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Archive for the ‘poetry’ Category

Here is a sermon on 1 Corinthians 15:35-44 I wrote for my New Testament course this semester:

[Hope by Czeslaw Milosz]

Hope is with you when you believe
The earth is not a dream but living flesh,
That sight, touch, and hearing do not lie,
That all things you have ever seen here
Are like a garden looked at from a gate.

You cannot enter. But you’re sure it’s there.
Could we but look more clearly and wisely
We might discover somewhere in the garden
A strange new flower and an unnamed star.

Some people say we should not trust our eyes,
That there is nothing, just a seeming,
These are the ones who have no hope.
They think that the moment we turn away,
The world, behind our backs, ceases to exist,
As if snatched up by the hands of thieves.

In his book The Witness of Poetry, the great Nobel poet Czeslaw Milosz writes, “I have defined poetry as a ‘passionate pursuit of the real.’” The poem by Milosz we have just heard seems to capture this sentiment perfectly: Hope is believing that we actually exist—that our bodies do in fact allow us to perceive reality and, if we are willing, discover the hidden beauty behind our feeble first glances. Indeed the last stanza of the poem, beginning with Some people say we should not trust our eyes/That there is nothing, just a seeming, suggests something deeply troubling about those who would deny the world around them as an illusion, as simply a fantastic trick that “ceases to exist” when we turn our backs.

Our reading today from the first Epistle to the Corinthians addresses the resurrection of the dead. In a way similar to Milosz’s poem, Paul is, so to speak, telling the Corinthians what is real. He is telling them that their bodies are real in the eternal sense of the word, and by doing so, he is attempting to radically reconfigure their hope.

Before we can dive in to what Paul is getting at here, a little context is needed. Beginning with verse one of Chapter 15, Paul teaches that without the resurrection of the dead—that is, without both Jesus’ resurrection and our own resurrection at the end of the age—the gospel is no gospel at all. Where we pick up today is with Paul’s insistence that the resurrection at the end of the age will, in fact, be a bodily resurrection which is—and this is the key point—in continuity with the very bodies that you and I currently occupy. The question I would like to ask you today, as we discuss Paul’s talk of a bodily resurrection is, “Do we live our lives as if we really believed in a bodily resurrection?” We do not need to answer this question right now, but as we reflect on the text, I want you to keep this question in mind. Now, lets see what the Apostle is doing here.

Paul, as we can see, certainly has strong convictions about the resurrection. “How foolish!” he declares vociferously at the thought that the Corinthians might question whether the resurrection will involve actual bodies. Apparently, anybody who thinks that the resurrection will be something other than bodily—say, spiritual or incorporeal, or, as in the case of the Corinthians, some sort integration into the cosmos—has demonstrated their utter stupidity. Right? Well, maybe not. On closer inspection, Paul is actually responding to a very reasonable objection to the thought of a bodily resurrection that is in continuity with our earthly bodies.

You see, the converted Corinthians to which Paul is writing would have been highly influenced by the typical Greco-Roman conceptions of the human body and the afterlife that dominated the culture of that time. Coming out of that culture, they would have been utterly appalled at the idea of their deceased corpses being raised out of the ground. If this were the case, so the Corinthians thought, the resurrection would simply consist of a bunch of zombies roaming around the earth. A terrifying image indeed! Instead of heaven being a pleasant and ethereal environment where people have turned into friendly ghosts floating leisurely around puffy white clouds—or something like that—heaven, the way the Corinthians seem to hear Paul describing it, is Night of the Living Dead come true.

Understandably, the Corinthians would not have found much hope in Paul’s insistence that the resurrection will be in continuation with our current bodies. And at first thought, neither do we. Think about it for a moment: dead bodies being raised out of the ground? This seems an absurd thing to believe. To be sure, we tend to think that once our bodies are dead, that’s it. Indeed, bodies do go away eventually: buried corpses rot until there is nothing left but bones, and with the popular practice of cremation that so many modern people opt for these days, the natural process of degradation is sped up, instantly turning the body into a pile of ashes. What can this possibly mean for a bodily resurrection?

Furthermore, for those of us lucky enough to still retain some semblance of a human body when the resurrection does occur, what does a bodily resurrection say about heaven? If heaven means that the bodies we currently occupy will simply be lifted out of the ground to continue where death left off, this is not good news. Bodies get sick. They break down. They are the vehicle of suffering and pain. When we talk about doing violence to someone, we are talking about doing violence to their bodies.

