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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Cacti Among the Lilies

cacti and lilies edit

This is the sermon I preached on Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019, at First Church Simsbury.

John 20:1-18

Yesterday morning, just after nine o’clock, I sat in the far corner of that balcony seeking inspiration for this sermon. And the Spirit did not disappoint. In fact, the church did not disappoint. Because what I saw when I looked down from my perch were eight or ten church members preparing this beautiful, floral representation of Easter joy, of new life, of resurrection!

I was deeply moved, not just by the flowers and all they represent, but by the people. Any pastor, by the time they have served a church for a number of years, comes to know and love its people. As your pastors, Rev Kev and I walk with you through life’s greatest joys, the birth and baptism of your children, your wedding, high school and college graduations, your retirement.

We also walk with you through the greatest trials, tribulations, and traumas of your lives. The loss of a job, the death of a child, betrayals and abuse leading to broken relationships and divorce, addiction and mental illness, your own failures, being judged for who you are and condemned for who you love, diagnoses that will lead to your own death.

So, it wasn’t just the Easter joy represented by these flowers that so moved me yesterday morning, it was that these people, who had no doubt experienced life’s discouragement, disappointment and despair, awoke early on a rainy Saturday morning to together, so lovingly create this testimony to their faith that hardship, suffering and death do not have the last word in our lives.

I realized something else in that moment. In my almost twenty years of preaching, I have assiduously kept the observances of Lent, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter, separate from one another, the way some people I know don’t like the different foods on their dinner plate to touch each other.

But as I watched preparations being made on what is known as Holy Saturday, the day that joins the death of Jesus on Good Friday to his resurrection on Easter Sunday, I realized that I have missed something by not talking about the way these seminal events are related.

Three days ago, at our Maundy Thursday service, with scripture and song, we walked with Jesus to the cross. We were reminded that through Jesus’ suffering, God accompanies us through every adversity and affliction.

And now, on Easter, we are reminded that through Jesus’ resurrection, God redeems our experiences of suffering to renew and restore us.

But watching our wounded healers (words I would use to describe us all), arrange the Easter flowers, reminded me that neither adversity nor restoration takes place within the neat confines of the church year. Rather, we are forever claiming, wrestling, seizing the new life of Easter from the death of Good Friday.

I gleaned one more thing from my seat in the balcony yesterday morning. In the midst of all the voices offering helpful opinions about which plant should go where, I heard, “Is that a cactus?” Whatever plant was being referenced turned out not to be a cactus, but preachers know a nugget of sermon gold when we hear it.

The lowly, tough, thorny cactus planted in dry, rocky, soil seems the perfect symbol for the painful, arid experiences in our lives. The idea that there would be a cactus among the spring flowers gets right at this notion that our life of faith is not simply a progression from trial to triumph, from Lenten cactus to Easter Lily. These experiences coexist.

In fact… (step out of pulpit) if we look closely, we will find a cactus or two or three among our spring blossoms this morning, even on this Easter Sunday (pull three small potted cacti from among the flowers and place them on the communion table in front of three Easter lilies). And I can only assume, that beneath your Easter Sunday best, some of you are feeling a bit cactus-y. Sad? Hurt? Ashamed? Angry?

Holding too tightly to a linear understanding of the progression from the winter to the springtime of our life, waiting for the happily-ever-after, can leave us feeling dissatisfied, disappointed, even depressed when our lived reality doesn’t match the appointed season.

I have been reading this week about the Holy Stairs, or the Scala Sancta, in Rome. These 28 marble steps, transported from Jerusalem to Rome by Emperor Constantine’s mother, in the year 326, are said to have led to the Praetorium, the palace of Pontius Pilate. Jesus would have climbed these steps on the evening of his Passion when Pilate condemned him to be crucified.

The Scala Sancta have been a destination for pilgrims over centuries, but were covered over with maple wood to protect the marble some 300 years ago. But this year the Vatican decided to restore the white marble, and reopen the site for 60 days. Three bronze crosses mark the spots where it is said that drops of Jesus’ blood fell on the steps.

Though some dispute the authenticity of these steps, I was moved by the stories and pictures of the faithful climbing these steps on their knees. A Jesuit priest describes his experience

I found myself imagining Jesus’ feet on those stairs two millennia before—what he would have felt as he was jostled up by Pilate’s guards.

