In the Jewish tradition there is a blessing for when two friends reunite who haven’t seen each other in a very long time. When the two people greet each other one may say, “Blessed is the One who resurrects the dead.” Being separated from those we love is a kind of death. Being reunited is a kind of resurrection.
In my office here at the church I have a picture of my old high school friends back in the day. It was taken in one of the old timey photo shops for tourists . One friend is dressed like a sherrif with a cowboy hat and holster. Another is dressed like a riverboat gambler with a derby hat and cane. One looks like an intrepid reporter with a flat cap and thin tie. Two friends are looking suspiciously at each other, dressed in the uniforms of the opposing side of the Civil War. In the center of the picture is a saloon girl with a frilly dress and a feathered boa, a cigar in her mouth and a shot glass of whiskey in her hand. Most people who look at the picture never even realize that the saloon girl is now the minister of the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church.
Obviously, my coming of age was in an era before very sensitive state legislatures tried to ban drag. Indeed, the homecoming queen at my high school was a boy who wore his tiara with quiet dignity. In other words, gender fluidity is nothing new. I have very fond memories of my high school years. Periodically my friends and I have a reunion filled with laughter and good times. That’s why I keep this picture in my office to remind me of those moments of joy. Whenever I look at the picture of their faces, I feel young again. I have a new appreciation of that Jewish phrase, “Blessed is the One who resurrects the dead.”
This time last year I drove up to Kentucky to do a memorial service for Krista Dalton’s mother Joella. And along the way I kept seeing Jesus carrying the cross by the side of the road. At first I thought I might be hallucinating. Apparently, in some parts of rural Kentucky it is a tradition for someone to do a re-enactment of Jesus’ journey to Calvary. Since I was driving through more than one small town I got to see more than one Jesus. It was a slightly surreal experience.
On Easter Sunday we remember how Jesus was arrested for turning over tables in the temple, in other words he lacked decorum. On Easter we often hear the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. However, a resurrection is not always a BIG EVENT that makes the headlines or into the scriptures. All around us there are resurrections in our everyday lives. During the burial for Joella, Krista’s mom, we were standing on a very steep Appalachian hillside at what felt like a 45 degree angle. I couldn’t help but notice the wildflowers blooming and the trees budding all around us. Standing at the graveside on that Spring Day I felt the energy of both death and resurrection.
The ancient Hindu scriptures the Upanishads describe the cycle of life and death this way, “Consider how it has been with those who have gone before and how it will be for those that now live. Like corn we ripen and fall to the ground. Like corn we rise again in our season.” There is a rabbinic tradition that teaches that every time we lie down to go to sleep it is a kind of death. And every morning when we rise again it is a kind of resurrection. So that every 24 hours we are living through a cycle of life, death and resurrection.
In that spirit the womanist theologian Tricia Hersey has asked us to start thinking about our sleep as a sacred act. In her book Rest is Resistance: A Manifesto she argues that the worth and dignity of every human being is not based on how much punishing labor we can withstand. We need to resist the cult of busyness and hyper productivity, the tyranny of an economy that treats everyone like machines that should produce no matter what, keep going no matter what the costs to our bodies, our mental health or our society at large. “When we finally wake up to the truth of what a machine-level pace of labor has done to our physical bodies, our self-esteem, and our Spirits, the unraveling (of the system) begins….Resting our bodies and minds is a form of reverence. When we honor our bodies via rest, we are connecting to the deepest parts of ourselves. We are freedom-making.” So sometime after church this Sunday afternoon feel free to take a nap. Hersey calls this “napping ministry.” Resting our bodies can lead to a resurrection of the spirit.
Speaking of bodies. If you’ve toured many medieval cathedrals then you will be familiar with a certain genre of statues which for the lack of a better name I will call the decapitated saints, statues of saints whose heads have been separated from their bodies. (I brought a picture here today of one because I was pretty sure someone would doubt me. O ye of little faith.)
These statues of headless holy men are so gruesome that I think we should consider them the patron saints of middle school children. Often the saints are holding their own heads in their hands. Which is to say they are gruesome in the just the right way young people enjoy.
One of the major themes of the stories about these saints is that you can kill the messenger but you can’t kill the message. For instance after Saint Denis lost his head he continued to walk around carrying his head in his hands. His head just kept on preaching. You can kill the talker but you can’t keep ’em from talking.
