March 27, 2016
Acts 10: 34-43 Then Peter began to speak to them: “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.
I Cor 15:19-26 If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
Luke 24: 1-12 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified… “He is not here, but has risen.”
In February, the Scientific American cover story described scientists who are searching for a ninth planet. They suspect it’s there, even though nobody can see it yet. As you may remember, Pluto was demoted in 2006 to a lesser status as an icy blob, leaving us with eight known planets in a pancake-like configuration around the sun. Now Planet X, as it is called, is thought to be ten times larger than the planet Earth , because of the way it bends the orbits of several icy blobs swirling in the darkness at the outer edge of our known system. Judging by the gravitational pull, astronomers know it must be there, out beyond the planet Neptune. At this point. Planet X is known only by its impact on other celestial bodies.
That is essentially the message of the empty tomb on this Easter Sunday. It calls us beyond physical facts to a realm of mystery and wonder, where courage and hope abide. We have evidence in lives that were changed by the gravitational pull of the resurrection, but no eyewitness accounts.
A full generation after Jesus’ death, writers of the synoptic gospels began to tell the story in different ways. In the Gospel of Luke, the women who walk to the tomb in the early dawn think they know what’s ahead. They witnessed the gruesome crucifixion of Jesus, saw the body removed and laid in a temporary crypt. They rested on the Sabbath, preparing themselves for the stench of his ruined body, and now they have come with spices to anoint his body for permanent burial. The details are clear and straightforward.
But what they find is not. The stone is rolled away. The cavern is empty. Then, suddenly, two men in dazzling clothes appear. “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
The women are shocked, but then they run back to tell the other disciples – who consider it an idle tale. In this telling, only Peter had enough curiosity to check it out. He found the tomb empty, just as the women said it was, and Luke says that Peter went home “amazed.”
Luke is inviting us to be amazed also, but we’ve heard this Easter story so often that I think it’s hard to FEEL amazed, with or without the angelic beings in dazzling clothes. My rational mind scrambles to find an explanation, to understand the meaning of this story. Marcus Borg, a writer and theologian familiar to many of us, describes this scene as the pivot — from understanding the life and ministry of a pre-Easter Jesus, to the post-Easter Jesus of spiritual encounters — like the one he had with Saul on the Road to Damascus. Others have named it as the shift from the “Jesus of history” to the “Christ of faith.” Both have an oddly rational sound, as though naming these distinctions could reveal the essence of the empty tomb. I don’t think it does. If we argue about the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith,” we miss the pulsing aliveness of the empty tomb.
Borg even makes a distinction between resuscitation and resurrection, to help us get beyond an argument over Jesus’ physical body – whether it was stolen or dumped elsewhere or revived and released, like Lazarus. Or was it resurrected, taking on a different spiritual form to continue the presence of Jesus among his disciples, as described in Luke’s story of two discouraged disciples on the road to Emmaus.
In all four gospels, Jesus makes startling appearances to those he loved best, and disappears just as quickly, but the impact is profound. Eyes open. Hearts warm. Pulses quicken. Hope revives. Amazement happens. Lives change. Simple fishermen become eloquent speakers. Courageous women host emerging churches.
The earliest record that we have of the Jesus-movement comes from these Christ-quickened encounters. The letters of Paul and the Gospel of John are filled with the living presence of the Risen Christ. A generation later, the synoptic gospels gave us the remembered record of Jesus as the political radical that he was – caring for the lost, the least and the lonely ones at the outer edges of established order in the Judeo-Roman world. By his actions, Jesus included them in the realm of God here on earth. That amazed the common people and offended the authorities.
It makes me think that amazement is the key to resurrection. Other “old” words come to mind: wonder – love – praise – beauty — awe – mystery. These words don’t seem tethered in time and space. They catch us by surprise. Our eyes open to another dimension, quickening even 21st century skeptics and believers like you and me.
