Yesterday marked the second anniversary of my father’s death. The thought that struck me most as I began meditating on his life, was that he refused to be blind!
My dad had macular degeneration—the dry variety. The variety that can’t be slowed down with medication or shots. His was the type that would continue to rob him of his central sight. As he grew older, his condition grew worse. Although he did maintain some peripheral vision, so as not to run into walls, his central sight became very diminished. The condition worsened to the point that even if I put my head right up to his nose, he couldn’t make out who I was unless he heard my voice.
One afternoon when I came to visit him, he was fully dressed, sitting upright in his lounge chair. The shades in the room were pulled down, there were no lights on, save the blue light of the television. He had in his hand a very powerful magnifying glass. It was perched up close to his left eye and his head was a little cocked as he adjusted his body to focus on the television screen. I asked him what he was seeing, and he lowered the magnifying glass and tilted his head in my direction. “Well, I am so very grateful to God,” he said. “I actually have a small pinhole of vision in my left eye, right in the center, where this tiny stream of light comes through the blackness around it and I can actually see something when everything is lined up just right.”
His discovery that day made him very happy! He decided then and there that he would continue to see after all. He would not let this disease rob him of his sight! Indeed, the encroaching darkness would not overcome the light!
How apropos, that thoughts about my Dad, and the high holy days of Christianity, would come together so well! Although I am not surprised, because Dad was very supportive of my call to priesthood. Why would his support wane now, when I was trying to write a homily for Easter? He has come through once again!
I begin with noting that in 1978, scripture scholar, Walter Brueggemann, wrote the book, The Prophetic Imagination, whereby he creatively explored the Spirit’s message of being a prophetic witness that can take the form of various scripture characters. This work gave impetus for homilists to begin their scripture reflection in a significantly more creative mode. In other words, the homilist takes on a prophetic posture that is invoked through a faith-filled imagination. The story I share with you tonight was first told by biblical scholar and Episcopal bishop, John Shelby Spong, and I capture its highlights for you now. And, as we all know, a story can be captivating, and sometimes, even true.
After Jesus was taken away to be tortured and crucified, Simon fled, along with all the other guys. He was afraid of what the Romans would do to him and was horrified at the length they went to stop Jesus from gaining influence over the Jewish community. He just had to escape and hide away. The brutal torture and crucifixion rattled him to the core. After a while, he realized he had to get back to a normal life, so he began his slow journey back to Galilee. He recalled many episodes in the life of the deceased Jesus, isolating them for a moment so that he could relive them in his mind. Simon would lift each remembered event out of his stream of consciousness, turn it from side to side, seeking new angles so that he could understand that particular moment in some new way or find in it some new dimension. Grief work is always painful, because each moment, after examination and a time of reliving, falls back ultimately into the blackness of an unrelieved sense of loss. Jesus was dead. He had been killed, the dream, whatever it was that had been connected to the life of Jesus, could be no more. For days, weeks, even months, this thought occupied Simon.
Simon was also aware that there was about Jesus’ life a sense of power that caused hints of miracle and even magic to enter not only his life, but into other people’s talk about him. The life of Jesus seemed to call people into wholeness and wellness. Jesus was a man who had a mission. Somehow all these things were associated with the meaning of his life.
Simon did not engage in this grief alone. There is every reason to believe that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who were friends of Simon’s before Jesus came into their lives, were with Simon during his time of grief. They all shared the fisherman’s trade. They all worked around the Sea of Galilee. And Andrew, who suffered the fate of being identified only as “the brother of Simon” was certainly included in this band of grievers. Together they processed their experiences and wondered what it all meant. Together they felt the void of darkness. The clouds did not lift with the passing of time. The intensity of one person’s presence in another person’ life is equaled only by the intensity of absence when that person is gone.
Economic necessity and psychological health both demanded that they return to their means of securing a livelihood. Fishing was all they really knew, so they returned to their trade. Together on the Sea of Galilee, there was much time to talk. These waters were filled with memories about Jesus. Nothing they did allowed them to escape his presence in their memories. For them, Jesus was still everywhere they looked.
Every Jewish meal, even bread and fish eaten by the sea in the early hours of the day, was a liturgical event. In the Jewish tradition, the meal symbolized the end time feast that occurred on the day of the great banquet that would inaugurate the kingdom of God. The meal began with the ceremonial blessing over the bread. The bread would be lifted up in prayer: “Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the universe, who causes grain to come forth from the earth to nourish our bodies.”
Surely every time they blessed the bread to begin their early morning meal, their minds recalled another meal held in Jerusalem in an upper room on a strange and fateful night. Fear, anxiety, and melancholy abounded that night. It was so dramatic, Jesus took bread, broke it, and identified it with his broken body. It made no sense, but it seemed to say that disaster loomed ahead. These fishermen, who had been deeply touched by Jesus of Nazareth, now thought of as “the crucified one,” began each morning meal by taking bread, blessing it, breaking it, and remembering.
Each day conflicting thoughts played their point and counterpoint in the minds of these disciples, especially in the mind of Simon. On one side, there was the experience that they had had with Jesus that called them out of the old and into a new understanding of God. On the other side, Jesus was dead, and this new understanding had not prevailed. It was the old and not the new that had proven victorious. It was always the high priest that was thought of as God’s anointed one, reinforced by quoted texts of sacred scripture.