 

Before long I had tears in my eyes—and not from the pain in my knees. I was remembering people I knew and the ways they were suffering—cancer, an eating disorder, a spouse’s loss. They were there, too, somehow, on the stairs where Jesus bled.

 

My trip up the stairs had moved me because I realized who was with me on the journey. I was on those stairs with Jesus, along with a millennium and a half of pilgrims.

 

These stairs remind us that we are not alone on this pilgrim journey of life; Jesus accompanies us each step of the way through every adversity and affliction. I imagine arriving at the top to find ourselves at the cross, and the tomb.

And brothers and sisters, this is the good news. Jesus’ journey does not end here, and neither does ours.

There are three disciples present in the account of the resurrection in the gospel of John:

Mary Magdalene is the first to arrive to find Jesus’ tomb empty; she loves Jesus like no other. Jesus calls her by name, reveals himself to her, then sends her to tell the others that he is indeed risen.

There is the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved.” This disciple, it is said, “saw (the empty tomb) and believed.”

And there is Peter who appears to remain stuck in the misunderstanding that has characterized his discipleship.

Each disciple represents a way of responding to the good news of Christ’s resurrection, with the love of Mary Magdalene, with the faith of the unnamed disciple, and… well, with the misunderstanding of Peter.

But here is the thing. For all Peter’s failure to understand who Jesus was, it was most imperfect Peter who went on to found the church in Jesus’ name, and to share the good news of God’s love with all people.

We are called to respond to the resurrection in these same ways, with fidelity to God, with love for Jesus, and as a most imperfect church, committed to bringing good news to a hurting world.

Freed from the tomb, Jesus invites us to follow him back down those holy stairs, not on our knees, but standing tall, each step representing an act of love, grace and forgiveness in our lives. In the words of Saint Francis:

Where there is hatred, sow love,
Where there is injury, pardon,
Where there is doubt, faith,
Where there is despair, hope,
Where there is darkness, light
And where there is sadness, joy

Through his Passion, Jesus walks with us through the hardest times in our lives. And through his resurrection, Jesus frees us from bondage to our past. With Jesus, we are forever laboring up the stairs with life’s cacti, and dancing down the stairs juggling tulips, daffodils, and lilies that testify to God’s promise of new life!

And embracing it all in faith and love, with all our imperfections and misunderstandings, there is this garden that is the church, wounded healers and suffering servants all, who carry this promise into our hurting world.

The church (stepping out of pulpit and placing each cactus in a pot with a lily), that surrounds each cactus with the beautiful never-failing bloom of God’s love. The church, that is the body of Christ.

Christ is risen. Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia! Amen.

Hurting and Helping

Each year I send a letter to First Church Simsbury members during Lent in which I offer a devotion, then invite everyone to Holy Week services and events. This reflection draws from an experience I recently had at the Winter Assembly of the Greater Hartford Interfaith Action Alliance (GHIAA). Some 280 people from over 40 faith communities divided into small group “house meetings.”

Greetings Dear Ones,

I was recently invited to facilitate a small group of eight people. The group was comprised of seven Caucasian women “of a certain age,” all of whom appeared to be comfortable in this later season of their lives. Only one of the women was from First Church, but all might be called “church ladies.” The eighth member of the group was an African-American woman who introduced herself as Mary. We would learn that Mary was not at all comfortable, but suffered terribly from the debilitating and dehumanizing effects of lifelong poverty.

As I had been instructed, I prompted the group to respond to the questions, “What keeps you up at night? When you think of your family, street, neighborhood, workplace, and children, what makes you worried, fearful, or angry?” Group members were encouraged, not to respond in the abstract, but to tell a personal story to illustrate their greatest fear.

Mary told heart-breaking stories about having her children taken away by the child welfare agency because her apartment was determined to be unsafe due to lack of heat and a rodent infestation, both of which were beyond her control. The other women, though sincere, had a hard time telling stories about themselves. Each would begin with some version of, “I am so blessed…,” before referring to large issues that concerned them such as public education, racism, or political division, then concluding, “I just want to help.” Despite my gentle encouragement, they were unable to tell stories of their own personal hurt.

