Sunday, April 01, 2018

Resurrection Surprise

Something gets us to church on Easter Day.  I’ve always been quite thankful and not a little moved to see people appear on Easter that rarely if ever come any other time. Far from disparaging that, I think it is wonderful, and if you’re one who is rarely here, know that the doors of this building and the doors of our hearts are flung wide open for you. You’re at home here, though it might feel ever so unlike any “home” you’re used to or that you long for.

I suppose that for all of us, Easter is important because it’s the Day of the Lord’s Resurrection. And so it is. But how many of us know that the resurrection we are celebrating is not only past and future, but also present? Let that sink in. Easter is not just about something that happened to Jesus once upon a time. Nor is it about a future life you have in a heaven when you die, however true both of those things might be. Easter—resurrection—is something that is built into the fabric of the universe. Resurrection is something as close to you as your arm or your body hair or your breath or your heart. It doesn’t depend on whether you understand it or believe it or whether you can prove it or photograph it, no more than do the laws of gravity and thermodynamics.

Waccamaw River, Conway, SC
Native Americans gave it the name meaning "Dark Waters"
Let me tell you what I mean—with a story. I grew up near the ocean in South Carolina. At a very early age—as far back as I can remember—I learned to be respectful of the ocean. But there’s a fine line between respect and fear. It didn’t take me long before I had gulped down enough salt water from big waves breaking over my little body that I developed a fear of drowning. I heard stories now and again of persons drowning along the shore. All of that reinforced a firm fear of water, so much so that I went all the way through childhood without learning to swim. It didn’t help matters much that the river that ran through my hometown was inky dark. Peering into it was gazing into a mystery. I wasn’t about to go to the river to learn to swim. And forget swimming pools. Only a few wealthy people had one at all, and there were no public pools around. By the time I was in Boy Scouts at age 11, I was embarrassed to be one of the few kids my age who could not swim. The longer I put it off, the more fearful I became. Jumping off the pier and into the lake at scout camp was like an act of sure suicide.
A firm fear of the ocean kept me from going deep.

Fortunately, there was an older lad there who was a gentle and good teacher. He met me where I was, helped me overcome my fear of water, and taught me the side stroke that seemed far less intimidating than the crawl. Before my first week at camp was over, I’d learned to swim. And the most important thing I learned was how not to fight the water but how to work with the water so that the water would work for me. Water became not my enemy to be feared and resisted, but my friend.

Think of resurrection as, like water to the swimmer, surrounding us all the time. Think of it as part and parcel of the environment in which we live. Think of it as a Presence upholding us, whether we are aware of it or not. You might have in your life something you do or some place you go where you feel completely at home. Say it’s a golf course or your kitchen. You are used to going there, you are drawn to what you do, so much so that it has become a part of you. You don’t even have to think twice about how to get there or what to do when you return to a favorite pastime or task. You’re a natural at it, because your nature—your soul—deeply loves what you do or where you are. To take the analogy a bit further, you know that, though you may love golf and be ever so good at it, you can still be frustrated by the put you missed sinking by 1”, or how the new club you spent too much money hasn’t really improved your drives. And sometimes, if your soul’s shelter is the kitchen, though you’ve been doing it for 60 years, still every once in awhile a cake will flop for no good reason. So it is with the life called “resurrection.” It is indeed a life to be lived, and no life that is alive is without challenges and opportunities to grow.

Jesus’ whole life was a resurrection. Every time he uttered a liberating word to a peasant, or fed a hungry belly, or laid his healing hand on a sick person, or shared a meal with outcasts he was rolling away big heavy stones, crashing through the walls of tombs in which human dignity and potential are stifled to death, raising up even the lowliest things and people, dejected and despised, bringing them to light and life. When he entered the temple on Monday of Holy Week and cleared out the money changers and their animals, he was taking on the powers of death and hell quite literally—the powers that colluded with the strength of empire to squeeze the vulnerable and powerless. Resurrection is not all sweetness and soft landings, especially not for those who arrogate to themselves the control of people, the right to despoil the planet, the leeway to trample on justice for the poor and the weak.

Edward Knippers, "Crowning with Thorns"
Jesus constantly asked his disciples and potential disciples to follow him. Follow him. Live like him. Behave like him. Trust like him. Give as he gave. Exercise some courage! And that is why resurrection is inseparable from the cross. Taking up the cross is what one can only do by the power of resurrection, and taking up the cross and following Jesus will most assuredly involve suffering. When you step out courageously and differentiate yourself from your family and closest friends who assume that if you love them you’ll think like them and value what they do, don’t expect that they will applaud you for leaving the familiar and striking out into new territory, especially if it is territory that they find frightening or worse. You might never hang on two 
pieces of wood or have nails driven through your wrists, but you’ll get a taste of loneliness and perhaps even have your moments when you’ll wonder, “My God, my God, why, why, why have you forsaken me?” But that is what following Jesus entails. And that is what living resurrection is: it is following him.

Then does resurrection have nothing to do with going to heaven? Of course it does! The trouble is, we have located “heaven” both in the future and in some other world than this. Heaven is where God is. And God is everywhere. Heaven is not the future; heaven is eternal, and therefore outside of time, and therefore eternally “present” we might say. So to be with God is inseparable from living in the resurrection. And living in the resurrection is inseparable from being engaged in God’s justice, God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness, and God’s love.

Down under and back up again
Now here is the best kept secret of Easter. Your life in the resurrection began when you were baptized. Careful now! That is not to say that somebody who isn’t baptized has no crack at living the resurrection, an idea that is demonstrably untrue. Rather, our baptism in the Trinity is, like my experience with swimming, the first time we plunged into the water, so to say. It doesn’t depend on how old we were, or how smart we were, or how much we did or didn’t understand. It was a gift, as life itself is a gift. And the gift only works for us when we unwrap it, open it, and enjoy it.

When you forget everything else about baptism, remember this: it is “down under and back up again.” That is the motion of baptism. Down under the water, and back up again. That should remind us of something else: death and resurrection. It is the motion of Christ: down into the tomb and back up again. Once we begin to see that, then it becomes apparent that that is the way life itself is. We go along, we fall, we get up and go some more. We are always, every minute of our lives, in every transaction, repeating the pattern: down under, back up again. The big breakthrough comes when we recognize that this ordinary pattern is itself the secret of life, of truth, of all that is. Life is not about amassing as many toys or riches or accomplishments as we can. It is not about saving our lives by making them as secure and death-proof as possible. It is about, well, learning not to fight the water but to embrace it and befriend it. Don’t sweat it: you’re fine and you will be fine. Just let go. Let go, even though every fiber in your being be scared to death as you face the darkness of the water, and in the bottom of your soul you break a sweat and say, “Not this, O God. Let this pass from me. I can’t do it. I just can’t.” It is in those crises that you are being handed over to suffering, call it what you will: suffering and death. But when you’re hauled into the courtyard of the powers that make sport of you, take courage. Let go. Trust. Go ahead and lift that heavy beam and follow your master all the way. Nobody ever said that it would be a snap.

But you already have the assurance that there will dawn a yet more glorious day. And if you are living the resurrection, you know that the long-promised kingdom has already arrived, the realm in which you share the reign, whole, free, and totally at home.

Graydon Parrish (b. 1970) "Resurrection"

A sermon for Easter Day, April 1, 2018.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018