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Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Way of Resurrection: Peace Through Justice -- A Sermon

The Way of Resurrection: Peace Through Justice
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

Easter Sunday 2011

Gospel of Jesus Epilogue 1-8

Jesus appeared first to Mary of Magdala, from whom he had driven out seven demons. She went and told those who were close to him, who were mourning and weeping. But when those folks heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe it.

Christ appeared to Cephas (or Peter).

[Paul wrote]: “Last of all, like the freak of nature I am, Christ appeared to me as well.”

Mary of Magdala said: “I saw the Lord in a vision, and I said to him, ‘Lord, I saw you today in a vision.’”

James, the Lord’s brother, and Cephas (or Peter), and John, the son of Zebedee, were pillars of the Jerusalem community.

[Paul wrote] “They agreed that I, Paul, had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Cephas had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999), p. 83, 84. PS Mark 16:9-11; Matthew 28:9-10; John 20:1-2; 11-18; 1 Corinthians 15:5, 8; Luke 24:34; Acts 9:3-19; 22:1-16; 26:9-18; Mary 7:1; Galatians 2:7-9.

Lisa Miller is the religion editor for Newsweek magazine. She has written a new book that I recently reviewed on my blog called Heaven: The Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife. It is a very good book. She writes about what people think, wish, trust, and hope about heaven. It is also a survey of religious history. She reviews the variety of beliefs regarding afterlife and how they developed. She is not a believer in heaven herself but is thoughtful and sensitive to those she interviews and to the subject itself. I recommend it.

I started to wonder why it is that some people believe in heaven. What are the reasons?

1) One reason we are familiar with is religious bullying. Heaven and hell has become a carrot and a stick for enforcing behavior and obedience. Believe this, do this and don’t do that and you will avoid hell and go to heaven. That is the most shallow and popular motivation.

Yet there are other reasons that people embrace the concept of afterlife or at least wish they could embrace it.


2) We want to continue our relationships. The pain of losing loved ones may be softened by a belief that they are doing well or that we will see them again in heaven.

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3) Anxiety about our own death may cause us to hope for continued existence. Joseph Campbell, the great scholar of religious myth imagined that the first conscious thought was: “I am!” Within seconds came the second conscious thought that threw humanity into despair: “One day I will not be.” The solution to that problem is that you will always be, the body is just a shell, a temporary vessel. There is no need for anxiety as your consciousness will float through one life after another or will rest in heaven with God.

Also...

4) Another reason to desire the afterlife is the injustice of this world. Life is not easy and it is not fair. Some have it better than others. Where is the justice for those born into miserable conditions of poverty and disease? Where is the justice for those who have been abused by others? The powerful get away with murder. The evil prosper. The desire for justice is likely the earliest impetus for belief in resurrection. Resurrection was the promise that God had not forgotten the righteous martyrs. God on his cosmic throne would eventually sort things out and bring a new heaven and a new earth.

Our religious systems developed and changed all in attempt to cope with the anxiety of consciousness. My dogs don’t worry about heaven or the futility of their lives. I do. That is our blessing and our curse.

5) For me, it is curiosity more than anything that creates desire for an afterlife. I would love to know how we will be doing in 100 years. I would love to come back or watch from above to see if humanity will make it through this time period and how it will do so. I would like to check back in on Earth in 200 years and again in 100,000 years and see what is happening. In addition to our future on this planet, I am curious about the Universe. I would love to travel to other star systems and to other galaxies and see if there is a party out there somewhere. Not only that, there is a great deal about Earth that I know nothing about. To say there are many things to learn is a ridiculous understatement. There is too much for one lifetime to absorb. The Universe, Earth, and Northeast Tennessee all are too large for one life to experience.

If I were obsessed with that desire to live beyond my death because of curiosity, injustice, pain for lost loved ones, disappointment with my own life, or the angst of non-being I can see how that obsession would turn into a hope and a belief, even a religion. We can see how people would see it differently and even fight over which speculation is the correct one.

I don’t insist. It is up to us as individuals to find our own teachers, walk our own path, and construct our own belief system. Someone said jokingly but seriously about our congregation that we are BYOG—Bring Your Own God. I like that. It entails respect. We are here to be present to and with one another as each of us makes our own quest. I will spout off all kinds of stuff. If it is helpful, you can take it, if not leave it.

I will spout a little.

A beef that I have with religion, spirituality, and with myself is that all can be a little self-focused. “Me” getting to heaven. “Me” having a spiritual journey. “Me” obsessing over “my” personal psychology. I think there is something to be said for a more collective understanding and experience. We are in this together and we have a responsibility for one another and for generations after us.

My second beef is this. We can believe whatever we need to believe about life after death and what all that might entail. But there is probably not much we can do about it now anyway. I find it incredible to believe that our eternal fate is tied to what we believe. In fact, even the Presbyterians know that. I certainly don’t want to debate with the Calivinistas, but I think the reason John Calvin in the 1500s invented the notion that it is all fixed, predestination, is so his followers wouldn’t worry about their eternal fate. It is all fixed, you can’t do anything about it, so bring your attention back to Earth.

Bracket all that eternal speculation. It’s all good. You are going to be fine whatever God has fixed up for you. If “God” exists and God has it set up for you to see Granny again, then that will happen. If not, it won’t, but there is nothing you can do about it now either way. Until then, we could use your help right here. We need to build schools and hospitals. We need to learn to make peace between nations and work for human rights. We need to be conscious about Earth for life in our present and in our children’s future. Figure out whatever speculation you need about the afterlife, then come back home. We have work and play to do here and now.

