Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Unthinkable Alternative (aka., A Resurrected God)


fancy meeting you here!


A week ago a few of us from the congregation went to see a Passion play.  It was the story of the end of Jesus’ life and his death and resurrection told again with special emphasis on the relationship between Judas and Jesus.  And it went through all the well known and familiar scenes – the last supper, Jesus praying in the garden and the disciples falling asleep, the trial scene and finally, it came to the cross. 
And for several grueling minutes three characters writhed on beams of wood and fake died.  The thief asked Jesus for mercy, Jesus got thirsty, he cried out, he forgave them, yada, yada, the whole nine yards until he breathed his last.  They took him off the cross and carried him away. 
Then the scene switched to his disciples gathered in fear and hiding, grieving that he was gone, and believing it was all over.  And suddenly Mary comes running to them and makes her pronouncement.  His body is not there.

And it struck me, where was the Resurrection?
Where ever is the Resurrection?
Have you ever found the Resurrection depicted in any form of art?  Empty tomb – sure.  Angels sitting beside the discarded (and neatly folded) grave clothes? Absolutely. 
A perfectly clean and coifed Jesus in the garden near the gaping hole? Of course! There are even paintings with the Risen Lord standing with one hand still inside the tomb wall and one foot gracefully stepping out into the sunlight, if you really search for them.
 But the moment of resurrection itself… have you ever seen it in any painting, movie, play, storybook, anywhere?

All the gospels spell out the details of Jesus’ death in vivid, sometimes gruesome, detail.  We even push them all together and make a service- the seven last words, and walk step by step through his last days hours, minutes, as life leaves his body.  There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Jesus has died, and is not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead.

But there is nothing in the story that tells us anything about the resurrection. We can’t see it, we’ve never heard about it, there are no details at all to help us picture how it happens, what it even is.  The particulars are simply not there.

Frederick Buechner says, “It has always struck me as remarkable that when the writers of the four Gospels come to the most important part of the story they have to tell, they tell it in whispers. The part I mean, of course, is the part about the resurrection.”

They peer in and the tomb is empty. His body is gone, and they don’t know what to make of it.  There is no hope in this discovery, it doesn’t mean anything, really, it’s simply confusion. Complication.  Aggravation of the death that has already occurred.  It’s sadness and fear and frustration.
Death is still death, and as far as they know, still permanent.  So the question becomes, what has occurred to remove the body, to upset the ending?  Even when they see the grave clothes lying there tidily arranged, they still return to sad and fearful hiding with the others, because, let’s face it, what we’re about to say has happened is simply impossible.

So we have no framework for grasping this, and no help in picturing it.  How do we see resurrection?  What does it look like when life returns to dead flesh? What is the sound of breath filling empty lungs? What happens when eyes sealed closed forever spring open, and rigid, cold limbs stretch and move, warm and limber? When color and voice and presence infuse body already beginning decay?

We barely dare imagine it.  To be honest, it feels almost sacrilegious to let our minds wander to what might happen if the final period is removed from the sentence.  In this world, with our death-defying surgeries and serums,
and our immortality-hungry consumption of things and power
and the utter tragedy of heart-wrenching loss when a loved one passes away
and defeated sense of horror when a rain-drenched village washes away
and the shock of realization and reminder - when we see that favorite movie star looking terribly old and hear about that brilliant leader battling cancer - that death comes for us all, it would be near blasphemy to take the name of death in vain; too insane, disrespectful, even, to suggest that it might not be the last word.
Death, as awful as it is, we can accept.

Resurrection? Utterly unthinkable.  Defies even the wildest imagination, we wouldn’t even know how to wish for it.
What could resurrection possibly look like?  Sound like, smell like? 

Mary could speak to this.  She has a resurrection story. Because she meets the Risen Lord.  She comes face to face with Christ Jesus whom the tomb could not hold hostage, whom death could not defeat, the force that brought life into being way back in the very very beginning and who will take us to the feast in the very very end, and who in the middle shares life with us just as one of us.  And when she does, by the way, she thinks he is the gardener.  Because she doesn’t have room for resurrection either. 
No room in the inn for a God born among us.  No space in our reality for a Risen Lord. 
It simply isn’t done.
But when he speaks her name, she recognizes the living Christ.
And then she knows resurrection. Because it happens to her, within her.  And when she finds the others she doesn’t go about spouting belief in resurrection.  She merely says, breathlessly and truly, “I have seen my Lord.”

