Ordinary Resurrection

Passage: 2 Corinthians 3:17-18; John 20:19-23
Date: April 28, 2019
Preacher: Guest Preacher
Guest Preacher: Rev. Eileen Parfrey

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Here’s my dirty little secret: I work out my faith questions through writing sermons. Which explains why I’ve put together two scripture texts not normally read together in worship—a fragment of a Transfiguration Sunday epistle and part of the annual Second Easter gospel lesson.This is an issue that has bugged me since seminary, something that came to light during the interview required of every seminary degree candidate prior to graduation. At my interview, two faculty members asked for my theological growing edge, what would I continue to ponder after graduation. I told them something I had previously considered blasphemous, something I was increasingly changing my mind about: the divinization of humanity. Which, Biblically speaking, is today’s 2 Corinthians text: “All of us. . . are being transformed into [the same image]the image of Christ.” Or, as a Facebook meme would have it, “The Divine became human so that humans might become divine.”

What seemed still kind of blasphemous to me, on that freezing Chicago day all those years ago, is all I’ve been hearing lately. Hanging out with the Franciscans, I’m aware of the contemplative medieval practice of gazing into a mirror, not out of vanity, but to see literally what Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians, of becoming like Christ. Kind of a contemplative or introspective practice. But lately, another Franciscan, Richard Rohr, has been building a whole book industry around his claim that the resurrection is not a one-off miracle. Resurrection is a process, he says, and Jesus seminar scholar John Dominic Crossan backs him up. Resurrection (they say) is something that keeps happening, a universal pattern. It’s the 2 Corinthians thing.

But if this pattern is so universal, how come Jesus’ closest friends don’t recognize him when he shows up? Why does he have to show his wounds to get them to believe it’s really him? It’s as if seeing is not the same as recognizing. A recent article by a prison chaplain tells of unpacking the resurrection stories with women recently released from prison (Sarah Jobe, “Jesus’ First Week Home from Prison,” Sojourners, May 2019). Their experience of release, of going home and returning to church, was similar to that of the resurrected Jesus—of not being recognized, even by their families. Prison had changed them, and no one knew what to do with them. These women identified with Jesus who, like them, had been second-guessed, feared,misperceived, and needed to prove himself. Theologians say that it’s only great suffering and great love that bring us to God, and these women, having experienced both in themselves, recognized that experience in someone else. Like Jesus, they understood that resurrection always includes death and wounding. Which is maybe why Jesus’ disciples need to see his wounds in order to see his resurrection.

In 1955, Emmett Till was a 14-year-old kid who was lynched because someone thought he was flirting with a female cashier not of his race. His mother insisted on an open casket at his funeral. She wanted the world to see the result of violence, hoping that when people know violence for what it is, it won’t happen again (Susan T. Henry-Crowe, April 25, 2019, Disciplines: A Book of Daily Devotions 2019, Upper Room Books). Nonviolent action understands that to refuse to see or to critique violence is to support it. The action of nonviolence asserts that, in knowing it for what it is, we can stop trusting in what we believe is the power of violence. A nonviolent witness affirms that death is not the final word, that we give our trust to the power of God who redeems life, even from death, and who is both passionately in love with us and passionately committed to justice.

Easter is the quintessential nonviolent affirmation that violence does not have the last word. Every breath we take in and let out, every sleeping and wakening, every spring that follows winter, every frog emerging from a tadpole, every butterfly from a cocoon—each one shows forth that universal pattern of resurrection. It’s as if, as the sermon title claims, resurrection is ordinary. The best story I read all week about the ordinariness of resurrection was in a human interest story on a daily online news feed I get. The title of the article was so compelling: “The best $16 I ever spent: Old Navy pajamas after my husband left (By Rachel W Miller, “The Goods by Vox,” April 25, 2019)." It is a heart-wrenching and pathetic story about a woman going to an Old Navy in Manhattan on Thanksgiving Day, just months after her husband left her. She wasn’t bargain hunting; it was an act, she says, straight out of one of the core tenets of the Black church, something she referred to as “Hallelujah, anyway!” Her story is about the search for joy, she says—not happiness. “And the preservation of dignity and the connection to something sacred no matter how terrible the external circumstances.” Hallelujah, anyway. Claiming resurrection in the midst of loss and grief and shame and death.

Resurrection, says Richard Rohr, “is another word for change, but particularly positive change—which we tend to see only in the long run. In the short run, change often looks like death (Daily online meditation, Center for Action and Contemplation, April 24, 2019)." Resurrection means life has a positive and certain end. It may only look like clearance pajama bottoms, as it did for the lonely, grieving, Thanksgiving Day shopper, but those pajama bottoms meant reclaiming the courage to forge a way forward when her personal world had fallen apart. Crucifixion may be the accounting for the suffering and death along the way, but hallelujah, anyway, there is something sacred in it. Today’s scripture readings mean resurrection comes, even to us.

Before religious scholars relied on books for theological conversations with the Church, artists painted those conversations.  After the Great Schism of 1054, the Western Church’s art (our branch) showed the Risen Christ emerging from the grave alone. In the Eastern Church, the Risen Christ was symbolically accompanied by all humanity. When the Western Church made that tiny switch, resurrection became a matter for individual redemption, forgetting the universal or communal implications of God’s salvific act. Womanist theologian Emilie Townes calls us back to that understanding. “When you start with a God of love,” she says,“who wants a people of love, justice isn’t very far behind (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PjhtUGqFCWg Journey to Liberation: The Legacy of Womanist Theology).” In other words, we are called to be a people of God, not just a person of God. And justice is our portfolio. Resurrection for and by and through all of us.

Resurrection means “The worst isn’t the last thing about the world (Frederick Buechner, The Final Beast).” It’s the next to the last thing, Frederick Buechner says. The last thing is the power from God that reassures us we are “terribly loved and forgiven.” Pain, loss, and death don’t have the last word. Resurrection means there is hope (if only we know where to look for it, in the most ordinary places). Resurrection means we don’t hope alone and we don’t hope in vain. We’re baptizing a baby today, for Pete’s sake. That’s a statement of expectation and hope, of desire for God, if I ever saw one! In the most ordinary and ubiquitous of all things—water. Baptism means what resurrection means. That love is stronger than death, that life is God’s imperative. Resurrection doesn’t eliminate suffering and loss, it just means we can allow suffering to transform us. Hallelujah, anyway.

The speakers of color at the NEXT Church conference in March told us they don’t want “allies.” They don’t want people who generously bestow largesse upon them from a distance. What they want is advocates who will not resist their autonomy and empowerment. They want people in solidarity with them, who identify with them, for the very simple reason that the more you identify with someone, the less willing you are for them to suffer injustice (Jennifer Harvey, keynote speaker, NEXT Church conference, March 14, 2019). 

The Church was never called to be a Fraternity of the Enlightened. We welcome Liam today into a family of people willing to wrestle with the implications of forgiveness and with what in the world “resurrection” means to ordinary folks, not just theologians. We are people who know we must love God through and in and with and because of this world. Which isn’t always comfortable and always comes in the company of loss and grief and death. But “Hallelujah, anyway!”