Saving Paradise

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, March 31, 2019.

This year Clare, Linda Sanchez and I have been meeting monthly with our Coming of Age youth. We’re engaging big theological questions with these high schoolers, and it’s wonderful to get to do this with them. Questions about good and evil, prayer and spiritual practices, our faith tradition, God. And it matters, what we think, and how we see and understand things. 

What about you? Do you think people are generally good at heart, or not? And what is the nature of God? Angry and judgmental, or, as one of our hymns puts it, “caring and forgiving, till we’re reconciled”? When you hear the word God, what images come to mind? It matters, because how we imagine things shapes how we live in the world. Doing theology is simply engaging these questions and images with our own hearts and minds, and with others. One of my teachers, Carter Heyward, said, “The only theology worth doing is that which inspires and transforms lives, that which empowers us to participate in creating, liberating, and blessing the world.” 

If you grew up in the Christian tradition, what were the images you saw of Jesus? Were they like the one we have here, placed by the Universalists? I look at this image and it feels invitational, and these words of his come to mind: “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest… for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Maybe you grew up with a different image of Jesus. Perhaps Jesus on the cross, bloody and suffering, gaunt and wearing a crown of thorns, “despised and rejected” as the aria in Handel’s Messiah puts it. What does that image tell you about religion and life? 

What if I told you, that those bloody images of Jesus are a relatively new phenomenon? That for almost a thousand years, there were no images of Jesus suffering on the cross? That where Christians gathered for worship they placed images of Jesus in a garden, or teaching or healing, or as the good shepherd. Jesus alive, not Jesus dead. This is what two feminist Bible scholars, Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock, discovered. Listen to opening sentences of their book, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love for This World for Crucifixion and Empire:

“It took Jesus a thousand years to die. Images of his corpse did not appear in churches until the tenth century. Why not? This question set us off on a five-year pilgrimage that led to this book.”

What they found, as they traveled around the Mediterranean, was more life-affirming images of Jesus: being baptized in the river Jordan, teaching, feeding, healing. They visited churches with beautiful images of pastoral scenes, images of paradise here on earth. One of these, a huge mosaic in Ravenna, Italy, they put on the cover, because of how it “places beauty at the heart of the cosmos.” It shows sheep and trees and saints, a garden of order and delight. Above this, surrounded by stars, is a golden sparkling cross, with a tiny face of Jesus at the center. There’s no crucifix, no thorns, no blood; rather, a celebration of goodness and beauty and possibility. 

I used a photo of that mosaic for our church Facebook post this week, that I found on the website of the Orthodox Arts Journal. It describes the scene as a vision of paradise, and says paradise is “our original home where we were intended to meet and commune with God. It is a place of intimacy, a place to dwell and enjoy. People visit mountaintops, but they do not stay there. A mountaintop is a place of ecstasy, from which we eventually have to descend… Mountains are not a place… to remain. But gardens can be.”

A few minutes ago we sang “Earth was given as a garden.” The second verse echoes the theme of this big book; its call to recover more life-affirming images for what saves us:

Show to us again the garden where all life flows fresh and free.
Gently guide your sons and daughters into full maturity.
Teach us how to trust each other, how to use for good our power, 
How to touch the earth with reverence. Then once more will Eden flower.

The psychologist Miriam Greenspan wrote a book called Healing Through the Dark Emotions, about the power and liberation that comes from moving through your hardest experiences; not denying them or running away from them, but going through the trials of life, passing through the suffering, not getting stuck there, and finding yourself healed and made whole in the process. Miriam Greenspan knows about this first hand; her son Aaron was born with a brain injury and never left Boston Children’s Hospital. She writes about the day she buried her baby:

“At the cemetery, we lowered his small casket int the cold ground and took turns shoveling earth over it, as is the custom in Jewish burials. We sang to Aaron the songs we’d made up for him while he was alive and that we recorded for him to hear when we weren’t with him. Then, softly, as though spoken in my ear, I heard these words: ‘You are looking in the wrong place.’

“My attention turned then, from the casket in the ground to the cloudless blue sky. And I saw there what I can only describe as a magnificent radiance—the light of Aaron’s blue eyes, magnified and shining through the heavens. The communication was clearer than speech. It was Aaron, reassuring me. He was saying, ‘Don’t worry about me. I am all right.’ I was flooded with peace and remembered the phrase, ‘the peace that passes understanding.’ I was awash in the pure joy of Aaron’s presence… In the most unlikely place, where my child’s body was laid to rest, I discovered the invincibility of spirit.”

Three weeks from today is Easter. We will hear the gospel passage about the women coming to the tomb and finding it empty, and then, being asked, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” In other words, “You are looking in the wrong place.”

This is what Parker and Brock are asking the church today: why have you taken the story of Jesus, the radical rabbi, teacher, healer, liberator, and wrapped it up in images that glorify death and suffering? Why have your focused more on how Jesus died rather than how he lived? Why do we celebrate torture, and glorify suffering with passion play reenactments, and movies like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ

Brock and Parker believe that it was coming of the medieval period, a time that brought plagues and holy wars and inquisitions to Europe, a time of such widespread suffering that it seemed the world was coming to an end, that the theology and rituals and art of the church started to reflect this pain and suffering. And we’ve had it ever since: this idea that what is earthy is sinful and bad, that what is Godly is pure and aloof. That paradise is something that is up there somewhere, that paradise comes only after a life of divinely ordained suffering. And it only comes to a few.

But this is not the good news that Jesus shared in his ministry. He said, “I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly.” He meant in the here and now. He meant people being fed and healed and freed from what was keeping them from living full and whole and holy lives.

Some years I find myself resisting the lead up to Easter. I think it’s because of the ways Jesus’ suffering has been glorified, and the claims some Christians make, that their way is the only way. But the other day, on my way in to church, I started listening to the parts of Handel’s Messiah that about about this season of darkness and light, of death and life. The aria “If God be for us, who can be against us?” came on. Those words, from Paul’s letter to the Romans, express the faith that death is not the end of the story, that in the end, love wins. The day before, I’d met with two of Faye Reinhold’s daughters to plan the memorial service for their mom this Tuesday. And one of them had requested this very reading, because of its assertion that nothing can separate us from the love of God. 

This morning we heard about Wendell Berry’s springtime ritual of burying old papers he no longer needs, that have outlived their use. What do we need to discard in order to have new life? What if we let go of those violent images that have caused too many people to stay stuck in suffering and brokenness, and offered instead images of healing, restoration, and new life?

What if we practiced seeing paradise as right here? What if we made a life-affirming confession like Wendell Berry’s?

To the sky, to the wind, then,
and to the faithful trees, I confess
my sins: that I have not been happy
enough, considering my good luck;
have listened to too much noise;
have been inattentive to wonders;
have lusted after praise.

Yes, to be human is to suffer, and eventually to die. But that is not the whole story. We are here to live and love and be of use. To be open and attentive to wonder, to see that paradise is still possible, right here; to be happy, and mindful of our blessings.

The invitation, as always, is to do our own work. To pay attention to our lives; to what haunts us and holds us back, and to what heals us. To work on our own liberation, and help others do the same. To be part of creating paradise where we are. So we can freely and gladly lift our voices and sing, “I’m on my way, to the freedom land, I’m on my way, great God, I’m on my way!”