Witness and Joy

I have discovered that tears come more easily of late. I’m not depressed or sad, though as I have confessed to you recently, and as I’m sure many of you can relate, I find myself tired, exhausted really, by the strains of this year in pandemic. But, these tears seem to be something more, something closer, actually, to joy, or at least joy as I have come to know it. I am drawn to C.S. Lewis’s idea in his simple book, Surprised By Joy, that “All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be’.” And, my tears seem to stem from this place of yearning, the desire and longing for both the uncomplicated delights and annoyances of human community in all its frustrating loveliness, and for the far more maddening by its seeming impossibility, the realities that continually elude we humans, things like true reconciliation, justice, and peace. Joy reminds us, in those moments of surprise, our hearts catching in our throats, when we stumble upon or happen into that which we may have encountered before, perhaps just fleetingly, but a taste nevertheless, a taste memory which points ahead to something that could be. I had a moment of joy, standing in the very loose scrum, can a scrum be socially distanced? I had a moment of joy at the wonderful gathering for the Easter Egg hunt in our church parking lot two weeks ago, seeing crinkled eyes above masks, and little Easter dresses, and the scramble for candy. It was at once a reminder of what we’ve all loved and connected to in our life in this faith community, of friends and loved ones who define this part of the body of Christ for us. And it pointed to that which we all are yearning for, a return to each other and a deep dwelling with one another in the midst of this community, in the flesh, all over again. And, I wept with what I can only believe is joy.

Before Dr. Elaine James so eloquently and wisely opened this spiritual gift of joy to our understanding last Sunday, I was already convinced that the gospel’s allusion to the joy and disbelief of the disciples at the appearing of the resurrected Jesus in this morning’s lesson was a gentle nudge for me to also preach on joy. Perhaps, I wondered, perhaps the Spirit had a sustained word on joy for us this Eastertide. Then in the hours following her sermon, our joy was brought up short, as it so often is, at word from Brooklyn Park, that yet another unarmed black man, Daunte Wright, had been needlessly murdered by the police, roughly 10 miles as the crow flies, from the site of George Floyd’s murder, a death which had sparked international outrage, and for which the trial of the accused officer had not even concluded. Another child to grow up fatherless, another family left wondering why their son was taken from them, another community shattered. We’d hardly even begun to make sense of the broken pieces this senseless act of violence left us with when Thursday Chicago PD released body camera footage of the shooting at the end of last month of a child, Adam Toledo, empty hands in the air in surrender, dying in front of our eyes in a nondescript alley, on the cold ground. Then before we could even inhale or exhale completely, Friday brought word of yet another mass shooting, this time in Indianapolis, at a workplace, eight dead, eight innocent lives sacrificed on the altar of guns. Taken in aggregate this week’s news feels like the heavy stone over the entrance to the tomb, firm, immovable, and blocking out any possibility of hope. Like you, I don’t come to church just to rehearse the weekly news. I come to be uplifted, galvanized even, for the work of living faithfully amidst life’s tragedies, for hope that something better is possible than the greed and violence and fear that define so much of our world. I come, like you, for hope, even when hope seems lost, to hear about joy, even when things seem bleak. But, how in heaven’s name can we speak of joy in the midst of a week like this one? I confess I almost changed direction. But, this is where Jesus shows up, right here on the shadowed fringe of grief, right as we are inclined to pull back in sadness and fear, Jesus, the resurrected one, has this remarkable capacity to show up, joy always following in the wake of his appearing.

In his award winning book, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South, historian and food writer Michael Twitty explores the often controversial roots of southern food, tracing the painful past of his enslaved ancestors and in so doing telling the story of not only the South, but of this country’s violent and racist past and how these realities persist into the present. Twitty draws on his experience as a kind of historical reenactor, someone who travels the South, going from plantation to plantation cooking in the style of his enslaved ancestors, using the recipes and ingredients they would have used, even the equipment and attire, coaxing delicious flavors out of a story that can only be described as simultaneously tragic, abominable, and yet riddled with joy. For him, the work is both a path to understanding history, but of also making real and making sense of his own life’s story, who he is and how he came to be. He describes how his entire cooking life could be summed up as having to do with memory, of places and foods, but also of people. He writes

 “Sometimes they are people long gone, whose immortality is expressed in the pulp of trees also long gone…other times they are people who converse with me as I cook as the enslaved once cooked, testifying to people and places that only come alive again when they are remembered. In memory there is resurrection, and thus the end goal of my cooking is just that — resurrection.”

