Imperishable

Passage: 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
Date: February 24, 2019
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

If you were to buy a package of sunflower seeds to snack on, and if you bit off the kernel to get to the wee seed, and if you were to look at that seed for a few seconds, you might marvel at the fact that such a plain little thing, if planted, will grow into a showy, happy sunflower. Our neighbors have perennial sunflowers that reach their full height mid August, and every time I go by them as I walk the dog, I am glad to see them. From our neighbors’ house I see the enormous oak trees in our own yard, giants that are twice as tall as our two-story house, sprung up over the decades from acorns smaller than my thumb.

I am grateful that Paul uses this metaphor of the seed to begin to uncover the mystery of the resurrection. In today’s reading we find ourselves in the middle of an idea Paul is exploring with the church in Corinth. As you may remember, the Corinthian community gave Paul a bit of trouble. They fought among themselves. They argued about who was more valuable in the community, who had the best spiritual gifts, who got to sit closer to the food during communal meals.

They valued the things of the spirit; you could even say they were hyper-spiritual, to the extent that they thought anything having to do with the body was bad. As New Testament scholar Richard Hays explains, “They were so spiritual that they found the notion of the resurrection of the body crass and embarrassing. The phrase translated ‘resurrection of the dead’ (anastasis nekron) means literally ‘rising of the corpses.’ For the spiritually refined Corinthians, this was not the stuff of Christian hope; it was a scenario for a horror story.”

The spirit was pure, they thought; the body was merely a shell, a shell susceptible to disease and corruption. Why would they want to have this disgusting shell in the life to come? Some might ask a different question – why bother to have any sort of body at all in the life to come?

Why indeed. Some of you know that I love thinking about the resurrection, and I am a believer in the bodily resurrection of Jesus and of us. You do not have to agree with me on this point, but I am going to tell you a little bit of why I love this so much.

For me, and for Paul and others, the idea of a bodily resurrection is tied to the creation. Back in Genesis 1, the story goes that God created the heavens and earth, the waters and the sky and the land, all living things, and pronounced all of it good. Why would God create all this good physical matter just to throw it away at the end? I don’t believe it is in the nature of a creator to toss away the creation. It may need work, revision, taking it down to the studs and rebuilding, but I believe that God has invested too much in the created world to do away with it in the life to come.

The resurrection of the body is about redemption, too. We are born with these bodies and over the course of our living, our bodies carry all our experience. Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber reminds us of this. “Everything that happens to us happens to our bodies. Every act of love, every insult, every moment of pleasure, every interaction with other humans. Every hateful thing we have said or which has been said to us happened to our bodies. Every kindness, every sorrow. Every ounce of laughter. We carry all of it with us within our skin. We are walking embodiments of our entire story,” she says. And our story does not end with our death. In resurrection, our stories continue, growing into new things from the bodies of our first life.

Resurrection is about the redemption of what has fallen into decay, what has been broken or abused. It’s not unlike the Japanese process of kintsugi, mending broken pottery by filling the cracks with lacquer dusted with powdered gold. Rather than throw the broken thing away, its cracks are mended with gold and made beautiful. The piece is redeemed. Maybe resurrection is like that – God redeems us, and God takes those parts of us that were broken or ugly or decimated and puts them – puts us – back together and makes them– makes us – more beautiful.

Now it is possible that despite these lovely images, the resurrection of the body is still a bit untenable. Theologian Jorgen Moltmann suggests that instead of thinking about the resurrection of the body, to think about the resurrection of life. As he says, “ …what comes into being after death in the place of mortal life is not different life.It is this mortal, this lived, and this loved life which will be raised, healed, reconciled, completed….” (Sun of Righteousness, Arise! p. 62)

So I invite you to think for a moment about your life and about a time when you felt fully alive. That may be what resurrection feels like. Maybe it was the first time you held a baby who was very special to you. Maybe it was a time you woke up very early in the morning to go on a hike to catch the sun rise over the mountains, and when it did – oh! Maybe it was when you went dancing with someone who ended up being your beloved. You were fully present in the moment, your body, soul, heart, and mind tingled and radiated. You were fully yourself and yet there was a power, a force beyond you that you also sensed. Love was a part of it; awe, too, and joy.

The Persian poet Rumi describes such a moment:

The most living moment comes when those who love each other meet each
Other’s eyes and in what flows between them then. To see your face
In a crowd of others or alone on a frightening street, I weep for that.
Our tears improve the earth. The time you scolded me, your gratitude,
Your laughing, always your qualities increase the soul. Seeing you is a
Wine that does not muddle or numb. We sit inside the cypress shadows
Where amazement and clear thought twine their slow growth into us.

When we think about when we have felt most alive, often we are not by ourselves. We may have a sense of the divine among us or we may have a person with us – a beloved, or a stranger who showed up at the right time in the right place and gave us the gift of life.

Some of those people nestle into our lives and their life becomes woven into our own. Their physical presence becomes part of our daily routine. We get used to the sound of their particular walk, the way they sneeze, the smell of their shampoo. Our love for them is as much for their physicality as it is for their spirit.

And when they die, we miss them.

To be very honest with you, I think sometimes that I pin so much of my hope on the reality of the resurrection because I am so well acquainted with grief. I miss my dad. Yesterday was his birthday and I was reminded all day long of how much I miss him and how dearly I hope I see him again some day, healed of the lung ailment that took his life, healed of the arthritis that made mere movement so painful for a man who had hiked the whole of the John Muir trail over ten summers.

You know what I mean. You miss your beloveds, too. I see it in your faces in our Sunday prayers when we give thanks for the life of someone who died, when we try to sing “For All the Saints,” or when we run into each other at Fred Meyer looking so very sad.

The apostle Paul would remind us that grief is penultimate, that is, not the very last thing. There are days when I would call him a liar for saying such things, when grief has taken over again. But then there are those small Easter days, days when maybe the daffodils have pushed out of their ugly bulbs and have started to show a bit of yellow; days when a peace has settled over me and I know I will see Dad again.

But I know that for Paul, resurrection was not about comfort for the grieving. I’m not sure he cared all that much about whatever grief the Corinthians felt. Without being a part of their daily lives, I’m not sure how current he would be about who in the community had died.

Paul wrote to them about resurrection to shake them out of their superior sense of spirituality. But really he wrote to them because for Paul, all of Christianity rested on this most precarious of ideas – that God could and did raise Jesus from the dead, and that God could and will raise us from the dead too.

I don’t imagine I have persuaded anyone to take my point of view on all of this, nor was that my intention .I’m so aware that death is all around us, and so much of our energy is spent grieving those things and those people we have lost. We cope with that grief in so many ways – we numb it, we fight it, we befriend it, we accept it as a constant companion.

Resurrection helps me live with grief. When I told my dad for the last time that I loved him, when I thanked him for being the best dad I ever had, I know those were not the last words I will say to him. Someday I too will shuffle off this mortal coil, and the seed that I have been will be raised into some sort of unimaginably glorious flower, and I will see him, and say something ridiculous like, “Hello, how golden you look.I am so glad to see you.” And I will take his hand, full of life.

To the glory of God.