Sunday, April 24, 2011

an easter sermon, maybe

I do not understand resurrection. I can deal with Good Friday; I can imagine Holy Saturday. I hear of countless horrors and have brushed up against deep grief. I know the world is utterly, unfathomably broken. I get that. I understand – theoretically, rationally – the cross. People get put to death every day. People get abandoned and rejected and flogged and unfairly punished and caught in systems of violence and oppression all the time. My political leanings and my personal relationships and my religious convictions keep me fairly well informed about the nastiness of the world.

So, it makes sense to me that Jesus would suffer. It makes sense that the hurt of the world would affect him just as much as any of us. I understand why and how his life ended the way it did. None of that takes too much imagination to visualize and comprehend.

But I do not understand resurrection. I just don’t get it. It’s not that I can’t imagine a dead person coming back to life - I can do that. It’s not that I disbelieve the biblical story – I trust the women who witnessed the empty tomb. It’s not that the image of resurrection falls flat - I love the story of Jesus eating fish and honeycomb, confirming his human hunger and need for nourishment. I just don’t understand it. What purpose does resurrection have in the already well-established biblical plot? How in the world are we supposed to integrate something like this into our constructions of reality? What the crap was God trying to tell us?

There are plenty of pat explanatory sermons to be had, a fair number of theological salves to make this ridiculous plot twist seem sane: You are forgiven. Death is defeated. Hell is conquered. God is bigger. Debts are paid, so sin no more. But these are all, in my estimation, poor and paltry explanations that fail to live up to the incredible awkwardness, fail to witness to the unspeakable mystery.

What the hell, God? I mean, seriously, what the hell were you doing there? You totally lost your audience with that finale, stepping solidly outside the bounds of the narrative world you’d created and throwing in something completely other and completely unexpected.

My favorite Easter text is the original ending of the original gospel: Mary Magdalene and Mary and Salome have brought spices to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body. The tomb is empty, and instead of following the angel’s instructions to run tell that, “they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Well, obviously. Of course they were afraid. Of course they were trembling and astonished and fleeing. I’m not sure if those women were particularly sassy or particularly pious, so I can imagine two responses: “Well, I do declare! That Jesus always ways a wily one! Where DID he get off to, now?” Or, alternately and preferably, “HOLY SHIT, y’all!” And it was some holy shit, indeed.

Luke Timothy Johnson, my New Testament professor, insists that the scriptures were written and the church was founded for one, simple reason: This small group of people experienced something so completely confounding, so utterly perplexing, that they were compelled to do any and everything in their power to make sense of it. They gathered together in the comfort of good and sympathetic company to share every story of this man they could remember; wrote letters and sent envoys; gathered as many followers as they could because more minds are better than one; created and adapted rituals to remind themselves of what happened. They started a movement that fossilized into an institution; tried on explanations that settled into dogma and creed, defining orthodoxy and heresy.

I do not understand the resurrection. As my friend James reminded me when I tweeted that confession early this morning, maybe that’s the point. No one does. No one did. We spend this day in explanatory preaching and self-certain proclamation, singing hymns of sacrificial atonement and time-honored soteriology. We thank God for saving us. We make heroes out of villains, grateful to Judas and Pilate for doing their parts to see this horrific plan of divine abuse through so that we might find our way to heaven. We tell ourselves that we know what this all means, and that makes us feel safe.

But I don’t know what any of it means. I do not understand resurrection. Despite some early redactors’ confidence that the women did eventually spread the word, despite Paul’s theologizing the whole mess into a systematic framework of sacrifice and redemption, despite centuries of self-righteous proclamation and despite today’s Facebook feed full of confident but unsatisfactory exegesis and earnest but faulty theology, I do not understand resurrection. That bothers me, and it heartens me. I want to know, I want to understand. I want things to make sense and I want to be able to live within the bounds of a rational, sensible world.

But the mystery beckons me, and promises me some kind of endlessly fascinating pilgrimage. It surprises me, and baffles me, and reminds me that I don’t know squat about these things, or, if I’m honest, about anything. There is beauty here, too. There is beauty in surprise and beauty in fear, beauty in not-knowing and beauty in the possibilities to which this not-knowing gives way.

I do not understand resurrection. Let that be my proclamation for today. Let that be my confession and my celebration, my rejoicing and my lament. Christ is risen, and I do not understand. Alleluia.


bekah said...

thank you, this... this, I needed.
i love you.

sarah said...

well-written, dana. i especially liked the part about the holy shit. that it was actually holy. ... living in a very evangelical / sometimes falsely religious society makes me feel like i have no faith. but when i read your post, i no longer felt alone in my lack of understanding. thank you, dear.

side note, when are YOU going to come visit me in your BVS staff role? we could do community living latin-american style ... :)

Meghan said...

Dana, I loved this and here's why:

1. I imagined Mary Magdalene saying "Holy shit,y'all", but she was replaced, in figure, by a Paula Deen-esque Southern woman in her Sunday best. This made me laugh.

2. This is so write things that I think in a way that I have no words for.

3. In a time in my life when I question everything and others are so quick to believe, I find this refreshing. I too, feel as though I have no faith at times, simply because everyone around me seems to have so much.

4. I miss you a lot! I am hoping you will be at Annual Conference so I can see you then, but I will hopefully be back in VA sooner than that.

Lena said...

This was very interesting. I had never thought that I didn't understand something like resurrection. I believe that, most simply, Christ was resurrected to show us that we are not lost after we die. That there is another life. Christ came back to this world, this life, to prove to the people that it could happen. And now that we have seen it, or have a witness of it, we can have faith that it will happen to us. If you don't believe in the afterlife (like my dad) then this would mean nothing. But for me, I look forward to seeing agin those whom I have lost, and meeting for the first time those who came before me.

Not knowing you personally, I can make a large number of assumptions about your religious behavior, but I don't need too. You seem very down to earth in a lot of respects, and I think it takes a lot of courage to express something like this. It's not something I would have done. I appreciate you making me think about my own religious beliefs. I hope that someday you find a satisfactory reason for the resurrection.