Sunday, April 4, 2010

Practicing Resurrection

Easter Morning, April 4, 2010

So here we are again! The stone is rolled away, the elements of Easter are revealed: the empty tomb, the burial linens on the ground, the angels; and those poor disciples - at first, uncomprehending, confused, astonished.

And here we are, still: uncomprehending, confused, astonished.

Many Christians think that the preacher’s job, on Easter morning, is to help eliminate our confusion; to sweep away the cobwebs of doubt and uncertainty so that we can fully believe in the resurrection. They think this because they think that our ultimate achievement as Christians is to believe in the resurrection.

But I stand before you this morning not to help you believe in the resurrection; I’m more interested in helping you do resurrection. In the words of Wendell Barry [“Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”], my job this morning is to help us practice resurrection.

Because to be honest, it’s really hard to fully believe in the resurrection. I mean, really – let’s be honest. Maybe not impossible, but the thing is it’s missing the point.

For hundreds of years, preachers have been straining their voices, trying to get us to think that the whole point of Christianity is to believe the right ideas about Jesus; and they are so sincere and earnest that for the most part we’ve humored them; we’ve said, okay, sure; we believe in the resurrection; sure, we believe that somehow the natural biological processes that, in every other instance turn a dead body into a smelly, decomposing mess were somehow reversed in the case of our Lord Jesus; sure, we believe that, because we’re told that that’s what we have to do believe in order to get into heaven.

But I say to you this morning – and I’m not the only one, there’s others, trust, me, going back to Peter and to James the brother of Jesus and Jesus himself – I say to you that it’s not about believing in the resurrection. It’s about practicing resurrection.

Now, let me try to earnestly and sincerely get you to believe what I’m saying.

Back in the mid-1980s, when I was in seminary in Chicago, they had me spend a summer as a hospital chaplain at this enormous hospital on the Near West Side. They do this because they want young pastors to get used to the reality of death. Which is an important thing for pastors. So for one long summer I worked as a hospital chaplain and most of my time was spent going from one grieving family to another.

One day I think I dealt with four or five deaths in a single day, including a couple of devastating tragedies: a Filipino family who lost their teenaged daughter in a car accident; a young couple who lost their baby in childbirth; and then two or three of the more usual but no less important cases of old age and disease.

And I came home from the hospital that day feeling like a zombie; the smell of death was in my nose; the reality of death felt like an anvil, weighing me down from the inside. I felt absolutely depleted. So I walked into our apartment and I said to my wife, “Don’t worry; I’m not as bad as I look; but I need you to do something for me; I need you to not talk for awhile; don’t try to fix me; I just need you to hold me.”

And she did – for hours; into the wee hours of the morning. I remember falling asleep with my head on her chest, listening to her heartbeat and her breath. I felt like that famous statue of Michaelangelo’s – the Pieta – with Mary holding the dead body of Jesus in her lap; cradling him as if he were still a child. And slowly, as the night turned into morning, I came alive again.

That’s what I mean by practicing resurrection. My wife and I practiced resurrection; I was loved into new life.

As ideas go, resurrection is not an easy one to believe in. There’s nothing anyone can say to make another person believe in it. But as a practice, we all do it.

Parents do it when they raise their children to be happy, healthy, responsible human beings. Children do it whenever they give a grown-up a hug. Doctors do it when they practice healing; lovers do it when they listen deeply to one another; pastors do it when they teach their congregations to pray.

But – and I can hear your objections to this approach – what about Jesus? What about the miracle? What about the flash of lightning and the angels and Jesus, walking around on the beach eating fish?
Well, Yes! Of course! I’m sure all that happened – or something like it, something amazing, something absolutely incomprehensibly wonderful, something that turned an unimpressive bunch of depressed disciples into inspired preachers of love, marching off to the ends of the earth to die for the cause of love.

But why do you suppose - of all the people in the history of the planet - why do you suppose it was Jesus who was resurrected? Well, look at his life: way before he was resurrected from the dead, he was practicing resurrection. Healing the sick. Feeding the hungry. Listening to women and children and poor people; eating with outcasts and sinners.

