Mr. Resurrection

Rev. Scott L. Barton
April 6, 2014
John 11:1-44


Wasn’t that a fun anthem?  I’m so glad we got to hear it and you, choir, got to sing it.
Do you know who wrote it?  James Weldon Johnson, born in 1871, who was first known for his writing, which included poems, novels, and anthologies of black culture. He was U.S. consul to Venezuela and a noted scholar and columnist.  In 1916, when the NAACP was just seven years old, he was chosen as the first black executive field secretary. And within four years, he increased the NAACP's membership from 9,000 to almost 90,000, and was then the head for the next ten years, as it became internationally known for its advocacy of equal rights and equal protection for the "American Negro,” which came to include fighting the lynching of blacks, as well as laws that had gradually disenfranchised blacks. I think it’s hard for many of us to imagine what they were up against.
The song is inspired by Ezekiel’s vision.  It’s not an accident that Jews were strong opponents of racism in this country and worked against it.  Slavery in Egypt, and exile in Babylon were the formative experiences of Israel as a people. A lot of the biblical lament came out of that period of exile after 586 B.C. Psalm 137 is a good example: 


By the rivers of Babylon
–there we sat down and there we wept

when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

we hung up our harps.

For there our captors

asked us for songs,

and our tormenters asked for mirth, saying,

‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song

in a strange land?”

What do you do when life is turned upside down? Have you ever noticed when people’s lives have been interrupted by great tragedy, that sometimes they stop coming to worship?  Not always, but sometimes.  Some are embarrassed by their loss, maybe of a loved one, or a job, or their health, or their marriage.  And some lose their vision of God.  To stand and sing praises to God with others who seem not to have lost such vision or imagination just doesn’t make sense anymore.

That’s what happened in Babylon, 2500 years ago. After awhile, things actually got cozy enough for the exiles that even when they were allowed to go back to Jerusalem, most of them didn’t want to go any more.  The old dream of living where they once believed the Lord lived, had died, buried under piles and piles of coping devices.

So one day, the Spirit of the Lord grabbed hold of the prophet Ezekiel and led him to a vision of that valley filled with dry bones, and the LORD asked him if they could live. And Ezekiel’s great statement of faith is, “O Lord GOD, you know.”  And Ezekiel is called to prophesy to the bones, because in the vision, the Lord GOD says that he will cause breath – or wind – to enter the bones and they will live. And so Ezekiel prophesies to dem dry bones. And they get connected. And they live. And in his vision, Ezekiel hears that the bones are the whole house of Israel.
Walter Brueggemann has written that hope proclaims that the way things appear is precarious. So we should be careful, he says, not to absolutize the present.  Don’t take it too seriously. Don’t bank on today because it won’t last.  Remember the Beatitudes ?  Blessed are the upside down?  Blessed are you when you know things will change, and woe to you when you try to guarantee that they won’t.  

William Willimon, retired United Methodist bishop, professor and still a pastor wrote an article once in which he referred to Jesus as “Mr. Resurrection.”  I liked that, because the only other, quote, “last name” we use is “Christ,” which, of course, isn’t a last name at all. Jesus Resurrection.  He is Mr. Resurrection, Willimon said, because that’s what Jesus loves to do.  Many last names used to say something about the work of the person, and so this name says something about Jesus’ work.  He is the most alive, or maybe, most apropos, where things are most deadly.  So, Willimon said, they can call out the National Guard, they can sew you back up and take you from the oncologist to the mortician, they can send in their tanks and seal the borders, they can entomb you in sarcophagi of race, color, gender, [sexual orientation] or class, they can tell you that the game’s over, the jig’s up, you can’t fight city hall, and that “we’ve done all that medical science can do.”  But the powers of death that trap us in defeat are little more than a good excuse for Jesus to show off his glory.

The Gospel of John is structured around a whole series of what John calls “signs.”  There’s always a pattern. First the event, like last week’s healing of the blind man, and then a long explanation of the meaning of it all. Although this week, the pattern’s reversed [per a column by Karoline Lewis in Christian Century, 4/5/11].  It’s as if Jesus was worried that any miracle might get in the way of the sign, or the explanation.  So Jesus explains why he is raising Lazarus from the dead even before he does it.
It has to do with who he is. I am the resurrection and the life, he says. A friend and colleague of mine, Ken Williams, pointed out to me that our recent texts all have “I am” statements from Jesus. To the Samaritan woman at the well he essentially talks about being the living water. At the healing of the blind man, he announces, “I am the light of the world.” And then in today’s text, to Martha who grieves her brother’s loss, he says, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

He is living water when you thirst.  He is light of the world when the world is blind.  He is resurrection and life when all is lost.

