Sunday, April 15, 2001

Surviving Survival

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 24:1-12


Since it is Easter, we may as well go for broke.

Looking back at all of your life to this day, what is the single most traumatic experience that you have survived? You survivor, you.

Here you are, part of the Easter parade. You made it, you got through, you survived, you survivor you. Just what did you survive, though? Look back and be honest. You may never have spoken of this to anyone, and you may not need to. But for the next 17 minutes of a Gospel both too true to be good and too good to be true, pause before that one great frightening tomb of your life to date. What is the single most traumatic experience that you have survived to date? You survivor you.

Easter promises you resurrection power to survive your own survival, liberation from survivor's guilt - personal, generational and congenital. From the cross we learn to die. From the resurrection we learn to live! Why do you seek the living among the dead?

1. Peter and You: Personal Salvation

Our Scripture today, in the 12th verse, brings Peter to the tomb. Not a part of the original text, this later and highly appropriate addition reconnects the Easter Gospel with Peter. Peter comes and sees and wonders. He is waking up on Easter morning, a survivor.

Have you named your greatest trauma? Death of a brother. Loss of a son in law. Expiration of a mother. Pink slip. Bone cancer. Hospital closing. A phone call from the Bishop announcing your displacement. Moving after 25 years. Abuse at an earlier age. A child's suicide. An unexpected pregnancy. A plane crash. Divorce. A car accident. A run across an open field, with live ammunition coming at you.

Preaching without any sleep the one day the Bishop shows up.

In the first three Gospels, it is centrally Peter who faces trauma like this. He has left all. He has followed. He has stayed. He has loved. He has waited in the dark courtyard. But then - his singular existential trauma - he has denied his Lord thrice. And Jesus has died and Peter has survived, watching the death of his Beloved.

The Gospel accounts of Peter's denial, or betrayal, form the rich heart of the passion narrative. How powerfully Carol Trout read the passage on Thursday night. The pathos, the hurt with which the accounts are given reach to the depths of our hearts, even 2000 years later. Yet, through it all, Peter has survived. What remains for Peter, and for us, is to learn how to live as survivors, to survive our own survival.

I am not a psychologist, nor the son of a psychologist. But I know that "survivor's guilt" is real. Do you remember the film "Ordinary People" (based on Judith Guest's novel), about two brothers who capsize in a boat? One dies and one survives. Mary Tyler Moore oversees a spotless home where "everything is in its proper place - except the past." Berger, the counselor says at one point: "a little advice about feelings kiddo, don't expect it always to tickle." Conrad, the survivor, very nearly takes his own life, saved at the last by wise, loving, intervening words of his counselor, and friend, who asks repeatedly, "What is it that makes you feel so bad?" The answer, at last: "I survived."

Never doubt the saving power of personal presence and a word fitly spoken.

You too have survived. Something. Two years ago we were grieving the Columbine tragedy. The kids there testified, truly, that a strange guilt followed their grief. This is the tragic guilt of the innocent, survivor guilt. "Megan hid her tears behind sunglasses: 'I just feel so lucky to still be here." Greg Martinez said, "You almost feel guilty, about, you know, having your kid get out." Their counselor said those who feel guilty for making it out alive "need to be reassured that they can celebrate their survival." (AP, A Levinson, 4/99).

Here is a description of the effects of survivor's guilt: "general anxiety, depression, inability to sleep, poor memory, difficulty concentrating, difficulty completing tasks, an inexplicable sense of guilt." (Borgess).

That sounds a lot like human life in general!

In the light of Resurrection, Peter finds the power not only to survive but to prevail. He finds the power to enter a new life, to change, to risk. He finds courage that will take him beyond mere survival and will help him travel throughout the known world, and, if legend serves us, to die a martyr in the far off city of Rome. He survives his own survival.

Here is a promise for all of us. Whatever lingering survivor's guilt attends our survival through trauma, here is a power that frees us for a new life, beyond that great past tomb.

God had a purpose for Peter that went well beyond his late night denial. On this Rock, God built a church. God has a purpose for us that should lift us beyond whatever lingering connection still chains us to the past. Yes, you survived. Maybe another did not. But you did. This is the day of Resurrection. Are you ready to survive your own survival?

Even more. Something from that trauma you may fashion into a great gift for others, this side of Resurrection. Your loss will sensitize you to others. Your illness, to that of others. Your demotion, your failure, your dislocation - these now are gifts in your love for others.

For something happened, on Easter, that took a suffering survivor, bitterly weeping at the foot of the cross, and made him a fisherman for God, on whom the whole church has been built. What happened? Something happened. Something that saved Peter from his own survival.