Though we had just met, I felt like I knew these women; they are like many of us at First Church. We identify ourselves as blessed, the ones called to help, and were raised to minimize or dismiss our own problems, certainly not talk about them in public.

Before we closed, I offered my pastor’s perspective on what I had just witnessed, telling the group, “Every Sunday morning, I look out at my congregation from the pulpit and see a church full of hurting people. I know most people’s story, and know people and their families have traumatic experiences involving substance abuse, mental illness, the loss of a child, a painful divorce or broken relationship with a parent or child, or a devastating health crisis. I can only imagine,” I said, “that each of you in this circle has such a story to tell. Yet Mary was the only one who could readily access and willingly share her story. Others either minimized of didn’t feel comfortable sharing their very real pain.” One effect of this, I suggested, was to exacerbate the sense of separation between Mary and the rest of the group, reinforcing the role of the seven as “helpers” for people like Mary, instead of identifying with each other around a shared experience of suffering.

Lent presents us with an opportunity to come together around our experiences of “the cross.” In willingly going to the cross, Jesus transformed himself from a God who just helps, to a God that suffers with all humanity. And by suffering with us, God carries us beyond the cross to Easter. I wonder if we missed an opportunity in that small group to suffer together, and so step out together on a journey beyond the cross to Easter transformation and justice.

I invite you on this journey with Jesus to the cross and beyond during Holy Week at First Church.

If Justice, Then Resurrection

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on February 17, 2019.

Jeremiah 17:5-10, 1 Corinthians 15:12-20

I was recently talking to one of our members, Karen Callahan, who is the supervisor of nurses in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, at Hartford Hospital, She was sharing love-filled, but heart breaking stories of some of the newborns they treat there. Some of course, are premature, and spend a few weeks or a month in the NICU, then return home to live happily ever after. But others suffer from an incurable condition, or experience a complication in birth, that means their life will be short and painful. These little ones suffer in their short lives, and of course there are no words to describe the pain the parents experience in losing their child.

I thought of these little babies when I read the First Corinthians passage which is about the hope for the dead found in the resurrection of Christ. Paul’s talk of resurrection may sound strange to some, but let’s take a closer look at what he means.

 

A couple weeks ago, another one of our members, Mario Chiappetti, shared a New York Times article about a minister in the United Church of Canada, Rev. Greta Bosper, who identifies herself as an atheist. She rejects the idea of God as a supernatural being, instead emphasizing living a life of love, justice and compassion. A fascinating email exchange between Mario, Rev. Kev, Mark Scully, and I followed, in which we shared thoughts about what beliefs are essential to being a Christian.

Initially, of course, atheism, popularly understood as not believing in God, would seem to be incompatible with Christianity. But in our email exchange, we took a closer look at the meaning of a-theism. Theism is a belief in a divine being that acts directly in human lives. So a-theism, means to not believe in such a theistic God. Atheism, as understood this way, doesn’t rule out other understandings of God, for example, as divine mystery, or as the power of a transcendent and unconditional love. It turns out, there are even Christian atheists who, like the Canadian pastor, commit to follow Jesus without accepting the supernatural aspects of God.

My criticism of the Canadian minister is less for what she believes, but because that as a pastor I try not to emphasize my own beliefs, but to leave room for a range of beliefs among members of the congregation. I worry, that by asserting her own beliefs so strongly, she discourages the membership and participation of those who think or believe differently.

Here at First Church, we have both theists and those that reject the supernatural qualities of God.

There are also those who dismiss the supernatural parts of Jesus’ story, His virgin birth, the miracles he performs, and his bodily resurrection, Like the Canadian minister, these Christians seek to follow the example of Jesus, by feeding the hungry, seeking justice for the most vulnerable, trying to practice unconditional love, even for enemies, and forgiving seven times seven.

Recognizing that spiritual journeys last a lifetime, and are ever evolving, I ask new members to simply “live with Jesus at the center of their lives,” this allows space for those who embrace Christ’s divinity, and those that seek to live by the example of Jesus.

I do think there are fair questions to ask of those whose most significant connection to Jesus is as an example of how to live.

First, what makes Jesus’ example unique? After all, we typically follow the examples of many people in our lives, admired historical figures, our parents or grandparents, a beloved teacher or coach, or a mentor.

