The Quest for the Perfect Breakfast

Ancient Testimony ~ Mark 16: 1-8

April 12, 2009

by Rev. Dr. Donna Schaper
Senior Minister

On Friday I attended three hours of service at St. Bart’s cathedral and then headed home for three hours of Passover services, thinking that my forbears would be pleased, even if I was getting a little itchy for something more pagan. I was the kind of kid who was brought up steeped in religion: morning prayers, evening devotions, parochial school, and guess-the-bible-verse marathons for fun. Some of you know the drill: when you are steeped in scripture, it is a little cold out of the water. So I could have gone right home and joined the Passover preparations fully under way at the house; instead, I got a pedicure. I see no reason why you should be too interested in the pastor’s pedicure, except that I was relieved that my grandmother sent no lightning bolts down on this unique Good Friday practice. What was interesting about the pedicure was not the pedicure. It was what people were saying about Easter in the very quiet shop. One Chinese woman said to the other, “Why we so slow today?” “The Christians,” said the other. “Today is the day they kill their God.” “What?” said the other. “How they do that?” “They kill the God on the cross. Then,” she continued, authoritatively, “for three days, he dead. Then Sunday, he rise from dead.” ”No business then, either?” “Three days no business, maybe tomorrow, a little. They too busy with their God.”

I had several quarrels with this narrative, none of which I said out loud. Since we are too busy with just about everything, why would we not also be too busy with our God? Foot and hand salons do have roots in the kind of women who show up at dawn at tombs to anoint with herbs and oils, so we have to give them some due on days like this.

What intrigues me in the overheard story is the kill the God and raise the God part of the understood ritual. As though we somehow did it or had agency in it. This matter of agency is a really big sticking point for Christians. Did we kill him? Did we roll away the stone? Are we to be stone rollers? Are we Christ-killers? Between the anti-Semitism involved in the Good Friday narrative—some humans, we argue, are Christ-killers, and some are not—and the rather preposterous notion that people, 2000 years later, could have had a hand in the murder, I have pretty much given up on my or your participation in the Good Friday story: the good man strung up on a cross between two thieves. With Pilate, I have washed that blood from my hands.

Some Christians answer with “It’s entirely my fault”; others get a pedicure. Still others wonder and wonder, and then wonder some more. The question of agency and participation in the narrative doesn’t stop on Good Friday. It’s not just about whether you killed your Christ by your sin and whether that Savior is just a big sponge sopping up the mess you made. It is also about your active self and agency in the whole resurrection story. You see, most Easter sermons declare it your fault that the God in Jesus was murdered—and that it is you who roll away the stone. You wrong, you righted. You bad, you made good. You Christ-killer, you stoneroller. This version of the Easter story is pretty good for Sunday School. And surely it got steeped into my psyche and perhaps yours. But finally it is too small.

My question today is how personalized do we want this story to be? Do we want an initialized set of towels in the bathroom, my cross and my crown? Or is it possible to loathe the cross and praise the resurrection without taking full personal credit for either? Is there ever a way that we can get out of our own way or our own heads about these things?

Consider breakfast. Is the best breakfast the one you make for yourself, just the way you like it, with your own hands all over it? Or is the best breakfast the one someone else makes for you, with the participation of many: the one who made the bread and grew the wheat; the one who flipped the pancakes, added the fruit, squeezed the juice, delivered it to your bed, still warm; a bed with a pillow at just the right angle for you and your breakfast-in-bed table? Do we have to do it all ourselves to make breakfast good, or can we receive a gift? That is one version of my question about Easter.

Many of us do see the Easter story as our story. We have known death, and we have known risen. We have known what it is to be down and we know what it means to be up. We have felt the hand of God on our shoulder, in the form of a friend, a medicine, or a kindness. We do participate in the death resurrection cycle in a very personal way. And still there is more.

Think Vermont, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa. Iowa! Think about breakfasts that take a long time to bake and come fresh out of the oven as freedom and justice. Yes, some of us had ever so little to do with these victories. We also just woke up one morning and stood at the side of the grave, with our precious oils in hand, and looked at each other and said, “Where’s the stone?”

Or think in opposite ways. Hear the downbeat. Watch a 79-year-old man bag groceries. Ask him how long he’s worked there. “Three months,” he says, “I had to come out of retirement because my pension dropped so much I couldn’t pay my rent.” You ask, “Is that arthritis in your hands?” He says, “Yes, it sure as hell is.” You see the stone of the new economy stoning his very hands as he works a job he should never have to work. You see a crucifixion in process. You leave and have not yet forgotten that it is not your fault. Or is his suffering your fault?

This part of the sermon is just for the Judson people among us. If you are a visitor, you may want to step out for a pedicure. The particular version of Christian theology that we enjoy here is anti-atonement but pro-action. We don’t think things are our fault so much as believe that they are our responsibility. We are as activistic a congregation as there is. We don’t think of ourselves as original sinners so much as original actors. The atonement theory frequently gets shot down with vigor at social gatherings. But activism does not. Michael Conley’s music gets wet, during our flood extravaganza of a while back and 40 people immediately go to work. Someone remembers that the recession is disproportionately affecting black families, who already had to suffer having a dime for every dollar a white family has. Here, many of us belong without believing. Here, we often enjoy a cynicism we can believe in. But there are no objections to activism. Here, we sometimes sing the “Harper Valley P.T.A.” song about Mrs. Johnson too loudly: everybody else is mercifully more hypocritical than we are, here we believe in action and openness and honesty and we believe in them activistically. That belief in action is an interesting distortion of the resurrection story, ever so fertile in the 1960’s, ever so fallow right now. For us, stones don’t roll away: we roll away stones.

