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Uprising? Left-For-Dead No Longer

Date:9/27/20

Passage: 1 Kings 17:17-24

Speaker: Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle

“Uprising! Left-For-Dead No Longer”[1]

1 Kings 17:17-24
Hebrews 11:35-40
Mark 9:14-28

 “Rise Up!” Resurrection. Those telling words speak to the heart of all Christian hope. That living hope is the gift of God in the raising of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, for the life of the world. It is the disclosure of who God is and shall ever be for us, the disclosure that sets the agenda for the work we, therefore, must be about in these anxiety-ridden, plague-ridden times. If we ever needed the promise of a brand new day, it surely is now: in order to face a global pandemic out of control; rotten, failed, death-dealing politics rife with self-interest, power-hunger, greed, and disregard for continued life on this planet; and a nation on fire—literally in flames, with forests ablaze and with anti-black-and-anti-brown systemic racism raging in our streets and institutions. Words conjure realities. Words create meaning and purpose. They create worlds, and they change the way things are. The way we conceive of Resurrection matters! For Christianity is nothing without it.

Alain Badiou, the French philosopher, had exactly that in mind when he wrote his book, Saint Paul. Resurrection has never been a self-seeking idea grasping out to cheat death. Instead, Badiou goes deeper into the event of God’s resurrection activity. The God who is for us in Jesus institutes more than the resuscitation of a corpse once-upon-a-time in a Jerusalem grave. Badiou argues that the deep meaning of our term “resurrection” is UPRISING. If you pick up on a political meaning of that term, you are not wrong. Badiou recovers the unavoidable political meaning of the resurrection of Jesus from our watered-down sentimentality. Not only does God animate a raising up of those who have died. Of course, that is one dimension, though only one, of what God is doing in the Uprising of Jesus. No, God simultaneously initiates an Uprising of all those who like God’s state-murdered Child have been left-for-dead, as well: the outcast, colonized, vanquished, enslaved, exploited, marginalized and oppressed. There is no empty tomb without the Uprising of all those left-for-dead! There never was. St. Paul and his circle were seized by the power of that Uprising which made the resurrection of Jesus burst the bonds of death and injustice that held the Roman world hostage. The world changed, and new worlds of hope came into being.

That was the mainspring, the dynamic energy that creates the Body of Christ in and for the world back then and now, too. And that revolutionary energy has lain dormant in the old, eroded meanings of resurrection that stole its power right from under our very noses!

The Uprising of the Body of Christ in the person of all those left-for-dead by the unfairness of the world is what we as messengers of the Good News must be about!—or we are no Church at all.  

The relevance of all three passages from the Bible chosen for today depends on how we see God acting in the new world created by this Uprising. And so does the course of salvation history that sets the agenda for us and for what the ministry must become for us today.

These two powerful moments in salvation history challenge us to re-imagine what we must be about: 1) the Old Testament story of the raising of the widow’s son by the Prophet Elijah, and 2) the New Testament story of the healing of a boy who was zombified like a corpse.  Both stories point to crisis and promise, fear, loss and hope. 

Death came to the widow’s son, not in a metaphorical sense, but in brute reality.  We do not know about what this boy’s sickness was in 1 Kings, but we know it was fatal, because the text tells us “the breath left him.”  In despair and grief, the widow who gave the fugitive prophet Elijah shelter, assumed that the death of her child was punishment for showing hospitality to the wrong person.  She charged Elijah with causing her son’s death.  The prophet did not defend himself.  Instead, knowing that whatever had taken the boy’s life was beyond his capacity to heal, Elijah asked the woman to borrow the body of her lifeless boy.  He took the child up on the roof of that humble home, and prayed like he’d never prayed before.  In effect, Elijah and the mother of the boy were on common ground.  Death had come, and only God could change death to life.

In the Gospel story, Mark tells us that a desperate father brings his possessed son to Jesus.  His Disciples played shortstop, and an argument broke out between them and the Scribes about how to help the man get the life back in his child again.  The bottom line of the controversy was that nobody was able to cast out the spirit of the falling sickness that held the boy on death’s door, grinding his teeth, and going catatonic. Jesus breaks into the argument with a rebuke: “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” 

Questioning the desperate father, Jesus learned that the boy had been on death’s door for a long time.  The father told Jesus that his son had been afflicted with seizures since he was a little child. The bad spirit, the man said, “’has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you are able!—All things can be done for the one who believes.’ 24Immediately the father of the child cried out, ‘I believe; help my unbelief!’”

