Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Final Say



Yesterday in the car I was theologically outmaneuvered by a 10 year old. It began with some offhanded, irreverent comments about death being bandied around the back seat, and me gently interjecting that death was serious, and not something to joke about.

One of them responded, “Why? What’s the big deal?”
And I said, “Because death is final; people don’t come back from that.”
At which point my doctrinally astute nephew piped up, “Not always. Sometimes people do come back from the dead. I mean, other than Jesus, even.”
He then went on to tell a detailed account of his preschool teacher, who, at one point in her life, had been a missionary in another country, teaching in a school, when a bomb went off, and she died. “And God brought her back from the dead. She even has scars on her head from it.” He cheerfully announced.
“Cool.” Owen declared.  
(And incidentally, I happen to know this was all true, having heard the same account from my sister years before, just after having met this very teacher at my nephew’s preschool). 

Before I could respond, they’d moved on to the kid from Heaven is for Real, who also came back from the dead, and from there things kind of barreled out of reach until the next thing I knew, my whole argument was pointless, and I sat helplessly listening as they reached some kind of comfortable conclusion about death’s non-finality because, Hey, sometimes people come back!

This letter to the Corinthians that we’ve been making our way through all summer is one of the earliest writings in the New Testament, dated a mere 25 years or so after Jesus’ death, and a good couple of decades before any of the gospels. But already, despite widely circulated letters and reports, established creedal statements, and shared hymns, and even despite still living people’s eye-witness accounts of the risen Jesus, this community of believers, in contrast to the kids in my car, were apparently already struggling with the idea of death’s non-finality.
What does it mean that Jesus came back from the dead? Was it “real?,” a physical resurrection of the physically dead Jesus? Or could it be some kind of spiritual resurrection? And what does that mean about us? What about our bodies and death and all that?

As Paul writes them a letter dealing with all manner of instructions and corrections about their faith and daily life together, he saves this part for last, as though to say, if you remember anything, you guys, remember this. This part is super important; the whole thing falls apart without it: Resurrection is real.  And it matters a lot that it’s real.

A few years back, a religious website, Patheos, would run a “100 word or less” feature around Easter. They’d ask a few people to answer something related to the Resurrection, in 100 words or less.
One year it was “Why do you need the Resurrection?” the next year it was, “Is the Resurrection for real?”

I’m not going to lie; Paul would have really struggled with the 100 words or less thing.  But these two questions are the very questions he spends this whole chapter of 1 Corinthians 15 answering.
So, to get us started with the second question first, I’ve taken the liberty of distilling Paul’s answer down to exactly 100 words – (all of them Paul’s). Here is Paul, from 1 Cor. 15:12-26, on the question, “Is the Resurrection for Real?”

If Christ has not been raised;
then our proclamation, and your faith, have been in vain.
If for this life only we have hoped in Christ,
we are, of all people, most to be pitied.
If Christ has not been raised,
your faith is futile,
you’re still in your sins,
and those who’ve died in Christ have perished. 
For since death came through a human being,
the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being;
for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.
The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

It matters that Jesus was raised from the dead, Paul says.
It means something that he was really raised, because he really died. 
His death was not figurative or conceptual; it was real. And that matters because we really die, more than a “spiritual” death.
Death also has a hold on us that is something beyond simply breathing our last. It has the power to separate, to destroy, to end. There is, indeed, a finality to it.

If I had been prepared to press the argument with my philosophical passengers I might have said, ‘Hey kids, guess what is the one thing all those resurrected people you were talking about have in common? You know, the ones who come back from the dead like Lazarus, and your preschool teacher, and the kid from Heaven is for Real… other than dying and coming back, I mean? Can you guess? They die again. Because we all do. That’s how it ends. Death gets us all eventually.’
Boom. Final word. (Who’s the smart one now, huh)?

We all die. And because we die, because death has such a hold over us, a figurative resurrection simply is not enough. Is the Resurrection for real?

