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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Easter 05/15/2011

It’s still Easter.  The Paschal candle is still lit.  By the Fourth Sunday of Easter though, it does get a little hard to keep the Easter glow going.  The flowers that made the church so beautiful on Easter Sunday are gone, if your Easter candy isn’t gone already, there probably isn’t much left.  On top of all that, with Easter being so late, Mothers Day came up after just two weeks, quickly replacing Easter in our collective holiday conscience

By week four though, even the lectionary has kind of moved on to other things.   On the first three Sundays of Easter this year we hit the high spots with the Mary’s encounter with the angels at the empty tomb along with an encounter with Jesus himself in week one, then Doubting Thomas in week two and the road to Emmaus in week three all of which constitute some of the best known, best loved Easter stories; we hit them all. 

Every year though, in week four empty tomb and resurrection appearance stories are behind us, we move exclusively into the gospel of John and the subject matter changes.  It starts today with sheep/shepherd imagery on what is sometimes known as Good Shepherd Sunday and then in the following weeks there are other images of Jesus and words of Jesus that begin to edge us toward Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit.  In any event the focus does change.

That’s not all though; as we move into John the genre kind of changes too; we move more into the realm of poetic language and I want to talk a little bit about that.  In my own study and reflection on the Bible I’m starting to think that an appreciation of poetry may be the key to it all and that’s quite a statement coming from me as my appreciation of poetry hasn’t tended to go very far beyond limericks that begin “There once was a man from” and there’s a few different place names I could plug in there. 

I don’t think I’m unique in my struggle to appreciate poetry though.  For many of us the kind of language we prefer is prose language that explains, reports, describes or informs; that’s what were used to.  Relative to the Sunday morning lectionary readings and the preaching that goes along with them it may be that what you want are words that explain what a given text means because the Bible isn’t always easy to figure out; you’d like some insight.  In addition to explanation though, you may want words that motivate you a little bit; you want connections between the ancient words of the Bible and more current events and situations that all of us face; a little guidance in how to live a Christian life in other words, how to be a disciple of Christ.    

There most definitely is a place for all that and on most Sundays that’s what I try to give you.  We are more comfortable with words that provide information and explanation and motivation than we are with the words of poetry that don’t “do” anything, anything that is except create something new in us…if we’re willing to take the time. 

That’s one of the things about poetry…it takes time.  When you read it you have to read it differently than you read other things.  You have to go slow, you have to play around with the words and let that creative process happen, you have to let your imagination work and you have to be patient with it.  For me, I can tell you that that’s not easy.  My tendency is to want to read quickly, to figure out what it means, to finish, and then move on.  Most of us are programmed to be that way, to be busy and to be productive and we’re rewarded when we are.         

Walter Brueggemann sometimes quotes a verse of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass which I know is something I had to read in high school and I’m sure I hated it.  

After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the   geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,
The true Son of God shall come singing his songs.

Finally comes the poet, after all those people who get things done, finally comes the poet with no information to share and no practical advice, but the poet who has words that create and make something new.

Think for a moment now about the gospels.  You know there are four of them, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  You might know that Mark is thought to be the earliest gospel, written around the year 70, with Matthew and Luke maybe ten or fifteen years later.  There is great similarity in style and content between Matthew, Mark and Luke.  There are differences and unique material in each but there’s a lot that’s the same and the style in each of them is quite informative telling of events in Jesus’ life along with stories he told and various teachings that he clearly thought were important; that’s Matthew, Mark and Luke. 

Then, may I suggest, comes the poet, John.  John is written probably 20 to 30 years after the other gospels.  Nobody really knows if John knew about the other gospels but it seems like maybe he knew about them or about the traditions behind them and perhaps he thought they weren’t adequate to do what he wanted to do, because what he wanted to do was not just to teach about Jesus, what he wanted to do was to create faith.  Remember how the Doubting Thomas story ended a couple of weeks ago; “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” 

John wasn’t written to inform, it was written to create faith.  Finally comes the poet.  The stories about Jesus had all been told and written by the time John wrote his gospel so he gives us something else.  It’s in John that we get I am the bread of life, I am the vine, I am the light of the world, I am the good shepherd and as part of that shepherd imagery, today we get I am the gate for the sheep.  It’s all poetry, poetry that by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit John puts on the lips of Jesus that we may believe and have life in his name.  It’s all poetry and it does create faith without explanation from me or anyone else. 

I came across a poem by Billy Collins who is a prominent American poet, he was Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001-2003.  It’s called Introduction to Poetry and it gets at his frustration in trying to teach poetry.  

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide.

Or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

Or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with a rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

With these images from John we need to resist the temptation to tie them to a chair with a rope and torture a confession out of them.  We don’t want to beat them with a hose to find out what they really mean.  We do better to let them do what John intended, which was to create faith.  And that’s what happens.

The Good Shepherd imagery that we get in the 23rd Psalm and in John is some of the best loved imagery we have of God and Jesus.  Jesus as the Good Shepherd has great meaning and especially brings great comfort to many of us, it makes the truth of our relationship with Jesus real to us and it has nothing to do with anyone explaining what it means.  It’s poetry and in the subversive way that poetry works it has created faith and nurtured faith for many of us as we let our imagination play with the images. 

I’ll bet that’s happened to you just as it has happened to me.  Maybe we appreciate poetry more than we realize.  Finally comes the poet, and thanks be to God for his arrival.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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