Sunday, April 22, 2012

Homily for Easter III

Luke 24:36b-48
St George's, Belleville

My mother was born and raised in northeastern Arkansas, the second of nine children. As I was growing up, we visited the small county seat town of Newport several times, which enabled me to have a relationship with my grandparents and one great aunt who lived there. When I was in first grade, one of my mother’s sisters, along with her four children, my cousins, actually moved in with us for a bit, and then found a place nearby, so I had a close relationship with them. On other occasions, I got to know a handful of other cousins and aunts and uncles.

Then, after I went to college, I never really saw them again … until 1999, which was the year of my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary, and we had a big family reunion down in Arkansas. At its numerical peak, there were nearly sixty people in attendance.
So I got to see people I’d had no contact with in several decades (and, to be honest, still don’t; though, thanks to Facebook, I keep track of some of my cousins).

As you might imagine, there was lots of storytelling, lots of old memories rekindled,
lots of sentences that began with, “Do you remember the time when...”? Of course, this sort of activity becomes more important when the one being remembered is dead, and some of those hearing the story are part of a generation that never met them. My children never knew my grandparents, yet at the family reunion in Arkansas, they knew themselves to be part of that larger fabric of the Hayden clan, that organic whole which is greater than the sum of its parts.

Sharing stories, passing on the lore of a family from one generation to another—these are the activities that call to life a corporate memory. It isn’t just individual people that remember things about a family. In a very real sense, the family itself remembers. My great-great-grandfather—that is, my maternal grandfather’s maternal grandfather—was a fellow by the name of Abraham Byler. Abraham Byler had the misfortune of serving as the sheriff of Baxter County, Arkansas—in the Ozarks in the north central part of  the state—in 1892. One day, some outlaws rode into town, and Sheriff Byler did his best to foil their plans, but he failed, and they shot him dead in the process. I drove through Baxter County that summer of the reunion, and even though my great-great-grandfather died more than a half-century before I was born, I felt a sense of connection to him as I looked around those wooded hills and up and down the banks of the White River. After all, he and I are removed, as it were, by only one degree of separation. My grandfather died when I was in my late twenties, so I have clear memories of him. He was a two-year old when his grandfather Byler was killed in that shootout with outlaws,
but it’s plausible to speculate, at least, that sometime during those two years Sheriff Byler held his grandson in his arms. It is through these and other instances of touching and remembering that I and my children and my children’s children share in the organic corporate memory of the Martins branch of the Hayden branch of the Byler family. Together, we remember more than any of us can individually.

We hear and read a great deal these days about the church being a family, and the celebration of the Eucharist being a family reunion in which we, in a much more literal way than we usually realize, “remember” the risen Lord Jesus. Those are certainly wholesome biblical and theological images, and we do well to meditate on them. Yet, it’s difficult. It’s a challenge to absorb those concepts into the imagination of our hearts.   Instead, we tend to lump Jesus into the category of “history”— famous people who lived a long time ago, whom we have to learn about in order to get through school, whom we know about through what they wrote, or what others wrote about them, and who are known through facts and events that took place on particular dates which are recorded in contemporary sources and corroborated by archeology. We know about the ancient Egyptians through the pyramids they built and the hieroglyphics they left on the walls of those tombs. We know about the ancient Greeks through the writings of their philosophers and poets and historians. We know about  the ancient Romans through the rich artistic and architectural and literary and political legacy which they left behind. 

We can also know about Jesus in this way. In comparison with other figures in the ancient world, the historical information we have about him is immensely reliable.
Yet, the Jesus whom we can reconstruct through the records and artifacts of history is not, on that basis, a particularly compelling or engaging figure. There were countless other itinerant teachers who attracted bands of disciples. Many of them are said to have performed miracles. The ethical teachings of Jesus, while certainly noble and venerable,
were neither new nor unique. And many of those other ancient teachers also met with untimely deaths after running afoul of the political establishment. Indeed, the “Jesus of history,” so to speak, seems sterile and far-removed from us. We can only speculate
about the actual details of his life and teaching.

Tragically, this sort of historical separation has led many to doubt, skepticism, and spiritual despair. You may know about an informal consortium of intellectuals and biblical scholars known as the Jesus Seminar. Since 1985, they have met from time to time to exchange learned opinions about which of the words and deeds of Jesus attributed to him by the gospel evangelists were things he actually said and did, and which were invented by others who had particular axes to grind. As you might guess, the list of items which this group certifies as genuine is quite short. And from the standpoint of pure scientific historical methodology, they support their assertions with quite persuasive arguments.

You and I may not wish to follow the trail as rigorously as do the members of the Jesus Seminar, but as long as we conceptualize Jesus as an historical figure, like, say, George Washington or Julius Caesar or Cleopatra, we will eventually end up in the same bowl of soup. Now, Abraham Byler is, of course, an historical figure. He may never be on the required history curriculum in Illinois public schools, but if you go to the courthouse and the library in Mountain Home, Arkansas, you can find several documents which mention his name. For me, though, as a member of the Martins branch of the Hayden branch of the Byler family, Abraham Byler is not an historical figure; he’s my great-great grandfather. I knew somebody who knew him! We don’t need to read about him in history books; our family remembers him.

What if we—you and I, as members of the family of the church—what if we were to think of Jesus in the same way? What if we were to recover a sense of the church as a family—the family of the descendants of those who saw and touched and talked with and ate with Jesus, risen from the dead? Would that not radically change our perception of Jesus? He would no longer be like Abraham Lincoln—a figure of history—but like Abraham Byler —somebody the family remembers.

In the twenty-fourth chapter of St Luke’s gospel, we read about the eleven disciples gathered in the same room on the evening of the day of the resurrection. They are talking amongst themselves when, all of a sudden, Jesus shows up. They were frightened. They weren’t used to seeing dead men walking. They supposed they might be looking at a ghost. So, in order to reassure them that he was quite present, and quite real, Jesus invited them to poke at him, to see that he was there bodily. And then he asked them for something to eat, and they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he ate it.
That seems to have done the trick for them—ghosts don’t eat broiled fish!

Now, we can think about this in two ways. We can read it as a piece of ancient literature about an historical figure. Or we can hear it as a family reunion story: “Do you remember the time Jesus showed up and we weren’t sure whether he was a ghost or not
and he ate a piece of broiled fish?”  “Oh, yeah, I remember that! Thanks for reminding me. Oh, and he let us poke around on him, too, just to satisfy our curiosity.”  “Hey, that’s right! I remember that.”

Most of us know somebody, or at least know of somebody, who is a hundred years old or more. Well, it only takes twenty such life spans, overlapping just a little bit, like those of my grandfather Hayden and his grandfather Byler, and we’re there. We’re with Jesus. The “degrees of separation” removing us from that community of friends who ate broiled fish with the risen Christ are not all that many. That extraordinary event is still fresh in the corporate memory of our family, and we still talk about it when we get together for reunions. Do you remember?

“History” is distant and abstract. Family memory is intimate and concrete. We are gathered here today, on the Third Sunday of Easter, gathered at this family reunion banquet table, to celebrate once again what we, together, remember, what we, together, have never forgotten. Christ is risen from the dead. In the banquet of the Eucharist, we participate in that reality. And we know it’s real because he at broiled fish with our grandparents. We’ve always known that. We’ve always remembered it. Alleluia and Amen. 

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