Just as something has happened, that has taken a 175 year old church like ours, moved us through survival of location change, pastoral change, pastoral death, and given us the grace to survive our own survival.

2. Luke and Vietnam: Generational Salvation

What is true of individuals like you and Peter, is also promised today to generations, like yours and Luke's. What is the single greatest trauma your generation has survived?

For the people to whom Luke speaks, now toward the end of the first century, one great generational trauma overshadows their life. Thirty years earlier, in the year 66 AD, the Jews began a tragic, and losing, conflict with Rome. The war ended with the burning of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple.

Did you ever wonder why Rome, not Jerusalem, is so central to Christianity? Jesus, Peter, John, James, Paul - all Jews, all focused on Jerusalem. The earliest church - that in Jerusalem. But by Luke's time, all that has been destroyed. And Luke's church is adrift. They have survived the destruction of Jerusalem. Others have died, including perhaps the brother of Jesus, James. But they have survived this central generational trauma. Now the question is whether they can survive their own survival.

Have you named your generation's greatest trauma?

For one generation today, located halfway between my father and me, that trauma is Vietnam. This conflict, in the rice paddies of the Mekong Delta, on the grassy lawns of Kent State, in the classrooms of Columbia University and the boardrooms of America, traumatized a whole generation. The trauma is not limited to one political perspective. All, all have been traumatized, to retranslate Romans 5: 12. All, the whole generation, all have been traumatized and stopped short of the glory of God. Tour the Eastman exhibit, and weep before the photographs of the fallen. Ask yourself, then, whether you doubt the venerable teaching about the "fall" of creation. Our Good Friday service spoke in eloquent image, music and silence of this generational trauma.

Still, as a generation, you have survived. You survivor, you. The Chevy 409 is gone. But here is the Chrysler Sebring. Arnold Palmer is retired. But here is Tiger Woods. You got through. Not all did. But you did. Do you come through with some generational survivor's guilt? Does it continue to carry the potential to hobble, maim and kill. For another generation, the trauma was that of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. (Still a great film). For you, it is Coming Home, The Killing Fields, Apocalypse Now, Platoon. Public trust, the place of authority, community commitments, and your relationships to other generations are overshadowed by trauma past. Yes, you survive. But the Easter gospel brings power to survive your own survival.

You remember Apocalypse Now. It is truly fascinating that Luke 21, three chapters before our reading, converts all of Mark's little apocalypse (we might call it Apocalypse Then), into an interpretation of his generation's greatest trauma, the fall of Jerusalem. For Luke, Jerusalem. For you, Saigon. Here is power to survive survival.

Here is historical fact. Something happened on Easter that 60 years later still had the power to take a generation like Luke's, a church that had lost its Jewish moorings and was adrift in a punishing and forbidding culture, and make a movement that became an Empire wide community, full of men and women ready to die in public rather than call Caesar God.

What happened? Something happened. Something that saved Luke's generation from its own survival.

Even more. Something from that generational trauma you will be able to carry forward, from many perspectives, to make a new way, for a new day. God had a purpose for Luke and his generation. And God has a purpose for you and your generation.

Resurrection is cutting you free from generational survivor's guilt. This is unspeakably good news, like fine wine, 30 years in the making. And one day, a generation we have hardly seen in church since teenager years will come home, surviving their own survival. Coming home, this generation situated half-way between my father and me. Coming home out of survivor's guilt, to explore the use of a great wave of treasure, a huge transfer of wealth (and I would like to speak to some of you personally!). Coming home to a new rebirth of wonder, and a new global community, with one shepherding Lord.

Der Herr ist mein Hirte!
El Senor es mi pastor!
The Lord is my Shepherd!
Kyrios Christos!

How will this occur? In church. But, you say, the church is so…. Yes, the church is always both a representation and a distortion of the divine. But how can you love God and hate the things of God? How can you come near to God at a distance from the grace of God? How can you experience God without praying, singing, communing, hearing, giving, serving? No, you will have to find a church. Maybe not this church, but a church.

Christ and Humanity: Congenital Salvation

Could it be that the salvation promised to you and Peter, the power given to your generation and Luke's, is also conferred upon the human race?

For a third time I ask a question. What is the single greatest trauma shared by the human race? All of us together?

Peter runs to the tomb, sees the linen clothes, marvels and wonders. It is Paul who puts the unspeakable into words. It takes him all of the Epistle to the Romans. He reminds us that all have been traumatized and fallen short of God's glory. Individuals, generations, races - all for some unknowable reason - are tinged with survivor's guilt. It is an irrational, inaccurate, unfair, untrue sense of ennui, gonewrongness, fallenness, exile. It is what the Bible means by sin - not something we do, but the air we breathe. Paul understands that God has subjected the whole creation to futility, for the final purpose of saving the whole creation.

