wards. 9
‘Screwed at its axis against the side, a swinging lamp slightly oscillates in Jonah’s room; and the ship, heeling over toward the wharf with the weight of the last bales received, the lamp, flame and all, though in slight motion, still maintains a permanent obliquity with reference to the room; though, in truth, infallibly straight itself, it but made obvious the false, lying levels among which it hung. The lamp alarms and frightens Jonah; as lying in his berth his tormented eyes roll round the place, and this thus far successful fugitive finds no refuge for his restless glance. But that contradiction in the lamp more and more appals him. The floor, the ceiling, and the side, are all awry. “Oh! so my conscience hangs in me!” he groans, “straight upwards, so it burns; but the chambers of my soul are all in crookedness!” 10
‘Like one who after a night of drunken revelry hies to his bed, still reeling, but with conscience yet pricking him, as the plungings of the Roman race-horse but so much the more strike his steel tags into him; as one who in that miserable plight still turns and turns in giddy anguish, praying God for annihilation until the fit be passed; and at last amid the whirl of woe he feels, a deep stupor steals over him, as over the man who bleeds to death, for conscience is the wound, and there ’s naught to staunch it; so, after sore wrestlings in his berth, Jonah’s prodigy of ponderous misery drags him drowning down to sleep. 11
‘And now the time of tide has come; the ship casts off her cables; and from the deserted wharf the uncheered ship for Tarshish, all careening, glides to sea. That ship, my friends, was the first of recorded smugglers! the contraband was Jonah. But the sea rebels; he will not bear the wicked burden. A dreadful storm comes on, the ship is like to break. But now when the boatswain calls all hands to lighten her; when boxes, bales, and jars are clattering overboard; when the wind is shrieking, and the men are yelling, and every plank thunders with trampling feet right over Jonah’s head; in all this raging tumult, Jonah sleeps his hideous sleep. He sees no black sky and raging sea, feels not the reeling timbers, and little hears he or heeds he the far rush of the mighty whale, which even now with open mouth is cleaving the seas after him. Ay, shipmates, Jonah was gone down into the sides of the ship—a berth in the cabin as I have taken it—and was fast asleep. But the frightened master comes to him, and shrieks in his dead ear, “What meanest thou, O, sleeper! arise!” Startled from his lethargy by that direful cry, Jonah staggers to his feet, and stumbling to the deck, grasps a shroud, to look out upon the sea. But at that moment he is sprung upon by a panther billow leaping over the bulwarks. Wave after wave thus leaps into the ship, and finding no speedy vent runs roaring fore and aft, till the mariners come nigh to drowning while yet afloat. And ever, as the white moon shows her affrighted face from the steep gullies in the blackness overhead, aghast Jonah sees the rearing bowsprit pointing high upward, but soon beat downward again toward the tormented deep. 12
‘Terrors upon terrors run shouting through his soul. In all his cringing attitudes, the God-fugitive is now too plainly known. The sailors mark him; more and more certain grow their suspicions of him, and at last, fully to test the truth, by referring the whole matter to high Heaven, they fall to casting lots, to see for whose cause this great tempest was upon them. The lot is Jonah’s; that discovered, then how furiously they mob him with their questions. “What is thine occupation? Whence comest thou? Thy country? What people?” But mark now, my shipmates, the behavior of poor Jonah. The eager mariners but ask him who he is, and where from; whereas, they not only receive an answer to those questions, but likewise another answer to a question not put by them, but the unsolicited answer is forced from Jonah by the hard hand of God that is upon him. 13
‘“I am a Hebrew,” he cries—and then—“I fear the Lord the God of Heaven who hath made the sea and the dry land!” Fear him, O Jonah? Ay, well mightest thou fear the Lord God then! Straightway, he now goes on to make a full confession; whereupon the mariners became more and more appalled, but still are pitiful. For when Jonah, not yet supplicating God for mercy, since he but too well knew the darkness of his deserts,—when wretched Jonah cries out to them to take him and cast him forth into the sea, for he knew that for his sake this great tempest was upon them; they mercifully turn from him, and seek by other means to save the ship. But all in vain; the indignant gale howls louder; then, with one hand raised invokingly to God, with the other they not unreluctantly lay hold of Jonah. 14
‘And now behold Jonah taken up as an anchor and dropped into the sea; when instantly an oily calmness floats out from the east, and the sea is still, as Jonah carries down the gale with him, leaving smooth water behind. He goes down in the whirling heart of such a masterless commotion that he scarce heeds the moment when he drops seething into the yawning jaws awaiting him; and the whale shoots-to all his ivory teeth, like so many white bolts, upon his prison. Then Jonah prayed unto the Lord out of the fish’s belly. But observe his prayer, and learn a weighty lesson. For sinful as he is, Jonah does not weep and wail for direct deliverance. He feels that his dreadful punishment is just. He leaves all his deliverance to God, contenting himself with this, that spite of all his pains and pangs, he will still look toward His holy temple. And here, shipmates, is true and faithful repentance; not clamourous for pardon, but grateful for punishment. And how pleasing to God was this conduct in Jonah, is shown in the eventual deliverance of him from the sea and the whale. Shipmates, I do not place Jonah before you to be copied for his sin, but I do place him before you as a model for repentance. Sin not; but if you do, take heed to repent of it like Jonah.’ 15
