March 27, 2016

rabbit jesus

IMAGE Titian, The Madonna of the Rabbit, 1530

The idea of rabbits as a symbol of vitality, rebirth and resurrection derives from antiquity. This explains their role in connection with Easter, the resurrection of Christ. The unusual presentation in Christian iconography of a Madonna with the Infant Jesus playing with a white rabbit in Titian’s Parisian painting, can thus be interpreted christologically. Together with the basket of bread and wine, a symbol of the sacrificial death of Christ, the picture may be interpreted as the resurrection of Christ after death.”

Mornings At Blackwater Mary Oliver
For years, every morning, I drank
from Blackwater Pond.
It was flavored with oak leaves and also, no doubt,
the feet of ducks.

And always it assuaged me
from the dry bowl of the very far past.

What I want to say is
that the past is the past,
and the present is what your life is,
and you are capable
of choosing what that will be,
darling citizen.

So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbor of your longing,

and put your lips to the world.
And live
your life.

Treatise on the Resurrection Nag Hammadi Library
What, then, is the resurrection? It is always the disclosure of those who have risen. For if you remember reading in the Gospel that Elijah appeared and Moses with him, do not think the resurrection is an illusion. It is no illusion, but it is truth! Indeed, it is more fitting to say the world is an illusion, rather than the resurrection which has come into being through our Lord the Savior, Jesus Christ.

But what am I telling you now? Those who are living shall die. How do they live in an illusion? The rich have become poor, and the kings have been overthrown. Everything is prone to change. The world is an illusion! ….

But the resurrection does not have this aforesaid character, for it is the truth which stands firm. It is the revelation of what is, and the transformation of things, and a transition into newness. For imperishability descends upon the perishable; the light flows down upon the darkness, swallowing it up; and the Pleroma fills up the deficiency. These are the symbols and the images of the resurrection. He it is who makes the good.

Therefore, do not think in part, O Rheginos, nor live in conformity with this flesh for the sake of unanimity, but flee from the divisions and the fetters, and already you have the resurrection. For if he who will die knows about himself that he will die – even if he spends many years in this life, he is brought to this – why not consider yourself as risen and (already) brought to this?

The Folly of God John Caputo
The reason the disciples did not see their Lord is because the name of the Lord is not the name of a visible existing being, but of an invisible, inexistent, and unconditional call that rises up from the bodies the hungry, thirsty, and imprisoned. Blessed are those who believe and who do not see. The Messiah is not the name of a Superagent coming to reward and punish. We are the messianic people; we are the ones that the dead have been waiting for. We are the ones that God has been waiting for. We are the ones who are on the spot, called upon, called out, called to act.’

The kingdom of God does not need God. Not if the name of God is the name of a Supreme Being, for then everything about the kingdom of God is distorted. We must let God, the name (of) “God,” weaken; into the name of an event, of an unconditional call, into the folly of a call to lead an unconditional life. It is God, the name of the still soft voice of an insistent call, that has need of the kingdom, of those who will make the kingdom come true in word and deed.

Gospel of Thomas 113
His followers said to Jesus: “When will the kingdom come?”
“It will not come by looking for it. It will not be a matter of saying, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘Look! There it is.’ Rather, the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, but people don’t see it.”


Happy Easter!

I am hoping this will be a different Easter sermon than that to which you have been accustomed. I have preached Easter sermons for years and endured them when I wasn’t preaching. People have endured mine. I know what it is like. I have been where you are. I feel for you.

It is the same story every year for the most part. You hear read one of the four gospel accounts of the empty tomb story. Where is his body? He must have rose from the dead. The preacher’s voice rises as the truth is proclaimed that this is a fact, an event, it happened, and because of it, we get to go to heaven if we believe it. Sermons may be more or less sophisticated, and have more words to them, but that is basically the message. It is about Jesus rising bodily from the dead.

Then for good measure the preacher brings up a text from 1 Corinthians 15 and uses it to pound the truth into you:

If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.

