Easter Sunday “Unbelievable Hope” – Chuck Rush 3/27/16


Easter 2016

Isaiah 65:17-25; Luke 24:1-12

If you came here this morning with more confidence in the Easter Egg hunt than the resurrection, you may appreciate the last line… “Some thought it was just an idle tale and did not believe them”. We’ve always had room in the Church for critical incredulity and we still do.

And you may be relieved to know that there is a solid minority of theologians in the church who remember every year that the heart of the Christian faith revolves around an unverifiable event that is not directly knowable. Perhaps the genuine posture of faith is to remain incredulous and expectant because there is still so much we don’t know about God and the world we live in.

These days you have to be aware of the very real limits of our imagination. Just a couple months ago, a century after Einstein speculated that time and space are malleable, we recorded a gravitational wave that emanated from two black holes colliding billions of years ago. It was the first empirical verification that time and space can be stretched and condensed- ….  whatever that means. I say that, not that I don’t understand the concepts. I suffer from a different problem and so do you. Even those of us who took Physics in college, and generally understand the concepts of relativity, can’t really imagine this. When I try to really envision time and space warping, I can----….. but I really can’t. It is beyond my direct, lived experience.

Or when I try to comprehend the universe was once the size of a tiny dot that has exploded out for 13.4 billion years, expanding into this vast, vast cosmos, 60% of which is dark matter that we have no real understanding of, so that visible galaxies are only about 40% of the total universe.  I can try to imagine it… but I really can’t. It is like loading 10 gigs of data into my ½ gig hard drive brain. It loads and loads and then I get a big crash.

[ Cue Video] A friend of mine recently sent me this one little conceptual reminder of our limited imagination. When we all learned about the structure of our galaxy in 5th grade, we got these charts so that we could memorize the names of the planets in orbit around our sun. But that picture is stagnant, which leads you to imagine a kind of stagnant or two dimensional galaxy.

We now know that our galaxy is shooting through space more like a comet bursting out from the big bang. In fact, we can measure the speed. It is about 70,000 km/hr.

So the planets revolving around our sun actually look more like a vortex. All of us are moving through space, not just around the sun alone. We should be imagining it in three dimensional motion, not just two dimensional motion. [End Video]

When I try to contemplate things like this.... I am moved to the spiritual disposition of ‘wonder’. Astrophysicists also speak in the language of poetry when they step back from the immense calculations that fill the chalkboard. Because what we put into formulas is actually beyond our imaginative ability.

Even when we try to picture it, it is enough beyond our imagination that the only way we can genuinely respond is in incredulous wonder.

The resurrection is like that. We don’t actually have direct access to it. We only get indirect testimony about it. Even the scriptures just depict it in poetic images. And it was not overwhelming to the original witnesses. All of the gospels have some line like ours that “many believed… and some doubted.”

What we know is that Jesus was a man of noble moral purpose. We know that he was unjustly tried for sedition, upsetting the social order. He healed people. He had quite a following for his teaching about love, compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, justice, and tolerance. But the Romans were threatened by the size of the crowds, thinking Jesus would organize them into a revolutionary force that would overthrow Roman rule and usher in change in the form of the Kingdom of God.

He was tortured, abandoned by his disciples and friends to die alone, he felt forsaken, and cried out “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The Romans mocked and humiliated him, and killed him using the barbaric and ghastly form of execution they invented crucifixion.

In the contest between loveless power and powerless love, powerless love got crushed once again. Everyone was dejected, defeated, resigned. It is always thus, so the cynics sigh.

But what if loveless power does not have the last word. What if, death cannot stop the goodness of God?

What if we cannot reject God’s hope for us?

What if God is not done with us yet, quite in spite of ourselves?

What if Faith, hope, and love transcend indifference, cynicism, and hatred?

What if we don’t get off that easy?

What if there is a meaning to our lives whether or not we get it?

What if God is a bigger force than we can imagine?  We don’t know the half of it.

We had goodness in our midst and we killed it. We thought we were in control of the situation. We thought we could stop God, so to speak. What if we can’t?

And some doubted. We can’t quite believe it could be that good… No we can’t. And it isn’t just the resurrection of one good man a long time ago. We can’t quite believe in the possibility of resurrection parables of goodness in our actual life around us either. We sort of get it but we can’t believe it is that good either.

Like that time you did something so stupid, so revelatory of your character that you couldn’t even make it look good, you were so embarrassed that your spouse now really knows how pathetic you actually are that you just want to run and you can’t, and you are just eating yourself up with your own anxiety… because you know your spouse should just move on to greener pastures, you would if you were in their place-

But they take this deep disappointment, and they help you to grow, work through your weak parts. They keep believing in you long enough that you grow up. It is too good to be true.

We can’t quite believe that our extended family might finally just accept our gay cousin Michael- and actually celebrate his spouse Peter and the life they have together and the love they share, at a big old family gathering-just like everyone else in the family. What if we could take a photograph and everyone could just be themselves, just be who they really are, and loved for who they are. If my people could really love each other? That would be too good to be true.

And I know we have neighbors who are African-American who can’t really believe that our country might truly transcend our racist past and make a genuine place at the table for them as equals. Maybe we can turn a heart here and a heart there, but really change the laws so that the percentage of black boys that end up in jail isn’t so high? Really change so that our whole society becomes embarrassed by the ghetto’s we have created? Really change so that refuse to let people languish there without the hope of the American dream…. Really do something about those zip codes? We want to believe it and it is also too good to be true.

I know we have way, way too many families that can’t quite believe that their kids can really stop using oxycontin and heroin and that they will come back to us again. We’ve watched how powerful those drugs have changed our people and we can’t really believe in a resurrection that would heal them and get them back to normal again. We just want normal. Normal would be good. We pray for it and it would be too good to be true.

We just want our daughters to overcome their eating disorders. We just want them to transcend their anxiety or whatever it is that makes them do what they do. We just want them to receive the love that we have in our hearts. We want them to see the beauty that we see and become loveable. We want them back to normal. Normal would be good. We pray for it and it would be too good to be true.

The Good News of Easter is that God just might bring unexpected resurrection whether you believe in it or not. God just might make a way, quite in spite of your anxiety, your incredulity and your resignation. The world is not entirely dependent on you, nor your limited worldview. God’s hope and love are not waiting for you to give them permission to do their thing. What you don’t know far exceeds what you do know.

So be free. Be open. Expect something new. Laugh. Stay in touch with the wonder of it all. The end of the story is good, good beyond your imagining. So love with abandon and live your life with adventure. Hug your friends in gratitude. What if it is going to turn out much better than you thought? “Behold, I do a new thing”, says the Lord. Do you not perceive it? Amen.


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Sermons & Presentations

Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.