Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
Spurred on by the naming of my newest grandchild, Scout, I have begun rereading one of my favorite novels: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee.
This story is told in the first person, the voice of a young girl whose name is Scout. When we meet her, she is just old enough to begin school and on her first day of formal education, she is accompanied by her big brother who warns her to be careful. Being at school is different than being at home – very different.
By the end of that first day, Scout had been hauled to the front of the classroom, her palms had been paddled and she had been required to stand in the corner.
You see, Scout had gotten in trouble with Miss Caroline, her newly-minted teacher. Her crime, we come to find out, is that Scout already knew how to read. She recognized all the letters that Miss Caroline, had printed in block letters on the chalkboard. And though she had never set foot in school before, she was able to read most of the first grade reader as well as the stock quotes from the local newspaper.
Miss Caroline was not pleased. Being able to read before attending school was inappropriate and so she told Scout that Atticus, Scout’s father, was not to teach her anymore – he was, according to Miss Caroline, interfering with her reading. After all, he was not a teacher and Scout needed to learn to read with a fresh mind. “You tell your father that I’ll take over from here and try to undo the damage…your father doesn’t know how to teach,” Miss Caroline explained.
We hear how Scout tries to make sense of it all: “I mumbled that I was sorry and [sat down] meditating upon my crime. I never deliberately learned to read, but somehow I had been wallowing illicitly in the daily papers. In the long hours of church – was that where I learned? I could not remember not being able to read hymns. Now that I was compelled to think about it, reading was something that just came to me, as learning to fasten the seat of my union suit without looking around, or achieving two bows from a snarl of shoelaces. I could not remember when the lines above Atticus’ moving finger separated into words, but I had stared at them all the evenings in my memory, listening to the news of the day, Bills to be Enacted into Law, the diaries of Lorenzo Dow – anything Atticus happened to be reading when I crawled into his lap every night.”
Now, it has occurred to me that sometimes our religious institutions – and the way we think about faith is a lot – or can be a lot like Miss Caroline. Large block letters are printed on blackboards, syllables are sounded out and meanings are assigned to words and phrases. Grand theologies are constructed; tight, interesting ways to think about sin, salvation, the Trinity, atonement and resurrection fill thick and dense volumes. I have lots of them on my bookshelf – and I read a lot of what they have to say about resurrection over the last couple of weeks.
It’s good stuff – written by women and men who have thought long and hard about the Christian faith – asking the hard questions, looking deep within scripture and philosophical traditions to find coherent answers. I must admit that when I finally had the opportunity to open my first Systematic Theology text, I was blown away.
New understanding gave new meaning to so much of what I believed as a Christian. I will always be grateful for the opportunity to study the doctrines of the Church, their histories and the connections between them. Feeding my head turned out to be a life-changing way to feed my faith. But it was not faith. Faith is different.
Faith itself is more mysterious – bubbling up in places we don’t expect – a kind of trust that the truth, that reality, is something bigger than what we can know intellectually – bigger than even the grandest and tightest and even the most faithful theology.
Today we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth – the basis of our Christian faith. The resurrection of a man born over two thousand years ago – a man who wandered the hillsides of Palestine – a man whose words and actions caused the religious and civil leaders of his day to condemn him to death.
The biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus found in each of the gospels are all different – considerably so. But they all testify to the emptiness of the tomb where Jesus had been buried. Women and men looking for their dead friend and Lord come up empty handed. And they are terrified. Perhaps some of them did remember that Jesus had predicted something like this would happen, but it sounds like they weren’t really prepared for it…and didn’t really know what to make of it.
How were they to understand? They didn’t have the option of opening a textbook and finding out how Augustine or Aquinas or any other of the great theologians to help them understand the mystery of Jesus’ new life.
What they were left with was their own experience: an empty tomb… and then, not very long afterward, the presence of Jesus himself. The faith of Jesus’ friends and disciples was not fed by feeding their heads – their faith was fed by their experience of Jesus’ new life and the new life that he shared with them.
But let’s face it. We weren’t there. We didn’t see the angels or the empty tomb. All we have to go on are the confusing and conflicting reports written hundreds of years ago. Or maybe not. Maybe there is more to go on than that.
Reading Mockingbird and thinking about how Scout – whose name means “observant one”, by the way – thinking about how Scout learned to read by reading – might give us a clue to this whole enterprise of faith – this business of believing in the resurrection of Jesus.
Could it be that one way to feed our faith – to allow our faith to grow and deepen is by “faith-ing?” Is it possible that our lives today and tomorrow are, in fact, experiences of resurrection – made possible by the resurrection of Jesus?
“Faith-ing.” I know it’s a goofy, made-up word, but here’s another way to think about it.
What if we were able to see through Easter eyes. What would it be like to look at the world, at our neighbors, our families, at our own lives with the understanding that God has been up to and is still up to something really big – that God is in fact, making all things new: shattering darkness with light, overcoming hatred with love, destroying death with new life? What if we saw the whole creation through Easter eyes?
You see, God didn’t give Jesus new life for Jesus alone. God gave Jesus new life so that all creation could participate in it. God wants to shine new light in all the dark places; God wants to bring new life to all that seems dead. And, in fact, God is doing that right now.
But it takes some work to see it – some willingness on our part to see that new light and life around us. It’s not a matter of putting on rose-colored glasses – it’s more a matter of being willing to lay aside our cynicism, our judgment, our guilt – and looking for – expecting – new life – seeing with Easter eyes.
When we choose to see with Easter eyes – and I do believe it’s a choice – we will begin to recognize the individual letters of new life. We will begin to put them together and understand the words they form; we’ll see for ourselves how the words make phrases and how the phrases make sense. Yes, we can learn something about faith from the experts and our faith is certainly informed by the accounts of the resurrection in Scripture. But perhaps we might want to consider becoming more like Scout – observant ones – sitting in our Father’s lap – learning to have faith by “faith-ing” – seeing the world and ourselves through Easter eyes – following God’s finger over the pages until we make our way through the whole story of salvation – the story of new life given first to Jesus – a story of death and resurrection where we – you and I are also characters.