Easter: Evidence for Resurrection

Did you catch the setting of this morning’s Gospel? “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” While it was still dark, that’s when Mary came to the tomb. Darkness is a theme in John’s Gospel. This morning, that phrase which starts us off sets the whole tone: while it was still dark.”

The whole Gospel story is filled with fear, confusion, and a sense of dread. “Where have you laid him?” Mary asks again and again. The tone matters. The setting matters. You have to remember, this is a community in shock. Mary, Peter, James, John, and the other disciples have given up lives and livelihoods to follow Jesus. Their hope died on the cross. They’ve watched their leader be silenced by the might of Rome. We don’t need news of Resurrection when all seems right in the world.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” The work Mary goes to do isn’t glamorous. According the Luke’s Gospel she’s headed there with spices. Jesus had been hastily buried ahead of the Passover. Under the cover of darkness, hoping not to draw attention, Mary wants to try to bring some dignity to the degradation. Instead she finds an empty tomb. She panics. She weeps.

“Woman, why are you weeping?” The question has to come twice that dark morning. Lost in her grief, still under the dim light of morning, she doesn’t recognize Jesus at first. Then he says her name. The world changes. Resurrection happens while we’re feeling lost and scared. “Early on the first day of the week, when it was still dark…” Darkness, sadness, fear, these set the stage for resurrection.

Modern folks have a hard time with spiritual truths like resurrection. We hunger for facts. When I was in high school, at the urging of an Evangelical friend I read a bestselling book called “The Case for Christ.” The crime journalist Lee Strobel tried to make a case AGAINST his wife’s conversion to Christianity. He looked at the Bible, the history, talked to experts and instead he convinced himself in the truth of the Gospel. Let me be clear. I’m not recommending the book, or the movie that has apparently just come out. Each of Strobel’s chapters talks about a kind of “evidence” especially for the resurrection. “Eyewitness evidence,” “Corroborating Evidence,” “Scientific Evidence,” “The Evidence of the Missing Body…” You get the picture.

I have to tell you, I find books like this interesting, but not compelling. Every so often archeologists discover a new papyrus or tablet and the media reports the “evidence” that Jesus was not resurrected. History is important, science is critical in our day, but if you need facts to prove your thesis, you’re not talking about faith. You’re not talking about resurrection. When we try to prove faith with science, we end up in some strange places. Even if you could build a case, based on 2000 year old evidence that Jesus’ body walked out of the tomb, I couldn’t tell you that was evidence for Resurrection.

Evidence for resurrection is something else entirely because Resurrection is a spiritual truth. Resurrection means that new life springs even after tragedy. Resurrection means that even when we mess up royally, God can take the wreckage and make something new. God can bring life out of death. Love can conquer hate. Goodness can win against evil. Resurrection as a spiritual truth I do find compelling. I can live my life looking for hope in the darkest places. I can live my life watching for life to spring out of death. 

You see, I do want to talk about evidence for Resurrection this morning, but not the kind of evidence in the Case for Christ.

The New Yorker this week features a short biography of Pauli Murray, a saint of our church, but not one you’ve likely heard much about. Pauli Murray was the first black woman ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. Though she came to the priesthood late in life, like Mary Magdalene before her, Pauli Murray was an early riser.

In 1940, on her way from New York to North Carolina to spend Easter with her family Murray was arrested for refusing to go to the back of a segregated bus. Pauli missed Easter that year and did her time in jail, unable to pay the fine for her disorderly conduct charge. The Civil Rights movement wasn’t quite ready to organize the bus boycotts that would begin in Montgomery when Rosa Parks followed Pauli’s lead fifteen years later.

Pauli was refused admission to the University of North Carolina because of her skin color. She was frustrated, but she used her anger to fuel her path. Instead she took other steps toward integration. Murray was the first woman to attend Howard Law School, at the time thought of as the “Black Harvard.” While she was there, she wrote a senior thesis where to defend and argument she’d had with a professor. Murray argued lawyers should stop trying to prove that the black schools were unequal. The wins were too small: one school at a time. Instead she said, make a legal challenge to the “separate” part of the “separate but equal” framework of Jim Crow. Her professor called her crazy. That same professor later used Pauli’s thesis as part of the winning argument in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case which ended legal segregation.

The New Yorker article, and the recent biography on which the it is based, both profile Murray’s struggles around sexuality and gender. Pauli was born Anna, but hated the name. She shortened her middle name “Pauline,” and used it instead. Though she always used feminine pronouns, she never felt fully comfortable with her gender. She married a man, but the marriage only lasted a weekend. Pauli had deeper romances with women. While she left these stories out of her autobiography, she left behind journals and letters that described inner work to reconcile a queer identity before the language, psychology, and society caught up with her.

