Sunday, March 27, 2016
If I’m honest this morning, if I’m completely honest, I have to say that I want to believe. I want to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, that he slipped from an empty tomb and walked the busy streets again. I want to believe in the mystery of his rising and the linen cloths left for some other purpose. But sometimes, sometimes I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s this way for you too. But in my life, in my heart, in my soul, doubt dances with belief most of the time. The two of them, inseparable. That’s what faith feels like, most of the time. Doubt dancing with belief. Yeah, I smell the lilies and the blossoms this morning, and the sweet wonder of springtime. It’s unmistakable. But I keep thinking about Brussels Tuesday morning and Ankara two weeks back, and the cruelty we humans inflict on one another. I want to believe; but sometimes I’m not so sure. Most of the tombs I see these days are pretty well sealed up.
And this morning I’m imagining the first churches in the first years after Jesus died, meeting in ramshackle homes and hollowed out caves. All kinds of craziness and violence in the world around them. And I’m imagining that they too experienced a strange and bewildering brew of doubt and belief, of grief and wonder. Their hearts broke and broke again as they grieved Jesus’ death, his absence. And yet the stories they told, the teachings he left behind, their memories of his love, his courage, his mercy—these things warmed their hearts. Profoundly. And they huddled together in their caves, in their little homes, and these first Christians broke bread in his name. And they wept in their grief, and they wept in their gratitude, and sometimes it was hard to tell the gratitude from the grief. So many, many tears.
And in the long, storied history of their faith, in the long, storied history of their Jewish faith, this had always been so. Belief and doubt, grief and wonder, lost in the wilderness and heading for a promised land. God gave them no guarantees, but insisted on their trust. Abraham and Sarah, and Hagar and Ishmael, and Moses and Miriam, and Job and Jeremiah. For all of them, and for the disciples of Jesus too, faith was a practice, a kind of vulnerability and openness. To love life, to love the world, to love God meant all kinds of grief, inevitable grief, and wild waves of gratitude too. Such is the bewildering brew of doubt and belief.
So if that’s where you are, if that’s the brew you’re drinking this morning, welcome to the crowd. Welcome to the church. Where faith means vulnerability, and open hearts sometimes break. Where we want to believe that love overcomes death. And where sometimes it really does.
So here’s how church works, sometimes.
I’ve been leading one particular bible study, a midweek group, just about every week for fourteen years. And one day, a couple of weeks ago, we were reading our way through some of the stories around Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem. And we were talking about his loneliness, and our loneliness, and how you bear up when life bears down so hard. And right from the beginning, there was a kind of resonance in the room. The stories were making sense. And in some very powerful and even painful ways.
You know these folks, so I don’t have to be coy. Our good friend Curtis, who is of course black, told us about a difficult encounter he’d had somewhere else in town, an interaction in which a white man had popped off and dismissed him in an overtly bigoted way. And with deep integrity and real vulnerability, Curtis talked about being black in a white world, about being black in a white church, about worrying about fitting in in just about every situation. And then he talked about the toll that takes on a man’s soul, a man’s confidence, a man’s sense of self.
And in the room, the moment was raw. You know how moments can be raw? The moment was raw and the spirit was real, almost palpable. And there were tears in Curtis’ eyes. This was his life he was talking about. And there’s something holy about a man and his story. About a man and his pain. And he needed something from us that day.
And next to him, on the couch in the library, was our good friend Steve. Big, sweet Steve. And Steve is, of course, a gay man; and this moment, this raw moment, released in him a willingness, even an eagerness to share his own hurt, his own story. And he talked about growing up in a family that didn’t understand him, growing up in a church that was hostile and homophobic, navigating a school system that didn’t try to help. Steve’s in his sixties now, but the pain is still fresh. With tears in his eyes, he talked about experiencing life as an outsider, even a castoff, a gay man in a straight world. And the toll that takes on a man.
Now I realize how intimate this is, and how personal it is for two men we all know and love. But I’m sharing it with you because it was church, and it was risky for them, and it was a sacred experience for all of us. For the black man saw that the gay man understood. He felt it. Curtis saw in Steve’s eyes that Steve felt something like the same pain. Something like it. And Curtis reached across to take big Steve’s hand. And you know how Curtis can be. “You’re getting me,” he said, with a smile and a tear. “You’re really getting me now.” And they both cried. And we all cried. And sometimes that’s what church is like.