While he was speaking these words, the howling of the shrieking, slanting storm without seemed to add new power to the preacher, who, when describing Jonah’s sea-storm, seemed tossed by a storm himself. His deep chest heaved as with a ground-swell; his tossed arms seemed the warring elements at work; and the thunders that rolled away from off his swarthy brow, and the light leaping from his eye, made all his simple hearers look on him with a quick fear that was strange to them. 16
There now came a lull in his look, as he silently turned over the leaves of the Book once more; and, at last, standing motionless, with closed eyes, for the moment, seemed communing with God and himself. 17
But again he leaned over toward the people, and bowing his head lowly, with an aspect of the deepest yet manliest humility, he spake these words:-- 18
‘Shipmates, God has laid but one hand upon you; both his hands press upon me. I have read ye by what murky light may be mine the lesson that Jonah teaches to all sinners; and therefore to ye, and still more to me, for I am a greater sinner than ye. And now how gladly would I come down from this mast-head and sit on the hatches there where you sit, and listen as you listen, while some one of you reads me that other and more awful lesson which Jonah teaches to me, as a pilot of the living God. How being an anointed pilot-prophet, or speaker of true things, and bidden by the Lord to sound those unwelcome truths in the ears of a wicked Nineveh, Jonah, appalled at the hostility he should raise, fled from his mission, and sought to escape his duty and his God by taking ship at Joppa. But God is everywhere; Tarshish he never reached. As we have seen, God came upon him in the whale, and swallowed him down to living gulfs of doom, and with swift slantings tore him along “into the midst of the seas,” where the eddying depths sucked him ten thousand fathoms down, and “the weeds were wrapped about his head,” and all the watery world of woe bowled over him. Yet even then beyond the reach of any plummet—“out of the belly of hell”—when the whale grounded upon the ocean’s utmost bones, even then, God heard the engulphed, repenting prophet when he cried. Then God spake unto the fish; and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the sea, the whale came breeching up toward the warm and pleasant sun, and all the delights of air and earth; and “vomited out Jonah upon the dry land”; when the word of the Lord came a second time; and Jonah, bruised and beaten—his ears, like two sea-shells, still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean—Jonah did the Almighty’s bidding. And what was that, shipmates? To preach the Truth to the face of Falsehood! That was it! 19
‘This, shipmates, this is that other lesson; and woe to that pilot of the living God who slights it. Woe to him whom this world charms from Gospel duty! Woe to him who seeks to pour oil upon the waters when God has brewed them into a gale! Woe to him who seeks to please rather than to appal! Woe to him whose good name is more to him than goodness! Woe to him who, in this world, courts not dishonour! Woe to him who would not be true, even though to be false were salvation! Yea, woe to him who, as the great Pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway!’ 20
He dropped and fell away from himself for a moment; then lifting his face to them again, showed a deep joy in his eyes, as he cried out with a heavenly enthusiasm,—‘But oh! shipmates! on the starboard hand of every woe, there is a sure delight; and higher the top of that delight, than the bottom of the woe is deep. Is not the main-truck higher than the kelson is low? Delight is to him—a far, far upward, and inward delight—who against the proud gods and commodores of this earth, ever stands forth his own inexorable self. Delight is to him whose strong arms yet support him, when the ship of this base treacherous world has gone down beneath him. Delight is to him, who gives no quarter in the truth, and kills, burns, and destroys all sin though he pluck it out from under the robes of Senators and Judges. Delight,—top-gallant delight is to him, who acknowledges no law or lord, but the Lord his God, and is only a patriot to heaven. Delight is to him, whom all the waves of the billows of the seas of the boisterous mob can never shake from this sure Keel of the Ages. And eternal delight and deliciousness will be his, who coming to lay him down, can say with his final breath—O Father!—chiefly known to me by Thy rod—mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be Thine, more than to be this world’s, or mine own. Yet this is nothing; I leave eternity to Thee; for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?’ 21
He said no more, but slowly waving a benediction, covered his face with his hands, and so remained kneeling, till all the people had departed, and he was left alone in the place. 22
I know that this is an even stranger Easter than last year, with the pandemic still simmering, the racism that killed George Floyd continually surfacing and a cruel cruel war is going on. It doesn’t feel like the usual Easter festivity is called for.. But it really is called for, more than ever, because our hope lies in the way Christ draws us forward, not toward the end of the world but toward a creative issue for the world. And here we all are this weekend we all together in this expression of hope with Easter, Passover and Ramadan coinciding.
