Sunday, April 08, 2007

Easter Sunday

Christ is Risen!
Christ is Risen indeed!

John 20: 1-18

We pull out all the stops for Easter. We dress up in frilly frocks, don our Easter bonnets and dust off our best three piece suits. We process with proud trumpet preludes, sing hymns filled with triumphal alleluias, and announce with loud acclaim the arrival of new life. It is perhaps one of the most joyful and exciting worship services of the year…particularly since all pastors know this is their one shot to captivate the fleeting Easter crowds!

I love Easter and I bet that many of you do too…but the problem with our ecstatic Easter services arises when we leave the sanctuary and return to our quotidian lives. Despite the Easter promises of joy and hope, more often than not we return to less than perfect lives. In fact, many of our lives are marked by struggle, crisis, uncertainty, and grief. We only need read the paper, turn on the TV, or open our internet news to find a world seemingly distant from the new life we proclaim at Easter. Coming home the resurrection joy of our celebrations seems too much to bear in the midst of lives where new life is conspicuously absent.

What do we do with a message of hope and new life in the midst of a world that can be so painful?

We forget that despite the empty tomb, Rome still occupied the Holy Lands. Jesus’ followers continued to be persecuted. Lepers and prostitutes, tax collectors and foreigners all still sat at the margins. Suffering and illness continued to take people’s lives. War, violence, oppression, injustice all survived the resurrection. Sometimes the Church forgets all too easily that struggle did not end that early Sunday morn.

We live in a crucified world, yet somehow on Easter morning we want to reject the reality of our daily pain and struggle. The faith God has revealed to us of a powerful living practice of resurrection is often reduced to a mere hope for the next world as if death were nothing more than a fate that we meet at the end of life. But we know death is real. It shows up in times when the abundant life that God wishes for all of us is limited, truncated, or cut short, when our possibilities for living seem to dwindle and our hope is swept away. Death is not just a physical end of our material bodies, but death is also the spiritual end of our hope. This end of hope comes to us in many forms: it comes in the form of financial crisis, family strife, work, transition, addictions, loss, violence. We know that in all of our lives there are those trappings that bind us into tombs of our own; tombs that seek to keep us dead to ourselves and to God.

In celebrating a once for all victory of life over death in the raising of Jesus, we box in the reality of resurrection life, stifling its power to a one day orgiastic display of triumphalism that is without referent in the real world.

When resurrection is confined to the literal raising of Jesus from the dead, we are left with a faith so shallow and hollow that the discovery of a box of bones threatens to dismantle it. At the beginning of Lent this year controversy raged as an archeologist claimed to have found the remains of Jesus and his family. It was bad enough to have found the tomb of Jesus, but to suggest that he had a partner and procreated…well, that was too much for people to bear…or does it really matter at all?

The Christian faith is about much more than literal facts. It is about a transcendent message that embodies a truth not dependent on historical fact. Resurrection is true. It is the claim that death is not the end, that love and life can and do triumph despite the brokenness of the world in which we live. We don't need the physical evidence of an empty tomb to witness to this truth because we can see it in the world...when we look for it in the right places.

Rarely do we find it in the once for all triumph of good over evil, life over death. Rarely does life give us a happily ever after ending. Rather resurrection bubbles up through the cracks of despair in the midst of a suffering world. It does not come on the other side of death, but emerges in the midst of pain, sprouting right up into the middle of places of struggle. Like a young spring bud, slowly emerging up throw the April snow, resurrection does not arise with some grand fanfare, but rather gradually grows from a small seed of hope, poking its way through the coldness of despair and desolation. If we are not careful, like the early blossoms, resurrection can go unnoticed.

When I was in college my favorite trail was at the far end of campus up an increasingly steep path that led to a beautiful overlook where you could see the whole of the Mohawk Valley. I liked the climbing because it was invigorating. I could feel my body come alive as I climbed and it was just exhausting enough to make me wonder if I would ever make it to the summit.

But the best part of the trail was found about two thirds of the way to the top just at the moment when my body would give out. Panting and gasping for air, at the end of my endurance, when I felt I could go no further, it would appear before me, as if by magic. It was a tiny, fairy pool, nestled in the bottom of a tree that had grown in the middle of the path. The pool was formed where three nascent tree trunks grew together into one, creating a miniature lake not more than four inches wide in the crook of the three in one tree. I imagine most people hiked right on through without ever noticing it was there. I can’t explain why I loved it so, but I did. Each time I would stand and stare at it, catching my breath and resting in its wonder. I suppose it was a symbol of life in the midst of struggle for me…life that went unnoticed. It was a miniature world of life teeming in the middle of a busy path. Every time I saw it, it filled me with enough strength to make it to the top. When I left college I hiked the trail one more time and snapped a photo of my fairy pool. I keep it in my desk as a sign and symbol of hope, small yet powerful, that exists all around us…if we only take the time to look down once in a while.

I think that is what resurrection looks like for us most of the time…brief moments of hope that dot the landscapes of our lives, irrupting when we least expect it: glimpses and glimmers of new life that inspire us with enough energy and hope to continue on in our journey.

The bible records several resurrection appearances most of which do not even approximate the glorious, triumphal celebrations we enact on Easter. They go something like this: The disciples are lost in their own grief, trying to go back to the lives they knew before, trying to continue on when someone comes along and interrupts their despair…a menial gardener, a wayfaring stranger, a common fisherman. In all of these instances, the disciples hardly take notice at first. Sometimes they are annoyed at the disruption, other times they merely tolerate this added presence, but then, most often after the fact, the disciples notice something different, something strange, perhaps even queer, and in a fleeting moment they glimpse Jesus once again. In one of these appearances, the disciples are out fishing having no luck. And then a man from the shore yells out and tells them to try casting their nets on the other side. Skeptical, the disciples figure they have nothing to lose and do as the man suggests. Immediately their nets are full to overflowing and Peter, in glancing back at the man recognizes Jesus, jumps headlong into the water and swims toward him. When Peter reaches the shore, Jesus is just calming sitting there cooking breakfast for the group like nothing has happened.

Each time Jesus appears after the resurrection, he comes in the midst of the very ordinary as a humble, gentle presence. There are no healings, no grand spectacles, no proclamations of himself as either the son of humanity or anything else for that matter. Christ returns in the early streaks of dawn with a simple message: love one another, forgive one another, feed one other.

Nora Gallagher in commenting on this mild resurrected Christ writes, “Faith is only an approximation, as is memory – one never knows if one has the real thing in one’s grasp. It’s only a reaching toward. [The resurrected Christ] is much lower than I had thought before, much sweeter. [This Christ] is like the movement of a crane’s wing, or a brother’s habit of saying, ‘baby sister,’ or a woman suffering from clinical depression who is brave enough to want to live valorously. [Christ] was like all of these things, these movements, tied together, or [Christ] was the thing that tied them together…[Christ] is present, helping us along, calling to us from the shore. And we are meant to respond, to jump into the water, to swim toward him and toward each other.”

Resurrection is more than a triumphal divine act of power. Jesus’ life from death shows us the possibilities that exist for our own lives. Like the cry of the infant babe, resurrection interrupts the inevitable struggle that is life, not in a great once for all victory over suffering, but in small, yet powerful disruptions that give us hope. Like the wonder of the miniature fairy pool in the midst of a challenging climb, resurrection moments inspire us with humble signs of hope that reawaken us to the possibilities of new life and invigorate us with courage to continue on.

In the quiet absence of the tomb, Easter Sunday reminds us to look for those small signs of new life in the world. They happen everyday, everywhere; tiny vulnerable buds that slowly grow to a brilliant blossom.

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