So it’s one thing to say we follow Jesus as an example. But is Jesus’ example unique, and if so, how?

Second, a reminder to those who seek to live by the example of Jesus, he willingly submitted himself to be tortured and killed for what he believed in.

If we are indeed putting the example of Jesus at the center of our lives, how far are we willing to follow him? To death? Or are we only going to choose those things to follow that seem safe?

And then, there is the matter of Christ’s resurrection. Can those who seek to follow Christ’s example simply choose to ignore what many consider to be essential to his story?

The church in Corinth is asking the same questions many of us ask, why can’t we just follow Jesus’s teaching to love one another? Do we really need to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead?

These questions about resurrection were not new, even in Paul’s day. In Jesus and Paul’s time, Judaism had been debating resurrection for centuries.

Belief in resurrection emerged out of centuries of abject physical suffering by Jews, from slavery in Egypt, to brutal wars including the slaughter or women and children, to the burning and looting of Jerusalem and exile in Babylon, to the persecution of Jews by the Roman Empire including mass crucifixions.

Faithful Jews asked a very reasonable question, if we believe in a just God who promises to deliver us from slavery and suffering, what about those we love who have suffered and died terrible, painful deaths? Where is the justice for them, not in the abstract, not in the afterlife, but as they experienced bodily harm, does not justice for them include restoration of their broken bodies? This is a compelling question.

Some of these Jewish rabbis answered this question in a powerful and meaningful way, with a belief, that at the end of time, the dead would be resurrected, their bodies restored and reunited with their souls.

But there was no consensus among ancient Jews. The gospels refer to two Jewish sects, Sadducees and Pharisees. Sadducees, did not believe in physical resurrection, Pharisees did. There is a story in gospel of Mark where Sadducees argue with Jesus against resurrection.

In response to the church he founded in Corinth, Paul doesn’t mince words.

If there is no resurrection, there is no hope. If there is no resurrection, then everything we thought we knew about God is a lie. If there is no resurrection, then all we have is this life, and the so-called gospel is not really “good news” at all.

Christ’s resurrection is non-negotiable. It has to be for Paul’s gospel to work. At the heart of this good news is the resurrection of Jesus. If God did not actually raise Jesus from the dead, then God is not stronger than death.

Just as it was for the Sadducees, just as it was for the church in Corinth, belief in the physical resurrection of Jesus is hard to accept for many Christians today, even becoming a stumbling block to identifying as a Christian for some.

As a result, many contemporary Christians have come to understand the stories of Jesus’ resurrection – stories in which his followers are said to have interacted with, talked to, touched, and eaten with Jesus following his death on the cross – as metaphors for the truth that life triumphs over death, love wins out over hate.

On Easter, because the idea of bodily resurrection is so outrageous to some, we illustrate these truths with safer symbols of new life, tulips springing up after a hard winter, or a butterfly emerging from a cocoon. But the broken, lifeless body of Jesus, taken down from the cross and sealed in a tomb, physically returning to life, no, that’s just too much to accept.

As shocking as resurrection may seem, Paul poses a good question. If we believe that God is just, then God must be just in the flesh, in response to the suffering and death of real people, not just in the abstract, not just for tulips and butterflies and springtime. If God is not just to those who suffer and die, then God, says Paul, is not just.

Tortured lives and deaths like those experienced by ancient Jews still exist in our world today. There are obvious examples, like the Holocaust, Apartheid, or the Rwandan genocide, but even in the relative ease of our American lives, we watch loved ones, good, good people, suffer terribly.

I mentioned Karen Callahan’s experiences in the NICU at Hartford Hospital. Stories of tulips and butterflies hardly seem enough for the parent that just lost a child. We are fond of quoting Martin Luther King, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Well, those little ones in the NICU don’t have time to wait for that long arc of justice to reach them.

In response to such abject suffering, Jews asked, what would a truly just God do? Heal broken bodies and restore life, that’s what.

 

I think of those who live with Alzheimer’s and those who love them. How would a just God respond to their awful hardship and suffering? By healing broken bodies and restoring life.

I think of children who were separated from their parents crossing the U.S. border, and subsequently died in custody. How would a just God respond? By healing broken bodies and restoring life.