Here, in 100 words, is my answer:

It had better be real.
As real as the contractions that ripped new life from my body.
As real as the rattle that strangled life out of his.
I’ve no use for a spiritual resurrection.
If Hope
for the drowned, damaged, disfigured, disowned,
is emotional ease,
if the pain of flesh and bones
is answered with mystical comfort,
if Guns are stronger than god,
then count me out.
But tell me that Death Loses,
tell me that Life Prevails,
and not in the abstract,
but in pulsing blood, flowing tears, thumping heart,
then the Resurrection
is Hope
for us all.

The Bible, and our Christian faith, is full of paradoxes – Jesus is both completely human and completely God, God is One God who is at the same time simultaneously Father, Son and Spirit. We are a vast variety of uncontrollably different people, and yet we are also somehow one body, suffering and rejoicing with each other.  And this biggie, that the Corinthians were having a hard time getting their head around: we die – our lives end, but also, death is not the end.

The paradox starts with something Paul wants us to recognize about death: Death is two different things at the same time. On the one hand, it is the inevitable and natural end of earthly life, the cessation of breathing and heartbeat and brain activity. Part of living on the earth means we die – this reality is shared by all creatures, plants animals and humans. That is one meaning of death.

But that is not the sting of death. The sting of death is sin. It is separation. Separation from God, separation from those we love, separation from our true connection and fullness, from all the beauty and joy of living, from the ongoing creativity and unfolding projects we are just in the middle of, from the time that isn’t long enough, and the relationships that are just getting going.  Separation, division, destruction.  

Sin means death reaches into all of life, wreaking havoc on the earth, inside us, between us. Death as separation brings anguish, despair and torment. It lurks in our weak and perishable bodies, clinging to our mortality and frailty, feeding our shame and judgment.
It preys on our fears, whispering that these things can keep us from one another, can keep us from God, can keep us from love, prevent us from being worthy of receiving love, or capable of giving love. From all that is real and good and true and essential to our being, sin gives death the authority to regularly, ultimately and permanently separate us.

But here is the good news, Paul says (in many, many words): Jesus Christ defeated death.
Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.
And then he says,
For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality…then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
   Where, O death, is your sting?’

Death doesn’t have the power to separate us forever – and the separation we experience now with death is frightening and real, but temporary and restricted, because resurrection exists in Christ’s body, and one day will in us too.

Christ has come from outside death, from the time when all will live, into this time when all will die. God has broken through that barrier of immortality and imperishability and taken onto Godself mortality and weakness, joining us inside this whole dying kind of living thing.
And now that that Christ has died, with us and for us, and has risen, bodily, from the dead, he brings us with him out of this time that all die, into the time when all live, the time of resurrection and new life. We perishable beings will put on imperishability; we mortal beings will put on immortality.
In the very, very end, life - unbroken connection to God and love and each other - is what triumphs. Death’s reign is broken, and our kids’ baptism mantra, that guarded them from nightmares in their younger years, is powerful and true, “Death can’t get me because Jesus has got me.

And it also means death as the natural part of living, when we wear out and stop breathing and being, in the way we understand being to be, while the end of our human journey here on earth, is simply a transition from one chapter to the next, a shift to the new way of being, moving us from the time that all die to the time when all live. Death dies, Life lasts. 
And this life after death is not hypothetical or spiritual, it is real and bodily and true, and it embraces and transforms the whole of us, not just some disembodied soul part that separates from the rest of us and floats off. And this eternal life is for more than just us; it is for the whole earth, the ravaged oceans and decimated mountains and flooded valleys.  It is for the stolen children and the grieving parents, and the abused generations and war-torn nations, the broken promises and broken hearts. In the very, very end all things will be redeemed and made new.

Biblical scholar Richard Carlson describes “…the ultimate theological question for Paul is not: “What happens to us when we die?” Rather, the ultimate theological question is, “Who has final say regarding the existence of everything in the cosmos, Death or God?” Paul’s answer is clear: At Christ’s [second coming] the final victory will belong to God as humanity marked by Christ will be raised; Christ will destroy all that stands in opposition to God; and Christ will hand over everything he has liberated back to God so that God will be the everything in everything (1 Corinthians 15:24-28). 

