April 4, 2021
Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the
council, had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea,
and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. This man went to Pilate and asked for
the body of Jesus. Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn
tomb where no one had ever been laid. It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was
beginning. The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb
and how his body was laid. Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.
On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that
they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they
did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling
clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but
the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has
risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be
handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’ Then they
remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the
rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women
with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they
did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the
linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
It’s been years since I have been in a class with Kim Stafford, who served as the poet laureate of my home state of Oregon. But this week, listening to his words flow from the zoom screen at a poetry reading and discussion, I found myself taken back to being 20, wanting to sink into his wisdom. During the discussion after the event, I shared with him that his poems have kept me going this past year, that we have shared them during our services, that Leigh and I have sent them back and forth to each other, prayers that open us to what it means to be human, searching for hope. What words Kim, I asked, do you have for those trying to love neighbors well, to those tending souls amidst so much grief and chaos? His response reminded me of why, at 20, I had gotten hooked on hanging out with poets. “Poets,” he shared, “possess tropism towards the difficult. Like a plant that turns its leaves towards the sun, poets turn toward the hard thing. They don’t shy away.” He shared it’s the same with folks like us, trying our best to love. loving well he said, it’s not about cheering people up. In our suffering, is the foundation to our relation to each other. We talk back to the darkness by creating something of beauty.”
When I met Kim the first time, this wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. Back then, I wanted to run away from my life, from what was difficult, instead of turning towards it. Going to a Liberal Arts College, we hid these kinds of fanciful illusions of finding ourselves on the open road by saying I was going to study abroad. I wasn’t planning to practice any kind of tropism towards the difficult in my life. Instead, I wanted to get away from everything that was pulling me down, to be free, to revel in life.
In hindsight, going abroad with a poet as your trip leader isn’t exactly the best way to escape the deepest parts of yourself, that you’d rather ignore.
Kim and his wife Perrin, and there, at the time young son Guthrie, they were our study trip leaders, there to keep an eye on us, help us along. But Kim has this way of turning towards the difficult and rise up hope through insights and beauty. He guided us to Scotland, through the highlands, to the Island of Skye, eventually to the University of Glasgow, to living in flats, attending plays, writing poetry around town, diving deep into what had set us on the journey to be away, so that we might turn towards the difficult, and face the darkness, whispering words that were true, beautiful, and full of gracious mystery.
Our scripture reading this morning is full of people practicing tropism toward the difficult. Joseph, from Arimathea, a member of the religious council, doesn’t turn from his part in handing Jesus over to the Romans. Instead, he does what he can; he uses his position of power to ask for Jesus’ body, finds a tomb, wraps the Rabbi’s body in linen and prayers. He is waiting for the reign of God to break out in his midst, but he’s clear eyed about the realities of oppression and injustice.
The faithful women, Jesus’ disciples, they have never left their Rabbi. They were around his Passover table, then in the garden as he was arrested, following in the shadows as Jesus was tried, at the foot of the cross as he died. They did not turn away, even as the men did. Following at a distance, they watch Joseph, tending to their dead teacher’s body, as the men locked themselves in the upper room. They set to work doing what they could to show their love, preparing the spices and anointing oils, one last act of love for the one who turned towards their pain, the injustices they faced, the one who healed and blessed and taught them, the man who loved them as equals in what God is up to in the world. They turn towards the difficult, not looking away.
The gift of poetry is that it can help us to express, to encounter, truths that are difficult to put into normal words. Like music, or theatre, visual art, it can delve deep into what is hard, and help us to stand fully in the presence of difficult truths, and profound, liberating realities. The women, when they realize that Jesus has been resurrected, are filled with a truth that is difficult to put into normal words.
It’s more a feeling of possibility, of love, of hope, than any kind of prose. No wonder their story of a rolled away stone and angels, Resurrection and Devine messages sounds like an idle tale, like gossip. But these are women who have never looked away from the horrors of what happened to Jesus. They saw as love incarnate, God with us, was tortured and lynched by the state, by empire, by the powers of capitol turning against what is possible through loving our neighbors, by religious leaders like myself who become afraid of their power being challenged. These women didn’t turn away, so while their tale of Resurrection might seem like idle gossip, it’s rooted in turning towards the difficult, clear eyed, and in the speaking back against the darkness, encountering a spark.
Beloved, at 20 I ran away to try and find a life free of what diminished me as a young man. My strained relationship with my alcoholic father, being a closeted gay man, my struggles with anxiety and depression, they all set me on the road with a poet. But Kim showed me the power in turning towards the difficult, instead of running away. In doing so, my journey became a path to new life.
