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"Undocumented Resurrection" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - April 1, 2018

posted Apr 4, 2018, 8:58 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Do you ever find yourself well outside your comfort zone?  I did last Sunday, as I got ready to walk the runway at a fashion show.

My friend Dana - the same one who got me to try yoga (you’d think I’d learn) - organized a fashion show to raise money and awareness for the fight against human trafficking.  The show featured real couture. One designer created a dress that looked like something out of Star Wars. Two models wore versions of the dress, one in white and one in black; each dress had a large hoop raised up over their backs which they held with their arms.  Stunning and impractical; then, as they walked the runway, the women dropped their arms, transforming the outfit into a full-length ball gown; and then, once further down the runway, they pushed off the bottom skirt to reveal a cocktail dress. Amazing.

So why was I at a real fashion show?  Before the couture, Dana had three groups of people walk in the show - youth, community leaders, and a survivor of human trafficking to help raise awareness.  I was one of the community leaders. My job was to walk down the runway in a t-shirt for Dana’s organization, Foundations for Freedom. You would think that would be easy.

I arrived early so that I could practice with other community leaders.  That’s when I started to panic. Everyone else had some smooth moves for the runway.  My anxiety only grew as the room filled with hundreds of people. Standing behind the curtain, waiting for my turn, every introverted cell in my body tensed up.  I knew I didn’t belong. But then my turn came; I had to walk.

I already lack rhythm.  But add stress: not pretty.  Or, pretty awkward. On top of it, my face turned beet red.  I knew it was bad when I saw Tomas laughing - and filming. Great.  (If you see him in a new car, you’ll know how much that video cost.)

All I wanted to do was cross behind the curtain again.  But as I neared it, the MC stopped me. Denise had ahold of me.  No running. And she teased me, “Pastor, will you pray for me?” But I didn’t know what to say because I was too busy asking Jesus to save me.  (Jesus get me off this runway.)

In that moment, I felt mortified.  But when I finally got back behind the curtain, I realized: I survived.  And I came to see it as a moment of resurrection: despite the power of my anxiety, I lived; despite my fears, I came through; despite mortification, I survived.

Often in church we talk about the resurrection of Jesus as a grand version of what I experienced: Jesus moving from death to life again.  And we spiritualize it into a story of rebirth. We just sang “Now the Green Blade Rises,” an old hymn of our tradition, which puts this spirituality into verse: Love is come again like wheat that rises green.  The hymn speaks to one aspect of the resurrection of Jesus: renewal.  We rightly claim those moments when we overcome fear and death as resurrection moments.

And yet, there is more than just rebirth in this story.  In the Gospel, the resurrection of Jesus did not happen in a political vacuum.   The resurrection came as God’s witness against the dehumanizing forces of oppression and injustice.  Just think of the last days of his life: a mob seized him while he prayed, prepared to lynch him; false witnesses lied about him, creating a pretense of justice; soldiers mocked him, calling on him to prophesy; the state labeled him a criminal, an insurrectionist king; friends abandoned him, ashamed to be seen with him; and he died, nailed up as the Romans did to all other traitors.

The Romans used crucifixion to make a political point.  They didn’t crucify citizens; Paul, arrested decades later in Jerusalem, got spared torture and crucifixion because he had his citizenship papers.  But Jesus was undocumented. He didn’t have papers. He couldn’t prove he belonged. And so Governor Pilate turned Jesus into a public spectacle.

Governor Pilate’s capricious use of power became evident when he judged Jesus.  The Gospel portrayed Pilate offering the crowd a choice of Jesus or Barabbas; Pilate seemed baffled by the anger at Jesus.  As the crowd shouted - “crucify him” - Pilate asked, “why, what evil has he done?” And yet when the crowd still demanded Jesus’ blood, Pilate agreed without much thought, handing Jesus over to be whipped, beaten, and killed.  I want to underscore this: Pilate stood indifferent to justice, condemning a man whose innocence he believed to die ignominiously.

The whole story of Jesus’ death, from the abandonment of friends like Peter to Pilate condemning a man he knew to be innocence, speaks of the power of death.  Not just death as an end of life, but Death as a power, a force, an Empire that destroys relationships, corrupts character, and distorts reality. When the disciples looked on Jesus on the Cross, broken, it seemed like all the forces of Death had won.

And yet, even in the act of the women coming to the tomb, we know the Empire of Death couldn’t win.  Because the Empire didn’t just want to kill Jesus, but to destroy and to scatter. The women refused; Death had no force over their love.  And so they came and found Death couldn’t stop Jesus either. Staring into emptiness, they realized Death’s dehumanizing power had lost. O Death, where is your sting?  O Grave, your victory?

The Gospel of Mark originally ended with this story of the women visiting the tomb; they hear of Jesus’s resurrection but they don’t see him.  The resurrection remained undocumented. Instead, the Gospel ended with a cryptic line that invited a natural question. “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee.”  The resurrected Jesus must be found.

