Sunday’s sermon: “Where’s the Death Certificate?”

The following is my draft for this Sunday’s sermon for Zion “Goshert’s” UCC, where I am Pastor.  We are a week behind in the lectionary because Easter 2 has been for the last few years a Love Feast, or an unscripted service of testimony and song.  Plus the discussion of OBL seemed to strike the Doubting Thomas story for me.  The Bible readings for the Sunday are Psalm 16:5-11, 1 Peter 1:3-9, and John 20:19-31.

I was sitting in a hospital waiting room with one of our church members one afternoon this past week, while another of our church members was in surgery, and on the flat-screen television set in the waiting room was the unending discussion and reporting of every single detail of Osama bin Laden’s death.  While it is clear that we should be asking about the legality of what happened and about our allegiances with Pakistan at this point, so much of the public curiosity since bin Laden’s death has been centered around photographs taken of his body.  And this is because apparently many Americans don’t believe that he is dead.

And I shouldn’t be surprised, since one of my own family members immediately informed me that he didn’t believe that Osama was dead, either.  What we now have is a situation is where the American public distrusts its elected leadership so harshly that nothing that our leadership does is ever believed.  It’s telling that within hours of President Obama releasing his birth certificate that public voices on our local radio station claimed that they released the birth certificate strategically because Michelle Obama could not stand the fact that the royal wedding in England was taking international attention off of her!  We should also not dismiss the fact that our top elected leadership is black to be a contributing factor as to why white America doesn’t trust the government; racism is clearly a factor in what is happening all around us.

But in our bible reading for today, we encounter the story of “doubting” Thomas.  Jesus visits the disciples, who were afraid, following news of the resurrection.  Jesus greets them, saying, “Peace to you,” which is what we say when we pass the peace in church every Sunday, and then he commands them to “receive the Holy Spirit,” and he starts breathing on them, offering them forgiveness.

Why would Jesus start breathing on them and offering them forgiveness?  Jesus doing this is a ritual re-creation of Yom Kippur, which is the Jewish day of atonement and forgiveness.  The disciples, who had betrayed Jesus, were afraid for their lives, and the Bible says that they were afraid of what the priests would do to them when they learned that Jesus had risen from the dead, but they were probably also afraid of what Jesus might do, too.  And it’s telling, then, that Jesus immediately offers them forgiveness and offers a fresh start.

Jesus is also beginning a new era of history.  By breathing the Holy Spirit, we should recognize that the Jesus who returns from the grave is not the same as before.  He is different.  He is post-grave, post-Hell, and post-tomb.  A lot has happened to Jesus in a very short amount of time.  And by Jesus breathing the Spirit onto the disciples, now forgiven, they too are changed with Jesus, and thereby a new era of human history is being enacted, as the Holy Spirit is beginning its outpouring onto humanity, which will culminate later into the Holy Spirit pouring out onto the church on the Day of Pentecost.

Thomas was not present while the Holy Spirit is being breathed out by Jesus, and, even seeing Jesus in person about a week later, he doesn’t believe it.  A good question here is what is it he didn’t believe?  Jesus offers Thomas peace, and allows him to insert his fingers into the holes in his body.

Very often we are taught that Thomas did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, and the conclusion is that those who doubt Easter are denying what is plainly true in front of them.  But it seems to me that Thomas believes that Jesus is alive, obviously, but rather Thomas just doesn’t believe that Jesus had died.  Until he sees the wounds and dismembered body of Jesus, flesh that should be dead, now alive.  It is the death of Jesus that seems unimaginable now that he sees Jesus alive, because how could anything be alive also be dead?  What Thomas didn’t understand at that point was that when it comes to God, as Jesus, “life” and “death” become relative terms.  They take on new meaning.  Jesus had been raised, and in the Holy Spirit, so also may Thomas be raised as well, and belief in Jesus causes us to move beyond the literal and into the spiritual meaning of “life” and “death.”

*  *  *

If you’re a baseball fan like me, you can often relate history to baseball, or you begin to connect historical events to baseball.  For instance, I had tickets to see the Chicago Cubs play the St. Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field on September 11, 2001, a game that was eventually cancelled.  Shortly thereafter I was at the Chicago White Sox game against the New York Yankees at what is now U.S. Cellular Park, or the newer Comiskey Stadium, on the South Side of Chicago. 

That game was the first baseball game played by a New York team after 9/11, and the tenor and ceremony that took place with that baseball game is unlike anything I have ever seen.  Before the game numerous first responders were honored, Mayor Giuliani gave a speech, and “God Bless America” on that day became a common hymn for baseball games ever since.  The display of patriotism against the horror of the World Trade Center’s collapse just a week before caused me to experience a tremendous sense of dread, a dread that we would go to war blindly.  In fact, I even wrote an op-ed article for the Chicago Weekly News, a weekly newspaper for which I wrote an occasional column, about this experience shortly after it happened.

