This I Believe: Resurrection

Date: February 17, 2008
Scripture: John 11: 1-45
Sermon: This I Believe: Resurrection
Pastor: Rev. Kim Wells

Each Easter morning we soar with alleluias as we proclaim

“Christ the Lord is risen today !
Mortal tongues and angels say.
Raise your joys and triumphs high
Sing glad heavens and earth reply.”

This is our celebration of the resurrection.

So the gospel tradition speaks of Jesus being killed, buried in a tomb, the tomb being empty on the third day, Jesus appearing to his friends and then being taken into heaven. (More on heaven and hell on March 9th.) This is the resurrection motif of the gospels.

Within the Christian tradition and belief system there are those who believe things actually happened this way. There are others who believe there is some actuality in this account but that there was significant embellishment of the story in the years following the actual events. Some contemporary scholars, such as John Shelby Spong, tell us that the people crucified by the Romans were buried in mass graves. So they speculate that Jesus was buried in a mass grave. And the story of the empty tomb and the interaction with the risen Jesus evolved to account for the incredibly strong sense of Jesus’ presence experienced by his friends after his death.

Thus in the Christian tradition there is a resurrection from literal to metaphorical. But the entire spectrum, the many facets of understanding resurrection, the mystery of resurrection, all point to the power of life over death. The concept of resurrection is a testimony to God’s commitment to life. Even in the most deathly of circumstances new life can emerge. This is the central message of Christianity. New life. Life overcomes death. There’s an old saying: communism puts a new suit on every man. Christianity puts a new man in every suit. Christianity is about new life and transformation.

The central image for Buddhism is desire. Eliminating desire. The key concept for Hinduism was developed by the Vedas and the Upanshads.. The core ideal for Islam is submission. Submission to God. The salient passage of Christianity is resurrection. Transformation and new life. To take away the image of resurrection, the belief in new life and transformation for people and for the world would be to cut the heart out of Christianity.

In the story of Lazarus we catch a glimpse, a preview of God’s commitment to life. Lazarus, Jesus beloved friend, is sick and dies. We are told that by the time Jesus comes to him, he has been dead for 4 day. It was believed that the soul left the body after 3 days. So by coming 4 days after the death, the writer confirms that Lazarus truly was dead. But even after that, the story tells us, that Lazarus walks out of the tomb. He lives. God’s power is stronger than death.
In our congregation we have experienced considerable death and loss over the past year. Mary Byrd, our church mother and matriarch died. Ken Kinzel, beloved newer member of the church was killed in Nicaragua. My father, who had been a consultant to this church from the Florida Conference, before I even became pastor here at Lakewood UCC, died. Bob Allen, Randy’s father, for a time a regular participant in worship, died. Jay Johnson, regular participant and supporter of the church, and beloved husband of Jean, died unexpectedly. These are people who were part of our core church family, gone.

Then there are others no longer present among us, due to health or relocation. Ken Hamilton and his snowbird parents, Ray Duplease and Dan Knight, Leroy Gates, Michael Crockett, Wanda Gammel, Jorges. And I got an e-mail this week that Vicki Couch will be moving to Atlanta.

This is an enormous amount of loss for our church family in this past year. These people are missed. We grieve the loss of their presence, their love, their support. And yes, their resources of time, talent, and treasure. This loss is extreme for our small congregation that was about 70 members strong.

Last week as budget and resource issues were discussed in planning for the year ahead, there was the sense that we may have lost our critical mass as a congregation. That we have been in the tomb for more than 3 days.

But the story of Lazarus reminds us that God is in the business of new life. There is nothing beyond God’s life-giving, life-transforming reach. Let’s look at how new life appears in the story.

One thing we see is that Mary and Martha do something. They don’t just sit on their hands and whine. They send for Jesus. They mobilize their resources. They reach out. God does not just magically appear and intervene. The people involved, Mary, Martha, and then Jesus, they do something.

For our church to experience new life and transformation, for this church to resurrect after so much death and loss, we must be willing to do something: participate, show up, pray. Help each other, get involved. We also need to invite people to church. People who are struggling. People who would appreciate a supportive community. People who are looking for authenticity and integrity and have given up ever finding it in organized religion. People who are hungry for new life and hope. People who are aching for things to be different in this world. People who are thirsty for peace and justice. People reeling after yet another school shooting. Invite them to find new life and hope in this faith community. Remember: we are a Christian church. Our core image for our faith is resurrection. Transformation. New life. For ourselves and the world.

If every member or household in our church family brought in one new family or member to the church a year, this church would be totally transformed. Just one new member or family a year. [You might have to get 5 or 6 people to visit, before you find the one who will stay, but] This is something we can do. We can invite people we care about to find new life and hope in this faith community as we have. This Lazarus story of the triumph of new life involves Mary and Martha and Jesus doing something. It also involves their faith and trust. When Martha goes out to meet Jesus as he approaches their home, we are told she says, “Teacher, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now [4 days later…] I know that God will give you whatever you ask.” “Seek and you shall find. Ask and you will receive. Your will be done.” Here we are shown that our faith and trust in God creates the climate for new life to emerge. We need to expect God to breathe new life into this church. We need to trust that God needs this church to further God’s mission, we need to work and pray, trust and expect this church to rise up with new life.

