11 May 2011

Seven Ways to Practice Resurrection

Hearts Ablaze

Third Sunday after Easter

Luke 21:21-35

Rev’d G. Travis Norvell

The sermon series on the seven deadly sins was great fun to prepare, write, and deliver for you. I especially liked to hear the college students who walked by and add their two cents on the sins as they were advertised on the marquee. I even saw some tourists stand in front of the banner to get their picture taken on one occasion. It was easy to access and pull sources on the sins, there are musical scores written on each sin, books devoted to each sin, and movies galore on each sin. There is a story as to how the sins moved from Constantinople, to Egypt to the west. But now it is time to move on from sin to virtue. But there is a problem. There is not a corresponding list to the Seven Deadly Sins. There is a list of the seven heavenly or cardinal virtues but they are not nearly as concrete or historical. The list at best is a combination of Greek and New Testament ideals. The four virtues of ancient Greece: prudence, justice, temperance, and courage and the three that remain from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth: faith, hope, and love.

The list just doesn’t reach out and grab you like the seven deadly sin, the seven cardinal virtues aren’t the least bit sexy. Yet, they are necessary if we are going to change the world.

I know the name E. Glen Hinson is a familiar name to some of you. If he is not, add him to your list of authors and people you need to get to know more about. Hinson is the reason I am a pastor, still Baptist, and not a monk. In every class I took of his he always ended the semester with an appeal of what the world and church needs most. He would say what the world and the church needs most are saints. Not brilliant professors, not princes in the pulpits, or large financial backers in the pews but saints. He had a broad, obviously Anabaptist view of sainthood, which he defined as people with six qualities (qualities he adapted from Douglas Steere, another name for your list)

1. Saints are persons whose lives have been irradiated by Divine Grace and have put themselves at God’s disposal.

2. Saints are persons who seek not to be safe but to be faithful.

3. Saints are persons who have learned to get along in adversity

4. Saints are joyful people.

5. Saints are kindlers and purifiers of the dream.

6. Saints are prayerful.[i]

Simple but difficult.

Christianity does not ask us to be the best at anything it only asks us to be good, to be virtuous or from another angle, to practice resurrection. Being good or being virtuous may not resonate without but I hope in the shadow of the Easter you will take up the challenge and call to practice resurrection. I think that is what saints, the virtuous ones, do they practice resurrection.

In the gospel lesson this morning Cleopas and his unnamed companion were on the road to Emmaus, they were on their way back home. When I read this story I can only imagine they had given up. They had walked with Jesus for an undisclosed amount of time and it was fantastic, life changing but then…Jesus was executed. Rome wasn’t playing around anymore and maybe they shouldn’t be playing around anymore either, it was time to head back home.

The time was the evening of the Resurrection. Cleopas and his travel mate had heard the astonishing tale but maybe just maybe it was too much, they were going home. But Jesus met them on the way, concealed his identity, and playfully watched what unfolded.

What follows is, in my mind, the greatest dialogue in scripture and the greatest rhetorical question in scripture, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know these things that have taken place in there in these days?” Jesus asked them, “What things?” They replied, the things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people…” What follows next is one of the sneakiest tricks in all of scripture, Luke, decided not to include how Jesus interpreted all of the things about himself beginning with Moses and all of the prophets. Can you imagine that conversation? Can you imagine what those words must have been? Is there somewhere buried in the desert of Egypt the gospel of Cleopas, a written account of Jesus’ self interpretation?

It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.

Why because Luke said so! Luke brushes off the interpretation for an even bigger event. “As they came near the village to which they were going, Jesus walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, ‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.”

The verbs say it all, took, blessed, broke, and gave. It was communion for sure. But it was something even deeper than communion, they, Cleopas and his unidentified companion, were practicing resurrection. Even though they thought the Jesus movement was over, even though they were heading back home, they welcomed a stranger, offered him a place to stay and broke bread with him. The text hints that Jesus was testing the disciples, he went ahead as if he were going on, even Jesus did not know what the two would do. Would they say happy travels? Or would they welcome him? They welcomed him, their action warmed Jesus’ heart to such a temperature that he took the normal elements of a meal, transformed the moment into communion, and revealed himself to them. They were willing to practice resurrection with or without Jesus.

