So, before I say anything else, I want to wish a very, very happy (USA) Mother’s Day to my mom Nancy, and to Margaret’s mom Pat, to my grandmothers Isabelle, Lois, and Del, and to Margaret’s grandmothers Ruth and Dorothy. And to Margaret — hi, honey! And without prejudice also to anyone for whom Mother’s Day entails painful recollections, awareness, prospects, and also to mothers-to-be. Seriously, my best wishes and thanks and sympathies to you all.
This morning I preached the sermon I was struggling with yesterday, and it went well, I think. I’ll post it below in the “More” link. If you’re a critical preacher (by which I mean, you think back over the mechanics of what seems to have worked, what not, how and why things worked or didn’t, how it could have been better, and so on) Sunday afternoon can be an intriguing time. I’m utterly exhausted, as are most clergy I know. At the same time, I can’t resist tinkering with the sermon, especially as I copy-and-paste it into my blog.
The Scottish elections resulted in a landslide for the Scottish National Party, an interesting group that is explicitly pro-independence for Scotland (but which may, behind the scenes, be hoping not to have to cope with the economic ramifications of — you know — actually separating from England). They had one part of the right spiel for higher ed in Scotland: no fees for home students (we’ll surely impose fees for students from the rest of the UK, otherwise sticker-shocked English students would flee for the border by the thousands. The £9000s, to be precise). The SNP would have done better to promise us also fully to fund university education in Scotland, perhaps with provisos about the integrity of programmes so that they don’t end up underwriting “degrees” that amount mostly to money grabs by unscrupulous profiteers. Still, it’s hard times around, and I don’t begrudge other parts of the social and cultural fabric the support they need. Go, NHS!
Our friend Madhavi got a post-doc last week, that commences in January, after she finishes her contract with Glasgow. It’s great that she got a job, thus avoiding penury and deportation, but it’s sad that she won’t be part of our immediate close-knit group of local friends.
Twitter and Facebook are strangling the intertwingled web by cold-shouldering RSS. Say, remember when people had a lot invested in RSS, its precise versions, its alternative Atom, and who invented what? Now Facebook and Twitter are trying to make sure that you access their data only in the form they control. Someday, I fear, we will look back on the Aughties and see with regret the way that an open web and an open social-media infrastructure flourished before interested capital stifled them.
Margaret and I leave tomorrow — she to the States, for graduation and Pippa-pick-up duty, and for visits to the mothers we are greeting and saluting today (Hi, moms!); I, to Wales, where I will represent the Scottish Episcopal Church in the Four Nations (England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland) Faith and Order meetings. If you were thinking of committing heresy, don’t try it for the next three days — I’ll be on your case in a flash and will solve it in an hour, just like the crime dramas that Margaret watches.
I found a very nice bargain fountain pen on eBay this week, and it arrived yesterday. It’s a rather dated shade of green (olive-avocado-ish) but the Triumph conical nib is sweet and it’s a Touchdown filler, one of my favourite kinds. That made a nice treat.
Too much blether. I’ll paste the sermon below, and will try to spread out my blogging more evenly hereafter.
8 May, 2011
Acts 2:14a, 36-41 /1 Pt 1:17-23 /Lk 24:13-35
St Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow
“Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The staccato violins in the soundtrack. Or the opposite: an abrupt, unaccountable, eerie silence. The door that swings unexpectedly open, then slams shut. A light that flashes on, or a peculiar scent in the air. The sudden chill running down your spine. The hairs on the back of your neck standing up.
We have a great many ways of signalling a startling discovery, but very few of them lend themselves to reproduction in words. We can work with words — we can alter the the pitch or the pace of what we say, or change the tone of our voice — but our descriptions of circumstances rarely affect us as powerfully as observing a phenomenon first-hand.
It’s difficult, but if you handle the set-up properly, if you’re not too heavy-handed, if you provide the right combination of foreshadowing and uncertainty and drama, you can use words to evoke the sort of cathartic shock that St Luke describes in today’s lesson from the Book of Acts. The multicultural mob of visitors to Jerusalem weren’t expecting Peter to accuse them of wrongdoing; they hadn’t even meant to hear a sermon that morning at all. But when Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, explained to them the harrowing truth about Jesus, how he was sent to display the scope and power of God’s love to us, how we set God‘s love at nought by sending Jesus to be crucified — and how God will yet embrace those who acknowledge their sins and turn away to be forgiven — when the Jerusalem trade delegates heard all this, they were cut to the heart. They recognised in the blink of an eye that what they had thought of as executing a dangerous terrorist in order to keep the peace, had in fact been a horrible miscarriage of justice; they and their colleagues had tried to keep the peace by hanging peace onto the cross. When Peter says, “This Jesus you crucified”, the crowds experience the sickening realisation that he’s right.
