Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
During this Lenten season a group of us have been studying together, a course called Faithfully Facing Dying. We’ve been using curriculum developed by the United Church of Christ in response to a General Synod pronouncement about Physician Assisted Death – should it be allowable for a physician to provide to a patient, at the patient’s request, drugs that will bring about a quick death? Is it ok for a physician to administer those drugs, again at the patient’s request? That was our underlying question, but the class has, as classes often will, circled all around the issue of dying. Are there circumstances under which you would not want to live? What do you need to do to manage your death? What does quality of life mean to you?
The curriculum included prayers to begin and end each session – prayers written by the authors of the materials. We read those prayers together, in unison, and I realized, more than once, how when you read a unison prayer, you end up saying things you might not actually believe – or at least wouldn’t say in that particular way. Some phrases that accompany the Easter story are examples of that – “Jesus died for our sins” or “Jesus died for me” or “Jesus died so that I might live”. I don’t really know what those sentences mean. Here’s what I do know – or perhaps I should say, here’s what I do believe: Jesus was an incredibly courageous human being who witnessed two things that were then and are still insults to the heart of God. The first was the deep oppression of a group of people by a political power. The second was the religious sanction of that oppressive, political power. Jesus despised both. But rather than write editorials about it, or complain about it over his morning coffee, he lived to change it. He called a band of unlikely disciples to help him. He changed the lives of the oppressed, one heart at a time, the beggar, the blind man, the adulterous woman, the tax collector, the grieving father, the zealous mother. And he gave that group of oppressed people energy and hope. He challenged the religious leaders who had made their religion into a brittle structure of rules, who appeased the oppressive power of Rome, who were nervous and outraged by this life-giving, life-changing, life-saving movement. Eventually, some of them colluded with the political oppressors to rid themselves of the problem. Using the time-honored, ineffective but expedient strategy of oppressors everywhere, they charged him with a meaningless crime and they executed him. End of story.
How often have we, in our brief lifetimes, witnessed that same story? Countless, I’m afraid. Oppressors are legion, as are the religiously complicit. And saviors, martyrs, and heroes are killed in the vain hope that the movement toward God’s heart will die, too. “Must Christ die in every generation for those of us with no imagination?” (George Bernard Shaw, St. Joan) Apparently so.
But then comes Easter, God’s word back to us. I am not finished. I will try again and again and again that all my children will have life and will have it in abundance and goodness and justice and peace. Like the very first women who saw the tomb or the disciples who first heard the story, we are obliged to make a leap of faith, to wrap our minds around the incredible possibility that there is hope, even when it seems there is nothing left for which to hope. It is left to us, as it was to those who first saw the empty tomb to allow this possibility into our cynical, suspicious, and defensive hearts – the powers of death, while legion, will not prevail. Death will come, but the powers of death, the machinery of death, the manipulation and exploitation of death as a weapon to control the hearts of the living – there will always be life, as long as there is life, and there will always be the hope of God’s heart that we will one day understand. We will get it. We will know that the way the world too often functions is the way to the cross.
In one of my favorite church sanctuaries, the Resurrection window, the most beautiful, the largest, brightest, most intricate window in the entire room, is on the back wall, behind the pews. The pews face the front, of course, facing the nativity window, the birth of Jesus, with Mary, his mother, and the shepherds and magi and animals in a stable. It’s also a lovely window, but it’s darker, bluer, as if it is night. The window of the light of God is in back. Isn’t that an interesting choice, the one the architects made? Or was it the glass artist? Or a committee? Well, whoever made the decision made a theological statement of fairly significant importance. Years and years ago I heard an ordination sermon preached in that sanctuary in which the preacher, Tom Campbell, told the ordinand that he had been summoned to preach the Resurrection. His people would be able to understand that Jesus had been born, had lived. Their human experience would give them that much, and they could look above his head and be reminded of it every time they saw the Nativity window. But they could only see the Resurrection window as it reflected off the person of the preacher, or when they were leaving the sanctuary to go into the world.
That ordinand and I are still good friends all these years later. We worked together for a while in that same church. I thought of that sermon every Sunday, when the congregation of worshippers were sent out into the world. Could they carry the Resurrection light with them? Had I helped them do that by what I had said to them? Did I, who could see the Resurrection window all through every worship service, live with the Resurrection light shining out from me? Do I now?
The world is full of the dead and dying. There are those who are dying physically, from disease or gun fire, or poverty. And there are those who are already dead, not physically, but because their spirits are dead. They live as those who have no hope. They are victims of oppression, and they are the oppressors. They are the religious who fight hard for the maintenance of the brittle structures of a religion that has no soul, or they are the ones who have given up on religion because they witnessed its occasional cruelties and frequent indifference. There are the spiritually dead living with a grief that threatens to suffocate. There are the dead who have given up fighting for a place at the table. There are the dead who are rich in things but poor, so poor in spirit. There are the dead who concede that Jesus lived, yeah, yeah, nice window, but they think only of themselves.
Why do we seek the living among the dead? Shouldn’t we rather bring the life of God to the dead? That’s why we celebrate Easter, because we know with God, nothing is impossible. With God, even the dead can be brought back to life. Alleluia. Amen.