It’s so awkward to believe that.  It was so awkward for the religious leaders around Jesus that John describes this event as the tipping point for them to get rid of Jesus. Resurrection is too dangerous for those who think they have to understand.  Resurrection, the only good reason for any of us to be here at all, is awkward.  It’s like the Easter service one year at St. John the Divine in New York City.  I suppose that’s the kind of place where, if there is going to be a show on Easter, that’s one place where it’ll be.  The custom at that service is to begin it with the bishop standing outside the door, knocking.  The door is then swung open, and the big Easter procession begins.  But one year, the bishop was having trouble with his wireless microphone.  And as he was outside, trying to get it attached to his robes, the entire congregation inside, just before he knocked and was supposed to announce, “Christ is risen,” heard him say, “Nuts.  This is awkward.”  It is awkward, resurrection.  Because we can’t make it work.  And we can’t explain it.

We can only try to live it. My favorite special offering that the church takes is the One Great Hour of Sharing.  Different denominations take their own special offerings, but nine of them take this one.  I always liked the idea that started it. In 1946, the new Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, set a goal of one million dollars per year for the Presiding Bishop’s Fund for World Relief in the aftermath of World War II. On nationwide radio, he challenged members to raise “one million dollars in one hour.” His impassioned challenge worked. During the first three years, Episcopalians raised $3.8 million.

In 1949, church leaders from several denominations built on this idea. They got Gregory Peck and Ida Lupino to read a script by playwright Robert Sherwood. President Truman brought greetings. Major networks and many independent stations carried the program on Saturday, March 26, 1949 at 10 p.m., Eastern time. The broadcast, called “One Great Hour,” closed with a request that listeners attend their local church the following morning and make a sacrificial contribution. It was estimated that more than 75,000 churches participated.

By 1952, the name was One Great Hour of Sharing. By 1954, the result for all giving to One Great Hour of Sharing reached eight million dollars.

It’s always been an ecumenical thing, and that’s what I like about it. It tries to exemplify the common denominator of our denominations - Mr. Resurrection! Currently, the One Great Hour of Sharing committee officially comprises the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterians U.S.A., American Baptists, United Methodists, the Brethren, A.M.E. Zion, the Disciples of Christ, Cumberland Presbyterians and the Reformed Church in America. They all work with Church World Service, the relief, development and refugee assistance arm of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.

In 2012, the U.C.C. One Great Hour offering totaled two and a half million dollars, out of a total of about $15 million given by all denominations. At first, I was a little depressed thinking that 8 million 1954 dollars should mean a lot more than $15 million today. But there’s been an explosion of relief organizations in the last 60 years, so it may not mean there’s less giving.  The nine denominations administer their own distributions.  Almost 60 percent of the UCC’s offering supports projects including missionaries and U.S. based long-term volunteers who work in development, disaster, or refugee ministries.  And one-third goes to Church World Service to support its refugee, disaster, development, and advocacy programs in over 100 countries.

We can’t change the world, of course. But put yourself, for example, in the shoes of the people in northern Japan.  It’s been off the front page for a long time since the earthquake.  Governments can make systems and policies and repair infrastructure, but it's people who make communities. The U.C.C. has a big presence in Japan, and it includes helping communities near the disaster, such as supporting a center which does thyroid cancer testing and is a place for emotional support. Every time there’s a small earthquake, people worry.  The nuclear reactors, for example, still aren’t under control, and won’t be fully closed for an estimated 40 years.

People-centered assistance.  And it’s people, I think, who give hope, the hope that is Jesus, that is Mr. Ressurection. When you know someone is there to help you, to be with you, it makes a world of difference.  It doesn’t take away what’s happened.  It’s not magic.  But it gives hope.  And this is why we do all kinds of things as people of God, not because we can necessarily fix everyone’s lives.  We can’t.  But we can give hope, and in hope is – life.

Jesus called Lazarus to come out.  Ezekiel proclaimed hope to dry bones.  “Thus says the Lord – I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live!”  You who gave up hope once, who gave up dreaming, who settled for a comfortable routine of work and bills and chauffeuring and dirty laundry.  You who think your best years are behind you.  You who think the Lord has forgotten about your little life.  

The world is dying for us to believe that God isn’t done;
and for each of us to discover that we can sing the Lord’s song in a strange land;
and for us to proclaim our faith, in our everyday lives and conversations and decisions and standing with those who mourn, that Mr. Resurrection, in spite of how it sometimes seems, is alive.  Mr. Resurrection is alive – in you, and in ways we can never predict.