Ready for resurrection: Pastor Jim’s Eastertide column

This column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on March 27. It was also printed in the April Messenger.

I’m ready for resurrection: new life, meaningful life, new beginnings, and hope in place of despair, love that is stronger than death. And Easter is this week!

In anticipation of Holy Week services, the choir at the Congregational Church of the Peninsula, where I am the pastor, has been rehearsing pieces from the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” so it’s embedded in my mind. As a child, I stereotypically and shamelessly acquired the habit of memorizing every word to every original cast recording I could lay my hands on. My musical tastes were promiscuous: from “Carousel” to “Fiddler on the Roof” to “Hair” to “Godspell” — to this one, my very favorite, with its memorable chorus: “Jesus Christ, Superstar, who are you, what have you sacrificed? Jesus Christ, Superstar, Do you think you’re who they say you are?”

This musical always filled me with hope, even though the question of whether or not Jesus is resurrected from the dead is never actually addressed. It’s been over 50 years since I first heard the musical Mary Magdalene scandalously sing, “I don’t know how to love him.” These words still capture both my ambivalence and my desire to find meaning in the Easter story. While I lost faith for some years in the church as a credible institution to proclaim liberation, the musical planted seeds in my spirit that nurtured my hope that somehow love would prevail even when human beings disappoint.

I learned about the power of Easter and resurrection when I was the pastor of the historically gay congregation at Metropolitan Community Church-San Francisco, located then on Eureka Street in the Castro. I worked there through the 1980s and 1990s during the most challenging years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Today MCC-SF continues its ministry in another location (in St. Mary’s Chapel at Trinity-St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, 1620 Gough Street, at Bush), focusing on celebrating queer identity and spirituality. In those days though, MCC-SF was described in the press as the “pink and purple church where AIDS funerals take place,” and “the church with AIDS.” We proudly reclaimed that nickname and said, “We are the Church Alive.”

In the height of those years, we sponsored a theater company, Metropolitan Community Theater. We presented musicals and dramas — and we had a lot of drama, on and off the stage. Though we never really said this at the time, probably half or more of the actors, musicians, and even the audiences had HIV. This was before medications we have today had become available. We were partly able to stage these elaborate productions because of the volunteer energy of a community where so many were on disability. We turned our suffering into art and music. And “Jesus Christ Superstar” was one of the musicals we presented to the community. We channeled all the intensity and passion of our lives into the production. There was no resurrection at the end of the story, but we achieved resurrection while working together as a community.

In Christian practice, we narrowly focus Easter and resurrection on the life and crucifixion of Jesus, a revolutionary lover of humanity who demonstrated that love is stronger than death. In those years I learned to enlarge the meaning to apply it to our own lives. Acts of love that evoke our best selves and community spirit that result in beauty, generosity, and inspiration are tangible signs of resurrection. When I hear the music of “Jesus Christ Superstar” today, I still remember several cast members who are no longer alive; and I can hear their voices. I remember Walter, who lived long enough to leave Leyland House, one of the local hospices, because new medications turned the trajectory of his disease around. People leaving hospices became a regular occurrence at one point, which had been unimaginable a few years earlier.

There are still signs of crucifixion all around us. The impulse to separate transgender and nonbinary people from the gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer struggle is a betrayal as deep as the one depicted in the Bible accounts of Holy Week. When Anita Bryant emerged from Florida and stormed America with her gospel of hate in the 1980s, we rallied together to turn the tide of prejudice; we need to do the same today — especially for transgender people in Florida, Missouri, Texas, and other states. It’s time to summon the same commitment to civil rights generally, and transgender rights and women’s reproductive health care specifically, as we demonstrated in the past. Advocating for peace abroad and the release of hostages and political prisoners, and working for racial justice at home and for migrants exercising the human right of migration at our borders are the best way to say “No!” to crucifixions and “Yes!” to resurrections here and now. Preventable starvation is a crucifixion. Sending food to the starving people in Gaza and other places where famine threatens is resurrection. My favorite synonym for resurrection is solidarity.

I invite you to look for signs of resurrection and to make it real. Listen for voices that remind you that you aren’t finished yet and that more unprecedented life awaits. The ancient story portrayed in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and the events of Easter still invite us to the possibility of new life in our own day, because resurrection is about life before death and our ability to live and love each other into abundant life.

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