Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Incarnation = Resurrection

John 20: 1 – 18

New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE

April 20, 2014 – Easter Sunday


He had been a quadriplegic for most of his life, but that didn’t stop Dan Gottlieb from realizing one of his lifelong dreams:  to be a stand-up comic.  He had also wanted to be a world healer, but in truth, both these ambitions could be one and the same.

Dan had heard from a friend that there was a comedy club in Philly that held month-long intensive seminars for novices that they might hone their skill.  So he began to make some inquiries.  Was the comedy club wheelchair accessible?  Yes, it was.  Was the stage accessible as well?  Yes, it was.  He was told to prepare a routine ahead of time.

Dan was anxious as well as excited.  He’d probably be the oldest one there, not to mention the only one in a wheelchair.  He was also still concerned about the logistics of it all.  Would he be able to navigate his wheelchair to the stage without attracting too much attention?  How would he look on stage?  Funny thing was, he wasn’t worried about whether or not he would be funny.

When it was his turn, he started down the aisle for the stage.  The lights might have been low where the audience was, and it’s not easy to see everything on which the wheels might get caught.  There was a lip at the end of the aisle.  The wheelchair pitched forward and Dan with it.  His head landed on the concrete floor, reinjuring his spinal cord.  He lost the use of his left hand, his dominant one, the one he used to feed himself, drink from a cup, get around in his van, and a whole host of other needful, vital things.

Dan woke up to excruciating pain in both arms.  He had a brain clot and an acute concussion.  At first, he wasn’t able to speak.  He became septic and suffered through a brutal infection.  He almost died.  After a few days, having grasped the extent of his injuries and worn out from the severity of the pain, he not only thought but said to those around him, “That’s it.  I’m done.”

He was tired.  He’d lived a full life.  Dan had no desire to go through the months of rehab it would take just so he could go home.  He’d already had a lifetime of adversity and not only survived but lived a life fully alive, helping countless others, having had many adventures.  It was enough.  No more.

Not long after this realization, Dan was looking out the window of his hospital room on a very gray day.  Nothing much to look at out there.  Then he looked down at his dead left arm, just lying there, lifeless.  Nothing could have prepared him for what happened next.  He began to think about all the people who loved him, really, truly, deeply loved him.  There were dozens of them, maybe lots of dozens.  Dan says that he felt that love in his chest, a huge warm feeling that filled him up and spilled out of him, overwhelmed him to the point of tears.

Then he began to think about all the people he loved, his chest, his heart, this feeling expanding with every breath.  He writes, “…I felt such groundedness, almost giddy with joy and gratitude. I felt my body almost couldn’t contain all the love I was feeling.”  He then looked down at his dead, lifeless arm and he said out loud, “It’s a fucking arm!”  He laughed at himself.  It was only an arm.  Compared to all the love that surrounded him, it was only an arm.[i]

We experience resurrection in our bodies.  We’re constantly going back and forth about the bodily resurrection of Jesus, a mystery that can’t possibly be solved.  We need to let go of that.  The resurrection was never intended to be an intellectual debate.  All of the resurrection stories are incarnational, in the flesh.  Thomas wouldn’t believe until he put his hand in Jesus’ side.  The disciples ate a breakfast of cooked fish with a resurrected Jesus.  Jesus broke bread with two friends on the road to Emmaus.  Mary heard her name and tried to reach for Jesus.  To them, these weren’t visions or an experience of the mind.  Even the apostle Paul, who didn’t know Jesus in the flesh, got knocked on his you-know-what, heard a voice speaking to him, and temporarily lost his eyesight.  The resurrection is a bodily experience.

Heather Abbott is planning to attend the Boston Marathon next week, perhaps wearing her favorite pair of 4-inch heels.  What is extraordinary about her plans is that she lost her left leg below the knee in one of the explosions at the finish line of last year’s marathon.  Even more so, only hours after being released from a lengthy hospital stay, last year Heather threw out the first pitch at a Red Sox game as she leaned on crutches.  After a grueling year of physical therapy and having to not only accept but embrace her life as it is, she is now an example of resilience to others, speaking to students, caregivers, and college graduates.  To a room full of pharmacology students she was able to joke, saying, “Right now I have six legs.”  Resurrection is a bodily experience.

Like the stories of the disciples, resurrection is also grounded in the experience of community, when a body of people comes to life again.  The Sikhs of Oak Creek, Wisconsin still worship in the same temple or gurdwara where six of their members were shot a year and a half ago.  In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, though 150,000 continue to live in temporary shelters, 1,400 students attend a newly-constructed secondary school called Artists for Justice and Peace School.  Newtown, CT residents voted to demolish SandyHook Elementary School and to build a new school building at the same site.  Habitat for Humanity has been able to repair 12,000 Filipino homes, with a commitment to build 30,000 super typhoon and earthquake resistant homes.

