Making A Way Out of No Way
Southminster Presbyterian Church
Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me.’ And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.
Where Do We Go From Here? Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of now way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.
Let us realize that William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.” Let us go out realizing that the Bible is right: “Be not deceived, God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” This is for hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow with a cosmic past tense, “We have overcome, we have overcome, deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome.”
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
And that is the end of the Easter story. The women leave the tomb terrified and silent.
The original ending of the original empty tomb narrative in the earliest gospel, Mark, ends with the women fleeing from the tomb, “for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
And that is the end of the Easter story. Terrified and silent.
It is up to us to finish the story.
The Easter stories cause cognitive dissonance for many of us. These narratives have been taught and preached as historical, literal events. In this understanding, if we went back with a video camera we could have filmed these events including Jesus rising up bodily from the grave and then ascending through the clouds to heaven.
That might have been plausible in a universe in which earth was believed to be at the center and you went up to heaven. It would stretch our credulity to the limit to take these narratives literally today.
Keith Ward, author of The Big Questions in Science and Religion reminds us that the Milky Way is 100,000 light years across. If Jesus ascended at the speed of light and traveled for 2,000 years he would only be a fraction of the way through the galaxy, unless he attained warp speed. (Scotteriology)
For Easter I put a photo of a butterfly on the bulletin cover. Taken from Hubble Telescope this is the butterfly nebula, 4,000 light years away from us. If Jesus were headed toward it, he’d be about half way there by now. The Hubble telescope took photos of galaxies ten to fifteen billion light years away. This is the universe that is unfolding before us.
Our religious texts and symbols come from a pre-modern world. The pre-modern world was a supernatural one. But the scandal of faith for them wasn’t supernaturalism and miracle, it was about how to live life. How to respond to brokenness. How do we translate the heart of the message to our time?
What might it mean to say on Easter, “Jesus is risen” or “Jesus is lord” or as I say in my own faith statement, my statement of conviction, the statement of my heart:
Jesus, you are a living presence in my life.You are the Risen Christ.
What does it mean to speak of God? What might it mean to believe in God?
This is the late Marcus Borg from his wonderful book, The Heart of Christianity:
To echo a comment made a half century ago by Paul Tillich…if, when you think of the word “God,” you are thinking of a reality that may or may not exist, you are not thinking of God. Tillich’s point is that the word “God” does not refer to a particular existing being (that’s the god of supernatural theism). Rather, the word “God” is the most common Western name for “what is,” for “ultimate reality,” for “the ground of being,” for “Being itself,” for “isness.”
Marcus Borg goes on to say,
“the question of God is not the question ‘Is there another being, a supreme being, in addition to the universe?’ It is the question of how you are going to name, how you are going to see, ‘isness.’” Pp. 70-1.
In my words, I would say something like: Life is. How you approach life is the God you believe in.
Life is. How you approach life is the God you believe in.
Sometimes you have to say no before you can say yes. Sometimes you have to say no to every version of god that presents itself.
After my son died I was offended by every mention of God. Every mention sounded like a rationalization of God’s absence, God’s negligence, and God’s willful rejection of my son. The god who could have done something but decided that it wasn’t on his agenda for the day is a god that I do not believe in.
Now I didn’t believe in the existence of God as a supernatural being long before that but I often felt guilty about it. That perhaps my lack of belief was because I hadn’t suffered enough. Life was too easy. If I had struggled more or if I had suffered more, I would believe in the god of supernatural theism. After Zach’s death I realized that I earned the right to be honest.
What do you do when you are done with the god of supernatural theism? When that god of a pre-modern universe doesn’t translate into a modern one, what is left? It could be frightening. It could be like the women running from the tomb terrified and tongue-tied because their entire universe was turned upside down and they didn’t know what to believe. They said nothing.
Sometimes you have to live in that silence.
Sometimes you have to walk in the dark.
Oddly enough, I found church helpful. Many of the stories resonated with me, especially the serious ones, like Job, and the hymns, like George Matheson’s Love That Wilt Not Let Me Go:
O Joy that seekest me through pain,I cannot close my heart to thee;I trace the rainbow through the rain,And feel the promise is not vain,That morn shall tearless be.
I found there is a lot of space in our tradition for the godless. And that space isn’t just hell as in, “Your going to hell if you don’t believe in god.”
The heart of our tradition is that God is beyond images, words, and explanations. God is no thing. I now think of God as a commitment to a particular way of living.
The story of the women leaving the tomb terrified and silent is the way the author of the story meant it to end. It is only when we admit to being terrified and when we have no words that we can start living. When our world breaks, then we find our selves and what we might call God. We have to let go of God to fall into God. Then God is all around. God is life. God is not a being to believe in but a way of being.
Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. Of course he was angry. His brothers, felt the searing guilt whenever they looked into their father’s grieving eyes. When they came to Egypt for food and didn’t recognize Joseph, Joseph played games with them. He had them go back and forth. Joseph was working out his grief and his anger. How could he reveal himself to them when he was still filled with so much resentment?
Joseph plays a trick. He has a silver cup secretly placed in the grain sack of the youngest brother, Benjamin. He sends them home. Then he sends his troops after the brothers to catch them. They “find” the cup in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph demands that Benjamin stay as a slave while the others go.
Finally, it breaks. Judah pleads. He cannot go back to his father who has already lost one son. He offers himself in place of his brother Benjamin. Judah says:
“For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father.”