Let us pray with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin this Easter Day--
Lord Jesus, you who are as gentle as the human heart, as fiery as the forces of nature, as intimate as life itself, you in whom I can melt away and with whom I must have mastery and freedom: I love you just as I love this world which has captivated my heart; --and it is you whom we sense and seek throughout the magic immensities of the cosmos.
It will seem like an odd one to you, but I have a question for you this Easter Day of 2022. What does the Resurrection mean to the Andromeda Galaxy? You do know the Andromeda Galaxy, right? At approximately 2.5 billion light years distance away from us, the Andromeda Galaxy is the nearest next galaxy to ours, the Milky Way. Andromeda has a trillion stars, compared with our 250 billion. It’s big enough, 200,000 light years across, that it can actually be seen with the naked eye, in the vicinity of Cassiopeia’s chair.
Marveling at this beautiful neighbor, I ask, do you ever wonder if “anybody” is over there to celebrate the miracle of Christ’s resurrection? Could the Resurrection of Christ possibly be a cosmic event in which Earth participates? Is the God of all Creation revealed in the same way in different planets or galaxies? Does carbon lack an element that God fulfills? Is forgiveness a “word” in the language of radio waves? Is reconciliation perhaps the universe at work in its usual way? Or is this our own private Resurrection for our benefit alone?
The answers to the above questions are Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes, and to the last question, No. No, this isn’t our private personal miracle, and Yes, the Resurrection of Jesus belongs to the universe. It is one instant in a cosmic event called God’s creation. It’s important for us not to make too little of this cataclysmic story that changed human history. You know, the story as we have it in the gospels, like the one from John this morning, is pretty simple, it comes without any embellishment or interpretation. It sticks entirely to the immediate facts of the event, including the order in which they arrived, Mary Magdalen first, who was very likely a disciple, naming one male disciple but not the other. The earliest Christians who put their story on paper only conveyed the barest facts–the strange discovery of a stone rolled away from Jesus’ tomb which brings other disciples running, at first suspecting thievery, but only beginning to grasp that he was raised in fulfillment of the scriptures. Nothing else. They were witnesses to a monumental surprise that revealed the elemental fact of life—life won’t die.
We might die, in one sense of that word, but we don’t at all. Paul gave the experience its most emotional expression—o grave where is thy victory, or death where is thy sting? But really, what the first followers of Jesus felt on that first Easter and what we feel today, is felt throughout creation, felt at the cellular level and in every galaxy of the universe. God is not a presence only in human lives, God is ingredient in the dynamic reality that is the creation. Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit priest and paleontologist who wrote at the turn of the last century, wrote, “All existence is the base of something hidden, and this Something is the figure of Someone who is hidden.”
The resurrection of Jesus is God’s sign to us that creation is as explosive as ever, and always will be. “Life” is more alive than we imagine. The human body, the planet Earth, the points of light in the sky are not machines or parts of one great machine. If anything, the universe is God’s body, with a volatile capacity for change and development and growth. Christian faith itself has continuously expanded over the centuries—hopefully it’s expanding right here as I speak.
Nor are we religiously alone—Jesus gave us a vocabulary for the same experience that Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Balinese, Taoists and others have their own words for.
