Via Transformativa: From Glory to Glory / From Death to Life

Read the rest of the Via Transformativa: From Glory to Glory series

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for Resurrection Sunday:

You have been a refuge to the poor. (Isaiah 25:1-10)
He has been raised. (Mark 16:1-8)

Our first song was made popular by singer Bette Midler. “The Rose” is featured in a film by the same name back in 1979. It went to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and hit #1 on the adult contemporary charts. The song also won Midler a Grammy. Let’s try it:

Some say love, it is a river,
That drowns the tender reed
Some say love, it is a razor,
That leaves your soul to bleed
Some say love it is a hunger,
An endless aching need
I say love it is a flower and
You its only seed

A few years ago I attended a conference specifically for gay and lesbian Christians. The leader of the organization had personally invited me to attend as one of the “leaders” in the LGBT Christian movement. During a private, pre-conference gathering for such leaders, we were treated to a Power Point presentation by this man on the state of Christianity in the LGBT community.

“If,” he intoned seriously. “If, you don’t believe in a literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, then you’re not really a Christian.”

I was shocked by this assertion on two levels. First, as both a Christian and a lesbian, his declaration sounded too close to some of those that I’ve heard anti-gay Christians make. They take constant joy in remind us that if we are gay, or lesbian, or bisexual or transgender, then we can’t “really” be Christians. To hear a gay Christian leader taking the same line, on a different point of Christian theology, jarred me.

In a related shock, I sat there and realized that, as someone who doesn’t believe in a literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus, I had just been kicked out of the Christian fold by someone who was supposed to be welcoming me. To have an anti-gay person tell you that you can’t be a Christian because you’re gay is one thing – but to have a fellow gay person say you can’t be part of the club because your belief about resurrection isn’t right was just too much. The irony was pretty thick at that point.

What it ultimately proved to me is that even in the small enclave of LGBT Christianity, there are still points of doctrine where we feel comfortable tossing each other out if we discover that we disagree. And this is the crux of the problem that I have with the entire idea of Easter.

Ever since Jesus went to his death on the cross, his followers have been arguing about what got him there, what his death really means, and whether or not he literally walked from the tomb, restored in his physical human body, or if that resurrection was something more mystical and ethereal. What these arguments lead to is something wholly other than what I think Jesus ever intended in his ministry. These disagreements have led to division – to people exiling other people from communities, to heretics being burned at the stake, to denomination after denomination springing up after splitting from some other denomination that they believe got the whole thing wrong.

At the heart of the matter, I believe, is fear – and not the fear that we might get it wrong and be condemned to a fiery hell for eternity. No, this is a different kind of fear. This is the kind of fear that keeps us from living fully into our humanity, while we argue about Jesus. This is the kind of fear that tells us it’s easier to argue over Jesus while we avoid his command to open our hearts and minds to our neighbors – and even our enemies. This is the kind of fear that refuses to believe that each of us holds a seed of love that is in need of planting and growing in this world. In short, we are afraid to die to our arguments so that Jesus live in this world through us.

It’s the heart afraid of breaking
That never learns to dance
It’s the dream afraid of waking
That never takes a chance
It’s the one, who won’t be taken
Who cannot seem to give
And the soul afraid of dying
That never learns to live

Imagine the fear, the grief and the trepidation of the three women who approached the tomb of Jesus on Easter morning. Mark tells us that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought some spices for Jesus, knowing after three days in the tomb, he was going to be fairly ripe. They wanted to anoint his body and be with him one more time.

Their main concern? Who would roll away the heavy stone that covered the entrance of the tomb. Certainly, these three women could not manage that feat and they hadn’t brought any men with them to do it. When they got there, however, the stone had already been moved, and they found an empty tomb.

This passage is where the whole mess of arguments began. You see, in the original version of Mark, this episode is the last scene. The women find the stone rolled away, the tomb empty, and a man dressed in white telling them Jesus was alive and not dead. The young man told the women to go back and tell the disciples, but they flee and they don’t say a word about what they’ve seen.

It would be later writers, dissatisfied with Mark’s ending, who would tack on a few extra verses that contradict that ending. Apparently, the women did speak, then Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and some disciples before ascending into heaven. These are later additions and are not original to the gospel itself. Matthew and Luke, too, don’t like Mark’s ending and they added stories of Jesus’ appearance after the empty tomb is found. Matthew even has Jesus appear and give his disciples the “Great Commission” to spread his teachings to all the nations.