Pauli was ahead of her time in many regards. I’m grateful to be part of a church that eventually found the guts to ordain her, and 25 years later to declare her a saint. If you want evidence of resurrection, I submit the life of Pauli Murray. I submit the thousands who continued to stand with faith before the world was ready. I submit the witnesses, the saints, even those who are not widely remembered. On Easter morning we proclaim the resurrection with trumpets and triumph, but new life often comes before it can be fully understood. New life comes about early, while it is still dark. (That’s why we started the service in darkness this morning). Resurrection happens when the world is not yet ready. We are always playing catchup to God’s work.

I don’t know where you are on the journey of faith this morning. We say around here, wherever you are on the journey of faith, you are welcome. Faith is a journey, and sometimes the road gets dark. Sometimes the world around can seem off-kilter. If these last months have been difficult for you, if you find yourself struggling with fear and shock, if you find yourself turning off the radio and putting down the paper out of frustration, you are well prepared for Resurrection.

God can and does make new life out of the worst of human circumstances. While all the reporting may cover bad news, there is good news today and every day. Life continues to triumph. Love continues to win. Light continues to shine, even in the darkest corners. When you look at the big picture, there is evidence for resurrection all around.

Easter: How do you encounter resurrection?

Whatever brought you to Holy Communion this morning, we are glad that you are here. Some of you are here because your parents made you come. That’s a good thing. It’s good to build up political capital at home. You might need it later. Some of you are here because a sibling asked you to accompany them. Some of you are here because it is Easter, and you are supposed to go to church on Easter, and perhaps you feel a little awkward. That’s okay. We’re glad you are here. If you need help navigating this ancient liturgy, someone nearby can help. Some of you are here to hear our choir sing, and maybe support a particular member of the choir. Thanks to you. Whatever brought you here today, welcome. We’re glad you are here. Happy Easter.

To all of you, I want to ask a question. How do you encounter the resurrection?

There are truths that the mind cannot discover, only encounter. Love, might be the most commonly understood one of those truths that the mind can’t discover. You can’t quantify love. One of the ways to make a dogmatic scientist, someone who only believes what can be proven, one of the ways to make such a scientist angry is to ask, “do you lover your family?” When they say yes, you respond with “prove it.”

I recently participated in a friendly debate about the existance of God at our program Theology on Tap. My colleague James is the assistant leader at the St. Louis Ethical Society, and he describes himself as an Evangelical Atheist. Now James has a PhD in Philosophy from Cambridge, so I’ll confess at times in our friendly debate I felt a little overmatched. But in the question and answer session, one of our members asked him about “love” could he prove the existence of love, and he was stumped. I smiled with pride thinking, “She’s one of ours!”

There are books out there that attempt to establish a quasi-scientific case for the Resurrection of Jesus. They count the guards on the tomb, and analyze linen wrappings. You can watch History Channel “documentaries” which use lasers to show images on the shroud of Turin that supposedly wrapped the body of Jesus.

As a side note, I kind of hope someone someday brings charges in court against whoever decided to call that channel “The History Channel.” Now I don’t want anything terrible to happen to them. In my mind, the ideal sentence would be that inventor of the History Channel has to endow several chairs for actual history professors at universities, and then attend history lectures every week for the rest of their life. Please don’t get your history or your theology from cable television. I simply wonder is the Resurrection a fact that we should spend a lot of time and money trying to prove with data? Or is Resurrection a truth, like love, like many truths of faith, is resurrection more meaningful as an encounter.

In our Gospel this morning, Peter and another disciple start out running. You can almost feel the chill in the morning air as each of them passes the other. The disciple Jesus loved reaches the tomb first. He has a sense that something sacred is going on, so he pauses. Peter catches up, and rushes past. He enters the empty tomb, sees the linens cast aside. But he doesn’t understand. The facts don’t add up. The Beloved disciple believes, the text tells us, but the Gospel doesn’t really fill out what this guy believes. The boys rush home just as quickly as they came to the tomb.

We’re left with Mary Magdalene. Thank God for Mary Magdalene. When I get to heaven, she’s one of the first people I want to go meet. Mary has some of what our Jewish neighbors call “chutzpah.” Mary gets to the tomb early, the Bible tells us, while it was still dark, and she sticks around after the boys go home. John’s Gospel likes to play with light and dark. John is the Gospel where Nicodemus, a powerful Jewish leader comes to learn from Jesus under the cover of darkness. Our presiding Bishop likes to call Nicodemus “Nick at Night.” Jesus tells him to come out into the light. There’s an interplay in John between light and darkness, day and night, clarity and obscurity. So there’s no mistake that Mary comes in the darkness.

