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Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter
Year A, Luke 24.13-35
Danielle Chapman

Against the burly air I strode
Crying the miracles of God

So begins “Genesis,” one of the first poems published by the poet Geoffrey Hill, who died last June, leaving behind a body of work described in one biography as: “dense poems of gnarled syntax and astonishing rhetorical power.”

Hill has often been hailed as a Genius. Yet he bristled at any characterization of himself as cerebral, scholarly, inaccessible. While Hill thought that being difficult as a poet was a democratic right, he also argued fiercely against the charge of being obscure or overly intellectual. He often insisted, “I am, above all, a simple, sensuous and passionate poet.” I think, probably, the truth lies somewhere between these two descriptions—as does the power of his poetry.

*

In Luke’s gospel for today, we encounter a similarly paradoxical power. On Easter afternoon, just hours after waking from the tomb, Jesus appears to two disciples on the Road to Emmaus. Thinking him a stranger (though seemingly a stranger who appears simple and passionate enough to trust) the two tell him about “The things about Jesus of Nazareth.” There is in their tone the bafflement of heartbreak, and a touch of shame. Before telling him how the women “astounded them” that morning with their story of the empty tomb, they grumble, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

Commentary about this passage usually focuses on the question of why “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” Wouldn’t they have been desperate to see their friend, to be comforted by him? This question, though, disregards the extreme dissonance of this moment. Cleopas and the other disciple had just watched their friend die, a prolonged, humiliating death. If they believed on some level that what Jesus had taught was true—that he’d rise again—surely they expected there’d be some supernatural fanfare if it happened. Some terrifyingly radiant robes, or maybe for the heavens to open and the Lord to thunder words of “gnarled syntax and astonishing rhetorical power.” But all they see is a man on the Road to Emmaus. How could they recognize him?

*

Against the burly air I strode
Crying the miracles of God

I think that what makes these lines of Hill’s so powerful is the way in which they yoke a soaring abstraction with the concrete specificity of the speaker’s own body.

Here the poet invokes the lofty idea of himself as a prophet, even as he constantly reminds us that he is there, walking, talking, insisting on his presence. Though he’s witnessing “the miracles of God,” utterly supernatural events, we must imagine the concrete body that proclaims them. It must be as at least as “burly”—that wonderfully punchy word—as the air it resists in order to “stride,” and “cry.” These active verbs of one syllable each, propel the speaker through the poem’s meter, reinforcing his determination, and bodily strength. Reinforcing the very fact of his body.

Against the burly air I strode
Crying the miracles of God

*

If Cleopas couldn’t recognize Christ three days after he’d kissed his face, what happened years, decades, centuries after the fact? The Epistle to the Hebrews, written in approximately 68 AD, offers one example. Addressed to Jewish Christians at a time when followers of Christ were trying to decide whether to keep their commitment, or to return to traditional Judaism, its main purpose was to justify Jesus’s legitimacy. Central to the justification is one particularly arcane personage—one Melchizedek. Of him the author of Hebrews tells us:

Christ did not make himself a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him,

“Thou art my Son,

“Thou art a priest for ever,
after the order of Melchiz′edek.”

He then reminds us of the other time that Melchizedek appeared in the Bible—as the Priest of the most high God, who was SO HOLY that Abraham gave him HIS tithes when returning from the slaughter of the Kings. The author of Hebrews isn’t out for passionate simplicity, but scholarly proof. As the scholar Michal Beth Dinkler writes, Melchizedek is used to explain why, even though Jesus doesn’t descend from the tribe of Levi (as he legally should have), his priesthood is better. But what comes next is mystifying. We are told that this Melchizedek has no father, no mother, no ancestors; his life has no beginning and no end. Bearing the likeness of the Son of God, he remains a priest for all time. Ok. So here we this no-man from nowhere, a high priest with a name like some archaic magician, and the author of Hebrews wants us to see him as the single antecedent to Christ. What happened to the man on the road to Emmaus?

*

Against the burly air I strode
Crying the miracles of God

Geoffrey Hill’s poem “Genesis” goes on to name those miracles he cries. With stunning specificity, he shows us “streams, salt and full,” where the “tough pig-headed salmon strove.” “The second day I stood and saw/the osprey plunge with triggered claw.” “On the third day, I cried: ‘Beware/ The soft-voiced owl, the ferret’s smile, the hawk’s deliberate stoop in air.” These images, at turns vicious and subtle, show the dynamic ferocity of the earth, a will to live—and to kill—that is to be wondered at and feared.

But on the fourth day, the ferocious earth grows too much for the speaker of the poem, and he renounces it. In the next stanzas Hill evokes a “huge myth for man” that includes a Leviathan, a “long-winged albatross” and a “phoenix that burns as cold as frost.” While he stops short of bringing out his wand or conjuring up the name Melchizedek, it’s probably only because he couldn’t find a good rhyme for it.

