WHAT IS RESURRECTION? | RISING FROM DIRT AND MUD
reflections by the Reverend Paul Oakley
11:00 AM, Sunday, April 1, 2018
EASTER REFLECTION – RESURRECTION
What is resurrection?
For Christians observing the Western calendar, today is a day celebrating one very specific resurrection. People who believe the literal truth of the Christian Gospels believe that Jesus, the itinerant carpenter rabbi from Nazareth who resisted the power of the occupying Roman government and who was executed by the Roman state a few days before and sealed in a rock-cut tomb, that that Jesus came back to life and left that tomb early on a Sunday morning. It is what my parents believe and what I was raised to believe. A contravention of the laws of nature. Something that was impossible became fact. The order of the universe was changed.
Despite the centrality of teachings about this particular resurrection and about the resurrection of the whole people at the culmination of history, Christianity did not invent the idea of resurrection.
In Hinduism, there are stories of resurrections in holy texts and folk tales. For example, in the Ramayana after Rama slays Ravana in the great battle between good and evil, Rama requests that Indra resurrect all the monkeys who died in the great battle. In ancient Greek religion, part of the mutability of existence included resurrection. Achilles, tragic hero of the Trojan War, was taken from his funeral pyre by his mother and resurrected. Ancient Egyptian religion included stories of gods who died and came back to life as part of a cosmic cycle.
But Jesus was a Jew and never stopped being a Jew. And at the time of Jesus, Judaism was in a ferment of competing and conflicting approaches to their national religion. They were no longer an independent people, yet the old religious ways were centered on their self-sustaining state. Two big religious schools of thought emerged from this time of imagining different possible futures: the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were focused on the old approach of ritual sacrifice of animals in the Temple in Jerusalem and the power of priests. The Pharisees were focused on making holiness achievable by individuals through study and observance of the religious rules. The Sadducees taught that there was no resurrection of the dead. For the Pharisees, resurrection of the dead became a central, hope-giving idea.
It is certainly an awkward, unscientific belief, not just a belief that someone was almost dead or briefly clinically dead and returns, but a belief that the one fact of the universe – other than taxes – the fact that none escape is not the final word. The retired Episcopal Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, John Shelby Spong explains the Gospel story of Jesus’ resurrection for religious liberals this way: After his death, Jesus followers, who had hoped he would lead the Jewish people out of their subjugation to Rome, were bereft. They were defeated and in mourning. And then something happened. As they gathered together to support each other in their loss, they felt their friend, their leader, present with them despite his absence. For Spong, the resurrection was this hope-giving presence-in-absence that they experienced together. In community with others who hoped for a way to resist the dominant power, they knew their friend was still alive in them.
This resurrection need not be literal to give hope and meaning. It is a way through the impossible to defeat the deadening power of empire. And it is available to all.
FLOWER REFLECTION – RISING FROM THE DIRT AND MUD
Maybe it’s only an accident that Easter celebrations involve flowers so numerous they frequently overpower the meeting house with their sweet scent. Easter comes in spring as flowers are bursting onto the landscape in many places. And so there is a natural connection. Jesus, too spoke of flowers, using them as object lessons about non-anxious presence and acceptance of the world as it is. For him, the flowers were a symbol of God’s, the Universe’s, care for us. Like the flowers we evolved to be here. As Jesus said it:
Why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet … not even Solomon …was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you…? So do not worry… (Matthew 6: 28-31, NIV)
Jesus also spoke about plant life in relation to death, telling how new life doesn’t come from the seed unless it is buried in the earth. We bury the crocus corms, the daffodil and tulip bulbs, the zinnia seeds in the earth and wait for the life, locked deep within, to emerge and flower. Lotus seeds and rhizomes grow in the muck at the pond’s edge to produce one of the most magnificent flowers. Dirt and muck and darkness are the stuff from which that which is beautiful and life-giving emerges.
Toward the end of his life, the Buddha gathered his disciples for instruction. They sat, waiting for his teaching. And they sat and waited. The Buddha reached into the muck of the pond and pulled up a lotus flower. And he held it silently before them, its roots dripping mud and water. Or maybe someone gave him a flower as he sat among his followers. But muddy, dripping root or clean cut flower, the Buddha just sat there, holding the flower. Some say he slowly twirled it on its stem.
Everyone was puzzled. People still find this behavior puzzling. No words, just a flower. Then at last one of the Buddha’s disciples understood. A smile of recognition came to his face. The Buddha handed him the flower and said, “What can be said I have said to you, and what cannot be said, I have given to this disciple, who will be your leader, for he has learned beyond words.”
This is commonly known in English as the Flower Sermon.
Back in 1990s, Walter and I had just moved to New Jersey. We had the extended Lazenby family at our house for a whole week centered on Thanksgiving. After everyone was gone back to California and New York State and Maryland and Kentucky, I went down the street to the K‑Mart and looked in the picked over bins of bulbs, corms, and rhizomes. Finally I found a packet labeled “Black Iris.” I thought that sounded interesting and bought it. It was already well past normal planting time, but I scratched around in the narrow band of dirt beside our driveway and planted it, a desiccated rhizome that I couldn’t imagine would ever revive, let alone flower. But spring came, the narrow band of dirt was enough to encourage the life invisible within that tired rhizome, and green emerged and grew. And then at the normal time of iris blooms, it bloomed. It wasn’t black. It had mislabeled. But it was a large, beautiful flower with varied rust, russet, orange and purple colors. All it took was a little dirt and the moisture nature provided.
The miracle of return is a function of nature. Allelujah!
© 2018 by the Rev. Paul Oakley