(Sunday Homily) As Our Bombs Fly, I Can’t Say “Happy Easter!” Can You?

MOAB

It’s Easter. But I can hardly bring myself to say “Happy Easter.” That’s because the world is once again rushing towards war – the antithesis of the holiday’s celebration of life. And it’s being led in that direction by a nation where 70-75% claim somehow to follow the risen Christ.

[BTW did you notice that just last Thursday Christian fundamentalists dropped (on Afghanistan tribal lands) the largest Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) since Hiroshima and Nagasaki?]

What hypocrisy!

But why the bombing in Syria? Get ready . . .  It’s because of our “enemy’s” deployment of weapons of mass destruction! In Syria, it’s about chemical weapons! It’s about a leader who absolutely must be removed from office because he so resembles Adolph Hitler.

Sound familiar?

What’s his name again?

Wrong if you say Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic, or Manuel Noriega. This time it’s Bashar al-Assad. What a beast! He’s killed so many children!

But what about the victims of their WMDs, you ask – the children poisoned?

What about the poisoned children in Flint Michigan, I might ask? We stand by silent as they’re allowed to drink water contaminated by lead. Oh, but I forgot; those are American children – and they’re mostly black. And as we all know, black lives don’t matter. They’re on their own. We obviously have greater responsibility for poisoned Syrian kids. (Imagine the unborn fetuses that were killed!) We simply must protect them all from death at the hands of the dictator du jour.

Apparently we’ve forgotten about the 500,000 children our sanctions killed in Iraq during the 1990s. That was o.k. It must have been. Madeleine Albright said so.

Apparently we’ve forgotten about the millions (!) of children in Yemen currently threatened by famine directly induced by the U.S.-Saudi coalition which has been bombing that country non-stop for more than two years. We do nothing for them except continue the mayhem.

But that’s o.k. too. After all, our leaders tell us bombing is the solution to any problem you might care to name. It’s all justified. And besides Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East. Poor people (especially so far away) don’t really matter either. It’s the arms manufacturers Raytheon, Motorola, Boeing, and their billionaire owners who really count. They’re our neighbors – on Wall Street.

Have you noticed; the stock market is soaring?

And, of course, the record shows that our leaders have been right – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia. Aren’t we proud of the freedom, democracy, and peace our own WMDs have brought those benighted lands?

And (once again!) the press is cheerleading it all. Check the newspapers. Look at CNN. Hardly a single editorial has criticized the rush to war. Brian Williams finds our Cruise Missiles “beautiful.”

On Easter Sunday, doesn’t all of this seem ironic – and infuriating?

That’s because everything I’ve just described is terribly out-of-sync with the Christian faith so many Americans claim as their own. Jesus was non-violent. He refused to take up arms to defend himself or his friends. He had no fear of death. Or rather, he overcame his fear and endured torture and death on behalf of others. Protecting himself by sacrificing others was not Jesus’ Way. Quite the opposite.

Imagine if 70-75% of U.S. citizens refused to succumb to today’s war fever because of our faith in Jesus’ Way. Imagine if we called upon that faith to demand that President Trump sober up, stop the bombing, and abjure permanent war that is the cause (not the solution) of the Mid-East’s problems.

A faith like that would be worth embracing; it would make a difference. It might allow Jesus’ followers to say (and truly mean) “Happy Easter!”

(Sunday Homily) Marianne Williamson Raises Jesus from the Dead!

Marianne

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent: EZ 37: 12-14; PS 130: 1-8; ROM 8:8-11; JN 11: 1-45

Last week, the great spiritual teacher and social justice advocate, Marianne Williamson came through Berea like a Pentecost whirlwind. The message she brought connects intimately with today’s Liturgy of the Word that centralizes the political realities of resurrection from the dead in hopeless circumstances like those we’re currently experiencing in the United States.

Marianne Williamson had been invited to Berea College by my wife, Peggy, who heads the Women and Gender Studies program there. It was a real coup. Peggy worked for months trying to make it happen. In the realm of spiritual leadership, she (Marianne and my wife too) is a rock star.

