Sermon for Easter 3A
For over ten years I have had an obsession with the James Joyce novel, if you can call it that, Finnegans Wake. I say, “if you can call it that,” because this book is largely considered to be unreadable. And that is why I am obsessed with it: how can there be an unreadable book?
The book is layer upon layer of linguistic somersaults and inscrutable homophonic puns which refer to at least three things at once; it makes for a dizzying experience. I love it.
The book infamously begins in mid-sentence, uncapitalized with these words: “riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.” As the book comes to a “close,” we notice that it ends as it began, in mid-sentence, in fact, the first sentence ends the last; giving the book a circular structure. There are some who say that Finnegans Wake can be read starting anywhere in the text, like jumping into a round river, eventually it all circles back.
It is nearly unreadable and I love it. But if you sit with it long enough and it begins to make sense, The Wake begins to reveal itself, that, or its madness is contagious. It begins to sing and, after a while, it really does begin to tell the largest story we have: the story of all human history, the story of us, the story of all polarities: light and dark, sin and redemption, death and life, the story of destruction, and yes even the cosmic story of Resurrection. Finnegans Wake then is the story of all and each of us, the story of falling and rising. Each of us reflected in the title character that died and who was waked, with all the attendant dancing and toasts, and through a spirit-filled baptism, as it were, we rise from death, truly waking.
Finnegans Wake makes sense as these orienting points make themselves known. The unreadable book can now be accessed and even read and interpreted, and we find that Joyce was writing our very lives, and through the inscrutable and seeming chaos we find that life is magic, that it makes sense, it’s just not the sense that we were looking for.
The seeming unreadability of our lives can be confusing and debilitating. If only there were some orienting landmarks that we could reckon by; we might be able to see the larger landscape of our lives and make a way forward.
As we happen upon the two disciples walking into Emmaus today, we find them utterly bereft. Jesus appears among them, yet they do not recognize him. He asks them what’s going on and they stop; here the scripture hilariously says, “They looked sad.”
Then one of the disciples, Cleopas, a heretofore unmentioned disciple, says, “Are you the only person in Jerusalem who hasn’t heard what’s happened?” He then goes on to tell the harrowing story of Jesus, his teachings, deeds of power, and death; and their confusion over the Empty Tomb.
Then Jesus says, “You fools! Why are you still unbelieving? You know things had to shake out like this.” And then Jesus does something interesting, he takes the book of their lives, even more encompassing than Finnegans Wake, and he begins to interpret it for them about what God was, and is, up to.
As they come to their destination, Jesus keeps going. But the disciples invite him in. As they sit down to the meal, Jesus takes, blesses, breaks, and shares the bread just as he had in the feeding of the thousands and just as he had in that last night when he gave them a practice that would characterize his people forever. In that breaking of bread the disciples recognize him. And just as he appeared suddenly, Jesus was gone. But then the disciples reflect on Jesus’ interpretation of the Scriptures, their “hearts were burning within them,” they knew it was him.
The two disciples then run to the others to tell what happened but they are cut short because the other disciples are rejoicing over an appearance of Jesus. Jesus, it seems, is appearing all over.
Here we see Jesus coming into the sadness and confusion of the lives of his disciples and he begins to interpret their experience and giving it shape and meaning.
Jesus interprets our lives; he shows us the contours and shape of how and why we live. Our lives look at times like a swirling chaotic tale, as Macbeth says: Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player; That struts and frets his hour upon the stage; And then is heard no more. It is a tale; Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury; Signifying nothing.
And life can well and truly look and feel that way at times: Nigerian students kidnapped, natural disasters, death penalties, and the general, cold unfeeling we have for each other. But then Jesus appears, unbidden, reminding us that we have read the story wrong; we have encountered the dense language of life and gotten confused, we have gotten so close to the forests’ trees that we have even lost sight of the tree, we have our noses on the bark. Jesus comes and shows us the larger movement of our story, that death is not the end, and indeed we can move past that last sentence, just like in Finnegans Wake, and notice that the last sentence of death moves seamlessly back into the first sentence of life.
And just as James Joyce rewards the diligent and disciplined reader in The Wake to reveal its depths; so does Jesus enroll us into the story of all Scripture; interpreting our lives and writing us into God’s story of redemption and adoption. As each of us grows in grace we are surprised to find that when we read the Bible, we are there. My friends, we are in a book that God is writing and Jesus is a recurring character that the world, try as it might … just…can’t…keep…down!
One more thing by way of an epilogue.
You will notice that Jesus was fully prepared to keep on a-walkin’ once he had met the disciples and discussed the scripture. It says, “He walked ahead as if he were going on.”But it was the disciples’ willingness to offer hospitality that Jesus was finally revealed to them.
Our encounters with Christ will always occur in the midst of hospitality; when we open ourselves to another in service and respect. This is the genius of this strange God of ours who doesn’t give a list of dos and don’ts but instead gives us a meal, whereby we learn the lessons of hospitality. The meal then, that Jesus gave us, is the subtext of the novel our lives: each of us walking the road of our lives, encountering countless people, each moment arising from the last, and each moment an opportunity to encounter Christ anew by the extension of our hospitality.
It is when we extend hospitality to those whom life gives us; when we put aside our own goals and motivations; here in hospitality is Christ given the opportunity to be revealed. Don’t you want that? Don’t you want to have your life take an adventurous shape? Don’t you want to have your heart burn within you?
Extend hospitality and Christ will appear; and then you’d better hang on because God will set you on a swirling whirling circuitous route. But your life will have shape and it will be readable, and other people will look at your life and won’t be able to read anything there but, “Jesus.” And that’s a book I’d like to read.