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.

Palm Sunday: Are you in Jesus’ Parade?

Take out your bulletins, and if you have a pen or a pencil, there may be some in your pews, I want you to find a particular word in the reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. You’ll find the word in the second line of our reading. The word you are looking for is “exploited.” I want you to cross that word out.

This is a dangerous thing to ask you to do, I know, so let me explain. The last thing I want you to do is to call the Bishop and say “Your grace, I know it is Holy Week, but our rector is re-writing the Bible.” I am asking you to cross out this particular word, because I think this is a BAD translation. In fact of all of the translation decisions in the New Revised Standard Version, our usual translation in the Episcopal Church, this one may irk me the most. So cross out “exploited.” And write in the margin a different word: “Grasped.” Now Paul’s words read “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be GRASPED.”

I quibble with words, because words are important. Yes exploitation is bad, but in this teaching, Paul wants us to avoid this GRASPING. The word we’ve just re-translated from Greek is harpadzo, it is the root for our word “Harpy,” those mythical creatures with great grasping claws. The imagery the word conjures is strong, and the word is significant on Palm Sunday.

The Biblical Scholar John Dominic Crossan postulated that Jesus’ little parade wasn’t the only show in town on that day before the Passover. Pontius Pilate was also on his way to Jerusalem. While Jesus and his rowdy crowd descended with branches and shouts, Pilate had a much more orchestrated arrival coming from the opposite direction. The Roman Governor was making his way up from Ceasaria on the sea, making his way up to the tumultuous Holy City of Jerusalem.

Pilate came with the full force of the Roman army. He marched with thousands of troops. Pilate rode a white armored horse. Pilate’s flags fluttered in the wind. Pilate was interested in power, grasped after power. His soldiers, their spears and shields glittering in the sun approached marched with precision through the city streets. Pilate was asserting himself with his grand parade. The Passover was coming, those nights when the Jewish people remember their liberation. Pilate made a mighty show of his arrival. He demonstrated that this pharaoh wasn’t letting go.

Against the backdrop of Pilate’s might Jesus also arrives at the Holy City, coming down the Mount of Olives from the other side of town. Jesus makes quite a spectacle. Whenever I hear that word “spectacle” I think of a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant grandmother hissing through her teeth, “You’re making a spectacle of yourself.” That’s what Jesus was doing. Loud boisterous, practically falling down the mountain, his is no organized military parade. The crowd shouts “Hosanna,” a word from the Hebrew Bible that always accompanies a plea for help. In the Jewish liturgy, “hosanna” is used to commemorate the Exodus, God’s coming to liberate God’s people.

How does your church do Palm Sunday? #palmsunday #holyweek #secondline

A post shared by Holy Communion on Delmar (@holycommucity) on Apr 9, 2017 at 10:12am PDT

 

Pilate rode a white horse. Jesus is mounted on a donkey. Pilate’s men brandish weapons. Jesus’ followers are swinging branches. Pilate’s parade shows his grasp on power. Jesus is marching on coats in the mud. Do you see the contrast?

We are on the threshold of Holy Week. Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem marks the beginning of the end. Even as we shout “Hosanna” we know what is coming. At the end of this service, we will hear the Passion Gospel (which is why this homily will be short. But don’t despair. There will be a great deal more preaching this week). This great Holy Week we mark the death of Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah. We remember his last supper, and the washing of feet. We watch and pray in the garden. We survey the wondrous cross.

As we prepare, a note of caution. The whole series of events on its face, look like failure. As an Easter People, we can forget the pain, the disillusion, the loss. What we remember looks like a failure. You could easily imagine a Roman Soldier watching Jesus’ strange arrival to the city. That soldier could easily say: “what a loser.” That is the irony of Holy Week.

If John Dominic Crossan is right and Jesus and Pilate arrived on the same day, the morning papers the NEXT day would have made it clear which arrival was more significant. Pilate’s parade would have been front page news, above the fold. The headline: “Pilate’s presence means Passover Celebrations to proceed with Public Safety in mind.” Jesus and his band MIGHT have made the end of the local section, page b37: “Goofy prophet from Nazareth rides in on a donkey, authorities are keeping an eye on him.” Jesus wasn’t the cover story.

This is the irony of Holy Week. On the face, God’s action looks like failure. Jesus does not regard equality with God as something to be grasped. Jesus does not show off God’s might. Rather, Jesus humbles himself. The way of Jesus is the way of the downtrodden, the laughed at, the left out. Jesus arrival, Jesus’ last days, Jesus death identifies God with the lowest of the low in human society.