The reason I mention these ancient medieval saints is because the government of our state is trying to find ways to keep people from talking. To keep people from talking about what we need to do to keep our children safe in their schools. To keep people from talking about basic human rights in the face of increasing homophobia and transphobia. To keep people from talking about Critical Race Theory or any other honest account of our nation’s history. To keep people from talking about women’s rights and reproductive freedom. To keep people from talking about a living wage and access to healthcare and affordable housing.
The government of the state is trying to keep people from talking through voter suppression, gerrymandering districts, cutting off the microphone, removing people from committee assignments and expelling elected leaders. Here is my prediction – people are going to keep on talking. In the words of the old civil rights spiritual, “We’re gonna keep on walking, keep on talking, marching into freedom land.”
The government of El Salvador in the late 20th century tried to keep Archbishop Oscar Romero from speaking out about his concerns for the poor and the oppressed during his lifetime in the midst of a civil war in that country but he would not remain silent. Romero received death threats and other forms of intimidation, but he would not stop talking. He once told a reporter, “Frequently I have been threatened by death. I should tell you that as a Christian I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me I will be resurrected in the Salvadoran people.” After his tragic assassination people marched for peace throughout the country. And when the nation did finally negotiate a peace agreement to end the civil war there was an enormous rally of hundreds of thousands of people in front of the Cathedral with a large banner that read, “Archbishop Romero, you have risen in your people.”
Two days ago a group of us took a pilgrimage to the Mount Zion Baptist Church for the Good Friday service. Now if you go to the Vatican in Rome and look at the artwork there you might get the impression that God is a white, Mary is a white, Jesus is white and all the saints are white. But if you go to the Mount Zion Baptist church in Knoxville Tennessee and look at the artwork there you will see that God is black, Mary is black, Jesus is black and all the saints are black. And when you look at the picture of Jesus on the cross it’s hard not to also think about the chains of the Middle Passage, the humiliation of the auction block, the pain whipping post and the horror of the lynching tree and remember the words of Jesus from scripture, “What you do to the least of these, you do also unto me.” Every time someone is oppressed Christ is crucified all over again.
On Tuesday April 4 I was sitting next to the Reverend Harold Middlebrook at the rehearsal for the Good Friday service and he reminded me that it was the 55th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis. This date is a very personally traumatic day for Reverend Middlebrook because he was with King in Memphis working together to support the sanitation workers strike at that time. He told me, “I don’t usually do anything on April 4. I usually stay home, meditate, pray and stay quiet.” But he came out to help us prepare for the Good Friday service and the Stations of the Cross AND during the rehearsal I watched him draft a letter to the Tennessee legislature demanding that our state do something to stop the epidemic of gun violence in our country and and stop expelling our elected representatives for engaging in peaceful protest toward that goal. After he wrote the letter he invited all of us to sign it which we did. The letter went straight to Nashville and all media outlets. It did not stop the legislature from expelling two of the three representatives. But it is my understanding that local leaders in Memphis and Nashville are planning to reappoint the two leaders, so the legislature better get ready for the Second Coming. Dr King died in 1968 but many others are still walking and still talking and still marching. A tragic death AND ALSO the power of resurrection.
Yesterday we held a memorial service here in this room for Christopher “Tophey” Touchton. I’ve known Tophey since he was in middle school when I was his Sunday School teacher and I watched him grow to be a teenager and then an outstanding young man. Cancer took Tophey much too young. So yesterday was a day of sorrow but it was also a reunion of old friends. It was good to see so many of the “kids” who grew up in our church, many of whom now have kids of their own. On a very sad and painful day there was also the joy that comes from the reunion of old friends, and experience of both death and new life.
And that is the feeling I hope you feel whenever you come to the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. If you come to our services feeling a mountain of despair I hope you leave with at least a stone of hope. If you come feeling discouraged I hope you leave feeling emboldened and empowered. If you come to mourn a loss I hope you are able to look around at the faces of everyone here today, this reunion of friends we have every week and feel a blessing. I hope whenever you come to our church feeling like death that you will also know resurrection.
(This sermon was delivered at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church by the Reverend Chris Buice on Sunday, April 9, 2023.)