Thursday, April 12, 2007

All Washed Up (Epiphany 5C (Feb. 4, 2007)

Have you ever felt all washed up? Peter and James and John did. They had been fishing all night on the Sea of Galilee and had caught nothing. In the morning they came ashore and were washing their nets when a stranger came by and said, “Have you tried fishing over there? That spot near the southeastern shore looks a good fishing hole to me.” Right, Peter thought. Everyone’s an expert. Peter knew the Sea of Galilee the way you know your backyard, and he had been all over it the night before and nothing was biting. But… but what? But something about the way the man suggested that he try again caught Peter’s attention. “Mister,” Peter said, “I’m not sure you’ve ever baited a hook, much less spent all night trying to catch fish, but what the heck? It won’t hurt to try again.” And off they went – Peter and James and John – and by golly if the stranger wasn’t right. And the fish they caught! They were almost too much for the threadbare nets that they had mended and mended and then mended again on top of the old mends.

Gideon felt all washed up, too. Israel was a tiny country surrounded by larger nations with better weapons and better-trained armies. Israel had fought and lost and then fought and lost again. They just barely managed to maintain a foothold on the rocky central hill country between the coastal plain and the Jordan River that ran from the Galilee in the north to the Dead Sea in the South. Like Peter and James and John, Gideon had his head down and was minding his own business. While Gideon was threshing the wheat to release the grains that could be ground into flour, an angel appeared to him. Things like that happened back then. People knew what angels looked and sounded like, so Gideon knew that this was an angel. And the angel announced in the standard angelic manner, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” But Gideon had a good measure of what his distant descendants would one day call chutzpah, so he threw it right back in the angel’s face. "OK, mister, but if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, 'Did not the LORD bring us up from Egypt?' But now the LORD has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian." Gideon was not only washed up, he was fed up.

Have you ever felt washed up? Have you ever felt as though you might as well give up on your hopes and dreams? Did you ever decide just to stick to the tried and true – going to the office every day, vacationing at the beach every summer, having a cocktail or two every evening, ordering Chinese on Sunday nights? Leave adventure and big dreams to someone else. Been there, done that, got the bruises and scars to show for it.

There is much to be said for the routine and the mundane. In many ways the disciples and even Gideon had a lot going for them. The disciples had their boat and their customers. They didn’t make a lot of money and there were certainly nights when they didn’t catch a thing, but most of the time they did OK. Gideon’s life was a little more precarious; then as now Israel was surrounded by enemies who would just as soon see them run into the sea. But Gideon had his farm; the harvest was enough to live on. He could make do.

And then along came God. “Cast your nets out into the deep.” “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” God has a mission for you. Yeah, right… I’m on a mission for God…

But that’s the way God works. God comes along when we feel all washed up… when we’ve been up all night and have nothing to show for it except bags under our eyes… when we’ve been beaten up again by the bullies down the block or in the corner office… when we’ve just had the umpteenth knock down/drag out fight with the person who was once the love of our life and we’ve begun to think that divorce sounds pretty good… when we’ve just had our twelfth unsuccessful job interview and all we want to do is go home, eat a box of Godiva chocolates and pull the covers over our head… when we’ve prayed and prayed and prayed again and our prayers seem to go no higher than the ceiling. Along comes God and says, “Let down your net… try again… I am with you, you mighty warrior.”

All of us have times when we feel fed up and washed up… when the last thing we want to do is try again. Even churches have times like that. I have a feeling that this church or at least quite a few members of this church may have gone through such an experience. Have you wondered, “What’s the point? It’s just too hard.” Well, I can tell you what the point is. The point is this: All around you is a sea of human beings who are hungry for a relationship with God, thirsty for a connection with the divine. God wants us to go back out on the sea and let down our nets again. God wants us to go beneath the surface. “The Lord is with you, O might warrior.”

Sometimes I feel all washed up, but I know that I have not yet gone down far enough, that God is inviting me to go down deeper, to experience adventures of which I have not yet dreamed. When I get up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror, “mighty warrior” is not the first thing that comes to mind. More often it is “middle-aged priest who needs to lose a few pounds and go to the gym more frequently” but that is because I cannot see myself with God’s eyes. When we learn to see life from God’s point of view then it is an adventure, a great fishing trip, a battle in which we are already the victors.