Conflicting thoughts about Jesus continued to preoccupy Simon’s mind. How could the messiah be killed? No one had ever heard of a dead messiah, an executed messiah, a messiah hung upon a tree! But yet, how could God say no to a message of love and forgiveness and still be God? How could God deny one who had reached across every human divide to enhance all those who God had created? How could one be so completely an agent of life and not at the same time be an agent of God? How could one give his life away so totally and still be thought guilty of a capital crime? It did not add up to Simon. So Simon wrestled with all of this day after day, and week after week.
In the Jewish liturgical year there was a great festival that rivaled and even surpassed Passover in popularity, it was called the Feast of the Tabernacles, or Booths. It was a festival of celebration for which many people journeyed to Jerusalem to take part. It was about celebrating the harvest. About the freedom they had known in the wilderness wanderings when they lived in temporary shelters or booths, when even the sacred scrolls of God’s presence were carried in a mobile tabernacle.
Like all Jewish festivals, the sacred readings were focused on yearning for a messiah, for God’s kingdom, and for God’s reign. It focused on the symbols of light and water, as Israel was to be a light to the nations of the world, and out of Jerusalem would flow fountains of living water, which was a symbol for the Spirit that was to rule the world when God’s kingdom came.
As the time for the festival neared, its content quite naturally entered Simon’s mind, and he began to associate it with his constant attempt to make sense out of Jesus’ death. Familiar phrases from Psalm 118 came to his mind: “I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord... The Lord has indeed chastised me, yet has not delivered me to death… Open the gates of justice; I will enter them and give thanks to the Lord… This gate is the Lord’s, the just shall enter it… The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. By the Lord has this been done; it is wonderful in our eyes…Let us be glad and rejoice in it.”
Simon concluded that enough time had passed since the execution of Jesus to make a safe return as just one more face in a host of pilgrims for this Feast of the Tabernacles. He discussed his thoughts and the sacred scripture passages with his band of fishermen. His mind continued to be unsettled. Images kept fighting one another: Who would ever regard a simple fisherman as a source of theological wisdom? That was the task of the high priest or scribes. They had rendered their judgment of Jesus of Nazareth. Yet, proper or not, the truth that was taking hold of Simon could not be denied. Every day these possibilities dawned anew in his mind. Somehow, he knew himself to be grasped by a love that would not let him go.
One night, the fishermen had a very large catch. As they prepared for the early morning feast and blessing on the beach, images flowed together in Simon’s mind: the psalm of Tabernacles, “I shall not die but live.” The words of Zechariah, “They looked on him whom they pierced,” and that awful night when Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, and called that bread his body. As was custom, Simon put these images into the ceremonial blessing, and he broke bread.
Suddenly, it all came together for Simon. The crucifixion was not punitive, it was intentional. The cross was Jesus’ ultimate parable, acted out on the stage of history to open the eyes of those whose eyes could be opened in no other way to the meaning of Jesus as the sign of God’s love. God’s love was unconditional, a love not earned by the rigorous keeping of the law. God’s love was beyond the boundaries of righteousness, a love that demanded nothing in return. Jesus’ death was the final episode in the story of his life. It is in giving life away that we find life, it is in giving love away that we find love, it is in embracing the outcast that we find ourselves embraced as outcasts.
The words of Jesus to Simon came to his mind: “Simon, if you love me you will feed my sheep.” This was the meaning that Simon seemed to hear again and again as he tried to make sense out of his experience in Galilee; that is, the risen Christ will be known when his disciples can love as Jesus loved, and when they can love the ones whom Jesus loved, namely, the least of God’s people.
God in fact had come to dwell in Jesus. Jesus, now seen to be the essence of God, had come to dwell in the least of these brothers and sisters. It was, in the words of later Christian theology, a new incarnation. God in Christ, Christ in the least of these. Yes, Simon saw Jesus alive in the heart of God!
God had claimed the life of Jesus and that this life, now part of God, was available to them forever, as God. Simon also knew that they now had to be agents of this life, giving it away.
And that, my friends, was the dawn of Easter in human history-- the moment Simon felt resurrected! Simon got everything lined up in his heart. The clouds of his grief, confusion, and depression vanished from his mind, and in that moment, he knew that Jesus was part of the very essence of God, and at that moment Simon saw Jesus alive. Was what Simon saw real? Can it be real if it is not objective? There will always be those whose eyes are not opened… those who will never see what Simon saw. But we know that objectivity is a category that measures events inside time and space. Simon saw Jesus from the realm of God, and that realm is not within history, it is not bounded by time or space.
My father struggled to find the light, to line things up just right, to do all he could do to figure out a way that darkness would not overcome him. Simon did the same. Both came away basking in the newness of life, where the transformative light of God’s presence remains always.
Is this Simon story true? Is it possible that it could have happened as just told? Brueggemann would tell us to use our faithful imaginations and dare to change places with a scripture character. Just maybe the face of God will be revealed in surprising ways!