Just here, St. Luke has much to give us. Luke emphasizes the will and plan of God. Luke explores the nature of the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven. Luke proclaims as far back as Christmas Eve: "all flesh shall see it together." Luke repeatedly uses a little Greek verb, found also in verse 7 of today's reading, dei - it is necessary, it is purposefully required, it is providentially needed, it is necessary. Luke holds all life in three parts: the time of Israel, the time of Jesus, and the time of the Church. For Luke, this time - our time - is the greatest of times, the time of the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven. For Luke, there abides a twin craving, held at the heart of the universe: a craving for a faith that appeals to culture and a culture that is attractive to faith. When church and city, faith and culture dance together on the bandstand of brotherhood - that is the Kingdom of God! And Luke, with scholarly Paul (Gal 3) and wondering Peter (Acts 10), means this for all people. All.

What great trauma do all people share? What great trauma has every one in this room experienced?


You by virtue of your lonesome journey through birth are an heroic survivor. You by virtue of your gestation for nine long months, are an heroic survivor. You by virtue of your sudden, violent and cataclysmic deliverance, through natal Red Sea waters, are an heroic survivor. You made it. You got through. Others may not have. But you did. You survivor, you. And there you are, crying and all messy, pink and little fisted and wrinkled and wailing to beat the band. You survived.

Not unscathed, but undefeated. Bloodied but unbowed. I have not read it anywhere, and have not time to write my own book, but I think that with birth survival must come a kind of congenital survivor's guilt, way down deeper than words, that we all, every human one of us, we all share. Not something we have done, but the air we breath. All, all have been traumatized and stopped short of the Glory of God.

This is our condition. "Like the beating of the heart, it is always present." (Tillich). It? Tragedy, estrangement, sin, unbelief, hubris, concupiscence, separation, guilt, meaninglessness, despair, anxiety. Existential survivor's guilt. "It is experienced as something for which one is responsible, in spite of its universal, tragic actuality." (Tillich).

As Jim Croce might have written, had he survived: I've got those steadily depressing, low down, mind messing, existential post-partem blues.

Easter is a promise of salvation from survivor's guilt. You just may survive your own survival. The resurrection saves us from the lingering effects of birth by giving us - second birth. "Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth." Friends, on Easter we are set free to live in the Kingdom of God, a kingdom of love and light!

Look around the lake, and you will see what I mean. In Toronto there lives the great Jewish teacher, and Holocaust survivor, Emil Fackenheim. Once he was asked, "How can you practice faith in God after the horror of the Holocaust?" (That may be the single most important theological question of our time.) His reply: "I practice faith, in the face of Holocaust, "in order not to permit Hitler any posthumous victories." He survived, and survived his survival.

Look around the lake. In Montreal there lives a great French Canadian teacher, Jean Vanier. He left the pastoral life to create a movement of caring ministries with developmentally challenged people. Working with survivors to help them survive survival. His organization, L'Arche, has attracted great acclaim, including the service at the end of life of Henri Nouwen.

Look around the lake. When our first two little survivors arrived, we lived in a little cottage in Ithaca, around 1980. In the 1930's, Pearl Buck and her husband had lived there as he served that church and studied at Cornell. I think of her celebration of Chinese survival, and her effort to save the survivors there, here evocation of birth in the rice paddies of Canton.

With her contemporary William Faulkner, she trusted that the human race would not merely survive, but would prevail.

God is cutting us free from congenital survivor's guilt. We are set loose to risk, to try, to change, to laugh, to weep, to become who we were meant to be. Irenaeus: "The glory of God is a human being fully alive."

For something happened in the raising of Christ Jesus from the dead. What happened? The resurrection is more real than our experience, and that finally it is not we who question the resurrection but the resurrection that questions us. You ask what happened: Something happened! Something happened that even 2000 years later has men and women saying prayers, giving money, offering time, swinging hammers, sorting clothes, attending meetings, singing hymns, loving neighbors and on every day in every way building the kingdom of God. Luke would love it. What happened? Something happened, something that opens life up wide and frees us from our original survival and saves us for a new life, a new way, a new creation, a new heaven and a new earth!


In the cross, we learn to die. In the resurrection, we learn to live.

Our spirit is that of Harriet Beecher Stowe:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea
With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me
As he died to make men holy let us live to make men free
Our God is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat
He is sifting out the heart of men before his judgment seat
O be swift my soul to answer him, be jubilant my feet
Our God is marching on.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave
He is wisdom to the mighty, He is honor to the brave
So the world shall be his footstool and the soul of wrong his slave
Our God is marching on.

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