Sunday, April 07, 2002

The Last of the Mohicans

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 20: 19-28
Opening: Survival

Escape, survival, deliverance in the face of real danger-these quintessential Easter themes are found at the heart of daily life, at the center of careful thought and very often in the core of great books of all kinds. Take our upstate classic from which today's title was stolen, for example. James Fennimore Cooper, after he was expelled from Yale and after he went to sea for a few years, settled into his father's estate near Albany. In 1820 Cooperstown was still a frontier of sorts. And Rochester was the Wild West! In Albany they ate with forks, in Rochester with knives in 1820. In Albany they read by candlelight, in Rochester they were not reading in 1820. In Albany they lived in frame houses, in Rochester they had heard of houses in 1820. George Eastman was still 50 years away from being born in 1820. I tell you, it was a different world!

Anyway, in the long winter nights around the great hearth beside the Otesaga, Cooper read aloud to his family. He was a Yale student-did I mention that? In exasperation, one night in late winter, when the ice was melting and the evergreens carried that late winter bluish hue, he threw down the book he was reading and exclaimed, "I can do better than this!" His wife said, "Why don't you?" So he did.

His novel of 1826, The Last of the Mohicans, became the first American novel to receive wide readership in Europe. It is a thrilling tale of adventure, along the Mohawk, of escape and survival and deliverance. The hero Hawkeye (Natty Bumpo), who respects the customs of the native people, Chingachgook (whose son is the last of the Mohawk tribe), the duplicitous Magua ("Le Renard Subtil"-the Cunning Fox)-all are involved in a great journey of survival, amid the calamitous battles between the French and the English.

Did you ever feel like you were the last of the Mohicans? That you alone had survived some set of calamities? That you had made it and were safe when so many others had not? That you alone remained to tell something of the time before? And, while you may be thankful to have survived, you may almost inevitably feel the strange, irrational but very human sense of "survivors' guilt". As a people, confronted this year by calamity that has befallen some but not all, we may still be partly frozen, stuck, in that same irrational but utterly human contortion of guilt about just surviving.

The Easter gospel for you, last of whatever tribe you happen to be in, is that you can survive survival. So you have survived 9/11/01. Good. Now hear the good news: you can survive the fact that you survived. Having survived, you will prevail.

I am not a psychologist, nor the son of a psychologist. But I know that "survivor's guilt" is real. Do you remember the film "Ordinary People" (based on Judith Guest's novel), about two brothers who capsize in a boat? One dies and one survives. Mary Tyler Moore oversees a spotless home where "everything is in its proper place-except the past." Berger, the counselor says at one point: "a little advice about feelings kiddo, don't expect it always to tickle." Conrad, the survivor, very nearly takes his own life, saved at the last by wise, loving, intervening words of his counselor, and friend, who asks repeatedly, "What is it that makes you feel so bad?" The answer, at last: "I survived."

You, too, have survived. Something. Three years ago we were grieving the Columbine tragedy. The kids there testified, truly, that a strange guilt followed their grief. This is the tragic guilt of the innocent, survivor guilt. Megan hid her tears behind sunglasses: "I just feel so lucky to still be here." Greg Martinez said, "You almost feel guilty, about you know, having your kid get out." Their counselor said those who feel guilty for making it out alive "need to be reassured that they can celebrate their survival." (AP, A Levinson, 4/99).

Here is a description of the effects of survivor's guilt: "general anxiety, depression, inability to sleep, poor memory, difficulty concentrating, difficulty completing tasks, an inexplicable sense of guilt." (Borgess).

That sounds a lot like human life in general! This is our condition. "Like the beating of the heart, it is always present." (Tillich). It? Tragedy, estrangement, sin, unbelief, hubris, concupiscence, separation, guilt, meaninglessness, despair, anxiety. Existential survivor's guilt. "It is experienced as something for which one is responsible, in spite of its universal, tragic actuality." (Tillich).

In the light of Resurrection, we find the power not only to survive but to prevail. We find the power to enter a new life, to change, to risk. We find courage that will take us beyond mere survival.

