Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter Joy

Ashes to ashes dust to dust: so says our liturgy. This year as our Ash Wednesday services were coming to a close in the United States, a small private funeral for a young man began across the globe on the shoreline of Australia. As we metaphorically remembered our own mortality, Heath Ledger’s family confronted the stark reality of death as they bid farewell to their son, their sibling, their lover, their friend.

Ledger was a gifted and talented young actor. At 28 years of age he had touched millions of moviegoers in films like the Patriot, Monster’s Ball and what many consider his finest work, portraying Ennis Del Mar, in Brokeback Mountain. Following his tragic death, messages from friends and fans poured out across the pages of the internet, on home-made poster boards outside the New York apartment where he died and even broadcast worldwide at award banquets as people struggled to find meaning in what seemed a tragic and senseless loss.

Early on the morning of the funeral paparazzi began leaking photos of a family in mourning, dressed in black and somberly processing from hotel to chapel. These photos were no different than any others taken of a grieving family. But then, later that day something amazing happened. The early photos of a somber and grief-stricken family were replaced with photos of joyous celebration: mourners frolicking in the ocean, some in their skivvies, others still in full funeral garb while Heath’s father watched from the shore and shouted, "Hip hip hooray! Hip hip hooray!" giving two thumbs up in the air. There they were, mourners turned celebrants, laughing through tears, jumping and splashing, embracing and dancing in the waves; their faces radiant with nothing less than sheer joy.

"It's exactly what Heath would have wanted," one mourner told reporters. And indeed it probably was. Ledger was a person who enjoyed life. He once told reporters: “I completely live in the now, not in the past, not in the future.”

This image of joy in the midst of sorrow seems unusual at first and yet I think each of us resonates with the urge to seek life in the face of death. After all, that is the Easter message, isn’t it? This is what resurrection life is all about. Joy in the midst of sorrow. Life in the midst of death.

Easter Sunday is a day of joy. Just as Jesus promised in the farewell discourse (John 13 - 17) weeping and mourning has ended and life has triumphed over death...God’s joy is made complete this day.

Easter joy is not a negation of the suffering world, but rather a celebration of life despite of or even in spite of the death dealing forces of the world. The easy joy of a gospel of prosperity is no Easter joy. True Easter joy can only come on the other side of suffering and sorrow. It can only arise up out of the death dealing forces of the world as resistance to oppression and death.

This message of Easter joy, however, is not always welcome. I think that we at times are hesitant to accept and live into the Easter joy that God offers us. Sometimes we cut ourselves off from any hint of joy because we can’t imagine that’s what God wants for us. After all, Christianity is about pain, and suffering and sacrifice. Pick up your cross for God’s sake and suffer with me! Right? You’ve heard me preach it a thousand times, “...and this is no easy task.” How can we take joy in the hard life of being a disciple?

Sometimes we resist joy for fear of what we perceive as the inevitable disappointment, pain and suffering to come. It is as if we are living our lives always waiting for that next shoe to drop. “If I take pleasure in this, won’t I only be disappointed when it ends? Surely this joy cannot last.”

Other times we are hesitant to take joy in life because we think we don’t deserve it. At times we can be led to believe that there is something so shameful and bad about who we are that we just can’t be joyful. Instead we push and punish ourselves for what we believe are our inherent transgressions…we work, we study, we exercise, we starve, we deny, we sacrifice, we deprive, we cut ourselves off from joy and barricade ourselves in tombs of our own making.

Still other times we refuse joy out of a sense of guilt. How can I be joyous when the world around me suffers? In comparison to what is happening around us, how can we possibly take joy….war, violence, poverty, discrimination, injustice? And so, we tell ourselves for the sake of solidarity, we too will live lives of suffering and sorrow.

For one reason or another, we find ourselves, like Mary, so lost in our own pain and suffering that we miss the dramatic displays of Divine joy all around us.

But to dwell forever in a world of Good Fridays negates God’s proclamation that life and love are always more powerful than the forces of death and destruction. To allow ourselves to be swallowed alive by our own pain and the pain of the world is to deny the power of life teeming all around us.

Alice Walker depicts such a rejection of God’s goodness in her novel, The Color Purple. There is a scene in which two former slaves, Celie and Shug, are talking about God and the world. Celie just can’t make sense anymore of a religion that seems nothing more than a projection of the white master onto some removed, capricious god-head who offers her nothing more than a hope of a hereafter in the midst of a living hell. As they walk through a field pondering these things, Shug tries to help Celie see an alternative to the kyriarchical religion of the church that paints god as an oppressor. She tells Celie to get that white man god off her eyes and look around. God is no white man shut up in some stuffy church building…God’s everywhere. Shug says, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.” To walk through life without ever recognizing the joy that is infused throughout creation is an offense to God and creation. Look around, there is a lot of joy in this broken world in which we live.

Joy is a natural response to the gifts of God’s creation and a comfort in a world of Good Fridays. Some of my most cherished pastoral moments are those sitting vigil at deathbeds, for there in the very valley of the shadow of death, family and friends gather to remember and share together the most tender and beautiful moments of life.

To acknowledge and celebrate that joy is not to deny the suffering and pain that exists. Rather, it is a way to manage, to cope and to find our way through, for Easter joy not only comforts us in the face of suffering, but also confronts the agents of our pain as an act of radical subversion. Celebrating life in the face of death is a radical act of resistance, defiance and subversion.

In Nicaragua during the Spanish occupation, indigenous folks created a dance called El Gueguense. While on the surface it seems a quaint expression of popular culture, it’s point was to ridicule, condemn and resist the colonial powers. Through satire and parody, the indigenous pinoleros resisted the oppressive forces of the Empire that sought to suppress and exterminate their very being.

In the same way, in our own community we use camp as a form of survival and resistance. Think about the art of drag for a moment. Drag not only provides space for laughter in the midst of an oppressed community, but also acts as a form of resistance to the wider hetero-normative powers of oppression and injustice. Through drag heteronormativity is unmasked and ridiculed.

To take joy, is not to negate the powers of oppression but to confront them with something they cannot take away. To have joy in the face of one’s oppressors is great power…it is the power to claim life and peace and joy no matter what the powers that be do to stifle it. God’s abundant life cannot and will not be silenced by human cruelty. There is no sorrow, no pain, no death dealing forces that can keep out God’s power of love and life; for joy bubbles up into the middle of places of hopelessness to bring love and peace and hope.

You see, Easter joy is not just meant for the sweet hereafter, it is meant for the here and now. Easter joy is the living resurrection that we experience in our lifetimes, in this world. There is no need to deny ourselves joy in order to wait for some eternal reward on the other side of death. No, God invites us to resurrection life right here, right now.

Joy is all around us bubbling up through the cracks of despair so that we might know the power of resurrection in this life.

Why are you weeping? There is joy to be had in this world: in the fresh buds of spring, the small still light of dawn, in the smile of a child, in the giggly-gurgle of an infant; joy is sprouting up in the very midst of this broken world so that we might the glimpse the kin-dom of God in our midst.

Weeping may linger for a night but joy, joy shall come in the morning.

Why are you weeping?

Live in the now, not in the past, not in the future. Live in the joy that is Easter now!

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