Memorial Day, Easter, and narratives of the absurd


There is never really a need to read a Bible verse on Easter Morning. We are familiar enough with the story. The story is the reason that there are more of us in the church or meeting house on Easter Morning than on most other Sundays. The Resurrection Story - a story of the God of Abraham and Sarah; the God of Ruth and Isaiah, acting in history to liberate a faithful servant from the bonds of death. Is there any way that Easter can be related to Memorial Day in a manner that rather glorifies resurrection than death? Easter looms large over Good Friday. How does Easter look from the perspective of late May in America?

Easter is a story of creation’s liberation from the oppression of those who would wield dominance over all and sundry. It is also the story of our own liberation - a rescue from bondage to those forces that so often lay claim to our allegiances that should be entirely reserved for the God of Peace. The story is an ancient one. Its beginnings are remembered because it has been told and retold over thousands of years.

Once upon a time, there were a people held in bondage by a great nation. They were held as slaves, and they cried out for their release from a ruler who made claims that he was a god himself. This ruler had priests that supported his claims. The people of his nation lent their loyalties to his grandeur, identifying the divinity of the Pharaoh of Egypt as, if you‘ll excuse the expression, the Gospel truth.

It was the Hebrews who were slaves in Egypt - slaves to Pharaoh’s empire, the mightiest force in the ancient Mediterranean world and beyond. The God of all Creation, however, heard the cries of the descendants of Abraham and Sarah. YHWH hears the cries of slaves. It was YHWH who delivered the Hebrews from the grasp of Pharaoh and led them out of Egypt, taking the form of fire, and a pillar of cloud. These people of YHWH did not need to fight for their release from captivity. The God of Moses destroyed Pharaoh’s military strength, and drowned in the Sea of Reeds any threat to the Hebrews that Pharaoh’s empire could muster.

Oh, how thankful was Israel. In commemoration of this liberating act of God, the Hebrews established a celebration. This feast, called Passover, is an annual remembrance of the Story. This celebration of the liberating act of the God of Moses and Miriam, who rescued a people from empire, has been celebrated every since by people close to YHWH’s heart. It is a time for worship, praise, and great Joy over the Story that recalls the great actions of a God who rolls up the divine sleeves and rescues the poor, the marginalized, and even lowly slaves, from oppression.

It was during just such a celebration of Passover, - possibly some 1200 years after the fact, and nearly 2000 years ago - that a startling new development was introduced to the plot of this ongoing biblical Story. It would still be a story of liberation, a story of joy and an occasion for worship. But events in Jerusalem in the first-century of what became the Common Era demanded a new twist. In fact, any number of Jews were looking at a variety of ways to prompt another rescue on behalf of the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, who were again under the dominating thumb of an empire.

This time, that empire was Roman instead of Egyptian. It was Caesar making claiming godlike status instead of Pharaoh. And this time, it was personal. Israel was been economically and politically dominated on its own turf, the Promised Land of had become known as Palestine. It is on Easter we remember the old liberating story, however, this time the leader of Israel was not the Moses of old, but as his disciple Matthew tells in a story of his own, a new Moses. A Messiah who is known to all of us by the name of Jesus.

Jesus was a celebrant of the ancient Story. As a first-century Galilean, the Story was his story. It was the story of his family and his people. And the followers of Jesus realized that the Story was not just for the people of Abraham and Sarah, but for the whole world. So, for all involved, obedience to the God of Israel was the only way that liberation would visit humanity. Obedience was the way of Salvation.

While other would be Judean leaders - would-be messiahs – believed, indeed, they knew in their hearts, that a warrior God who had already defeated the likes of Pharaoh, and other rulers, would act in history and defeat the pagan oppressors once and for all.

God would finally establish the reign of YHWH as an unquestioned force that the world would reckon with, through the ruling kingdom of Israel. There was to be a holy war, believed so many Judeans, and the enemies of YHWH were going to pay a price.

In 21st Century America, we often get the Story of the Exodus and the visitation of our Salvation in Christ confused with the American narrative of redemptive violence – the suffering sacrifice of other human beings who, as the story indicates, gave their lives for others. Often, like the events of the American Civil War, or World War II and its Holocaust, we consider the sacrifices of these soldiers to be very intimately tied to our freedoms and liberty as citizens of a world we want kept safe for democracy. I contend that the gospel narrative calls us, demands of us all, to consider an alternative mode of sacrificing privilege and stability for the common good. The gospel informs us that God, the resurrection of Jesus, and the gospel of Jesus as Christ, posit a different truth for us to regard. The church is called to be different.

Jesus was different. He certainly preached the kingdom of God. But the kingdom preached by Jesus to his disciples meant reflecting the love of God, and the Creator’s concern for the faithful pursuit of justice, peace, and grace. This was not, according to the Messiah, achieved through holy war, but instead, through the faithful expression of YHWH’s love for even the enemies of God’s people. The liberating God of Moses and Miriam would bring salvation to the entire world, not by destroying armies with one fell swoop of the divine hand, but through the love of the faithful servants of God’s creation.

It was the familiar story – with a twist.

