Mystery. Mystery, hope, and resurrection. If I were ever assigned to write a sermon on a topic as dense and impenetrable, as baffling and as dumbfounding as the resurrection, I would not know where to begin. So, why did I choose to write a sermon on a topic as impossible as the resurrection? It’s a mystery. And so, I guess, that’s the place to begin.
The physical resurrection of the body after death– any body, any death– that’s beyond me. Believe it? Find a way to believe it? I’m sorry. I can twist myself in all kinds of ways in an attempt to understand, to make sense of, to believe in a resurrection, but, in the end, I have to say “no,” I can’t buy it.
I attended a liberal Christian theological school in Newton, a suburb of Boston in Massachusetts. Half of the students called the United Church of Christ their denominational home. The next most populous denominations were Unitarian Universalists and Baptists in almost equal numbers– but we were very different in our belief systems, of course.
Still, it was possible to make friendships across these kinds of divisions, to tell stories, to enjoy laughter and fellowship. And I had such a friendship with a Baptist student, African American, living in one of the Boston neighborhoods. We could talk about any number of things, theology included, but when it came to the resurrection, we were at an impasse.
Lee said that yes, he believed in the resurrection of Jesus, body and spirit, and held that that belief was central to his faith and held within it the promise of his salvation. I asked him where in physical space and time Jesus was lodged in the period between his resurrection on Easter Sunday and his return to Earth, mistaken for a gardener by the apostles sometime later. Lee had no answer for me. I don’t think he’d ever asked himself the question before.
Perhaps I am too literal, but if I am to make sense of such an outlandish concept as the physical resurrection of the body after death, there has to be some logic for me to hang my belief on, and I could find none and he could provide none.
But, crucifixion, that is believable enough. I have no trouble believing in the ability of men to do vicious and brutal and painful and destructive things to one another. I see it documented in every newspaper every day. At the Jamaica Plain Unitarian Universalist Church, we held a Good Friday evening Tenebrae service every year. We shared stories of modern day crucifixions, stories that we found in the popular press. Sometimes, we told stories from our own lives.
In my capacity as a case worker with homeless persons, I found no shortage of such stories. We each read a story, then extinguished the candle that had provided our reading light. The minister concluded the readings with the scriptural story of Christ’s last words on the cross. He then extinguished the last light. The sanctuary was left in darkness.
There was power in the stories and power in the darkness. We left the sanctuary in silence to ruminate on the meaning of these crucifixion stories and the redemption that would come with the return of the light on Easter morning. Good Friday affected me more deeply than Easter Sunday. I had no trouble believing in the reality of pain and suffering.[sounding the bell of mindfulness]
Do you know the Latin playwright Terence? Publius Terentius Afer. He was a North African, captured and enslaved, educated by a Roman Senator who freed him, impressed with his abilities. “I am a human being,” he said. “Nothing human is alien to me.” He also said “You believe that easily which you hope for earnestly.”
That may be cynical, but that’s where I seem to land these days when contemplating what resurrection means, resurrection of the body, resurrection as a miracle. There are other ways of understanding resurrection, though, especially for Unitarian Universalists who believe in the interdependent web of existence.
Have you ever felt hopeless? Have you ever felt that your spirit had been crushed and there did not seem any way to revive it, to bring it back to health? What do you do at such a time? You meditate, maybe. Or maybe not. Do you pray? Do you reach out for help in desperation because you don’t know where else to go, who else to talk to?
When that happens to me, and it’s happened to me during my time here in Bowling Green, I don’t have any quick answers, no miracle cures, no recipe for resurrection. I seek out friends and unburden myself to the extent that I can. But, friendships with folks at church are tricky, there can be so many layers to our relationships. So, sometimes, I have to seek out someone else to talk to, to confide in.
Would it surprise you to know that Christian ministers in this town have played that role for me? That we can sit down for fellowship and conversation, that the light surface talk can give way to a deeper connection through a crack in the surface of the personality that opens up just enough to let the light of love and concern from another to seep through? It can happen if you’re desperate enough and if you allow yourself to trust enough.
And there is the blissful feeling of the balm of relief when someone listens carefully, looks you in the eye, assures you that he cares for you, asks if he can pray for you and you say “yes,” and allow the human connection to form through the veils that ideology might otherwise impose. There is a shift from discouragement to hope when you allow yourself to go deep enough to make that human connection. It’s the shift of understanding from “Jesus died to redeem you from your sins” to “Jesus is willing to suffer with you.”[sounding the bell of mindfulness]
One of our members who identifies herself as a UU Christian gave me an essay last week entitled “Resurrection as a Spiritual Practice.” The authors are Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat. They recount a story told by the Catholic writer Megan McKenna, who says “Once in a parish mission when I was studying this scripture (Luke 7:11-17) with a large group, someone called out harshly, ‘Have you ever brought someone back from the dead?’”
Her response was “Yes.” “Every time I bring hope into a situation, every time I bring joy that shatters despair, every time I forgive others and give them back dignity and the possibility of a future with me and others in the community, every time I listen to others and affirm them and their life, every time I speak the truth in public, every time I confront injustice– yes– I bring people back from the dead.”
I don’t know if that kind of symbolic language of life-giving service resonates with you. I know that there are social workers in this congregation, and teachers of young children and high-school-age children and young adults and older adults, and there are doctors and nurses and others in the caregiving professions, and I bet that every one of you has at least one story of providing life-affirming, life-giving counsel to another person in their time of need. I don’t know if you have considered it as raising those you work with from the dead, but if someone is in the grip of despair, it can feel to them that they would just as soon be dead.