God has a knack of showing up just at the time when we feel all washed up. It was after an all-night fishing trip that had barely yielded a minnow when God came to Peter, James, and John. It was when Israel was outnumbered and outgunned that God came to Gideon. And it was only after Jesus had cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that God reached down into a tomb on a Judean hillside and raised Jesus to life eternal and triumphant. I can’t tell you when God will show up in your life, but as Bishop Miller likes to say, God is never late. Push out into the deep. Lower your nets. God is with you… God is with you.

The Beatitudes: Open Hands, Open Hearts

J. Barry Vaughn. Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Vestavia Hills, Alabama. Epiphany 6C (Feb 11, 2007)

In the spring of 1990 I was part of a group of Jews and Christians from Alabama who visited Israel and Palestine under the auspices of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. We visited the usual holy places – the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Loaves and Fishes. But one of the loveliest shrines is the Mount of the Beatitudes overlooking the Sea of Galilee. While I was taking in the vista, our Israeli guide came up to me, and knowing that I was an assistant professor of religion at Samford University in Birmingham, he asked if I would say a few words to the group about the Beatitudes. Imagine how I felt – I was standing in the very place said to be the location of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and I had about five or ten minutes to come up with something appropriate to say about the Beatitudes to a group of some 20 or 30 Jews and Christians.

Somehow I managed to come up with a pretty good spur of the moment lecture. I pointed out that to understand the Beatitudes we must keep in mind that Jesus was a Jew, and the Beatitude is a classically Jewish literary form. Today’s readings give us excellent examples of this.

The Psalmist writes:

Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, *…

Their delight is in the law of the LORD, *and they meditate on his law day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water,bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; *everything they do shall prosper.

It is not so with the wicked; *they are like chaff which the wind blows away.

Jeremiah also gives us a beatitude but being the gloomy sort of prophet he was, begins not with a blessing but a curse. I guess you could say that Jeremiah gives us as much attitude as beatitude.

Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals
and make mere flesh their strength,

They shall be like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see when relief comes.

Blessed are those who trust in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.

And finally Jesus:

"Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.

"Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.

"Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
"Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.
"But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.

"Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.

"Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.

Notice that in each case blessedness is contrasted with its opposite: the Psalmist contrasts those who keep the Law, the Torah, with those who do not. Jeremiah contrasts those who trust God with those who do not. So far, so good. We can understand that. It makes sense to us to imagine that those who work hard, play by the rules, go to church on Sunday, and eat their vegetables will flourish. That’s what we’ve always been told. We’ve also been told that those who flout the rules, call in sick when they’re really going fishing, never darken the door of a church, and prefer cake and ice cream to broccoli and Brussels sprouts will (as the Psalmist says) “be like chaff which the wind drives away.”

Then along comes Jesus and stands conventional wisdom on its head. Like the Psalmist and Jeremiah, Jesus, too, draws a line between those who are blessed and those who are not. But he draws the line in a completely different place. Jesus draws the line not between those who play by the rules and those who do not but between those who are successful in the world’s eyes and those who are failures. Even more surprising, he tells us that it is the failures who are the objects of God’s blessing.

Blessed, esteemed, honored, he says, are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and above all those who are reviled and scorned because of the Son of Man. Alternatively, shame will come down on the rich, those whose bellies are full, who laugh, and those who are held in high regard and “spoken well of”.

The Beatitudes (as they are given in both Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels) are some of Jesus’ hardest words. We hear them read in church; perhaps we have memorized them in Sunday School; we may even have sung them. But these are words that should trouble our sleep and haunt us.

We do not esteem the poor; we do not honor the hungry; we long to be spoken well of and to have our mouths filled with laughter. The Beatitudes outline the way of the Cross. “Take up your cross and follow me,” Jesus said. If we would learn how to take up our cross, we would do well to study the beatitudes. The way of the cross is to rely on God’s abundance and not our bank accounts; to feed the beggar on the street before we pull up to the takeout window at McDonald’s; to weep for those for whom the everyday comforts we take for granted – a roof over our heads, three meals a day, a good job – are an impossible dream.

Before I go any further, I want to say something as clearly as possible. The beatitudes are not a recipe for guilt. We need not feel guilty because we are happy and successful. Rather, the beatitudes are an invitation -- an invitation to put our trust not in our bank accounts, careers, degrees, and well-stocked pantries. The beatitudes invite us to put our trust in God.