Annie Dillard, who studied Teilhard and later in life converted to Catholicism, captures the sacramentality of the universe here:
Every day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time, I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down, splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading, at dawn fast over the mountains split. I wake in a god. I wake in arms holding my quilt, holding me as best they can inside my quilt. Someone is kissing me already. I wake, I cry “Oh,” I rise from the pillow. Why should I open my eyes? I open my eyes. The god lifts from the water. His head fills the bay. He is Puget Sound, the Pacific; his breast rises from pastures; his fingers are firs: islands slide wet down his shoulders. Islands slip blue from his shoulders and glide over the water, the empty, lighted water like a stage. Today’s god rises, his long eyes flecked in clouds. He flings his arms, spreading colors; he arches, cupping sky in his belly; he vaults, vaulting and spreading, holding all and spread on me like skin.
Annie Dillard with her earthy doxology springs almost straight from St. Francis and Teilhard. It’s important not to make too little of the resurrection, I repeat. We think it’s only about us. But we are solipsistic by nature, our vision is submarine. What we really fear is our own death, and we seek assurances that we will be saved and go to heaven. So we take this story straight to the ego.
The spirituality of many Christians has them thinking about heaven, trying to get to heaven, wanting to be saved from our earthly sins and made perfect before God at the last judgment. The life of many Christians is one of constant yearning and striving, seeking God beyond the clouds, which will upon our deaths part and reveal him. This is a case of people trying to go up the down escalator [from Richard Rohr]. Whereas in the meantime God is on the down escalator seeking us in the midst of our personal imperfections, in the midst of a cruel war we can barely stand to contemplate, in the midst of worrying whether such a thing could ever happen to us.
Yes, “Life” is more alive than we imagine. But individual lives are not indestructible. The Resurrection of Christ is not a story with a happy ending. Because, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection are not two events but a single one. It was reported as two separate events in the gospel narrative—that’s just the way stories work–first the awful death, then burial, then the disappearance of his body. The intent is not some silver lining in the cloud, nor is it that there is a lesson in every challenge. Here is a deep secret hidden in plain sight.
It seems like the sci-fi movies get it, and the world of poetry gets it, metaphysicians and theologians get it, teenagers get it, and people in love get it. If you’ve been in therapy or counseling, you probably get it. If you have felt hopeless and depressed, you probably get it. If you are a victim of abuse and buried in the tomb of your memories, you probably get it.
But . . .does the church really get it? Tragedy contains the seed of triumph–the triumph has its birth in and within the tragedy. That’s how creation expands— “the story of the universe is a story of majesty and beauty as well as of violence and disruption, a drama filled with both elegance and ruin” [Thomas Berry]—we are part of that. Jesus Christ is our name for the expansion of the universe.
But Christians ask, isn’t our Jesus unique—isn’t he the only Christ, the only way, the only truth, the only light? Isn’t that why it was so important for us to go and drive Muslims out of Jerusalem, and to convert the indigenous peoples at sword and gunpoint? Well yes, the Resurrection of Jesus was uniquely typical—it flashed the truth of life before our eyes and vanished again. Except it’s not even over. Although we celebrate Holy Week once a year, the passion and resurrection is continuous.
Don’t let your Easter be too small. Christ’s resurrection makes us rich beyond compare, and the right response to this knowledge is to share the wealth. With the Resurrection story we have been given a gem of immeasurable value, in Christ we have our own Fort Knox. The hope of the world is to bring this treasure where people have lost hope.
Easter comes with definite ethical imperatives. What would Teilhard de Chardin say about the climate crisis? Will there be a resurrection for the planet Earth? Even as people everywhere now grasp for a new relation to nature and write a new earth-ethic, Teilhard already gave us one, a theological one. He would tell us that the renewal of the Earth is going on right now, in the midst of its very advanced degradation. He would say these are the growing pains that accompany all expansion. Parts of us, parts of creation are always breaking down, but creation moves continuously toward healing, recovery and regeneration. He would say, we are expanding toward the fulness of Christ, and scripture has always been telling us that. You may not find the comfort you wish for in this, but it is hope that is actionable.
Be that as it may, we are scheduled to collide with the Andromeda Galaxy in 4 billion years from now (Wiki). Now, that’s when some real healing and reconciliation will be necessary! In the meantime, we have some Resurrection work of our own to do at home, at work, and in Congress.
Don’t let your Easter be too small. Christ is risen, and Christ is coming again!
Who welcomed Jesus? Luke 19:28-40 The same single identical plot in three different stories– Czechoslovakia, Russia, Biblical Jerusalem.