The New Testament speaks of the church as the body of Christ, each part with a different function needed for the well-being of the whole. This church has a particular needed role to fulfill in the larger body of Christ.

We are bonded by our commitment to God-centered living as revealed in the life of Jesus. This is our primary focus. Not dogma. Not creed. Not theological tenets. Not structure or hierarchy. Not tradition. Not racial, social, economic, or ethnic identity. Our common ground is our call to God-centered living modeled by Jesus. This makes us different from other congregations

As a result, our congregation is very diverse in other ways, as were the first Christian communities. This was probably the most clarion witness of the early church – the incredible diversity of the community. In a very highly stratified culture where you stayed in your place the early Christian communities were wildly diverse. It was shocking. In our setting, churches are often bonded by homogeneity of some kind – similar economic status, or educational background, or ethnicity or race. It’s far easier to function with that common ground. But we are seeking to relish our theological beliefs and celebrate the diversity God has created to enrich and nourish us. We are seeking the deeper experience of God in ourselves and one another that come with exposure to difference.

“It amazes me that Jesus could call a Matthew and a Simon both to be his disciples. Matthew was a tax collector, a conservative of the conservatives. Simon was a zealot, the liberal of the liberals…They were farther apart than Ted Kennedy and Rush Limbaugh could ever dream of being.” {Greg Boyd, senior pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, Christian Century, Sept. 18, 2007, p.7]

This makes us different from other congregations and needed for our special role.

Our church is also needed in the body of Christ because we are seeking to breathe new life and hope into Christianity itself. In our culture as a whole, Christianity is losing ground because educated; reasonable, thinking people are lesd willing to blindly accept the supernatural, the magical thinking required by most expressions of Christianity. This trend is masterfully presented by Bishop Spong especially in his book Why Christianity Must Change or Die.

This week the St. Petersburg Times announced that only 22% of the public want only the theory of evolution taught in the public schools. And 50% want only faith based theories taught. [St. Petersburg Ties 2/15/08, Public: Faith trumps science , Ron Matusa and Donna Winchester]
Florida is way behind the curve here. In 100 years, friends, this will be laughable. Like the idea that the sun revolves around the earth. Overall in our society and culture, the postmodern, scientific, worldview will continue to gain ground, as it should because God gave us these incredible brains to use and develop and progress. God takes delight in humanity’s continuing intellectual achievement as a parent takes joy in watching a child learn to walk and talk and read and develop.

This church doesn’t ask people to park their thinking minds at the door when they enter. This church does not require people to ignore or deny their personal experience. This church does not demand acceptance of supernatural occurrences to have an authentic faith. This church accepts and respects the magical, miraculous faith experience of some while also respecting and affirming a more reason-based faith experience. We are a see in this post-modern, secular culture nurturing Christianity so that it grows and flowers and remains meaningful and relevant in the centuries to come as the world progresses.

This church is also needed because we truly believe that following in the way of Jesus, the values, the dreams, the lifestyle, we see in the Jess of the New Testament is a path for saving the world. It is a path for transformation of violence lest we bomb ourselves to oblivion. It is a path for the healing of the earth as we proceed dangerously toward ecocide. It is a path of personal engagement, compassion, and relationship in a world of growing population and depersonalization. It is a way of generosity and justice in a world where greed has become an epidemic. The Christian path, the way of Jesus is a lifestyle commitment that embodies God’s commitment to love the whole world and save the whole world. I believe that God wants to breathe new life into this particular, unique faith community because it is needed for God’s dreams to flourish and be fulfilled.

In turning back to the Lazarus story, we see new life emerge where people get involved and have trust, but we also see risk involved. Jesus goes to Bethany, the home of Mary, and Martha, and Lazarus, in Judea, where he is a wanted man. Notice that little verse, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” When Jesus goes to Bethany, he is risking his life and the lives of his disciples. Embracing new life, this core Christian motif of resurrection, involves risk and death. Transformation requires something to cease to exist as it was so something new can emerge, there’s that famous comment made by the caterpillar looking up at the butterfly, “You’ll never get me up in one of those things!” For this church to experience new life and resurrection, risk will need to be involved. We will need to give something up. We will need to face our fears. We have to free ourselves from the power of death and accept the risk and the cost for the greater promise and hope.

For the church, for us, this can mean a personal cost in making a sacrificial pledge that means giving something else up. This can mean moving away from “We’ve always done it that way,” a comfortable, familiar way of doing things. It can mean trying some new things which end up not working – learning from that. But risk and cost is involved in experiencing resurrection and new life. During the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about practicing “dangerous unselfishness.” [I Have a Dream Speech] That is what is needed for new life, transformation and resurrection to take place. That’s what we see in the life of Jesus: dangerous unselfishness. That’s how Christians are called to live.

At the beginning of the service we listened to the chorus from Mahler’s 2nd Symphony, the Resurrection Symphony. The soaring melodies, the strong, vibrant choral singing include the words, “Prepare to live.” Often our mindset is to so focus on avoiding death that we forget to live.

The central Christian image of resurrection is an image of LIFE. It is desperately needed to move us as individuals, as a church, and as a society away from the grip of death and beyond. What we have accepted as conceivable limits God is seeking to breathe new hope and new life into us, into the church, and into the world today. Resurrection: this is the core message of Christianity. It is an invitation to life: full, abundant and transformed. This is what God promises us and I believe for our church. Amen

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