Blessed, honored, and esteemed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and those who are reviled and scorned because they may be more open than the rest of us to trusting God. The beatitudes tell us that we must come to God with empty hands and open hearts. They tell us that if we come to God with hands full of possessions and accomplishments that God will have no place to put the blessings that God wants to give us. The beatitudes tell us that if we come to God with our heads and hearts full of a sense of our own importance that we may not be able to hear God telling us that how much we are loved and that our worth is derived from divine love alone.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner tells the story of a colleague who said to a member of his congregation, “Whenever I see you, you’re always in a hurry. Tell me, where are you running all the time?” The man answered, “I’m running after success, I’m running after fulfillment, I’m running after the reward for all my hard work.” And Kushner’s colleague replied, “That’s a good answer if you assume that all those blessings are somewhere ahead of you, trying to elude you and if you run fast enough, you may catch up with them. But isn’t it possible that those blessings are behind you, that they are looking for you, and the more you run, the harder you make it for them to find you?” Kushner observed that God may have all kinds of blessing in store for us – “good food and beautiful sunsets and flowers budding in the spring and leaves turning in the fall – but we in our pursuit of happiness are so constantly on the go that God can’t find us at home to deliver them”! (Lawrence Kushner, When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough (New York, 1986), pp. 146-147)

Our response to the beatitudes need not be to rush out and liquidate our bank accounts, sell our cars and houses, empty our refrigerators and give everything we have to the poor and hungry. Rather, the message is to stop running after success and fulfillment and to realize that God is ready to fill us with all good things if only we will open our hands and hearts to receive them. Amen.

Constructive Forgetfulness

J. Barry Vaughn. Episcopal Church of the Ascension (Birmingham, AL). Lent 5C (March 25, 2007).

“Remember” is one of the most powerful and important words in the OT. In Hebrew zakor is the imperative verb “remember”. A friend of mine who teaches Jewish studies at Columbia University wrote an entire book simply entitled Zakor –“Remember.”

The OT is full of stories of how important it is to remember. At the end of the story of the flood in Genesis, the rainbow is placed in the sky as a way to help God remember not to annihilate humankind again. And the commandment not to work on the Sabbath is because Israel remembers that they were slaves in Egypt.

So, it’s at least a surprise and maybe even a shock when the prophet Isaiah says, “Do NOT remember the former things or consider the things of old.” Why? What value can there be in forgetting?

There is both constructive memory and destructive memory. As an historian, my job is to help people remember, to help them connect to the past in a constructive way. I very much believe that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it, although we have to keep in mind that the past never repeats itself exactly. Karl Marx was wrong about almost everything but was correct when he said, “History repeats itself first as tragedy and second as farce.” Think Nixon and Watergate and then Bill and Monica.

The opposite of remember is not to forget but to dismember, to be cut off from those things, events, stories that made us who and what we are.

However, there can also be a pathological remembering, a destructive connection with the past. We see this especially in the Middle East and more generally in militant Islam. In the Middle East, Arabs still refer to European as Franks. “Frank” was the medieval name of the French who were the most important group of Crusaders who invaded and massacred Muslims, Jews, and Eastern Orthodox Christians in the 11th century. Talk about long memories!!

Pathological remembering is most evident in people with mental and emotional illness. We all know people who cannot forget how badly they were wounded by their parents or by a wife or husband or by an employer. The inability to let go, to forgive, and in a sense to graciously and gracefully forget or at least act as though one has forgotten can keep us stuck and miserable.

When Isaiah says “Do not remember the things of old”, he was speaking to Israelites in captivity in Babylon. They were stuck. Mighty Babylon had invaded Judah, destroyed Jerusalem and its temple, and carried them into exile. That was an enormous burden to carry around, and Isaiah invited them to let go of it, to forget the past, forget defeat.

Instead, Isaiah announced that God was doing a “new thing.”

Paradoxically, people who obsessively remember old hurts and wounds often do not want to let go of their unhealthy connection to the past. Someone has defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. But healing begins when they are able to change old patterns, to stop doing “business as usual,” to believe that God might do a new thing in their lives.

It can be frightening to worship a God who does new things but that is that kind of God we encounter in the Bible. God did a new thing when he called Abraham to be the father of a great people; God did a new thing when he called Moses to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt; and above all, God did a new thing when he came among us as one of us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.

