ROOTS

Jeremiah 20:7-13

Monica McFadden

While I was studying abroad in London this past year, I got completely hooked on the Netflix series “The Crown.” If you haven’t heard of it, the show follows the newly coronated Queen Elizabeth II and her experience acclimating to her role as Queen, including the many struggles involved with politics, the royal family, her marriage, and the country as a whole. Watching it as an American, someone coming from a background where the idea of a monarchy seems so foreign, a concept that goes against the very nature of the founding of our country, was pretty fascinating. The series touches on many aspects of the monarchy that aren’t often discussed, one of the most intriguing for me being the relationship between the Sovereign, or the reigning monarch, and Parliament. The Queen and Churchill would have conversations where he would reference her duties as the Sovereign and how she was appointed by God to her position. The viewers can see the weight of this responsibility in her wide-eyed gaze.

Of course I, being extremely curious about all of this, turned to my flatmates, classmates, any native Brits I could, and asked them about their thoughts on the monarchy. I got a variety of answers, ranging anywhere on the spectrum from “no one cares about the monarchy” to “I absolutely love the royal family.” Most people in my generation in the United Kingdom seem to fall somewhere in between—they kind of see the cultural significance, but for the most part, it doesn’t play a role in their day-to-day lives, and it feels a little outdated and pointless. However, one person I asked had a different opinion. Partly, perhaps, because he held some more traditional beliefs about these types of things, but he had a deep respect for the Queen, somewhat mirroring that of the older generation.

Basically what he said was this: the reason the Queen means so much is that she, a woman who has been raised to be an expert in her role, has seen the fluctuations throughout multiple eras of political turmoil, from the aftermath of WWII through Thatcher, and even Brexit; she’s the constant through all of it. When I asked if he believed she was appointed by God he said, after a moment of thinking, that no, he didn’t, namely because he didn’t believe in God, but that she may as well have been. Because she has a incredible wealth of knowledge, and although she has seen political waves come and go, she must remain unbiased and solid.

There was something mesmerizing about hearing it described this way. The American tradition has nothing like this, which makes the monarchy feel like living relics bearing the shiny worth of an ancient history.  The United States has somewhat of a fascination with the British monarchy and the royal family; millions of people tuned into William and Kate’s wedding in 2011. I think this fascination has a lot to do with the lack of a type of sacred history in many American traditions—the thing that makes the monarchy so enchanting is its promise that it’s something bigger, connected to God, these people tap into a larger knowledge, they’ve been trained for this since birth, they’re mysterious. It can feel like a massive, sacred thing, even if, in reality, it’s mostly political and carefully crafted.

In many ways, I think our generation and our country has lost touch with the sacred. But people seem to be searching for it, grasping at experiences and traditions of other peoples to get back to some sort of root, something to reach out into the earth and connect with our past and with others.

Many people have taken to using the phrase “spiritual but not religious” to describe their faith. Scholars and theologians have spoken about why this concept is inadequate, and I agree with many of these arguments, but it’s understandable why people feel more comfortable with this phrase at times. Being frustrated with the church, being frustrated with God, isn’t just normal, it’s basically required for being part of the church—frustration is laced throughout the Bible, and sometimes just identifying as “spiritual” is easier, less of a commitment to a specific history that you may or may not agree with.

In this passage from Jeremiah that was read this morning, the prophet’s lament can feel quite familiar. Not because of any similarity in circumstance—I’m not exactly overwhelmed with the word of God “like a burning fire shut up in my bones” attempting to warn people about violence and destruction—but instead, it feels familiar because he’s upset with God, which is quite relatable.

My relationship with religion and with the church is largely characterized by doubt, frustration, or confusion. I spent the majority of my teenage years identifying as agnostic, something I often still relate to. But after a few years, I realized that, growing up in the church, regardless of my wavering beliefs, I still had a home and a community there; I still felt very Brethren. The sacred things I grew up with were still sacred.

There is a deep comfort in knowing that no matter where I am in my faith journey, anointing will still be there to bless me at important times, the hymns will still be there to offer words of courage and beauty, Love Feast will still be there to surround me with a strong community. These things don’t change, and that’s what the church is about. Providing roots, sacredness, a history, to a spirituality that is ever-fluctuating. It requires a community to support you and hold you accountable, to be challenged, part of something larger than just you.

