Monday, April 9, 2012

Terrifying Good News
(an Easter homily)

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, Alleluia!

Praise God!  It’s good to see you.  Good to be gathered together like this.  Family and strangers and good friends next to awkward acquaintances.  All together.  All in praise.  Singing Christ is alive!  Alleluia! 

So this pastor is making a visit to a dear parishioner of his parish, become homebound.  “Door’s open” she hollers, as he knocks on the door, and he comes in, finds a seat on the couch near her reclining chair.  He’s brought the blessed sacrament, but they spend some time on the front end just catching up.  As they begin to talk, he spies a bowl of almonds on the table.  He skipped lunch that day to make time for the visit, and his stomach feels like it’s about to growl and give him away.  He helps himself to an almond.  She talks.  He listens.  He talks.  She talks again, and all the while he’s eating almonds.  By the end of the visit, he looks at the bowl and, in embarrassment, tells her, “I’m so sorry, I seem to have eaten through your entire bowl of almonds.”  “No, no, father, don’t be sorry,” she says.  “I’d already sucked all the chocolate off of them anyway.”

This to me is a picture of Easter.  Easter, the time of eggs and parties, bright dresses and flowers and bunnies.  God help us, the bunnies.  But just what is left when the chocolate’s sucked off?

Jesus, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of Mary, become a teacher, calling disciples, surrounded by friends, breaking bread and wine with his friends, become a cult hero among the crowd who thought he would bring holy war, become a threat to the religious and political establishment who feared he would bring holy war, then killed on Good Friday.  Today, raised by God.  This is the strange and marvelous story of Holy Week.

This is our story with the chocolate sucked off. 

What do we do with this story? 

This morning I want to say that it is okay if you don’t know what to do with this Easter, the chocolate-less Easter.  It’s fine to not know what it means.  In fact, as a priest and preacher going on six years now in God’s Church, I think that to not know may be the only honest thing a person can do.

Now, some will say I’m over-thinking the matter, that the meaning and message of Easter is obvious and clear: He is risen!  Alleluia!  And that’s right.  Let us sing the praises loud and gladly.  Let joy abound.  Let’s make up for forty days’ lost time and say it over and over again: Alleluia!  He is risen.  Easter need not be more complicated than that.

Yet, but, and...  We turn to our gospel today.  Consider the uncertain picture:

Mary and Mary and Salome have made their way to the tomb.  It’s early yet, but the Sabbath is over so the law allows them to anoint Jesus’ body properly.  They fuss on the way about who will move the large stone from the tomb, but when they arrive, the tomb is already open, the stone rolled away.  Like coming home from vacation and finding the back door unlocked.  More than that, there’s someone inside: a young man.  The Good News of Easter begins with all the joy and gladness of an unexpected late night visitor discovered in your house, rifling through the fridge.  These women are panicked.  They are terrified.

It gets worse: the young man fails in his attempt to comfort the women.  “Be not alarmed.”  You can imagine, catching a strange man in a place as intimate as this, in the early morning hours, and he calmly turns to you and says that: “Be not alarmed.”  This is a tomb!  This looks like grave robbery.  This is desecration of the holy, disrespect for the dead!  “Do not be alarmed,” he says.  “You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has been raised; he is not here.  Look around, see for yourself.  Go, tell the disciples and Peter...”  Go, tell, he tells them.  And...

You would think that if the meaning of Easter were obvious and clear, the women would have gone and told.  Instead, we’re told that they fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.  Later, they briefly tell Peter.  Let me ask you: How do you briefly tell Peter the news that the man he called the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God, the man he betrayed is alive, that he’s risen?  But they manage to tell him briefly, like an older parent manages to tell a concerned child he’s going in to have some tests run.  They manage to slip it in.  They tell the disciples briefly, we’re told.

“Oh by the way...”

It isn’t until Jesus himself meets them and sends them that they go, tell, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.

An empty tomb is not enough.  Jesus himself must meet them.  Just as he must meet each of us.  And so we gather in the place where he promises to meet us, and we await the risen Lord.

It’s okay not to know what comes next, after Easter.  Okay if you don’t know what to do with it.  Indeed, if you told someone the story: that God was born in the flesh, as one of us, that he lived and taught and challenged those in power, that he was welcomed to Jerusalem as a king and, less than a week later, was crucified on a cross, and that after three days he was raised from the dead and appeared to his friends...If you told that story to a stranger and she nodded her head at each point, “yes, yes, very good, I understand, yes,” you might rightly think she wasn’t listening to you!  Today is not the day of ordinary common sense, but of the impossible possibility come alive.

The story of God become flesh, incarnate, and killed, then risen from the dead isn’t supposed to make obvious sense.  But it means to get our attention.  It’s supposed to surprise us.  To jar us.  To make us say, “Come again?”  The story of God become flesh, incarnate, killed, risen from the dead is supposed to leave us with the distinct and clear impression that we don’t know it all - that we are not as in control of our lives or this universe as we’d like to believe, that the story is not up to us, that in fact it might not belong to us, that in the mystery called Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we are dealing with what CS Lewis famously called “not a tame lion.”

When we grow too comfortable with the story, when we catch ourselves beginning to presume upon the story - like it must be this way, like God didn’t choose this way on his own - we risk losing sight of God’s outrageous act for us:

Jesus Christ is risen from the dead!

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer gets at it this way:

"Good Friday (the day Jesus is crucified) is not the darkness that necessarily must give way to light. Nor is it the winter sleep or hibernation that stores and nurtures the germ of life. Rather, it is the day when the incarnate God, incarnate love, is killed by human beings who want to be gods themselves.  It is the day when the Holy One of God, that is, God himself, dies, really dies - of his own will and yet as a result of human guilt, and no germ of life is spared in him such that his death might resemble sleep.  Good Friday is not, like winter, a transitional stage.  No, it really is the end, the end of guilty humankind and the final judgment humankind pronounces on itself.  And here only one thing can help: God’s mighty act coming from God’s eternity and taking place among humankind."

God’s mighty act: on this day the Lord has acted.  We will rejoice and be glad in it.

We take the pains to rehearse the passion daily during Holy Week in part to learn that resurrection means the living of the God who was dead as hell on the cross.  Today is not our celebration of sunshine or bluebonnets or tropical climates winning the day in the course of the natural cycle of things.  Today is the inexplicable, unexpected, surprising Good News that death - our own and God’s - will not, cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

If the first women who learned the news were startled at the tomb, how much more when Jesus came to them, appeared to them, and said “go, tell.”  The end is not the end.  God has made them characters in a play whose script belongs to God alone.  No one knows what will happen next.  They are more afraid than ever.  Sometimes living can be more frightening than dying.  All that not knowing.  And also with us.  Terrified and afraid.  Yet they - and we - know the one thing that matters: Jesus is alive.

The frontier ahead is known to God, but not to us.  So we will baptize Laura not into the illusion of our own certainties, but only into the certainty of God’s love for her: the death and resurrection of Jesus.  And this love beyond our knowing both surprises and scares us. 

If we are honest, we cannot imagine death, much less resurrection.  We cannot imagine peace with our neighbor, much less the forgiveness of our enemy and an end to war, the killing of people different from ourselves.  But we are learning to trust the imagination of God.  And we dare to trust the imagination of God on these grounds:

The same God who died for you lives for you today.


Happy Easter.


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