Sunday, March 23, 2008

Resurrection: Does It Matter?

Sermon preached Easter Sunday

March 23, 2008

The Rev. Matthew Lawrence

Good morning and Happy Easter! It’s good to see you again.

In fact, it’s wonderful – every Easter and Christmas is like a family reunion; when all the long-lost nephews and aunts and cousins come home. And we are happy to see you. You are family; this is your home; welcome.

I’ve been thinking back to the Easter we had a year ago – I had that horrible flu and should have stayed in bed. I preached fever-inspired sermon about an Amarylis which I later found out was actually a Kala Lilly... Not my best... In fact, I’m impressed that any of you came back this year!

It feels like a lot has happened since a year ago; and not a lot of it has been good. The slump in the housing market; a possible recession; global warming just getting more worrisome... not to mention the things that were bad last year and are still pretty bad: the war, the budget deficits...

So it’s been a tough year. A lot of us have been struggling with our anxiety; our relationships are strained; we worry a lot.

And my job, this morning, is to tell you not to worry; everything is going to be fine, because it’s Easter, and Christ is risen!

And somehow that’s supposed to make it all better?

Do you ever get this horrible feeling, like, does the resurrection really matter? What’s the point after all? Do you ever wonder how could it possibly be so important whether or not Jesus rose from the dead – how is that going to pay the bills? Do you find it just a little annoying that Christians are so concerned with what you believe anyway? Now, more than probably at any time in history, we live in a world in which I’ve got my beliefs, you’ve got yours... and how is it your problem whether I believe Jesus Christ rose from the dead or Mickey Mouse came from Mars?

Does it really matter?

And so when you think about it, it is pretty amazing how much time and energy and money and blood has been spent trying to get the world to believe this story about the resurrection of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke begins with this commitment; Matthew’s gospel ends with it; John’s Gospel repeats it over and over again – this great mission to convince the world that Christ died and was raised... Paul’s letters are nothing if not an extended argument for the resurrection; he even goes so far as to say that if the resurrection didn’t physically happen, his preaching is empty and our faith is vain. (1 Cor. 15)

This morning I find myself meditating on those disciples; on everything they endured to get this story out there; the beating, imprisonment, shame, torture and death that greeted them – just because they just had to tell this story; and then I think about the giant collective shrug of indifference that greets the gospel today; and I have to ask the question:

Does the resurrection still matter or not?

The greatest theologians disagree on what the resurrection actually was;

The conservatives insist it was an actual “poke your finger in it” physical resurrection, others like Dominic Cross say it was a series of visions that seized the disciples; and still others like Marcus Borg split the difference and say it was definitely a real thing but we can’t really imagine what it was.

Just about all of them say we can never know for sure, which is why we call it faith,

and just about everyone agrees, whether it was a myth, fantasy or the biggest miracle of them all, whatever it was, it had the effect of transforming a terrified and depressed set of former disciples into a fire-breathing band of martyrs for a cause of love.

Does that matter?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been meeting quite a few people these days who resemble those pre-resurrection disciples; a lot of folks are people feeling pretty frightened and depressed. In fact, the entire world seems pretty frightened and depressed these days, would you not agree?

One other thing all the scholars agree one: it makes no sense to talk about the resurrection without putting it in the context of the crucifixion. The resurrection is not some happy-clappy feel good story in which one day you’re happy and the next day you’re even happier. There’s a cross involved.

And this is why, if you only come to church on Easter and skip Good Friday, the resurrection is likely to seem more like a pleasant myth than like something that rises out of the bowels of the real world. It’s like walking into a movie just at the last 5 minutes of the happy ending. You might feel happy for the characters but you don’t really know the story.

The story of the resurrection only becomes true when seen through the reality of the cross.

The people who risked everything so that we might know this story were not pie-eyed optimists. They were realists; they had been living, generation after generation, under the harshest conditions we can imagine.

They had seen too much to believe in a world where everyone “just gets along.” They could not imagine a world in which our problems would be solved if we all just went shopping. It never could have occurred to them that they could “have it all.” Their world was one in which pain and sacrifice and struggle and even death were required in order to make progress.

Abraham Lincoln would have recognized this world. He knew what a great price in blood had to be paid in order to rid our country of slavery. The members of our own WWII generation would recognize this world -- ask anyone who lived through that horrible time if they think freedom is free. No, freedom has a price. Justice has a price. The resurrection was not possible without a sacrifice; just as our own democracy has not been possible without sacrifice and terrible loss.

