Blessed be the Name of God
“Alleluia. The Lord is risen.” So we continue to say and shout and sing. The second Sunday of Easter, the season of fifty days. The Great Fifty Days. In earlier time, today was called “Low Sunday,” in contrast to the high festivities of last Sunday. But, in truth, it is not “low” at all, for it is still Easter, our great high feast.
For our Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers, today is in fact Easter. The church calendar they follow and the one we follow are different, yielding different dates for Easter. How to celebrate the miracles of God in the midst of war? How to explore God’s raising up when bombs and rockets are falling down? How to shout for joy in a climate reeking with brutality? How, indeed. I do not know.
But for them, Orthodox on both sides of the warfare, for them, we must raise them in prayer and mark Easter with them.
Having said that, I want to turn our attention to our own morning and what needs to be said right here. When I first reviewed the readings for the morning, the first reading and the gospel, I smiled. I’ll tell you why in a minute. First, let me remind you about these readings.
In the reading from Acts, we hear part of a long speech by Peter. Before the resurrection, you will remember, Peter was a perpetual bungler, making silly mistakes, zealous to the point of foolishness, eventually denying Jesus three times. Now, after the resurrection, Peter is the leader, the sound thinker, the one who professes and teaches the faith. In this sermon recorded in the second chapter of Acts, Peter gives expression to the emerging faith of the church, a faith rooted in his own experience. We are “witnesses,” he says. Because he is speaking to people who do not know what he knows, because his hearers are in some measure suspicious or doubtful, Peter speaks as he should, as if to convince them, as if to compel them to believe, for they do not. They doubted.
The reading from the gospel has a similar texture. Here is a story of Jesus’ meeting with his disciples after his rising, particularly his encounter with Thomas. Thomas, probably the most famous doubter in the world, needs more testimony than the others do. He needs to touch. And though Jesus grants him this freedom—indeed, Jesus invites him to touch him—still, the faith of those who cannot touch is more highly praised.
Two readings rooted in the assumption that doubt abounds and that it requires some antidote. And here is where I smiled, knowingly. I smiled so broadly because I was here last Sunday. I saw this room full of people, eager, joyful, singing. Coming to testify to the raising of Jesus, here persuaded that the generosity of God is boundless, that God’s promises are fulfilled, that Jesus is alive and working, even among us. Yet, whoever put today’s readings on our lectionary list was almost certain that last Sunday didn’t ‘take.’ That doubt needs to be addressed right away, immediately.
Now there’s no ‘doubt’ that our faith is a frail thing and needs constant reinforcing—that’s for sure. But even more surely, our Easter conviction, our Easter ‘conversion’ is still fresh and lively. We are persuaded, persuaded, indeed. Alleluia!
As many of you know, my dear Amy spent much of her ordained ministry as a hospital chaplain, a gifted hospital chaplain as you may well imagine. It came to pass in those days, once upon a time, that, the week following Easter Day, Amy had a convention on South Padre Island and I went with her. [Remember, we lived at the time in Austin TX.]
Walking the beach in Easter week [a new experience for me] walking the beach in Easter week yielded interesting things to observe, things illustrative of the faith and our life with God. I offer three moments.
While Amy attended her meetings, I spent time by the ocean. One morning, as I walked toward the breakwater at the south end of the island, I came upon three names marked out in the sand. This, of course, is a common thing, but these names were written very deeply, almost ‘engraved’ in the sand. “STEPH, KEVIN, TOMMY,” all in capital letters. Crafted, done with care. Obviously these scribes—whom I took to be young people—these scribes intended something enduring, something that would outwit not only the ocean but also the wind. When I passed these names going south, they looked like they might in fact survive. They were a good deal distant for the water’s edge and I knew the ocean would not get them. But as I returned north a little while later, the wind that blew at my back was having its way with the inscription. “STEPH, KEVIN, TOMMY” were beginning to disappear. By lunchtime, I thought, the wind would have won. How very like us, I thought, to seek such immortality. The ocean or the wind will surely win and the sand will show no sign. We will live ‘immortally’ only in the memory of God. Alleluia, I thought.
On another day, as I was walking again and thinking about what I would say to in my sermon the following Sunday, I came upon a startling ‘icon’ in the sand. Someone the day before—for I was walking early in the morning—someone had sculpted the sand into a crucifix. The sand on the beach had been dug out from around a square slab-like thing, and on the square was a cross and on the cross was a human figure, presumably Jesus. All the work was square, lines very straight. It was perhaps five feet long and two feet wide. I walked passed it at first, not really seeing what it was. Then, I backed up to study on it. My first thought was to be amazed, but almost instantly I had a second. I thought, this isn’t right. This was last week. Last week was crucifixion. This week, that cross is empty. To the unknown artist I said, “Silly goose, you’ve got it wrong. He is risen!” Alleluia, I thought again.
Lastly, in my wanderings, I was reminded of something wonderful by a sandpiper. Sandpipers are small birds, like long legged sparrows but more frail, extraordinarily energetic and quick moving. Like other such birds, they feed right at the water’s edge, all along the beach—and since the waves cause the ‘water’s edge’ to move, so do these wonderfully busy little shorebirds. Back and forth, up and down the beach, back and forth, up and down. Endlessly. Chasing whatever it is that they seek, whatever it is that pleases them. Beak in the water, just along the edge, constantly seeking, and absolutely delighted with their success.
Each time I saw a working sandpiper, persistently seeking, I was so vividly reminded and so joyfully reminded of God, the God who draws us here this morning, the God who raised Jesus, the God who has sought us and who seeks us—like that sandpiper—on every edge of our lives. Alleluia, I thought again and again. Time on South Padre Island!
Quite a few years ago now, when I was in my first appointment out of seminary, part of my charge was to serve as the Episcopal chaplain at Culver-Stockton College in Canton MO, northeast Missouri, along the Mississippi River. It was there that I met the art and poetry of Kenneth Patchen.
Though you likely would not know it, Patchen’s poetry and art are in your memory. He developed the art of poster poetry, painting his poems in a poster which he illustrated with his art. It’s rather like the illuminated manuscripts so common to the Middle Ages. The initial letter of a page being richly embroidered and animated with color. You have seen Patchen’s poems or others like them. For Patchen, the poem and the art came about at the same time, double creation.
Sadly, the poet/artist’s life illustrates his sense of horror at war and his feeling of dislocation from much of the world that surrounded him. He died in 1972.
In 1967, the year I graduated from Seminary, Patchen gathered his poetic posters together and published the collection, poems mostly angry and sorrowful. The name of that collection is what I want to give you, for your perpetual remembrance. Poems angry and sorrowful, he called “Hallelujah Anyway.”
When the joyful intensity of Easter has moved on. Perhaps when you become mindful again of some difficulty or darkness in your life or the smaller or larger world in which we live, I want you to remember Kenneth Patchen’s declaration. When all you can ask is the question Dorothy Parker used for her autobiography, “What fresh hell is this?” When that’s what comes first to your mind—as it often does to mine—please put Kenneth Patchen’s announcement between you and that sharp-edged question.
The second Sunday of Easter. Hallelujah Anyway. Everyday, no matter what, underneath it all, whatever it is. Hallelujah Anyway. “The head that once was crowned with thorns……..is crowned with glory now.” [Hymnal 1892, H483.]
No doubt about it, none at all.
Blessed be the Name of God