And, worse still, what about those people who have bodies that are irreparably damaged, faulty or corrupted? Will the crippled be resurrected and still be crippled? Will the mentally handicapped still be handicapped? In short, if it is this body that I will have in heaven, does this not mean that there will still be suffering? Is not heaven meant to be an escape from all of this? Do we not wish to escape our bodies and inhabit a better and wholly other existence where pain and suffering cannot touch us, where we can “eat our pie in the sky” and not have to anymore worry about dealing with a physical body? If it’s not this, what are we hoping for?

Though these are certainly reasonable questions and fears, Paul has for us something different—something far better—to hope for. What is missing from these questions and fears is the hope that our bodies will be transformed in the resurrection. What is missing is the sense that God is mighty enough to take our bodies out of death and reshape them so that they are fit to inhabit heaven, that is, the Kingdom of God waiting for its consummation in the resurrection of the dead.

This is why Paul uses the analogy of the seed mentioned in verses 37-38. A “dead” flower seed that is planted into the ground is not raised to look like a seed. We don’t marvel at little round dots that have been pulled out of the ground. No! We marvel at the flower that has somehow arisen out of the seed. The seed is transformed—rather mysteriously, I might add—into that which it was created to be: a beautiful Lilac, Lablab, or Larkspur. The seed, so to speak, dies and is transformed—it is resurrected—into a glorious manifestation of beauty. Just so, as Paul is trying to convince his Corinthian audience, our bodies will die and be resurrected into glory through an organic process of transformation just like that of seed into flower—a process that can only be attributed to the power of God. In short, Paul is attempting to radically reconfigure the Corinthians hope so that it included their own bodies.

Hear the words of the Apostle: The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.

This is our hope, our assurance. This is what is real. This is what we desperately need to hear today as so many around us are suffering—indeed, as many of us here today are suffering. We will be healed. Our bodies will be transformed so that there is no longer sickness. No longer will our bodies be subject to pain, suffering, or the “sting of death,” as Paul puts it. Sickness, suffering, violence, death: these things are passing away, not the gifts of our bodies which are given by God. Our bodies are real. They are part of our destiny, which through our baptism—our being buried with Christ and raised into new life—is a transformation into glory. This is our hope.

If the bodily resurrection is true, what are the implications for our lives, now? First, it means that our bodies are good—they are a gift. They are not something simply to discard as a transitional cage in which we are currently trapped. They are not a thing to abandon, escape, or loath. Rather, our bodies are part of the redemptive and transformative story that God is telling through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who transforms us into a newness that is fit for the Kingdom of God. Our bodies are a gift which, though they are waiting for their healing and perfection, provide the very vehicle by which we hope for and discover the newness and redemption that God has promised.

Second, that the resurrection of the dead is in continuity with our earthly bodies means that God’s redemption is real for us now. It means that through the event of Christ’s death and resurrection, what we are hoping for has already infiltrated our world and put us on a trajectory that allows us to experience now the Kingdom of heaven. And it is this point that matters most for who we are as a church that is in the world and for the world.

As a community that believes the story of Christ’s cross and resurrection to be the truth of the universe, our hope takes real shape and can be realized here and now as we encounter our neighbors, enemies, and each other. It is realized when we embrace each other’s bodies under the “peace of Christ.” It is realized when go out from these walls and feed the bodies of the hungry. It is realized whenever we heal—or simply come alongside—the bodies of the sick. It is realized as we learn to treat each other’s bodies as a gift from God, as God’s good creation that is not to be attacked, manipulated, or harmed.

To return to the question I asked earlier: Do we live our lives as if we really believed in a bodily resurrection? Do we really believe in a bodily resurrection as we are more and more subsumed into on-line communities or virtual realities bereft of actual bodies? Do we really believe in a bodily resurrection when we satisfy our consciences by buying coffee from Starbucks so that a dollar will go to a faceless, bodiless child in Africa instead of actually helping the needy child down the street? Do we really believe in the bodily resurrection when we live out our lives as autonomous individuals who refuse to let the space called our homes be interrupted by the bodies of strangers, the needy, and the homeless?

Paul’s words today challenge us to reevaluate our lives in light of what is eternally real. Today I challenge you with a final word: Live the bodily resurrection now. Live lives of a poetic pursuance of the real. Pursue the bodies of others in real community, in real charity that requires our actual presence and time, in real worship that teaches us to live thankfully in our bodies that are being transformed. For in this we know hope. Let us worship the Lord and be thankful for our bodies and the bodies of others. Amen.

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Easter

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen!”

Hallelujah.

