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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church


When Resurrection is Not What We Expect

When Resurrection Is Not What We Expect

 

By the Rev. Susan Russell

All Saints, Pasadena, California

 

 

It seems that spring has finally "sprung." The hills are green ... the poppies, lupine and ice plant bloom in riotous color and this week, after a long winter’s nap, the crack of the bat will once again be heard in Chavez Ravine as we celebrate what is for many a primary feast day on the spring calendar: opening day at Dodger Stadium! There is much to celebrate this morning, as the baseball season begins and the Easter season continues. The Easter dress may be at the cleaners, the last of the chocolate bunny and marshmallow Peeps have been nibbled out of the Easter basket and errant strands of plastic Easter grass continue to elude the vacuum cleaner, but the celebration goes on. During the Great 50 Days of Easter we proclaim together “Christ is risen; Christ is risen indeed” as Alleluias begin and end our worship – and we rejoice in the amazing Good News that we belong to a God calls us by name -- who loved us enough to become one of us – whose life, death and resurrection gives us new life – not just once, but over and over and over again. My favorite Easter card has these words on it:

 

The Great Easter truth

Is not that we will be born again someday

But that we are to be alive here and now

By the power of the resurrection

 

That great Easter truth is what we celebrate together this morning – that Easter doesn’t end when the Easter lily wilts and the Alleluias fade: it is instead that which enables us to be alive – here and now – each and every day – claiming the power of the resurrection – often in very unexpected ways.

 

For as we journey together through this Easter season we hear again and again in the stories preserved for us in our scriptural record that the Risen Lord doesn’t tend to announce himself with alleluias and Easter lilies – in fact, the exact opposite seems to be the rule. Mary Magdalene, the first to encounter Jesus in the garden at first thought he was the gardener – until he spoke her name. Running to tell the other disciples they thought she was hallucinating – until he appeared to them in the upper room. Thomas, out of the room when Jesus showed up, thought they had ALL gone over the edge – until Jesus showed up again and said, “Here, Thomas – if what you need to believe is see my hands and my side, check it out.” And in this morning’s gospel, two heavy-hearted disciples walk and talk with Jesus for SEVEN MILES and still don’t “get it” – until he broke the bread, blessed it and gave it to them … and we are told “their eyes were opened.” Over and over we hear the stories of our spiritual ancestors who had resurrection right in front of them and they couldn’t see it – not because they lacked faith but because they lacked vision.

 

 

The resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was not a one-size-fits-all experience – if it had been, we would have fewer resurrection narratives in scripture – and fewer clueless disciples in the narratives! And yet I believe that in these stories of first century Christians there are truths that speak in a very particular way to us as twenty-first century Anglicans.

 

Our collective story tells us that it is most often in community – in communion with God and with each other – that we are given the grace to recognize the resurrection that so very often doesn’t look at all like we expected it to. How ironic is it that the very week we read this gospel of finding Jesus in the breaking of the bread there are those in the Anglican Communion trying – once again – to limit those who are welcome at the table. Our Executive Council – kind of the “vestry” of the National Episcopal Church – will meet this next week in Chicago to consider the recommendation of the Primates – the heads of all the other autonomous national Anglican churches – that the American and Canadian churches voluntarily withdraw their representatives from the upcoming meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council – the only international Anglican body that includes bishops, clergy and lay people at the table.

 

We should be excluded, they argue, because there are disagreements among us on issues of sexuality and we hold a minority opinion. The Good News we have to share – the lived experience we have to testify to of being alive hear and now by the power of the resurrection – isn’t admissible because it comes from sources too unexpected to be credible. It comes from gay and lesbian people living in decades long committed relationships. It comes from clergy and laity exercising diverse and vibrant ministries in every part of the church community. It comes from a Bishop in New Hampshire and a church in Pasadena – and it comes not looking at all like they expected it would. My brothers and sisters, I believe the problem is not with our wideness of the differences that divide us but with the narrowness of a vision that excludes the unexpected.

 

Had the apostles succumbed to that temptation, Mary Magdalene’s resurrection witness would have been not only initially dismissed but ultimately lost to the ages. Had the disciples on the Road to Emmaus done that they would have let the stranger keep on walking and missed seeing Jesus in the breaking of the bread. And if we bend to the pressure – if we remove ourselves and our witness from the Anglican Consultative Council – it will do nothing to promote unity and everything to stifle the Spirit. 