I. You have heard of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. The four horses represent scourges of the ancient world—famine, disease, war and death. The fifth horseman, not in the Bible and equally terrifying, is fear. Such is the import of a great Czech movie of 1965 entitled, The Fifth Horseman is Fear. It tells the story of a Jewish doctor in Prague during the Nazi occupation. In the Nazi era of surveillance, people were urged to report antigovernment sentiment or activity—to report on each other, that is. The central surveillance phone number was posted ubiquitously on public walls. Unfortunately, Dr. Braun, our doctor, lives in an old apartment building with a central spiral staircase from which people see each other come and go daily. The building has the variety of occupants you would expect and they have little to do with each other except to complain about each other’s noise or pets or the like.
The occupation has made everyone tense, but it doesn’t occur to them that they are being surveilled until one day the intelligence police arrive and inspect every apartment and grill the residents. They leave without any arrests, but that sets up intense mutual suspicions amongst the residents. The doctor has illegally helped a man with a gunshot wound, and he becomes the focus of a subsequent search. In the meantime, the anxieties of the residents set them against each other and even within their separate households. From beginning to end, the movie conveys the universal apprehensiveness of life under these circumstances. The social fabric has broken down, exactly as intended. Without a single overt reference to the Holocaust, except for one industrial smokestack visible through a bedroom window, the movie nevertheless evokes the pervasive infection of an entire society because of the fear of being reported. The government mantra is, “The longer the war lasts the greater is our faith in the final victory." And people are supposed to believe that and have their fears assuaged.
II. Such is precisely the same experience now taking over in Russia. While Russia proceeds to bomb, maim and kill civilians during their criminally berserk invasion of Ukraine, the citizenry back home is becoming restive. Without access to reliable information about the war, yet picking up stray reports through social media, enough people are starting to react that the Kremlin has ordered arrests with punishments in excess even of the Stalin era. The NYTimes reported yesterday about different school teachers, for instance, who had been involved in conversations with their students about the war in Ukraine, then being visited by investigators who questioned their loyalty. A headline yesterday read, “Russians Turn on One Another Over the War. Citizens are denouncing one another, illustrating how the war is feeding paranoia and polarization in Russian society. It’s an eerie echo of Stalin’s terror, spurred on by vicious official rhetoric from the state and enabled by far-reaching new laws that criminalize dissent.” The story goes on to say, “In the Soviet logic, those who choose not to report their fellow citizens could be viewed as being suspect themselves. In these conditions, fear is settling into people again,” said Nikita Petrov, a leading scholar of the Soviet secret police. “And that fear dictates that you report.” Of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, the fifth one is fear.
An historic example from Russia is Alexander Solzhenitsyn who was actually serving in the army when he was tagged for a stray “unpatriotic” remark and sent to the Gulag in 1945. But surveillance and reporting went on in the Bolshevik era too, as described by Boris Pasternak in his novel Doctor Zhivago. Pasternak himself was investigated and held in suspicion, to the extent that he was not permitted to go to Oslo to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958. And still earlier, under Czar Nicholas I, Dostoevsky himself was arrested in 1849 when he was not quite 30 years old, imprisoned and brought before a firing squad, although he was reprieved at the very last minute and sent to Siberia for four years followed by six years of obligatory military service in exile.
Totalitarian governments control through surveillance and the fear of being reported. Of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, the fifth one is fear.
III. In Roman occupied Jerusalem during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, Israelites lived in the equivalent of a police state, with all the threats of violence, imprisonment, and summary execution that we would easily recognize from our own history. There had been popular uprisings before Jesus’ time, to the extent that he was himself suspected as one of the self-described Zealots. Now entering Jerusalem with his reputation going before him, the entry into Jerusalem that we celebrate today is the equivalent of infiltrating enemy lines, only he did so openly. There had already been much open conflict between Jesus and religious authorities. His popularity was seen by them as dissidence. And his forerunner, John the Baptist, had already been imprisoned and executed, making Jesus’ arrival particularly provocative.
When Jesus entered the city, on a donkey as the scriptures report, Who welcomed him? It was his own disciples, according to Luke, and crowds, according to Matthew who says they “went wild with excitement.” At first, they hailed him as the Son of David, a royal designation the Roman royalty would have noticed. But next Jesus is called only “the prophet Jesus from Galilee,” perhaps meaning “of whom you have heard so much.”
