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  • Pastor Gary W. Charles

Can I Get A Witness?


At the end of Luke’s Gospel, the Risen Jesus pays a visit to his old friends. All are dressed in their Sunday-go-to-mourning clothes. They are huddled together trying to figure out what to do now that the funeral is over, what to believe now that the one in whom they have believed has ended up being a devastating disappointment. For a day or so, they have heard wild stories about Jesus being alive, but they know better. They watched him die on a cross. Once again, Rome has won. Once again, death has won.

And, yet, at the end of Luke’s Gospel, the Risen Jesus stands before them. They are aghast, not knowing what to believe, so Jesus says, “I’m hungry. Pass the fish.” No one asks: “Jesus, how is it possible that you are eating with us?” “Jesus, can you explain the metaphysics of the resurrection?” “Jesus, help us understand how someone we saw tortured, executed, and buried is eating Sunday brunch with us?” The disciples do not ask these questions. They do not ask any questions. They do not say a word.

So, why does Luke bother to tell this story anyway? Maybe the story is just Luke’s metaphor to get his point across that in the end, God’s good purposes prevail. Or, maybe, Luke tells this, and so many, resurrection stories because resurrection is something that he will not let us explain away, even as he does not try to provide a neat rational explanation for it.

When I read this story, I stand in the same puzzled place as the disciples. I get the “crucified, dead, and buried” part of Luke’s Easter story. I have prayed in too many Hospice rooms and sat with too many friends in the last hours before death to doubt this part of the story. I know more about death and dying than I want to know. I get “crucified, dead, and buried.”

It is the “on the third day he rose again from the dead” part of Luke’s Easter story that leaves me standing alongside the startled disciples, wondering about the whole notion of resurrection. And, I stand in good company. I spend a lot of time these days with people who are either trying to make sense of the resurrection or have long ago concluded it simply makes no sense.

Most people I meet today, in and out of the church, actually like the Jesus who speaks out on behalf of the dispossessed, who challenges exclusive religious practices that keep some “in” and many “out,” who is a healer and a hope giver and who speaks truth even to the most powerful. Most people I meet today can say “yes” to this compassionate Jesus, who was a victim of violence and who told the world then and tells them now to put away the sword. In his Gospel, Luke tells us a lot about that Jesus, but he tells us much more.

Luke invites us to pay attention to resurrection. That begins by listening carefully to this story. The first word that the Risen Jesus speaks to the mourners is: “Peace be with you.” The disciples are terrified and for good reason. The Risen Jesus walks into the room and tells them exactly what they need to hear. The next thing their risen friend does is what he has done since he called them into service. He teaches them the Bible that they thought they already knew. He opens their minds to what God has done and is doing.

Finally, the Risen Jesus looks at them and asks them the question of the old African American spiritual: “Can I Get a Witness?” It is a song Southern slaves sang around campfires, illicitly at night, to witness to God’s liberating love. Everything about their bound lives warned them otherwise, but still they sang of a God who will not be bound, of a Risen Jesus who will not be bound, of a faith that will not be bound. If their masters had ever heard their songs, they would only have laughed, but these slaves knew better. They knew who holds the final say over their lives and it was not their owners.

For Luke, faith in the Risen Jesus creates Resurrection People who gather in a Resurrection Community. For Luke, the power of death is a power never to be underestimated, but by the grace of God, it is also a power never to be overestimated. Resurrection People and Resurrection Communities do not flee from death but place themselves smack in the middle of deadly spots and tell a life-giving story.

Resurrection People sing even when others tell them to “hush,” rise up even when the powers of death tell them to “sit down,” do not grow weary in doing good even when they are mocked for doing so.

For Luke, resurrection is not simply a philosophical concept or an event we pray for when a loved one dies. By the power of God, resurrection happens long before you and I die. Resurrection happens when you and I know in the deepest part of our souls that God’s intention for all creation, for all creatures, is to live, to thrive, to love justice, to do mercy, to walk alongside the one who is the very humility of God.

I have served five Resurrection Communities in my years of pastoral ministry and I have lived and worked alongside many Resurrection People. But I have never known more Resurrection People gathered in one small place than right here at Cove.

Every Sunday, Beth Neville and Linda and often Heather lead a company of choristers and congregation to sing a faith where music succeeds when words fail us. They are often joined by Rahima on violin and Rick on guitar and Walter on banjo who support our song with the life-giving beauty of musical instruments.

Every week, a company of Cove tutors invades the Red Hill Elementary School with a passion for children to succeed in reading and in life, refusing to accept that sadly some children will inevitably fail and just need to be left behind.

Do you know about the work of the Innocence Project? Thanks to the leadership and vision of John Grisham and others, this Resurrection Community operates in our society to fight the faulty conviction, incarceration, and wrongful deaths of innocent women and men.

From Kelly and his crew at the Building Goodness Foundation to Grant Duffield and his crew at the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority to the monthly team from Cove working at Habitat to Bob and Jan Jones who serve unhoused folks every Thursday at the crack of dawn in Alexandria, these Resurrection People do not accept that homelessness and substandard housing is the best we can do in America and they argue that avoiding or neglecting the poor is never a winning strategy.

Do you know about the Ixtatan Foundation? Thanks to the vision of Beth Neville Evans, the contribution of so many Cove members, and to the current leadership today of Jordan Lindbeck, this Resurrection Community is seeding parts of Guatemala with new hope for better schools and community development, done in partnership not by patriarchy.

Do you know about Faith Ministry, a border ministry in the southwest U.S., along the Mexico – Texas border. Every summer, Will and Kristin join volunteers across the country not to build a wall but to build homes with and for folks who need a good dose of hospitality and hope, and give it in return.

I give thanks for Resurrection People like Kristel Riddervold whose environmental work in Charlottesville and in Albemarle County shows us another way to live with and to treat our fragile planet, like Al Huber who shows us that planting food for ourselves can become the beginning of making sure that all have enough food, like Polly Mehring whose longtime work with migrants and migrant families gives us a broader definition for the word, “Neighbor,” like Greg Govan who works at national and global levels to counsel those in leadership about the wisdom of disarmament and the lunacy of a nuclear confrontation.

This past week, members and friends at Cove received an email from Jessie asking for meals for someone whose life is in turmoil right now. No details were given. None were needed. Good excuses were not made for why helping at this time is simply not convenient. Instead, within a day this Resurrection Community had responded with more meals than requested because that is who you are.

One of my favorite stage plays is The Lion in Winter. In the play, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II of England, is imprisoned by Henry, her husband. Jailed and with no realistic notion that she would ever live an un-bound life again, Eleanor says, “In a world where carpenters get resurrected, anything is possible.”

That is what a group of scared, perplexed, and overwhelmed disciples discovered on that first Easter morning. That is what anyone discovers who dares to grab hold of the Easter story. So, you Resurrection People, keep on joining the Risen Christ in all the deadly spots on this earth. Keep on changing resurrection from a curious metaphysical debate to a life-changing, life-transforming, lived reality. After all, “in a world where carpenters get resurrected, anything is possible.”

You Resurrection People, keep on!

AMEN


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