Monday, April 01, 2013

Sermon: "Sorry About Jesus" (Delivered 3-31-13)

Reading – The Gospel According to Matthew 28: 1-8, 16-20

After the sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it.  His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow.  For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.  But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.  He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay.  Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.”  So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.  When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted.  And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.


To tell you the truth, I waffled a bit on whether to preach an Easter sermon with the title, “Sorry About Jesus.”  It’s a title that can very easily be taken the wrong way.  Let’s just say that I decided not to put the title of this sermon on our church sign out front.  I worried that it might give our neighbors the wrong impression.  So let me begin by explaining the title of this sermon.

“Sorry About Jesus” is actually the title of a beautiful and moving, albeit rather obscure, folk song.  I don’t always listen to folk music, but when I do, a folk singer that I particularly enjoy listening to is Susan Werner.  Back in 1998 Werner released an incredible album Time Between Trains that contained the song “Sorry About Jesus.”  A decade later, Werner released an entire album, The Gospel Truth, that deals with issues of faith, social justice, and religion from an agnostic perspective.  I’ve seen Susan Werner in concert in three times and she’s never performed “Sorry About Jesus.”  You can’t even find a version of the song on YouTube.  So let me describe this wonderful, rare song to you.

The lyrics to the song are one side of a conversation.  As an adult, the character portrayed by the singer has run into an old classmate she hasn’t seen since high school and in catching up there is a revisiting of their high school years.  We learn in the lyrics that her youth was surrounded by brokenness.  There was domestic violence.  Her father beat her mother and her mother was struggling to leave him.  There was addiction.  Her classmate’s mother was an alcoholic.  In one side of this conversation we learn that her teen years were marred by brokenness and instability. 

We also learn that the character given voice by the singer, as a teenager, sought refuge and stability in an Evangelical Christian church.  We learn that the she became zealous in her faith and became obsessed with trying to convert, with trying to save, her friends and classmates.  So, years later, when she runs into her classmate from high school, we hear her say, “And by the way, I’m sure that you remember I was weird in school.  I’m sorry about Jesus and all that you know.  When I memorized the Bible I went overboard… I’m sorry about Jesus and all that you know.  I try to just forget about it all.”  And, finally, we learn that this woman has moved on with her life and moved on with her faith, that she has discovered a sense of wholeness, or at least equanimity, in her life even though her life is far from perfect, far from ideal.  All this in a three minute folk song.

While I’m reluctant to spend so long talking about this particular song that I’m guessing next to no one here has ever even heard of, I’m guessing that maybe you might be able to relate in some way to some part of this song.  Maybe you knew someone when you were younger who was zealous in their faith and was very focused on saving your soul.  Maybe you know someone now who is very focused on trying to save your soul.  Maybe, way back when, you were that zealous person trying to win conversions.  Maybe, if you ran into a classmate from long ago, you might find yourself saying, “And by the way, I’m sure that you remember I was weird in school.”  Or maybe, just maybe, you hear this description of the song and are reminded of a particular experience of brokenness and disappointment in your life, whether from long ago or in this present moment.

At the most recent meeting of the worship team I played them this song and teared up, as I do each time I hear it.  Whenever I listen to that song, I am overcome by such a sense of compassion for the character whose story is being shared with us.  I feel sad for the pain, abuse, and addiction that were a part of her formative years.  I feel compassion for her seeking out a refuge of strength and steadiness in the midst of life’s challenges.  And, I even feel compassion for her awkward, uncomfortable attempts to try to fix the pain that surrounded her life, her desperate attempts to bring about some kind of salvation in the lives of those she loved and cared about.  Understandable, isn’t it?  Her proselytizing did not come from a place of judgment or self-righteousness.  She was trying to bring some order to a world that was chaotic, some healing to an existence that was painful.  If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation like this, maybe you eventually came to realize that the chaos was outside your control.  So, I regard with compassion her desperate attempts to fix all this brokenness.

In a just a minute I’m going to draw a parallel between the character’s experience and one of the Gospel accounts of the resurrection.  This isn’t about taking the story of the resurrection literally.  This isn’t about believing in the resurrection as a supernatural event.  Hear me out.  The story of Jesus and the disciples’ final week in Jerusalem begins with a community, a small band of Jesus’ disciples and friends and followers, coming to the holy city to celebrate the festival of Passover.  As a community, Jesus’ followers demonstrate a way of living faithfully that gives dignity to the outcast, includes those at the margins, and claims that the Commonwealth of God is with us in the here and now if only we could behold it.  Their time in Jerusalem contained moments of tenderness, service, and intimate fellowship – rituals of washing, anointing, sharing meals, and keeping vigils – that are recreated in the Christian Holy Week the world over.  But, during this week, the hopes and their dreams of the community of Jesus’ followers are dashed.  Their beloved leader and teacher is accused of sedition and is humiliated and brutally executed.  There is betrayal and fear, and Jesus’ followers scatter.