Mary comes to Jesus before it all makes sense. Mary deals with the chaos, and the danger of what has just happened. She responds with faith. John wants us to understand that there is real danger here. She’s going out there on her own. The other disciples are doing what is sensible. They’re hiding. After all, their leader has been killed. They are in real danger. Mary exhibits bravery here, foolishness maybe, going out in the dark. As you well know the dark is allegorical in the Bible. Darkness, in John’s Gospel, stands for the oppression these people are facing from the Roman and religious authorities. The darkness stands for the evil, the injustice, the chaos. Darkness isn’t safe. Mary takes brave steps on Easter morning.

And after she finds the tomb empty, after the boys have checked it out and rushed home. Mary sticks around. Mary isn’t leaving without an answer. The frustration brings her to tears, but she’s going to figure out how to respond. She comes early, and she stays.

And because Mary makes these choices. Because she steps out with bravery. Because she sticks around. Mary encounters the angels, and then she encounters Jesus. She doesn’t know it is him at first. Mary also could be a sensible woman. She sees someone, and supposes him to be the gardner. You can tell she’s working this thing over and over in her mind. She says, “tell me where you have laid him. I will take his body.” She thinks she has added up the facts: there is a gardner. Oh, the gardner must have moved him.

Then comes the encounter. Jesus says, “Mary.” All the logic falls away. My teacher, she exclaims. Resurrection. Just as bravely as she set out, she returns to the disciples and says to them, “I have seen the Lord.” Hers is the first proclamation that Jesus is risen. She is the first witness of the resurrection. Hers is the first encounter. And Mary’s encounter with the Resurrected Christ has and will continue to remake the world.

How do you encounter resurrection?

Our world needs more people like Mary Magdalene today. We face a world that is, in some ways, filled with John’s allegorical darkness. The political rhetoric this season seems particularly heated. The threats of violence are real. Economic tension is the new normal. Terrorism dominates the news. That’s a lot of darkness.

We need some brave women like Mary Magdalene. We need brave men too. People who are able to step into that darkness with faith.

Many of you know Julie Farrar who sings in our choir. Julie can’t be with us for Easter today because she has been in Dijon France on some business. France has been more than a bit tense after last week’s terror attacks. Julie wrote just a couple of days ago:

On this Good Friday evening as I arrived at the church, two armed soldiers were standing on the steps outside. The battle between love/hope and power/hate still rages on. But in the dim light of the sanctuary the music of Gregorian chants rose a couple of hundred feet into the vaulted arches and floated over the crowd as the congregation followed them past the multitude of stone columns, stopping at different stations in the church to listen to the songs of love and sacrifice that had been heard there for 800 years. By the time the service was over, it was fairly easy to believe “Ubi caritas et amor, Deus ibi est” — Where charity and love is, there also is God.

Dare I say, Julie encountered resurrection, even on Good Friday. In our world, all may appear to be darkness. The facts may tell us that the world is filled with danger, all hope may seem lost. But hope has a way of breaking through. Light has a way of breaking through. God has a way of breaking through.

Faith is for times like ours. Faith is about taking those first steps out into the dark. Faith is about sticking with the mysteries, even when others shake their heads and go home. If faith isn’t easy for you, that’s okay. Can you be like Mary? Will you stick it out? When the encounter comes, you will be glad you did.

In the short term, Rome was able to silence the revolutionary Jesus of Nazareth. They shut him down. Terrorized his followers, and cast them into the darkness. But then Mary Magdalene took some brave steps into that darkness. She had an encounter. She told the other disciples. Together they made sure that the Good News was told throughout the world. It might seem dark. It might seem like all is lost. But world, they said, you can take some brave steps. Light is more powerful than dark. Love is more powerful than hate. Life is more powerful than death.

How do you encounter the resurrection?

Thomas, Romero, and the Importance of Doubt

Today’s Gospel tells the story of Thomas Didymus, Thomas the Twin, but we call him by another name…”Doubting Thomas.” Thomas didn’t find belief in the resurrection easy. What does it mean to believe in the resurrection? Belief is the crux of this story. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe, says Jesus.” And the Gospel writer tells us, “these things are written that you may believe.” What does it mean to believe in the resurrection?

Now, I know this room is true believers. After all, it is the Sunday AFTER Easter. And you’re HERE, at Church…again. We jokingly call this “low Sunday.” The crowds from last week are gone. That’s okay. We’re glad you are here. The Church needs some true believers. But, if you’re not quite a true believer, if someone you love is not quite there, I want to stand with Thomas and say, doubt is also important. Madeleine L’Engle, the Episcopalian and author “A Wrinkle in Time,” was once asked by a little girl if she believed in Jesus without any doubts at all. L’Engle replied, “I believe, with LOTS of doubts.” You see, I think we all need doubt. Faith without doubt is certainty, and certainty isn’t faith.

