Sermon Delivered at the Alliance of Baptists 25th Annual Convocation, Louisville, KY – April 29, 2011
It’s good to be with you this afternoon. It’s really good to be back in the South. I grew up in North Carolina, but I have been living in California now for almost eight years, which is hard to believe. And I love it there—well, except earthquakes and wild fires—I don’t love earthquakes and wild fires. Mowing your yard in shorts in February is nice. But there’s something about being back in a place where people call you sweetie and honey and darlin. Immediately, I start to get my twang back.
I love hearing those phrases I only hear in the South—the ones that make the people in our church back in San Diego look at me funny. Things like, when you find something you were looking for right under your nose: “if it had been a snake, it woulda bit ya.” Or the way we can use “bless your heart” to be both an insult and an endearment—like “that boy doesn’t have the good sense God gave a goat, bless his heart.” Or one that my dad used to use when he was laid back in his easy chair, enjoying a relaxing afternoon and my sister and I came with some proposition that would undoubtedly eat up the rest of the day, like “Daddy, come help us build a bird house.” To which he would slowly reply, “that sounds like work.” “That sounds like work” was his way of telling us that he was fine right where he was, and that what sounded like fun to us didn’t sound so fun to him.
So I have a confession to make this afternoon. When I began to think about our theme this weekend, as the Alliance celebrates a quarter-century of life, when I thought about that phrase “resurrecting church,” I thought: That sounds like work. And as excited as I was to come here and be with you all, I found that the more I thought about “resurrecting church,” the more tired I became. Tired, and then anxious, because, well, I had agreed to start off this conversation and be your tour guide, of sorts, as we explore our theme this weekend.
Now, I’ve done enough therapy that when I start feeling tired and anxious, the therapist voice in my head kicks in, and says: “What’s that about for you, Mary Sue? Say more about that. Let’s get curious about that.” My therapist voice is pretty gentle, but right on her heels came my critic’s voice: “What kind of minister are you if the thought of resurrecting church doesn’t excite you? You do believe in resurrection, don’t you? I mean, it’s kind of crucial for being a minister. Maybe you’re in the wrong profession. Maybe you should look into being a mail carrier. Or a barista. Or a Zumba instructor.” My critic isn’t quite as nice as my therapist, but sometimes she has some decent ideas. I do like to walk, drink coffee, and dance.
I took a deep breath and just sat for a while. So what was it? Why was I having such a hard time finding the good news of “resurrecting church?” Why was my cup not “overflowing with Easter joy” at the thought of “dreaming new dreams about our work in the church?”
Well, I thought, maybe part of it was how difficult it is to talk about resurrection, especially in Progressive Christianity. Easter is supposed to be the high point of our life together in the church, the time when we affirm the core of our faith. But I’ve sensed over the years, among my congregants, my fellow clergy, and in my own heart, a sort of dis-ease as Easter approaches. And I think at least in part, it’s because for Progressive Christians, Easter is the day we have to actually talk about resurrection. Well, I guess we don’t have to; one of my colleagues is a minister of music who was asked by his Senior Pastor to find an Easter anthem that didn’t mention “all that crucifixion and resurrection stuff,” just something more general about new life would be nice. Another of my clergy friends commented on the challenge of Easter worship among liberals: “Yeah, ‘Christ is Risen, Hallelujah’ has a certain ring to it. It’s just not as poetic to say ‘The followers of Christ, centuries after his death, expressed their experience of God’s ongoing presence with them using the metaphor of resurrection, Hallelujah!’” (And it wouldn’t fit on your banner.)
But Easter demands that we at least acknowledge what has become for many Christians, progressive or otherwise, a challenging proposition. A few days before Easter, the editors at Patheos, an online community for dialogue about religion and spirituality wrote that on Easter, “millions of Christians around the world will rise early in the morning to raise joyful Hallelujahs as they celebrate the defining event of the Christian faith: the Resurrection of Jesus. Undoubtedly, millions more will rise and raise the question…whether the Resurrection could possibly have happened, for real.” Patheos then asked some of their regular contributors, including one of our own gifted Alliance ministers, Carl Gregg, to respond in 100 words or less to the question “in our modern scientific world, does belief in a resurrection make sense?” (Carl offered an excellent response, by the way, and you should look it up and follow him there if you don’t already).
More and more, we are willing to admit that our modern (or post-modern) mindset makes belief in the resurrection a concept with which most people of faith must wrestle. But the more I considered my own initial discomfort with this weekend’s theme, the more I knew that wasn’t the cause for it. I knew here, of all places, I’d be in good company with other pilgrims who engage big questions like these with passion and integrity and honesty. After all, in our opening Call to Worship, we were asked about the resurrection “do you believe in it?” To which we replied “sometimes we do; sometimes we don’t.” **Sigh** I love being in a place where we tell the truth!
