Easter 4C (April 17, 2016)

“How long will you keep us in suspense?” It is how the NRSV translates the Judean leaders’ question. In contemporary Greek, the phrase means, “how long will you annoy us?” Literally it says, “How much longer will you take up our life?” Yeah, there’s annoyance in there; there is also a sense in which the speakers say that Jesus is taking up or holding up their lives, and they want him to cut to the chase. They want a quick answer. The Judean leaders approach Jesus much as we would. They have big questions about God but want quick answers so they can get on with life. In the Easter season, the big question before us is Resurrection.

Resurrection is an awkward question on two counts. First, we’re talking Resurrection from the dead, and not “going to heaven when you die”. Most people in North America, Christian or not, believe they will persist after death. Resurrection involves death, followed by a period of literally God knows how long before God remakes those who have died. During that interim there’s not much to do because you’re dead. That’s not hard to describe or envision, but it runs so contrary to what we usually think that we often cannot make ourselves believe in it. That’s the first difficulty. The second? It is hard—and maybe I am just speaking for myself, here—but it is hard to found my faith upon God’s raising one man from the dead 2,000 years ago and revealing this to a mere handful of people. And I can tiptoe around the matter for only so long before I have to face it.

I have to think that stories like today’s First Reading were meant to help us see that God’s work was not confined to Jesus. In 1 Kings Elijah raises from the dead the son of the Widow of Zarephath; in 2 Kings Elisha raises from the dead the son of a Shumanite woman; in Luke 7 Jesus raises from the dead the son of the Widow of Nain; and in Luke 8 Jesus raises from the dead the daughter of Jairus, the synagogue leader. Jesus’ work echoes God’s work in previous generations. Now, Peter’s work echoes Jesus’ work. I don’t think the resurrection of Dorcas is meant to be a quick answer, or the point at which we can close the book on God working in the world. No, the resurrection of Dorcas challenges us to see God raising the dead today, and maybe, if we’re paying enough attention, to be the ones God uses to raise the dead.

The question becomes, “What is dead, and what is resurrection?” The Church as many of us knew it is dead. Many of us in this room lived during a period when the Church was the center of the world. Almost all of us who lived it were children, then, and as children likely thought that was the way things always had been. The truth is that it was a newfound importance. In the 1950s political and industrial leaders opposed to the New Deal saw the Church as a potential ally, and poured money into the Church. Church leaders leaped at the opportunity because America was locked in the Cold War with godless communism, and we were being given money and space to talk about God. Church membership reached record percentages. It was your moral and patriotic duty to be in Church. Budgets were fat because everyone gave, and everyone gave because if they didn’t, the communists won. In exchange the Church was expected to baptize the status quo.

As the years passed some Church leaders became uncomfortable with some of the things we were being asked to baptize. I mean, it was easy to oppose Stalin (that’s a no brainer). But the Christianity society wanted just didn’t look Christian. You can put God’s name on the money and in the Pledge of Allegiance, but you haven’t really said much about the God who favors the poor and liberates the oppressed. When Churches began asking when we would address these more specific matters, the world pushed aside the Church. People stopped coming regularly; churches saw reduced budgets, but could ride through the year on Christmas and Easter, when everyone still came and put large amounts in the offering plates out of a sense of obligation or nostalgia. This was my childhood. My mother was in Church for every liturgy except two (if she could help it): Christmas Eve and Easter, because on those days everybody and his brother came to church. But they got you through the year. In my own time as a pastor, I have watched this era die. At Christmas or Easter I see all the folks I ever see on Sundays (if they are in town). If I see visitors they are friends or family of members. Certainly I see no one dropping extra thousands in our plates. Those days are dead.

Some have responded to this with less than constructive suggestions. Some regard this as an opportunity to discard whatever they dislike, or a chance to settle old scores. Some who already oppose organized religion see this as the opportunity to destroy it. I’ve got two problems with this. 1) The church you want to kill is probably already dead, so you’re a little late. 2) There are powers in this world that are organized, and are therefore effective at selling and imposing their value systems on us. If we want to oppose them, we had better get ourselves organized. We had better get our flock in order. And we are not going to find a better shepherd than the lamb at the center of the throne. If you think the ethic Jesus preaches and lives is important, is for you, is what the world needs, then you’ve got to let the lamb at the center of the throne be the shepherd.

And that lamb doesn’t offer easy answers to big questions. “How much longer will you take up our life? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” It often seems like Jesus in John answers a question other than the one that is asked. Jesus seems to know the real question—the one folks are avoiding. Instead of a quickie answer Jesus tells the leaders: “What the Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.” That might be the most incarnational passage of Scripture that we read in our three-year lectionary. It is so incarnational that it doesn’t even make sense. The flock is greater than all else? What about God? Is it greater than God? A couple of verses later, Jesus will drop the bomb: “Those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ in the Law—and the Scripture cannot be annulled.” You know what that means: Sam/Sophie is God. Paul/Cindy is God. To me, at least. I, notably, do not get to claim divinity when looking for perks or power. I just have to acknowledge it in every other person.

There’s no quick answer; if we want to serve God we have to live in community, in the flock, with the people in whom God dwells. Jesus is offering to be our head lamb, top sheep, chief ovine officer. That bears itself out in a life of following, and accepting that often the answers to our questions are vague and difficult. It is how God is raising up the Church out of the era when it simply baptized the status quo or coasted by on Christmas and Easter donations.

Another thing about the flock: We’re not alone. When you’re in the flock, you’re not alone. You’ve got the head lamb, and you’ve got “a great multitude,” John says, “that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” When I knew my previous call was at its end, I read Scripture. The pastor who buried my grandfather had read from the end of Deuteronomy, since in a lot of ways my grandfather was to my family as Moses was to Israel. So I picked up Joshua: next book. I like to read things in order. And there was nothing in there about what kind of congregation or ministry setting I should seek (because it was written thousands of years ago for people long since dead), but the refrain “Be strong and courageous” stuck in my head. It became my earworm, my piece of Scripture I could hang on to, my vague and difficult answer. My grandfather had a friend in the retirement village, named Barbara. They were both in their late nineties, but Barb was determined that if they lived to be a hundred they were getting married. Barb had died before my grandfather but the last thing she had said to me was, “You will get the right call, I know it.” And I remain utterly convinced that she somehow did, that God had revealed this to her, and that after she died I could still hear her promising this thing that she knew, like that last thing she said to me was the resurrected Barbara talking. I could not have said a thing about this place or the people here. Could not have told you what parenting decisions I would have to face and how to deal with them. The promises were short on specifics. But I was not alone. I had Joshua. I had Barbara. I had the lamb at the center of the throne. My answers were difficult, and they still are, and I am a part of the flock.