The disciples in our reading are told to go ahead to Galilee, where Jesus will meet them. It’s home for most of them. It’s a beautiful place, full of lush hillsides, a lake teaming with life, living water that flows down the hillsides past villages and farms. It was also a place where oppression was rife in Jesus’ time, its people disregarded by the powerful, except for what it could produce for the Roman occupation. Jesus calls the women and the disciples to meet him back home, to heal, to regroup, to take on the powers of the world that tried to strike him down. Jesus pushes them to dig down into what really matters to them, to God, not to give too much power to the sources of hatred they have seen on full display as they killed him.
We are here this morning, hearing anew that Jesus has been raised in opposition to state sanctioned violence. It’s a truth difficult to put into words, what it means. For a long time, Easter has been a celebration that seeks to cheer and distract from what is hard. This powerful celebration can become about a type of religious escapism that tells us to ignore the world around us, and hope for better when we die. You might know this kind of story about what Easter is about. For many of us, we were told that Christianity is all about how we are bad people, so bad that God wants to damn us to hell, to be tormented for all eternity. But to satiate this wrathful nightmare of a God, Jesus came and was tortured in our place. We were told we should feel so bad for this poor Jesus, that we work super hard to be good. What kind of God is this? It’s a distortion of scripture, in the hands of people, white men mostly, who tried to take the poetry of what sounds and feels implausible In the story of Jesus’ Resurrection, and turn it into a formula. This formula has been so pervasive that American Christians think this is the only way Jesus’ life, death, and Resurrection has ever been, or ever could be understood.
This formula is what theologians call penal substitutionary atonement theory.
It sets up God as a monster, Jesus as an abused child, and the Holy Spirit as a moral conscience like jiminy cricket. It tends to reduce being a Disciple of Jesus to saying a certain prayer and going to church a lot. It turns away from the difficulty of human life and says hope for better after you die.
But it’s not the only way of reading scripture, of being a Christian. In fact, it’s a minority opinion in the Bible, part of a larger discourse on what Jesus’ life was about.
When I ran off to Scotland, I wanted to escape what was hard in my life. Instead, I had Kim encouraging me to go deep. I realized, with his encouragement, that I needed to turn towards what was difficult in my life. I asked my Pastor from back home through e-mail, if there was anywhere in Scotland, he thought might be a good place to go, to be among Presbyterian Church Folk who might show a way of living a life that was full of hope, while being honest about where life was hard. Ken, my mentor, immediately got back to me. Go to Iona he said. It’s a small island, and there are these odd folks who rebuilt a twelfth century monastery, and work for peace and justice in the world. So, I got on a train, and then a huge ferry to an Island, then on a bus, then on a small ferry to the Island. There are no cars, so I walked a few miles to a youth hostel nestled in a sheep farm by a beautiful white sand beach with turquoise waters. Then I made my way to the church, ancient, ferns growing between the cracks in the walls, candles everywhere. The sun was setting through the windows. After the service, all of us gathered there were invited into the monastery’s refectory hall for tea and homemade scones. These folks were talking about being in solidarity with the poor, fighting for LGBTQ+ equality, organizing against apartheid in Palestine, welcoming refugees from the American led invasion of Iraq into their homes, caring for the sick, the dying. These were folks who turned towards the difficult, and found Jesus there, having gone ahead of them, welcoming them into the work of loving well, with all that they had.
That night, as I left the church, I walked back to the youth hostel. It was a beautiful, windswept night. Above the stormy ocean, the full moon shone, reflecting off the water. This was a wild place. Massive cliffs glowed in the distance, their ancient granite catching the moons rays. I found myself, walking that road in the dark, full of moon shadow and glow, aware of God’s presence in a way I have rarely encountered, but powerfully felt a few times. “God, it’s just the wind,” I prayed. “It’s just the moon, the sea, the rocks.” And yet something slipped into my mind, an idea I had heard at the Church, in the refectory. The idea of a thin place, where the veil, what separates the Divine from Human life, the separation between the living and the dead, between the world as it is, and the world as it should be, is thin, and that gossamer veil billows with the possibility of God with us, our ancestors with us, of Jesus resurrected and yet so close by. And I’m not enough of a poet to put into words what happened on that road that night, but something shifted.
I found myself ready to turn towards what was difficult in my life, and in the world, because just beyond what is, I could hear whispers, the stirring of the wind, of what was possible, what was somehow already true; that God loves this world, loves us all, and is going ahead to prepare the way, for Jesus’ revolution of love and wholeness and connection with God, with deep wisdom just beyond the veil, if only we would press our face against it.