So, who should we believe? Did Mark just not know the rest of the story and later writers had heard it so they added it? Did Mark have it right all along and the women kept silent about what they had seen? If so, how do we explain the rapid spread of Christianity if not for tales of a crucified and risen Messiah?

Honestly, those are the kinds of questions you’ll have to answer for yourself. If you all have learned anything about me over the past couple of years it should be that I’m not the kind of pastor who pretends to know all the answers. I still struggle with all of those questions, and I refuse to eject anyone from the fold who arrives at different answers than I do.

Did Jesus walk out of the tomb in a fully regenerated human body? I don’t know. Did Jesus appear to the disciples after leaving the tomb, even allowing them to touch him to prove he was resurrected in a real, tangible, non-mystical form? I don’t know. Did Jesus give the disciples the command to teach to all the nations before ascending bodily into heaven? I don’t know.

What I do know is this: I don’t care about any of that.

What I care about is this: Have you had an encounter with the living Christ? Because if you have, then you no longer have a heart afraid of breaking. If you have, then you have learned to dance in this life. If you have, then you don’t fear taking a chance on loving people. If you have, you know that you are a seed of love. If you have met the living Christ, you understand that you must move from the glory of death to the glory of life, and the only way to do that is to allow yourself to die to the old ways, so that you may learn how to truly live.

When the night has been too lonely
And the road has been too long
And you feel that love is only
For the lucky and the strong
Just remember in the winter
Far beneath the bitter snow
Lies the seed that with the sun’s love,
In the spring becomes the rose

The Muslim Sufi poet Hafiz writes:

The earth is a host that murders its guests.
But what can die?
All dying just removes more of the husk over the soul’s vision.
All dying thins the veil over a wondrous world within.

What if, Jubilants, the real Easter story invites us to die to our opinions about what it means? What if, Jubilants, the real Easter story invites us to die to what we believe about Jesus? What if, Jubilants, the real Easter story invites us to enter the tomb ourselves and die to everything in this world that puts husk after husk over our soul’s vision, blinding us not just to the wondrous world within us – but to the wondrous world that lives and breathes all around us? What if, Jubilants, the Easter story invites us not to argue with one another, but to have the courage it takes to truly love and accept one another whether we agree or not?

What if, Jubliants, the real Easter story invites us to simply, breathe deeply?

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers met in grade school in Georgia, but they didn’t start playing music together until they were both in high school. In 1985, they debuted as the Indigo Girls and released their first album, Strange Fire, two years later. They hit the big time the next year and have released a dozen studio albums since then. Today’s second song is from their 2004 release “All That We Let In.” It’s called “Rise Up.” Let’s try it.

[Verse] Dog at the window still,
looks all day never gets her fill
Cause a glance means a chance,
to break the birds out congregating
I have seen a look like that,
you licked your chops from where you sat
Make your kill for a thrill
and you don’t mind waiting

[Chorus] Rise up your dead,
there’s life in the old girl yet,
Rise up your dead

Now, I’ve told you that I don’t know the truth about some of the deep questions about Jesus’ death and resurrection. But, that won’t stop me from offering my opinion on those matters. I know, you’re shocked.

I personally believe that Jesus doesn’t care what you believe about him – about his life, about his death, about what that death might mean, or whether his resurrection was literal or mystical. I think what matters to Jesus is this: How does his life, his death and his resurrection change the way you live?

If you say you believe in Jesus, or that you believe he literally, bodily walked from that grave and you still hold animosity in your heart for any living creature, I think it’s safe to assume that you really haven’t encountered the risen Jesus.

If you say you believe in Jesus, or that you believe he literally, bodily walked from that grave, and you feel no responsibility for the wellbeing of others and this created world, then I think it’s safe to assume that you really haven’t encountered the risen Jesus.

No matter how you interpret this phrase: “He is risen,” I will tell you that I believe it to be true. Why? Because, if I allow death to strip away the husks that the world has put over my soul’s vision, I begin to realize that I meet Jesus every single day. Now, I can avoid these meetings. I can cling to those husks of worldly wisdom that says, “Look out for number one!” or, “I’ve got mine, and I’m certainly not going to give any of it away so you can have your fair share.” If I live in the world with this kind of attitude, I’ll never meet Jesus.

My hairdresser, years ago, asked me if I believed that Jesus will return some day. I told her, “I think Jesus comes back every day and every day we torture and kill him all over again.” I still believe that’s true – because the husks that obscure our soul’s vision – the husks of our worldly concerns, keep us from ever seeing and meeting Jesus.

