It Seemed to Them an Idle Tale
As I reflect on the gospel account of the women at Jesus’ tomb, I can’t help but think that each of us has lost something we love. Maybe for some, it’s a dream gone to the wind that we tried to hold on to for ourselves or for a son or a daughter. Maybe it’s a special person who used to be at the center of your universe but is now a faded memory. Have you lost your job, or your home, or your savings? Has your innocence been stolen away? None of us is immune to experiences of death. Each of us has lost something we love. When we’re facing that dark void, wanting nothing more than one last chance to retrieve what seems to be gone, or to correct what is no longer right – when we’re looking for something to revive us from emptiness, resurrection is no idle tale.
On the battlefields of World War II, then Chaplain Gordon Cosby held dying men in his arms. Reflecting on his experience with the 101st Airborne, a unit sent to the most intense situations, Cosby said, “I’m with men when they’re dying, and they’re totally unprepared. What I had done in the church had very little relationship to this experience of life and death and dying.”1Gordon Cosby began to imagine for these men a resurrection moment. I believe that he would have imagined for them an eternal life where there is no more pain and suffering. I suppose that he imagined for them a never ending life that would transform and renew their tired bodies and aching souls. no more sadness and discontent. And I suppose that he imagined for them a blissful eternity of supreme goodness – a life where there is fairness and justice and equality for all people. Because when a chaplain is in a foxhole with a band of frightened soldiers, imagining resurrection is the best thing he can do.
When Cosby returned to the states, he returned not as a Southern Baptist preacher come para-trooper chaplain. He returned as a changed man. From his Washington home, Cosby reflected, “When you experience two and a half years living on the brink, not knowing if you yourself are going to live and knowing that thousands of others won’t, you change if you have any sense left. I had to think about those ultimate issues in a way that I hadn’t before. It didn’t make any difference whether a person was Southern Baptist or Presbyterian… He was a human being. And where was he going, if there was anywhere for him to go?”2“(Cosby) thought it was one thing (for the soldier) to turn away from faith in the Lord Jesus, but that it was something else to turn away without knowing you’ve left the Good News behind.”3
When Gordon Cosby returned from the front lines of a most hideous war, he determined to link the past with the present and the future for all who are buried beneath the weight of one kind of loss or another. He determined to link the past with the present and the future with a tangible expression of hope.
Some of you knew Rev. Cosby. He and his wife landed in Adams Morgan, where they founded the Church of the Savior in 1946. Through his retirement in 2001, Gordon Cosby was a local stronghold of social justice and true Christian discipleship. He passed away not quite two weeks ago on March 20, 2013. Maybe you knew Rev. Cosby from the Potter’s House where he led the mid-day prayer services. Sara Gibson, Miriam’s Kitchen’s Chief Development and Communications Officer, says that you can still go to Potter’s House every day of the week. Maybe you were part of a spiritual formation group with Gordon and his wife, like Vivien Kilner was a few years ago. Maybe you’ve seen the Church of the Savior’s homeless shelter, or AIDS clinic or job placement center or one of its other offspring ministries, as they’ve been called.
A small but powerful church, members give their total commitment to Christian life: silent retreats, years of study, tithing of at least 10% of their income, spending an hour a day in prayer and meditation. This gives Church of the Savior members “inward strength for their outward journey”4 to extend resurrection moments for all people, especially the most poor in body and spirit. Such a total commitment to Christian life is an unusual path these days, and it flies in the face of so much of what happens in most of our mainstream protestant congregations. But Cosby was one of those highly revered pastors whose justice ministry was deeply rooted in an orthodox Christianity. He was part of a school of progressive Christians who unequivocally embraced the ideal of social outreach firmly rooted in Jesus Christ as the way and the truth and the life. He believed that the kind of ministry necessary in the world today inextricably links modern-day, metaphoric resurrections with bodily resurrections of the sort that Christ promises for all who trust in him.
So many of us subordinate the idea of bodily resurrection if we’re ever to think of resurrection at all. You have to delve four entries deep into a popular online dictionary definition of resurrection to find anything to do with Christ, at all. Resurrection has become a problematic word, in most contemporary circles, that is usually considered to be a metaphoric rebirth after some streak of bad luck. (Metaphoric resurrections for ourselves or others are perceived to be much more realistic today.) For many of us Christians, the idea of a bodily resurrection of the sort that is proclaimed in the gospel is believed to be unnecessary literalism. Those who believe in bodily resurrection are often considered to be idealistic, or even delusional. It’s as if most people have an almost aesthetic dislike of the idea of bodily resurrection. Appropriating a thought of CS Lewis, “Admitting that God can, they doubt if God would.”5 In order to fully embrace the idea of resurrection, most people feel a need to suspend disbelief, or is it, suspend belief in order that they might begin again to believe in the omnipotence of God. – a God who breaks through the suffering and sorrow and want of the world and satisfies it with perfect grace.