I’m not certain about much in our tradition. I have to be honest. I think we are a culture that is used to the scientific method and to hard facts. We like to be certain. We like definite answers. Faith isn’t certainty. Faith is trickier. Faith is less about our heads, and more about our guts. Faith needs doubt, because faith is a balancing act. We walk the tightrope holding a big balancing pole. On one end of the pole is blessed assurance, and on the other is doubt. If we have too much of either, we fall of the rope, but you need some doubt, and some assurance to make the balance of faith work. So, if you have doubts about the resurrection, you’re in good company. I have my doubts too. For me, faith in the resurrection has become less intellectual and more visceral in recent years.

I want to tell you a story resurrection. This story is also a story of pilgrimage. The week before Holy Week 2010 I was in El Salvador. I walked with fellow seminarians and some college students through the hot dusty streets of the Salvadoran capital. We were marching to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero was chosen as archbishop among El Salvador’s bishops in 1977 at a time of great conflict for the church. Rome thought he was a quiet bookworm who wouldn’t make trouble.

Soon after Romero became archbishop, a close friend was killed. Rutilio Grande was a Jesuit priest who was ministering with poor farmers, campesinos, seeking freedom from poverty. When Grande was killed, Romero was outraged. He began demanding that the military and the government “cease the repression!” Romero preached on the radio, and stood with the poor. He challenged the status quo, especially the violence used to supress free speech. Just three years after being named archbishop, Romero was assassinated.

Romero understood he was risking his life for his beliefs. Because he had faith in Christ’s resurrection, the archbishop believed death wasn’t the end of the story. That didn’t mean he wasn’t scared. The threats had been coming for months. Romero lived on the grounds of a cancer hospital run by a group of nuns. He had turned down the traditional archbishop’s residence and moved into the sacristy behind their chapel. The nuns wanted the bishop to live somewhere a little more fitting, so they built him a little three room house, and asked the cancer patients to bring him to his new home. The sisters knew Romero wouldn’t refuse a gift from the patients.

You can still visit his little house, it is a shrine now to Romero. The house sits under a mango tree at the hospital, and sometimes at night, ripe mangos fall on the roof. When this happened, the nuns often found the archbishop sleeping back in the sacristy, scared that the mangos might bombs thrown onto his roof. Romero was scared. He had doubts. But Romero also had faith. Before he died Romero said famously, “If they kill me, I will resurrect in the Salvadoran people.” He had doubts, but he also had faith.

As the sun set that March 24th, our group processed with a crowd of thousands that made its way through the streets of San Salvador. We were headed to the Cathedral where Romero is buried. As we walked, we passed countless fried chicken places, pizza huts, and relief organization headquarters. El Salvador still struggles with poverty, and an imbalance of wealth. Groups of activists for the poor joined with the religious pilgrims, seminarians, monks and nuns, all walking together. On signs carried by the marchers, and on their t-shirts, one slogan stood out more than the others: Romero Vive! Romero lives.

Later that week, still in El Salvador, I heard a story from a Jesuit theologian about the Easter after Romero died. The scholar priest told of preaching in a congregation that Easter Sunday in 1980. He asked his congregation same question I began with this morning, “What does it mean to believe in the resurrection?” A tiny Salvadoran woman stood up. She said that she had always believed in the resurrection, because she was a Christian. People told her she HAD to believe in the resurrection, so she said, “okay.” Lately though, she said she felt she began to know what resurrection means.

She went on: when Archbishop Romero died, she felt very sad. He had been her voice, her hope, she said. She felt that she had an advocate in Romero. So she was devastated. But in the few weeks since his death, she felt something new. She felt that Romero was alive again, that he was giving her power. She felt that she could stand up for herself. She could claim her own voice, instead of relying on him to speak for her. The woman said that she knew what the apostles must have felt like, as they came to believe in the resurrection. They took up the work of Jesus, and he was with them to give them power.

I began this sermon with a question, and my writing teachers said you should never ask a question without providing an answer. What does faith in the resurrection mean? I’m not sure I have a complete answer. When I’m asked about faith, I often return to that story about Madeleine L’engle, who said, “I believe with lots of doubts.” Madeleine “I believe with lots of doubts, and I base my life on that belief.” I’m not sure any of us will ever know the full answer, but, like Thomas, I can tell you what I have seen.

With Thomas, we can point to what we see. I see faith in the resurrection when an old Salvadoran woman raises her hand during a sermon. I see faith in the resurrection looks when public servants head to work each day to educate our kids and keep our streets safe. I see faith in the resurrecion when I walk with young people protesting in the streets, claiming their voices. I see faith in the resurrection looks when I join a bunch of true believers who show up for church on the Sunday AFTER Easter. Embrace the doubts. Keep the faith. Keep looking for the signs of resurrection. Just like Thomas, you’ll see them. Amen.