So if that knotty problem of the resurrection wasn’t my issue, then what was it? My next thought came as I started to recall the church-related conferences I’ve been to lately. It seems that they are full of speakers and workshops and seminars about what’s wrong with the church and how we can fix it. Now, I’m not questioning that we are in the “midst of new dimensions and changing ways,” as the hymn says, or that there is a need for change. To be sure, the current observations about mainline Protestant denominations include many of those “dire predictions” that we referenced in our Call to Worship. I don’t need to rehearse them all for you here; I’m sure you’re familiar with most of them. Our mainline congregations are aging and our membership continues to decline. Young people have increasingly negative views about Christianity, with a large majority of them reporting that they see the church as judgmental, hypocritical, out of the touch with reality, and just plain boring.
And more and more, it seems that when I hear people reflect on these challenging circumstances, the responses that are offered seem to treat the church more like a soft drink in need of a better ad campaign or a new, improved formula than a community of believers in need of renewal and resurrection. “Let’s get chairs instead of pews and some LCD screens and some guitars, and let’s have Bible study in bars and take “church” out of our name…”
Now please, please don’t get me wrong—I’m not trying to knock churches who have thoughtfully made those decisions. I believe they all have merit, and that they can make a difference. But the cumulative effect of all these changes can make me feel like we in the church are, well, desperate. It starts to feel like we’re treating the church like the corpse in that masterpiece of 80s cinema, Weekend at Bernie’s: We know that the church—parts of it, at least—are dead, but we go to great lengths to create clever ways to make it look alive, all so that we can stay safe. But friends, a dead body made to look alive is not a resurrection.
So maybe this was my problem. If what we mean by “Resurrecting Church” is some sort of “Extreme Church Makeover” or “Pimp My Church,” I want to pass. But then I realized: This is the Alliance. These are people who know better than to think “Resurrecting Church” is a formula we can distribute in the registration packets. They know that resurrection doesn’t come from programs or Power Points or praise bands.
And finally, finally, it hit me: my discomfort with the idea of “Resurrecting Church” wasn’t just a general ambivalence about the plausibility of the resurrection or its application for our 21st century lives. And it wasn’t my somewhat self-righteous judgment of the ways the church is willing to adapt itself to try to appeal to a new audience.
The truth was—the truth is—that I am afraid. I am afraid of what it might mean for the church, and what it might mean for me, if we really open ourselves to the power of resurrection. What if we are forced to examine all those ways we are dragging a corpse around, pretending it’s alive? What if I have to start over, learn to do things differently, embrace change, risk failure? What if we have to leave behind familiar traditions and forms we have known and loved and discover new ones? Are we willing? Can we do it?
This. This was my problem. Because I wasn’t sure of my answer. Those “dire predictions” about the church’s future—and about my future in it—have sometimes caused me to “withdraw in pain.” Like Ezekiel looking at that pile of dry, dry bones. When God asks, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Can the church live? I can only reply “You know, O God.”
Are we willing to really open ourselves to the power and possibility of resurrection? If we’re unsure, afraid, we should be. Because resurrection changes everything. Just ask Lazarus.
In this curious and somewhat cryptic story from John’s gospel, we don’t hear much about what Lazarus thought of this whole situation of being raised from the dead, and I found myself getting really curious about him. And I came across a fascinating excerpt from a play called “Calvary” by William Butler Yeats, in which Yeats imagines the resuscitated Lazarus as one of the hecklers at Jesus’ crucifixion.
Christ, expecting gratitude from the one he saved, is surprised to hear Lazarus complain: “For four whole days,” Lazarus barks, “I had been dead and was lying still in a comfortable mountain cavern when you came climbing there with a great crowd and dragged me to the light.”
But, “I gave you life,” Christ replies.
“Death is what I ask. Alive I never could escape your love…
‘Come out!’ you called; you dragged me to the light as boys drag out a rabbit when they have dug its hole away;
Now you blind with light the solitude that death has made; you disturb that corner where I thought I was safe forever.”
Safe forever. What tombs have we crawled into in an attempt to stay safe forever? In what ways have we chosen death over the risks and threats that new life might bring? Lazarus would have been right to have been angry. Because everything changed for him. Raised, yes, but it wasn’t long before the enemies of Jesus plotted to kill Lazarus, his new life the evidence of Jesus’ power.