In Toronto there lives the great Jewish teacher, and Holocaust survivor, Emil Fackenheim. Once he was asked, "How can you practice faith in God after the horror of the Holocaust?" (That may be the single most important theological question of our time.) His reply: "I practice faith, in the face of Holocaust, "In order not to permit Hitler any posthumous victories." He survived, and survived his survival.

To prevail beyond survival is to walk in the light. We learn to walk in the light in our own experience, which is the claim and role of Thomas.

1. The Testimony of Thomas

The gospel of John contains several idiosyncratic features. So many are these different differences that one of the great Johannine scholars of our time, John Ashton, has described the book as only marginally Christian-not anti-Christian, not non-Christian, but sailing out beyond the emerging buoys in the bay of second century orthodoxy. John is far more different than we have yet, in Christianity, allowed him to be.

Among these particular peculiarities is the figure of Thomas. Thomas, the twin, was the favorite disciple among the gnostic writers of John's time, near the year 140 A.D. At this point, as at so many, the fourth gospel enters full sail into the cove of gnosticism. The writer enters, though, in order to steal away with the patron saint of his opponents. Thomas has a collection of sayings named for him, sometimes called a gospel, though it lacks the pattern common to gospels. Thomas appears centrally in gnostic writings of the first five centuries of the common era. It is Thomas who embodies what was still possible in John's time, dual citizenship in church and gnosis. Like James stealing Paul's exemplar of faith, Abraham, to make him an exemplar of works, John has stolen Thomas, the exemplar of gnosticism, to make him an exemplar of faith.

Thomas has a crucial role to play in interpreting the resurrection. Like we, and like almost all of the community of faith, Thomas was not at the tomb. He, like we, must rely on faithful reports, and, more especially on faith itself. In this instructional, spiritually moral, or morally spiritual lesson, John fixes him at center stage, just at the end of his gospel to acclaim this Easter message: finally we must know resurrection in our experience, our taste, our touch, our sight, our life. We who have walked away from various crosses, surviving to tell the tale, now need to find the power to survive our survival, to get on with living, to translate the tradition we have received into insights for effective living here and now. Otherwise, all the Gospels, including the most fanciful of all, the fourth, in their resurrection accounts, become entertaining fables like those of Hans Christian Anderson. It is not enough, intones Thomas, that Mary, John and Peter may have seen something. Good for them. Somehow, I must "see" too. I must find, or rather be found in, my own ministry. What is yours? We do so as survivors by courageously living to prevail.

2. Surviving the Survival of Failure

Judaism may have been built on the shoulders of Moses who slew an Egyptian and handled molten tablets, bestowed by the divine. Islam may have been born out of the energies of the warrior Mohammed, the great equestrian prophet. Confucianism may have come out of the mind of the wisest of all Asian philosophers. Buddhism can trace its origin to the unmatched self-restraint of the Buddha. But Christianity, by utter contrast, emerges out of the failure of Peter to avoid his predicted denial. It is one thing to fail three times, another to do so when just a moment earlier you were warned. I should think this would make us think twice about failure.

At Easter, it is centrally Peter who faces trauma like this. He has left all. He has followed. He has stayed. He has loved. He has waited in the dark courtyard. But then-his singular existential trauma-he has denied his Lord thrice. And Jesus has died and Peter has survived, watching the death of his Beloved.

At some point, you are going to fail. Yourself. Your vocation. Your family. Your friends. Most of us today have already survived failure and can tell about it. The question is whether we will survive the survival. Whether we will, with Peter, move on in the resurrection power of faith, to confess our failure, and then to let it be, drop it, let it drift away into the mist of the past; or whether we will make our failure our nametag for the future. Easter offers the power to survive the survival of failure.

3. Surviving the Survival of Loss

You can tell, in John, that John, the beloved disciple, is the most heartsick at Jesus' death. This I believe is the reason he runs first to the tomb but enters second. So excited to believe, he outruns Peter. So fearful of being disappointed, he lets Peter enter first.