What would justice look like? The answer, the only answer, says Paul, is resurrection.

Paul’s experience of seeing the resurrected Christ changed his perspective on when and how God was renewing God’s creation. Paul’s hope for resurrection was no longer a distant future dream. God’s life-giving power had invaded the cosmos and conquered death by resurrecting Jesus. With this act, God declared certain victory over death. Through Christ’s resurrection, justice had been restored for all who suffer and die.

Paul is naming this. If we claim a God of justice, it is not enough to talk in metaphors, not enough to follow the example of Jesus. Death is not a metaphor, and justice in response to sin, suffering and death demands more than tulips and butterflies.

If we claim to believe in a just God, but don’t believe in resurrection, then Jesus just become one of many examples of a moral life.

If a God is truly just, then Jesus’ resurrection must be true.

What would it look like, what would it require, for you to claim and proclaim resurrection as good news?

 

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

The Rest of the Story

This is the sermon I preached on Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018, at First Church Simsbury.

Mark 16:1-8

Before I read this next account of the resurrection, let me make an observation about the reading the kids just shared, then give you an assignment. From the Spark Bible for children, the simple version these guys read combines plot elements from several of the gospels.

The four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were each written for different audiences, different purposes, and at different times. So each writer tells the story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection differently. The gospel of Mark was written first, around the year 70, about 37 years after that first Easter morning.

I invite you to listen to Mark’s story and see if you notice an important way it differs from what the kids just read.

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

What did you notice, in particular about the way the story ends? How does Mark end his account of the resurrection? What is missing?

Here is his last verse, “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

That’s it, the end of Mark’s story!  Why is that interesting or important?   Well, in Mark’s gospel, no one sees the resurrected Jesus.

The gospels that were written later tell stories of Mary and the disciples seeing Jesus, of Jesus speaking, of the disciples eating with Jesus, of the disciple Thomas touching the wound in Jesus’ hand.  But not Mark.  The guy in white just says, he’s not here, he got up and left.  Go on, get out of here, you’ll see him down the road.

Isn’t that awesome!

Not so sure?

Mark doesn’t tell us about particular people at a particular time in history that had a specific encounter with the flesh and blood risen Christ.  Instead, Mark’s account invites us to head on down the road to seek experiences of resurrection in our own lives.

Mark’s story is open ended. Mark leaves it up to the disciples, and so leaves it up to us, to tell “the rest of the story.”

Some of you, of a certain age, will recognize that phrase, “the rest of the story.”  Back before pastors found sermon illustrations on Facebook, there was radio, and there was Paul Harvey, a beloved radio commentator.  From 1976 until his death in 2009, Harvey had a daily segment on radio called, “The Rest of the Story.”  He would tell a true story about a person or event but would withhold some key fact, like the person’s name, leaving that a mystery until the end.  Finally, at the very end, he would reveal the missing piece that made sense of the story.

Here’s a great one, told just as Paul Harvey told it!

What I’m about to say is not to be construed as another round in the continuing debate over capital punishment; it’s merely to let you know that Broadway’s latest star, a name that you would recognize, once was, through no fault of his own, on death row.  And it is because his name is so frequently spoken in the annals of show business that you must wait just a little bit longer for the rest of the story.

 