Hearing my friend talk about the monarchy felt like reaching for something like this—it’s bigger than you, older than you, has seen more of the world than you, generations upon generations, and has withstood the test of time. There aren’t many histories like that in America anymore, and people are desperate to find one. Some look to the monarchy, some look to other cultures and religions, many end up with Frankenstein practices stolen from a variety of places: “I have the ohm symbol tattooed on my wrist, I’m really into crystal healing, I have a Buddha head on my shelf…” None of these practices are wrong on their own, but it becomes clear that many are missing a deeper connection, a true recognition that each of these have sacred beginnings.

It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in this—go to Urban Outfitters and buy yourself a sacred starter kit, if you will. Especially when we’re disillusioned with the church or with God.

Jeremiah’s lament to God eventually evolves into praising him, as he works through his frustrations. “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers,” he says at the end of the passage. I may not be very good at this part, I’ll admit. I don’t work through my doubts very quickly, and often times “singing praises” can feel very foreign to me. I tend to quietly mull things over, notice the sacred begin to creep in again.

Last year at Annual Conference, a place that can be too often filled with anxiety and anger, there was a moment during worship when a video played, mostly overlaid with a pretty, anonymous piano song. In the middle of the stock music, the song transitioned into a few verses of the old hymn “It is well with my soul,” and slowly, quietly rising out of the congregation, people began to hum and sing along. It happened naturally and spontaneously, and soon the whole room was singing. We, who had spent business sessions frustrated and speaking across a chasm, were reminded of what we had in common; why we were really there together.

Sometimes, this is what sacred means. Sometimes, this is what it means to have the same roots.

Sometimes, it means rediscovering old traditions and old tales in new ways.

And so I leave you with this: a reimagining of a familiar story, something I wrote my senior year of high school, a reminder of our sacred roots together.

Beginning

The darkness, the great wind, surrounded her in the open air. Her hands were vast and set the sun, tweaking out the rays and coaxing the hydrogen into helium; her hands were delicate and stenciled in the constellations. She slowly crafted planets, small and cold, gargantuan and swirling with gases. She painted nebulas onto black velvet, the blueprints captured from her eyes.

A light breath rolled back seas, revealing a rich black earth beneath, laced with the seeping aroma of a musty rain hanging in the atmosphere as a simple vapor. Her baton flicked swirling symphonies of emerald, magenta, and gold, the deep bass notes crawling in as indigo and sienna. Fluttery mint and whispering ivory petals burst along the ground in a smattering of marimba strokes, the lowest spreading ivy up timber fortresses.

The tiny, intricate beings of the waters grew before her eyes as millennia passed. They emerged onto the land as new creatures admiring each other’s gleaming limbs. They threw out newfound feathers and bones of air and leapt onto eddies of passing wind. From an alto melody of her lips sprang legions of lithe, galloping beings.

Many of her creations fell back to the soil. New ones took their place.

She had not created anything that had the same stars fueling her being as she did. None to search the azure above for her and to sing back her arias. She tried many times to assemble these new creatures, basing them from the ones that already graced the earth. She became frustrated and sailed to neighboring galaxies. She gathered dust and particles from the dying stars and from the newest stars and with the same elements formed the wise, with skin like the earth they tread on. They spoke to her among the trees and dreamt of her in the wind. They saw everything on the earth for its origins and its future; every particle.

They took control of the flames that flowed through volcanoes and forests. They painted as she had before, preserving all her work. They taught her new things she had not predicted; stories sewn together as she had never known before. She had formed the mind for thought, but emotion came where she had not foreseen. Their veins pumped their hearts with roots, tying them to one another.

Slowly, one followed by another, roots were torn out, some with vigor and others accidentally cut away in pruning. For the first time, she saw stars go out of their eyes, the first thing in her universe that felt truly dark. They began to tend to these roots very carefully, adjusting their footing, and gave the soil sweet river water to drink. Those with too-dark eyes sometimes disrupted these delicate ecosystems but, if one opened them up, they’d find equally mangled roots threaded into their veins. If these roots were untangled and cared for, the stars crept back into their irises, softly blinking in violets and blues. 

Prayer

Please pray with me.

God, who crafted the deepest parts of the Earth and the furthest reaches of the stars,

Help us to come to you with our frustrations and anger, sifting through our everyday lives to see your sacred, holy touch.

Roots, hold us close, show us our shared histories and our shared futures together.

Amen.

Benediction

May you see God’s ancient roots in traditions old and new.

Go in peace.