It is perhaps more significant than we might guess, that Jesus, upon appearing to the disciples requests and eats a piece of grilled fish in their presence. Scholars will tell us that this is Luke’s device to show us that Jesus is more than an apparition. He is in the flesh, and like us, craves food. But, beyond this neat little piece of theological apologetic, I believe this act of embodiment connects more deeply to the life he has shared with the disciples, in countless meals just like this, connects back to their past as fishermen, and perhaps most of all, for any who have had the pleasure of savoring a piece of freshly grilled fish, simply seasoned and hot off the coals, this must have been a moment of joy for Jesus.

He uses this moment then to teach, to, as Luke says, open their minds to the scriptures and the significance of his life and ministry in their midst, and what it could mean for the liberation of the world. “You are witnesses of these things”, he says. “Witness” of course has a double meaning in our language, both as an act of observation, to have borne witness to an event, a crime, a moment, and the act of telling, of describing that which we have observed. In this moment, Jesus describes all of the harrowing events that the last days of his life, passion, and death have meant, how they were foreshadowed in scripture. You are witnesses, he says, to the trial, the beatings, the crown of thorns, the back alley shootings, the confused moment when a pistol is mistaken for a tazer and an innocent life is gunned down, when rage and access to weapons of mass death collide in the workplace for God only knows what cause, when a man lies dying on the ground gasping for air under the knee of a system that cannot perceive his full humanity, when a man hangs on a cross, yet one more faceless victim of the wrath of an empire, you, yes, YOU, are witnesses to these things.

You and I are witnesses to so many things, to so much tragedy and heartbreak, to so much pain and grief. Poet and essayist Ross Gay builds on the idea that inside each of us is a wild place, and that the core of this wilderness is most often sorrow. In his profound collection of essays, The Book of Delights, he writes,

“It astonishes me sometimes – no, often – how every person I get to know – everyone, regardless of everything – lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything…Is sorrow the true wild? And if it is – and if we join them – your wild to mine – what’s that?…What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. 

I’m saying: What if that is joy?”

I think Gay is onto something, like C.S. Lewis, that our joy is the connection of our often unrelated yet universal memory of struggle, of grief, of loss, and yet the promise too, born on the wings of memory, of survival, of forgiveness, of redemption, reconciliation, and love. There was this moment, years ago, in the midst of a great national tragedy following the mass shooting at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, when our President sang Amazing grace at the funeral, during his sermon. Describing the struggles and triumphs of the Black Church, he connected the grief in that room back in time to what Mother Emanuel represents, and then began to sing of God’s abundant and redemptive grace, grace Jesus speaks of in this morning’s gospel, grace which we are called to bear witness to in our lives in the world. And as our president began to sing, in the midst of tears and great sadness, the gathered assembly began to remember God’s grace, began to stand to their feet, smiles breaking out on faces across the room, eyes crinkling, and mouths upturned as together wildernesses of hurt were joined, and joy broke out. 

I have to believe that moments like that are still possible, that Joy, unearned and unexpected, will arise when we draw together as a people, when we remember not only what has happened in the hardest and most painful of moments, but in the moments of overcoming and triumph as well, when we have leaned on one another, when we have forgiven one another, when we have made known and let loose the love of the resurrected Jesus, in the world. We are witnesses, to these things too, to the possibility of joy, even in our disbelieving, in the midst of grief and tears so great they seem as immovable as death itself. And we are to bear witness in our lives and in our actions, as real as the food we eat and the wounds we bear, to make known, to share to the ends of the earth, the reconciling, forgiving, healing, and restoring love of Jesus.  For, we know, he is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia.

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