Technically, legally, actually, there is yet a crime on the state books of Connecticut for which one may burn.  And it is for that crime that Broadway’s latest award winning star was once in the pen and the big countdown, the last mile, death row, his jailors seemingly callous, had to be, for theirs was the dirtiest job in the business.  And of course their apparent apathy only increased his anxiety, only made him more suspicious of the next man to enter the corridor, for one last meal, and one long last night stood between him and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow morning he would die.  As a matter of the greatest good fortune the next man to enter the corridor was not the bearer of his last meal but the harbinger of many meals to come, a messenger of freedom, and his name was Bill Berloni and he was looking for types with which to cast a new play headed for Broadway, now stay with me as incredible as this sounds, it happened just the way I am describing it.  Bill was looking for a particular type actor, no previous experience necessary, among those in confinement, by chance, he passed death row, he saw the doomed prisoner that we have been talking about and that prisoner was just the one Bill had been looking for.  Naturally it was explained to Bill that the prisoner was condemned to die, within hours in fact, but Bill did not care.  With some pull, with some clout, he affected a stay of execution, he got the case reviewed, he got bail granted and eventually the prisoner was exonerated.  My goodness look how far he’s gone since then.  The show opened at the Goodspeed Opera House.  The production went from there to Broadway just as Bill Berloni had promised it would.  Now as of last month this most remarkable of all contemporary Broadway hits played to its one thousand two hundred and fifth standing room only audience.  Awards include the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical, seven Drama Desk awards, seven Tony awards including best musical, and including one for the one who one year ago was on death row.  Now some are saying that he shouldn’t have gotten that award even though there can be little doubt that his personality had contributed to the advanced ticket sale of millions of dollars.  And to the Broadway smash based on a comic strip, Annie.  Now recently the actor who once was condemned to die attended a black tie dinner at the White House, was a guest of the President of the United States.  And that, I’m sure you’d agree, is a long way from the wire mesh pen at the Newington Humane Society where he was ready to take the fall on a vagrancy rap but was bailed out for eight dollars to steal the show as Sandy, Little Orphan Annie’s sad-eyed, flop-eared, mongrel dog.  And now you know the rest of the story.

This old tale told by Paul Harvey is so much more than a heart-warming story about a dog.  It is a parable about life, death and resurrection.

This story serves as a reminder that the freedom and new life of resurrection only have meaning in response to imprisonment, suffering and death.  We live in a world that too often imprisons, inflicts suffering and promotes death, both literally and metaphorically.

We know this through our own experience.  While none of us have literally been on death row, each life includes experiences of deprivation, discouragement, rejection, loneliness, betrayal, fear and despair.

And we know this by opening our eyes to the suffering around us.  Poverty, abuse, condemnation, selfishness, hunger, violence and injustice.

In the words of the orphans in the Municipal Orphanage, Girl’s Annex,

It’s the hard-knock life for us!

Like Annie and like Sandy, we can face the seeming callousness and apathy of a world that holds us captive.

And like Sandy, as a matter of greatest good fortune the next man to enter the corridor of our hard knock life is not bearing our last meal but is the harbinger of many meals to come, a messenger of freedom. But his name is not Bill Berloni, it is Jesus Christ, and he is looking for types with which to cast a new and more abundant life, looking for types from among those in confinement, no previous experience necessary.  And we are just the ones he is looking for.  With some pull, with some clout, through his resurrection, he has affected a stay of execution, he got our case reviewed; we have been exonerated.

But just as Sandy wasn’t released to return to a life of vagrancy, so Christ does not free us from captivity just so we can return to our old lives.

Remember, Mark’s story is open ended, leaving it up to us to tell “the rest of the story.” Jesus frees us to perform a role in God’s never ending story of resurrection.

What might this resurrection look like? I share this brief example. I was invited by John Fox from our local VFW post to attend a program on veteran suicide prevention at the Simsbury Library yesterday. It is as if those who contemplate suicide, whether because of depression, addiction, or trauma are trapped in a tomb that feels inescapable. But I learned that asking someone directly about their suicidal thoughts lowers anxiety, opens communication, and reduces the risk of an impulsive act. And simply saying, “I want you to live, I’m on your side, and we’ll get through this together,” will most often be met with agreement and relief. Just a willingness to listen and help can rekindle hope, can save a life. This is what resurrection looks like.

I am convinced that Mark ended his gospel the way he did because he wanted his community to know, wants us to know, that resurrection is ours to live and share. It can be as simple as expressing a willingness to listen and help.

So, refuse to let experiences of deprivation, discouragement, rejection, loneliness, betrayal, fear and despair rule your life.  Confront poverty, abuse, condemnation, selfishness, hunger, violence and injustice in all its guises.  This is what it means to live resurrection.

The tomb is empty and he has gone ahead of us.  That’s it!  That’s all we need to know.  It is up to us to write, tell and live, the rest of the story.

Let’s Talk!

Here is my column from the May issues of the First Church, Cornerstone, newsletter.

