On the Other Hand: Body Positive Resurrection

This is the sermon I preached at First Church of Christ Simsbury on May 5, 2019.

John 20:19-25; Acts 9:1-6

The other day I came across this story from a likely-forgotten, forty-year-old movie, The Frisco Kid. Staring a young Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford, the movie opens in a Jewish Rabbinical School in Poland. Despite being ranked 87th in his class of 88, the Chief Rabbi appoints Wilder to become the rabbi for a small Jewish community in mid-19th century San Francisco. Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Wilder misses the ship to San Francisco and so begins a long misadventure across the country. He is soon robbed of all his money, and falls in with a lovable rogue played by Harrison Ford.

The relevant scene unfolds when Wilder and Ford are captured by a tribe of Native Americans. Impressed by Wilder’s willingness to die for the Torah he carries. the chief asks him if “his God” can make it rain. The chief explains that despite performing all their native rituals, it has not rained for months and his people are hurting.

Wilder insists that God could make it rain, but doesn’t, because, well, making rain on demand is just not what God does. With each inquiry and attempt to respond, the chief and Wilder get more and more frustrated with each other.

Here Wilder could be me or Rev. Kev responding to one of your questions about why God doesn’t bring an end to suffering,

Exasperated, he explains, “He gives you strength when you are suffering; he gives you compassion when all you feel is hatred; he gives you courage when you are searching around blindly like little mice in the darkness. But he does NOT. MAKE. RAIN!”

Then, CRASH! BOOM! BANG! Thunder shakes the teepee, and the rain pours down.

Wilder cocks his head, looks up with a twinkle in his eye and just the hint of a smile, and quips, “On the other hand…”

So perhaps Wilder’s rabbi seems an unlikely place to begin a sermon about resurrection, but the chief’s question, “Can God make it rain on demand?” and the question this morning’s sermon asks, “Was Jesus physically resurrected from the dead?” are both asking whether God must obey the laws of nature. Everything we know, leads us to answer yes, God operates within an accepted framework of logic, science and history. Yet both questions invite another response born of hope and faith, “On the other hand…”

Our Sunday morning Bible study group is reflecting on two articles, a point-counter point, or on the one hand – on the other hand, exchange about the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

There are two main ways to understand the resurrection of Jesus.

The first approach suggests that the resurrection serves as a metaphor that gives meaning to our lives. According to this understanding, the disciples experienced something profound, indeed life-changing following Jesus’s death, but there was no physical resurrection of Jesus’ body. That, says this school of thought, would be impossible, like God making it rain on demand. This belief in resurrection as metaphor is common in mainline Protestant churches like ours.

The other, more traditional, belief is that Jesus was physically, bodily raised from the dead. Jesus’ body was dead, then it was alive.

In one article, the President of Union Theological Seminary, Serene Jones, is asked, Do you think of Easter as a literal flesh‐and‐blood resurrection?

She responds:

The empty tomb symbolizes that the ultimate love in our lives cannot be crucified and killed. What happens on Easter is the triumph of love in the midst of suffering. Isn’t that reason for hope?

At the heart of faith is mystery. The God of Easter is vulnerable and is connected to the world in profound ways that don’t involve manipulating the world but constantly inviting us into love, justice, mercy.

For me, the message of Easter says Jones, is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there.

Jones articulately represents the resurrection of Jesus as a symbol or metaphor for the triumph of love over pain. Can you hear Gene Wilder’s rabbi here? A God from whom we may draw strength in response to suffering, but certainly not a God that would defy the laws of nature to make it rain on demand, or raise the dead.

Then CRASH! BOOM! BANG! On the other hand…

Morgan Guyton, the Director of the Methodist campus ministry for Tulane and Loyola Universities in New Orleans, responds to Jones and her presentation of resurrection as a metaphor.

According to Guyton, one grasps onto a belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus out of a death-defying hope born of abject and ongoing suffering. Resurrection is not something to believe in because it’s reasonable. It’s something you believe in because you can’t bear the thought of it not being possible.

Jesus’ physical resurrection matters, says Guyton, “if you have a need for history and biology to be utterly disrupted by something completely, inexplicably discontinuous with how things have always been.”

Resurrection matters on a whole different level, he says, to a Tutsi woman whose whole family was massacred by the Hutu during the Rwandan genocide of 1994, or a man who spends most of his life in prison after being falsely convicted for a crime because of racism, or a Palestinian family whose olive orchard and 100-plus year old farmhouse are bulldozed by the Israeli army. If God can actually reach into space and time in order to vindicate Jesus for his unjust death by raising him from the dead, then despite the impossible hopelessness of our sinful world… despite the impossible hopelessness of our sinful world, God has the power to vindicate the victims of injustice and tragic life circumstances in a similar way, whatever that will look like.