That awful moment when the picture comes clear in the twinkling of an eye has a technical name in narrative criticism: we call it a “recognition scene”, anagnorisis when we use the Greek term. A recognition scene can strike our conscience — think of the scene where the prophet Nathan tells King David the parable of the poor man’s lamb, and how when Nathan accuses David of being the heedless rich man who stole another’s lamb, David saw how terribly he had gone wrong by taking Bathsheba and having her husband Uriah killed. The recognition scene snaps us from one way we’ve been thinking to a whole different sense of how everything hangs together.
Other times the recognition scene points ahead to a positive resolution. Memories, clues, intuitions, and perceptions spontaneously converge into the certain knowledge that truth of the story leads in a direction very different from what everyone assumed. The recipients of 1 Peter seem to have experienced such a transformative positive recognition. One day, they were good honest heathens, making sacrifices and propitiating their family deities — and the next day, for reasons they (and we) can’t fully explain, they had made an unanticipated turn onto an unfamiliar path. The soundtrack of their lives changed from Ionic cadences to plaintive psalms of lament and jubilant doxologies; and in a flash, it all just made a different, more convincing kind of sense to them. They put their trust in the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ. They encountered the truth in him, and recognised in him their source and final purpose.
Then St Luke also makes the Emmaus story a recognition scene of just this sort, first heightening the tension between what the characters perceive and the real situation they’re incapable of perceiving. Cleopas asks Jesus, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?” But as it turns out, Jesus was the only person in Jerusalem who did know the things that had taken place there those days. When Jesus asks the Emmaus walkers “What are you talking about?” they respond by describing Holy Week and Easter in only the most obvious terms, terms that anyone from Pilate to a centurion to the High Priest himself might agree to. Jesus was a prophet, or was supposed to be; a wonderworker, who had been turned in as a rebel leader, and was crucified under Pontius Pilate. And they had certainly hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. The walking disciples get the answers almost right — but in not identifying Jesus fully, they had missed the whole point. Then they point out to Jesus that all these things took place three days ago — as though they had never heard Jesus himself use that very phrase — and they dismiss Mary Magdalene’s report of Jesus’ resurrection as an idle tale.
So the Jesus alongside whom they had walked from Galilee to Jerusalem, who had healed and fed and taught them, had to go along with them another few miles in order to explain to them every detail of his own mission and identity. He had to sit with them after a two-hour mobile theology revision and then take bread, bless and break it, before the penny dropped, before the violins reached their jumpy climax, before they detect the odour of sanctity, before the flash of light in which Jesus disappears from right in front of them.
“O-o-o-o-oh! Now we get it! Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” The teaching of Scripture, the explanation of how the various laws and tales and prophecies and proverbs hang together, the observance of our traditional rituals, these are the elements that enabled Cleopas and his chum to recognise that Jesus had walked beside them, had fed them from his hands.
The disciples were so deeply embedded in their common-sense world that even talking with Jesus, recalling his presence and his words, they hadn’t been able to break out of their expectation that nothing had changed in any fundamental way, that Easter was just another Sunday and they had to hurry back to work or they’d be docked for lateness Monday morning. Only when Jesus gave them a catechetical dope-slap could they see out of the narrow rut of their expectations, and realise — recognise — that they had just been served by their Risen Lord.
St Luke narrates the story so artfully that we may get caught up in admiring the story itself. It’s a scintillating gem of a story, effulgent with the reflected Light from Light. But over the years, it has become familiar, routine: “Oh, it’s that story come round again”. Perhaps we’ve assimilated it to our own everyday worlds, so that if some stranger came to Glasgow to ask us to explain why we woke up early Easter morning, to find out who this fuss is all about, to learn from us what we mean when we say we believe in the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come — if someone were to walk beside us to our flat, and perhaps even presume to teach us a thing or two about the Bible, we might not recognise them.
That, however, is the sort of thing that (as sensible people know) only happens in stories. It’s just a lot of words. And even if Geoff were to help us with a series of skittering chords, if Ken flicked the lights off, if David were secretly to ignite a thurible of sweet incense as a cue, as a signal, we’d probably still suppose nothing like this morning’s story ever actually occurs in our everyday world, least of all on just another Sunday. Common sense dictates that such a recognition scene just won’t happen on a rainy morning, in Scotland, on the Great Western Road…