God has the final say.  Not death; Life.  And if that is true, and we are banking it all on the trust that it is, then thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

Because nothing is futile or wasted, nothing is hopeless or lost. 
All the things that separate and divide, degrade and destroy, their power is temporary; their end is ensured. But every act, and word, and prayer, and thought, that comes from love, returns to love. It is part of what endures forever.  Every moment of forgiveness and connection, every building up and reaching out, each experience of devotion and care remains eternally, because love never fails.
So Paul’s words to the Corinthians are to us too: Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

The true hope of death’s non-finality, is not that some people here and there might escape death to come back for a few more years before succumbing again. (sorry, kids).
And it’s not that we have cracked the mystery of what happens after each of us dies, or have been given a spiritual comfort in figurative ideas to get us through life. 
The hope of the resurrection is that the question of who has the final say over the whole cosmos has been settled, once and for all.  And nothing matters more than that.

So, why do I need the resurrection? Here’s my 100-word answer:
I need the Resurrection
because this week
my foster niece came back with a broken arm,
and last night my daughter learned
that not all Amber Alerts have happy endings.
I need the Resurrection
because Marty’s on his way and we can’t stop it,
and little Omran’s brother didn’t survive the blast after all.
Because I’ve detonated rage
and watched their sweet faces harden and close to me. 
Because evil is pervasive
and I participate.
I need the Resurrection
because it promises
that in the end
all wrongs are made right.
Death loses.
Hope triumphs.
And Life and Love
Prevail.

And here, in 100 words, from his letter to the Romans (8:31-40), is Paul’s answer:

What then are we to say about these things?
If God is for us, who’s against us?
Who will separate us from the love of Christ?
Will hardship, distress, persecution?
Will famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
No, in all these things
we are more than conquerors
through him who loved us.
For I’m convinced
that neither death, nor life,
nor angels, nor rulers,
nor things present, nor things to come,
nor powers,
nor height, nor depth,
nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us
from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 


Amen.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Persons Alongside (and how it happens)



1 Corinthians 12:12-13:13 (or this excellent paraphrase: 12:12-31 and 13:1-13)

This week my mom asked me to stop talking to her about politics.  
To be honest, she’s been asking me to stop for a while, and I’ve just kept doing it, sending her articles, forwarding her things. I wanted to connect with her, to bring her to a place where we’d see things the same way (my way) and agree, and we’d commiserate, and laugh, and it would feel easy and peaceful. 
We didn’t come to that place.

Instead she wrote me a three page letter describing why she believes what she does, and respectfully asking me to back off and please respect her.  
It was humbling to receive.  
Because we are not going to agree. Maybe ever. And there will always be points in her beliefs or her reasoning that I will want to say,’ But wait…” But that’s not quite true…!” But have you considered…?” but in the midst of this argument, I got arrogant, and proud, and irritable and maybe a little bit rude.  
And I stopped seeing her as a person, quite apart from me and her role in my life, a separate person with fears and hopes and experiences that have shaped her beliefs and made her see the world and live her life in her own particular way, just like my fears and hopes and experiences have shaped my beliefs and the way I see and live in the world.  

She gets to be herself – with all her gifts and perspectives and impact in the world, and I get to be myself with all of mine - and nevertheless we are connected – both as mother and daughter, and in the Body of Christ.  
And while in many ways I don’t understand her, and she doesn’t understand me, I am grateful she had the courage to both confront me, and to share her story with me. 
And I love her. Not always well, but I do.

What is love? How do we do it? Especially when things feel complicated and confusing?
Paul tells us all sorts of things love is. And most of the time that we hear his list we either make it a mushy and weddingy ideal, or if we take it seriously, it makes us feel terribly guilty and inadequate and notice how poorly we love.

But take comfort, friends, remember, Paul isn’t writing this to perfect people. They are in trouble. In fact, they are currently all the things he says love isn’t – arrogant, proud, comparing themselves to each other, keeping a list of wrongdoing, envious, jealous, insisting on their own way, celebrating each other’s failures, name-calling, bragging, you name it, (and actually, Paul does).  And he says, love – which is everything, is none of these things.

And then, quite apart from our understanding of it as schmaltz or martyrdom, Paul describes love as something that exists outside of us. Love is something we receive, something that lives through us. Actually, love is a gift – like all these other gifts he just got finished talking about-  a gift from the God of Love who Loved so much as to join us fully in life and death.  Love belongs to God, and comes from God, and returns to God, and God shares it with us. 

