Easter 5B-21
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Remember this hat? I can hear some of you groan even through cyberspace. Years ago, I wore this hat at the Easter Vigil and for all the Sundays of Easter. People say it makes me look like the apple in fruit-of the loom commercials. This fez-style hat is hand-made. It was a gift from Cantor Scott Wiedler. Scott brought it from Ethiopia in 2007. The processional cross on the altar today, and other things like the colorful umbrella we use at the Vigil, and a few liturgical dance moves we learned, also come from Scott.

Today is Easter in the Orthodox church. This hat would be worn by priests as a festival garment. The Ethiopian church traces its origin to the story of Phillip and the eunuch whom we read about today. It is among the oldest Christian traditions on the continent of Africa –or on any continent for that matter.

Not five blocks from here, worshippers, including my son Mehari, celebrated the resurrection at St. Mary’s Eritrean Orthodox church. If you visit there, as I have, you would not recognize the order of service, or understand the language, or any of the hymns, yet you would know with an overwhelming sense of joy and gratitude, that we are connected by faith in Christ. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5a). We are joined together in mystical communion to the One Vine giving life to all.

By all outward appearances, a vine is a tangled mess, an interwoven web. From one end to the other, it is not clear how one branch ends, and another begins. Like a vine, the church stretches across the world and throughout time. Connections made long ago, are forgotten, hidden behind the veil of history, visible now, only to God. What connects us is faith. The common denominator is the courage to trust in the holy spirit. The Ethiopian trusts Phillip to teach him and to baptize him. Phillip trusts the grace of God to set aside everything he had internalized as a child that would exclude foreigners, outsiders, especially sexually non-conforming people and embraces him as a brother, a beloved child of God. The communal life envisioned in the Vine of Christ raises a strong challenge to contemporary Western models of individual autonomy and privatism. The community God intends for us makes no distinction among race, gender, social status, or place of origin.
How much do you know about vines? The prophet Hosea described Israel as a “luxuriant vine” (Hosea 10:1). During the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 A.D., that ended with the death of the last hold outs on the rocky fortress called Masada in 73 A.D., the national symbol affixed to coins and emblazoned upon flags was the image of a vine. Our ancestors knew about vines. Jesus pointed to this familiar religious image and filled it with new spiritual wine. “I am the true vine,” Jesus said. (John 15:1).

The little I know comes from tour guides. The vineyards of Baja, Mexico run for miles along river valleys that gently rise inland from the coast into the shallow hills. The soil is hard and brown. The heat is uncomfortable and intense during the day. But at night, the cool winds off the water bring fingers of fog up the valleys. They cover the vineyards like a cool, moist blanket.

Row upon row of vines stretch across the valley, turning the normally brown dusty soil into carpets of green. I was told, however, that once the growing season ends, the verdant branches are pruned back to almost nothing and the land returns to brown. The vines are reduced to mere stumps that look as if they will never again produce anything. But every year, as they have for hundreds of years, the growth is returns –branches, leaves, and grapes that almost pull the branches to the ground with the weight of juice in them.

Sometimes we count our loses and not our blessings and lose perspective at how much potential for growth God has stored up in us. I read this week the average human life span doubled, from 41 to 80 years, just since 1920. For most of human history, the average lifespan was even shorter, just 35 years. I wonder, would our ancestors want to know, what shall we do with the two, wild, lifetimes that we have been given? Might we somehow close the gap in lifespan between those in Streeterville, who live on average to 90, and their neighbors nine miles south in Englewood who only live on average to 60? God’s garden is big. God’s people are connected. We all do better when we all live better.

In our gospel today, the disciples and the budding Christian community are about to be pruned. They don’t know it yet, but Jesus will be taken from them. It will feel like their heart is being cut out. Everything they worked and dreamed about is done. Their hope will seem lost. But in three days, after the resurrection, the young community will rise again. They will grow back, larger, stronger, and better than before—the first fruits from the new body of Christ. Alleluia. Christ is risen! (R)

Of course, what seems like no big deal to do to plants is another thing entirely when it is done to us. We certainly have been pruned this past year—and the process of reducing and holding back is not quite finished yet. Our hopes for re-opening and mingled with our prayers for brothers and sisters in India, and South America, throughout the world, and in nearby hospitals coping with the full force of Covid-19. We are connected.

I do not say the pandemic is God’s will. Yet I draw hope and inspiration from the fact that God can bring fine wine from flinty soil. God can coax blessing out from the most tragic of events. God breathes new vitality into tired lives. We draw sustenance from the source of life that is in Christ Jesus.

St. Mary’s is quiet this morning. The doors are locked. Everyone has gone home to their bed. Easter worship began last night at sundown and finished up at about 3:00 o’clock this morning. The peaceful exhaustion that follows Holy Week has just now begun. We know what they’re feeling. We recognize the pattern because Christ’s church is a community connected to the living Word through water and wine. We are nourished by God through faith in Christ. We are called into being in the world for the world. As Jesus broke bread, so we are broken and pruned for others; as Jesus poured out the fruit of the vine, so we are poured out for the benefit of all. As Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them, so we welcome one another and people throughout the world whom Jesus has made one with us as part of the One Vine.

Easter 3B-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

He showed them his hands and his feet (Luke 24:40). He showed them his wounds. When Luke and John tell us, Jesus invited the disciples to touch and to see him, it wasn’t merely to identify him as the same person. It was a way to ratify the gospel message.  In life, Jesus proclaimed the kindom of God in words and deeds. After rising from tomb, he taught them the meaning of resurrection in flesh and bone. Yes.  Violence has consequences. It scars and wounds us. Yet truly, goodness is stronger than evil; love is stronger than hate; light is stronger than shadow; life is stronger than death (ELW #721).  Violence, torture, and even death on a cross cannot erase the life we share in God.

