I serve on the Board of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, with which our church partners to pursue justice in this city.
Board members take turns chairing those meetings and usually at the start, there’s some sort of brief question that lets us connect personally. And our chair last week’s opening connection question was a really simple one. He just said:
what’s your word of the day? What’s your word of the day?
People were like, I don’t know, and we said stuff like: joy or troubled or ready or whatever. And our chair that day said:
my word of the day is resurrection.
And on we went with our meeting. And it was a doozy. We had a lot to talk about and the meeting went long.
But just as our chair was about to wrap things up, he said:
I told you at the start that my word was of the resurrection. And I want to end by telling you why.
Back story here that we all knew already: many of us on the Board were recently in attendance at my friend’s public hearing for termination of his parole.
This friend and colleague of mine is older than me. And a long time ago, when I was a baby, and he was barely a man – 18 years old – he committed a violent crime. After conviction, he served many years of prison time. And since his release, despite being a model citizen and community leader, he has been on probation for decades, which has continued to cost him money and opportunities and hardship. Recently, he had an opportunity to go before a panel to consider termination of his probation – to some 50 years after his crime – to at last be a truly free man. And many of us had been there in support.
And now our friend says:
Today, my word of the day is resurrection, because today is the exact anniversary of the day I committed that horrible crime so long ago. And once I had nothing but regret. I have regret still. I wish I could undo the harm. But today I also have resurrection, because I’m a new man. I have a new life. And I wanted to honor that this day.
The way of resurrection, my friends. That’s our subject today.
In this season in which we reflect on the way of Jesus – some of the most important ways we can live in and honor the life and teaching of Jesus, that we can find love, joy, peace – all the good things here, we are remembering the death and resurrection of Jesus, which are so prominently featured in the Bible’s reflections on Jesus Christ.
Last week I talked about the way of surrender, how to die.
And this week I want to talk about the way of resurrection, which really is how to live.
We’re not going to read a passage about Jesus, but a much older one, also a kind of story of resurrection.
Genesis 18:1-15 (Common English Bible)
18 The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he sat at the entrance of his tent in the day’s heat.
2 He looked up and suddenly saw three men standing near him. As soon as he saw them, he ran from his tent entrance to greet them and bowed deeply.
3 He said, “Sirs, if you would be so kind, don’t just pass by your servant.
4 Let a little water be brought so you may wash your feet and refresh yourselves under the tree.
5 Let me offer you a little bread so you will feel stronger, and after that you may leave your servant and go on your way—since you have visited your servant.”
They responded, “Fine. Do just as you have said.”
6 So Abraham hurried to Sarah at his tent and said, “Hurry! Knead three seahs of the finest flour and make some baked goods!”
7 Abraham ran to the cattle, took a healthy young calf, and gave it to a young servant, who prepared it quickly.
8 Then Abraham took butter, milk, and the calf that had been prepared, put the food in front of them, and stood under the tree near them as they ate.
9 They said to him, “Where’s your wife Sarah?”
And he said, “Right here in the tent.”
10 Then one of the men said, “I will definitely return to you about this time next year. Then your wife Sarah will have a son!”
Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him.
11 Now Abraham and Sarah were both very old. Sarah was no longer menstruating.
12 So Sarah laughed to herself, thinking, I’m no longer able to have children and my husband’s old.
13 The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Me give birth? At my age?’
14 Is anything too difficult for the Lord? When I return to you about this time next year, Sarah will have a son.”
15 Sarah lied and said, “I didn’t laugh,” because she was frightened.
But he said, “No, you laughed.”
So this is a story about a lot of things.
It’s a story about hospitality. Abraham and Sarah are with all their animals, all their people one day, just chilling in their giant tent, as one does in the ancient near east, when three strangers come on by.
And they cook them an enormous meal. Abraham’s like: how about a little bit of bread? And then he yells: hey, Sarah, get like gallons of flour. And he and a house servant slaughter and roast an entire cow. Young cow, maybe baby cow, but still, that’s a large animal. And it takes a long time to do all this cooking.
