Saudade: through the absence we feel the presence. – Easter Sermon

This time last year I was in Belfast. Many of you know that I lived in Belfast when I was a child. When I visit Belfast, I always stay in the part of the city that is known as the Cathedral District. From there you easily get around to most of the attractions that Belfast has to offer. Sure, there are plenty of tourist attractions in the Cathedral District but the real attractions are the pubs in this splendid part of Belfast. Trust me I’ve walked, some would say crawled, to some of the best pubs in Belfast. Which is not surprising because you see, I do come from a long line of pub-crawlers. My Grandad was a legendary pub-crawler. Grandda loved a wee dander about, as long as that dander took him to either a pub to the dogs. Fortunately, for Grandda there was always a pub at or near the dog racing tracks. So, when I wander the streets of Belfast city, I do so haunted by images of my Grandda all done up in his best, walking with such purpose and determination at first and then with a little less of a sense of direction as he crawled the pubs. Grandda has been dead for almost 40 years but in Belfast I can still see him in all his old haunts. So, when I’m in Belfast, every pub I go into, I enter with expectation and  I wonder what it must have been like when me Grandda came in here. Sometimes I actually see my me Grandda. I know he is long dead and gone. I know that he can’t possibly be there. But I can’t help myself, the feelings are so overwhelming.

We don’t really have a word in the English language that captures the emotion that I feel when I walk the streets of Belfast. There is a word that I learned a long time ago, it is a Portuguese word: “saudade.” Saudade doesn’t actually translate into English. The best translation of saudade that I have ever come across is, the presence of an absence….the presence through absence. It doesn’t appear to make any sense. How can you experience presence through absence? Something is either present or it is absent. And yet, if you speak to anyone who has ever lost someone they love and they will tell you that that person’s absence is so intense that they can actually feel them, right here, deep inside.

When a mother loses a child, the pain of that absence is so intense that she can feel the child she carried in her belly right here, inside. When a lover loses their beloved, the pain of that loss is so intense that the lost love is felt here, right her deep inside. When someone we love is gone, they are still here. We see them here there and everywhere. We catch glimpses of them on the streets. Sometimes we shake our heads knowing that what we see can’t be real, and yet we know it’s real. A loved one’s absence can be very present. Saudade, through the absence we feel a presence. Saudade.

Now I suspect that some of you are thinking and why wouldn’t you, it is Easter after all, so some of you are thinking,  “Aha, I get it…this is this progressive preacher’s way of explaining the resurrection.” Pretty good ha??? Well know, there might have been a time when I would have tried to explain the anonymous gospel-story-tellers’ accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. I am after all a progressive Christian pastor, and you are all enlightened 21 century people, with a pretty clear understanding of reality. There may be one or two of you who believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead. But I’m guessing that most of us don’t hang our Christianity on the concept of the physical resuscitation of a corpse.

As for this preacher, I’m with the Apostle Paul when it comes to the resurrection. Questions about the nature of the resurrection were annoying to Paul. So much so that the Apostle Paul used pretty strong language in his letter to the church at Corinth, Perhaps someone will ask, “How are the dead to be raised up? What kind of body will they have?  What a stupid question!” Like the Apostle Paul, my faith in the reality of resurrection does not hinge on the physical resuscitation of a corpse. “The sun has one kind of brightness, the moon another, and the stars another. And star differs from star in brightness. So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is a perishable body, what is raised is incorruptible. What is sown is ignoble, what is raised is glorious. Weakness is sown, strength is raised up. A natural body is sown, and a spiritual body is raised up. If there is a natural body, then there is also a spiritual body.” So says the earliest explanation we have of Jesus’ resurrection.

Saudade is not my way of trying to explain the stories of Jesus resurrection. Saudade is my way of describing what it feels like to be a progressive Christian during Holy Week. After abandoning the notion that the DIVINE source of all that IS is actually some sort of far-away person in the heavens, who orchestrated the life and the execution of a person purported to be “His only begotten Son, begotten not made,” via an execution so vile that we shouldn’t even begin to contemplate it lest we tremble, tremble, tremble; well once you come out of the closet as a 21stcentury progressive Christian, Holy Week is like a saudade festival!

Here there and everywhere, I catch glimpses of the far-away-sky god that I have long since stopped worshipping.    The very absence of this kind of god is palpable. I see Him everywhere. I know that that Father up in the sky god is dead. But He’s still here, buried deep inside me, and He rises up to meet me all through Holy Week. Which shouldn’t surprise me. After all, I loved that old guy in the sky, truly, madly, deeply. I confess that I do miss him more often than I care to admit. There’s nothing quite like “Him.” No “body” can take “His” place. Now that “He” is gone, I still feel “His” presence even though I know “He” is not there.