Self-centered theology gets skinned down to the bone in crisis. The true God is not the one who is at the service of our wishful thinking, on call 24/7 like a personal assistant (though one we project to an infinitely great degree) ready to answer when we desire to ring up a justification for our wishes. The Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it this way: God is not our “fortune cookie.” The ancients’ triad of war, pestilence, and famine, and our quadruple crisis of rotten politics, economic collapse, COVID-19 and COVID-1619 are not a test of the love of God. Instead, as nonsensical as it may sound, these crises are the anvil upon which a new relationship with God gets hammered out, a relationship between the God who freely wills to be our God, and we who finally will to be God’s people despite ourselves.

It will take an Uprising in our practice of church life for ministry to get to a deeper, social practice of resurrection. We must buy into a practice of raising up all those left out, left over, and left-for-dead—a practice that goes way beyond charity to a systemic shift in how we message and carry out the Good News. Ministers and church leaders alike must cry out along with the desperate father in Mark 9, “Yes, we believe you, God! Help us get beyond our unbelief!” You and I have been conditioned to privatize the resurrection from the dead, something that resembles a hybrid, bred between Easter Sunday worship and winning the Texas Lottery: a fine event, but one that never seems to happen to anybody we know. We can get beyond a theology of sentimentality, Easter eggs, and selfishness: I hope you want more out of the Good News than that!  I hope to convince you that God wants so much more for the world than that, and that you have a share in causing that to happen! I hope you are restless, restless for a new revelation of how God raises people up, not just one-by-one, for me and mine, after ‘while and bye-and-bye!  I don’t know about you, but I want something substantial right here, where I am!

I don’t want a ‘left-for-dead’ religion. We have the power of a life-giving hope that electrifies a life-giving practice. The Good News is that Jesus Christ dwelt among us full of grace and truth, that he suffered everything common to us, even death itself, and that having died, God raised him up on a third day morning, never more to die!  Jesus the individual passed away—he was transfigured into something better by the love of a Living God who would not leave him dead and buried—and in the place of the singular Jesus, thanks to the power of the resurrection, God sent a new Christ, a Great Christ, a Collective Christ, the Resurrected Social Jesus among us!  The reason that death cannot hold him anymore is that this Great Christ is truly “Emanuel,” “God-With-Us-and-in-Us,” dispersed, spread out, and indwelling in the hearts, minds, and deeds of everyone called by God to be the answer to other people’s prayers in this day and time!  You want to find who Christ is for us today?  Christ in the power of the Spirit is found in a Black, straight crisis counselor; an artist giving clothes and food to the poor across the Rio Grande; a bull-riding young man with a broken arm who advocates for disabled veterans; a LatinX social worker who refuses to give up on homeless LGBTQ young people in the streets of Dallas; a priest who keeps pounding on the doors of the courts for justice and won’t take ‘no’ for an answer; a transgender woman who rescues the perishing in the Texas desert—and, bless God, in millions of souls like all of them everywhere!  The Uprisen Jesus, re-incarnated in the Beloved Community, is offering everyone who falls, who faces hopelessness, discrimination, and fear a better resurrection that can only be accomplished together. 

I know you have likely heard the famous first verse of Andra Day’s song, “Rise Up”. The second and third stanzas are less well known, but deliver the message of an Uprising of living hope here-and-now that veritably flies in the face of the trouble we suffer. I don’t pretend to do justice to the amazing grace of Andra Day’s voice, but the lyrics spoken out loud carry a message all their own:

When the silence isn't quiet
And it feels like it's getting hard to breathe
And I know you feel like dying
But I promise we'll take the world to its feet
And move mountains
We'll take it to its feet
And move mountains

And I'll rise up
I'll rise like the day
I'll rise up
I'll rise unafraid
I'll rise up
And I'll do it a thousand times again
For you
For you
For you…

The song could have been an antiphonal dialogue with Hebrews 11: And what more should I say? [Your ancestors] through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.”

“…A better resurrection…”

The Jesus Uprising comes among us through the lives of millions who rise up and will not let the death-dealing status quo have the last word:

All we need, all we need is hope
And for that we have each other
And for that we have each other
We will rise
We will rise
We'll rise, oh oh
We'll rise

I'll rise up
Rise like the day
I'll rise up
In spite of the ache
I will rise a thousand times again
And we'll rise up
Rise like the waves
We'll rise up
In spite of the ache
We'll rise up
And we'll do it a thousand times again
For you
For you
For you
For you

Amen.

[1] Note: The sermon is dedicated to the ministry of the Rev. Tim Schaefer, and in gratitude for the life of Pastor Emeritus of Royal Lane and longtime Director of Baptist Studies at Brite Divinity School, the Rev. Ray Vickrey.