If we reflect on it, we might say to ourselves,

“I guess I’m still in my sins because I don’t believe any of that. But at least I won’t have to hear that story again until he comes out of his tomb next year. “

If we have been fortunate enough to be in a more liberal church the story is overshadowed by fun things: lovely music, flowering the cross, singing the alleluia chorus at the end, searching for Easter eggs, and celebrating Spring.

That is good. And most liberal preachers, myself included, will give a message that Easter and resurrection are symbols for a new beginning. There is hope for the underdog. The cruelty of Empire is defeated by the movement gathering itself and not giving up even after Jesus was lynched.

Easter and resurrection is real and Jesus is alive, so to speak, in us as we counter violence with non-violence, feed the hungry, answer the call for justice, find encouragement in celebrating that which is life-giving, renew our commitments to that which is beautiful and good, live with hope and possibility amidst disappointment.

And that is what I will preach again today. It is not life after death. It is life before death.

But even as I say that, I feel that here I am again, feeling the need to preach against the received tradition, having to explain away the literalness of texts and of religious belief in rewards and punishments.

Here is a story I know none of you believes. According to the Gospel of Matthew, just as Jesus breathes his last strange things happen. If you want to check it, it is Matthew 27:50-53:

50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.

51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.

Literally, the walking dead. You can only stop them by going for the brain.

All of these stories about bodies coming back to life, Jesus and others, are just weird. The point of our faith can’t be to believe these stories happened. They must have been made up stories. Even though, there may be a message of Easter that can resonate with us, the stories from which the message comes are obstacles. They get in the way. So then my Easter sermon is about debunking a literal reading of these stories and I feel like bummer man.

This didn’t happen. That’s a metaphor.

I don’t want to do that. If you are interested in how these stories about Jesus came to be, listen to my podcast that goes up at 11 this morning. I interview Bart Ehrman about his new book, Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior.

We do live in the 21st century. The universe at last count is 13.7 billion years old, and we human beings are the current stage of life that has evolved for over a billion years through natural selection. One day, perhaps billions of years into the future, the sun will swallow up Earth. Long before that our species will likely go extinct.

That is the nihilism in which we live.

Bodies rising from tombs to promise some heavenly existence beyond the clouds is not enough, in my view, to get us to grace, the ‘nihilism of grace’ as John Caputo puts it. I am going to talk more about the nihilism of grace.

First I have to do a couple of things. Look at the bulletin cover. Italian Renaissance. You have Mary in this beautiful bucolic scene. Sunrise perhaps? Mary is barefoot on the grass. She has a picnic basket. There is a shepherd. Is he looking at the others or his sheep? Not sure. St. Catherine is handing a naked baby Jesus to his mother.

St. Catherine is a princess, according to legend, martyred at 18. She became a Christian because of a vision she had of the Madonna and child. St. Catherine is considered one of the fourteen most helpful saints in heaven. In artwork, she often attends to Mary and infant Jesus as she does here. She is dressed beautifully as a princess. She is the patroness of young maidens and female students. Preachers and theologians prayed to St. Catherine for wisdom and eloquence to illumine their minds and guide their pens.

Meanwhile Mary has her hand on a rabbit. You can’t get more Easter than this, a baby and a bunny. Personally, I think this is a more fitting Easter painting than one that depicts, crosses, empty tombs and bodies rising from the dead. There are those paintings, too. Jesus rising up to heaven leading the recently risen dead from their tombs. That is an image of resurrection and rebirth, I suppose.

But I prefer this one. This is hope in this world. A bunny and Baby Jesus in a renewed creation. Having a picnic. It doesn’t matter why they are there. They are there, being alive. Mary receives her baby. That is hope.

I found an article in the Willamette Week. A young woman wrote about attending the Bernie Sanders rally last August in the Moda Center. He was here of course on Friday as well. She wrote about that experience:

Back in August, I went to see Bernie Sanders tell an overflowing Moda Center his plan for the future. It was a completely moving experience and afterwards I could be heard to say: “If Bernie Sanders gets elected, I’m having a baby.”

I am not talking about Bernie Sanders. I am talking about her. Her vision of hope is a future in which you want to bring a baby.