However, there are many Christians who believe that God stopped doing new things 2000 years ago. I think they are wrong. I believe that God may still surprise us. How would we know if God was doing a new thing in our time and in our midst? I think we can recognize God’s hand at work among us by looking for several characteristics.

First, the new things that God does are likely to be counter-intuitive. In other words, I believe that God is most likely to work through the poor and disenfranchised than through the wealthy and powerful. Last Thursday night, we are studying Luke’s gospel and looked at the Magnificat or song of Mary. Mary tells us that God is going to exalt the humble and humble the mighty; to fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty.

Second, whatever new thing God does will be life-giving. We worship a God who frees the captives, who breaks down barriers. I believe that God did a new thing when the Iron Curtain fell and the Soviet empire was destroyed. One of my college classmates wrote a note in our 25th reunion class book: “I danced on the Berlin Wall on New Year’s Eve in 1989 … to all my left-wing friends in college, you were wrong about everything!”

I am equally certain that God did a new thing when the South African apartheid system fell and Nelson Mandela became the first president elected by all the people of South Africa.

But the new thing God does may come with no fanfare. It may affect only one person or one family, rather than the whole human race. The new thing may be freedom from addiction, the healing of a broken marriage, reconciliation between parent and child.

So what Isaiah told Israel long, long ago I tell you. “Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old… Behold, God is doing a new thing…”

I have called you friends

J. Barry Vaughn. Episcopal Church of the Ascension (Birmingham, AL). Maundy Thursday (April 5, 2007).

What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.
“No longer do I call you servants… but I have called you friends…”

Friendship seems a strange word for Jesus to be using in this context. He and his disciples had gathered for the first seder of Passover and the last meal they would enjoy together in this world. It was a time for profound statements, a time for Jesus to remind them of their solemn responsibility to proclaim his good news, and time to inspire and a time to warn, and in the midst of this solemn time, Jesus told his disciples that they were now friends rather than servants.

To speak of “friendship” at such a profound moment seems a little out of place. It’s a word which lacks weight and solemnity. I associate the word “friendship” with childhood, a time when we thought in terms of “best friends.” In the world of children they think of who is in and who is out. “Will you be my friend?” “I don’t want to be friends with you any more” and so on. But on the most solemn and fearful night of his earthly life, Jesus spoke of his relationship with his disciples in terms of friendship.

Why did Jesus call his disciples friends?

First, friendship clarified the death he was about to endure. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Imagine this, Jesus seems to be saying. What would motivate a person to give up her life? We would not give up our life for a stranger. The only thing that would give us sufficient motivation to give up our lives would be the love we have for our friends.

Second, Jesus defined friendship. The first part of the definition is odd but significant. A friend is one who does what Jesus commands. In the normal course of things, obeying orders is not a characteristic of friendship but we shall see that Jesus is using friendship in way that redefines it.

A friend is also one who (we would say today) is “in the loop.” She knows what her friends are up to. “…I have called you friends,” Jesus said, “for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”

Finally, a friend is one whom we choose. “You did not choose me, but I chose you…” This is the part of Jesus’ definition of friendship that makes the most sense. We do not choose our families but we do choose our friends and they choose us. Indeed, friendship requires reciprocal choosing; it is never one-sided.

So back to the question with which I started. Why did Jesus call his disciples (and by extension all of us) friends on the last night of his earthly life?

I think the key is in the kind of love that characterizes friendship.

For Aristotle friendship was a higher form of love than either romantic love or parental love. There is an element of the irrational in both. “Greater love,” Jesus said, “has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Parents will almost automatically put themselves between their children and harm’s way. And people in the grip of intense romantic love will do almost anything for their beloved, even to the point of giving up their lives. But to give up one’s life for a friend requires one to choose the other’s well-being over one’s own.

I believe that Jesus wanted to make it perfectly clear that the death he was about to endure was completely voluntary. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” If Jesus had called them his sons and daughters or even his brothers and sisters, it might have implied that his death was in some sense required or compelled.

But second and more important, friendship implies a high degree of vulnerability. To love another person is to become vulnerable to that person. No one can hurt us as badly as someone whom we love.

Jesus gave up his life only once but in declaring us his friends he made himself vulnerable to us forever. “I have called you friends,” Jesus said, and he has never withdrawn that promise. Forever his heart is open to our betrayals, unfaithfulness, and love, and yet he continues to be our friend.