But what we believe about Jesus’ resurrection suggests a lot of what we believe about God. When we don’t believe that bodily resurrection is possible, we don’t unabashedly believe that God is capable of great things. In other words, we effectively put constraints around God. We put constraints around God as less than powerful. If we can allow ourselves to start from the powerful truth that bodily resurrection does happen, then we can moderate toward a more easily acceptable, equally compelling truth that resurrections happen in as many forms as there are people to experience them or to be the human agents motivated by the Holy Spirit to bring them to life.
Recently, someone asked me if I believe in the resurrection. He wondered what I believe of scripture’s pronouncement of Jesus’ bodily resurrection and the hope of bodily resurrection for each one of us. I knew that he wondered what I might say this Easter morning at Western Presbyterian Church, a congregation of progressive Christians from diverse backgrounds and faith traditions who come together in many ways to serve and glorify God.
I suspect that my response was similar to what many of us here might say: the idea of Jesus’ resurrection is not important for my day-to-day Christian experience. Would there be no knowledge of resurrection, I would still be a Christian. Like so many of the Christian tenets we affirm, it’s not foundational to what I believe is necessary in order for me to live out a faithful, Christian life. But I went on to say that while the idea of Jesus’ resurrection is not foundational to my day to day Christian experience, I would never dismiss the idea of Jesus’ resurrection as not having happened, as if what we read in the bible were a metaphoric interpretation of a few men and women attempting to make sense of their painful loss in the context of their religious experience. I am convinced that it is of paramount importance that all people must believe with all of their heart and their soul and their might that our God of all creation is capable of and enables resurrections of every sort, every single day. Because it’s true. Once we remove our constraint that there was no real resurrection of Jesus then we remove our constraint around God. Once we remove our constraint around God, God becomes even more potent in every aspect of our lives, enabling us to see in new ways, hear afresh, walk more boldly if not walk for the first time. God becomes more potent among us, resurrected among us in every way as the great I Am who resurrects us again and again to help him save the world from all of its need.
So many of us are in need of a resurrection moment. Women in Minot, North Dakota, who lost their rights to make decisions about their own bodies need a resurrection moment. GLTBQ men and women camped before the Supreme Court today long for a resurrection moment. The people of Cypress whose economy is near collapse are anxious for a resurrection moment. The government workers, air traffic controllers, military personnel, and tour guides who anticipate as much as a 20% furlough of their pay this year are hanging on for a resurrection moment. The children in the playgrounds of Syria who dodge bombs rather than sports balls deserve a resurrection moment. Boys and girls whose childhoods have been abducted by traffickers are desperate for a resurrection moment. Immigrants tangled in the barbed wire barrier between earning a living and seeing their families? Lord, by the power of your Holy Spirit, embolden us to give them a resurrection moment.
Participating in resurrection moments for all people is what can encourage us to hope for resurrection moments for ourselves, in spite of our own circumstances. In the cycle of Christian life, celebrating resurrection moments in our lives is what can encourage each of us to work for these resurrection moments for others. Believing in the ultimate resurrection – believing in a God who broke all barriers of the natural and supernatural to become flesh among in order to resurrect the hope of all people for time immemorial – is what can hold us strong in the foxholes of life, when all humanly-agented resurrections fall short. Is nothing too wondrous for the Lord?
To many of us, this remains an idle tale.
Dare to believe in the greatness of our Lord, who brings resurrection hope to heal the great losses of the world in as many ways as there is loss. Dare to believe in the greatness of our Lord who brings resurrection hope to save the suffering souls of the world in as many ways as there is suffering. Dare to believe in the greatness of our Lord who is resurrection among us, visible in the countless among us who extend resurrection hope to others every day.
May we allow ourselves to embrace the resurrection of our Lord, Jesus Christ, resurrected and resurrecting in as many ways as there are people in need of a renewed life today. And may we always live in the Easter joy of the one who comes to bring us hope and peace now and forevermore. Amen.
5 C.S. Lewis, “Miracles” found in The Grand Miracle, (NYC: Ballentine Books, 1970.) pp 1-13.