*

Reading Hebrews now, Melchizedek sticks out, signals his obscurity, his abstract status as a mystical no-man from no-where. Even in the first century, the audience of Hebrews must have thought the reference a bit of a stretch. Yet I wonder if they accepted it partly just because it wasn’t the name Jesus, and they needed a break from that name, and the concrete person, and the concrete death, to whom it referred.

Like Cleopas, early Jewish Christians found themselves in a position to be humiliated by their attachment to Jesus, and the way in which he’d died. The element of bodily shame in the crucifixion can’t be overstated, especially in an honor culture like the Hebrews’. Not only was crucifixion a punishment for slaves, but it sought to purposely dishonor its victims, by flogging, torture, blinding of the eyes, and scourging. While early Christians labored to show how Christ had retained his honor on the cross, it was a deliberate struggle. They may have been relieved by a figure like Melchizedek, who could draw their gaze elsewhere, somewhere more exulted, more supernatural than the memory of Jesus’s humiliated body.

*

Against the burly air I strode
Crying the miracles of God

While there are few great poets so given to intellectual abstraction as Hill, this poem ultimately makes his case for himself as “a simple, sensuous and passionate poet.”

In the final section of the poem, Hill is driven back to the earth itself, and what does he find there? The body and the blood. Exhausted by his foray into abstraction, he now admits, “By blood we live, the hot, the cold./To ravage and redeem the world:/ There is no bloodless myth will hold.”

After that stunning line—there is no bloodless myth will hold—it is fitting that the next line, finally speaks Christ’s name. “And by Christ’s blood are men made free.”

*

So what about us? Can we recognize Jesus? It’s something that I’d wager you do well in this congregation, when you draw attention to those who are suffering in your midst. When your prayers for the people turn to refugees, or victims of violence—indeed crucifixion—here at home. But does our care for the poor and afflicted, our passion for justice, sometimes become an abstraction as well?

At this remove from the events of the passion, we might not be as baffled as Cleopas.

And we’re re probably more likely to call on George Lindbeck or James Cone than substitute in the name Melchizedek for Jesus. But I wonder if you, like I do, sometimes substitute in other names, other ideas, that are easier, and more abstract—that have lower stakes to say—than Jesus. Phrases like social justice? Humility? Liberation Theology? Especially when in “mixed company,” among colleagues or friends who are from other faith backgrounds, or who are atheists? Among people who might (rightly) associate Christianity with bigotry or paternalism or worse, I know that I often feel the need to legitimize my faith, and often the way that I do this is by being vague and abstract.

But what happens when, instead, we go ahead and say the name Jesus rather than something else more general? When we recognize him?

I’ll tell you what I feel. A bit of reckless abandon mixed with red-hot embarrassment, as if I just revealed myself to be madly in love with somebody wildly inappropriate. Often, I will flush bright red, and my voice will quaver. I have usually assumed that this was a byproduct of my own cowardice, the social animal in me experiencing the disruption I’ve caused—and wanting more than anything to cover it up. But, seeing how Shame is so intertwined with devotion in the history of Christianity, I’ve come to wonder if it’s more elemental than that. If embarrassment over Jesus’s disgrace, his death on the cross, which continues today in so many forms, is somehow evidence of a love that is always baffling our awareness of it. As Cleopas asked, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?”

For there is another process that I’ve noticed. And that’s that after speaking Jesus’s name, especially when it’s uncomfortable for some reason; after feeling that burn, that bodily humiliation that connects me somehow to His, I feel the most supernatural possibility. The only way that I can describe it is that light comes into the room—for poets it might be a “spot of time”; Evangelicals might call it the Holy Spirit; the author of Hebrews may even have called it the power of Melchizedek—in any case, when this happens, suddenly it seems that Time and Self-Consciousness and Ego and Anxiety and all that usually controls me goes fluid. I feel the possibility that Whatever I say next might become bigger and stranger than I’d intended. Sometimes I even write a poem.

But also, when I’ve been willing to speak the name Jesus in the presence of those who don’t believe, another surprising thing has occurred: our friendship has deepened. I can’t say why. Maybe it’s simply because, by revealing myself, something that was abstract in me has become specific to them.

Or maybe it’s because when the name Jesus rises to our lips, when we dare to call on the name of the Lord, something happens that wasn’t supposed to happen. That logic tells us cannot happen. He becomes present. He lives again. He takes bread, blesses and breaks it, and gives it to us. Our eyes are opened. He may vanish then, but by some supernatural power, the miracle is complete.

It is hard to find a concrete thing to do to express our faith in a world that so overwhelms us. But when things get too complicated, too abstract, I suggest that you consider doing something simple, sensuous, and passionate as Geoffrey Hill. Something concrete, something specific. Say the name Jesus, and see if something supernatural happens.

 

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