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Holy Saturday

Easter Eve: Sepulchre -Rowan Williams

Constantine knew, of course, just what he wanted:
smooth verticals and marble, crushed glass rolled underfoot,
room for archangels with their orbs and wounds,
space for cool power to stroll, relaxed and heavy-footed

Out to the little scented hedges, under a cross that shimmers,
silver and rubies, soft shadows lapping at the ankles.
He cut and smoothed, levelled and piled and spread:
light; crystal; breezy veils; a new, enlightened holy hill.

History (or something) disagreed. The centuries squared up,
exchanged curt, recognizing nods, moved in,
folded and packed, crumpled and stripped and boxed:
the shadows shook themselves, lurched up and smiled

From a new height; people found other things
to do with silver. Air from the marble lungs
is punched out, and the colonnades are crushed and processed
into a maze of ditches, damp stone capsules,

Whorls, cavities, corners with don’t-ask smells
and fairground decoration. A collapsing star, screwing its stuff
into the dark: soaring heat, density, a funnel
spinning towards the opposite of anything,

* * *

Saturday afternoon, the bodies squashed, wet, boxed,
breathing into the shadows full of smells and tinsel:
flame leaks and spits out of the singularity,
sparks a cracked bell. Iron, rope, smoke

Pant in the tight dark, a light-footed,
high-strung passing. Afterwards we breathe,
dry off the sweat and crying, ask what history
is after, bullying us into waking, into this oppositeness.

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Good Friday

Speculations on the Subject of Barabbas -Zbigniew Herbert

What Became of Barabbas? I ask but no one knows
Let off his chain he went into the brightly lit street
he could turn to the right go straight turn to the left
spin around in a circle crow cheerfully as a rooster
He the Emperor of his own head and hands
He the Governor of his own breath

I ask because in a sense I took part in the whole thing
Swayed by the crowd in front of Pilate’s palace I cried
along with all the others free Barabbas free Barabbas
Everyone was shouting and if I alone had been silent
it would all have happened as it was meant to happen

So perhaps Barabbas went back to his gang of thieves
In the mountains he kills swiftly and plunders deftly
Or maybe he set up a pottery workshop
and now cleans his crime-stained hands
in the clay of creation
He’s a water carrier a mule driver a moneylender
a shipowner–a ship of his carried Paul to Corinth or–the possibility cannot be excluded–
he became a valued spy in Roman pay

Behold and marvel at the vertiginous play of fate
with possibilities power and smiles of fortune

But the Nazarene
was left alone
without alternative
with a steep
pathway
of blood

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Maundy Thursday

Of the glorious Body telling,
O my tongue its mysteries sing,
And the Blood, all price excelling,
Which the world’s eternal King,
In a noble womb once dwelling,
Shed for the world’s ransoming.

From Pange lingua, a hymn of Thomas Aquinas

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Hoping for a warm sun.

Not unrelated to the last post, here is a poem for the week.

Hope by Czeslaw Milosz

Hope is with you when you believe
The earth is not a dream but living flesh,
That sight, touch, and hearing do not lie,
That all things you have ever seen here
Are like a garden looked at from a gate.

You cannot enter. But you’re sure it’s there.
Could we but look more clearly and wisely
We might discover somewhere in the garden
A strange new flower and an unnamed star.

Some people say we should not trust our eyes,
That there is nothing, just a seeming,
These are the ones who have no hope.
They think that the moment we turn away,
The world, behind our backs, ceases to exist,
As if snatched up by the hands of thieves.

Han and I are off to Ashville tomorrow to celebrate our two year anniversary and perhaps cultivate a little more hope. Spring is lurking.

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A prayer for writing.

Lord,
grant me the ability to compose a long sentence, whose line, customarily
from breath to breath, is a line spanned like a suspension bridge like a
rainbow the alpha and omega of the ocean

Lord, grant me the strength and agility of those who build sentences
long and expansive as a spreading oak tree, like a great valley; may they
contain worlds, shadows of worlds, and worlds of dreams

may the main clause rule confidently over dependent clauses, control
their course, a circuitous but expressive basso continuo, endure unmoved
above the elements in motion, draw them to itself like a nucleus draws
electrons by unseen laws of gravitation

I pray then for a long sentence, sculptured by the sweat of my brow
extending so far that in each there might be reflected the mirror image
of a cathedral, a great oratorio, a tryptych,

and also animals mighty and minuscule, train stations, the heart
brimming with sorrow, rocky cliffs, and the furrow of fate in the hand

-“Breviary” by Zigniew Herbert

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