This means that it isn’t about our ability to continue feeling all loving towards each other. Or even our ability to have pure motives all of the time, to keep arrogance out of the picture, or stay clear of irritability and resentment.   It isn’t about being people without a single self-righteous thought in our head or petty frustrations in our interactions.  And it isn’t about quietly striving to bear all things and forgive all things and endure all things until we are all used up and dried out and nothing at all.  We can’t conjure love, or achieve love or work hard enough to produce it.

But how do we do it, then?  Love is something we receive, but it’s also a verb. 
What does it mean to love?
We usually take 1 Corinthians 13 on its own, it’s even referred to as “the love chapter”, but it is Paul’s direct explanation for how people so diverse and varied, with so many different backgrounds and perspectives and experiences and gifts and abilities – live together as One.  Love is how the Body of Christ works.

So first, he says two important things that about what it means to be the Body of Christ. The first one is: we are connected. 
We are One Body.  This is God’s body, and you and I are a part of it because God had put this body together as God sees fit.
God has chosen to connect us to each other and we are connected, period. Even when we don’t act like it, even if we pretend we aren’t, even if we disown one another, we cannot truly detach parts of the body and decide they don’t belong or contribute, or that they don’t impact us and that we are not in some way dependent upon each other.  We are.

Whether we like it or not we are inseparably attached. Even when we feel desperately isolated, or treat others that way, we are not alone.  We are part of the same body, connected as tissue and blood, suffering when others suffer, carrying the shame of dehumanizing words or actions done to or by another, bearing each other’s sadness and grief, celebrating when there is joy in each other’s lives.  Because we are part of the One Body we belong to each other. We are connected.

The second thing Paul wants them to understand about the Body of Christ is: we are all different. 
And we are meant to be! We bring different gifts and perspectives, different interests and passions, different pain and loss, growth and new life. We need each other; we need people radically different than we are.  
We can’t and shouldn’t all be alike, like a pile of identical disembodied parts –that is no-body instead of a one-body. We only make sense if we are not the same.

That means that we each need to be who we are. 
We need to be completely ourselves, to own our own stories and shortcomings, longings and quirks. The way we play our role in this big picture is by bravely living who each one of us is distinctly called to be. Parker Palmer has said, “The deepest vocational question is not ‘What ought I to do with my life?’ It is the more elemental and demanding, ‘Who am I? What is my nature?’ True vocation joins self and service in the deep joy of knowing that we are here on earth to be the gifts that God created.”

Jesus meets us as we are, and takes all these different people and makes us One.  
We are broken, like the rest of the world, we are selfish and self-righteous and broken. 
But Christ enters our brokenness: the places where we are torn apart, paralyzed by fear or failure, divided from each other and our own selves. Christ enters our brokenness, and becomes the body broken for us, so that we may be whole, joined together in love.  
All connected, completely ourselves.

And Paul is saying that the potential exists – and one day will be fully realized – for our differences to strengthen the body, for the image of God to be lived in fullness, fully embodied, and for the body to function at its peak: alive, healthy, vital, each part singing its own contribution, in the harmony of the Spirit of God. 

We are to bravely live out this all connected and completely ourselves reality.  And the only way we do that is through love.  Without that, nothing works. Nothing else we try to do or say matters or lasts.

So often we see each other as stereotypes or functions, role models or rivals, two dimensional figures to like or dislike, fear or forget.  
But these people around us, beside, us, in front of us every day, are broken and beautiful, both just like me and mystifyingly different than me. 
They each have unique gifts and voices and whole worlds of pain and hope and lived experiences behind their beliefs and actions, just like we do.
Love invites us to be people, alongside other people; that’s where Jesus is.

There is this guy, Benjamin Mathis, who goes around setting up a “free listening” table, and he sits and listens to people. Just listens.  When he finds himself across from someone he disagrees with, he tries to see the person behind the belief – to hear “the biography rather than the ideology,” by asking,
 “Will you tell me your story?  I’d love to know how you came to this point of view.”