Traci Blackmon, one of the leaders of our Christian movement, recently spoke of where we can find him.  She began by asking, “How as resurrection people do we minister to those who have been relegated to Golgotha?”  And then she went on to say, “Yes, Jesus is off the cross. But Golgotha was a burial ground of skulls and bones and people who had been discarded, people who couldn’t even get a borrowed tomb.  What do we do as people to minister to those who have been relegated not always physically but spiritually to Golgotha?”

Rev. Blackmon’s question focuses us back on the people affected by the Empire, people dehumanized and demeaned, those who feel the sting of Death.  Where do we see people treated with indifference? Suffering false accusations? Treated unjustly? I see it in the treatment of undocumented people, people like a Congolese woman and her daughter.

The mother and her seven-year-old daughter fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Before she fled, the mother had taken refuge in a Catholic Church in her home country, fearing for her life and that of her daughter.  Then she found a way to get from the Congo to Mexico. From there the mother and daughter walked into the United States. They surrendered themselves at the border, claiming asylum.

ICE agents at the border reviewed the claims of the mother.  They deemed her story credible and agreed she had a legitimate fear of harm if she returned to the Congo.  But, while they further reviewed this case, they decided to separate the mother and the child, keeping the mother in a detention center in San Diego and sending her seven-year-old daughter to detention in Chicago.

Now, remember, ICE agents have concluded that the mother and the child will likely receive asylum.  But ICE decided to make an example of this mother and child; separating them to opposite ends of the country in order to discourage other people from seeking asylum.  And ICE has kept them apart for months; a seven-year-old child alone in a strange place, a continent away from her mother, for months. What would crucify a parent more than hearing the cries of your child?  This family is experiencing the dehumanizing power of Empire; the forces which once made a public example of Jesus now make one of a mother and her child.

When the Empire tried to crush Jesus, even on the cross he signified his power to overcome.  The Empire wanted to make a spectacle of him, to break him down, to isolate him. But on the cross, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus looked at his mother and best friend, saying to them, “Mother, behold your son; and son, behold your mother.”  He created family ties in the midst of an Empire trying to destroy all his bonds.

Jesus’ victory over the powers of Death compelled his disciples to seek out and build family bonds, to see as sister and brother those they had formerly seen as alien and threat.  And so we find Peter visiting the home of the centurion Cornelius - the man who commanded the troops who killed Jesus - and there in the house of his one time enemy, Peter realized, “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”  Where Death sought to isolate and demean, the grace of Resurrection created new bonds.

This is happening for undocumented people in our country.  Just last weekend, a congregation in New York City went public with its commitment to shelter Aura Hernandez from deportation.  She grew up in Guatemala but came to the United States after several family members were murdered. Now, fourteen years later, Hernandez faced deportation, which would separate her from her US born children.  A congregation became her shelter, the stone walls physically manifesting the commitment of women and men in the church to be her family, tía y tío a su hija.

The Gospel story doesn’t document where the resurrected Jesus can be found, but I know where to look: in those places were strangers call each other sister and brother.  For resurrection comes as God’s answer against the force of dehumanization.

God’s resurrection answer can’t be separated from the law.  The religious and political authorities brought Jesus to trial for all the illegal things he did.  They had much to chose from. Jesus touched lepers. He talked to women as his equal. He ate with tax-collectors.  He sheltered the accused. And he worked on the day of rest. So the authorities labeled him a criminal, an illegal.  And he was: Jesus lived as one outside the law, in the shadows of Empire.

But God resurrected Jesus.  One detained as illegal, redeemed.  One crucified as a non-citizen, raised to glory.  One buried outside the city, brought into the Kingdom of God.

The same resurrection grace moves through people today.  People like Moises Escalante, whose name means Moses the Climber.  Born in El Salvador, Moises’ father abandoned the family and then his mother left for work in the United States, leaving Moises to care for his younger siblings.  Eventually the family scraped together enough money to make the journey to America, crossing illegally.

He found work and then married, gaining his papers after a long period in the shadows.  Moises used his new status to help other undocumented people, supporting organizations in America and going on peace missions to war-torn areas of El Salvador.  This work led Moises Escalante to help start the New Sanctuary Movement, the same movement advocating for people detained like the Congolese mother and providing shelter for people like Aura Hernandez.

We are called to follow Moises; to follow the resurrected Jesus; to join the movement of resurrection: not just the saving of one person, but joining into community as one people who save together.

And really that’s the resurrection grace I experienced on the runway.   I was there because I understood my life as connected to people being trafficked.  And I was there because God connected me to sisters and brothers, who could laugh with me at my awkwardness and love me even as I failed and let me know I really did belong.

Go from this place to look for the resurrected Jesus.  Discover Jesus, the undocumented one of God, transformed into glory.  And find Jesus wherever people live as sisters and brothers to each other.

Alleluia and Amen.