H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
April 22, 2001
Texts: Acts 5:27-29, 33-39; John 20:19-23, 30-31
In Anne Lamottís novel, Crooked Little Heart,
Elizabeth is trying to rebuild her life after the tragic accidental death of her
first husband, Andrew. She is now remarried and raising her teen-aged daughter,
Rosie. But she has never completed her grief work following Andrewís death.
She has not been able to invest herself fully in her second marriage -- or to
reinvest in life itself. Depression and alcohol have been her daily partners.
Near the end of the book, she begins to come back to life, now
able to say good-byes to the past so she can live in the present. Her best
girlfriend is a woman named Rae who has recently become a Christian. Rae gives
Elizabeth some advice:
"I keep trying to do what Wendell Berry said," Rae
"What did Wendell Berry say, Rae?"
The phrase stirred me, and I set out to find where Wendell
Berry had written that -- which wasnít easy since heís written numerous
novels, short stories, essays and poems. But I enjoy a good literary hunt, and
off I went. I found it in a poem entitled, "Manifesto: The Mad Farmerís
Liberation Front." Berry has written a number of "Mad Farmer"
poems. These are his prophetic poems where he resembles his famous farmer -
prophet predecessor, the Hebrew prophet Amos of Tekoa. I began to read:
So, friends, every day do something
that wonít compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it . . .
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias. . . .
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
Go with your love to the fields. . . .
As soon as the generals and politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. . . .
Hereís the message this Eastertide Sunday: Practice
resurrection. We can, God knows, spend our lives practicing death, little deaths
and big ones. Why not instead, practice resurrection?
A butterfly will never emerge from the cocoon without
stretching its wet new wings against the inner walls of the cocoon. With a hope
as deep as instinct yet more easily quelled -- Christians are called to practice
The whole book of Acts could be subtitled, Practicing
Resurrection, as the fledgling church discovered what it meant to live in
the light and power of the Resurrection and become part of Godís New Creation.
A new community is formed and learns to live with new freedom
in regard to money and possessions, race, class and gender.
A crippled man asks for alms and is given new legs.
A violent persecutor of the church, a man well versed in
theological polemics and sacred violence, is met on the way to Damascus by the
Risen Christ. Blinded so he can see, forgiven and set free from his own inner
oppressions, he is called to be Christís apostle to the Gentiles.
A slave girl is delivered of her evil spirit and from the
hands of her profiteering masters.
Peter and the apostles are forbidden to preach but do so
anyway. When arrested and asked why they persist, Peter answered with a new
freedom given by the Resurrection, "We must obey God, not human
Their lives are spared by the action of Gamaliel, a leader of
the Jewish council -- which shows resurrection is breaking out everywhere. The
wise Gamaliel said, "Let them go. If their movement is not of God, it will
fail. If it is of God, nothing we do will stop it. By trying to overthrow it,
you may even be found opposing God!" (Acts 5:38-39). Howís that for
giving up the control-disease and letting God be God!
On Easter Sunday night the disciples are hidden in fear behind
locked doors. The powers that be who killed Jesus might well be after them.
The Risen Christ suddenly appears in the room. "Peace
[Shalom]," he says, bestowing the surprise of forgiveness. "As the
Father has sent me, so send I you," he says. Then he blows on them his
breath and says, "Receive the Holy Spirit."
Jesus sends them into the world to be Christs! As he
was sent, so are we! John closes the gospel by saying that the Risen Christ did
other things not contained in this book, and that the things he will do through
his followers will not be able to be contained in a world full of books.
Some calling, huh?! To be Christs. Practice
Robert Furey, a psychotherapist, tells the story of a Ph.D.
named Jud. If I were to write a short story about Jud, I would call it "The
Man Who Lost His Laugh." After a few sessions Jud said to him:
I have to tell you something I havenít told anyone.
. . . I donít have my own laugh. . . . I really donít. I laugh like
other people. . . . When I laugh I can tell whose laugh I am using. Itís
never mine. I think I lost mine sometime back. Sometimes I get scared
that Iíve lost it forever.3
Jud found his laugh as he began to work among homeless people.
As he ministered to them, they introduced him to himself, and there he recovered
his own unique unrepeatable laugh.
Practice resurrection. "Do something that will not
compute." Our world is driven by the canons of usefulness and efficiency.
Jacques Ellul, the French lawyer and lay theologian, says that the first mark of
Christian freedom -- and perhaps the last -- is to do something useless.
We are paralyzed by the questions "Will it work?" "What
difference will it make?"
In light of the Resurrection all good things make a
difference. Be a good mother. Feed someone who is hungry. If you canít teach
him how to fish, give him a fish! Join some protest on behalf of someone. Visit
a nursing home, teach a student, write a poem, give someone a job. "Be
joyful/ though you have considered all the facts." Make some music.
This is what the mission of the Risen One is about. Last week
I spoke of Simone Weil. She grew up in Paris, the child of Jewish agnostics. She
had this most incredibly sensitive conscience. When she was five she refused to
wear socks with her shoes because children of factory workers had no socks. When
she was eight or nine she refused to eat sugar because French soldiers fighting
at the front had no sugar. She graduated from the university with honors and
became a teacher, but then gave up teaching to join the socialist workers
movement. Her zealous commitments drove her to some kind of breakdown, and she
went to a monastery in Spain to convalesce, not because she was religious but
because they offered sanctuary for her weary body and mind.