To us action yields resurrection. We are stonerollers, by God. This is the little church that could. Things happen here. We work not because the night is coming but because the day is coming. We want to hear Iowa and Massachusetts and Connecticut and Vermont be joined by New York and New Hampshire. We are ready for the barricades.

Mercifully, we are just about at the end of our hyper-activsitic stage. I think Protestantism and its Protestant Work Ethic is right here with us, smoking the last dregs of its pipe. It’s not just the failures of the banks, whose mottos are ever so Protestant—work hard, be good, make money, and suffer not; it is also the breaking in of stone-rolling technology that lifts heavy burdens with a single filament. And it is also God. God is always bringing in a new world, in a new way. God gets up before breakfast and rolls stones away. Ours is the task of loving that mystery and showing up.

You may have heard of the new Gmail account, which answers your e-mail for you. Auto Gmail. Some say it was an April Fools prank, but personally I think it is in the Beta roll-out stage. Work, action, agency, participation are all exhausted modalities, exhausted in different ways, leaving people like us with our theological pants down. We have made the shift on the atonement and are pretty glad to not have to take responsibility for our sins. We have not made the shift on the resurrection that allows us to love to do things to make things better. We remain activistic when it comes to suffering, not out of guilt, but out of compassion. We have split the cord between wrong and right, cut off agency at its knees, and mostly because we think if we want breakfast, we have to cook it for ourselves. I think resurrection means that the breakfast gets delivered, that others give it to us, even if we cook it for ourselves. Never forget the used car dealer who swears he is a self made man, even though he inherited the car dealership from his father. Our sense of agency and activism is so overweening that we even take credit for things we don’t do, like hatching eggs or planting wheat.

Consider anew the Easter story. Those women did not roll away the stone. When they got there the stone had already been rolled away. When they got to the cross, someone had strung up their friend as well. They did not string him up—and the notion of blaming poor people or Jews or just about anybody else for Jesus’ murder just fires me up. Anyway, that is another year’s sermon. This year I want to break the link between our agency and the resurrection. I do think we participate in the rolling away of stones. But I don’t think we roll away the stones. I don’t think we have the spiritual or physical muscle. We lean against the stones and push—and God rolls away the stones.

We may or may not actually believe in God as the stone-rolling power. We may not see Jesus as the Christ but we see him as a Christ. What means a Christ? A Christ is someone who can help to save humanity from itself. A Christ is someone with great powers of love, so large that even stones roll. The Christ is an imperial version of a Christ. Here at Judson many of us have found a way to love Jesus as one Christ, one kind of saving presence in our life, and stay away from that singular Christ and the savior language. We are somewhat mystified as to who is the agent who does the rolling, God or Jesus or Christ, theChrist or a Christ, but no matter who or what, we also see ourselves as stonerollers.

Ironically, progressive Christianity has depersonalized the atonement theory—that Christ sacrificed your sins—on the one end but not the other. We removed our person from the crucifixion but not from the resurrection. We are, after all, activists, people who make things happen. We are progressives, helping history to progress. And we have better muscles for the doing part of salvation than we have for the being part of salvation.

Have you ever found yourself saying, “If anything gets done around here, it is because I do it. If I don’t do it, nobody will do it.” That may be a whine but a lot of people say it and even more feel it. Breakfast comes because I make it. I cook up the bacon, by God, and I fry it in the pan. What really happens on Easter morning is quite different. Yes, the women come with the oils and the ointments. Theirs is a kind of salon brought to the side of the grave. A foot washing of sorts. They are more like manicurists waiting around for business than not. In contemporary, turn of the century Protestantism, we imagine ourselves as more than manicurists. I think not.

The word that springs to mind for me when it comes to the resurrection is not the activism of stone rolling so much as the insouciance of stones observed rolling. Insouciance is a wonderful word, derived from the French, meaning nonchalance. It means acting without forcing, being without taking responsibility for being. It is a way of watching coyly, observantly, without agency in what is being watched.

My beloved writer Verlyn Klinkenborg used the word “insouciance” in the Times this week. He said, “To see a bird in a soaring descent like that always sets me wondering. What does it feel like to have wings and to feel the air beneath you as substantial as the earth? . . . There’s an insouciance about birds in their element that always feels to me like a comment on the human species.”

Insouciance is a good attitude for the resurrection. It is like the way the women were before breakfast that day. They watch and wait. They act in small ways and arrive at mystery by dawn. They trust the air below them to be substantial, as substantial as the earth in which they will die. These women enjoy the notion of activism as showing up and joining in, as observing and remarking and wondering. They imagine a Protestant kind of action that acts without relying on consequences, a less hardened agency and a more communal behavior. They are not surprised if whales show up in harbors or airplanes land on rivers. They trust, watch, and wait. They are not too busy with their God or trying themselves to be Gods.

By the way, I like my eggs over easy and every now and then prefer an Easter breakfast in bed. Amen.

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