Where can you meet Jesus? Well, as Mother Teresa said he’s everywhere if we’ll just open our hearts and our eyes. “The dying, the cripple, the mental, the unwanted, the unloved they are Jesus in disguise,” she said. Jesus is in disguise in the homeless, the poor, those who are oppressed and marginalized. But, Jesus is also in the fat-cat banker, the rightwing politician, the murderer, the thief. Jesus is there, residing in us all – but those husks are so thick within all of us, we fail to see Jesus not just within ourselves, but in those we have considered other, or especially those we consider our enemies.

Any true encounter with the risen Jesus, though, removes those husks and allows us to rise up our dead and truly enter into the joy of Easter morning.

[Verse] When it bums you out,
all the hunters sprung to pounce
And at best it’s a mess like a nest infested
You remember there’s more than this
There always was and always is,
Tend the artist in your charges, you are full invested

[Chorus] Rise up your dead,
there’s life in the old girl yet,
Rise up your dead

So, how do you know you’re doing it right? How do you know that you have encountered the risen Christ? When your life begins to resemble his, then you’ll know. When, as the prophet Isaiah said, you begin to channel the Holy, you know the Holy is alive in you. When you become a “refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat,” then you know that your life reflects the teachings and ministry of the man called Jesus.

You can’t do any of that while you’re arguing finer points of doctrine about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. And you certainly can’t do any of that if you are certain in your beliefs about any of those doctrines. It is not certainty that moves us to work hard for others in this world – it is reverence for the mystery.

Too much certainty can make you arrogant because you have everything invested in being right. That certainty can blind you to the cares of the world and forms those husks that prevent your soul from seeing the suffering around you – the suffering Jesus calls you to alleviate. Too much certainty means you’ll miss the face of Jesus in the world’s outcast – and even in your enemies.

How often do we miss the face of Jesus because we refuse to see him in a homeless person, or in a child, or in a Muslim or someone of another faith. Or in a Republican? Or in a cross-dresser? Or a cross-dressing Republican?

Our certainty means we miss Jesus when he comes into this world as he always does, shrouded in mystery, pointing us not to certainty in answers, but to a faith that resurrects us, that makes us rise up in this world. Certainty kills, Jubilants, but mystery raises us from the dead, and gives us the freedom to say, “I don’t know.”

That simple phrase has the power to teach us how to keep our hearts and minds open to the needs and concerns of this world. This is what the Buddhists call “beginner’s mind” and it’s the mindset we need to remain open to the mystery of the Holy in, through and around us.

That’s why I think Mark’s original ending, where the women see the open tomb and run off afraid to tell anyone about their encounter, is the most compelling Easter story. Mark has already rolled away the stone for us, inviting us to fully enter into Easter, to fully enter into what it means to go from death to life and live as a resurrected person in a world filled with death and violence. Mark forces us to fill in the blanks, to ask the hard questions and reject the easy answers.

The sad part is, we’ve been trying to roll the stone back over that tomb for centuries now. We roll the stone every time we argue about whether this biblical event literally happened or that biblical event literally happened or whether those who believe differently than we do are inside or outside of our sphere of concern. We want that certainty – that answer, because if we have it, it relieves us from our duty to each other and this earth.

But, if we embrace the mystery of “He is risen” that means we must continue to live as Jesus has called us to live instead of using theories and arguments to keep him dead and out of the way.

Hear the good news this morning, Jubilants: “He is risen! He is risen!” That means that we too can rise up – there’s still life within us that must be called forth by this amazing resurrection experience. Don’t be tempted to roll the stone back over the tomb – it is empty – be not afraid. Don’t look for the living among the dead, instead, go and boldly proclaim that Jesus is alive – and when you notice how many times you meet him every single day, you can’t help but say: “Oh, Yeah!”

[Bridge] And if you need to, read your mindless mag
Call me up for tickets, we’ll go see Sugarland
And it gets better even when it’s been a drag
Just move through the madness, move your body to the band and Rise up

Rise up your dead, rise up your dead, rise up your dead
Rise up your dead, rise up your dead, rise up your dead

Oh, come on! The summer’s coming;
The rain’s been heavy and the river’s running.
Loose the cuff; it’s been tough,
but it’s fast improving
Oh, we got sticks to haul up piles;
We got stories that lead to smiles
We gotta twirl with this world;
I can feel it moving

[Chorus] Rise up your dead,
there’s life in the old girl yet,
Rise up your dead

Oh, Yeah!