WE HAVE SEEN THE LORD

John 20:19-31, Acts 5:27-32, Revelation 1:4-8

Micah Bales

I’ve joked with Jenn and Nate that I feel like I tend to get some really tough lectionary readings on the Sundays that I’m asked to preach. Lots of passages about death, destruction, judgment, and Jesus’ command to give away all our possessions to the poor. I know it’s good for me to preach on passages that challenge my own lack of faith, but it can also be exhausting. It’s easy to feel like I’m a total failure as a Christian!

Today’s Scripture readings are a nice change of pace for me. They’re inspiring, challenging, and give me space to examine my own doubt without feeling like I’m completely doomed. After all, the apostles abandoned Jesus at his time of greatest need. And then, when Jesus rose from the dead, the male apostles wouldn’t believe the female apostles who were first to see the risen Lord.

And as if the people closest to Jesus hadn’t doubted enough, we’ve heard in our gospel reading this morning that, even after almost all of the male apostles had their close encounter of the third kind with Jesus, poor Thomas missed it, and he refused to believe their story. It made more sense to Thomas that his entire community must be lying than that Jesus could have possibly risen from the dead.

I can relate to Thomas’ predicament. When I first became a Christian, I wanted to be a follower of Jesus. I had read the Bible and was amazed at the power and authenticity of Jesus’ ministry. In the Quaker tradition, we believe that God can speak directly through ordinary men and women today. Literally. We believe that the Holy Spirit can and does move in our community and inspires prophetic ministry.

I had witnessed the truth of it myself. There were a number of occasions where individuals in the Quaker community had stood up and spoken in the power and authority of God. It was clear that they were not just speaking out of their own desires or opinions, but that Christ was addressing us directly and specifically, speaking to our condition in the present-tense. In this kind of environment, where prophetic ministry was expected to be a regular part of our life together, I learned to recognize when the power of truth was present in the words and deeds of those around me.

This really came in handy when I finally read the New Testament for myself. I was blown away by the gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry. It was clear to me that when Jesus spoke and acted, he did so in the same life and power that accompanied the truly inspired ministry that I had witnessed in Quaker gatherings. The Holy Spirit spoke so clearly through Jesus. I sensed in a visceral, gut-level way that his claims on my life were authentic. This was no mere human teacher addressing me. He spoke the very words of God.

It took me a while to embrace the label, but I eventually came to identify as a “Christian” when I realized that I could say with integrity that Jesus is my lord. For me, to call Jesus “lord” means that he is the governing authority in my life. I take my cues from him. He’s the one who shows me how to live. He’s the standard by which my character and choices can be judged.

So I considered myself a Christian now. But, although I was able to say that Jesus was my lord, I still had a really tough time with some of the more orthodox theology of the church. I didn’t really know what it meant for Jesus to be “the son of God”, and the idea of the bodily resurrection seemed like an obviously mythological story. It’s a great image of death and rebirth, sure; I could accept it on a metaphorical level. But taking the story literally seemed scientifically unfounded and silly. It felt impossible for me to embrace such a story without sacrificing my own rational faculties. I could no more accept the bodily resurrection of Jesus than I could force myself to believe that the sky is green. Such things do not happen.

Don’t get me wrong – I could really get into the story. My first Holy Week as a Christian was really impactful for me. I participated in a Love Feast at the local Church of the Brethren in Richmond, Indiana for Maundy Thursday. On Good Friday, I fasted and went down to the Salvation Army to watch a screening of the Passion of the Christ. I really connected with the crucifixion. Christ’s suffering was something that I could understand. It made sense to me that Jesus had to die because of the twistedness and evil of humanity. Like so many martyrs since – Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, the early Quaker prophets, and the brutalized early Anabaptists – Jesus exemplified the power of God in undeserved suffering. I could see that God’s love and sovereignty are made visible in weakness and submission to the point of death.

Easter is harder for me. I know this sounds weird. For most normal people, Easter is the easy part, the time when we get to celebrate and give thanks for the triumph of life over death, courage over fear, love over hatred. And I can definitely get on board with all of that on a conceptual level. Just as spring follows winter and death provides the seedbed for new life, it makes rational sense that the suffering and death of the saints would be instrumental in making space for new life to arise.

But the resurrection is more than new life. We’re not just talking about a new flower that grows in the manure of dead plants. We’re talking about a plant that grows out of its own death. This is a story of a flower that dies, only to be planted again and raised up – an incorruptible flower that will never wilt again. This is a flower that fundamentally breaks the cycle of life and death, triumphantly proclaiming that winter will never come again.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve never seen a flower like that.