Only then, does Joseph reveal himself to his brothers. Only then does his anger give way to compassion. He sees the humanity of his brothers and he forgives them and he weeps. He tells them to forgive themselves:
“I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
In all of this pain--in all of this wrong-doing, there is new life. Joseph is finally able to interpret his own story as God preserving life. He is able to let go of the bitterness with his brothers and embrace them in a new reality. How do we interpret life? How we do it and how we live is our God. It is about how we see the “isness.”
Martin Luther King saw the “isness” as the arc of the universe bending toward justice. He saw God as “making a way out of no way” of “truth crushed to earth rising again.”
Maya Angelou similarly saw resurrection as rising from pain and shame.
Out of the huts of history’s timeI riseUp from a past that’s rooted in painI rise
What is resurrection? Who is the risen Christ in my life? It is a commitment to a particular way of life and to stand with those who have been broken.
Jesus wasn’t accidentally run over by a horse. He didn’t die of illness or of old age. He was executed by established authority as an example to others who defy Rome’s power. Crucifixion was a public spectacle of imperial bullying. He was a victim of the civilized world acting normally, protecting the elite from the unrest of the masses. Protecting the economic interests of the privileged over against those considered a threat to their quiet.
Jesus advocated another peace, not a peace through power, bullying, and forced silence, but a peace through justice. He like thousands of others was publicly executed and humiliated to keep Rome’s peace and the peace of religious and political authorities who collaborated with Rome. Jesus represented the marginalized and was himself marginalized. He was as historical Jesus scholar, Dominic Crossan called him, “a peasant with an attitude.” It was an attitude that got him killed.
But that isn’t the end of the story. It ends with a miracle.
The miracle of resurrection is that eventually the women found their voice amidst their fear. The miracle is that his followers didn’t lie down and die. They didn’t give up and give in to their disappointment and discouragement. The miracle is that they discovered that the vision of Jesus did not die with him. But it lives, and thus he lives.
They did what the angel said in the parable. They went back to Galilee and continued the movement. They continued the movement of radical inclusion, of boundary breaking, and of working for and living for a vision of a renewed creation this side of the grave. In this new creation, the marginalized take center stage. The poor are treated with dignity and respect. The hungry are filled with good things. The mighty are cast from their thrones and peace comes not through brute force but through cooperation and through a recognition that there is no us and them, but we are all in this together.
Southminster believes in the resurrection. We are celebrating a milestone in the long struggle for equality for sexual and gender minorities. We will continue that as we recognize there are others with whom we need to stand.
I wrote on my blog and Facebook page that we might have protesters again this week, but come anyway. We will do what we always do. Don’t fear, we will be safe with police presence. A minister colleague commented that we must come from a place of privilege. She lives and works with a population that does not consider itself safe around police. She said she works with the mentally ill and wrote:
A high percentage of the police shootings in the US recently have been against people who they consider mentally ill. Many of them have been when families or people call the police for help during a [mental health] crisis.
She went on to say:
right after Ferguson, Code Pink held a meeting in DC with black families whose sons were killed by the police. There were several mothers there from the suburban Prince George's County in Maryland. It was so heartbreaking hearing mother after mother talk about how their unarmed sons were killed as the result of minor encounters with the police.
Since I have the concern with people diagnosed with mental illnesses, I have been hanging in this crowd lately of people who fear the police due to race, disability and other factors.
And then she said:
It’s a sad state of affairs. But, in this holy week, I guess we should remember that Jesus had no one to call and nowhere that he was safe.
I told her that in our situation, the police protected the demonstrators as well as us, and reminded us that the protesters have every right to be on the sidewalk as we have to worship.
But I wanted to tell you her story, because we do need to be reminded of privilege and what we take for granted that not everyone can afford to take for granted.
Theologian Peter Rollins, often accused of denying the resurrection because he doesn’t view it literally, wrote:
Without equivocation or hesitation I fully and completely admit that I deny the resurrection of Christ. This is something that anyone who knows me could tell you, and I am not afraid to say it publicly, no matter what some people may think…
I deny the resurrection of Christ every time I do not serve at the feet of the oppressed, each day that I turn my back on the poor; I deny the resurrection of Christ when I close my ears to the cries of the downtrodden and lend my support to an unjust and corrupt system.
However there are moments when I affirm that resurrection, few and far between as they are. I affirm it when I stand up for those who are forced to live on their knees, when I speak for those who have had their tongues torn out, when I cry for those who have no more tears left to shed.
How we live our lives, how we see life is our God.
This is the third Easter since my son died. I count time since that event, like BC and AD. I don’t tell my story to call attention to myself or to infer that my grief is somehow special, it isn’t. It is just mine. I speak from my experience because I think others can resonate.
The resurrection of Jesus, for me at least, is not about believing in life after death or believing that Jesus rose bodily from the grave. Resurrection is not life after death so much as life after brokenness. This brokenness is our individual brokenness as well as the brokenness of our world. Still we rise.
When our world breaks up and we are terrified and tongue-tied, we are invited by the angel at the tomb to go Galilee. We are invited to go back to life, when we are ready, and to see it again.
And what of God?
If God is making a way out of no way, I believe in God.
If God is rising after being down, I believe in God.
If God is compassion and forgiveness that overcomes hatred and anger, I believe in that God, too.
If God is brothers reconciled, I believe in God.
If God is sisters dancing for joy, I believe in God.
If we are looking for, as the John Denver song said, something to believe in, we could do worse than to trust in the vision of the historical Jesus. A vision that could live in our hearts.