Left behind—sermon for 28 May 2017
May 28, Seventh Sunday of Easter:
Draft text of the homily, please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.
The endings of the gospels fascinate me, because they all end in such different ways.
Mark, the earliest one, ends abruptly with the women standing at the empty tomb seized with terror and amazement. [The longer endings probably got added later].
Matthew ends with a command: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” and a promise: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Because Luke and the book of Acts were written by the same person, as a set, the passage we heard today is like a hinge…the end of Jesus’ story and the beginning of the story of the early church—the story of the Spirit in the world. Luke’s is the only version with the Ascension.
And just before he ascends Jesus also gives set of instructions…“you will be my witnesses…in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Not “go and make disciples” (which can be interpreted as pretty imperialistic) but “Go and be witnesses.” In other words: “go and see, and tell, and share.”
We are to be witnesses…but “witnesses to what,” exactly?
And in John, something completely different happens.
In John there’s this lovely breakfast on the beach with Jesus and the apostles, and this cryptic conversation with Peter where Jesus asks three times, “do you love me,” and Peter answers three times, with increasing exasperation, “Yes, Lord, you know I do,” and Jesus tells him to “feed (or tend) my sheep.” And then Jesus says. “Follow me.” Which Peter does, but then turns around and sees “the disciple whom Jesus loved” (presumably John himself), and asks, “what about him?” And Jesus says, Don’t worry about him. He’s going to stay here. What he actually says is, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”
That word “remain” is the same word that gets used throughout John chapters 14-17 (the chapters we’ve been hearing for the last three weeks…the chapters known as “the Farewell Discourse”), but there it’s often translated as “abide.” As in “abide in me as I abide in you.”
To abide…is to remain…and “To remain,” says one scholar, “is to be one who survives [survives] Jesus and the horrifying events of the cross.” (Rambo, p. 102).
The cross is the traumatic event that we have all survived. We experience the resurrection as well…but we are left…we remain…here…to witness.
“I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world,” Jesus says of the disciples, and of us. He is no longer in the world, but we are…We are the ones who abide…We are the ones who remain. We are the ones who, to reclaim a contemporary phrase, are left behind.
It’s amazing to me how prevalent this trope is in contemporary pop culture. Not just the ridiculously popular Left Behind novels of the past twenty years, but all of the post-apocalyptic dramas that we have: The Leftovers, the Walking Dead franchise, The Handmaid’s Tale; all of the teen dramas (Hunger Games, and Divergent…are all about being the remnant…the ones who remain after the cataclysmic event. This feeling of remaining…of having survived a trauma…and being left behind is palpable and pervasive…and telling.
Shelly Rambo, who teaches theology at BU, has written a remarkable book called Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, wherein she explores this metaphor in the context of trauma.
Through decades of research with veterans, and other survivors, we have come to understand that trauma, in Rambo’s words, “is what does not go away. [Trauma remains] It persists in symptoms that live on in the body, in the intrusive fragments of memories that return. It persists in symptoms that live on in communities, in the layers of past violence that constitute present ways of relating.” (Rambo p. 2)
We live in a world of trauma, and many of us are survivors of it…and we remain…to be witnesses.
Trauma can be individual, and communal, and generational.
Just this week, another community and many more individuals experienced a trauma in Manchester. More dead, and more who are now left behind. Manchester is added to the list of recent traumas: the suicide car bomb in Aleppo, the Palm Sunday bombings in Egypt, The St. Petersburg Metro bombing, the Camp Shaheen attacks in Afghanistan, the mass shooting in Libya, and those are just the deadliest out of the 100 terror attacks that occurred across the world just in the past 30 days. (according to wikipedia)
Add to this the over 30,000 violent gun related deaths in the US each year… the statistics that 1 out of every six women has been the victim of rape in their lifetime, the statistic that over 10% of children in the US live with an alcoholic or addicted parent… Add to this the people who grow up in poverty, or who grow up in abusive households…all of them carry those traumas in their bodies.
Then there are the communal and generational wounds…the devastating impact that the trauma of slavery and segregation continues to have on entire communities and on individual black men in particular through the traumatic recurrence of racist violence…The communal and generational wounds suffered by the people in the gay, lesbian and transgendered communities…the everyday sexism endured by women…
The point is not that everyone suffers (we all do), nor that all suffering is alike (it’s not)…my point is simply that there is a LOT of trauma out there. When we talk about people who have experienced trauma, we only need to look around. Because if you’re not a survivor, then someone sitting next to you is. They are your neighbors, your friends, your colleagues, as well as those faces on the news.
And every incident of trauma means that there are those who are left behind…who remain…to witness. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
That’s us. We are the witnesses to this…to the trauma, and to the surviving…Which are the two oscillating movements of the Spirit, says Rambo.
The Holy Spirit, she says, persists through trauma…it moves between death and life…“attending to the suffering [the losses, the grief, the chaos] that remains long after an event is over” —”tracking the undertow,” she calls it—and it moves between life and death sensing life…pointing out “the forms of life that appear tenuous and fragile.”
Attending to the suffering—tracking the undertow—and sensing the ever emerging signs of life…however tenuous. That is the work of the Spirit. That is our work. That is what it means to be witnesses.
To be witnesses of this sacred story, she writes, “is the work of making love visible at the point where it is most invisible.” (Rambo 170)
To witness to Jesus’ story of life, death, resurrection, and ascension is to “to receive it for the truth that it tells: love remains, and we are love’s witnesses.”
It’s always tempting to write our own story as a story of triumph…of overcoming…but the ends of the Gospels point to something different…something deeper…
The story of our faith is not often or even necessarily a triumphant story…more often it is a story of remaining. Very often, despite all of the hymns with joyous and conquering alleluias…our story is really more like a cold and broken alleluia….but an alleluia nonetheless. To witness is to see and understand our Christian story as neither tragic nor triumphant, but rather as a story of “divine remaining, the story of love that survives.” (Rambo 172)