The Christian claim of the bodily resurrection of Jesus is profoundly supernatural. It contradicts everything we know about how our world works. As C.S. Lewis once said of Christianity, “It is a religion that you could not have guessed.”

I remember my first Easter as a confessing Christian. I was at West Richmond Friends Meeting in Indiana, and everyone around me was proclaiming, “Christ is risen!” with the inevitable response, “He is risen indeed!” I was surrounded by people who were making a completely fantastic claim with a seeming casualness and lack of reflection that took my breath away. What do you MEAN “Christ is risen”? You think he literally rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples? You think he showed the apostles the wounds in his hands and feet and side? You think he ate fish with them beside the sea of Galilee weeks after his death on the cross?

I was incredulous. These were highly educated, cultured people, but they were making claims that seemed totally ridiculous to me. That’s not to say I didn’t want to believe. But how could I possibly make a decision to hold such a clearly impossible idea in my head? I was intrigued, but my common sense would not allow me to join in the Easter liturgy with those around me.

So you’ll understand when I say that I have a pretty easy time relating to the apostle Thomas. All of the other disciples were around me, declaring their faith in the resurrection of Jesus, but I needed proof. Not only did I need proof, I demanded it! I was positively furious with the idea that I should be expected to accept something so spectacular on blind faith. I needed evidence, not hearsay.

In a lot of Christian communities, my doubts would have been scandalous. For me to question the bodily resurrection of Jesus would be beyond the pale for many congregations. Sure, I could visit, but no one would accept me as a follower of Jesus. That kind of doubt is out of bounds.

I feel fortunate that, just like Thomas, I was part of a community that accepted me in my doubt. The other apostles didn’t chase Thomas away, shunning him as an unbeliever. It was a full week before he got his chance to encounter the risen Jesus face to face. That whole time, Thomas had been hanging around with the other ten, hearing their stories about Jesus – and probably arguing with them. “Show me the body, and I’ll believe you. Let me touch the wounds in his hands and side, and I’ll accept this impossible thing you are telling me.”

I found myself in a similar situation. I couldn’t accept what the community of believers around me was saying, and they couldn’t offer any proof that would satisfy me. Many of them had never seen the risen Jesus themselves, yet they believed based on the testimony of others, and the witness of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. For me, this wasn’t enough. I believed that these brothers and sisters of mine were sincere in their faith, but that didn’t mean that I had what I needed to be convinced of the resurrection.

But I stayed with the community. I kept listening to the story as they retold it. I continued to read the Scriptures and open myself to God in prayer, willing to accept anything he would show me. I asked Jesus to reveal himself to me, to open my eyes to the reality of his resurrection. And, to my amazement, I found that he did.

I, too, have seen the Lord. In so many ways and on so many occasions, he has appeared in my life and the lives of those around me, to reveal his continuing presence and loving power. I have seen the way he gives power and courage to us when we walk with him and trust him as our present teacher and Lord. He has breathed his Spirit on me, and he has breathed on this community, liberating us to follow in his way of prophetic witness, battle with the powers, crucifixion, and resurrection into new life.

Having seen Jesus in his resurrection, we know that love triumphs over death, and that we have nothing to fear. Because of him, we are empowered to obey God rather than any human authority that would silence the prophetic voice and keep us and our neighbors captives to the power of falsehood, fear, and death. As witnesses to the resurrection, we are freed from the spirit of fear.

We are part of a new order, in which the coercive power of violence is overcome by the authority of love. We will stand before rulers and authorities, judges and politicians who have power to destroy our lives, just like Jesus and the apostles did. We will stand firm in the knowledge that our God and Father has given us the victory over all the powers of this world. Christ Jesus has overcome the power of death and determinism. We don’t have to be afraid.

On the contrary, we know that the only thing we should truly fear is the God who raised Jesus from the dead. His power is being revealed, and soon every eye will see Jesus, alive and at work in the world. Every single one of us will be witnesses to the reality of Jesus’ resurrected power. The only choice to make is whether we will be the ones rejoicing at his revealing, or whether we will wail with the nations who continue to rebel against his loving leadership.

Whether you are a faithful Mary, or a doubting Thomas (like me), I want you to know that you can trust God to give you what you need. If you need to touch the wounds and see him face-to-face, Jesus isn’t above it. He’ll come to you and reveal himself to you. But he also reminds us that the truly blessed are those who are able to receive faith without signs and miracles. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”