You only have to ask yourself, for whom would Jesus’ message correlate with the need? For whom would his answers correlate to their questions? For whom would his presence in the streets, at table with them, in their homes correlate with their hunger? His parables were filled with owners and employers—for whom would those words about fairness and fair play resonate? When Jesus spoke about wealth and wages, who would likely welcome his entrance into Jerusalem? Didn’t he say it was harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle? Were there any of the wealthy class at the gates of Jerusalem to welcome him?
As Jesus passes the gates, whatever festivity and hilarity may have accompanied him, he comes soon to the Temple itself where his contention with all the authorities heats up.
From this point forward, public association with Jesus would have been dangerous.
We hear little more of the disciples until the Upper Room.
Who welcomed Jesus? The disciples, for a while yes, except obviously for Judas. Early on, the investigative agents had their informants out, and it only took some money, not a lot, to buy one man’s soul and cast another man in chains. Judas had complained the night before that the expensive spikenard used by a woman to anoint Jesus’ feet was wasteful.
But the next day he accepts something of significantly less value for his own base purposes—thirty lousy pieces of silver. Money played its traditional role.
Of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, fear is the fifth. Given the reputation of the Roman forces, Judas was certainly not alone in fearing the outcome of Jesus entering the city. Peter did, too, of course, and he ultimately denies him in the end. But right off the bat, the promise of wealth cracked whatever loyalty Judas had to Jesus. Certainly, you have to assume, the authorities had much more money than that to offer. But Judas lived at a subsistence level, and they knew this fearful man’s information could be bought for peanuts. It seems Jesus was undone not by the wealthy but by someone who wanted to be wealthy, or just to feel wealthy. Or did he just want the money for the poor, taking it from the very people who lorded it over the poor?
IV. There is a fourth story, ours in America today.
Judas woke up to his folly and tried to return the money. But he was scorned. The blood money could never be used again, it was so debased and degraded. The thirty pieces of silver were used to buy a potter’s field in which to bury Judas. So this festive occasion today is an ambiguous one—because of what awaited Jesus as he entered the capitol of a police state. But also because we celebrate this day in a world brimming with totalitarian rulers who rule by fear.
Would we welcome this man into our city? Do we welcome his example? After all, we know how much blood money circulates in our economy. Does it matter to us that corporations barter their souls away for profit? Do we want to be so wealthy ourselves that we let the wealthy make their money behind the scenes without objection, when we know that the profits of the arms industry are equally tainted, profits resulting from the sales to warring countries. How many innocent people die every day from weapons we manufacture?
What choice do we have? I think of the Berrigan brothers who went to the GE nuclear arms facility in King of Prussia, PA, broke in and spilled blood on the files and hammered on the nose cones of the missiles. The comparable movement today is our own Mass Peace Action.
But at the individual and local level, we had best look into the way our pensions and savings are invested and who we bank with, etc. We better look into it, or we’re not worth being buried in a potter’s field ourselves. Is the money worth it—are three pieces of silver worth it?
Theoretically, we can discuss such issues openly here in America. The curious thing about this tattered democracy today, though, is that dissident groups are the ones setting up surveillance, attacking fellow-citizens, and promoting laws muffling free speech and thought. Self-appointed hit-squads set out to capture a state governor! It’s a fantasy totalitarianism which has fear as its principal weapon. You can see why of the four horsemen of the apocalypse, the fifth horseman is fear. And you can also see why Jesus’ constant refrain was, “Do not fear.”
Jesus wept over the city which murdered its prophets. Yet Jesus was undeterred and entered Jerusalem anyway. It was as if the only thing that matters in life was to bring living water to those who thirst and bread that truly nourishes to those who hunger. Our hope is in the giving and offering life of right where there is fear and death. The movie contrasts a man, Dr. Braun, who dies unnecessarily, with a man, with people, who live unnecessarily, without purpose. The same could be said of Jesus. That’s why the Psalm says, which we repeat today and at every Communion service—Blessed is the one who comes in the name of peace and justice and equity, which is the name of God.
This is a picture of individual wealth. It is clearly a picture of an individual declaring her individuality. Departing from the expected, from the norm, combining and recombining unexpected fashion markers. She has something to say, she projects an independence in her flippant sort of way. She dares you not to admire her.