We stand with families who have suffered loss, the death of the closest of loved ones. Mother. Father. Brother. Daughter. And there is this feeling, hard to name. Why should he be gone and I remain? What have I done to deserve to survive? So we have survived but we are faced with the question of whether we can stand it. The question is, having survived loss, whether we will survive our survival of loss. Whether we will, with the beloved disciple John, move on in the resurrection power of faith, to grieve our loss, and then move on. Could this be what Jesus meant: let the dead bury the dead? You have survived. Now try your wings, and jump, take the leap of faith and see whether you can survive your own survival. Or would you rather make this loss your permanent nametag into the whole future? Just who do you think would benefit from this? Easter offers the power to survive the survival of loss.

4. Surviving the Survival of Calamity

After 9/11/01, I think there is something we still need to name and tag, as a people. It is this. We have survived. Most college students in 1988 survived the crash of Pan Am 103. 200 did not survive. The rest sensed some survivors' guilt. Such is tragic, irrational, and nonetheless very potent. Most Americans survived 9/11. 2800 did not survive. The rest of us carry around something like national survivor's guilt. We have survived. Now the question is, can we survive our own survival? Can we shake free of this existential angst, at least enough to continue to become the creative, forgiving, helpful people we were made to be, and that we shall have to be with all our power, if we are as a planet to survive? Can we face and name the horror and hurt, clearly enough to move on? I compliment the New York Times for running those obituaries. More than anything else, that has brought honest attention and reflection to this calamity which have survived. You have survived 9/11. Like John's community survived their expulsion from the synagogue, their greatest calamity as a congregation, we as a people have survived. Now the question is whether we can survive the fact that we have survived, not become crippled by resentment and vengeance, continue to bring order with justice, and move forward. Or will 9/11 define our future? Having survived, if we cannot survive our survival status with integrity and balance and grace, then terror has really killed us. Our greatest peril is not that we will succumb to terrorists, but that we will become terrorists. We have survived! We are able to breath, to listen, to smile! Easter offers the power to survive the survival of calamity, to prevail.

How will this occur? In church. But the church is so…. Yes, the church is always both a representation and a distortion of the divine. But how can you love God and hate the things of God? How can you come near to God at a distance from the grace of God? How can you experience God without praying, singing, communing, hearing, giving, serving? No, you will have to find a church. Maybe not this church, but a church.

5. Surviving the Survival of Betrayal

It is still the betrayal of Judas, more than the failure in Peter's denial, more than the loss of intimacy to the beloved disciples, more than the calamity in New York or in Ephesus that lingers in our minds. I listened a while ago to a good friend recounting hurts from 15 years ago. He had survived them all, and survived the survival with one exception. He could not fully get over the sting of personal betrayal. "This night you will betray me." Is there a more chilling sentence in the whole of Scripture? Yet, the church survived Judas' betrayal (not without some serious rage and even revenge as bloodily recounted in the happy book of Acts), and having survived, survived its survival to go on to march under the banner of forgiveness.

There are women and men here today who have suffered serious betrayal. By friends, spouses, teachers, pastors, colleagues. I have not taken a good survey, but I doubt few of us have been untouched by betrayal. Yet all of us have survived. All of us are here, breathing and waiting for the sermon to end. Having survived that awful betrayal somewhere in the past, the question now looms: Can you survive your survival, or do you want to live wishing the betrayal had shipwrecked you? Can you make steady, responsible, honest peace with the abusive fickleness of others, whatever that takes, and then move on without making "betrayed" your eternal name-tag? Doesn't your salvation depend on surviving not only the betrayal but also the survival of the betrayal? Every day you let that betrayal be front-page news, you have given the devil a posthumous victory. Be angry, yes. But let not the sun go down on your anger. Or at least, not too many years worth of suns. Otherwise your betrayer will have defined you. Easter offers the resurrection power to survive the survival of betrayal.


In the cross, we learn to die. In the resurrection, we learn to live.

Our spirit is that of Julia Ward Howe:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me
As he died to make men holy let us live to make men free
Our God is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat
He is sifting out the heart of men before his judgment seat
O be swift my soul to answer him, be jubilant my feet
Our God is marching on.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave
He is wisdom to the mighty, He is honor to the brave
So the world shall be his footstool and the soul of wrong his slave
Our God is marching on.

Our gospel is that conveyed in Faulkner's famous words: "I decline to accept the end of man. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. It is the poet's privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet's voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help his endure and prevail."

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