Jews suffered through thousands of years of slavery, exile and occupation. Is it any wonder that Thomas at first doubts Jesus’ resurrection? He wasn’t just doubting the miracle itself, but was doubting that his own future could be fundamentally different than that of his ancestors.

Strength when you are suffering? Of course. Compassion in response to hatred? Certainly. But…

BOOM! CRASH! On the other hand… Resurrection!

Paul’s conversion powerfully demonstrates the promise of resurrection to bring a radically new life-giving future out of a past consumed with suffering and death.  Paul persecuted, tortured, imprisoned and murdered Jesus’ followers in the name of God. Until one day he was knocked to the ground and encountered the risen Christ. And BANG! From that point forward he would become the greatest promoter of resurrection the world has ever known.

I find myself at an interesting intersection between Jones and Guyton, between Thomas and Paul, between metaphor and the physical resurrection.

Thirty years ago, I walked into a UCC church and never left. The single most important thing that prompted me to stay was the permission I was given to understand resurrection as a metaphor. If not for that, I think it unlikely that I would be standing in the pulpit this morning. To this day, this understanding of story, symbol and metaphor has been profoundly meaningful to my faith and essential to my call to ministry. Metaphors allow us to interpret scripture in ever expanding ways, and I will never stop using metaphor in my preaching and teaching.

That said, I have come to believe that our world needs something more than metaphors of spring flowers and butterflies.

My father believed in progress, that things are forever getting better. I used to think that was true. Now, I’m not so sure.

I believe we need more than strength in the face of suffering, we need an end to suffering. I believe we need more than compassion in response to hatred, we need an end to hatred. The theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes that hope is a belief in a radically discontinuous future that isn’t simply the logical continuation of the past. We need a clean break. We need resurrection.

So, I will take every opportunity to proclaim resurrection,

not just the metaphorical, power of love over hate, strength in response to suffering, kind of resurrection,

but the honest to goodness, real life, shucky-darn, Jesus, who was deader than dead, gets up and walks out of the tomb,

CRASH!

Poverty, racism, sexism and homophobia are eradicated.

BOOM!

Addiction and mental illness are defeated.

BANG!

Cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and AIDS are cured.

On the other hand…

Domestic violence, genocide, and war are no more,

and Creation is restored.

Christ is Risen!

That’s the resurrection I’m talkin’ about.

That’s the resurrection I need.

And that’s the resurrection I proclaim!

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We Are the Dance, and We Still Go On

i danced in the morning

This is the sermon I preached on Sunday, October 14, 2018, at First Church Simsbury. The service had an Easter in October theme, with the prayers, hymns and sermon all lifting up the new life that God makes available through Jesus.

John 11

Our church, like many Protestant and Catholic churches, follows what is known as the Lectionary. The Lectionary provides recommended reading for each Sunday.  Each year, the Lectionary readings follow Jesus’ life and ministry from the anticipation of his birth in Advent, through his teaching and healing ministry, to his arrival in Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday, into Holy Week and his betrayal, persecution, torture, crucifixion and death on the cross, to the empty tomb and experiences of his resurrection, to his ascension to heaven, and the birth of the church at Pentecost!

The Lectionary is a great teaching tool, helping us understand the narrative arc of the gospel story, knitting the themes of our faith in a way that makes sense. And celebrating Christmas and Easter once each year helps us recognize how special each is to our life of faith.

But there is a down side to worshiping and studying the Bible with the Lectionary. It could lead us to conclude that experiences of God through Jesus occur in a fixed order, one at a time, once a year, and that we have to wait until the appropriate time to experience the birth of Jesus, the power of the Holy Spirit, or the resurrection. And nothing could be farther from the truth. Everything of God is present and accessible to us all the time.

If I were to locate myself in the gospel story these past few weeks, I would land squarely in Lent, those weeks leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday. I am a pretty hopeful and optimistic guy, it’s just my nature. But boy, I’m telling you, there is much in the world these days that recalls Jesus’ persecution and suffering, and I confess, it got to me. In fact, I learned a new word to describe my state of mind last week. I have been feeling Weltschmerz (VELT-schmairtz), depression caused by comparison of the actual state of the world with an ideal state.  For several days this past week I took a stroll through what the 23rd Psalm calls the valley of the shadow of death until, round about Thursday, I came across 100 daffodil bulbs for $15.99, and right there is the Costco aisle, I caught a glimpse of Easter.