He tells this story:

She was just staring at me. 
She had something to say, and I could tell she was curious about the Free Listening sign, but she didn’t seem to have to courage to speak to me.
Yet.
So, I waited. Nowhere to be, and all day to get there.
Finally, she walked up, and like a young warrior preparing for battle, she said:
 “I don’t usually do this, and I know this isn’t a hot button topic anymore… But, I think abortion is wrong. It’s not a form of birth control, and people who have them should be arrested for murder." 

He continues: “… I wanted to stop her, and tell her my story. 
I’ve sat with two loved ones as they suffered through the difficult decision and consequences of ending a pregnancy. It was a brutal human experience, and gave me an insight to something I never expected to witness. 
In moments like that, “choice” doesn’t seem to be the right word.
So, when she told me they should be arrested for terminating a pregnancy, the familiar burn of disagreement started to fire in me.
There were so many things I wanted to say. I wanted to change her mind, to argue, to disagree. It’s a natural response.   
But, if my story brought me to my beliefs, then I needed to know how her story brought her to her beliefs.
  
So, I asked:
“Thank you for sharing that. Tell me your story? I’d love to know how you came to this point of view.”
She seemed surprised by my interest.
“Why? It doesn’t matter. Your sign said Free Listening, so I gave you something to listen to.”
“Give me more to listen to.”
“They should be locked up! It’s wrong. It’s not right to go out and sleep with whoever, then just vacuum away the result like it never happened.”
She paused…then inhaled the entire world.
“And it’s not fair. All I’ve ever wanted to be is a mom. My whole life, I knew I was meant to have children. Then, when I was 18—18!—the doctor told me I’d never have children. My ovaries were damaged, or missing...it doesn’t matter which. I kept it a secret, and when my husband found out, he left me. I’m alone, my body doesn’t work, I’m old…who will ever love me…”
I wondered if she could hear my heart breaking.
“…so, I guess I get upset when I see people who can get pregnant, who can have kids, who’s bodies work…who can be moms…and they just choose not to…”
Sometimes, there’s nothing to “disagree” with.
I didn’t need to be right.  
I just needed to be there.
She wiped away a few tears, gave me a hug, and thanked me for listening.
She exhaled, and walked [away].
Maybe one day, she’ll hear my story.  But today, it was my turn to hear hers.
I hope she felt loved.

When we love, we break through the divisive, defensive veneer and we touch the real; we taste the Kingdom of God, where we belong to God and we belong to each other.  We bear witness that God is constantly moving things from death to life, from despair to hope, from isolation to connection.

But it isn’t about trying to love, making yourself love, or feeling badly for how badly you love – that just makes you into a two-dimensional role, a success or a failure. 
Loving is about being fully a person: loved, and made to share love. It is joining in what God is already doing.

So because love is forgiving I can forgive.
Bcause love is kind I can risk kindness. 
Because love is patient I can stop, and see you, and take a breath, and be patient with myself. 

 And when I keep a record of wrongs, when I am arrogant or filled with envy – that very fact drives me back towards love, which tells me, promises me, that these things fade away and love remains.  

Our imperfect love doesn’t mean love isn’t real – instead it shows how real love is. 
So dimly we see, so faintly we taste! – but it is enough to tell us there is so much more!
The faith is that love endures, the hope is that love remains.

So we can can say I love, forgive me my selfishness, I love, free me from my envy and my arrogance, I love, heal me of my hatred and my jealousy. I love, I love, I love! 

These things have no place in love, and yet love has a place in me, claims me, clings to me, and I love, even with these things staring me in the face, I love.  I can love because I am loved- I can love, can dip my toe in and dive in with all my unlove because there is love, because it doesn’t depend on me or come from me; it holds me and fills me and draws me in deeper and braver.

This is how God made it to work, made us to work.  Underneath all the fear and distrust, below the noise and the competition, behind all the various gifts and contributions and identities, within all the different experiences and beliefs and stories, are unique persons, all connected, each completely ourselves.

The Body of Christ is the alternative community that embodies this reality.  
And what makes it possible, what fills it, and heals it, and fuels it, and spreads it, is love - our origin and destiny; everlasting and unbreakable, fearless, selfless, believes all, hopes all, endures all, LOVE.

So let’s live it.

Amen.