So I really don’t know much about empty tombs and angels in dazzling clothes. I’ve met some pretty fantastic people in my time, maybe even some angels: but never angels in dazzling clothes, hanging out in empty tombs. And I really don’t know how that would work for a first century rabbi to get raised up from the grave and sent out into the world again. Maybe. I love the story.
But I do know what I experienced in that bible study two weeks ago. I experienced Jesus with his arms around Curtis and Steve. I experienced the resurrected Jesus, the risen one, pulling two dear men close and binding them to one another as brothers. They’ll have that for the rest of their lives. In that moment, in this church, I experienced God’s love—as powerful as any force in the world—overcoming the devastating impacts of racism and homophobia and bigotry. Right here at Peace United Church. Healing us all in the process. Something like that.
And it happens here a lot. Just look around. It happens here a lot.
Theologian James Carroll suggests that the first inkling of the resurrection of Jesus was probably felt, probably experienced in those homes where the first Christians gathered after his death. As they grieved together. As they wept together. As they shared a plate of food cooked up on a fire and told their favorite Jesus stories: Jesus feeding thousands in the woods with just a couple of stinky fish, Jesus partying all night long with ruffians and renegades, and Jesus washing Peter’s feet as Peter trembled and the others chuckled.
James Carroll suggests that it was there—in their grieving and in their stories—that the Christians began to experience something beyond expectation, something beyond their imagining. And it was Jesus. Not just the idea of Jesus. Not just some vague appreciation of Jesus. But it was Jesus. His presence in their tears. His presence in their laughter. His body as their body. And his purpose as their purpose. And I want to tell you, that’s what I experienced with Curtis and Steve two weeks ago. Not just the idea of Jesus. But Jesus himself. His body. His purpose. His presence. “Glory, glory, hallelujah, when I lay my burden down.”
One of my heroes, going back a long ways, is the old farmer and civil rights warrior Clarence Jordan. He was a Baptist in the South and a scholar of New Testament Greek and he founded Koinonia Farm as an integrated community in the early 1940s. Clarence insisted that the church could be, that the church had to be a beloved community on earth as in heaven. And he liked to say that: “The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives,” Clarence’d say, “is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship; not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.” Catch that last part again: “The crowning evidence that Jesus lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship; not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.”
See where this is going? (Take a peek at the program: we'll be dancing soon.) You can look around this morning, friends, and you can see the faces of a 'carried-away church.' A carried-away church! Look around. Curtis and Steve discovering a connection, a bond, and overcoming despair; young Ella about to be baptized, and finding mentors for her journey into faith and adolescence; renegade Roman Catholics and agnostic Christians, and all kinds of people who want to change the world. These are the faces of a spirit-filled fellowship. This is the experience of a 'carried-away church.' We are alive! And we'll be dancing soon.
So I want you to revel in the spirit that calls us, all of us, into communion; and weaves us (all of us) into community; and names us (all of us) Peace United Church. Of Christ. I want you to appreciate the great feast many are fixing for homeless guests tonight in our own upper room. And I want you to appreciate the important conference others are preparing later next month, advancing the cause of peace in the Middle East. And I want you to know there’s a new group in the works preparing to take our ministry into the watershed holy lands of our Central Coast, blessing the earth and loving the earth as God’s own flesh and blood. How great is that? Protecting watersheds as holy vocation! We are alive!
We are not a mighty army. We are not a mega church. And we don’t want to be a mighty army. And we don’t want to be a mega church. But my friends, Jesus lives in us. Jesus is risen in us. Not just the idea of Jesus. Not just some vague appreciation of Jesus. Jesus. Jesus lives in us. You’re looking at him. We are indeed a spirit-filled fellowship. We are indeed a carried-away church. And Jesus indeed is risen. In us.
So take the shackles off your feet this fine Easter Sunday. Let your doubt dance with belief. Let your grief mingle with gratitude. Let the crazy world take you for a crazy ride. Jesus is risen in us. Jesus lives in us. So take the shackles off your feet.
And let’s dance!
(AND WE DID...AS THE BAND PLAYED...SHACKLES!)
(AND WE DID...AS THE BAND PLAYED...SHACKLES!)