It has been popular for some time to celebrate Christmas in July. As far as I can tell this is largely an excuse for a party with Christmas decorations, carols, Santa Clause and more. If we can celebrate Christmas in July, why not Easter in October? Why wait for the first Sunday following the first ecclesiastical full moon that occurs on or after the day of the vernal equinox for an experience of resurrection? If everything of God is present all the time, and it is, let’s wrest resurrection from death, and exit the tomb today!

As we are reminded in this morning’s reading from the gospel of John, Jesus’ is not the only resurrection story in the gospels. Here, Jesus’ friends Mary and Martha ask him to come quickly because their brother Lazarus is near death. Jesus delays his departure and by the time he arrives, Lazarus has been dead four days. Mary and Martha are overwhelmed with grief, and Jesus begins to weep. Jesus directs that the tomb be opened, but Martha warns Jesus that Lazarus’ decomposing body stinks! Still, Jesus insists, and in a loud voice, cries, “Lazarus, come out!” And out comes Lazarus, his hands and feet bound, and his face wrapped with strips of cloth, but fully alive!

In the version I read, Jesus says, “Unbind him, let him go.” But in the New International Version, this verse reads “cast off the grave clothes.” I find this language especially compelling; to claim the new life Jesus offers, we must cast off our grave clothes.

Last week Saturday I posted this invitation on Facebook: Name one small thing that makes you happy every time. I’ll go first. KFC coleslaw.

Over 100 people responded. Here are their answers to the prompt, name one thing that makes you happy every time.

Time with family, clean sheets, good cup of java, comfy pajamas, October, running, ice cream sandwiches, a greeting from my little dog and my daughter, licorice flavored tea, Crayola crayons, seeing my granddaughter laugh, Hot Doughnuts Now (a Krispy Crème reference, I believe), a good night’s sleep, good sushi, water, boxers (the dog not the underwear), a cup of tea and a good novel, PF, great friends, playing in the dirt, my cat, Nutella, little children wearing hats that look like animals, bedtime with the kiddos, McDonalds sausage and egg biscuits, shave ice, regatta days, dancing in the kitchen, a pedicure, tomato sandwich—mayo, sourdough, a little salt, some basil if I’m feeling fancy, the sound of falling rain, chocolate, there is nothing, that first barefoot step in the sand, walking into our home after a vacation, crisp air and sunshine, cannoli, creative writing, rocky hill dog park, fresh crepes, hugs, beautiful music, mountain bike ride on a cool, crisp Colorado morning, a walk alone in the woods, first snowflake of the season, M&M’s plain, when my students tell me I’m the best teacher, real maple syrup, freshly baked grape pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, Jesus is coming, yarn, waking up to the snow, marijuana, a Red Sox win, walking in Stratton Brook Park.

One happy experience does not resurrection make, but I would suggest that collectively, this is the raw material of resurrection, the goodness which survives even when death’s shadow falls across our path.

I draw attention to two responses in particular.

One person said, “there is nothing.” They were feeling so Weltschmerz that they could recall nothing that consistently makes them happy. This is why resurrection can only be a communal experience. Just as Mary and Martha tell Jesus that he is too late, Lazarus is beyond all help and they are inconsolable, so there will always be times when it is impossible to believe, to access the hope and happiness that follow sorrow. At these times we depend on others to call us forth from the tomb and unbind us.

The other response I want to lift up is, dancing in the kitchen. It seems to me that there is something uniquely celebratory about dance. Dance engages our whole body. And to dance in the face of death is a bold assertion of life. We are demonstrating with every part of our body that we are alive, even as Weltschmerz threatens to overwhelm us.

Following the sermon, we will sing I Danced in the Morning.

Written in the first person, Jesus begins by describing dancing at creation and at his own birth.

In the second verse, he dances for the scribe and Pharisee, those who reject him, as well as his followers the disciples.

Even as he is being persecuted and crucified, Jesus continues to dance.

And with the devil on his back, in the fourth verse Jesus reveals that he is the dance, and the dance continues even beyond his death.

Finally, the triumphant fifth verse:

They cut me down and I leapt up high;
I am the life that’ll never, never die.
I’ll live in you if you’ll live in me:
I am the Lord of the dance, said he.

In each chorus, Jesus commands us:

Dance, then, wherever you may be.
I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

We can’t dance when we are bound up with death. Dancing requires us to cast off our own grave clothes.

But unbinding doesn’t just happen. Resurrection is a choice we make, an invitation we accept, a command we obey, an action we perform. There is something defiant about choosing resurrection. The dance of resurrection is literally death defying!

New life is always present, but we must claim it, we must perform it, and we must invite everyone into the performance.

Resurrection is an act of resistance in the face of Weltschmerz.

I invite you to not just sing, but dance as an act of resistance against all death.

Congregation sings, I Danced in the Morning

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