Friday, April 25, 2014

An Easter Season Sermon -- "Playing a Different Game"

This is a sermon I preached last night in Kay Chapel at American University. It's about how it's hard to talk about resurrection when we're experiencing grief or death. It's based on 1 Corinthians 15.

The raccoon sighting is bonus material.

Christ is risen! Hallelujah!
            And Happy Easter! While it’s easy to think of Easter as a single day, in church tradition Easter Sunday is just the first day of the Easter season. It’s called the Great Fifty Days of Easter, marking the time between now and Pentecost. So while resurrection is always central to the Christian faith, in the grand story of the church, we are just beginning a whole season focused on the proclamation of the resurrection. Fifty days of joy. Which I think is pretty cool.
            But it’s also a challenge. Because sometimes, it’s awfully hard to proclaim the resurrection. It’s awfully hard to figure out how to talk about life and hope and newness when we are inevitably faced with death and despair and fear. I’m not just talking about in a general sense. I’m talking about the very real ways that each one of us is touched by death and by hurt in our lives. People we are deeply connected to who are sick, who are dying, who have already died. What do we say? How do we proclaim the resurrection, when we are holding the hand of a loved one in the hospital or hearing the bad news on the phone, and words of hope seem false on our lips?
            Last year, just before Easter, my best friend’s dad died after being sick with cancer for a very long time. During middle school and high school, I practically lived at their house. Mr. Summerville could sometimes be sort of a grumpy, cynical guy, but I knew I was always welcome to hang out, play video games, have dinner, and be a general nuisance. I went to visit while he was in home hospice care. He was having trouble talking but he smiled when I got there and told me he thought I’d make a great minister, which meant so much to me. He was someone I cared about deeply, and his son Dan, my best friend, is one of the most important people in my life. And Dan called to tell me that his dad had died, even though it was expected, even though I’ve gone to church my whole life, even though I’ve worshipped on almost 30 Easter Sundays, even though I’ve been in seminary since 2010, you know what was the best response I could come up with?
            I said, “This sucks. I am so sorry. This sucks. Cancer can go straight to hell.”
            The part about cancer going to hell was at least vaguely theological. But no words of resurrection came from my lips that day. I was sad, and angry, and I didn’t want resurrection on some distant day. I wanted Rick Summerville alive.
            Now, my best friend Dan and his dad are not the most churchy of folks, so maybe I get a break for not throwing religious language at them. But I don’t know that my response is much different when it comes to committed Christians. I’m not sure it feels much more helpful to talk theology when death strikes. My professor Mike Stavlund works for a church in Northern Virginia. A few years ago, his four-month old son, Will, died. And Mike found himself doing what no parent ever wants to do: attending the funeral of his child. Last year I heard him give a talk about grief. I asked him, after that talk, whether belief in the resurrection helped at all after Will’s death. And he said something like: “No. No, it really didn’t. It’s not that I don’t believe in it. It’s that I could have really used some resurrection in that hospital room at 3am.” He didn’t want resurrection on some distant day. He wanted Will alive.
            In the face of death, real, actual, painful death, suddenly the promises of the Great Fifty Days of Easter feel strangely hollow. Here we are, at the very center of Christian faith, and all we can think of to say is, “I’m so sorry,” and maybe that’s the best thing we can say, if we say anything at all. We hear the words of Paul in his letter to the Corinthians. We hear him quote from the prophet Hosea, and say: “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” And then someone dies. And dammit, it sure does feel like a loss. It sure does seem to sting.
So what does that mean for the proclamation of resurrection? What does that mean for this, the core claim of our faith? As Paul says in tonight’s typically intense passage: “If there’s no resurrection from the dead, then Christ hasn’t been raised either. If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our preaching is useless and your faith is useless.” We’re Easter people. We can’t just turn away from this point.
But I don’t think we need to turn away from it. Because Paul, I think, is grappling with the same sorts of questions about resurrection. Tonight’s passage is part of a whole long chapter about resurrection. Unlike Paul’s other letters, we know that this one is written in response to a letter sent to Paul by the church in Corinth. They apparently have some pretty major doubts about this resurrection business, and Paul is trying to respond to them. Now, I need you to imagine something with me. It’s almost certain, based on passages in Paul’s letters and what we know of communication in the 1st century Roman world, that Paul didn’t write his letters by hand; rather, he dictated to a scribe. So I want you to imagine Paul dictating this letter. And he’s trying to answer questions about the resurrection, and about whether there is a resurrection of the dead for all people or whether that was just something Jesus did, or what. And I want you to imagine Paul pacing back and forth, talking out loud, half to his scribe and half to himself, trying to figure out just what the heck to say. And he tries one explanation, and then he doesn’t quite like that, and he tries another, and doesn’t quite like that and so he tries a third. He tries to compare the resurrection to planets or to birds or to fruit or to seeds that are sown. He goes on for 58 verses, and by the end of it I wonder if he’s as confused as the Corinthians. You get to the beginning of chapter 16 and Paul’s like, “Ok...uh...anyway, let’s talk about the collection money.”
Oh, Paul.
So I keep coming back to this passage, because in the questions of the Corinthian believers and in Paul’s struggle to respond, I see my own questions and my own struggle. What the heck are we talking about when we talk about resurrection? What do we say when death does have its day? I keep coming back to this passage. About everything changing. About bodies that don’t decay. About death, no longer having a sting or a victory. No longer winning.
Victory. Winning. It’s hard to hear this language without thinking of competition. Of sports. Of games.