There she was introduced to the seventeenth-century British
mystical poets. She suffered migraine headaches, and she discovered that when
she read those poems they soothed her.
Once while reading George Herbertís "Love Bade Me
Welcome," the recitation of the poem, she says, took on the character of a
prayer and "Christ came down and took possession of me." She became
one of the twentieth- centuryís most famous Christians, though she refused to
be baptized because she felt baptism would be a denial of her Jewishness. By the
power of the Resurrection she became part of Godís New Creation, made up of
Jew as Jew and Gentile as Gentile, male and female, rich and poor,
slave and free.
In the midst of life and death, joy and heartbreak, wholeness
and brokenness, we are called to practice resurrection.
I wrote this sermon this week in Myrtle Beach, just a block or
so down the beach from where my father suffered an aneurism in the aorta which
burst. He lived about eight weeks before he died. The trauma to his system was
too great. It was exactly this time of the year three years ago; and the
memories stirred many wonderful ones about his good life and about his
immeasurable influence on me, as well as the shuddering painful ones surrounding
He was transported to the medical university hospital in
Charleston, South Carolina. We were all there with him Palm Sunday weekend,
1998. It happened also to be the weekend of the Cooper River Bridge 10-K Race,
the largest 10-K in the world with over thirty thousand running in it every
year. My brother Jim and I decided to run in it in honor of our dad. We
suspected he probably would not make it. We asked the nurse in ICU if we could
borrow a couple of hospital gowns for the race, and she accommodated us.
On the Saturday before Palm Sunday we put on the hospital
gowns -- cotton, peach colored with blue paisley print -- over our shorts and
shirts -- though you couldnít see our shirts and shorts when we put them on.
There we were, all bony legs, running shoes and hospital gowns.
All along the way people cheered our odd sight and waved.
Runners passing would say, "Howíd you guys escape?!" Weíd laugh
and say, "Our dadís in the hospital. This oneís for him."
In the face of more death than we knew how to handle, we ran
for life, Dadís good life, and for a greater life, Godís life in us.
The next dayís morning newspaper had the listing of everyoneís
times and places. Jim and I finished 2,692nd and 2,693rd
-- but first and second among runners in hospital gowns!
It was for me an image of resurrection, of life in the midst
of death, for resurrection always has alongside it the taste of ashes and the
smell of ether, the near approach of death. It is in the midst of failure,
weakness, sickness and death that we are given the power to practice
resurrection. Thatís where resurrection happens.
This past week the Internet passed along the story written by
Jack Riemer of the Houston Chronicle. Someone passed it to me. I pass it
on to you. Itís about an experience Jack Riemer had at an Itzhak Perlman
concert. Here are Riemerís words:
On November 18, 1995, Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, came on
stage to give a concert at Avery Fisher Hall. . . . If you have ever been to a
Perlman concert, you know that getting on stage is no small achievement for him.
He was stricken with polio as a child, and so he has braces on both legs and
walks with the aid of two crutches. To see him walk across the stage one step at
a time, painfully and slowly, is an awesome sight. He walks painfully, yet
majestically, until he reaches his chair. Then he sits down, slowly, puts his
crutches on the floor, undoes the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back and
extends the other foot forward. Then he bends down and picks up the violin, puts
it under his chin, nods to the conductor and proceeds to play.
By now, the audience is used to this ritual. They sit quietly
while he makes his way across the stage to his chair. They remain reverently
silent while he undoes the clasps on his legs. They wait until he is ready to
play. But this time, something went wrong. Just as he finished the first few
bars, one of the strings on his violin broke. You could hear it snap - it went
off like gunfire across the room. There was no mistaking what that sound meant.
There was no mistaking what he had to do.
People who were there that night thought to themselves:
"We figured that he would have to get up, put on the clasps again, pick up
the crutches and limp his way off stage - to either find another violin or else
find another string for this one."
But he didnít. Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes
and then signaled the conductor to begin again. The orchestra began, and he
played from where he had left off. And he played with such passion and such
power and such purity as they had never heard before.
Of course, anyone knows that it is impossible to play a
symphonic work with just three strings. I know that, and you know that, but that
night Itzhak Perlman refused to know that. You could see him modulating,
changing, re-composing the piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he
was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made
When he finished, there was an awesome silence in the room.
And then people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinary outburst of
applause from every corner of the auditorium. We were all on our feet, screaming
and cheering, doing everything we could to show how much we appreciated what he
He smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to
quiet us, and then he said - not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent
tone - "You know, sometimes it is the artistís task to find out how much
music you can still make with what you have left."
In this world you are called to practice resurrection: To
discover how much music you can make with what you have left.
Thereís a lot more than you know -- more left and more music
-- for God is in the business of resurrection, and God uses not just our
strengths but also our weaknesses.
"When we are weak we are strong," wrote Paul to the
new 12-step movement called the church. Paul prayed unsuccessfully for God to
remove what he called his "thorn in the flesh." What God said was: My
grace is sufficient for you; for my strength is made perfect in weakness."
1 Crooked Little Heart (New York: Pantheon, 1997),
2 Wendell Berry, Collected Poems (San Francisco: Northpoint
Press, 1985), pp. 151-2.
3 Robert Furey, Called by Name (New York: A Crossroad Book,
1996), pp. 27-8.