The last chapter of Matthew begins in a place of utter brokenness.  Mary and Mary go to the tomb to mourn the dead.  There they encounter a sign and a vision, a glimmer of hope, and they go to share this hopeful news with the rest of the followers of Jesus.  The Gospel According to Matthew ends with Jesus appearing to the disciples and instructing them to make disciples of all nations, to baptize, and to spread Jesus’ teachings.

In the world of religious studies, this final message in Matthew’s Gospel is known as the Great Commission.  In more conservative circles, it is taken to mean, “Go out and convert people.”  Historically, this has been a convenient text for Christian nations with imperial ambitions, seeking to exploit foreign lands and indigenous peoples the world over.  More recently, and more familiar to those of us living in the American Bible Belt, the great commission is held to be one of the most important texts for the Evangelical Christian movement. 

Let me just point out that there is such a remarkable parallel between Susan Werner’s folk song and the last chapter of Matthew.  Both start with brokenness.  In both, there is found some glimmer of hope, some refuge, in faith.  In both, we are told that what needs to be done is to go out and get people saved.  In the song, we find out this last step doesn’t exactly work.  “And by the way, I’m sure that you remember I was weird in school.  I’m sorry about Jesus and all that you know.”  In real life, for all the effort that so many have put in over the centuries to winning souls for Christ, it sure does seem like we’re still a long ways away from the creation of heaven on earth.  In fact, we can say that such a focus has worked against the creation of heaven on earth.

In the “Sorry About Jesus” folk song, we learn that the character’s efforts to create wholeness out of brokenness are awkward and fail to bring any relief to the wounded world in which she lives.  In Matthew’s Gospel we see that the experience of resurrection is connected with a mandate, a commission, to spread the gospel.  So I wonder what resurrection might mean for us as religious liberals and, if it means anything, what sort of progressive commission might be connected to it.

Notable feminist theologians have argued powerfully that salvation does not come through Jesus’ agonizing death on the cross.  Rather, they argue, salvation comes in the form of communities of resistance, memory, and hope that gather in the aftermath of devastation and dare to do the work of healing and rebuilding.  As the poet Adrienne Rich puts it, “I have to cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”

I happen to believe that this theology is absolutely correct.  I like that this theology can work from a theistic perspective as well as from a non-theistic humanist perspective.  The community that comes together to reconstitute the world can be inspired by the divine, even moved by the experience of the risen Messiah.  Or, the community can come together to reconstitute the world out of a sense that doing so is a worthwhile and honorable human endeavor.

Resurrection means, literally, rising again.  It means to return to life.  Believing in resurrection does not necessarily mean giving assent to a set of supernatural claims.  Believing in resurrection simply means the ability to imagine life again despite the signs that point to a lack of life.  Believing in resurrection simply means the ability to hold out hope for wholeness, for healing, for life to get better despite the reality of pain and loss and brokenness.  Resurrection is an attitude of the human spirit that looks at things as they are and sees the possibility of rebirth, of resurgence

And, the experience of resurrection will inevitably ask something from us.  One does not return to life and simply take it for granted.  For those whose beliefs are focused on the historicity of a literal resurrection, the great commission is to get others to believe the same thing that they believe.  I would say that for those of us who see the possibility of life again, there is a responsibility that accompanies hope as well.  There is a great commission for religious liberals, a great commission for Unitarian Universalists, that has nothing to do with winning converts, with convincing others of the rightness of our beliefs, with making disciples of all nations, whatever that would mean for us.  No, instead, our great commission is to side with the forces of life in the world, to bless the peacemakers, to feed the hungry, to care for the refugee, to visit the sick, to liberate the imprisoned, to welcome the marginalized, and to include the ostracized.

I leave you with these words about rebirth by the author D.H. Lawrence:

“I believe that one is converted when first one hears the low, vast murmur of life, of human life, troubling one’s hitherto unconscious self.  I believe one is born first unto oneself – for the happy developing of oneself, while the world is a nursery, and the pretty things are to be snatched for, and the pleasant things tasted; some people seem to exist right to the end.  But most are born again on entering maturity; they are born to humanity, to a consciousness of all the laughing, and the never ceasing murmur of pain and sorrow that comes from the terrible multitude of brothers and sisters.”

It is our great commission to look for the promise of life in the twiggy plant, the bare tree, the inanimate seed, to look for the promise of life in the ruins of civilization and in the broken human heart.  It is our great commission to side with the forces of life.  Indeed, may it be so.