In the name of Jesus, our life, and life abundant.
Earlier this past week I found myself downtown for a rally and a planned civil disobedience action in response to the city’s decision to close over fifty of the district’s schools. I was part of a contingent of clergy representing many different denominations who were asked to participate in a sit-in that blocked traffic in front of City Hall long enough for the hundreds of teachers, custodians and cooks who were losing their jobs, along with the thousands of parents and students demanding that the city reconsider its decision, to be seen and heard.
As I waited on the sidewalk, obediently lined up in front of a downtown bank from which people were coming and going, carrying out their business as usual, even as the streets were packed with protestors, news vans, and mounted police officers, a reporter with a hand-held camera approached me and asked, “are you really a priest?”
“A pastor, yes,” I replied.
“Can I talk to you?” he asked, and I consented. Part of the point of the demonstration was to get our side of the story out, and I’d come to the rally equipped with talking points I was ready to share if asked. I was ready to tell this reporter that I’d recently learned that there are 800 disconnected youth in Logan Square and 1,600 in Humboldt Park — youth who are neither in school, nor employed. That means that there are thousands of young people in the neighborhoods immediately around our church building this morning who are falling through the holes in the safety nets of our community. I was ready to say that I see no point in closing schools for lack of students when we know that we are losing children to the streets. That I am more interested in how the city plans to go after our lost and prodigal youth than in how it plans to shutter the doors and windows of the very institutions that offer them their best chance at a future different from their past.
I was ready to say all of that, but those weren’t the answers to the question he asked me.
The reporter asked me what faith I am, and I said, “I’m a Christian.”
He said, “we haven’t seen many Christians in the streets since Vietnam, and those were mostly Quakers. Then came Occupy, and now there’s all these social justice Christians.”
I nodded, waiting for a question I could fill with my answers.
He said, “I guess I’m just cynical. The rich just keep getting richer and the rest of us are getting screwed. What do you say to people like me, to the cynics?”
There was the question, and it didn’t call for my talking points on public school closures. It called for a statement of faith. What do we say to the cynics?
I kept my eyes open, but internally I wrapped my eyelids around my heart and whispered a silent prayer, “oh Lord, help me get this right.”
I took a deep breath and said, “Cynicism is a luxury our children cannot afford. They cannot wait for us to recover hope for the future, they need our action now. History has given us more than enough evidence to support faith in the power of the people, acting together, to turn back the forces of money and power and to find for ourselves and for those who follow us a better way of sharing life together, of being a community.”
At least that’s how I’m transcribing my blurry memory. I didn’t have much time for word-smithing. I probably also said, “umm” once or twice.
A more reliably eloquent voice addressed this same theme on Good Friday in an article published at the Huffington Post. The author was none other than Parker Palmer, whose name I’ve invoked from this pulpit more than once, and whose writing has fed many of you, individually or in small groups here at St. Luke’s. In his post, titled “An Upside-Down Easter Meditation,” he writes,
Years ago, I stumbled upon a little book by Julia Esquivel, the Guatemalan poet and social justice activist, titled “Threatened with Resurrection.” Those few words had a huge impact on me.
I’d been taught that death is the great threat and resurrection the great hope. But at the time I found Esquivel’s book, I was experiencing the death-in-life called depression. Her title jarred me into the hard realization that figurative forms of death sometimes feel comforting — while resurrection, or the hope of new life, feels threatening.
Why? Because death-in-life can bring us a perverse sense of relief. When I was depressed, nobody expected anything of me, nor did I expect anything of myself. I was exempt from life’s demands and risks. But if I were to find new life, who knows what daunting tasks I might be required to take on?
Do you know the state of being Parker Palmer calls “death-in-life?” Have you lived with death beside you, inside you, beckoning to you with promises that everything could be easier if you would just stop believing that things will ever get better?
I know you have.
Do you know what it means to be dead-while-alive? To be numb to the possibilities of your one, unique, singular existence? Have you lived with defeat as your mentor, with denial as your coach, whispering to you that you’ll never be more than you are? That you, that people like you, never get to have more than this.
I know you have.
Do you know what it means to be left-for-dead? Not quite dead, but assumed to be headed there, and too fast for anyone to do anything to stop it. Have you come up in one of these neighborhoods where children are funneled from classroom to street corner to prison, and left there for decades, for lifetimes? Do you remember the human beings left for dead at Guantanamo? Have you seen, do you remember the images coming out of Haiti, out of Uganda, out of Afghanistan?
I know you have.
What do we say to the cynics? To the ones who know the story of the empty tomb, the resurrected life, God’s “YES” to the world’s “NO,” but struggle to believe? What do we say to the ones who still show up with their cameras, hoping for a story to reignite their hope for the world, despite all evidence to the contrary? What do we say to each other, year after year, as we take our places in the pews on this Spring morning as the earth comes back to life?
We say, “Alleluia! Christ is risen!”
Parker Palmer continues,
Sometimes we choose death-in-life (as in compulsive overactivity, unhealthy relationships, non-stop judgmentalism aimed at self or others, work that compromises our integrity, substance abuse, pervasive cynicism, etc.) because we’re afraid of the challenges that might come if we embraced resurrection-in-life.
Sometimes we choose death-in-life because we’re afraid of the work that comes with choosing life-in-life. Because we know the pain and exhaustion of crawling back out of that pit of self-negation.
Sometimes we choose death-while-alive because we know that having expectations for ourselves, setting goals more daring than any we’ve yet achieved, rising above the expectation of mediocrity inherited from a culture selling the promise of quick fixes, but banking on slow failures, means working harder than we’ve ever worked before.
Sometimes we accept left-for-dead because to acknowledge life in a body, in a congregation, in a neighborhood, in a people, in a nation, in a continent, in our precious, fragile planet for God’s sake, would mean acknowledging that there is a crisis happening right now, and that we have an ethical obligation to act, because there is still life in these dry bones, in these bruised and broken bodies!
In the gospel of Luke, the women come to the tomb ready to embalm Jesus’ dead body with the spices they had brought, but they are met instead by messengers who ask them a question they were not ready to answer:
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
The planet is not yet lost to us. The nations are not beyond all hope for peace and prosperity. The prisoners at Guantanamo are still alive, if temporarily forgotten, and the youth in our neighborhoods are still hoping someone will see in them a brighter tomorrow than the streets have to offer.
And you, you are alive, today, now. You are not just workers. You are not just consumers. You are not just observers. You are not the leftover dreams of generations past. You are not the names they called you, or the fears that drag you down from the inside. Your heart is beating, and your lungs still fill with air enough to cry out:
“Alleluia, Christ is risen!”
“Every religious tradition is rooted in mysteries I don’t pretend to understand, including claims about what happens after we die. But I know this for sure: as long as we’re alive, choosing resurrection is always worth the risk. I’m grateful for the people and experiences that continue to help me embrace ‘the threat of resurrection.’ My Easter wish for everyone is the ability to say “YES!” to life. Even when life challenges us, it’s a gift beyond all measure.”
Messengers standing amidst the graves declare, “he is not here, but has risen.” You baptized people of God, you body of Christ in the world, you do not dwell with the dead. You are alive. You are rising. You are a new creation, being made new today and every day.