Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Matthew 28:1-20) transports me to high school English class, 10th or 11th grade, with Ms. Dillingham, where I was not much more than a mischief maker and havoc wreaker, rarely doing any of the assigned reading or homework, relying on Cliff notes and friends to help me fake my way through. Until for some strange reason I discovered Steinbeck and decided to actually read The Grapes of Wrath. My love for learning, long dead and buried, was suddenly resurrected by this story. I read it twice, some parts several more times, and was mesmerized by the story and its biblical allusions. It was probably my first revelation that God could speak biblical truth through something other than the Bible. When I wrote my book report, Ms. Dillingham was sure I had copied it or had someone else write it for me. I couldn’t convince her otherwise, so I challenged her to quiz me on anything in the book. Ask me anything! I demanded, my feelings hurt that she responded to my new found love of literature with such suspicion. After a few questions of content, which I got right, she flipped to the back of the book and asked me what the ending of the story was supposed to mean. That threw me, but after a few moments of reflection, I stammered a bit and finally blurted out: Resurrection! I explained how Rosasharn (Rose of Sharon) had lost her baby, and there she was nursing a dying stranger, bringing him back to life. It’s the gospel! I took the book and turned back to my favorite passage, that plaintive moment when Ma Joad anticipates the grief of losing her son. She asks Tom, How’m I gonna know ‘bout you? They might kill you an’ I wouldn’ know. Tom Joad laughs, Well, like Casey says, a fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one, an’ then– Then what, Tom? –Then it don’t matter. Then I’ll be all around’ in the dark – I’ll be ever’where. Wherever you look. Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be there in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be there in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when our folks eat the stuff they raise and live’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too. If I had had this conversation with Ms. Dillingham fifteen years later, I might just have broken out into song, with Springsteen giving voice to the ghost of Tom Joad: Wherever somebody’s strugglin’ to be free, look in their eyes Mom, you’ll see me.
Or, if it had been twenty-two years later, I might have broken out into more of the Boss, providing her with another soundtrack for Rose of Sharon’s story and the end Matthew’s story. I can just see an angel sitting on a big boulder, serenading Sunday morning graveyard visitors: Come on up to the rising. Matthew’s resurrection story is packed with so many vignettes; you’ve got the angel and the women, you’ve got the feet-hugging encounter with the risen Jesus, you’ve got the scared-stiff soldiers and the story-spinning secular and sacred leaders in cahoots. You’ve got mixtures of joy and fear, belief and doubt. And you’ve got a great commissioning. Go and cross all boundaries to make followers. Teach them to do what you still haven’t mastered: to observe my commandments (I imagine what went through the disciples’ minds: Your commandments – Love one another? Love our enemies?). And Jesus might have laughed a Tom Joad laugh as he left them with a promise. And lo I am with you always. I’ll be there. Whenever you welcome the strangers, I’ll be there. Whenever you feed the hungry, I’ll be there. Whenever you minister to the sick, I’ll be there. Whenever you release the prisoners, I’ll be there.
Today, as we resurrect the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we can add many more verses: Wherever there are teachers and school children taking a day on, not a day off, so they can serve in a homeless shelter, Jesus is there. Wherever there are people advocating for the human rights of immigrants struggling to feed their families, Jesus is there. Whenever there are workers organizing for a living wage, Jesus is there. Whenever there are people getting in the way of violence so that the Way of peace can forge through, Jesus is there. Whenever there are Rose of Sharons providing mothers’ milk to the starving of our world, Jesus is there. We may stammer a bit, but when we read the last chapter, whether it’s Matthew’s gospel or The Grapes of Wrath or King’s Testament of Hope, we can finally blurt out what it all really means: Resurrection!
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.