The 4th c. theologian Gregory of Nyssa said, “We regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful, and we consider becoming God's friend the only thing truly worthwhile.” “I have called you friends,” Jesus said, and on the cross he demonstrated exactly what he meant by friendship. Real friendships require work. They require that we spend time with our friends. And if we do, we will find greater and greater depths in that friendship as time passes. “A friendship will be young after the lapse of half a century; a passion is old at the end of three months.” (Arthur Crawshay Hall)

Imagine an eternal friendship, a friendship that goes on forever and ever, a friend whose depths and complexity you can never comprehend, a friend who is always challenging you to do your best and helping you bring out of your heart and life qualities that you did not even know you possessed. That is what Jesus meant when he called us “friends.”Here might I stay and sing,No story so divine;Never was love, dear King!Never was grief like Thine.This is my Friend, in Whose sweet praiseI all my days could gladly spend.

Monday, April 09, 2007

An idle tale: Luke's Easter story

J. Barry Vaughn. Episcopal Church of the Ascension (Birmingham, AL). Easter Day (April 8, 2007).

Text: “…these words seemed to them an idle tale and they did not believe them.” (Luke 24.11)

Once upon a time not so very long ago in a place not far from here a man was having his morning coffee and reading the paper when he looked out the window and saw a sleek, white unicorn with a golden horn in the middle of its forehead eating the daisies in his garden. He went upstairs, awakened his wife and said, “There’s a unicorn in the garden.” Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she crossly said, “You woke me up just to tell me there’s a unicorn in the garden? Don’t be ridiculous. Unicorns are mythical beasts.”

So he went back downstairs and looked out the window. Even though his wife had informed him that unicorns are mythical beasts, the unicorn was still there, drinking from the birdbath. So he went back upstairs and said, “It’s really beautiful. You should come downstairs and see the unicorn.” “You are a nut,” she said, “And I’m going to have you locked up.” So while he went back downstairs to find some oats to give the unicorn, his wife was dialing 911. “My husband has completely lost it,” she told the operator. “He says there’s a unicorn in the garden, and I want to have him locked up.” So the police arrived, accompanied by an ambulance. “Excuse me,” they said to the man when he opened the door, “but your wife called and told us that you had seen a unicorn in the garden.” “That’s ridiculous,” the man said, “Unicorns are mythical beasts.” And as the police carried his wife away kicking and screaming, the man took a bucket of oats out to the garden to feed the unicorn. (NB: Most readers will recognize that I've borrowed James Thurber's story, "The Unicorn in the Garden" with a few small changes.)

According to Luke the women who returned from the tomb and told Jesus’ apostles about his resurrection got much the same reaction from the apostles that the man got from his wife. Luke tells us that the apostles thought “these words seemed … an idle tale.”

Luke begins with one angelic announcement and ends with another. “The power of the Most High shall come upon you,” Gabriel said to Mary, “and you shall conceive and bear a son and shall call him Jesus.” And it must have seemed like an idle tale to Mary. “To you is born this day in the city of David a savior who is the Messiah, the Lord,” the angels announced to the shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem who probably were at least as shocked to find themselves serenaded by angels as the man was to find a unicorn in his garden.

Jesus himself was quite the spinner of tales. “A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho and was set upon by thieves who left him beaten and bloody by the side of the road. A priest and a Levite on their way to serve in the temple passed by him, but a Samaritan took pity on him, cleaned and bandaged his wounds, and took him to a place where he could rest and recover.” “Ridiculous!” the religious leaders scoffed, “You might as well expect us to believe you saw a unicorn in the garden as to believe a …a… a man like that would go out of his way to help a traveler who had been beaten up.”

So Jesus told another story. “After getting his inheritance in advance and spending it all on cheap wine, fast living, and loose women, a young man suddenly found himself broke and hungry and tempted to eat the same slop he was feeding to the hogs. So he resolved to go back home to his father and sign on as a hired hand on the family farm. But lo and behold, when he rounded the last curve in the highway, his father spotted him, ran out to greet him, hugged him, gave him a new set of clothes, and threw a party to celebrate his return.” “Jesus,” the religious leaders said, “your ideals are admirable but you are unrealistic. You are advocating moral anarchy. That young man had forfeited his claim on his father’s forgiveness. No parent in his right mind would let such a rebellious and disobedient child return without at least giving him a stern lecture.”