So, if you find yourself making a spectacle, if you are caught out making noise on behalf of those who are lost, and least, and left out. If you find yourself at a vigil for someone who died in the street, or in a protest march for immigrant rights. If you find yourself in the workplace questioning the salary gap between women and men, or challenging the mistreatment of a co-worker, even if your actions seem foolhardy, even if they seem like a failure. If you just find yourself bringing some laughter to a tense situation, helping your neighbor to relax. If you find yourself making a spectacle, well, join the parade. Shout hosanna. You’re with Jesus.

The way of Jesus is not a way that requires grasping. Jesus’ way is not a climb to the top. The way of Jesus is a downward descent, not grasping but letting go. Following the Christ means letting go, making a spectacle of yourself, being humble. Even knowing what is ahead we shout “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”

May you have a blessed Holy Week.

Where is your wilderness?

Sometimes you have to move away in order to understand how much you are formed by place. Wilderness was part of my upbringing, my formation as a human being. A native Coloradan, as a kid I camped and backpacked in the Rockies. I went to college out in California. I swam in the Pacific and spent some time falling off a surfboard or two. I even climbed a bit in the desert at Joshua Tree. Then after all my years out West, I moved to Washington, DC for seminary and stayed there to serve my first church. I have to tell you these days I am grateful to live back on this side of the “gateway to the West.”

When I lived on the East Coast I travelled a fair bit, through Virginia, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas. There’s beautiful country out there, but I couldn’t escape the impression that people lived too close together. Out East you can scarcely find an unsettled valley. As I grew to know the East Coast, I realized I would never be totally at home. I would always feel a bit crowded.

Maybe you’re like me, and when you heard Lord Grantham on Downton Abbey say to Mary, his oldest daughter (who has just failed again to secure a marriage): “Go out to America, bring back a cowboy from the Middle-West who will shake us all up,” maybe you also thought, “I resemble that remark!” Maybe. One of the gifts we have out here, out in the West is Wilderness. We are still a little wild out here.

Today’s Gospel begins: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness.” Notice the prepositions: “up and into.” The Spirit of God isn’t leaving Jesus “down and out,” words you might expect of someone walking away from polite society. Nope, the Spirit is leading Jesus up and in. “Into the wild” those words express reason, purpose. Sometimes you have to leave behind the busyness of life, the hurry, the crowds. Sometimes you have to go somewhere quiet. The literal translation of the word in Matthew’s Gospel is “a lonely place.”

In the wilderness that we are free from human constructions of reality. Out of the cities and societies we create and manipulate we find reality a bit more raw, untouched by human hands. I remember coming back from backpacking trips in my teens to return to the “real world,” and wondering which world was more real. We are invited out from under the fluorescent lights of the shopping mall, out to bathe in the darkness of a star-lit night.

I spent a number of summers working sleep-away camps in Colorado. One particular summer, I was assigned to the ropes course staff. Each day we were assigned a group of teenagers and sent off in the morning to the “low ropes”, a series of games and challenges designed to build the team. In the afternoon, we got to take the kids up to the high ropes, help them put on helmets and harnesses. They climbed walls, walked tightropes, and eventually leapt from a platform 60 feet in the air and almost unfailingly screamed as they sailed on a zip-line down through a mountain valley. It was a great job.

In the transition time over lunch, between the low ropes and the high ropes, we had the group sit on the pine-needle covered forest floor around a giant wooden circle. Painted on the circle were three more concentric circles. The outer ring was deep green, and it was labeled “safe zone.” The innermost ring was labeled “danger zone” and was painted bright red. Between the two, in yellowish orange, was an area we called the “challenge zone.” We explained to the teens that the hope of the whole ropes experience was to bring them into the “challenge zone.” We didn’t want you to feel like you were in danger, but we also didn’t want you to be totally comfortable. Human beings tend to grow when they are challenged. You can fall asleep when you’re safe. You freeze up when you’re petrified. You can learn about yourself when you’re nervous.

For someone living at the time of Jesus, the wilderness was a challenging place. Away from the safety and security of your tribe, in the wild you were vulnerable to robbers and predatory animals. Galilee and Judea are surrounded by desert. Water is not always easy to find. What Jesus was doing could be dangerous. But this episode is just the first of several in the Gospels where Jesus goes away by himself, to a lonely place. Jesus often heads out alone to the wilderness. Like his cousin John the Baptist out there with the locusts and wild honey, the faith of Jesus is nourished by time apart from the safety and security of his group.