Building a strong, healthy, community of faith requires communication. I don’t mean the weekly church email or monthly newsletter, but earnest, open conversations about our thoughts, feelings and beliefs regarding the important things of life and faith. People too often avoid such substantive conversations out of a concern that disagreement might lead to conflict, or because they fear being judged. I have found that church members can sometimes be reticent to talk to their pastors when a sermon has touched a nerve or raised a concern. Preachers most often hear such concerns second-hand in the form of someone-said statements, as in, “I heard someone say they had a concern about your sermon on Sunday.” I have heard a few of these someone-saids about the Easter sermon I preached with Rev. Kev.

For those who didn’t hear it or read it online (see the church website for a transcript and recording), Kevin and I brought a resurrection message that encouraged everyone to exit the tombs that hold us back in life that we might live fully into the people God created us to be. Kevin used the example of a widow who experienced a joy-filled life following the death of her husband by becoming like a mother to a young woman, a Sudanese refugee in need of maternal support. I drew on my experience leading an AIDS service organization in the nineties, using AIDS as a metaphor for a tomb, and the example of men “coming out” as gay as a symbol of resurrection. Recognizing that there were children in worship, I sought to craft my words in a way that would be both accessible and appropriate for young listeners.

I had a meaningful call from a parent who told me that my sermon caused her child to ask a number of questions that she wasn’t ready to address. She affirmed the content of the sermon, but said that from a parenting perspective, explaining the relationship between AIDS and sexual orientation to her child presented real challenges. She would have much preferred to talk to her child about such things in her own time on her own terms. I hear this. And I have been pondering the choices I made in preparing and presenting that sermon.

As for other concerns, a certain amount of guess work is involved since these perspectives have not been shared with me directly. But from what I hear second-hand they are along the lines, “It was a good message, but not appropriate on Easter.” My initial response to this is, we are an ONA church fifty-two weeks a year. And what better Sunday to demonstrate this than on Easter Sunday when the church is full of people who might be here for the first time.

But I have also thought that there might be more to this “just not on Easter” perspective. I know many people bring family members to church on Easter, parents, grandparents, or adult children. I know of particular cases where these visiting family members hold more religiously conservative views than those represented here at First Church. The discomfort of these folks may have been quite apparent to family members, and may have even led to difficult conversations over brunch. I am sympathetic. I like a happy, tension-free Easter brunch as much as the next person!

Let me share a few things about what led to that particular sermon. I did not choose my sermon illustration to be intentionally provocative. Instead, my sermon emerged organically, bringing experiences in the church and in my life together with the story of Christ’s resurrection. Did you know that since the church year began last September, at least a dozen visitors or members have come out as LGBT to me or Rev. Kev? This includes a number of our church youth. Some of these folks have been harshly judged in other churches before venturing into First Church. I am forever inspired by the courageous decision LGBT people make to come out, whether to family, friends, clergy, or the world. These good people were on my mind as I prayerfully contemplated the significance of the empty tomb, and this led me to recall my own, life changing experience of loving people who live with AIDS.

I had another meaningful conversation with a parent, this one with a child who “is on a gender journey and is contemplating precisely what (the sermon) was about.” She thanked me, saying that she found the sermon to be profound, and that it touched her child deeply. While hearing the “just not on Easter” concern, and empathizing with those who might have experienced tension-filled Easter brunches with family, exchanges like the one with this mom might suggest an alternative perspective, “especially on Easter!”

In the past week I have thought deeply and prayerfully about all these things, trying to hear and understand various perspectives. Here are some closing thoughts.

We are indeed an Open and Affirming Church fifty-two weeks a year. Using legal language, our ONA identity is the equivalent of “settled law.” We won’t retreat from or qualify this covenant we have made.

I am sensitive to the concern of parents who feel like they were thrust into difficult conversations with their children without notice or preparation. I will continue to reflect upon the implications of this perspective for future sermons.

And I realize that we need to do a better job preparing and equipping our members to think and talk about such things. Let’s work together to develop the capacity of our congregation to have these conversations with one another.

And I conclude as I began. Let’s talk! Especially if you recognize yourself as one of the someones in someone-said, let’s talk! One of the reasons I wrote this is to provide some entry points into a conversation with you. Find something in here you agree with, disagree with, or would like to explore more, and let’s talk. Faithfully engaging such important topics in a way that we can all learn and grow together is what it means to be the church.