Resurrection stories like these and more may not always make network news, but it doesn’t have to stop us from telling the good news out of bad news that happens every day, both around the world and in our very own backyard.  

In the church profile that was shared with me was the story of how this church came to adopt its safe conduct policy, a resurrection moment if ever there was one.  A convicted sex-offender and his guardian (for lack of a better word) approached the church to ask if they could worship here.  What was not known was that there several people in this church who had suffered and recovered from sexual abuse.  One after another came forward, in vulnerable honesty, seeking for all to be safe as well as being compassionate and justice-minded.  It took time, for all to be heard, for all to be held in covenant.  The one seeking safe haven moved on, but what a gift he brought to the New Ark—the opportunity to truly be a safe place for each other, in your bodies, in this body of Christ.

Clarence Jordan, the founder of Koinonia Farm in Americus, GA, wrote: “The crowning evidence that Jesus was alive was not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.”  It’s all about the body and how we incarnate, make flesh the resurrection in our flesh, in our lives and in our life together.  How have you experienced new life in your own body?  Is the New Ark ready to be carried away with new possibilities, to renew this Spirit-filled fellowship?

The incarnation is the resurrection, God alive again in our flesh, made visible in the way we live our lives and in our life together.  Thanks be to God!  Hallelujah!

After his resurrection, a rather burly Jesus raises Adam and Eve from their graves, thus raising all of humanity with him.

[i] Dan Gottlieb, The Wisdom We’re Born With: Restoring Our Faith in Ourselves.  New York: Sterling Ethos, 2014.  pp. 62 – 67.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Deliver us

Matthew 21: 1-11

New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE

April 13, 2014

He Qi. (China/USA) The triumphal entry ©2013 All rights reserved.

            Jesus and Satan have a discussion as to who is the better programmer. This goes on for a few hours until they come to an agreement to hold a contest, with God as the judge. 

           They sit themselves at their computers and begin. They type furiously, lines of code streaming up the screen, for several hours straight. Seconds before the end of the competition, a bolt of lightning strikes, taking out the electricity. Moments later, the power is restored, and God announces that the contest is over. 

          God asks Satan to show what he has come up with. Satan is visibly upset, and cries, "I have nothing. I lost it all when the power went out." 

         "Very well, then," says God, "let us see if Jesus fared any better." 

          Jesus enters a command, and the screen comes to life in vivid display, the voices of an angelic choir pour forth from the speakers. Satan is astonished. 

         He stutters, "B-b-but how? I lost everything, yet Jesus' program is intact. How did he do it?" 

         God smiles all-knowingly, "Jesus saves."

            A while ago I said that the church saved my life, but that was a story for another time.  I’d like to share that story with you today.

            I’ve gone to church since I was an infant.  One of my first memories of church is the smell of the church office, of the mimeograph machine, Scotch tape, sharpened pencils, all enriched by the heat from steam radiators.  Another early memory is a print of a Sunday School picture, of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the crowd waving its palms while Jesus rode on a donkey.  This framed print hung on my bedroom wall, across from my bed.

            Every night, after my parents had tucked me in, I would look at that picture and imagine God sitting on the edge of my bed.  We would talk about the day and what had happened.  I then would say ‘goodnight’ to God and ask Jesus to come in.  Jesus would then sit on the edge of my bed and we would have a similar conversation.  But my bedtime talks with the divine ended there because the only concept I had for the Spirit at that time was the Holy Ghost, and I was scared of ghosts.

            I never doubted that there was a God.  I believed with my whole heart that God loved me, cared for me, would always be there for me.  That is, until my family and how I experienced the world fell apart.

            The summer before sixth grade we moved to another town, from a small house of about 800 sq. feet to a new house of about twice that size, what I didn’t know then was a last-ditch effort by my parents to save their marriage.  New school, new people, new town.  We had also started attending a different church the year before.

            The next year, all the body changes kicked into high gear, along with my emotions.  That fall, when I was twelve, my father left the house and my mother told me they were getting a divorce.  In two years the divorce was final, my father remarried and moved to North Carolina.  My mother’s boyfriend moved in.  I came to the rude awakening that my father had been an alcoholic and had been asked to leave my childhood, awesome-smelling church as its Christian Ed. minister.  And I started my freshman year in high school, along with a killer case of acne.  It was a perfect adolescent storm. 

Like most acts of nature, and steeped in my childhood faith, I was convinced God was behind it all.  I was angry and hurt.  I cried myself to sleep most nights, feeling as though God had abandoned me.  I even had thoughts of suicide.  I just couldn’t see my way out.