This evening, right before the time our eyes begin to water because we know Jazz Fest is about to conclude, I hope to take my progeny and nudge our way forward in the WWOZ Jazz tent so they, and I, can see Sonny Rollins. I love Sonny Rollins and I want to my kids years from now to say they saw Sonny Rollins at Jazz Fest. In just a few years I will explain to them why I love the way Sonny Rollins approaches music and how Sonny Rollins provided me with the ultimate way of practicing resurrection. In an interview one time a reporter asked Rollins to describe the way he practices and approaches music. First he responded in such a way that every jazz musician has to respond, to dispel the usual jazz myth that a jazz musician does not practice since it is all improvisation. Rollins said as a jazz musician I practice and practice and practice, I constantly practice, I practice scales, I practice chord progressions, and will frequently practice classical music for feel. He went on. I practice for hours on end, then when I perform…I forget it all. For Rollins the music, the intimations of sound, the silence between notes, the movements of the rhythm all become part of who he is. He is no longer practicing or performing a piece that he has forgotten, he is now sharing a piece of himself with the world. I want my kids to see and feel that tonight. I want them to see resurrection in practice.[ii]

For Cleopas and his unnamed partner they had forgotten the way Jesus had taught them for it was now a part of who they were. They talked to the stranger, invited him to bed with them, and shared their provisions. They were practicing resurrection as part of their lives.

Over the summer and into the Fall I will be asking each of you to share your personal hopes and dreams for this congregation. I will be launching a church wide initiative for how to obtain critical mass. And I will be asking every committee, every member, every chronic visitor, anyone who crosses the threshold to commit to one vision for this congregation. I will ask you to sacrifice a Saturday morning or two, to be patient, to compromise, and coalesce around central vision for this church. I think and feel that we have an honest shot at new life. This vision will be a combination of goals for finding and nurturing new members and creative usage of our space. Imagine if the crowd we had on Easter was every Sunday, think of how numbers would change the way we offer church. Imagine if we could locate a long-term tenant that could pay for maintenance, deferred maintenance, insurance and utility costs of the building. Imagine if we could shift our energy into great ministry opportunities rather than worrying ourselves silly how much we are in the red for the month?

This vision is not about institutional or building preservation. Instead it is about the assured continuation of a virtuous community. Instead it is about the assuring another generation practices resurrection. That will be our legacy.

After this Sunday we will sadly watch as many of our college students return home, or travel for further studies, or begin new chapters in their lives somewhere other than here. I hope, wherever they go, they take some part of this congregation with them, I hope we have gotten under their skin and into their hearts. As we look forward to future growth realize that one component of our growth will be college students and transient worshippers. Part of our mission is to nurture them while they are here. To offer hospitality, to practice resurrection. About once a month I either receive an email, a letter, or a phone call from a former member. Each inquiry is different but each share two commonalities, one they want to know who I am and second they want to tell me how much they loved their time at this church. This congregation does not illicit casual feelings or sentimentalities but visceral reactions to the love they found here. But we cannot rest on our past sharing of love, our past commitment to justice, or our past practice of resurrection. We must continue and expand our current practices.

Being church or practicing resurrection is akin to gardening. It is never done. It is constant, there are bugs to remove, weeds to pull, manure to spread, watering, and harvesting. Practicing resurrection is never done, it is constant. We have to learn and relearn how to pray, we have to teach others how to pray, we have to learn and relearn how to read the Bible and to teach others the old old stories of Jesus and his love. We have to learn an relearn how to advocate for justice and to teach others what biblical justice is. We have to learn and relearn how to practice resurrection and to teach others how to practice resurrection.