This is a world that my current generation is only beginning to recognize. This is the great psychological adjustment that we are witnessing right now in our culture. For over a generation now, we have been living in this fantasyland in which the concepts of sacrifice and pain have been effectively silenced. Families have grown up believing they can have whatever they want, when they want it; and so we have wracked up so much credit card debt that personal bankruptcy is at record levels.

I read in the paper this morning that the city is trying to come up with some strategy for overcoming its massive debt; just as the state government is doing. Meanwhile our military budget is the highest that it’s been since World War II. That’s adjusted for inflation! Now, I wasn’t alive during WW II, but I seem to remember a lot of newsreels talking about all the sacrifice required – all the war bonds that were sold, all the paper drives and rubber drives and food rationing that made that enormous effort possible. But today, we think we can have that same enormous output, without asking for a single bit of sacrifice – except from the men and women who are pouring their blood into the desert sand.

And then there’s our own church. It used to be that churches talked freely of sacrificial giving. When’s the last time you were asked to give sacrificially? And now, like our governments and our households, we are looking at deficits and scratching our heads.

On all these levels – the personal, the church, the city, the state, the federal, even globally – we are waking up to the reality that nothing comes without a price.

The Rolling Stones might have sold a million copies of “You can’t always get what you want,” but no one really listened.

And so we are entering a time when the concept of sacrifice is once again becoming meaningful. For those of us raised in the Baby Boomer generation and later, this is terrifying – terrifying because the one thing that makes sacrifice seem worthwhile is the idea that you are sacrificing for something. But as a culture; as a people; we have lost all sense of what we’re sacrificing for. If we can’t agree on what we are sacrificing for, there’s nothing to be gained.

Which is why we are so desperate to figure out: What is the point? Where is the hope? Teenagers are committing suicide in record numbers because they can’t figure out the answer to that question.

What are we living for?

Well, as for me, I am living for the risen Jesus.

We call Jesus the Paschal Lamb; the sacrificial lamb. The root of the word sacrifice is “to make sacred.”

Imagine the disciples, huddling in the heart of the city of Jerusalem; they have just seen their Master die on a cross; their lives have just collapsed.

And like many people in the midst of grief, they are trying to remember his last words to them, at that last supper. He knew the end was near; he knew he had been betrayed and the guards were on their way. He knew he would soon be hanging on the cross.

And at that moment he had many options. He could have fled; he could have made an angry, militant speech of resistance; he could have slouched in the corner of the room and wept bitterly. All of these options are being actively proposed.

But on that night of death and betrayal, he knelt down in front of his disciples, taking the form of a slave; and washed their feet.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet? You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me."

When it came down to his final, last act of freedom, this is what he chose. He chose to move into the deepest level of what it means to be human. He chose love.

And he felt so strongly about this that he told Peter that unless Peter was willing to accept this radical gesture of love, Jesus would have nothing to do with him.

Jesus was clear: we cannot be his disciples unless we are willing to accept the scandal of his love. This is a condition for membership. There are a lot of ways in which Christianity is an inclusive religion but this is not one of them. This is the exclusive obligation: If you want to be a part of this group you have to open your heart. You have to subject yourself to love. You have to let Jesus love you. You cannot enter the Kingdom of God that Jesus is talking about unless you allow yourself to be loved.

This isn’t some kind of arbitrary rule Jesus came up with; this is just the way it is: it’s a law like the law of gravity. You cannot get into my house unless you actually step through the door. You cannot spend your life parked in front of my house, and then say to people you are a part of my household. You cannot claim to be in relationship with Jesus if you reject the terms of that relationship, which by the way are not up to you to determine. Jesus sets the terms of the relationship. And these are his terms: that you open your heart to his love. That you allow him, the Prince of Peace; the Messiah; the one through whom all things were made; the 2nd person of the Trinity; to wash your feet.

This is what his sacrifice was for. It’s almost Zen-like in its simplicity. For love, he sacrificed everything.

“I give you a new commandment: that you love one another as I have loved you.” This was his final teaching. It was not a suggestion. It was not an invitation. He said, this is my commandment.

This is what I live for; and what, I pray, we are all living for. To strive toward this greatest height of what it means to be human. To love without conditions; to love completely; even to love sacrificially.

And so, this is what we do. This is what we are here to practice. This is why this building exists. This is what the martyrs died trying to tell us.

This is not something we do on our own; it takes an entire community to support this great enterprise of love. This is why the church is called The Body of Christ. This is where the risen Christ lives; this is where he is found. Not in this building; but in the hearts and minds of every person in this room, connected, one to the other, through the mystical bonds of love; a powerful, healing, eternal love that transcends every thing that separates us. A love that conquers death. That love is here – to every person willing to open themselves to it.

May this love be yours. May you be lifted by its power. May you be completely and totally blessed by the risen Christ.


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