I don’t know what date it was, but it was the morning of a school day.  I dreamed that I was watching a scene play out before me, of a group people seated around a table in an abandoned shack.  I could hear bombs and artillery exploding outside, people screaming, dying.  It was a civil war, tearing apart a country.  The people gathered about the table were part of an underground resistance: citizens from both sides of the conflict who wanted to end the violence.  There were maps on the table, and they were making plans.

Suddenly there was a knock at the door.  The leader opened the door, and there stood Jesus as I would imagine him—right from that print that had hung on my bedroom wall—but the leader didn’t recognize him.  “May I help you?” he asked rather innocently.  Jesus said that he came to help them.  The leader thanked him, grateful for another pair of hands, another brain to wrap around the problem.  Space was made for Jesus around the table, and the discussion began again.

Just then a woman’s scream was heard right outside the door.  Everyone rushed out to see who it is.  It was one of their own, and she’d been stabbed in the back.  Jesus reassured everyone that she would be alright, picked her up, and brought her inside.  After some time passed, the wound disappeared from the woman and appeared in Jesus’ flesh.  In another hour, both were healed and restored.  The entire group witnessed this, and they were confused.  “How can this have happened?  Who are you?”  Then I woke up.

Jesus of the City Dump, Oaxaca, Mexico

Though it seems obvious now, at that time I had no idea what this dream could mean.  I had been going to youth group meetings at my church and the pastor had offered to listen should I ever need to talk.  We had spoken a couple of times, so I asked him what the dream meant.

I was at war with myself.  There was a civil war inside me: I was treating myself, my life, my relationship with God as though it was a battlefield.  I wanted to believe that God was there for me, but I just couldn’t see it.  Jesus would come and suffer with me and heal me, but I had to recognize that he was there working in my life.

From that point on everything changed.  Actually, nothing changed.  I did.  I began to see that there was a whole community of people who cared for me and loved me and recognized spiritual gifts in me that I didn’t.  They wore their faith on their shirt sleeves and choir robes and t-shirts.  They spoke of their faith in their prayers on Sunday mornings, leading the congregation in prayer but using first-person singular, their relationship with God vulnerable for all to see.  In the story of Jesus they saw themselves, all the way to the cross and into Easter.  Because of church, I began to see myself in that story too, and through that story my life was saved. 

When the crowds welcomed Jesus as he entered Jerusalem, they cried out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  When the people shouted out “Hosanna”, it wasn’t just a cheer of joy but a plea for rescue:  Hosanna means ‘save us’.  On the other side of town, through the western gate, most likely a legion of Roman soldiers were entering Jerusalem, as they usually did during Jewish holy days to quell any ideas of uprising against the occupation.  When the Jews cried out, “Save us”, they saw Jesus as the messiah who would lead an army against the Romans and force them out of Israel.

The words “save us”, “saved”, “salvation”, “sin”, “rescue” have fallen out of favor in the post-modern, progressive church, having been co-opted by more evangelical and fundamental forms of faith.  Even more so, most days we don’t like to admit that we need rescue or salvation, let alone these may have lost their meaning for us.

We don’t have a theology of liberation in the predominantly white, middle-class church.  The civil rights movement, those living under oppressive regimes such as Archbishop Oscar Romeo and the people of El Salvador—they found meaning and purpose story of Moses leading the Israelites to freedom.  It is difficult for us to comprehend what we need to be saved from when we live with privilege in a dominant system. 

Yet each week and in our own devotional use of the Lord’s Prayer, we say “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”  We know that we cannot be delivered safely from the evils of this world.  If it’s one thing the daily news teaches us is that evil can come down on anyone, anywhere, at any time. 

The evil for which we need deliverance, liberation, rescue, salvation is the evil within us, the evil of which we are all capable, and the evil we participate in—systemic, cultural, societal evil.  We commit sins and we and those around us suffer the consequences of them.  When we admit we need saving, we acknowledge that there is a power greater than ourselves that can restore us and restore humankind to sanity.  When we confess that we need rescue, we recognize our place in the universe, as interdependent and connected to one another.  When we accept that we cannot save ourselves, we can let go of the desire to control the outcome and make more room for joy in our lives.

We believe that God is still speaking.  If we have difficulty with words like “saved”, “salvation”, and “sin”, we limit God’s lexicon.  As one member of my family put it, saved is about giving or getting help at just the right time.  And at the right time God sent Jesus to save us—from ourselves.

How has the church, being of the Body of Christ, saved your life?  Can you see yourself and this church in the salvation story?  What are the ways of living that lead to death that we continue to need to be saved from?  How can we as a progressive church not only embrace a theology of liberation but embody it in our ministry? 

We live in a world that indeed needs saving.  But we cannot do this saving work if we ourselves do not acknowledge our need for it as well.  Thanks be to God for liberation, for rescue, for grace that saves us just at the right time.  Just in time to be relieved of our fear, forgiven of our sin, freed so that we might freely choose, that we might live and serve in joy.  Amen.