About 300 years ago, the world decided that there were no unicorns in the garden and that dead men do not rise again. That was the beginning of the Enlightenment or Age of Reason. Now, the Enlightenment did much good. It encouraged toleration among persons of different faiths; it promoted a skeptical attitude toward the rule of monarchs that helped produce the American Revolution; and it gave us a multitude of new tools for understanding and shaping our world. But it eliminated unicorns and went a long way toward eliminating Easter, too.

Prior to the Enlightenment, people believed that the planets were moved around the sun by angels. But Sir Isaac Newton, a devout Christian, by the way, discovered and systematically explained the laws of gravitation and motion that account for the movements of the planets around the sun. I can just imagine someone saying to Newton, “But, Sir Isaac, are you saying that angels do not exist?” “No,” he might reply, “angels may very well exist, but if you want to understand how and why the planets move around the sun, you will have to take calculus.” So that leaves me out. I can’t make head or tail of calculus but I liked the idea of angels rolling the planets around the sun like so many celestial bowling balls. Now the angels have flown away leaving the universe a duller and less beautiful place.

The 20th century was supposed to be the time when reason would finally triumph over religion, when the idea that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead would seem as obsolete and unbelievable as unicorns, but the joke is on those who predicted the swift and certain demise of religion. Not only is Christianity flourishing but the 20th century turned out to be anything but an age of reason.

The irony of the 20th century is that people dismissed the resurrection as an idle tale but believed so many far more preposterous ideas. For much of the 20th century half the human race was at least nominally committed to the idea that religion was just the “opium of the people” and was an illusion perpetuated by the wealthy to keep the poor content in this world. Hitler and his Nazi thugs swept to power by telling an idle but powerful and pernicious tale about ethnic superiority. Western capitalism fostered the idle tale that great wealth can be amassed without an equally great responsibility to use that wealth responsibly and see to the need of others. The advertisers and marketers that keep capitalism spinning along make their living by promoting belief in idle tales. They want us to believe that if we drink Budweiser, smoke Camels, and drive Fords then we will be young and attractive forever.

The problem is not that we believe too much but that we believe too much of the wrong things and too little of the right things. We believe that like the prodigal son we have squandered our inheritance in a far country by spending it on every imaginable vice but we don’t believe that our heavenly Father stands at the gate of heaven, arms wide to embrace us as soon as we set our feet on the path towards home. We believe that everyone will pass by us as we lay bruised and beaten by the side of life’s highway but we don’t believe that a Good Samaritan named Jesus went out of his way to bind our wounds and take us to a place of safety. And we believe that Jesus died on the cross because that’s what happens to goodness in this world. Perfect goodness does not fit in this world and threatens the powers that be, so they nailed Jesus to the Cross. We understand that; we believe it; and it makes sense. But what seems as strange and unbelievable as a unicorn in the garden is the angel’s message to the women who came to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body for its long sleep. “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here; he is risen!”

Why is it so difficult for us to believe the angel’s good news? Sometimes it is difficult for us to believe because life has been so hard. We have been kicked around and beaten up more times than we can remember and no Good Samaritan has come along to help us. But more often, I think, we find it hard to believe the Easter story because life has been good and rich and rewarding.

While visiting Duke University, a student asked theologian Carlyle Marney to explain the resurrection of the dead. “Marney replied, "I will not discuss that with people like you." "Why not?" asked the student. "I don't discuss such matters with anyone under 30," Marney said. "Look at you, in the prime of life, potent - never have you known honest-to-God failure, heart-burn, impotency, solid defeat, brick walls, mortality. So what can you know of a dark world which only makes sense if Christ is raised?"

The problem with the Enlightenment is that it gave us tools to understand how the planets move in their courses but did nothing to help us heal the wounds in our hearts. For that we need a story, a story we will not be able to prove by the rules of logic, but which is true nonetheless.

Like the story of the unicorn in the garden, the New Testament also tells us of a garden. In the New Testament’s garden there was no unicorn. After all, they really ARE mythical beasts! But in the New Testament’s garden there is an angel and empty tomb. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” the angel asks us as he asked the women. Why, indeed? Because it is safer? Because we are afraid that people will think we are as crazy as someone who sees a unicorn eating the daisies in his garden? So what? People all around believe in things far crazier and for which there is much less evidence than the resurrection of Jesus.

So be up and doing. There is work for us to do and we have a rendezvous in Galilee.