And late last Sunday night I was watching the Phillies game go into extra innings, watching the crowd at Citizens Bank Park care less about the Phillies’ eventual 14 inning loss to the Mets as news of Osama bin Laden’s death overtook the crowd.

While there is no question that bin Laden was a bad person, a man whose hands were stained with blood, a man who sucked our country into a state of international war, a war that cannot ever really be won and where victories and losses are difficult to identify, I experienced a similar kind of dread over the crowd’s reaction and patriotism as I experienced at Comiskey Park about ten years before.

It is abundantly ringing all around us that we live in a culture of death.  We live in a culture that celebrates death and celebrates the demise of others.  The rejoicing over the death of a human being, any human being, suggests that bin Laden didn’t “win” or “lose,” but that his death is just another death in a society gone backwards.  He as a major player in this society at one time, but his death might give us a false sense of victory or an illusion that life has triumphed over death, that good has defeated evil.  The fact is, bin Laden is not a casualty of a war he did not begin, but he has been a casualty of the same society in which we are participants and victims.

Amid calls to see images of the dead body of bin Laden we could only see mirror images of ourselves.  In gory photographs we could only understand the work of our own hands and our inability to grapple with the cultural and international situations that we ourselves simultaneously cause and attack.

Do we, like Thomas, need to stick our hands into the dead body of bin Laden to accept that he is dead?  Does the absence of the body really incite a belief that he has survived death?  It is interesting, if not telling, that the most conservative Americans who doubt the death of bin Laden share this belief with a few extremist Muslims, that Osama bin Laden is still alive.  Or will we finally realize that his death points to our tragic state of affairs which believes that his life or his death means something beyond the base tragedy of our situation?

If we have received the Spirit, if we have been greeted with Christ in peace, we must understand that the dead bury their own dead.  And in the death-culture in which we live, this necrophilial, death-lusting culture, we do not always seek proof of life, but we are obsessed with proof of death, because this is all we can truly know.  And when we do search out proof of life, it is to facilitate our culture of death.  Just as for many Americans, the President’s “Certificate of Live Birth” from the state of Hawaii was insufficient proof, the reality is that we live in a state of Live Death.

*  *  *

In our other scripture reading from 1 Peter today, St. Peter writes that God’s “great mercy has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.”  If we are led by Christ into a Kingdom journey that calls us into imperishability, and an undefiled and unfading world, why do we celebrate so loudly the perishability, fading away, and defiling of others, even while these celebrations point to our own finitude?

The Good News is that we do this because we are not yet fully molded into the New Creation to which we are challenged.  We do not live in such a way that truly seeks life over death, except when it is our life and our own pleasure that we seek.  We do not live in a true joy, except for the kind of joy that reduces our current state of affairs to games or end-results that justify games that should have never happened or are deeply immoral in themselves.  We celebrate outcomes when they are easy and cheap—and I would contend that while the price we paid as a nation for the hunt for Osama bin Laden was clearly financially expensive—the spiritual payoff of putting bullets through a man that was already spiritually dead demonstrates that our death overpowered his death.  It is far more difficult to seek out life, and promote life, than simply rejoice in death.

In our Psalm reading for today, Psalm 16, David writes: “Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices, my body also rests secure, for you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.  You show me the path of life, in your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”  “Sheol” is the Hebrew word for the afterlife in the early Jewish religion, though it is sometimes seen as a word for “hell.”  Sheol is perhaps more accurately a word for the state of death in which the dead reside.  The Psalm teaches us that joy brings us beyond simple conceptions of life and death, to a “fullness” of joy, in the “path of life.”

My point is this.  If we live in a perpetual culture of death, it is Christ who calls us out of the tombs and graveyards where we constantly live.  And if the world itself, and by this I mean the whole of human culture, is a world of death, it isn’t like we can just emigrate to somewhere that is more life-loving.  We can only try to kindle a new light of hope for life in the darkness of death, even while Spring is happening around us, even while celebrations of death occur everywhere, while it is so difficult to convince the death-culture that there is better life. 

Easter is a day that Christ calls us to come out of the tombs, but as the season of Easter continues we have to realize that while we may exit our own tombs, we begin to realize that the world itself is a tomb into which we must bring new life.  It’s not enough just to live Easter for ourselves.  Instead, we invite the dead to place their dead fingers into life that is now beyond death, to begin to believe that there is life beyond life, and life beyond death.  On the first day of Easter we encounter new life as astonishment, and now that we have overcome the shock of Easter, we must now accept that if we do not live Easter in a magnetic way that is a triumph over death, our Easter simply becomes another hymn in the over-arching liturgy of death that is struck up everywhere throughout the world.

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