While the God of all Creation, Jesus, and the apostle Paul all speak about liberating creation from dominating evil, the Bible also brings witness to specific ways that the loving justice of YHWH is reflected upon a world groaning for freedom. Loving your neighbor, even the hated Samaritan or dare I say, perpetrator of acts of terror, as you love yourself. Or throwing away privilege and giving substantially, if not everything, to the poor. How about forgiving your enemies seventy times over? The Scriptures abound with stories of loving grace and forgiveness. Yet, stories are simply stories if they are not acted out in a manner that lends them credibility.

About twelve years ago, in the Michigan town of Ann Arbor, there was an individual who made credible the story of Jesus. The Ku Klux Klan came to Ann Arbor one June day in 1996. In fact, the Klan marched every June in Ann Arbor for a number of years. They may in fact still do just that. But twelve years ago, and not atypically, the Klan march was challenged by a ferocious crowd of counter-protesters. Just as typically, an entire area of the city was witness to brick and bottle throwing outrage - all aimed at the parading white supremacists. It brings to mind recent Trump rallies, where rage is indicative of all involved whether they so or do not support The Donald.

In Ann Arbor, the Klan marched, and the counter-protesters rage grew thicker with every racist slogan that emanated from the mouths of their enemy. Police were outnumbered, and things were about to turn violent. The crowd raged at the Klan, and broke through the police protection that was provided for the demonstrating organization. Klan members were separated from one another, and it was quickly an event that could only be described as every Klan member for his and herself. Groups of enraged protesters isolated individuals and harassed them. In one instance, a group of protesters encircled a tattooed man wearing a clothing that identified him as an enemy, and began kicking and punching him.

Out of this chaos, the messiah appeared.

She was wearing denim shorts and a white t-shirt. She only 18-years-old, and she was an African-American. This modern-day messiah’s name was Keshia Thomas.

Originally there to protest against the racist enemy known as the Klan, she saw an image-bearer of God cowering on the cement and under brutal attack. Keshia Thomas sacrificed her own body, covering and protecting the white man she had moments before demanded justice from, and shown anger toward.

Our messiah would have never received a just hearing from Albert McKeel had she engaged him through violence. Only through reflecting the love that God has for every person, even the enemy, could she radically alter the hatred that McKeel may have had harbored against African-Americans and other people of color or faith.

McKeel was radically changed, as the two consequently appeared together in public as an example of redeemed human relationships. When Keshia Thomas sacrificed herself for the love of her enemy, she brought salvation not only to herself, but to her enemy as well. They were liberated from oppressive rage, and hatred, and brought into right relationship with one another.

I have no idea if either Keshia Thomas of Albert McKeel were followers of the one true Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. But I do know that this is the kind of sacrificial love that Jesus was preaching, that God intends, and that Christendom is lacking. This is the way that followers of Christ Jesus change the world, and love of enemies is how YHWH intends for Creation to be liberated from the bonds of injustice, of inhumanity, and from empire making claims about its own authority to rule creation.

As for Easter; remember the story? And what about Memorial Day? A story of liberation from oppressive and degrading powers of domination. A story of liberation from those who would stake a claim to be held high as gods, such as Pharaoh, or Caesar. They nailed this messianic claimant to a cross. Executed him as an enemy of the state. Jesus was laid to waste just like any number of failed revolutionaries on either side of his own crucifixion. It is in the ministry, the obedient reflection of God’s love toward every person, and the ultimate sacrifice made by Jesus in staying faithful to YHWH, that salvation is brought to all of creation. How do we know this? Because the Sovereign God of the Universe acted in history on that first Easter morning and raised Jesus from the dead.

God rewarded Jesus’ obedience and faithfulness, and overturned all of the evil that empire could heap upon him. That is the Story of God’s liberating all of creation. The resurrection of Jesus Christ, and his liberation from the bonds of death, foreshadows the reward of our own faithfulness. A faith placed not upon the god of empire that promises our salvation through economic justification but to the One True God who resurrects the dead. The memory of liberation includes death and voluntary self-sacrifice, but the Story of the God of Abraham and Sarah is one of life and faithful lives acting to embody the amazing facts of an ethic of peace and reconciliation, even racial reconciliation, that were a mark of the earliest church.

Easter is the reminder that all of God’s faithful will someday be rewarded. In fact, both friend and foe, through the work of Christ, will enjoy the salvation that God intends for all creation. Yet, Easter is also a reminder that the work of Jesus must continue, through the work of those like Keshia Thomas, or the work of one’s meeting or congregation, or the work of the church as a whole. Because there can be no salvation - none of the universal redemption such as my Peace-church faith is so fond of - without the continuous striving for justice, equality, and peace. In fact, even as we remember soldiers who sacrificed on behalf of an American narrative of freedom, and justice for all, we must recognize that the call to the church is to reflect a now-and-future kingdom that refuses to use violence on behalf of the creator God, for God will vindicate us, not with military victory, but Truth.

Followers of Jesus are called - indeed, commanded - to challenge the oppressive tactics of those intending to dominate creation, whether they be the Klan or the rulers of nations. We are commanded, however, to do so by reflecting the love that God has for every inch of creation. A love offered for every nation, for every person, and especially for every enemy. Please remember those who have fought the struggles as warriors, for some men and women are indeed called to be warriors. Indeed, the church is also called to risk death, for there are many matters of justice worth dying for. Jesus, however, and the Christian story, state clearly that there is nothing a faithful disciple will kill for. If YHWH is indeed a warrior, God sent Jesus to remind us that we need not be. We are the church – called to work for a just peace non-violently.

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