 

 

I believe that eliminating the possibility of seeing Jesus in “the other” is nothing less than abandoning the tradition we inherit as Easter people – abandoning the very hope of the resurrection we celebrate in our Easter alleluias.  Reflecting on these themes of breaking bread and building community this week, I determinedly dug through old seminary files – no small task as those who know what an oxymoron my “filing system” is -- until I found this piece I wrote back in 1993. It’s called – appropriately – “Bread.” I’ve always kind of had a thing about bread. As a child, I went off to school every day with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – only Weber’s would do – with the crusts removed. The crusts were saved in a plastic bag in the freezer to take to the Arboretum to feed the ducks – fat, waddling, noisy old things who lived off the bits and pieces rejected by picky little girls like me. My early years were filled with an abundance of both bread and people who prepared it to my liking. Pudgy, indulged and privileged it seemed that bread – soft, white and usually smeared with something sweet – was something I would always relate to.

 

But it wasn’t came to seminary that I got the chance to actually bake any bread.  It is an awesome privilege to be asked to bake the bread for communion and as I worked the dough on the floured board one morning it occurred to me that when the church becomes more like the bread that feeds it we will have inched closer to the coming of the kingdom.

 

The ingredients were set out, ready to be combined in the big, yellow mixing bowl: flour and shortening, sugar, salt and an egg – and yeast: turned frothy in the measuring cup of hot water. Separate and distinct when lined up on the counter, each of these items would serve a different but essential function when kneaded together into the dough that would become our bread.

 

The large pile of flower and the tiny packet of yeast were equal in importance: without either of them the final creation would be less than it was meant to be. Mixed together, kneaded and left to rise on the window sill in the afternoon sun and then baked in the heat of the over they would transformed into a new thing – brown and fragrant, crusty and warm – ready to be the food offered to feed both body and soul in a very hungry world.

 

The volume of the flour many times outweighed the other ingredients – but bread would not have happened if the flour had used its majority status to argue for the exclusion from the mixing bowl of the insistent salt or the disruptive yeast. Each had to play its own role in the process of becoming bread: to be wrenched from its own bag or box or packet or where it was comfortable with its own kind and combined with things which were “other.”

 

And the bread which emerged from the oven resulted from the interaction of those ingredients as much as it did from the kneading and shaping of the baker or the heat of the oven.

 

As the church we are called to be the Body of Christ to the world – a body symbolized for us by the bread we break each time we gather. Yet how often we settle for my childhood relationship with the bread that God has given us. I know there are times when I am still that little girl who wants her bread the way she wants it: safe and familiar and prepared for me by someone else – sweet and with the crusts cut off! I don’t want to participate in the process: I just want to be fed by what I expect. Sure the ducks can have the leftovers – as love as I get mine first.

 

The radical transformation that takes place between the time the ingredients are lined up on the counter and the fragrant loaf emerges from the oven will never happen if I cling to that understanding of this bread God has given us to eat – of this body God has called us to be. It will never happen if we stay safe in our containers – wrapping creeds and formulas and ritual around us like the bag around the flour, protecting itself from the influence of the frothy yeast or the pungent salt – isolating ourselves from the very things that are essential to becoming the bread – the community -- God would have us be.

 

There’s a hungry world out there waiting to be fed and we’re the ones who have been called to feed it: both to offer and to be the bread of life. For God has called us to be a new thing – and to get there, we must first be mixed up, kneaded and punched, left to rise and then subjected to the heat of the oven. This is not exactly what I had in mind for my life, I can tell you – but yet I’ve always kind of had a “thing” about bread.”

 

So on this glorious spring day, as we prepare to be fed together by the bread which is for us the holy food of new and unending life, let us pray not only for ourselves but for the church – that it might be open to the resurrection it can’t always recognize – might hear the alleluia in “the other” – might more fully become the Body of Christ it is meant to be.

 

Watch o'er thy Church, O Lord, in mercy, save it from evil, guard it still,
Perfect it in thy love, unite it, cleansed and conformed unto thy will.
As grain, once scattered on the hillsides, was in this broken bread made one,
So from all lands the Church be gathered, into thy Kingdom by thy Son.

(Hymn 302, The Hymnal 1982)


You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to lcrew@newark.rutgers.edu Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.

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