It isn’t a hope about the end of history, of an apocalyptic catastrophe and in response religion’s great gift is a supernatural heaven out and away where the good people go. Sheep separated from goats.

No, this vision of Easter is a hope of a beautiful moment, it is the eternity not of living forever, but of living in what Caputo calls an “unconditional” moment. We live without a why. A rose does not need to justify its existence. A rose is. It is a hope in a world in which we want to bring a baby.

I want that world for my grandchild, who by the way is now the size of a lime. What is my Easter task but to respond to the call, to the vision, to the yes of this.

I wanted you to see the bulletin cover. Easter. Jesus and a bunny.

Now I want to turn to another Easter text. This is from a text that didn’t make the tournament. How many of you completed a bracket for the NCAA tournament? How many completed one for the NIT tournament?

We don’t even know who’s playing in the NIT, unless you are a real sports geek.

These texts that are about Jesus but not in the Bible are the NIT tournament of scripture. There is some good action there but it doesn’t get the good coverage.

The first few centuries of Christianity, as it is still today, was diverse. They were struggling with the meaning of Jesus and resurrection. They disagreed. These texts, The Treatise on the Resurrection and the Gospel of Thomas, were discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt in 1945. They were discovered buried in a cave, preserved since the fourth century. Very possibly buried so that they wouldn’t be destroyed by the orthodox as heretical texts.

Different visions about life. Heavily influenced by Platonism. In a nutshell, the form is real, good, true and the material object is a bad copy. It is a dualism that we can leave behind, but there is a gem here in this text.

Therefore, do not think in part, O Rheginos, nor live in conformity with this flesh for the sake of unanimity, but flee from the divisions and the fetters, and already you have the resurrection. For if he who will die knows about himself that he will die – even if he spends many years in this life, he is brought to this – why not consider yourself as risen and (already) brought to this?

“Why not consider yourself as risen…?” That is the gem. If you have a vision of happiness, of goodness, beauty, truth, resurrection, live it now.

Thomas saying 113 says something similar:

His followers said to Jesus: “When will the kingdom come?”
“It will not come by looking for it. It will not be a matter of saying, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘Look! There it is.’ Rather, the kingdom of the Father is spread out upon the earth, but people don’t see it.”

Why don’t they see it? They don’t see it, John Caputo might say, because it is not to be seen. It doesn’t exist. It insists. It is the call the lure, the vision, the invitation, to participate in life without conditions, without doing things for hope of reward or fear of punishment, but responding to the call, the call that haunts us like a spectre or a ghost.

It is a call to live that out. It is an invitation to do foolish things: Love enemies. Give to those who beg. Invite the people on the street to your Easter dinner. Turn bullets into bread. Dismantle walls and create bridges. Make a world in which you want to have a baby.

I asked John Caputo when I interviewed him that his message might be tough to hear for many. If God doesn’t exist, if there is no SuperAgent or Supreme Being who has given us purpose and promises heaven ever after, people might say, “Where is the hope?”

Caputo responded with his voice rising in pitch:

“The hope!? The hope is the world!”

You are the hope. This is the treasure. You are the messiah. You are the resurrection. We are. Humanity is. Earth is.

Caputo went on to talk about the nihilism of grace. Suppose as the scientists tell us that Earth in billions of years will be swallowed up by the sun. The universe will eventually expand into entropy. Does that make life meaningless?

No, of course not. Our lives aren’t meaningful because of some promise of heaven at the end, of immortality. Life is meaningful in the present as we make it. This is the life we have been waiting for. Don’t waste or wish time away for something better to come.

Resurrection is the nihilism of grace. It is the experience of living without conditions put on you, rules to obey, bottom lines to balance, being a good boy or a good girl. No, it is the wild, frightening, beautiful freedom of living your life, not in a selfish ego-centric way, but in a way that responds to the call of a vision, that the poets play with, that St. Catherine will whisper in your ear, that Jesus told in parables, that Buddha preached through silence, that Mary Oliver drinks in Blackwater Pond, that the dreamers imagine:

…a world in which we want to have a baby….