Ms. Williamson not only presented an inspiring hour and a half convocation lecture with Q&A, she did the same thing for an hour at Peggy’s “Peanut Butter & Gender” luncheon series at noon. Afterwards, Peggy and I along with Berea’s president and seven of the college’s feminist leaders shared supper with Marianne at Berea’s famous Boone Tavern. To top it all off, Peggy and I drove Marianne and her secretary back to Cincinnati – a two-hour trip that was filled with wonderful conversation about (as my blog site puts it, “Things that Matter”). The whole experience was for me unforgettable.

Here are a few nuggets of Marianne’s wisdom:

  • In the Trump phenomenon, we’ve witnessed a kind of Stockholm Syndrome that has poor and middle class people identifying with and seeming to love their captors and oppressors.
  • Our country and the world are in unprecedented crisis. Our Titanic is headed towards huge icebergs represented by nuclear weapons, climate change, and chemical poisoning.
  • In such context, citizens, not politicians, are captains of our ship. There is nothing more important than our seizing control before it’s too late. Working to do so should fill our waking hours.
  • Young people, no doubt, have much to offer in helping our ship to reverse course. However, as community elders, others of us are Keepers of the Story. We remember the invaluable lessons of Malcolm, MLK, Dorothy Day, JFK, Bobby Kennedy, Gandhi, and Eleanor Roosevelt. We experienced the resistance of the Civil Rights Movement and opposition to the Vietnam War. We must share that experience and the understanding it generated.
  • If in doing so, you find everyone agreeing with you, you’re probably not speaking the truth.
  • On the other hand, when you hear the truth spoken (even if others are rolling their eyes), it’s incumbent on you to say, “Actually I agree with her,” if that’s the case. Studies show that speaking up like that encourages others to overcome inhibitions in advancing the conversation and speaking more truthfully.
  • In its attempts to speak truth, the left is making a huge mistake by not owning the power of faith. It was no accident that abolitionists and women suffragists were Quakers. It’s no accident that Martin Luther King was a Baptist preacher or that Mohandas Gandhi was a Hindu prophet.
  • Imitate those people of faith. It’s no use waiting for the others to “come around.” The majority didn’t support abolition of slavery, women getting the vote, the Civil Rights Movement, gay marriage – or the American Revolution, for that matter. Such changes were effected by relatively small groups of highly committed idealists.
  • In fact, people are hungering for spiritual nourishment; and if they’re not offered authentic spirituality, they’ll accept its ersatz version.
  • That’s a reality that the political right has exploited. It has substituted a Prosperity Gospel that worships capitalism and money for authentic spirituality’s advocacy of social justice.
  • In the Christian context, the ersatz version has figuratively killed Jesus, who needs once again to be raised from the dead.

It’s that last point that especially connects with today’s liturgical readings – and with our current seemingly hopeless political reality. There to begin with, Ezekiel coins the concept of “raising from the dead” to refer to Israel’s impending liberation from its own despair during its Babylonian Captivity. Ezekiel’s metaphor reappears in today’s gospel reading where John the evangelist presents his familiar parable about Jesus raising Lazarus from the grave where Jesus’ friend lay moldering for more than three days.

Consider the hopelessness of Ezekiel’s Israel. His sixth century was the saddest of times – the era of his nation’s Great Exile. The Hebrews had been defeated and humiliated by Babylon (modern day Iraq). Its leaders and a large portion of its populace had been abducted to that enemy state. The exiles felt as if they had been slaughtered culturally. They were far from home, controlled by foreign masters, and apparently abandoned by God.

But the prophet Ezekiel did not share his people’s general despair. So in an effort to regenerate hope, he coined the idea of resurrection. Ezekiel loved that concept. [Recall his Vision of Dry Bones (EZ 7: 1-14).] For Ezekiel resurrection was a political metaphor that promised a new vital future despite appearances to the contrary. Israel, he said, would be liberated from Babylon, return home and experience rebirth. They would come back to life.