Jesus proclaimed the good news in flesh and bone. Today’s gospel is astonishingly intimate. Our bodies tell a story –don’t they? One which we are quick to cover up and ignore. Many of us feel more comfortable imagining ourselves before St. Peter at the Pearly Gates than standing in front of a full-length mirror. Each successive year adds to the record of the pluses and minuses that somehow add up exactly to who you are now. Jesus, wounded yet living, proclaims that our poor flesh is not shameful but is the dwelling place of God. God with us, our mistakes become “experience.”  God in us, our scars can become a source of compassion and wisdom.  And we are scarred—aren’t we?  Our bodies testify to all the ways we have been wounded, if we would listen, in body, mind, heart, and soul.

This makes Christianity unique among religions by its portrayal of God as one who bears wounds, like us. “We become forgetful that Jesus is the prophet of the losers not the victors camp, the one who proclaims that the first will be last, that the weak are the strong and the fools are the wise” ( Malcolm Muggeridge). To those most afflicted, whether by slavery, by war, by famine, injustice, racism, or hypocrisy—this fact has always been a source of the most profound hope.

In the midst of WWI, pastor Edward Shillito’s poem pays homage to “Jesus of the Scars.” He wrote, “The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak; They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone” (Edward Shillito,1872-1948).

Like our bodies, faith must be nourished. It cannot be stockpiled but requires daily a pattern of replenishment. The answer to someone’s hunger is not to ask why they are hungry. Nor is the answer to doubt a question about why they cannot believe. The answer is food. The answer is Jesus’ real presence in flesh and blood. When our stomachs are rumbling, when faced with the lingering fear wrought from trauma and violence, time is not always a healer. Our deepest wounds can take decades to fade without gospel medicine, the bread of life and living water to restore us in body, mind, heart, and soul. This is what Jesus in flesh and bone means to us at Easter.

When faced with trauma, some people manage to emerge stronger than ever. How do they manage it?  Marie (not her real name), a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, should expect to endure a life of avoidance and anguish due to her experience of violence and trauma. When Marie was 16, a group of militiamen came to her village, killed her family and many of their neighbors, and took her as a slave into the forest. She was assaulted continuously for weeks, before one of the soldiers took pity on her and led to the Rwandan border. From there she found her way to the capital, Kigali, and eventually by plane to Turkey.

At first, she slept on the street, then in a center run by the Turkish government. She was taken to hospital, where she discovered she was four months pregnant. She regularly hallucinated about her mother, and she had severe PTSD: “I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “I was very scared. I couldn’t stay five minutes on my own. I couldn’t be in the dark because I would see the soldiers in my mind and all that they did to me. I was afraid of men. In a bus I couldn’t be near them. I didn’t even want to sit next to a beautiful woman. I’d rather sit next to a veiled woman so no one would look at us.”

Marie ended up at The Center for Behavior Research and Therapy in Istanbul. She found new friends who encouraged her to sit on buses, to walk in the street, to sleep in the dark. They watched documentaries about sexual assault.  Victims of torture say the healing begins when we can show one another, our trusted friends, our wounds.

Marie is much better now. Although she avoids eye contact and twists her hands together when she describes what happened, she is no longer trying to hide from life. She has started working in a hair salon.

Resilience and recovery do not require extraordinary resources or an innate toughness. It doesn’t require us to ‘just get over it,’ or somehow diminish the horror of what happened.  It comes with help when we show our wounds and let them tell their story in all honesty. It comes with a recognition that the future doesn’t have to be determined by the past. It comes with awareness that there is something which can never be destroyed or erased that is meaningful and purposeful about our life.

The Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, during his internment in Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps during World War II, helped his fellow prisoners endure the horror around them by getting them to focus on the lives they might lead after the war – the work they would do, or the nurturing of their children. In his most famous book, Man’s Search for Meaning, first published in 1946, he observed that prisoners who lost faith in the future lost their “spiritual hold” on themselves, and quickly declined mentally and physically. (Michael Bond, “The secrets of extraordinary survivors,” BBC, 8/14/15)

Faith in the future, confidence that we are loved, knowledge that our dignity as human beings is indelible, and the realization that we do not bear our grief and suffering alone but that God is with us and suffers too, that God can heal our wounds and transform them into something like wisdom –this is the essence of Easter.

I am heartsick this week at hearing about guns in America. As of April 16th, there have already been 147 mass shootings, and 11 mass murders. (Daniel Victor and Derrick Bryson Taylor, “A Partial List of Mass Shootings in the United States in 2021,” NYT, 4/16/21) Since testimony in Derek Chauvin’s trial began on March 29, more than three people a day have died at the hands of law enforcement, at least 64 people nationwide, with Black and Latino people representing more than half of the dead.” (John Eligon and Shawn Hubler, “Throughout Trial Over George Floyd’s Death, Killings by Police Mount,” The New York Times, 4/17/18) We cannot be healed of our affliction of violence and death while we cover our wounds and pretend that they are not happening. We must honestly reckon with the toll in flesh and blood.

During his ministry, Jesus healed so many wounded people. On Easter evening, Jesus was the one with wounds. The disciples had witnessed Jesus restoring the sight of many blind people. Now they were the ones called to open their eyes. Jesus had touched and ministered to the unclean, often breaking the Sabbath and purification rules. Now the disciples were asked to break the rules—to touch this convicted and executed criminal. Jesus says to them, “Touch me and see.” The disciples are invited to begin a new community where we acknowledge that we all are wounded, that we are both righteous and unrighteous, Yet, by our wounds, we may also be healed. Thanks be to God!