Let me invite you into a thought experiment. Last Tuesday evening, David Novello gave us this exercise in his class on Ecological Spirituality. Close your eyes and take a couple of deep breaths. Then, with your eyes still closed, notice — What do you see as I name the following scenarios]:
* The night sky
* Cherry trees in bloom
* A beloved pet
Breathing naturally, feel your body response. What are some words that describe your feeling right now. [pause – let words come from the congregation ]
Are you amazed? Could this be the Spirit in you? Beckoning you to notice more? Reverence the life you have, and the planet that sustains us?
When I am working with clay on a potter’s wheel, I often have those feelings as the pot takes shape. The spinning wheel is throwing the clay outward against my centering hand, which keeps it curving inward. My inner hand presses outward through the clay, shaping the vessel, drawing it upward. In my mind, I am holding a shape, an image of space enclosed by the thinning wall of clay. Although I am working with water-worn micro-platelets of volcanic stone, millions of years old, I am also birthing newness with my hands. Bringing it into being. The finger-etched clay is the skin of an idea. Ancient Chinese potters knew that the true form is what was left when a pot was broken. Is that Christ at work ?
Let me be clear. I am not confusing myself with Christ. Rather, I am open to the Spirit, able to perceive something larger than I am, at work through my hands and my heart. And when that happens, I feel very much alive and at home, here and now. Engaged with the work that is mine to do in that moment, just as the women must have felt fearfully alive as they approached the tomb, quickened with anticipation, not knowing what they would find.
Some years ago, when we lived in Leavenworth, Kansas, I taught pottery at the federal penitentiary there. I hardly knew what to expect, but I trusted our friend, Gary, who was bringing hands-on art to the prisoners there. At our first session, I learned that the men could not come during the week to practice. They could only come when I was there for our weekly sessions. I didn’t know anything about meditation then, but I knew that I replayed things in my mind, so I suggested that we make our class sessions a time of intense practice, and that they spend at least ten minutes a day in mental practice between sessions. “I guarantee, you’ll be better next week,” I said – and they were. Much to my relief. Was that the Spirit at work? A way to practice resurrection?
How about you? Where do you feel most alive? At one with your surroundings? Engaged with the work that is yours to do?
Our theme for this Easter season is “Transforming Faith.” Water and rock on the bulletin cover seem opposed, but that’s where clay comes from. We are all in the process of transformation, all the time. Here is a meditation for this season that I wrote as preparation for this sermon, called “He Is Not Here….” It was patterned after a poem written by a UU music minister, Dr. Glen Thomas Rideout and I’m grateful to him for nudging me into the world of wonder and amazement.
He Is Not Here…
Christ is not a noun or the last name of Jesus
once he shed his human form to become one with God
Christ is at least a verb, alive here and now
in the breaking of bread;
the touch of a hand,
though even that makes it too tangible.
Christ is not so much a woman
as she is the improbable hope of a brown mother
waiting for her son to come home.
Christ is not so much a man, sitting in judgment on the Last Day,
as he is glinting from a familiar story
told by my father with a belly laugh.
Variously called Wise Counselor, Sophia, Advocate, Great Spirit,
Shadow, Trickster and Staff,
names are never enough to catch and hold
that holy presence.
Looking up at the Sistine Chapel, we got Michelangelo all wrong.
Christ is that space
between the outstretched fingers of the bearded one on high
and the muscled human stretching skyward from below.
Christ is the interval between notes
of a spring bird song on a dappled morning.
And yet she is no bird or blossom,
no clamoring sunrise or melting sunset on the horizon.
Christ comes to us
whistling through twirling planets and coagulating stardust;
14 million of years of geologic time
compressed in clay as stone, leaf and bone;
and in the troubled course of human history
within a web of living things
that we are barely conscious of.
“He is not here” the angels said.
Is not interested in blame or shame,
does not want your dutiful praise
or slavish obedience.
She is too large for that –
dancing now beyond what we can catch and count
that the arc of time does indeed bend toward justice.
Christ is risen indeed!
And so I leave you with this question: Where have you been amazed? Startled by life when you expected pain or death? Where do you feel most alive? At one with your surroundings? Engaged with the work that is yours to do?