God is dead; the Father God, the Sky God, the kindly Shepherd that I was counting on to make me lie down in green pastures, is dead. Our science, technology, philosophy, history, and our theologies have killed the personified deity that I both feared and adored. God is dead and we have killed him. The pain of that death is almost too much for me to bear. But I look upon the cross knowing that death will not have the final word. Death could not take Jesus from us.

We know that despite humanity’s most violent efforts, the cross could not take Jesus from us and that death did not win. Jesus lives. So, if death could not take Jesus from us, death cannot take God from us. Just because we have outgrown believing that our personification of God is actually God, does not meant that the REALITY which we personified can be overcome by death.  We personify all sorts of things, and just because we stop personifying them does not mean they disappear.  We personify hurricanes but whether we think of them as Katrina or Andrew, we cannot destroy them simply by refusing to personify them; the force of a hurricane lives beyond our personification of that force. While we grieve the loss of our Father, we know that death cannot take God from us anymore than death could hold Jesus captive in the grave. Jesus lives beyond death in ways that his first followers could never have dreamed or imagined. Our God, the One who lies at the very heart of reality will not be destroyed by the death of our various personifications of God which have always fallen short of who and what God IS.

But we do not grieve as ones without hope. For we know that death will not have the final word. We know that when all is said and done, the grave can never, ever keep our God who is LOVE from us. God is dead sacrificed on the altars of reality. So, trusting that death will not have the final word we come to the darkness of the empty tomb. Our questions, our ever-expanding knowledge, our technology, our endless quest for wisdom may have allowed us to evolve to the point where somehow the stone has been rolled away. But if we peer inside, we shall see the darkness, darkness punctuated by strange stories that have the texture and the feel of rumors and innuendos; the kind of stories that spring up when people can’t quite figure out what has happened. Just like the women who went to the empty tomb all those centuries ago, we too must face the darkness of such emptiness if we are going to move beyond our grief and confusion.

The darkness of the empty tomb was not what the followers of Jesus expected to find. The horror of the execution of the one they had hoped would lead them out from under the oppressive injustices of Roman domination and help them to usher in God’s reign of justice and peace had shattered Jesus’ followers and sent them scurrying into the shadows afraid, confused and wondering if God had abandoned them. We don’t really have much to go on, just a few disjointed, contradictory accounts. But when you put these stories together with nearly 2000 years of the history of those who have experienced the life, death and resurrection in their own lives we know that something powerful happened to that rag, tag group of followers that convinced them that death does not have the final word; that death could not keep Jesus from the world.

Jesus was such an unusual character, who lived so fully, loved so extravagantly, taught so radically, acted so courageously, that in Jesus his followers were able to see the spirit of God in the flesh. Each of Jesus’ followers had been touched by him in ways that called them into a new way of living, a new way of being human; a new way of facing injustice, hatred and violence; Jesus called them into a new kind of humanity. Jesus called them into this new humanity by living it himself, loving so freely and graciously and abandoning what up until Jesus, they had believed was the only way to achieve any sort of justice in this cruel world; Jesus renounced violence.  In the face of military might, in the midst of the most brutal injustices, under the oppression of the mightiest Empire the ancient world had ever known at the risk and cost of his own life Jesus refused to take up the sword.

Jesus’ life and teachings had brought them out of whatever hell they had been living in and gathered them together to learn a new way of being. Jesus’ execution could not be reconciled with their hopes and dreams of a new world; a new way of living in what Jesus described as the reign of God. Jesus’ message and his life could not be reconciled with his fate. Their darkness went far beyond the emptiness of the tomb. If their God could let the best of them die such a horrible death, then perhaps their God was no god at all. Gradually, as the shock of their loss began to loosen its grip, they began to realize that the tomb was indeed empty; for it could not contain Jesus any more than death could take Jesus from them.

Jesus lived in, with, through and beyond them; they could not explain it, his presence was so real; his impact on who and what they were continued to change and mold them into a new reality. The stories that have been handed down to us don’t always satisfy our need to know exactly what, when, and how it all transpired. We live in an age that demands proof and the proof that Christ is risen cannot be found in the empty tomb. The proof that Christ lives is in the transformed lives of the millions upon millions of people who have made their way to the darkness of the tomb and come away not with proof that Jesus rose from the dead but with hearts transformed by the emptiness of the tomb. So, here we stand at the edge of that empty tomb peering in hoping against hope that it is true; that death does not have the final word, that life can be lived so fully, that love can be so extravagantly given, that God can be so wonderfully enfleshed, that justice can be achieved and that justice and not violence is the way to peace.