In her convocation address to Berea College students, Marianne Williamson embraced not only Ezekiel’s spirit, but that of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. She did so by rescuing them both from conservative forces whose version of Christianity has held center stage for the last 45 years. It’s that version, Marianne said, which has metaphorically killed the Jesus of the Gospels, who proclaimed the imminent arrival of God’s Kingdom which belongs to the poor and all of God’s creation, not to the rich whom ersatz Christians prioritize.

Like Ezekiel, Jesus made his proclamation when all appearances indicated that Israel was dead. It was entirely under the heel of Roman jackboots and there seemed no escape. Yet Jesus described a horizon of hope that enlivened the spirits of the poor who were crushed by the Romans and by their rich Jewish collaborators who headed the temple establishment.

In such dire straits, Jesus proclaimed a new future where everything would be turned upside down. He said audacious things. In God’s realm, he insisted, the poor would be in charge. The last would be first, and the first would be last. The rich would be poor and the poor would be well–fed and prosperous. The powerless and gentle would have the earth for their possession. Jesus’ unemployed and famished audiences couldn’t hear enough of that!

So he elaborated. He told parable after parable – all about the kingdom and its unstoppable power. It was like leaven in bread – unseen but universally active and transforming. It was like the mustard seed – a weed that sprouted up everywhere impervious to eradication efforts. It was like a precious pearl discovered in the ash bin – like a coin a poor woman loses and then rediscovers. His metaphors, similes and parables were powerful.

To repeat, Marianne strongly implied that socio-economic conservatism has murdered the Jesus I’ve just described. It has done so by its “preferential option for the rich.” It embraces free-market capitalism, trickle-down theory, and cut-backs in health care, education, and anti-poverty programs. Conservatives complement such horrors with huge tax-breaks for the country’s 1%. All of this is chillingly represented recently by “devout Catholic,” Paul Ryan whose budget promised to sock it to the poor and middle class, while enriching military industrialists along with his affluent friends.

As Ms. Williamson indicated, no one can support policies like Ryan’s and claim at the same time to be a follower of Jesus.

In other words, Ryan on the one hand, and Marianne, and Jesus on the other are on completely different pages. While conservatives have buried the Gospel Jesus, today’s Gospel reading calls him back to life. It’s as if the followers of the authentic Jesus were standing before his grave shouting ”Come Forth!”

And so the tomb opens. And a Jesus who has been buried more than three decades stumbles out. And in doing so, he renews our faith.

Our faith is renewed because, as Marianne reminded us last week, we recognize in Jesus the embodiment of one of life’s fundamental truths: utopian visions of the good and true and beautiful can never be killed, even though they might appear lifeless and be pronounced dead by those who once loved them.

As Marianne Williamson constantly reminds her congregations, “There is no order of difficulty in miracles.” She  reminds us that united with our neighbors, we too, the People of God, possess the power to raise the dead.

So today, as we stand before the grave of God, the church, and Jesus, let’s echo her cry: “Jesus, come forth!” And then for the rest of our lives, let our actions make that resurrection happen in our own!

(Easter Homily) Pope Francis: Of Course Jesus Arose; Resurrection Is A Law of the Universe!

Francis Easter

Readings for Easter Sunday: ACTS 10: 34A, 37-43; PS 118 1-2, 16-17, 22-23, COL 3L 1-4; JN 20: 1-9. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/042014.cfm

On this Easter Sunday, it’s appropriate to address the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. Did he really rise from the dead? Or is that doctrine simply a remnant of childhood like belief in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus? And for those of us concerned with social justice, what can the Bible’s resurrection stories possibly mean?

This reflection tries to address those questions.

In response to the one about the factuality of Jesus’ resurrection, let’s look at what the Christian tradition itself tells us. It indicates that the resurrection accounts are not based on the physical resuscitation of a corpse. The experiences portrayed in tradition were more visionary and likely metaphorical.