In the broadest terms what I am saying is that we have to be and become a mothering community one who gives birth, nurtures and sustains life. My home church, FBC St. Albans I often wonder how some would react if they could see me now, I am not confident they would be satisfied with me. I am sure the deacons would not approve of my conduct or words from the pulpit. If the church were to ask me where did I get these ideas and practices I would simply respond I learned them all from you. For some odd reason the people at the FBC of St. Albans took a liking to me and loved me into a new creation. (name removed for privacy), not knowing that many in the church questioned her sexual orientation and therefore kept her at arms length, I simply knew as the older woman who always gave me a hug, always encouraged me, and always told me God loved me. (name removed for privacy), the oldest man in the congregation, he was also the funniest. He loved baseball and traveling. Why a 16 year old and a 97 year old got along so well I’ll never know. He shared the story of taking a flat bottom wooden boat from St. Albans to New Orleans, about his personal love and devotion of the Cincinnati Reds, one afternoon shortly after his wife of 75+ years died he broke down in tears and asked me to come again at a later date, he also shared that if you cant laugh in church or if the good news does not make you smile, then it aint worth having. I was not a project they took on, I was simply the one that received their love, their practice of resurrection. They were my midwifes as I was born again.

I want the kids and youth of this congregation to have the same experiences of love. I hope they are loved the same way. I want the practice of resurrection to be such a part of their lives that they forget it, that their practice is simply who they are.

Over the hot months I will offer seven ways we can practice resurrection. I hope they are the bedrock of our common vision for new growth and life. I hope they are the living well that nourishes and sustains our life. I hope they are the challenging words that illuminates our pursuit of the virtuous life, the saintly life the practice of resurrection.

I would like to close in two fashions. A poem and a piece of prose. First a poem by Wendell Berry who has provided the series title. The poem is Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front from 1973.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise, vacation with pay.

Want more of everything made.

Be afraid to know you neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.

Not even your future will be a mystery any more.

Your mind will be punched in a card and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something they will call you.

When they want you to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something that won't compute.

Love the Lord. Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it.

Denounce the government and embrace the flag.

Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands.

Give you approval to all you cannot understand.

Praise ignorance,

for what man has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millennium.

Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested when they have rotted into the mold.

Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus that will build under the trees

every thousand years.

Listen to carrion--put your ear close,

and hear the faint chattering of the songs that are to come.

Expect the end of the world.

Laugh. Laughter is immeasurable.

Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.

So long as women do not go cheap for power,

please women more than men.

Ask yourself: Will this satisfy a woman satisfied to bear a child?

Will this disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.

Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head in her lap.

Swear allegiance to what is nighest your thoughts.

As soon as the generals and politicos can predict the motions

of your mind, lose it.

Leave it as a sign to mark the false trail, the way you didn't go.

Be like the fox who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice resurrection.[iii]

The prose is the close of one of Glen Hinson’s lectures that he included in a chapter of one of his books,

“The church and the world needs saints. They need saints more than they need more canny politicians, more brilliant scientists, more grossly overpaid executives and entrepreneurs, more clever entertainers and talk-show hosts. Are there any on the horizon now that Mother Teresa is no longer with us, either of the extraordinary or of the ordinary kind? I think there are. Maybe I should say that there are saints ‘aborning’ by God’s grace. There are those whose lives have been irradiated by God’s grace, who seek to be safe but faithful, who have learned to get along in adversity, who are joyful, who are dream filled, and, above all, who are prayerful. That is what the church and the world need most. It begins with you.”[iv]

Brother and sisters let us strive for the virtuous life, the life of power used for the mending of creation and the new birth of our community. Brothers and sisters let us strive for the saintly life as we seek to change the world and this church. Brothers and sisters with Easter at our back let us simply practice resurrection.

Amen & Amen.

[i] See p. 183 Spiritual Preparation for Christian Leadership by E. Glenn Hinson. Also see, On Beginning from Within by Douglas Steere.

[ii] See The Jazz of Preaching by Kirk B. Jones.

[iii] See The Country of Marriage by Wendell Berry

[iv] See Hinson, page 195.