Now, some of you might be wondering when I’m going to get around to talking about the devil. What I find interesting about this devil is following the names for Jesus’ adversary. An interesting progression happens in Jesus’ awareness of the character in this chapter. Matthew references the character as “The tempter” when he first appears to Jesus, famished after 40 days of fasting. After the first temptation, the name changes to “the devil,” the diabolical one. That Greek word is still a little diffuse. Where “devil” in English is more specific, diabolos in Greek can mean “adversary” less specifically. Diabolos can even mean “lawyer.” By the end of our reading Jesus yells “Away with you, Satan!” Jesus calls out Old Scratch by name. Out there in the wilderness, I wonder if it took Jesus awhile to discern with whom he is contending. But when Jesus knows the name, he can say “away with you!” When you know the name of your demons, are you able to banish them?

This episode is perplexing. Why would the Spirit of God lead Jesus out to face Satan? I know, and I bet you know dogmatic answers to that question: “It was so he could be tempted in every way as we are, yet not sin.” Congratulations, we pass catechism class. But I’m not sure passing catechism will help us follow in the way of Jesus on this one.

Jesus, just two chapters from now, tells his followers when they pray to include the line “lead us not into temptation.” Even as an adult Christian, I stumble on that line. I’ve never liked the idea that God could lead us into temptation, that we have to pray to ask God not to do so. This morning, I find myself wondering whether Jesus had this experience in mind when he gave the disciples that line of prayer. Did Jesus’ time in the desert in chapter four influence his prayer in chapter 6? Was Jesus shaken by what he saw out there in himself?

Really, as some of you know too well, we sometimes don’t choose to find ourselves in that lonely place. When we discover ourselves suddenly out there, in the desert, not of our own choosing, it is important that first we get out of danger. Make your way out of danger, but then step two is important as well. Learn from the discomfort. We often rush that second step.

I’m a novice when it comes to contemplative prayer. The particular way of praying I’ve been practicing for a few years now is called “Centering Prayer.” It’s a form of Christian meditation where you attempt to totally quiet your thoughts.The Buddhists have a wonderful way to describe the human mind as it approaches contemplation. Often when we sit for quiet, we find ourselves running through our shopping lists or picking at an old grievance with a sibling or co-worker. Our mind jumps from topic to topic. The Buddhists call this Monkey-mind. Our thoughts jump from branch to branch like a silly simian. Centering prayer teaches you to gently let go of the thoughts, to return to the quiet.

Once I was caught a bit off kilter in Centering Prayer when I was able to sit for several minutes with remarkably few thoughts. I didn’t even congratulate myself for my lack of thought, which I often do. This time I was just quiet. Then I teared up. I just started crying. I didn’t know why then, I’m still not totally sure what the tears were about.

Thomas Keating, the principle teacher of Centering Prayer, often tells folks not to be surprised if they are suddenly overcome by emotion. Many of us keep ourselves so busy that we don’t fully experience the moment. We don’t allow ourselves to fully feel the feelings of stress, loss, and general frustration in our day to day life. When we face a particular trauma, we often rush through, busily moving to the other side of the experience. Keating says he’s sometimes found it helpful to have a grief counselor at Centering Prayer retreats, because when someone is able to find that contemplative silence, old traumas can resurface.

“Lead us not into temptation” makes some sense from this perspective. What loving leader wouldn’t want to spare his or her followers the pain, if they could. But Jesus knew himself well enough to know he needed the time apart. He needed to wrangle his demons.

Brene Brown is a professor of Social Work and an Episcopalian. Her books and TED talks have become incredibly popular over the past few years. Brown talks about the courage it takes to be vulnerable, to open yourself up, to really talk with people about what you’re facing. She says that to really be embraced in a community we have to have our sufferings and our pains embraced as well. We can’t just say, “I’m doing fine.”

“Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”

It takes courage to be vulnerable. It takes guts to say, “I’m struggling over here.” But folks, we all struggle. It takes temerity to admit imperfection.

This is the first Sunday of Lent, the beginning of a long journey with Jesus. In the end we encounter suffering and sacrifice. I wonder, could this Lent be an invitation? Could we ask: “Where is your wilderness?” Where can you go to be vulnerable? Where will you face your demons?

Will you venture into the literal wilderness? Will you sleep a night out under the stars in the quiet? Or perhaps, Will your wilderness be more metaphorical? Will you spend some time in silence? We’ll have opportunities for contemplative prayer here at the church on Mondays. We’re going to start church with some silence each week, and you’re allowed to get to church early. Really, you are.

Wherever you find wilderness, will you take the time to be vulnerable, to name your demons, to step into the more challenging aspects of your life?

If you decide to undertake a wild journey this Lent, I wish you every blessing. Don’t hesitate to ask for help. Know that Jesus has gone this way before. Know that God will never leave you. In my life, I have found God more easily in the “lonely places,” than in the busyness of life. Wilderness has value. Journey safely, just not too safely.