As for the sociopolitical meaning of Jesus’ rising from the dead, Pope Francis addresses that question quite meaningfully in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium.  Life is stronger than death, he reminds us. Despite appearances, vital forces will always triumph in the end. But we’ll get to that presently.

First however consider the nature of the resurrection traditions themselves. They were inspired by women and emerged from the bleakest depths of despair not unlike what many progressives might be feeling today as our fondest hopes appear further than ever from fulfillment – as a rogue U.S. empire wreaks havoc and its savage economy destroys the planet.

Think about it.

Following Jesus’ death, his disciples returned to business as usual – fishing most prominently. It was their darkest hour. Yeshua, the one on whom they had pinned their hopes for the liberation of Israel from Roman domination was dead. Their world had ended.

But then unexpectedly, women among them reported an experience which effectively raised Jesus back to life (MT 28:1-10; MK 16: 1-8; LK 24:1-11). He was more intensely present, they said, than before his execution. Their tales changed everything.

But what was the exact nature of the resurrection? Did it involve a resuscitated corpse? Or was it something more spiritual, visionary and prophetic?

In Paul (the only 1st person report we have – written around 50 C.E.) the experience of resurrection is clearly visionary. Paul sees a light and hears a voice, but for him there is no embodiment of the risen Jesus. When Paul reports his experience (I COR 15: 3-8) he equates his vision with the resurrection manifestations to others claiming to have encountered the risen Christ. Paul writes “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” In fact, even though Paul never met the historical Jesus, he claims that he too is an “apostle” specifically because he shared the same resurrection experience as the companions of Jesus who were known by that name. This implies that at best the other resurrection appearances might also be accurately described as visionary rather than as physical.

The earliest Gospel account of a “resurrection” is found in Mark, Ch. 16. There a “young man” (not an angel) announces Jesus’ resurrection to a group of women (!) who had come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint his body (16: 5-8). But there is no encounter with the risen Jesus. In fact, Mark’s account actually ends without any narrations of resurrection appearances at all. (According to virtually all scholarly analysis, the “appearances” found in chapter 16 were added by a later editor.)

In Mark’s original ending, the women are told by the young man to go back to Jerusalem and tell Peter and the others. But they fail to do so, because of their great fear (16: 8). This means that in Mark not only are there no resurrection appearances, but the resurrection itself goes un-proclaimed. This in turn indicates either that Mark didn’t know about such appearances or did not think them important enough to include!

Resurrection appearances make their own appearance in Matthew (writing about 80) and in Luke (about 85) with increasing detail. But always there is some initial difficulty in recognizing Jesus. For instance Matthew 28: 11-20 says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.” So the disciples saw Jesus, but not everyone present was sure they did. In Luke 24: 13-53, two disciples walk seven miles with the risen Jesus without recognizing him until the three break bread together.

Even in John’s gospel (published about 90) Mary Magdalene (the woman with the most intimate relationship to Jesus) thinks she’s talking to a gardener when the risen Jesus appears to her (20: 11-18). In the same gospel, the apostle Thomas does not recognize the risen Jesus until he touches the wounds on Jesus’ body (JN 26-29). When Jesus appears to disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, they at first think he is a fishing kibitzer giving them instructions about where to find the most fish (JN 21: 4-8).

All of this raises questions about the nature of the “resurrection.” Once again, it doesn’t seem to have been resuscitation of a corpse. What then was it? Was it the community coming to realize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” (MT 25:45) or “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (MT 18:20)? Do the resurrection stories reveal a Lord’s Supper phenomenon where Jesus’ early followers experienced his intense presence “in the breaking of the bread” (LK 24:30-32)?

Regardless of whether one believes in resurrection as resuscitation of Jesus’ dead body or as a metaphor about the spiritual presence of God in communities resisting empire and serving the poor, the question must be answered, “What does resurrection mean?”

