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You may have read the news this past week about the untimely death of Christian writer, Rachel Held Evans. If that name sounds familiar to you, we had an evening study this past fall of her latest book, Inspired, subtitled: slaying giants, walking on water, and loving the bible again. Evans was an immensely popular blogger whose writing chronicled her move from the more fundamentalist faith of her evangelical upbringing to a deep, thoughtful and sacramental faith in the Episcopal church. Along the way she regularly challenged what she had been taught about biblical inerrancy, women in ministry, and the standing of LGBTQ men and women in the church. She could write. She was also a relatively new mother to her two young children with her husband, Dan. Shortly after the news broke of her death due to complications brought on by a reaction to antibiotics, a hashtag began trending on the social media site, Twitter; BecauseofRHE. Countless tweets about the impact this young woman’s writing had had on a generation of people struggling to find their place, or remain, in the church. In a particularly moving blog post, the writer Zack Hunt related a conversation with his own young children shortly after he learned of his friend’s death. “I tried to put on a brave face when I walked out of my bedroom to make breakfast,” he wrote, “but my kids saw right through me.” “’Why are you sad, daddy?’” his son asked. “’Something happened to my friend,’ I told him. ‘To Rachel?’ ‘Yes,’ I told them. ‘Is she still sick?’ ‘No, she died.’ After a moment of awkward, painful silence,” he wrote, “my 5-year-old looked at me and asked, ‘Daddy, is your friend going to come back alive again?’” The family had just celebrated Easter, you see. His 5-year-old daughter had taken in the story about how Jesus had “come back alive.” So she wanted to know if her daddy’s friend, Rachel, would “come back alive” too. That’s what we say isn’t it? We say that just as Jesus was raised from death to new life that we too share in his resurrection through the waters of baptism. It’s not unreasonable to ask just when that’s supposed to happen.
Once we get past the pageantry of Easter Sunday, the further we move into this season- passing by Thomas’ doubt and Peter’s restoration- the less there is to distract us from the question that won’t stop gnawing at us. Just what is resurrection? What does it mean? Who is it for? How does it happen? It’s the question that gnaws at us, because our rational, reasonable minds know that it is impossible. We know about death. We may not like to talk about death. We may not like to acknowledge its existence, or deal with the loss that comes with it. But we know how it works. Maybe it was a goldfish, or another beloved pet that first introduced us to the concept. We might have heard about a celebrity death on the news. Or, unhappily the loss was a little closer to home; a classmate, a dear friend, or someone in our own family.
Lutheran pastor Heidi Neumark tells the story of a family that was in need of a pastor. They lived in Brooklyn, but were spending most of their time in the pediatric ICU of a Manhattan hospital where their 15-month-old son was dying. After the funeral the family kept coming to church with his five-year-old brother Charlie. Charlie was reluctant to leave his parents, so he didn’t attend Sunday school but kept to himself drawing picture of cars or rocket ships like the one featured in his brother’s funeral bulletin with the prayer Charlie said just days before he died, “Dear God, please send us a rocket ship so Jakey and me can go to the stars. I love Jakey. Amen.” But finally, one Sunday Charlie agreed to go to Sunday school with dad by his side. The story was the one from our reading this morning, about the woman, Tabitha, who had died and her friends who showed Peter the garments she had made for them. And then Peter raised her from the dead. The Sunday school worried about how Charlie would hear the lesson. Would he wonder why his brother hadn’t come back alive again? “And then,” writes Neumark, “this quiet little boy, for the first time ever in class, began to speak. He told the class of preschoolers to second graders that his brother had died and that Jesus had raised his brother too and that his brother was with Jesus in heaven and that his brother was also still with him. He showed the class a woven bracelet that reminded him of his brother, just as the widows must have shown Peter their woven tunics.”
In his poem of the same name, Ken Evers-Hood declares, “resurrection is not an argument.” What gets us into trouble is when we try to make it one. What gets us into trouble is when we apply our own understanding of how death works, how we’ve experienced it, to the promise of resurrection and inevitably are brought up short by the impossibility of it all because we think we know better.
Except in Sunday school that day, when Charlie offered his own testimony of walking through the darkest valley, a room full of squirrelly preschoolers was completely still until a girl who was born with drugs in her veins and was cared for by her grandmother while her own mother went in and out of treatment, a girl named Heaven, got up and went over and gave her classmate a hug. Resurrection is not an argument. It is the power of God set loose in the world through Jesus to raise the dead in far more ways than one.
Neither is resurrection a magic trick performed on street corners to convince skeptics. What the story of Tabitha shows us is that like that Sunday school classroom, resurrection is something that happens in the supportive community of those who have changed their minds and put their trust in the good news of their own worth, beauty and dignity, as well as the worthy, beauty and dignity of others in God’s eyes. When someone is studying and living in the way of Jesus Christ, good works and acts of charity are the fruit of such a trust, such a belief. They are not merit badges one earns in order to get an upgrade on the afterlife. Rather, the gift of grace is the life that flows through us so that we know we have something to give. And the gift of love is one that we only receive by passing it on to someone else. The care of Tabitha’s body, washed and laid in the room as it was, is a testament to that, as are the garments that the widows show to Peter. More than an example of one woman’s generosity, they point to the Spirit of resurrection that is already present in that community; the Spirit of resurrection in which Tabitha had already been party to. So that when Peter tells her to get us, of course she sits up. And when she does (and this is key) Peter gives her his hand and helps her up.
When Zack Hunt’s daughter asked him if his friend Rachel would come alive again, as much as he wanted to give her an answer that would lesson the sting of death, as much as he wanted to give her some explanation about resurrection, in the end all he could say was, “No.” Rachel won’t be coming back alive again, at least not in the literal way that his daughter thought she might. Resurrection is not an argument.
It is the hug that is shared by one struggling soul with another, that brings them both alive again. It is the hand that helps another get up when they’ve been laid out and left for dead. It is what Rachel Held Evans offered to the countless people on Twitter and beyond who found a place in this community of believers, this body of Christ in which all are seen by God as worthy and beautiful and beloved. Resurrection is not an argument, or an easy answer to the hardest question. It is the promise that there is more to this life than we think is possible; more to what is possible than what we think we know.
On this Mother’s Day weekend, when many will celebrate their mothers, just as many will not. When many will bask in the celebration of their own motherhood, many will not. Resurrection is not an argument, but it is predicated on our ability to acknowledge and name who and what had died. It requires us to speak honestly about the pain and the loss that are real, so that we can accept the hand of another; so that we can offer our hand to another and help them get up.