Long before he was raised from the dead, he was giving life to others. So completely open was he to the power of love over the power of death that in the end, death could not contain him.

But Jesus’ resurrection didn’t just happen at the end of his life; Jesus’ resurrection was happening every day of his life; every day that he gave himself over to relationships of life-giving love he was practicing resurrection, so that in the end, he was resurrection.

Every time we look a homeless person in the eye and treat her with respect; every time we comfort a crying child; every time we feed a hungry person; every time we contribute to a just cause; every time we do anything to advance the cause of love – we become like those medieval alchemists, turning lead into gold; we are participating in this miraculous exchange; we take part in something like a chemical reaction that transforms death into life.

So in the end, resurrection is not something we need to believe in – because we know it. We practice it.

And this is why we say “Alleluia” on Easter morning. Because the Kingdom of Heaven is here. The dead are being raised to new life. The blind are receiving their sight; and our sin is being wiped away through the power of God’s love.

But that doesn’t mean resurrection just happens. It takes work and intentionality; it takes relationship. When I walked through the door of that apartment 25 years ago I had to bring a little bit of relational intelligence with me; I had to know what it was I needed; and I had to ask for it. And my wife had to decide whether or not she wanted to be there for me.

Resurrection doesn’t always just happen; it takes work and commitment and discipline and asking for what you need and taking turns.

Sometimes it means being the strong one; sometimes it means asking for help. Most of us would much rather give help than ask for it. But it doesn’t work that way. Resurrection is a 2-way street; it’s not something you give; it’s not something you control; it’s not a commodity that can be doled out like so many ladles of soup at the bread line.

No, resurrection is something that happens - when people meet in open honest loving relationship. It’s not some abstract thing that goes off in the privacy of your brain; it’s not something you will find in your “Fortress of Solitude”. No; resurrection involves relationship – most importantly, a relationship with the source of all life and love.

And by that, of course, I mean God; and not just any god, and certainly not any kind of vague, abstract distant god, but rather this particular God of scandalous physicality; this God of dangerous specificity: Jesus of Nazareth; born in the flesh; teacher, prophet, healer, champion for social justice [sorry Glenn Beck!], who died on the cross and is risen and who comes again into our lives every time we call upon his name.

I mean, sure, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing that says you have to believe in Jesus in order to practice resurrection; of course, billions of people do it every day. Anyone can put band-aids on scraped knees and hand-out sandwiches to homeless people; but what I can’t figure out is why they would never for a moment pause to consider the source of the love that they’re exchanging by means of those band-aids and sandwiches.

It’s kind of like the man who tries to cross a vast desert with a single canteen of water, when he has no idea there are springs of fresh running water beneath his feet, if he would only just take a moment to learn how to tap into it.

This is something I’ve never understood: why would someone insist on crossing the desert and only drinking the water from his canteen, and when that runs out, trying to make it across without any water at all – even unto death – when there are abundant springs of water right under his feet?

Well, maybe he doesn’t trust the water beneath the sand. Or maybe he just doesn’t know it’s there; or how to tap it. I dunno.

But what I will tell you is that not only is there an everflowing stream of fresh water right beneath his feet; there’s also a desert oasis, not far from where he is, with food, and friendly people, and a comfortable bed, and fellow travelers who have crossed this desert many times before – if only he would just pause for a second, take his bearings, get out his map, and look at it.

That’s what this church is: that oasis. We don’t need to be so alone. Our lives don’t need to be so hard. All we need to do is let go of this crazy, if not downright suicidal, idea that we can cross this desert all by ourselves with our one little canteen of water.

But, hey, if that’s how someone wants to go, well, more power to them; I mean, we’re Episcopalians; we wouldn’t try to stop them.

As for me, I will continue to come to this oasis; I will gladly continue to sink my bucket down into the fresh well of God’s resurrecting love; I will gladly accept the hospitality of God’s people; just as I promise to do my part to do the same for others.

That’s an easy promise to make; because I have come to trust this water; I have come to trust this oasis; and I have come to see that the only thing worth living for is the love found here; a love that is powerful enough to raise the dead to new life.

And in the Spirit of that love, I proclaim that He is risen!

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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