Almost a century ago James Joyce wrote that “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” [i] So many people in this world, throughout this last century, would understand those words – “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” – and we know it is true for multitudes of people in our world even on this Easter morning. Among them, those who labor in our own country and on our behalf without benefit of citizenship or protection or hope; those who are imprisoned on our behalf without benefit of due process; those who live with a kind of inescapable prejudice or persecution because of what they cannot change about themselves. And, beyond our shores, as nearby as Haiti and as far away as Iraq and Afghanistan, the Congo and the Philippines , Israel and Palestine : those who live in a relentless nightmare brought on by the sins of forbearers and the sins of foreigners.
My own sense is that so many in our world today can relate to the passion of Christ, but what to make of the resurrection of Christ amidst the killing fields that continue to be reported, even in this morning’s newspapers? If we as Christians are to have integrity and authenticity, and authority beyond these four walls, then we must be able to give witness to the resurrection of Christ in ways that can be understood and experienced today, and among those who do not know or claim Christ as their Savior (which is the vast majority of this world). “Christianity is always needing to adapt itself into something which can be believed,” the words of T. S. Eliot. What might that mean for us?
Now this morning, what great joy we have in witnessing the baptism of Kristin Hennessy into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And all of us who are baptized have just renewed our own baptismal vows, among them, to reaffirm that we “will seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourself” and that we “will strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” [ii] I would say that these promises we have renewed are not a pledge to inculcate the world with our values, Christian or otherwise. This is not a clubhouse. This is a movement, a movement of Christ’s life into all the world. This is about loving, as Christ loved. It is about respecting the dignity of others in such a way that if they were Jewish, they would be more free, more able, more safe to claim their own Jewish heritage because of our witness of Christ’s generous and dignifying love. That if they were Muslim, or Hindu, or Zoroastrian, or Native American, that they would be able to reclaim, retrieve, recover, restore, resurrect the lifeblood of their own heritage because of the safeguard of our own presence, our own living reminder of the light and life and love of Christ’s resurrection. Because of who we are, they can become more of who they are. Otherwise we bear witness to a movement that is dying, not rising.
The resurrection of Christ is not just a past event. Christ promises to come to us, to come again to us, again and again, both today and in the future, and in ways beyond which we have experienced. The resurrection of Christ is ever new. Li-Young Lee is a contemporary Chinese-American poet, and I would say he understands what we Christians call “resurrection.” His remarkable poem entitled “Little Father”:
I buried my father
in the sky.
Since then, the birds
clean and comb him every morning
and pull the blanket up to his chin
I buried my father underground.
Since then, my ladders
only climb down,
and all the earth has become a house
whose rooms are the hours, whose doors
stand open at evening, receiving
guest after guest.
Sometimes I see past them
to the tables spread for a wedding feast.
I buried my father in my heart.
Now he grows in me, my strange son,
my little root who won’t drink milk,
little pale foot sunk in unheard-of night,
little clock spring newly wet
in the fire, little grape, parent to the future
wine, a son the fruit of his own son,
little father I ransom with my life. [iii]
When we Christians come here this morning, this morning of resurrection, we carry those whom we have buried. We carry them right through the doors of this chapel. It doesn’t matter if we buried them this past year or ten years ago, or two thousand years ago. I’ll use this language of Li-Young Lee to say that no matter where or how we bury our dead, they are raised:
I bury my father in the sky and the birds comb his hair.
I bury my father in the ground and all my ladders only climb down.
I bury my father in my heart and he grows in me.
What is it about this power of resurrection that won’t stop, won’t quit, won’t go away for anyone or anything? It is so true with Jesus. We place him in a tomb. We anoint his body. We wrap him up. We seal the tomb. And we expect him to stay dead. But that is not how it works. On the first day of the week, at early dawn, the holy women came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They find the stone rolled away from the tomb. But when they go in, they do not find the body, and they are perplexed. Suddenly two persons in dazzling clothes stand beside the. The women are terrified and bow their faces to the ground. But this angelic presence says to them, as we have heard this morning, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you…..?”
Wherever we bury Jesus, he comes back to life.
We can bury him in the Bible or in stained glass windows.
We can bury him in creeds and formulas and the heritage of our own tradition.
We can bury him in movies and plays and music .
We can bury him in our past.
We can even bury him in bread and wine.
And each time from each place he rises from the dead. He sheds the words and images and walks right on out into the world. He does this better than anyone I know.
As we anticipate leaving this sanctuary this morning, we face a fascinating challenge and a fascinating invitation: how it is that we will receive and bear the light and life and love of Christ resurrected in a world dying to be loved by God… who comes to us, and who keeps coming to us, again and again, and always greater than our past experience? Undoubtedly we will meet up with Jesus along the way, if the eyes of our hearts are open, which for us, and for others, would be the conversion of a nightmare into a life worth living.
[i] James Joyce in Ulysses (Lilliput Press, 1997), p.40. This masterpiece of fiction, first published in serialized form in 1918, takes place on one day, June 16, 1904 .
[ii] The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 293-294.
[iii] Quoted from Li-Young Lee in Book of My Nights (Boa Editions, 2001). Li-Young Lee was born in Indonesia of Chinese parents. A prolific poet, he and his family now reside in Chicago .
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