The tradition tells us: this is the way. Go all out for your guests. Centuries later, the New Testament book of Hebrews looks back on this tale and says:
never forget to practice hospitality, because in doing so, you might entertain angels unaware.
Beautiful, you all. Have a ton of food on hand. You never know.
The three men, angels bit too – this is also a story about the mysterious nature of God. After all, the tradition, even the text itself, can’t decide who these visitors are. At one moment, it says they are three men. But then at the beginning of the passage and in the bit right after it too, it says God appeared to them and spoke.
Who is it – people or God?
A lot of the tradition, like that book of Hebrews, splits the difference and calls angels. But that doesn’t help much, because we don’t really know what angels are – the word just means messengers.
Some Christian artists imagine these three people to be three persons, three manifestations of God as Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The famous beautiful Russian icon of this story is simply called Trinity.
Who knows, my friends? Not me.
I do know that the Spirit of God can be present to creation in many ways, and God can speak in many forms. We can sometimes sense the presence, even the voice of God through a book, a film, a song, a friend, an ocean. Who am I to say what happened here?
So again, it’s a story about a lot of things.
But among them, it’s a story of resurrection.
Resurrection is the rising of the dead, that which is dead coming to new life. And there’s a story of resurrection here.
Abraham and Sarah’s dreams were dead. Their sense of God’s greatest, most important promise over their lives was dead as far as they were concerned.
As a young couple, Abraham and Sarah, Abraham’s brother’s family, his nephew, his father – they had all left Babylon and traveled West in search of a better land and a better life for their children.
Theirs is the dream of migrants, of immigrants – to chart a better future for their family. Like all immigrant dreams, there was suffering too. A grown child – Abraham’s brother – died too young. Abraham’s father was overcome with grief. But even in the suffering, the dream lived on.
And for Abraham, this dream got real spiritual too. Everything he knew or hoped about God was bound up with this dream of a future. This worshiper of the gods of storms and wind and farming and moon believed that a single creator God was speaking to him – promising him a hope of blessing. That blessing to him looked like good land to live on, a good future for his family that would in time become a clan and then a nation, and mostly that blessing looked like descendants – children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and so on to see the blessing forward.
But what happens to a dream like this that seems so sure but year after year doesn’t come true?
He and Sarah move through their youth and into middle age, and year after year, there are no children. New moon after new moon, Sarah sees her menstrual cycle continue over and over, and no pregnancy, until her cycle slows and then stops entirely.
And though there are so many ways we can have a legacy and a blessing, to them, in their imagination, the dream is dead. No children. No legacy. For all they know, no land – they’re still living in a tent after all. No blessing. Perhaps no God.
Maybe it was all an illusion, wishful thinking.
Until these men, or these angels, or these gods – whoever they are – come on by and share a big, long meal, and then get up, saying,
“By the way, we’re coming back next year to meet your baby boy.”
“Ha! How can it be!”
“Ha, ha. How can that be?”
But the messengers insist it will be so, and the story tells us it was.
Life where there was none to be. Renewed dream. Renewed blessing. Renewed faith. Resurrection.
Let’s pause here, and notice what resurrection is not.
Resurrection is not an undoing or a reversal of the past. Where there is resurrection, something or someone has died. That still happened.
Resurrection is a second chance, a new life, or a new lease on life. That’s amazing. But it also doesn’t change the past.
Abraham’s brother is still dead. Abraham’s father still died grieving his lost son. We meet the survivors of that family line, and they’re pretty jacked up. And Abraham and Sarah don’t get back the 25 years they’ve been waiting for the child they didn’t have. 25 years of dying hope, 25 years of dying faith is a hard thing, friends. This couple knew a lot of suffering. They made some pretty awful choices as they tried to find their way together.
