A Gift and a Task

Some of you remember the television show “Mork and Mindy.” It launched an unknown Robin Williams to fame. As an extraterrestrial, Mork comes to earth from the planet Ork and learns that things are different here. Mork’s Orkan greeting of” “Na-nu Na-nu” or quenching his thirst by thrusting his finger into liquid, and thinking one’s head is used for sitting, shows just how naive we can be about other people’s ways. It doesn’t take planetary voyage to have a cultural awakening. Maybe even say, a move across the country requires some acculturation. When I moved from South Texas to Nebraska, I learned about a cultural icon; the Big Red “N” that marked everything. I learned what happens when I left an unopened Diet Coke in my car overnight in January when temperatures plunged to subzero, and I learned I have to ask for my tea to be sweet. I learned about hordes of bunnies, and black squirrels, and migrating cranes.

We can easily take all the nuances of our culture for granted. We don’t even realize that others don’t necessarily think like us, or know what we know, or behave just as we do. The Hebrew scriptures admonish “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life.” One would think life and death are pretty clear-cut concepts. Jesus went to Jerusalem knowing that the authorities were plotting to take his life. Did he then choose death? Several times over Jesus said, “Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will save it.” Jesus talks about life and death in ways that can be confusing. Could it be that we use those words of life and death differently today than they did in another culture thousands of years ago?

We 21st century Westerners are like extra-terrestrials when we read Hebrew scriptures. We read the words and process them from our worldview. As we understand it, Life is about biology, and it is personal. We understand Life is about my heartbeat, my brain waves. Life for us means our individual physical existence on this earth. Life and death is biology, and it’s personal or so WE think. That is not what life and death means in scripture.

In the Hebrew culture, life was not an individual matter. No one survived in isolation. No Simon and Garfunkel notion of “I am a Rock, I am an Island.” No self-made man or woman. No pull yourself up by your bootstrap, rugged individualism or Pioneer Spirit could sustain life. The Hebrew culture wasn’t about the individual. The Hebrew culture was more akin to other native religions of the world. Israelites understood life more like the African notion of ubuntu—“I am because you are.” The Israelites understood life like The Blackfoot Native American tribe who greet each other, not by saying, “How are you?” but by saying, “How are your connections?”

In the scriptures, “life,” “death,” “salvation,” and “resurrection”—those words are about connection. For the Israelites, life is a “We” not an “I.” To have life is to be in community, covenant community, bound together. To be dead is to be unrelated, excluded. Existence outside of the community is deathly.

In the first scripture we heard today, the Israelite community is at a tipping point. It is on the brink of collapse, i.e. death. The authors write to their people who have lost covenant connection with God and each other. The Israelites forgot the laws God gave them for ordering a just society. They neglected their poor, widows, and orphans. When they did so, their nation fell. A nation coasting along thinking it is above reproach or an empire that thinks it is too big to fail is headed for death.

Death is delivered by state executions and fences keeping out the desperate. Death lives in soldiers whose heartbeats continue, but whose spirits are traumatized by what we’ve asked them to do. Death is hungry people living in a land of plenty, and laws that favor the rich at the expense of the poor. Death is medicine on shelves out of reach of those without health care. Death is discrimination about whom you can love and who you can spend your life with. Death is work schedules that keep us too busy for the holy. Death is indebtedness and isolation. Death is our earth fractured for fuel extraction. Death is corporate greed and individual apathy.

The people are given a choice: choose life by forming a life-giving community, otherwise, you are choosing death. The notion that life and death are about communal relationship instead of personal biology sounds foreign to us—as foreign maybe as resurrection.

We read in the gospels that the tomb is empty. No one knows what happened inside the tomb. No one saw the resurrection. Whatever happened, it happened in the darkness of death, in the beauty of absolute blackness, in the silence of wonder. The gospels tell that Jesus appeared to his followers after his crucifixion.

I know of faithful Christians who believe Easter is about Jesus’ appearing in a physical, bodily resurrection. I know of other faithful Christians who believe Easter is about Jesus appearing as a spiritual presence known to his followers. Bodily resurrection or spiritual essence, which one is right—is not what is essential to what Jesus taught. I don’t know that it much matters which interpretation you give regarding that moment 2,000 years ago. Christ is Risen! Christ is alive! This is not a 2,000-year-old event.

Christ is alive today to the extent that his Followers choose life and follow his teachings, live his example, and do what he commanded. Jesus brought Good News in his mission and in his ministry. He proclaimed it at the start of his ministry by reading from the prophet Isaiah. Jesus’ work was “to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of vision, to let the oppressed go free.”

The good news is good news to the poor, the oppressed, and the captive. Jesus brought good news to the “dead,” outcast, oppressed, poor, foreigners, women, and children. His good news was restoration of LIFE. It was resurrection and return to community. It was healing and hope. It was God’s grace and love poured out beyond all imagining to those that his culture had condemned to death. Jesus demonstrated that LIFE IS A GIFT—freely given by God to all.

When Jesus healed the lepers, he restored them out of death and into life of community. When Jesus touched a bleeding woman, forgave a woman accused of adultery, spoke to a foreign woman at a well, he crossed all boundaries of culture dealing death. He resurrected the excluded to life within the community. He recalled the ancient prophets who posed life and death as a community choice. Jesus shared that life is a gift AND a TASK.

The task is then to turn away from that which distracts us from God’s kingdom, to reject every other vision that competes with God’s way of justice for all. The task is to care for all members, the weak and powerless, to give sustenance to the helpless, and to reorganize public institutions so no one is marginalized. These are the tasks that ancient Israel was given and that we are given. The scriptures ask the people to choose between life and death. The task of choosing life—then and now—means caring for the whole community. Life requires work so that all can enjoy the gift of life together.

Life is gathering as a community and welcoming all to the table. Life is equality for all in law and practice. Life is food for the hungry, care for the sick. Life is safe housing and meaningful work. Life is time for God, family, and friends. Life is inclusion of the marginalized, welcome for the strangers, forgiveness of others, and forgiveness of self. Life is belonging.

Christ is alive to the extent that the community that forms in his name continues to bear the good news, offering grace, hope, and forgiveness. Christ is alive to the extent that we cherish each day as a gift and that we take up the task of LOVE.

The early church was not too interested on the mechanics of Jesus emerging from a tomb on a spring morning, but they were profoundly interested in the power of God’s spirit to gather outcasts around Christ and form new communities of life. Resurrection is the good news that God’s Love in Christ who dwells within and among us has the power to create new community in which the gift of life and the task of life are held together as one. 1 John 3:14: ”We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another.” Love is the marker of resurrection and life.

Resurrection is urgent today for the church and society.
Christ is Alive. When we gather to dive deep into God’s presence.
Christ is Alive. When we share food with the hungry.
Christ is Alive. When we work for justice and equality, inclusion for all.
Christ is Alive. When we take up the task of caring for the earth and all creatures.
Christ is Alive. As we celebrate the gift of each day.
Christ is Alive. As we take up the task of Love.
Christ is Alive. In the community we form. Alleluia! Amen.