"Behold, I am doing a new thing!"
And that is where this begins, and that is what this is all about. And don’t we need it!? Don’t we need it all our lives long?
So here is a story about a man who loves and heals and challenges and subverts authority and tells puzzling little tales with uneasy endings and who, like many radical seekers after justice and compassion, is executed. Nothing unusual about that, it happens all the time, it happened before he lived, it happened after he died. His death didn’t stop other innocent people from dying the same way. No “new thing” there.
The new thing here is that they executed him, but they couldn’t kill him. He was “raised up,” says the Bible. And this becomes the most popular and powerful story of second chances, of love’s triumph over violence and ignorance and dominance, of possibility ever told.
Because we need it, and stories like it.
The work of our lives, from the first to the last, is to learn. First, to learn the things a child and youngster need to know; life skills, and for the next part of life, to learn the way of peace, to learn the way of love, and also dauntingly enough -- to become fully who we are. Within that work there are a thousand deaths, and therefore a thousand times we need to be raised up.
It is work for a lifetime. And although we have too often convinced ourselves otherwise, it is not just a matter of inner strength, either, or pulling ourselves up from our bootstraps. In fact, Easter is a story about NOT pulling ourselves up from our bootstraps. It is, in fact, quite the opposite. It is about grace, about the unearned love that raises us.
That’s hard to accept, isn’t it? Nothing’s free, or so we’ve been told. You don’t get raised up. You pull yourself up, hand over hand, sweaty and grunting with the effort!
Not this time. Not in this story. That’s why it’s so weird, so discomfiting. That’s why we’re here this morning, and for so many folks the one time of year they come to church. Because we need Easter.
If Easter freaks you out a bit or offends you, what offends you more: the ridiculous notion that someone could be believed to live after they were so clearly dead as a doorknob, or the fact that he, quite simply, was raised?
It’s the passive voice, isn’t it? It has always disturbed me. “Was raised.” Jesus didn’t do a Steve McQueen, Bruce Willis tough guy thing and break out of the cave. This wasn’t an “Oceans Eleven” George Clooney and Matt Damon story about a bunch of clever wiseguys pulling off a heist. Those “raised up” stories we know, enjoy and understand. Rags-to-riches stories, triumph over adversity stories where someone works their way up, we understand those. But, betrayed, beaten, crucified, destroyed, and then… “He was raised?” How do we accept the idea of the power of love reaching out and pulling someone up from the dead place and into life? I think it’s very hard for us to accept, and not just for metaphysical reasons. We would so much rather be the saviours, so much rather be the raisers than the raisees. We think of ourselves as actors in our lives, the ones who make things happen. Grace is when love happens to us and raises us up.
Who “raised” you? Two parents? A community? Your first girlfriend or boyfriend? Were you raised at all, properly speaking? Many people were not “raised” in their childhood homes by parents or caregivers, although they use that expression. They weren’t raised, they were instructed. They were governed, perhaps. Fed, sheltered and sent to school, yes. But raised? No. If anything, they were lowered by those who were charged to raise them, or to “bring them up,” as we also say. And others raised them: perhaps a grandparent, or a beloved teacher, coach or friend. Someone they knew for just a short time who made an indelible impression on their selfhood. Someone who respected and encouraged their true essence. Someone whose belief in them sustained them through the inevitable degradations that come to us all through the passage of time.
I believe that God puts those people in our lives to raise us, and that we need to be raised all our lives, no matter how old we get. If we think of God as a nickname for the energy of a universe whose urge seems to be to “maketh all things new,” we must include ourselves in that urge. We are never done. “Where did you grow up?” people ask, and you may sometimes choose to answer the way a friend of mine likes to, which is to respond, “I spent my childhood years in Connecticut but I’m currently growing up in Norwell, Massachusetts.”
We’re not done. When you’re done, you’re dead. The day we think we’re done, we’re just as dead. I want the children to know this, too. Grown-ups are still growing up and we are still being raised. We never outgrow the need to be raised.
One time, says the gospel-writer Luke, Jesus was in Galilee, just coming back a huge exorcism of demons in Gerasa, and a man named Jairus begged him to come visit his sick daughter, who was 12 years old. Jesus started off to the house. He got delayed on the way, and at that moment someone came from the crowd (there was always a crowd around Jesus) to say, “Don’t bother, I’m afraid she didn’t make it.” Jesus said, essentially, “Let’s decide not to accept that diagnosis” and went ahead to the house. Everyone was weeping for the child and Jesus said, “Do not weep; for she is not dead but sleeping.” The people laughed at him, of course, because they thought they had a fact there in front of them, where Jesus saw a miracle waiting to happen. He took the child by the hand and said, “Talitha, cum” (Child, get up!”).
The child did get up. “Her spirit returned,” says the Bible, “and she got up at once.” (Luke 8:55).
Someone has to love you to see that possibility. They have to be looking through God’s eyes the eyes of extravagant love and renewal - to move past the apparent facts to see the seed of resurrection that is in you and to awaken it.
“She is not dead, she is sleeping.” Yes, and aren’t we all, or certainly far too often? We’re sleeping: we’re in a coma of fear, of complacency, of compliance or conformity, a zombie-like state of depression, of unmet need, of loneliness, of shame or guilt. We’re nodding off over our diversions, our entertainments, our possessions, our visions-of-tomorrow’s successes. After years of trying, years of striving, years of working on ourselves or not having the time, the energy or the encouragement to do so, we need to be woken up, and raised up. We need that faithful hand of unearned love to touch us, to take our hand and say, “Talitha, cum.” Child, rise. Let the spirit come back into you.
Easter makes the claim that this grace is there, a force in the universe that cannot be controlled or resisted. As Walter Bruegemann puts it, “Easter is not a ‘spiritual’ event, but a surging of power that touches all of life. The Easter question is not whether you can get your mind around the resurrection, because you cannot. Rather the question is whether you can permit in your horizon new healing power, new surging possibility, new gestures to the lame, new ways of power in an armed, fearful world, new risk, new life, leaping, dancing, singing, praising the powers beyond all our controlled powers.” ( “The Surge of Dangerous, Restless Power” in The Threat of Life: Sermons on Pain, Power and Weakness)
That surging power that maketh all things new wants to work in our lives as surely as the lima bean wants to put out a sprout, germinate, and grow. We don’t do a thing to earn it, are only asked to leave off, or perhaps scrape off, the layers of furniture polish and shellac and give it space in our hearts to make all things new through us. We give thanks this morning to all those people, and things that have raised us up on the journey, who were agents and emissaries of this resurrection spirit in our own lives, and in the world. Thanks be to the Spirit that raises up life, and may it always have its way through us. Friends, you are the resurrection and the life. Amen!