 

Pastor Pondering: Death and New Life

Published in the March 2016 issue of the First Church, Simsbury newsletter, The Cornerstone.

For those who dare to follow, I invite you into the stream of consciousness that became this Cornerstone reflection:

Oh no, it’s Thursday afternoon and my Cornerstone article is due. What in the world am I going to write about? Think, George, think! What am I hearing from people in the church that suggests a topic? Members are still asking, “What are we going to do?” I wrote about that in the January Cornerstone but there is more to say. I know! I’ll write about a vision and mission for First Church. That’s it! … write-write-write-write-write-write… (three hours and 600 words later) OK, let’s see what I’ve got …blah-blah-blah-blah-blah… Help me Jesus! This is complete garbage! <select all> <delete> Start over. Time’s up, what am I going to do? I need a theme. (while driving home) think, think, think. It’s still Lent. (while eating dinner) think, think, think. Easter is coming. (while watching Bruins game) think, think, think. I know, I’ll Google “Lent and Easter.” Ugh! Just more blah-blah-blah. Really?! My eyes are getting heavy, must sleep. I’ll have to revisit this in the morning. Lourdes is waking me up, “Come on, we need to pack, we need to be on the road by 8:00.” Panic sets in; we’re driving to Baltimore for my Uncle Sunny’s funeral. The Cornerstone article is late! If only I had a poignant Lent and Easter story to share. Uncle Sunny, why did you have to die; this isn’t a good time. I’ll have to write my article in the car. At least I get to see my mom. When I saw her at Christmas she was really beat down by her radiation and chemo treatment, weak and wobbly. Can’t believe the MRI doesn’t show any cancer now. We all thought this was the end, but mom sounds strong and happy. Lent and Easter. Lent and Easter. Come on George, think!

Oh… Duh!

In response to my frantic plea, the chaotic jumble of my mind cleared to reveal the presence of death and new life.

Less than twenty-four hours after hearing about her brother Sunny’s death, my mother received the news that the cancer that had filled the cavity behind her eye, wrapped itself around her optic nerve, and was intruding into her skull, was now undetectable. Both grief and hope are woven into the fabric of creation. This is the message of Lent and Easter. God acts in the world through death and new life, but we often have a hard time recognizing this because death can be so darn scary and sad, and hope can seem irrational. So we compartmentalize (newsletter article), distract ourselves (Bruins game), and refuse to think about death or recognize new life even when it is right in front of us (Sunny and Mom).

These themes don’t just manifest themselves in our family. The Black Lives Matter movement, birthed in response to the violent deaths of young black men, calls forth new life, testifies to hope in the very presence of fear and despair.

Some might say, “Pastor George why did you have to go there? I was touched by the story of your uncle and your mom; did you have to mention Black Lives Matter?” But you see, that’s my point. Lent requires us to confront the places death intrudes unwanted, sometimes violently, into our lives. And Easter demands that we proclaim hope in the very face of death, even and especially when this makes us uncomfortable.

And herein, after all, is the makings of a vision and mission for our good church.

In Christ,

Pastor George

New Moon: Vampires, Werewolves and Resurrection

I’m not sure if this will work or not, but here is the connection I am exploring.  I believe that there are universal yearnings, cosmic questions that work themselves out in our lives.  My perspective here is informed by Joseph Campbell’s work on myth.  The world’s great religious traditions evolved to give expression to these yearnings and questions, but too often become dull and legalistic over time.  When this happens, we look elsewhere for our answers, to psychology, to pop culture, or to literature.

Many of our yearnings and questions emerge out of our powerlessness and accompanying fear.  One question might be, “Can we claim power out of our powerlessness?  Can we leave fear, hurt, and suffering behind to become something new?  Can we find freedom from those things that threaten and enslave us?”   Another question follows from our fear of our ultimate powerlessness, death.  “Do we have to die?  Why can’t we live forever?”

These two questions seem to be given expression in the Twilight series of books and movies by werewolves and vampires.  Werewolves transform into something powerful in response to vulnerability and suffering.  Vampires live forever.

Christ responds to these questions through resurrection.  So, why Christ instead of werewolves and vampires?

Published in: on March 24, 2010 at 3:14 am  Comments (2)  
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