They can’t get any of that back. They’re also going to be pretty old parents, and that’ll change their experience, and what they do and don’t see too.
I think of my friend I serve with in GBIO. He’s a man he never knew he would become. He has a good life. I’m proud to know him. But he still doesn’t know if he’s getting off probation. And he still has to live with the guilt of what he did so long ago. And the lost years, the loss of his twenties and thirties while in prison, many other losses that come with that.
New life, new freedom, new faith are beautiful gifts. Resurrection is a mighty work of God that opens up life and joy, faith, hope, and love in the present and the future, but it does not erase the death in the past.
I got a card recently for someone I love who I think can brood over lost chances in the past a bit. The card’s got a quote from the actress Marcia Wallace that says,
“Don’t look back. You’re not going that way.”
The past is over and dead.
Dreams of returning to some better past, real or imagined, are not God’s dreams.
Making your country great again – whatever that’s supposed to mean – is folly.
Getting back to that way you felt when you were __ (you fill in the age that comes to mind) – it’s not happening.
Our relationships, our health, our churches, our families, our whole creation has no reverse gear.
The past is dead. We can enjoy the memories. We can grieve the losses. But we’re only alive today, and we can only go forward.
But in the present and with our future stretched out before us, the best alternative to regret or anxiety, to illusion or despair, is to hope in God for resurrection, trusting that we never know when new life will appear.
Earlier this year, I was talking about some of the griefs of my life with a mentor of mine, someone I think of as a pastor to me.
I was talking about a couple people I love and wondering why certain things were hard for them. And as parents and pastors do, I had regrets – would things be different now if I had been a better or more effective person a few years ago? And I had worries – real, legitimate concerns about how things were going to turn out? Mostly, though, I was just stuck – like things seem bad and I have no idea what to do. And I was a little angry too, if I’m going to be honest. I wasn’t sure if I was angry at God, angry at myself, angry at life in some generalized way. But I was frustrated.
And my mentor, who knows me well and has heard a lot about the people I was sharing about, he said: would it be alright with you if I share what I see, maybe a different perspective
And I said:
of course, please?
And he said:
what if what you’re seeing right now are actually stories of resurrection?
I wasn’t expecting that. I was talking about people whose lives I wanted to going better.
And he was like:
well, what do we know about the risen Jesus?
And I was like:
I don’t know, this one of those “what is the teacher thinking” kind of questions.
And I said:
I know. What do we know about the risen Jesus?
And he reminded me:
well, he rose with scars, didn’t he? He rose with scars.
Like Abraham and Sarah’s resurrected dream – having a baby in late middle age, after 25 years of waiting, doubt, bad choices – that is not the same thing as having that baby young when your hearts are full of God’s promise.
The same with Jesus. When he is risen from the dead, his closest friends don’t recognize him at first. But in time, they do, in part because of his scars, the marks of his suffering.
And my mentor shared his perspective on the stories I’ve told. How this person is alive when that wasn’t guaranteed, how this other person may have struggles, but is in a far better place than last year, how a relationship between me and one other had mended and grown so richly.
He wondered with me – maybe things aren’t quite as you’d hope, but look what God has done? New life with scars maybe, but new life still.
I felt like Jesus’ friends, like how had I not seen it? What my mentor was saying was true. But my despair over things not being perfect made it so I missed the new life that was present.
This shift of perspective was interesting, because it didn’t just lift my spirits, make me more hopeful and thankful, it somehow helped me get unstuck too.
Like if God was working resurrection, if new life was growing, then there were things I do to help. There were new shoots growing I could water, like little flames I could blow some oxygen on.
Because resurrection is like this, right? God can work redemption stories, second acts, new possibilities. But we can invest in those new things with our hope and our help. Most things God creates, maybe all things God creates, God co-creates with the universe. We are invited to co-create with God, to co-labor with God in the work of resurrection.