It’s here that Pope Francis helps us. In The Joy of the Gospel (JG), he relates the resurrection accounts, (whatever their factual basis) to our own despair – just as real and hopeless as that of Jesus’ bereft disciples. Francis writes to encourage us who might be worn down and hopeless in the face of a world:

  • Pervaded by consumerism and pleasure-seeking without conscience (JG 2)
  • Governed by merciless competition and social Darwinism (53)
  • Economically organized by failed “trickle-down” ideologies that idolize money (54, 55)
  • Controlled by murderers (53) and thieves (57, 189)
  • Torn apart by wars and violence (99)
  • Rooted in growing income inequality which is the root of all social ills (202), including destruction of the environment and its defenseless non-human animate life (215)

In the face of all that, here’s what Francis says:

“Christ’s resurrection is not an event of the past; it contains a vital power which has permeated this world. Where all seems to be dead, signs of the resurrection suddenly spring up. It is an irresistible force. Often it seems that God does not exist: all around us we see persistent injustice, evil, indifference and cruelty. But it is also true that in the midst of darkness something new always springs to life and sooner or later produces fruit. On razed land life breaks through, stubbornly yet invincibly. However dark things are, goodness always re-emerges and spreads. Each day in our world beauty is born anew, it rises transformed through the storms of history. Values always tend to reappear under new guises, and human beings have arisen time after time from situations that seemed doomed . . Christ’s resurrection everywhere calls forth seeds of that new world; even if they are cut back, they grow again, for the resurrection is already secretly woven into the fabric of this history . . . May we never remain on the sidelines of this march of living hope! (276, 277)

Here the pope says that the power and meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is not found in the past. Neither is there reference here to the resuscitation of the Lord’s body. Instead, the pope explains the resurrection in terms of a story that calls attention to the persistent power of Life itself:

* Of nature and spring after a long cold winter

* Of goodness in a world that seems governed by evil

* Of light where darkness reigns unabated

* Of justice where injustice is simply taken for granted

* Of beauty where ugliness is worshipped as its opposite

* Of hope over despair

* And of activists who refuse to stand on the sidelines

No need for despondency, the pope says. Despite appearances, Life and its irresistible forces are on our side! They will not – they cannot – be controlled even by imperial agents of death as powerful as the Rome that assassinated Jesus or the United States whose economic and military policies are butchering the planet.

Even post moderns, skeptics and agnostics can embrace a story with a message like that.

After all, it’s spring! Life goes on! Jesus has indeed risen!

Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?

resurrection

Did Jesus really rise from the dead? Or is belief in his physical resurrection childish and equivalent to belief in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus?

I suppose the answer to those questions depends on what you mean by “really.” Let’s look at what our tradition tells us.

Following Jesus’ death, his disciples gave up hope and went back to fishing and their other pre-Jesus pursuits. Then, according to the synoptic tradition, some women in the community reported an experience that came to be called Jesus’ “resurrection” (Mt. 28:1-10; Mk. 16: 1-8; Lk. 24:1-11). That is, the rabbi from Nazareth was somehow experienced as alive and as more intensely present among them than he was before his crucifixion.

That women were the first witnesses to the resurrection seems certain. According to Jewish law, female testimony was without value. It therefore seems unlikely that Jesus’ followers, anxious to convince others of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection, would have concocted a story dependent on women as primary witnesses. Ironically then, the story’s “incredible” origin itself lends credence to the authenticity of early belief in Jesus return to life in some way.

But what was the exact nature of the resurrection? Did it involve a resuscitated corpse? Or was it something more spiritual, psychic, metaphorical or visionary?

In Paul (the only 1st person report we have – written around 50 C.E.) the experience of resurrection is clearly visionary. Paul sees a light and hears a voice, but for him there is no embodiment of the risen Jesus. When Paul reports his experience (I Cor. 15: 3-8) he equates his vision with the resurrection manifestations to others claiming to have encountered the risen Christ. Paul writes “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” In fact, even though Paul never met the historical Jesus, he claims that he too is an “apostle” specifically because he shared the same resurrection experience as the companions of Jesus who were known by that name. This implies that the other resurrection appearances might also be accurately described as visionary rather than physical.