Beloved, the Disciples of Jesus, these women we hear of, they found themselves in a thin place, where the veil separating the world as it is, and what it shall become, starts to tear. And while it sounds fanciful to most of the men in their community and they don’t believe them, Peter does something surprising. He turns towards the tomb where his teacher’s body was laid and runs. He looks in and sees the linen cloths that had been wrapped around love incarnate, and is amazed. And he heads home, to where Jesus said he would meet him.
I look around, and if I listen to the poetry of this world, it sounds like Jesus is continuing to go ahead of us, into the difficult places, to wait for us where the veil between the world as it is, and the coming Kingdom of God is thin. The Resurrection is the first fruit of the Spirit, a promise that when we practice Tropism towards the difficult, Jesus has already gone ahead. The way he teaches us to love God, ourselves, and our Neighbors, is overcoming all that seeks to diminish us, all that gets in the way of experiencing God’s love and is overcoming all that oppresses.
So when I turn towards the attacks against Asian Americans, fueled by the racism baked into the soil of this nation, and given voice by the former president, I also hear the poetry of Xiao Zhen Xie fighting off her attacker, of the millions donated to cover her medical bills, and her determination to turn towards the difficult, and donate it to fight racism. Jesus goes ahead to meet us in our Galilee’s.
When I turn towards police violence that murders Black folks with impunity, when White Supremacy emerges in new ways during this pandemic, I also hear the poetry of Black Lives Matter protestors, of more folks taking to the street, of those with the privilege and power of being officers decrying the murderer Derek Chauvin, and of Mr. Floyd’s daughter proclaiming that her daddy is changing the world. Jesus goes ahead to meet us in our Galilee’s.
When I turn towards so many in our nation hungry, I also hear the poetry of you working to collect and deliver food, making phone calls to our neighbors in Woodbourne-McCabe, helping with North Avenue Mission’s work with farm to stoop on Wednesday’s. Jesus goes ahead to meet us in our Galilee’s.
When I turn towards Jim Crow 2.0 Laws in Georgia and across this nation, seeking to disenfranchise people of color from voting, the cowardice of some in power seeking to avoid being held to account for their racism, I hear the poetry of Stacy Abrams and Black Church Leaders organizing to overcome. Jesus goes ahead to meet us in our Galilee’s.
When I turn towards the destruction of our planet, I also hear the poetry of native plants given home in this place and in your yards, in your advocacy for creation, your letters and organizing and interfaith partnerships. Jesus goes ahead to meet us in our Galilee’s.
And when I turn toward the grief we share as a community, so many who we love who have died, are struggling with health issues, with caring for spouses, I hear the poetry of your cards and calls, meals delivered, your presence with one another however you can. Jesus goes ahead to meet us in our Galilee’s.
I hear poetry coming through the thin veil this morning, telling us that nothing in life or death can separate us from the love of Christ Jesus, and the call to turn towards the difficult, trusting that Jesus goes ahead to meet us in our Galilee’s.
This morning I wrote to Kim, to share a little about my life these days, about all of you, about the gifts he continues to give me. I found myself, writing the e-mail, writing poetry, the veil thin as I typed.
Last night we kindled sacred fire,
Choir singing in their cars, prayers and scripture flowing through the ether.
by way of FM transmitter.
We remember our dead, honor the living.
We spread light on a hillside under oaks,
Among the mossy duff,
Candles signaling the impossible coming close.
That love with us,
Does not stay dead after the violence of the state.
That women tell a story, impossible.
That love goes ahead of us,
If only we will practice the tropism towards the difficult.
Love goes ahead of us to continue the turning of the world upside down,
Letting light into the dark, scarred places
Within us, among us.
I arise weary this morning,
To scribble out improbable reflections on
Resurrection, looking how to end so that children can escape their parents’ cars to find eggs full of delight,
And I come across your words, you sacred Sage. Poetry has the last word.
Friends, Hear now Kim’s poem,
Logic of the Unlikely
There’s a certain way it goes when you begin
With not knowing-dream, thought, love, invention.
If you follow what comes out of nowhere, if you turn
From prediction to lucky whim, to hunch rooted in curiosity,
Then the hint hatches, the glimpse grows, inkling, twinge,
Prickle, whisper, itch. Seeds in the palm become a forest,
Love a life, syllables a song. It’s all about surrendering
Sight and sound to grope for the nameless, secret,
Lost, unclaimed, dark, forgotten…knowing all you have
Is nothing before the bounty of the hidden, as you
Forsake the path to seek the sacred: mist of apparition,
De-shine, morning star, birdcall, raindrop, bud.
May we forsake the paths to seek the sacred friends, and bud.
In the name of God our Mother, Christ our Revolutionary and Resurrected Brother, and Holy Spirit our friend, Amen.