So with this child, I can write to them and praise all the growth and resilience I see. And with this other person, there’s a way to communicate my trust and availability and love and prayers.
We’re not always passive in resurrection stories. If we’re people who believe in redemption, if we’re people who believe in second acts, second chances, better futures, then we hope and pray and help see those into being with God.
This is why I have a semicolon tattooed on my wrist, right where I’ll see it all the time. I was an English teacher, and I just like semicolons, so there’s that. But it’s also a reminder that there’s always more to say. When a dream or a hope or a possibility, or a life seems over. Like there’s a big period there. Done. Full stop. I remember that for God, that’s never true. There’s always something left to say. There’s always something more to do. We can’t ever turn life backwards. But there’s always possibility for some kind of resurrection. And I want to be a person who believes that and who works for that with all I’ve got.
But it doesn’t come naturally. I need this reminder. So it’s here, to keep me hoping and working for resurrection.
Still, though, no matter what we do, resurrection is the end a gift of God. It isn’t earned or merited. There’s no spiritual algebra equation – like put in this much prayer, and this much hope, and this much work, and this much faith, and here is the new life God will raise. No, it’s a gift. It’s a gift.
I think about Sarah and Abraham and the joy of their late in life baby.
They’re a founding mother and father of faith – for Jews, Christians, Muslim. So they have this lofty reputation. But even in the Bible’s stories, they are not good people.
Their marriage is full of scars from periods of deceit, doubt, unfaithfulness, cruelty. They barely make it as a couple. It’s not always clear they should have.
And I’ll spare the details right now, because it would be a real downer at this point in the sermon, but they do horrible things to others too. Just violent, horrible things.
And yet still, they are beloved. They too are children of God, who wants to work to help write the best story possible in their lives. And in their case, resurrection takes this particular form of a long promised, but still quite unexpected child.
No wonder there is laughter.
Sarah’s afraid to admit it in front of these holy, important guests of theirs. Like is laughter undignified in their presence?
But really, what is there to say but laugh? It’s just too good to be true.
But in the end it is. And they name their baby Laughter, because they just can’t help themselves, the joy is so deep.
There’s a psalm – a song of praise in the Bible – and I wonder if the one line about laughter is in part a reflection on this story.
It’s Psalm 126. A psalm of resurrection. It goes like this:
Psalm 126 (Common English Bible)
126 When the Lord changed Zion’s circumstances for the better, it was like we had been dreaming.
2 Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter; our tongues were filled with joyful shouts. It was even said, at that time, among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them!”
3 Yes, the Lord has done great things for us, and we are overjoyed.
4 Lord, change our circumstances for the better, like dry streams in the desert waste!
5 Let those who plant with tears reap the harvest with joyful shouts.
6 Let those who go out, crying and carrying their seed, come home with joyful shouts, carrying bales of grain!
I love this prayer. I really love it.
It’s so full of joy – mouths full of laughter, tongues filled with shouts, nations full of praise, hearts full of joy, arms full of grain.
But it’s actually a psalm for hard time, for when you can’t see resurrection.
“Lord, change our circumstances for the better, like dry streams in the desert waste.”
This is a psalm prayed through tears, but prayed in hope.
It’s a psalm for when peoples are at war around Zion, and people are grieving, and children are dying.
It’s a psalm for when you don’t know if you’re going to get your probation or not. A psalm for when your kids are hurting, but they’re alive, and they’re growing.
A psalm for finding laughter again through our tears.
In the Way of Jesus, friends, we never stop looking for resurrection. Where there is death, there also can be new life. It might not be what we call perfect – since there’s no such thing. It might have scars. But it can still be beautiful. God can do it.
Spirit of the living God, Spirit of the resurrection yet to come,
We call to mind our hurts and tears and desert wastes.
Change our circumstances, we pray, God. And reveal something of the resurrection you are working. So we can hope with you, water with you, laugh again with you, God, and open our arms in gratitude to your abundance.