“They were startled and terrified, in panic and fright; they thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you frightened? Why are you disturbed? Why do doubts arise in your hearts? Why do such ideas cross your mind?’” — Luke 24: 37-38.
Bonnie and I welcomed into the 21st Century into our lives last week. We got a pair of I-phones. [The pastor hold up an I-phone]
Up until a week ago, the only cell phones we had were Tracfones. To be blunt, I didn’t see the need for something more versatile. Making phone calls— what more do you need? A Tracfone does that. And it’s not expensive
So why did we get I-phones? I think, as many of you know, this Summer we are planning to travel across the country and back. We got the phones for that trip because it seemed reasonable to have something with us on which you can do more than simply make a phone call.
My colleague, the Rev. Chuck Taylor of the Emmanuel Episcopal Church, says the reason he does not have a smart phone is he is not smart enough. (If you know Chuck you know he is as smart as they come and he revels in self-deprecating humor.)
In any case, I don’t know if I’m smart but think I may be O.K. operating the phone, except when my fat, fumbling fingers hit the wrong button. And indeed, Bonnie’s pet name for me when it comes to electronic stuff is “geek.”
One reason for my geek-iness (is that a word— geek-iness?)— O.K.— one reason for my geek-iness is I got involved with computers early. I was still in my teen years.
As an aside and just to put into perspective how quickly things change in the computer field, arguably the I-pad changed computing forever. And, even though it feels like it’s been around a long time, the I-pad was released just five years ago this month.
A couple years before that the I-phone changed the phone industry forever. And that was released less than eight years ago. An I-Phone purchased today is roughly one million times more powerful than a main frame computer from 1975— a computer which took up a space the size of our Founder’s Room. [Again, the pastor holds up the phone.] And there it is, that size, one million times more powerful. I’ll turn it off.
Anyway, when I was so young the dinosaurs were still roaming the earth, there was no such thing as personal computers or tablets. There was nu such thing as cell phones— never mind smart phones— and I found myself operating one of those big main frame computer.
One day a supervisor of mine pointing to the machine I was operating said, “You’re not afraid of these things are you?”
I responded, “Why should I be? The machine tells me when I’ve done something wrong. When I’m doing something right it just keeps running. What’s there to be frightened about?”
There’s no question about this: we have a tendency to be frightened by the unfamiliar, frightened by what we don’t know, by what we don’t understand. And, needless to say, we are frightened by change— change like smart phones. [Again, the pastor holds up the phone.]
Change is, however, not new. I’ve used this story here before, but it is true and it makes an interesting point.
I once had a much older friend whose mother was born in 1870. She was 95 in 1965 and at her birthday party my friend asked her what, of all the developments over her lifetime, had brought the biggest change to her daily life.
Now, you need to understand the year before she was born the transcontinental railroad was finished. While she was alive she saw the invention of the telephone, the car, the airplane. So, those years go from the transcontinental railroad to spaceflight.
And what was her answer to the question what had changed her life the most? Ready to wear clothes had made the greatest change in her lifetime. When she was young the Sears catalogue didn’t even exist. People had to make their own clothes. The wealthy had clothes made for them.
Well, part of my point is certainly this: change: it is the only constant. Being frightened of it— should that be a choice? (Slight pause.)
We find these words in Luke/Acts in the section known as Luke: “They were startled and terrified, in panic and fright; they thought they were seeing a ghost. Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you frightened? Why are you disturbed? Why do doubts arise in your hearts? Why do such ideas cross your mind?’” (Slight pause.)
I think we moderns have a problem when it comes to reading Scripture. The problem is obvious and simple to define: moderns— both conservatives and liberals— doesn’t matter which end of the spectrum you’re on— moderns misread Scripture, especially the Gospels, by trying to read the words of the Gospels as if they are a documentary about the life, the murder and the resurrection of Jesus.
They are not documentaries. It also needs to be said when carefully read, the text offered in the Gospels will allow for the words to be read as if they were recording a documentary.
Let’s take today’s reading as an example. First, the text tells us the disciples were terrified. Then it says they were joyful. At the very same time it says they were joyful it also says they were (quote:) “still disbelieving, incredulous, wondering.”
That makes no logical sense. It is a self-contradiction. To take this as if it was recording something, an event, you need to assume the writer of this passage did not understand what was being recorded, and therefore that the writer was (for lack of a better description) stupid.
But suppose the writers of Scripture, especially the Gospels, are trying to say something not connected to documentation? Indeed, let’s suppose the Gospels are written to claim something about theology. If that’s the case, perhaps we are on more solid ground when we ask “What does this passage mean?” rather than “What does this passage say?”
Additionally, I think the writers, especially the writers of the Gospels, are also trying to say something about how they feel, say something their emotional state. (Slight pause.) So, how do you say something about theology while saying something about how you feel, something about your emotional state?
Indeed, how do you say something about theology while saying something about how you feel, especially when you feel overwhelmed because you believe the covenant of God has changed. And then, on top of that, you realize that it’s not simply that the covenant has been changed. Rather, the covenant of God has been re-envisioned by God?
And what is that re-envisioning, that change you find so overwhelming? The theological, emotional statement you make as you write the Gospels is about the realization that the Messiah is Jesus. And this Jesus lived in community with your people for a goodly number of years.
And how do you explain that? What does that look like in the words you’re going to record? Perhaps those words look like this (quote:) “While joyful— while joyful— they were still disbelieving, incredulous, wondering.”
Those words make no sense in terms of someone trying to depict what’s happening. They do make theological, emotional sense. That’s because what’s being said is that the disciples are experiencing, have experienced, the real presence of God.
So, that Jesus is the Messiah, sent by God to affirm the covenant is not a reason to be terrified. It is reason to be (quote:) “joyful,” if you can deal with this re-envisioned change. (Slight pause.)
Earlier I said the only constant is change. And perhaps we believe that change only happens to us moderns. But I want to suggest overwhelming change is something with which the early church was constantly dealing.
And the theology found in the Gospels clearly states God has ushered in re-envisioned change. So, in the end, I think this story is not about being terrified or being joyful or even, as the detail in the story says, or even about Jesus eating fish— not about any of that. It is a theological and emotional expression which says there is a new understanding of the covenant with God, an understanding that the covenant is open to all people because Jesus lives, open to all people— not just a few— because Jesus lives.
And that is a really, really, really big change. How big? [The pastor hold up the cell phone again.] Bigger and quicker than smart phones. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, NY
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Often people, especially we moderns, ask did the stories in the Bible happen? The question, itself, is a moot point, not something the writers would have thought important. The stories are not written to report what happened. Especially when it comes to the Gospels, the stories are written to address theology and to express the emotional state of the people who wrote them concerning their experience of God and their relationship with God.”
BENEDICTION: Let us place our trust in God. Let us go from this place to share the Good News as we are witnesses. And this is, indeed, the Good News: by God we are blessed; in Jesus, the Christ, the beloved of God, we are made whole. Let us depart in confidence and joy that the Spirit of God is with us and let us carry Christ in our hearts. Amen.