I am going to be 50 this August. I doubt that I will be here in 100 years. I would be 150. Maybe I’ll make it to 150 but the odds are against me. It is possible that I could come back in 2111 in some other form to check up on things. I kind of like that idea, but…well.

However, I feel I have an obligation and a responsibility to care about what happens in 100 years even though I will not be here. I have no way of knowing what will happen. I do think that what I do now will have some kind of effect, however minuscule, on the future. And yet I cannot do what I do now out of concern for the results. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna said:
“Do your duty, always; but without attachment. That is how a person reaches ultimate truth; by working without anxiety about results.”
I also have an obligation and a responsibility to care about what happens now. If I am anxious about the results, I will not do what I need to do because it looks overwhelming. But I can do what I can do.
  • I doubt that I alone will be able to stop the insanity of removing mountain tops to retrieve coal. But I can at least say that sentence this morning in my Easter sermon.
  • I cannot stop the production and selling of weapons to militants around the world. Nor can I stop Empire’s wars. But I can say something at this moment about the possibility of peace through non-violence.
  • I cannot reverse climate change. But I can care. I can use whatever influence I have to say something and do the small things I can do.
My hunch is that there are a lot of things you care about as well. The need is likely greater than your efforts. The temptation to despair and give in is real and present. I think that is why the wisdom of Krishna is helpful today:
Do your duty, always; but without attachment.
Spiritual teachers always bring us to the present. Jesus told parables and he shot off witty one-liners about Life and Earth. He said things like,
“Do not be anxious about what you will eat or wear….be aware of the birds….be aware of the lilies.”
It is hard to construct a more “Be here, now” message than that one. Yet so much of life if we are not careful is wishing we were somewhere else or someone else. We even wish time away. But the gift is here and now. That is a sacred gift. Here and now is holy. And so are you. So is Earth. You are Earth. Nothing is more sacred and holy than this moment. Singing with the angels in heaven for 10,000 years will not be more sacred and holy than this moment.

We are here at this place and at this time. For whatever reason you have found yourself in this building this morning. It doesn’t matter the reason. Your life could go in all kinds of directions after the Benediction today. It will be sacred and holy. Whatever you do, you are living. When you have dinner with family or friends today it will be sacred and holy. When you go to work, school, whatever you do, it will be life. Life is real. Be aware.

The symbol of resurrection has something to do with the holy sacred work of keeping at it. Empire killed Jesus. The emperor operated under the philosophy that peace comes through victory. “We can force people into peace or at least keep them quiet.” The early followers of Jesus heard enough and saw enough in the life of Jesus to embrace something different. They saw a different way. The way of peace is not through force but through the power of non-violence. Peace comes through just relations.

These early followers experienced in some way his vision. It lived in them. Amidst all the injustices of life, they found a way to proclaim their own dignity.

Empire killed Jesus. But it didn’t defeat him.

That truth isn’t simply a Christian truth.

I was talking with Sandy Westin the other day. She is the Coordinator of the North American Region of United Religions Initiative. This is a global grassroots organization to foster peace and cooperation between people of different religions and to make a positive contribution to peace and justice on Earth. Different communities form Cooperation Circles and decide what and how they will live out the URI charter. We have a cooperation circle in Johnson City.

As I spoke with Sandy the other day, she told me a story about how a cooperation circle in Uganda made peace in its villages. She asked a religious and community leader in Uganda about what the URI was doing. He told her this story.

He said that there is a great deal of tribal violence in and between the villages. They wanted to find a way to stop the youth from engaging in violence. So they came up with an idea. They pooled their resources and came up with 50 American dollars to buy soccer balls. They decided to give a soccer ball to each village. Soccer or football is a beloved sport. They had been playing with coconuts. So the soccer balls were a huge improvement.

But the URI cooperation circle said there is a condition. The only ones who will be able to play in the soccer league are those who do not engage in any violence. If anyone is violent they will not be able to play. Once these conditions were agreed upon, soccer leagues were started in each village. It worked. They were serious about wanting to play soccer that it overrode the desire to be violent.

The village elders gathered and wondered what they could do next. The real tribal violence was between the villages. So they said to the players, “You know such and such village has some pretty good players. You all are pretty good, but they might be just as good.” The players said, “No, no.” The elders said well maybe we could have a tournament. The condition is that there be no violence. This was pretty tough. These tribal hostilities ran deep. But they agreed.

As they played it turned out that some of the girls from one village would find an attraction to some of the boys from another village and vice versa. This created great consternation. The boys wanted to “protect their women” you know. But the rule was no violence. So what can we do? So the elders gathered and they all came up with a solution that they would have chaperones for couples from different villages as they dated. Instead of fighting, they played soccer.

What happened is that they learned to find a way to solve conflicts peacefully when violence was not an option.

That is a simple story. Simple and true. There are 100s of thousands of organizations around the globe and 100s of millions of people working for peace, Earth care, human rights and on and on, not knowing what the others are doing or that they even exist.

If there is an Easter message I want to share it is this:

May you see your own life moment by moment as holy and sacred.

Thank you for whatever it is you are doing to bring joy and hope to others—to be a blessing.

Do know that you are not alone.

Also know that what you do is worth it.

May you have a Blessed Easter.

Amen.

2 comments:

David Bergsland said...

My main reason for seeking heaven: My desire to be with Jesus face to face. The faith walk gets a bit tedious.

John Shuck said...

The faith walk gets a bit tedious.

It sure does. Thanks for all you do, David! Happy Easter!