The earliest Gospel account of a “resurrection” is found in Mark, Ch. 16. There a “young man” (not an angel) announces Jesus’ resurrection to a group of women (!) who had come to Jesus’ tomb to anoint him (16: 5-8). But there is no encounter with the risen Jesus. In fact, Mark’s account actually ends without any narrations of resurrection appearances at all. (According to virtually all scholarly analysis, the “appearances” found in chapter 16 were added by a later editor.) In Mark’s original ending, the women are told by the young man to go back to Jerusalem and tell Peter and the others. But they fail to do so, because of their great fear (16: 8). This means that in Mark there are not only no resurrection appearances, but the resurrection itself goes unproclaimed. This makes one wonder: was Mark unacquainted with the appearance stories? Or did he simply not think them important enough to include?

Resurrection appearances finally make their own appearance in Matthew (writing about 80) and in Luke (about 85) with increasing detail. Always however there is some initial difficulty in recognizing Jesus. For instance Matthew 28: 11-20 says, “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshipped him; but some doubted.” So the disciples saw Jesus, but not everyone was sure they did. In Luke 24: 13-53, two disciples walk seven miles with the risen Jesus without recognizing him until the three break bread together.

Even in John’s gospel (published about 90) Mary Magdalene (the woman with the most intimate relationship to Jesus) thinks she’s talking to a gardener when the risen Jesus appears to her (20: 11-18). In the same gospel, the apostle Thomas does not recognize the risen Jesus until he touches the wounds on Jesus’ body (Jn. 26-29). When Jesus appears to disciples at the Sea of Tiberius, they at first think he is a fishing kibitzer giving them instructions about where to find the most fish (Jn. 21: 4-8).

All of this raises questions about the nature of the “resurrection.” It doesn’t seem to have been resuscitation of a corpse. What then was it? Was it the community coming to realize the truth of Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren, you do to me” (Mt. 25:45) or “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in their midst” (Mt. 18:20)? Do the resurrection stories reveal a Lord’s Supper phenomenon where Jesus’ early followers experienced his intense presence “in the breaking of the bread” (Lk. 24:30-32)?

Some would say that this “more spiritual” interpretation of the resurrection threatens to destroy faith.
However, doesn’t such perception of threat reveal a quasi-magical understanding of faith? Does it risk limiting faith to belief in a God who operates outside the laws of nature and performs extraordinary physical feats that amaze and mystify? Doesn’t it reduce the significance of resurrection belief to simply another “proof” of Jesus’ divinity?

But faith doesn’t seem to be principally about amazement, mystification and proof analogous to the scientific. It is about meaning.

And regardless of whether one believes in resurrection as resuscitation of a corpse or as a metaphor about the spiritual presence of God in communities serving the poor, the question must be answered, “What does resurrection mean?”

Surely it meant that Jesus’ original followers experienced a powerful continuity in their relationship Jesus even after his shameful execution. Their realm of experience had expanded. Both Jesus and his followers had entered broadened dimensions of time and space. They had crossed the threshold of another world where life was fuller and where physical and practical laws governing bodies and limiting spirits no longer applied. In other words, the resurrection was not originally about belief or dogma. It was about a realm of experience that had at the very least opened in the context of sharing bread – in an experience of worship and prayer.

Resurrection meant that another world is possible — in the here and now! Yes, that other world was entered through baptism. But baptism meant participation in a community (another realm) where all things were held in common, and where the laws of market and “normal” society did not apply (Acts 2:44-45).

In order to talk about that realm, Jesus’ followers told exciting stories of encounters with a revivified being who possessed a spiritual body, that was difficult to recognize, needed food and drink, suddenly appeared in their midst, and which just as quickly disappeared. This body could sometimes be touched (Jn. 20:27); at others touching was forbidden (Jn. 20:17).

Resurrection and Easter represent an invitation offered each of us to enter the realm opened by the risen Lord however we understand the word “risen.” We enter that realm through a deepened life of prayer, worship, community and sharing.

I for one feel a need to think together about practical responses to an Easter invitation understood in this way.