“Resurrections” © Abigail Henderson. Preached at First Congregational Church of Minnesota on June 6, 2010
I Kings: 17: 8-24; Luke 7:11-17
As many of you know, I’m preparing for my ordination next Sunday, June 13. It will take place in Exeter, New Hampshire, in the church where I grew up. A few weeks ago, I sent out an announcement to my friends and family in New England, sharing the good news and inviting them to the service. A old college buddy named Sarah wrote back. She reported that she planned to attend, and then asked, “Is it OK if I bring Jesus?”
It took me a long moment to realize she was referring to Jésus, her Venezuelan boyfriend. I wrote back: “Of course! Please bring… Jésus!”
I love moments like that. This one reminds me about how easily we take Jesus for granted, how we stop paying close attention to him until he’s suddenly in our faces. After all, his image is plastered all over American culture. The shepherd in his robe and sandals is a multi-purpose kind of guy, signifying everything from icon to punch line to bludgeon. The ubiquity of Jesus—it’s enough to make you blind to him. So I really appreciate the image of Jesus catching a ride from Boston to New Hampshire with Sarah. Now that would be an ordination to remember.
Given our over-familiarity with Jesus, I am always humbled to imagine the mindset of his earliest followers. To them, Jesus was not a universally-understood symbol. Jesus was simply the name of a man who lived and died and, so it was said, lived again. The young church was trying to figure this story out, to make sense of it, to understand this man’s identity and what on earth he was doing. And here’s the thing: they didn’t just make up their answers to these questions. They didn’t pull their vision of Jesus out of nowhere. Instead, they attempted to comprehend him through existing lenses. Our readings this morning are fine illustrations of this the interplay between Jesus, the new Messiah figure, and culture that birthed him.
Let’s begin with Elijah’s story from First Kings. Now, the context for this episode is rather complicated. In short form, King Ahab has married a non-Israelite princess, Jezebel, and allowed the worship of her foreign god, Ba’al. Not good—remember what God told Moses? You shall worship no other God but me. Elijah, in his typical direct way, warns Ahab that God will punish the kingdom with a terrible drought. At this point, God commands Elijah to flee from Ahab and hide in the wilderness. God sustains his prophet with food delivered by ravens, and eventually directs him to the widow—and so begins the story of Elijah raising her son from the dead.
Early Christians surely had Elijah on their minds when they tried to share the good news about Jesus. By basing a Jesus story on an Elijah story, these faithful people communicated something important about Jesus: that he was in a long line of chosen ones whom God favored and sustained and empowered for miraculous things. And like the prophets of old, Jesus interacted with everybody—he challenged the powerful and lifted up the powerless. Who gets a second chance at life? Not a rich man. Not a powerful man. On the contrary: it is a poor widow’s only son who receives the awesome gift of resurrection. That’s the beauty of the early Christian’s source material: the Hebrew Bible is not only the story of Kings; it’s also the story of the people. The bodies of ordinary people become canvases for God’s healing work in the world. And so it is with Jesus—wandering around, offering his ministry to whomever will receive it.
As a little kid, I sometimes struggled to understand why Jesus didn’t perform his miracles on people of “consequence.” That would’ve been a good strategic move. For example, why not raise the son of a Roman general? That way, the general would’ve owed Jesus something. So when the soldiers arrested Jesus and the mob called for his death, he’d have had an ally; a powerful ally who would’ve stood up for him. And then Jesus wouldn’t have had to die. Once upon a time, this made a lot more sense to me than the actual story, in which Jesus goes through a lot of pain and trouble to arrive at the same point he started: alive.
Of course, now I’m an adult. I’ve seen death up close, in the faces of my loved ones and many intimate strangers at the hospital. And so I grasp the true power of resurrection narratives: in them, death is not avoided or postponed. Death is not even suspended. No, death happens, the worst is done—and then it is un-done. Amazing, right? I wonder if the idea of resurrection, like the image of Jesus, has lost some of its power. After all, we live in a culture that routinely cheapens death. If a hero falls in a video game, just press “restart” to begin all over again. Real-life combat death tolls and violent fantasy sequences in movies—they all blend together. You know what I’m saying: we’re numbed to the sting of death, full of denial, desensitized. How can resurrection mean anything when we barely grapple with the reality of death?
So how do we begin to re-sensitize ourselves to the reality of death and the significance of resurrection? I think we pay attention to these biblical stories. Now, we’re all accustomed to reading the Bible non-literally and creatively and symbolically. But today, I don’t want us to read these resurrections as metaphors. I don’t want us to see them mere literary techniques, foreshadowing the “real” climax of the story when Jesus rises again.
No. I want us to try and imagine these resurrections as real. Just for the sake of experiment—don’t worry about the metaphysics or the science or the realism behind any of it—just imagine that these two young boys were actually raised from the dead. Imagine you are their mothers. Imagine that you are in the crowd watching this scene unfold:
“When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ Then he came forward and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, rise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother. Fear seized all of them.”
Did you hear that? “Fear seized all of them.” I think this English translation is perfect, because yes, of course “fear seized all of them.” That’s their first reaction. Not joy, not jubilation. To put it King James-style, the assembled crowd is “sore afraid.” As David Bartlett, a professor at Yale Divinity School says, to be “sore afraid” means “you are so terrified you ache.”
And you know, that pretty much captures what I would feel were I to witness an honest-to-God resurrection.
It would be really, really scary! And why? Because resurrection completely confounds the natural order of things. As much as we hate death, as much as we flee from it and deny it, we can’t imagine a world without it. A resurrection story requires the presence of a strong, interventionist God. I don’t know about you, but I’ve yet to have a true encounter with that type of God. To see death undone before our own eyes—well. That’s the stuff of fantasy, fairy tale, myth. It’s also the stuff of dreams. I dream all the time about my father and sister coming back to me. We’re talking, hugging, reunited. And then I wake up, and I know that that sort of thing would never really happen.
I’m not asking you to believe these Biblical stories are real. I would never ask such a thing of myself! But I think there’s value in imagining them to be true, literal events. It exercises the muscles of our brains and spirits; it forces us to wrestle with the life-and-death questions of our faith. There is an audacity in playing around with one’s imagination this way, and for me, that’s part of the essence of faith. Faith is always an act of imagination, a commitment to the crazy idea that there is more to this world than meets the eye. To often, “religious people” are stereotyped as being narrow-minded and focused on one definition of Truth. How did that happen, that having faith got associated with a limited perspective? To me, faith is about opening up, making space, having the courage and the gall to resist the status quo.
Remember what my friend Sarah said, about bringing Jesus to my ordination? I laughed at my misunderstanding, but I hope he shows up. To bring Jesus anywhere, to invite Jesus in, could mean this: that we claim our lives as having meaning and importance; that we are willing to believe there is always the possibility for change; and that we trust that death is not the final word. And we trust this not because we’ve seen it with our own eyes, but because we’ve imagined it with our God-given hearts and minds, and dreamed it with our own deepest yearnings.