A gentleman I have never met called me last week to arrange a time to meet. As we spoke on the phone, I asked if he were feeling depressed. He indicated that it made no difference to him whether he lived or died. And when we met– well, it was a privileged conversation. I’ll just say this: when he thought about the things that kept him on the path of life, they were on the order of “What would so and so do without me to care for him?” Service. Care for another. Sometimes, it’s the only thing that keeps us going.[sounding the bell of mindfulness]
“Every time I bring hope into a situation,” Megan McKenna says, “I bring people back from the dead.” Desmond Tutu says “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” One of the names given to Jesus is “the light of the world.” In the book of John, Jesus says “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
Do you think that Jesus is claiming an ideology that will accept some people and shut out others? Or is he offering a path out of darkness through the promise of being there for you when things look bleak and there seems to be no light to be found? When he says “I am the light of the world,” can it be that he means deep listening and caring and showing compassion is what will give you hope and light in your time of darkness?
Think of a time when you have felt alone. When it seemed certain that there was no possibility of a good outcome to the situation you found yourself in, a time when you felt abandoned in your aloneness. What was it that pulled you through? Did you pull through? Or do you still carry as a burden the labels that were placed on you, the words that made you question your worth, that made you doubt yourself, that offered despair when it was hope that you needed?
Now think of a time that you provided a way out for someone, a time when you provided solace, perhaps through sacrificing something cherished of your own– your time, your daily rituals, your peace of mind, your money, your status, your self-image. Have you been the vehicle for a kind of resurrection? Have you provided light when the world seemed full of darkness to another? Are you in need of resurrection? Can you be the vehicle for the resurrection of the spirit of another?
Vaclav Havel, the writer, dissident and former President of Czechoslovakia, says that “Hope is… not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” That’s profound, is it not? We need things to make sense. When we are trapped in the darkness, if we have reached some degree of maturity in our spiritual development, we don’t need assurance, necessarily, that everything will turn out fine; we seekers after purpose and meaning just need to know that things will make sense. There is hope enough in that.[sounding the bell of mindfulness]
On Friday at noon, I attended the ecumenical Good Friday service held at St. James United Methodist Church here in Bowling Green. I arrived just before the service was to start and nodded “hello” to some of the ministers standing in the narthex waiting to enter in procession. I made my way to a pew eight or so rows from the front and as the ministers processed, I said to myself the names of each one I knew (and that was most of them). In most cases, warm feelings arose from my past associations with them. It kind of surprised me, to tell you the truth.
There were six homilies of five to six minutes each and three hymns which felt utterly foreign to me. Two of the preachers were women. That is something new and quite different from the situation when I came to town just five and a half years ago. I did not expect all six homilies to be effective, to be moving, to be meaningful, and they were not– to me, at least. But, four were. And that’s pretty impressive.
They were effective, for the most part, because there was a personal dimension. Megan Huston talked about the role of her mother in her life and how she felt supported in all her life choices, no matter how outlandish they might have seemed at the time, from childhood to adulthood. She spoke about what it means to be loved unconditionally, how freeing, how liberating that is. And she testified that that is how she experiences God’s love for her through the self-sacrifice of Jesus.
Cindy Bright of State Street United Methodist Church told of family stories, revealing her own vulnerabilities. Weston Williams of the Bowling Green Christian Church told of his struggle as a boy growing into manhood to see similarities between himself and Jesus. In what ways was he like Jesus? It wasn’t very easy to tell. And Michael Nasser of Holy Apostles Orthodox Church spoke also on the theme of Calvary, of the path to redemption through finding meaning in suffering.
When the offertory plate came around, I felt that I had been fed spiritually and had no hesitation in dropping in twice what I had planned– the collection was split between organizations who do good work in town, Habitat for Humanity and HOTEL INC, organizations who serve those on the margins, the ones whom Jesus reached out to include.
At the heart of the resurrection story is hope– hope in the life-saving message of Jesus of Nazareth, the hope that comes from the assurance that even when things look most bleak, there is one who loves you, one who cannot help but love you because there is one whose nature is love. And you can rest assured that there is meaning in that.
If you have been coming to our early service– or if you have come to other services where we’ve explored the Buddhist tradition, you will recognize that the Buddhist message is both very different and quite similar to the message offered by Christ. The Buddha’s last words to his disciples, his bikkhus, were “Be ye lights unto yourselves.”
In other words, you don’t need to look outside yourself for salvation. Salvation will make itself clear to you when you settle as deeply into yourself as is possible, past the worldly concerns of pain and pleasure into a state where only the present moment resides. And the nature of the present moment is love, because love is at the core of all that is. All of creation, interdependent in its co-arising as it is, is the product of love, love of being, love of life, love in its purest essence.
The astronaut Neil Armstrong said, “Mystery creates wonder, and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.” We all emerged from mystery: no one can say who we were before we were born or where. No one can say where we go when we die. Our beginnings and our endings are shrouded in mystery. Our purpose and our meaning are ours to determine. The place of careful listening, active caring, practiced compassion, this is the place where the human intersects with the divine. This is the meaning of the cross.
I’m going to close with this poem from Wendell Berry. It’s called “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”* and its final line is “Practice resurrection.”
*(Due to copyright restrictions, the poem is available through the link.)
- Wikipedia: “Terence.”
- www. goodreads.com: “Quotes About Resurrection”
- www. brainy quote.com: “Hope quotes;” “Resurrection quotes;” “Mystery quotes.”
- www. bible gateway.com: John 8:12
- www. kencollins.com: Glossary