Resurrection changes everything, and we may not like the changes. There is an apocryphal tale of a blind man healed by Peter “in the name of the resurrected Christ” whose first response is, “You fool! You’ve destroyed my way of making a living!” And then, he gouges out his own eyes.
Resurrection changes everything. Resurrection changes us. To borrow a phrase from the poet Julia Esquivel, resurrection threatens us. Esquivel, a Guatemalan teacher and human rights activist, was forced into exile in 1980 for her work against the senseless killings of indigenous peoples by ruthless dictators. Her collection of poems entitled Threatened with Resurrection is a powerful work, and Quaker author Parker Palmer reflects on how its title alone completely transformed his thinking:
“I was raised in a church that said, “Death was the big threat and resurrection was the great hope.” But here was a woman of great courage and integrity saying, ‘Sometimes a living death is more comfortable than being truly resurrected, which is a threat.’ But if you embrace resurrection and new life, God knows what you might be called to.”
“Bone-deep knowledge of resurrection would take away the fears that some of us presently use to justify our cautious, self-protective lives. Death-dealing fear would be replaced by life-giving faith, and we would be called to do God-knows-what for God-knows-who. Perhaps we would be compelled to take in a homeless person; to go to prison in protest of nuclear madness; to leave jobs that contribute to violence; to “speak truth to power” in a hundred risky ways. In the process, we might lose much that we have, perhaps even our lives– and that is the threat of resurrection.”
We might lose much of what we have. Are we willing to risk resurrection? Are we willing to answer when Jesus calls to us “Come out!” Come out of the tomb? How do we walk into the new life God calls us to? I imagine that Lazarus must have been scared and confused to find himself back in the land of the living. As the air filled his lungs and he blinked his eyes and looked around, he realized that his body was still wrapped up tight in burial cloths. He was alive, but he couldn’t get himself out of that tomb alone. And he didn’t have to. Jesus said to those around him, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
How do we find new life in the church? How do we unbind ourselves and get free from the wrappings of lifelessness and death? I don’t have an easy answer to those questions, because I don’t believe there are any. But of this, I am sure: We can’t have a resurrected church if we don’t live like resurrected people. Today, we have been reminded that we are resurrected people by remembering our baptisms. In those waters, we die and are raised again, not once, but over and over. We are being resurrected every day by the God who breathes life, again and again into our dry bones. Ultimately, resurrection is God’s work, not ours. But we can participate; we can fully inhabit the new life God is giving us. So let’s find ways to “practice resurrection,” as Wendell Berry says, in our lives, and in the church. Let’s re-imagine, re-ignite, and re-engage.
This weekend, I invite us to wrestle with these ideas. I invite us to wrestle with what it means to be resurrected. I invite us to wrestle with what it means to be church.
And I also invite us to listen. Listen for the voice of Jesus, calling out to those places within us that feel dead, to those places we have been hiding out, staying safe. And listen for that voice that is calling our name, and saying “Come out.”
And finally, I invite us remember that we are not alone. Look around. Do it now. Look around at your sisters and brothers gathered here and remember that, although God threatens us with resurrection—threatens to drag us from the dark of our comfortable, quiet tombs and into the light of the noisy, messy world—God does not call us to walk alone. God walks with us, and we are surrounded by a baptized community of faith, a community that doesn’t flinch at the stench of our decay, a community that is ready to heed Jesus’ call to unbind us and let us go, a community that reaches out to unwrap the burial cloths that bind us and sets us free.
Resurrecting church? That sounds like work. And it is. It is God’s work, through us, calling us ever forward into new life. May we respond with courage to the threat of resurrection, now and forever. Amen.
Sisters and Brothers,
The threats of dire predictions may cause us to withdraw in pain, but we are threatened by something far more dangerous! Here now these words adapted from Julia Esquivel’s poem:
Exhausted by death, we continue to love life.
Let us walk together then on this vigil
And we will know what it is to dream!
We will then know how marvelous it is
To live threatened with resurrection!
To dream awake,
To keep watch asleep
To live while dying
And to already know ourselves resurrected!
Mary Sue Brookshire is the Associate Minister at the United Church of Christ of La Mesa, near San Diego, California. A native of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, she did her undergraduate studies at Wake Forest University and received her MDiv from Candler School of Theology at Emory University. She has been involved with the Alliance of Baptists since 1996 and has served on the Alliance Board. She and her husband, Mark LeMay, are the proud parents of 3 year old twins, Hannah and Isaac. Last year, Rev. Brookshire and Alliance member Rev. Brian Dixon co-authored a chapter in the book Split Ticket: Independent Faith in a Time of Partisan Politics.