Death is universal. We recognize it immediately because it looks the same for all of us.  When it’s over, it’s over.  When a body breathes its last.  When a door closes for good.  When the choice can’t be unmade and the marriage can’t be salvaged and the words can’t be unsaid.  When a home is burned to the ground and the machines are turned off and the pastor sprinkles the dirt over the casket, ashes to ashes. Done. Gone. Finished.   
Death feels heavy, cold and final,
it tastes like salty tears,
and smells like decay,
and sounds like wailing, or the emptiness of a silent house.
Death is unmistakable. Death is universal.

But resurrection? That’s personal.  
And it comes a million different ways and looks like a million different things because it happens for all of us differently.  The way we each need it.
Resurrection is your story now, and mine.  It was Mary’s when her once-dead savior spoke her name.  And then Thomas’ – when Jesus met him in his doubt and invited him to touched his scarred hands and put his own hand in his side.  And it was the disciples’ in their longing on the road to Emmaus, whose hearts burned within them when they heard the words the Risen Jesus was saying to them.  
We can’t tell you or show you or even imagine for you what resurrection looks like.  All we can do is ask, you, How does the Resurrected One meet you? 
Which is also to say, first, What places within you have died? Where have you lost all hope? Where has death prevailed, leaving no room for the unthinkable? That life would invade? That hope would emerge? 
Because those are the places this God goes to. 
This is the one who meets us there and brings life out of death.

In some ways, our faith would be far easier if it ended at the cross.   We’ve got that part of the story down pat, anyway.  Then Jesus could just be a great teacher, a martyr for love, an example of justice, a witness of peace.  We could package the religion and hand it out freely (or for a price) and consume it with confidence, and rest easy at night because we would know what we were getting – at least for the most part.

Death we can explain. We can’t control when it comes or how, but we can measure our response – it can be met with dignity and decorum, because if nothing else, it’s comfortingly final. No unexpected twists once we’ve crossed that hurdle.  We can write the eulogy and tell the story and the ending is complete.

But a resurrected God?  Heavens! Who knows what could happen! How does God appear now?  Where?  What rules will God break next in God’s persistent pursuit of love?  This thing could go on forever!
A Risen Lord is  dangerous.  Unpredictable.  
A Resurrected God means Jesus Christ could meet us anywhere.  In anyone.  At any time.  A simple conversation, and Jesus could be standing before our eyes. 
Hold someone in their grief and Jesus is felt in that embrace. 
Speak for someone with no voice and you’re hearing the Christ. 
When that friend brings a meal in your hunger and that sister sheds tears in your brokenness and that unexpected person ends up hand-in-hand alongside you in your time of upheaval, the incarnate one who shares our life and suffers our death and who is- for us all- the Resurrection and the Life is right there. 

It’s messy.  It’s unpredictable. It doesn’t abide by the rules, this God who dies and is resurrected thing.  It’s certainly not a neat and orderly religion that we can wield as we’d like and put to bed when we’re finished with it.   Instead, it breeds the uneasiness of indicating that it seems not to be finished with us.
It’s encountering a living God.  It’s life, infusing our days in our moments, our world, making people whole, breaking down barriers, bringing forgiveness, healing, hope, even when it’s inconvenient.  And maybe we’re not as comfortable with a God who upsets expectations and shows up wherever God wants.

This is our God. This one who comes bleary-eyed out of death and meets his beloved friend in the garden and calls her by name. This is our God – who creates and draws near and then joins and shares and suffers and loves and weeps and eats and sleeps and walks with us in it, and is so damn relentlessly for us that death itself cannot hold God back from us.

Resurrection can’t be depicted or directed, it can’t be made mundane or universal, watered down and divvied out, printed on greeting cards or bumper stickers or even in works of art in galleries, because it’s not an idea we get to grasp.  It happens to you.

It’s the kind of thing you whisper. Or keep to yourself. Or can’t keep to yourself. It has power. Because it’s personal.  It’s spoken of less in the hypothetical or the doctrinal, like, “resurrection is…” and more in the first person, like, “I have seen the Lord.” 
When the Resurrected One calls your name,
when your heart burns within you,
when you have that run-in with life itself,
when the light of the world shines in your darkness,
you have seen the Lord.
 And perhaps it feels like your heart being healed,
or looks like love on the face of another
or tastes like freshness and forgiveness, undeserved grace and unearned adoration,
or sounds like being known.

And probably it means we have to sacrifice comfortable resignation for the risky and painful alternative: hope.
And it just might be that we don’t get to give up on love, because in fact it outlasts hate. 
And it seems to suggest that even the smallest signs of life should be noticed and nurtured, because astonishingly, the enduring force is not, after all, death, but instead it is Life, abundant and full. 

The tomb is empty, Christ is Risen.
God could be anywhere!
Anything could happen.
Amen.




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