Is this a superficial gesture by a material girl, or an act of spiritual possibility? We need to know a lot more about her, we would need to know a lot more about anyone seen just from the outside–we must be careful not to make unwarranted assumptions. For instance, we can’t see much of her biological parentage and chromosomal makeup, the physical and mental attributes she inherits from mom and dad. Nor can we see the string of decisions she made over time, the history of choices made at sensitive intersections in her life. We can’t see her emotional state, we never can–it’s largely invisible to outside observers.
What you create out of your life cannot necessarily be seen whole by others at any one given moment. Yet here is a fun and carefree invitation to others to get out of our life’s rut–Come on, depart from your norms, live a little. What might it cost her–? Perhaps she risks the approval of her friends, the school authorities, her boss at work? Maybe she risks getting into the college of her desires.
Never mind, she has the temerity to model a love of herself that says, “I am a work of art.” It could reflect a deeper love that really says, “I am God’s work of art.” I am taking all that I am and painting a canvas that represents me. I am the artist of my life, created in the image of the creator God, and painting, dancing for you, sculpting for you, composing for you a whole person. She seems secure in the knowledge articulated in the Psalm this morning–
A new thing today is how people are declaring who they are and say that they “identify as.” At last, people are encouraged and it seems possible to take pride in either our forebears, our ethnicity, or our gender/orientation, in ourselves. People are invited now to make that known by some explicit, verbal introduction with our pronouns.
Myself, I am a straight, white, married male of tall persuasion (6’3”) in the Social Security zone (over 65). But I figure that people can see that for themselves. So, what would my self-introduction be, how should I identify? And I’m not honestly sure. I’d rather let other people draw their own conclusions from the canvas that I have painted, and let whatever chips fall where they may. In the privacy of my mind, I am more inclined to be thinking about who I “identify with,” but you can’t see that. Where does my heart incline, but you can’t see that. Who do I admire and wish I were or, even, feel that I could be, whose pain or joy do I identify with, but you can’t see that. Those feelings contribute mightily to the amalgam that is “me.” Growing up, and even growing old, making my choices adds color and shape and texture to my canvas.
But I’d rather think that I, like you, am a work of art, a work of God’s art and trust that people will accept me that way. I think the spirit in places today is to trust that you are you in all your individuality, which will be respected and honored, even though I know this isn’t fully operational. My wealth is all that God gave me to paint. In sum, I am a wealth of possibility and possibilities. God made us to live lives being reconceived, recreated, repainted, and celebrated.
At the same time, everyone wants to be financially wealthy, doesn’t everybody dream of making a million dollars? As a campus minister, I was a little shaken when I would overhear undergraduates predicting when they would make their first million dollars. It was not a joke, they meant it–the choice of college majors in Business and Economics grew over the fifty years between 1970 and 2020–from 115,396 to 390,564. Of course, the student enrollment grew over that period. But let’s compare those numbers with English, Humanities, and foreign languages and literatures over the same period: 92,395 to 100,119. A growth of only 1%. The growth in business majors was 330%.
A popular movie of the 1980s was Wall Street (1987) in which Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) lectured people that “greed is good,) A signal song was “I am a material girl” sung by Madonna in 1984. But this was nothing new. The pursuit of financial wealth is universal–think of the Crash of 1929, the antitrust laws against the robber barons, etc., the slave trade. We are fully aware that the love of money, not money itself, is the root of all evil. Love of money blinds, as evidenced by the slave trade, the genocide of the indigenous Americans, and the rape of natural resources in our country.
But this young woman reminds us that our true wealth is what God gave us–we are each a wealth of possibility and possibilities. When Jesus summarizes the law as loving others as one loves oneself, he is certainly not talking about the kind of love that is just self-interested. It is the deep love that comes directly from God’s love of us, that gives us the courage to live in place and the joy of being ourselves. We should feel like my friend who astonished himself once when he said, “I like who I am.” God’s love that reassures us that our past course needs a mid-course correction, that bad judgment or willful offenses are wiped clean off the slate.
WHAT GOOD ARE WE TO OTHERS IF WE ARE NOT WHOLLY AND TRULY OURSELVES?
Finally, I don’t know if INSTITUTIONS are capable of this kind of artistry, self-invention and self-correction. Institutions tend to be like oil tankers, hard to steer. And so many expire before they are able to adapt. The Roman Empire that executed Jesus finally fell, due to its quest for dominance and wealth. We celebrate Jesus today because his love did triumph. We are the proof of the Resurrection, and so, we pray, is the Church.