We have come from the horrors of Good Friday and we know that the world is still a violent place, we know about the horrors of our history and we can see in our own living rooms the evidence that violence and injustice still reign supreme, as the people of the Yemen, Syria, North Korea, and the dozen or so nations where unjust régimes continue to oppress, torture and murder innocent men, women and children. We know that greed and hatred are the go-to responses of far too many of us and that humanity has a long way to go before all of us have an equal share of the wealth some of us choose to squander in ways that are killing this planet.  We know that most of us are still so afraid of dying that we cling to all sorts of behaviors that even though they will ultimately fail to save us, we steadfastly refuse to risk giving up our tightly held beliefs; lest the darkness overcomes us. We know all this and yet the life and teachings of Jesus bring us back to the emptiness of the tomb, where we continue to hope that God has not forsaken us and once again new life can spring forth so that we too can be transformed and begin again to change the world.

On Friday, in addition to grieving the death of Jesus, some of us also grieved the death of god whom we have worshipped and adored most of our lives; the personified god that was sacrificed on the altars of reality by our ever-expanding knowledge of the universe and our own humanity. It is not easy to know how to move on after a loss so deep. For if this personified god is dead and if we have killed him, how are we supposed to make sense of this life without the one who has comforted us, inspired us, led us and loved us in ways that have empowered us to become the people who want to share this god’s love as we try to usher in God’s reign of justice and peace for all our sisters and brothers.

Some of us, stand dazed and confused before the darkness of that empty tomb hoping against hope that even though the personified God we have worshipped and adored for so long is dead, that death will not have the final word and that God coming back to life. So, today as we peer into the darkness of the empty tomb, I hope that we can begin to experience the birth pangs of new life. For not even the death of the personified God will be able to keep the wonders of the ONE who is the source of all life from us because the FORCE that lies at the heart of reality cannot be overcome by the darkness.

Some of us are beginning to explore the Divinity that is so much more than our personifications of God could ever express. We are beginning to touch and be touched by the ONE who is beyond the beyond and beyond that also. We are beginning to understand that the Spirit of the DIVINE is the impersonal evolutionary impulse to “become” incarnate and immanent in every aspect of creation. We are beginning to learn about the various ways in which that force, or impulse or Spirit has been creating, re-creating, and incarnating the cosmos for 14 billion years. We are beginning to understand what it means to live freed from the notion that Jesus was sent to save us. We are beginning to realize what it means to live knowing that we don’t need saving from some fallen state. Jesus wasn’t about saving us from the past, but rather reminding us that we already are the light of the world!  We already possess the spiritual ability to evolve and become.  What Jesus taught us was what we are capable of becoming and how to become.  Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection show us the way to be LOVE; and I’m not talking about our ridiculous ideas about what love is,I’m talking about the LOVE that is the Divine Force that lies at the very heart of reality.  Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection show us the way not just how to love but how to become LOVE.   (adapted from an article by Rev. Dick Rauscher “The Problem I have With Easter)

And that dear sisters and brothers is a resurrection indeed. Each and every time you or I embody LOVE, Christ lives in the world. Resurrection is the embodiment of Christ or LOVE or God, or however you want to express the ONE that lies at the very heart of reality. The LOVE that is God is beyond our ability to imagine or express, but that LOVE lives in, with, through, and beyond us. Death does not have the final word. No matter how many times this cruel world tries to destroy LOVE.  LOVE will live again, in, with, through and beyond all of those who embody LOVE.

There’s just one more thing that I want you to notice today as LOVE springs to life out of the darkness. Many of us have been trying to figure out exactly how we are supposed to live on now that we know that the personified god that we loved and adored for so very long has been put to death. Well, let me just say this: there is absolutely nothing wrong with personifying the REALITY that lies at the heart of all that is. Let me say that again: there is absolutely nothing wrong with personifying the ONE that lies at the heart of all that is. Storytellers, artists, musicians, lovers, philosophers, scientists, poets and gospel writers have been doing it forever; even Jesus personified the LOVE that we call God, and we shall continue to do it.  We are after all human and humans personify stuff we don’t fully understand. There is absolutely nothing wrong with personifying the REALITY that lies at the heart of all that is, just as long as we don’t forget that those personifications aren’t actually God and we don’t begin to worship those personifications as if they are God. For God is so very much more than our ability to imagine or express, the ONE that lies at the heart of all that is, is beyond, the beyond and beyond that also. Our expressions of the ONE will always fall short of capturing LOVE’s essence. The essence, the spark, the Spirit of God who Is LOVE and who Is Beyond LOVE, that essence, spark, or spirit, lives in, with, through and beyond us.

So, let us rejoice because death has lost its sting! Christ IS risen! Christ IS risen in us!  Alleluia! Christ IS risen and the essence, the spark, or spirit, or Christ, however you want to express the REALITY at the heart of all that is, that REALITY lives in, with, through and beyond you and I. Christ IS risen! Christ IS risen in us!  Alleluia!

I am indebted to Bishop John Shelby Spong and his work on resurrection!!! Thanks Jack!

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