1 Easter 2020: Seeing Beauty

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The text for preaching today, is the Gospel of John 20:19-31. It is that old story about the disciple Thomas who did not believe his fellow disciples when they told him about a risen Jesus, at least not until Jesus appeared and asked Thomas to put his finger in the open wound made by the sword in his side.

The other text, which I will read in a moment, is a poem by Ivan Bunin, entitled: “Flowers, tall-stalked grasses, and a bee.”

The story of Thomas is a parable.
It is the kind of story my kids would have said
is a guilt trip.
Heck, I would say it’s a guilt trip.

Just a reminder,
a parable has a single point
as distinct from an allegory, which may
have multiple messages.
The single point of the Thomas story
is that our spiritual stature,
if not our personhood,
is diminished if we cannot believe
what we have not experienced.

If we listen hard to that story,
it is not difficult to hear a “tsk, tsk” whispered
between the lines

We know the Gospel of John was written
seventy to ninety years after Jesus’ execution,
when there was no one left alive
who had witnessed his life, death, or resurrection.
So there is little doubt this story
was told to encourage those who believed
without seeing,
and proclaimed
without touching.

Its effect, of course, could also have been to
pour bitter lemons on those who didn’t.

As I viewed the images
of the angry, gun festooned mob
demonstrating at the State House in Lansing, Michigan,
against being told to stay at home
because of the pandemic – some of them extra agitated,
no doubt, because the governor is a woman –

I thought of this problem we have
related to seeing and believing.
It is not just a problem of experience
it is also a problem of perception,
of confirmation bias:
we see what we want to see,
close our eyes to what threatens our beliefs,
and embrace whatever reinforces
what we thought in the first place.

Obviously if we begin with the belief
that government is bad
and must be kept in its place,
then being told to stay at home –
not matter that there is an unseen pandemic
sweeping the state
and the only way to manage it,
though no one has ever done it before,
is social distancing –
then we are likely to feel hostile and paranoid
toward a stay at home order.

I get it, I have felt that hostility
and paranoia before –
protested too,
(but without a gun strapped around my waist
or bandolier belt with ammo crossing my torso).
Still, viewing the images of that protest
and knowing what I know about the virus
and believing this social distancing project
is a good-faith effort we need to get behind,
it was hard not to feel disgusted.

So, I want to give Thomas a little grace
and practice a some humility
because who among us
has seen a dead person in the flesh?

But not merely a ghostly apparition,
rather, the sinewy, flesh-punctured,
and scarred body of a person
attached to a living, breathing soul?
It is just not a common category of experience.

But what about joy?
What about beauty?
What about the exquisite honeycomb of hope
with its delicious beads of blessedness
rising like bread between the forms?
What about folks who just do not see it
and instead, hover over the nail holes
and the bloody pus of injury?
Is there some way
we can help them see what we see
and know what we know?

That poem we heard today,
from the Russian Nobel Laureate,
Ivan Bunin, it could be a kind of anthem:

“Flowers, and tall-stalked grasses, and a bee,
and azure, blaze of the meridian…
The time will come, the Lord will ask his prodigal son:
“In your life on earth, were you happy?”

And I’ll forget it all, only remembering those
meadow paths among tall spears of grass,
and clasped against the knees of mercy I
will not respond, choked off by tears of joy.”

Now please, I am not promoting
a Pollyanna innocence and naivete
with eyesight that glazes over at the first sign
of danger, darkness, or dread.
Rather, the importance of having role-players
in our Hundred Acre Woods.
We need the Christopher Robin with global vision
who can remind Pooh
just how sweet it is,
and put rails up on Piglet’s anxiety
and Rabbit’s cynicism,
not to mention Eeyore’s morose near-sightedness.
Of course, restraining Kanga and Tigger
is also his job, so that their unbounded exuberance
doesn’t get them all killed.

We simply must have people with vision
for beauty,
for the ordinary sacred blossoming around us,
and for the exquisite intimacy
entangling the joyful and the grievous
into a single ecosystem that is the garden we walk in.

What’s more, I think it is learned –
I think it is a practice available to Eeyore and Tigger.

It is what Jesus gave us, should we wish to receive it.

The vision to see, to see even what is not in front of us.

It is the vision to see life even within a deep and painful wound.

It is the vision to see beauty even where death is a yawning presence.

It is the vision to experience joy in an orchestra that pairs pain and love,
struggle and liberation, conflict and healing.

It is a learned practice to willingly enter what is taking place around us
with a kind of fearless openness and unguarded mentality.

It is a learned practice
that allows us to be surprised
by what contradicts our assumptions
and to be disabused of our ordinary prejudices.

It is a learned practice
that takes a role-player like Rabbit or Owl
and allows them to act as Robin or Pooh
at the very moment the whole community
of the Hundred Acre Woods
is desperate for someone to do it.

Like a rubber band stretching out of its comfort
of roundness
to serve as a temporary hold,
any one of us, if we practice,
can learn to see beauty
and know joy
and point to the sacred in our midst,
and in so doing
help heal and strengthen
the community we are in.

Now this does not mean
we must always be the one
and always hold the moment for everyone.

Rather, we can fall back into the shape and vision
more natural to us
and allow others to hold our hand
and point the way.

That is how a team works,
that is the nature of a community.

But to be ready when it is our turn,
we must practice.
We must practice unbridled openness.
We must practice microscopic seeing
and open-fisted receiving.
We must practice big-heartedness
and exposed, vulnerable, thinking
with a path cleared to seeing and hearing
a brand-new idea or thing.
No one has that ability all the time,
no one has that super power as a second nature.

We learn it
when we practice it.
Like all things, some people seem more graceful with it
than others who are forever awkward,
but every single one of us
has the capacity to practice and do it.
I think maybe, maybe
that is our gift –
and by “our”
I mean Christian spiritual practice
done well
and done with love.

It would mean altering our interpretation
of the Thomas story
to surgically remove the “tsk, tsk” –
which is not actually in the story
but in the historic interpretation of it.

It would mean passing around the glasses
that give us the vision
and allowing each of us to lead the way
toward the beauty and sacredness
sprouting at our feet
even now, even in pandemic –
even in sickness and in death.

It would mean all of us trying it out,
with training wheels if needed at first,
and giving it a try.

“The time will come, the Lord will ask his prodigal son:
‘In your life on earth, were you happy?’

And I’ll forget it all, only remembering those
meadow paths among tall spears of grass,
and clasped against the knees of mercy I
will not respond, choked off by tears of joy.”

Come on Tigger, and Eeyore,
come on Rabbit and Piglet,
give it a try –
put on the Robin and Pooh glasses
and see the orchestra of splendor and sorrow
as it makes the music of life…and
how stunning it is.