Summit Presbyterian Church
April 4, 2010 - Easter Sunday
Luke 24: 13-49
Turning to Joy
I used to teach 5th grade in a New York City K-5 public school, and every June we'd have a graduation ceremony for the 5th graders. The ceremony would vary from year to year, but one thing remained non-negotiable, by order of the principal. The graduates were to memorize and sing the Shaker hymn, "Simple Gifts." You probably know the tune - Aaron Copeland used it in his ballet Appalachian Spring; a quartet played it at the Obama inauguration. These are the words:
Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.
I always thought it interesting that a Jewish principal in a fervently secular, progressive, public school would choose this hymn. Nothing is said about God or Christ, but it's a religious song. The Shakers were a zealous Christian sect who worshiped in song and dance. It's in a number of Christian hymnals. But as far as I know, no teachers or families - all of us firm believers in the separation of church and state - objected.
I think there were no objections because it was the perfect song for our fifth graders. It spoke of the gift of simplicity to children whose lives were already way too complicated. Complicated by competition: to get into a good junior high, to look good and have the right sneakers, to win in soccer, to get in the top percentile in standardized tests. Complicated by things: toys, clothes, TVs, video games, computers. Complicated by breakneck schedules with afterschool art and yoga and tutoring and lots of homework. Complicated by brokenness or financial struggles: two parents in two homes, having to move from one place to place. Complicated by choices -- from where they wanted to go for junior high to what brands they wanted of almost everything.
It was also the perfect song for our graduates because it spoke of coming down where they ought to be, in the place just right. We knew that in middle and high school they'd be tempted into places that were just wrong: places with drugs and alcohol. Places with sex way too early. Places with bullying and violence and crime. Places of too much sadness, anxiety or depression.
And it was the perfect song for us, the adults in their lives. For the complicated lives they led were modeled on our own. The wrong places we feared for them were places that we knew. But like parents and teachers everywhere, we wanted better for our children. So we taught them this song about turning, turning to the place just right, a place of true simplicity, a valley of love and delight. A turning we longed for, but found very hard to do.
When the risen Christ returned to the apostles he did many things with them. He walked and talked with them on the road to Emmaus. He opened their minds to understand the scriptures. He showed them his hands and his feet, he broke bread with them, he ate fish. And then he told them the message they were to proclaim, as it was written in the scriptures: repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name. He didn't tell them to proclaim the resurrection; telling that story would be part of their witness, but that wasn't the point. They were to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations, beginning with Jerusalem. That was the good news.
And in the Bible, repentance means turning, turning to God. It doesn't mean remorse, although sorrow and regret may be part of that turning. It doesn't mean letting go of bad habits and adopting good ones, like getting sober and coming to church, although such changes may come with repentance. It simply means turning, turning to God.
But that turning is hard when we're burdened with guilt or shame. We fear we'll be judged and found wanting, and that God will turn from us; so Jesus also tells them to proclaim forgiveness. The assurance that we'll be welcomed and loved by God, no matter what we've done or haven't done. We may need to make amends or restitution, we may have done things that other people can't forgive and we'll to live with that: but we are forgiven.
And this is the new thing: they were to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in the name of Christ. In the name of the one who died, dashing the hopes of all who thought he'd redeem Israel, but who was alive again, breaking bread and discussing the scriptures with them. They were to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in the name of one who was nailed to a cross, but who came back and showed them his hands and his feet. They were to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in the name of the one who was laid in the tomb, but then was found among the living.
The resurrection of Christ assures us that no matter how hopeless things seem, no matter how complicated our lives, no matter how deep we've dug ourselves into wrong places, turning is possible, forgiveness awaits us, and the joy that comes with it. For Christ rose from the dead. Christ is alive. Anything is possible!
Friends, listen to this invitation of the risen Christ. Christ invites us and our children to turn to him, and to receive the gift of new life in his name. This new life is a simple life. Not in terms of simple answers. Not necessarily in terms of stuff or schedules, although it may be. But this new life is simple in its focus on the Word of God, and on God's command to love God and neighbor. Christ invites us, and helps us, to turn from our complicated lives full of striving for status and money, achievements and stuff. Christ invites us to turn from those wrong places in our lives and in our collective lives that are full of violence and pain, greed and destruction. Christ invites us to turn to the place just right, a valley of love and delight. Christ invites us to turn and in that turning will be our delight, till by turning, turning, we come round right. Amen.