Riots & Resurrection

Preaching, Theology

It begins with suffering. At least, that’s where Phillip begins when he explains who Jesus is to an Ethiopian eunuch this morning. Phillip, a newly ordained deacon in the church (an office which has proved fatal so far in the story) receives a message from God to go down to a wilderness road to the Gaza strip and avail himself to the chariot passing by. In the chariot is an Ethiopian eunuch, the treasurer of Queen Candace, which makes this man at least three things: black, effeminate, and rich. He’s also something of a pilgrim, a spiritual tourist, having just come back from a trip to check out the Jerusalem temple, and he is reading something difficult that he needs help understanding: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” Now if I had been spirited away today into the sleek Mercedes of a femme black man and I heard the words, “In his humiliation justice was denied him,” I’d assume he was reading the newspaper.

What words better describe the murders of Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and many, many more? In their humiliation justice was denied them. Denied cuffed and unbuckled bouncing around the back of a renegade police wagon. Denied while they pleaded for help. Denied while surrendering. Denied walking through white neighborhoods, denied while playing with their friends. Who can describe this generation, so sick on its own racist past that it picks black bodies off the line without thinking twice, one by one by one their lives taken away from the earth. But it’s not a newspaper, it’s the Word of God. Specifically it’s the prophet Isaiah, a song from Isaiah about the suffering servant or What Happens to a Good Man from God when He Tries to Speak Truth to Power. In the suffering servant songs, Isaiah wails about what happens to people who proclaim God’s good news in the middle of a hurting world, one insistent on shoring up its own violent self-protection against anything that might reek of an alternative vulnerability. Those people get strung up, Isaiah says. That’s what happened to Jesus, Philip says.

Philip and the first Christians believed that in Jesus, God had taken the place of what was most despised by the powers of the world. Jesus was born among an occupied people. Jesus was poor. Jesus was rural. Yet Jesus did not live a rural, poor, occupied life. Jesus lived in eternal life, the life that is real, the living which is true and abundant and rooted in God, and he invited anyone who wanted to join him. This invitation was brazen. It broke religious customs. It queered allegiance to the emperor. It muffled the authority of official people who had worked very hard to earn their official positions. And so it got him killed. In Jesus, God had taken the place of that kind of authentic living which the powers of the world would most like to quash. It is not hard to see where that place is now. That place is in women’s bodies subject to trafficking, extortion, and abuse. That place is in trans* bodies which defy gender norms constructed for the sake of empowering some while inhibiting others. And this week we are painfully aware again that thy place is in black bodies born into a nation that was founded by white men for white men over and against the colored folks they took it from. Each time one of these bodies rises to the brazen level of free expression and real life, it becomes a target for the system which would like to control it. And so that is where God appears, too, right there in the crosshairs with them.

But why would such a message make the Ethiopian eunuch want to get baptized? Why would he want to take that kind of solidarity with the poor and marginalized upon himself if it leads to suffering and a likely death? Because what begins with suffering ends in love. Philip’s twist on Isaiah’s song is that the suffering servant comes back to life after the worst has been done to him. It turns out death is a man-made thing which cannot drown the God-made life which he proclaims, and his silence turns to song. This Jesus who was crucified now is raised, and his brazen invitation to join him in the living which is real remains, extended to even those who once tried to extinguish it. How may I have this life in me, the eunuch asks. Just say yes, Philip replies, and be washed in his name.

This life of this risen body, the one which remains after the fearful world has shot down it’s accidents from their unruly ascent, is harder to discern around us. Images of Christ crucified abound. Where is Christ raised? I suggest that one place where we may see the raised body of our Suffering Servant in the context at hand is in the rioting which followed on the heels of Freddie Gray’s wrongful death. Let me explain with two potentially helpful sources:

The first is a slender volume on Resurrection theology written by Rowan Williams. In his book, Williams describes the Resurrection in terms of the communities of remembrance which developed in the wake of Christ’s death. He writes of the power of human memory to reconstruct and reflect itself back to the self, to bear imaginative witness to the bareness of the present moment and so imitate God’s own presence to all created life. As the community which reconstitutes and re-embodies Christ in remembrance of him, the Christian body also forms a kind of hopeful protest, a protest against the unacceptability of life as it is apparent, a claim to another radical possibility. “Protest affirms the hope that there is a name for the nameless, a face for the lost: good news for the poor. Here the resurrection gospel speaks of the proper expectation -the right- of all men and women to responsible identity, the capacity to be self-aware agents empowered to take active part in the ‘net of exchange.’ The ‘saved’ man or woman is one with sufficient sense of his or her own dignity, selfhood and resourcefulness to love generously.” (p.48)

My second source for seeing the Baltimore protests and potentially even the riots as images of Resurrection comes from the first letter of John which we heard earlier. In his letter, John speaks of the incomprehensibility of the risen God, the ways in which it defies understanding and detectability but may be grasped by love. Yet how does one love something which cannot be seen or apprehended? John offers the beloved community itself as a training ground: begin by loving those whom you can see, the ones nearest by you. “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” (4:20)

The process of discerning God’s risen body does not begin with suffering for its own sake, but with love for its own sake. In the wake of each new revelation of the humiliating denial of justice to another black body slain, we have seen a new body rise. This week it was the streets of Baltimore filling with folks who for a moment loved Freddie Gray as if he were their own self, as if he were their own brother, as if he were their son; and, because of that love, allowed themselves its passion, and its outrage, and it’s pain. They were constituted as a new body of remembrance and protest against the potential reality of despairing namelessness and annihilation. Cities across the nation also held vigil in solidarity, each peopled place an insistence that his senseless death would not remain in a muted final silence but erupt in songs of protest and revolt. Each of these were a kind of resurrected body, a kind of reassembled body, a living memory knit together with the conviction that life had not ended for him but was transformed. Some of these resurrected bodies mirrored the fear of the systems they raged against and manifest the reconstituted memory of violence with more violence, and many more were assembled in a defiantly peaceful resistance to the violence which occasioned their assembly. In each, love struggled to be perfected.

The suffering only came from loving in a system which is made of fear. The suffering would seem inevitable, actually, given how great and deep and vast the system’s fear can stretch. God enters this suffering willingly, because God’s love is so infinite it cannot help but spill out towards the very things which it is not. We are smaller creatures and tend to be more timid about entering into such risky solidarity, which is to say we tend to be afraid. But perfect love casts out fear. Perfect love allows us to stand with the one who wakes up with his face set directly towards the crosshairs of this world’s violent malice. It is only there where we may also glimpse his risen life as well. For the eunuch, it is enough that the Lord of All would deign to stoop so low. On the road back to Ethiopia, he stops his own splendid chariot and stoops down in the Gazan dirt, allowing the filthy water of a roadside puddle to wash over all his glittering robes in the name of the one who had invited him to rise up and truly live.

If you heard me preach on Sunday in person and you’ve read all of this, you’ve probably noticed the fact that this version of the sermon is slightly different than what I said out loud. This sermon was very much “in process” for me as I was preaching it, and it continued evolving after the service was through, as often happens when I interact with other hearers of the Word on Sunday morning. Mostly, I’ve elaborated on the portion which attempts to present bodies of protest and even riot as kinds of resurrected bodies. I didn’t think to include Rowan William’s perspective until mid-way through brunch that morning, and as I’ve gone back and re-read sections of his book on Resurrection I find that they speak to the present moment incredibly well. I hope it seems that way in what I’ve reconstructed above, at least.  If you wish to hear the original version, it’s in the recording below.

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