Ok. I know that we’ve finished our Game of Thrones Lent and Easter series, so I won’t hang on this for too long. But it occurs to me that the phrase “game of thrones” can stand in for all the games of power and violence and alienation and death on display in our world. Early on in the series, Cersei Lannister tells Ned Stark: "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die." And if you have even a vague knowledge of the series, you know that “die” is the more popular of the two outcomes. Play the game with power, play the game with violence, play the game with death, and death, it seems, wins.
And yet Paul insists that, in light of the resurrection, death has no victory, no sting. Which makes me think that Paul isn’t talking about victory in the game of thrones, the game of power, the game of death. It makes me think that Paul is talking about a different game.
For Paul, the resurrection of Jesus signifies the beginning of a new age, an entirely different world order than the pre-resurrection one. But it’s just a beginning. Using harvest language, Paul calls Jesus’ resurrection the “firstfruits” of this new world. But the full harvest is yet to come. The new world is both already here, and not yet fully here. The sun has dawned but the shadows of night still linger in the valleys where death makes its home.
So while death, for Paul, has lost its grip on the world, it’s not all the way out yet. Death is itself in its death throes, but is thrashing around and causing all sorts of damage in the meantime. Oppression and injustice and violence, and also all the stuff that doesn’t make national news but still comes crashing into our lives, cancers and car wrecks and suicides and overdoses, are all still wounding, still killing. But Christ is risen. Alleluia! And something has changed. Death is still winning the old game. But something has changed, something deep. There’s a new game being played.
Now it can be pretty tough to actually see the new game. Sometimes we get these glimpses. Like, if the game is police dogs versus civil rights protestors, police dogs will always win. But if the game is about a deep change going on in the power system of this country…well, that’s a different game. If the game is arguing with Westboro Baptist Church, I’m not sure there’s much hope for victory. But if the game is actually about responding with poetry and music and free hot chocolate…well then, that’s a different game…one which, by the way, AU won. If the game is an armed KKK member versus unarmed people in a Jewish Community Center, including two members of the largest United Methodist Church in the country, we know who wins. But if the game is about the continuing growth of interfaith friendships in communities like that one in Kansas and like this one at AU, then KKK—you’re gonna lose this game so hard. Where’s your victory, death? Where’s your victory, hate? Where’s your victory, violence?
I’m not so sure that I would say that to the family of those Methodists who were killed in Kansas; at least not on the day they found out that their loved ones had been shot. It would be too soon; too easy; too abstractly theological. My mind leaps back again to holding the phone as Dan tells me his dad has died. Listening to my friend Mike as he talks about all of the saccharine stuff that good Christian friends said when his son died. Sitting with the 4 sisters of a 35 year old man whose funeral I conducted last week, and listening to their stories, and thinking: “Nothing will ever make this make sense.” And death seems to win, again. And death definitely stings.
And here’s the thing. It will sting. It will sting every single time when we can no longer hug the people we love, when we can’t call them on the phone, when we can’t hear their laugh and see their smile and wipe away their tears anymore. And you know what? It should sting. It should sting because the people we love help us see God, and so when we lose them it feels like losing a piece of our divine image. It should sting because at some fundamental level we feel the scandal of death. We experience it as injustice.
Here’s how Paul says it: “Death’s sting is sin, and the power of sin is the Law.” It’s a bit of a packed statement, but here’s how I’d paraphrase it. Death stings because it’s a part of the deep alienation that we feel, from each other and from God and from the world. It’s a tangible manifestation of the separation that we experience in our lives. And the Law, the code of justice and right conduct laid out for us in scripture, just makes us even more aware that the world is not as it should be, that there is a deep wound bleeding and that it’s killing us. Every time we try to establish justice, every time we try to make things work, we find ourselves coming up short, and we are reminded of that wound. And until the kingdom comes in all of its fullness, and we feast together at the heavenly banquet, that’s going to keep happening.
            So the resurrection isn’t a trick to try to make people feel better about the death of someone they love. No. There are times when, to paraphrase the prophet Jeremiah, we refuse to be comforted. We are allowed to mourn. We are allowed to cry. We are allowed to yell at God. In fact, I can show you the psalms that do just that, and if those run out then we’ll write some of our own. No, we proclaim the resurrection to remind ourselves that something has changed, and that the alienation we feel has, deep down, been overcome by the kind of love that’ll go through the grave to get to us.
Even when we don’t feel that love, it’s at work in us. Working in us for wholeness. Working in us for healing. Working in us for life. That same love is sending us to the side of the people dying and the people mourning, to hold hands and to listen and to cry, so that the overcoming of alienation and separation isn’t a theological abstraction but an incarnational witness to the good news of God’s love. It’s not just, “God loves you,” though that’s of course true. It’s, “we love you, and we are here.” We are here, listening and maybe not saying anything, not because we don’t believe in the resurrection, but because we do believe in it. And it’s sent us here to look death in the eye.
            And that work, the work of showing up and sitting in solidarity and listening well, that work is, as Paul says, not in vain. Even more than that, the work of our loved ones, the way that each has played their part in the great cosmic game of life, is not in vain. Death doesn’t get the last word. Because while death is very, very good at the game that it knows how to play, the game has changed.
            So remember. Remember, when death strikes, that anger and grief and pain are natural and appropriate responses, not to be hidden away or suppressed with theology. But also remember that Christ is risen, the first sign that something very deep has changed. Remember that we are an Easter people, a people of resurrection hope. Remember, remember, remember – no matter what victories death seems to have, we are playing a different game.
            Christ is risen. And as Paul says, “Thanks be to God, who gives us this victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”

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