Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter Sermon: Before the Triumph

I have always wondered why we don’t celebrate Easter with a little more fear and trembling. Why we don’t enter the church in silence and darkness, and why we don’t greet one another whispering “have you heard the news? Could it really be true?” I’m not saying to get rid of the trumpets and the lilies, but just to spend a little while shaking in our boots to remember how the disciples must have felt.
When we talk about Easter we use words like “bright” and “triumphant” and “joyous” and “festival.” We say those things in hindsight. We look back now, knowing what we know, and Easter is probably the happiest day of the year. But the Bible tells us that the first Easter day itself was a rather scary day. In the story I just read, from Luke, these are the adjectives used to describe the women and men who encountered the resurrection:
 … And that wasn’t just the initial shock at the graveside. These feelings apparently lasted well through the day, into the evening where our story took place. Even though the disciples had been told of the prophecies, that Jesus would rise again, they didn’t know what to think. Because there was an empty grave, but what did that mean? Where was Jesus? They still hadn’t seen him. Thomas said he wouldn’t believe until he touched him.
And what was going to happen next? Would someone else find the empty tomb? Would the disciples be accused of grave robbery, and arrested too?
What should they do? Should they tell other people? It seems that their first response was to hide it, and keep it a secret.
According to Luke, in the story we just read, some of them started walking away from Jerusalem, headed toward Emmaus where it would be safer, and, when Jesus found them, it says, they were “looking sad.” One of the other gospels, John, says that the disciples all went to a house together and went upstairs and locked all the doors. The first and shortest Gospel, Mark, says that the women “left the tomb, and didn’t say anything to anybody, because they were afraid.” Suffice it to say, when the disciples heard the news on Easter morning, they did not immediately feel like putting on their best Easter clothes and having a parade through town with trumpets and banners.

 No, we need to remember that for the first disciples, their joy was not quick or easy. Easter soon came to have a sense of triumph, but at first it was mixed in with a deep uncertainty about the future, some doubt and disbelief, and a very solemn sense of wonder and awe.
 The image that comes to mind for me, is of young parents with their first baby. Maybe the baby was born in the hospital, a little premature, with a emergency C-section, and the mother is still in pain as she recovers. After a few days the doctors have cleared them to go home, and the mom gingerly walks to the car while the father straps the baby into the car seat. They’ve never done this before. Is the baby buckled in right? Is the car seat secure?
When they get home, they barely know what to do next. They just want to spend all their time staring at their beautiful new child, but they are terrified they’ll do something wrong. Should they wake the baby up to feed him? Should they let him sleep all day? He’s too tiny for the baby clothes they’d bought, and they feel bad dressing him in big baggy clothes. All their friends keep calling to congratulate them, and they always say thank you, but really, they don’t feel excited as much as they feel overwhelmed, and exhausted. They ask over and over – is it really going to be OK?

 We look back with hindsight, and we say those were wonderful days… because we know now that they were the beginning of new life. We look back on big changes in our lives and see the beauty in them. Whether it was a new baby, a new love, or a new home, we remember the first days fondly, because it was the beginning of something wonderful. But often we forget how we cried ourselves to sleep the first night in a big empty house, far away from our family and friends. We forget the anxiety of meeting someone new, or the tremendous responsibility of caring for a newborn. Entering new life is often very difficult. In college I spent a semester abroad in Prague and I must say I only truly remember the second half of it. I probably just repressed all the earlier memories of stumbling through learning the language, asking for toilet paper when I meant pencils, and not knowing how to use the phone. Today when I think of Prague, I think of the city I came to know and love, not the city where I got hopelessly and repeatedly lost.

I believe it must be the same for Christians, looking back at Easter, and that’s why I wish we could spend more time remembering how the early disciples felt. We jump quickly from the devastation of Good Friday to the Easter joy. It’s as if we were all in a sports car seeing how fast we could accelerate from zero to sixty. What with Easter Egg hunts on Holy Saturday, and Easter baskets being sold in the candy stores since February, we are so busy anticipating the joy that we skip the grief. We may take just part of a day, Thursday or Friday night perhaps, to remember Christ’s Passion. We observe it, nod at it, and then we fast-track to the triumph, the trumpets, the victory and the joy. By Easter morning, our fear and trembling is completely forgotten.

But the fact is, it took the disciples a lot longer to get out from their hiding places. I wish I had a historical microscope so I could go back and look at things. I wonder how long it took the disciples to set aside their fear and trembling. A month? A year? A generation? How long does it take to forget the struggle and to only remember the triumph?

This is important because not all of us are feeling entirely triumphant today. Some of us are, by the grace of God. Others of us may have come recently from a family funeral, and aren’t ready to let go of that sad feeling. There are people in the hospital today receiving news they hoped they’d never receive. Many people, today, are facing their struggles and can’t see their way to victory. For many people the empty grave may not be a consolation but an additional sadness. It would be easier to go to the tomb and find the body, to hold a funeral, to weep and cry and tell stories in Jesus’ honor. If you’ve ever been unable to attend the memorial of a loved one, you know what this means. Finding the grave empty has cut their grieving short.
For some people, even today, Easter cuts them short, because you’re supposed to stop grieving now and get on with the victorious rejoicing. Put your black veils away and join the Easter parade, right? Well, what if I’m not ready???

If we can learn anything from the disciples, these blessed men and women who passed on their experiences of faith, let us learn that it is OK not to feel triumphant yet. It’s OK to feel scared and sad, even on Easter. I would say that especially on Easter, it’s OK to feel our hearts burning within us, burning with deep sadness and longing. It is right for us to wonder and weep, because all is not well with this world, and because they have taken our Lord away and we don’t know where to find him. We can’t even find the remains.

 And. At the same time. We still get to have hope. Because our Lord is walking beside us, even when we don’t recognize him. Sometimes we don’t recognize God right away. Probably more often than we’d like to admit, we realize in hindsight that God has been walking alongside us the whole way, and we never knew. Our consolation comes to us before the triumph, when we are still lost in grief. God does not hold back, watching at a distance and waiting for us to snap out of our grief and start celebrating. God is gently walking alongside us, helping us to be ready for the celebration that is already prepared for us. We can take as long as we need to. We know that some of the disciples took longer than the others. We still get to have hope, even if we haven’t managed to get on that zero-to-sixty fast track to joy. Remember that it was at a walking pace that Jesus accompanied his disciples. He probably spent all afternoon walking with them.

But by now we have had many centuries to tell and re-tell this story, and I think it’s also time to learn from our hindsight too. Looking at the whole story from beginning to end tells us that it’s OK to rejoice when we see even the smallest sign of hope. The disciples were overwhelmed with very real worries and confusion, but hope and joy were able to break through the fog. We may be overwhelmed with other things, whether it’s learning to live in a new place, or trying to figure out what a tiny baby needs. Yes, all these stresses are happening, but at the same time we see signs of hope. We see a kind smile from a stranger, or a peaceful sigh from the child, or we hear about the great mystery of an empty grave. It is good and right to rejoice fully in these things, even though they are just the beginning.
 No parent takes a baby home thinking of it only as a squirming bundle that needs diaper changes. They hold and cherish the child thinking of their future, the books they will read to him, the games they want to play with her, and the hope that this child will grow up to achieve her dreams. It is good and right to rejoice in the whole, even when we see only a part. The beginning is enough cause for celebration.

 Easter is a celebration of this great mystery of new life, the Resurrection. On this day we celebrate our redemption from the power of death, and in so doing, we also join in celebrating every blessed thing that is springing to life around us. God raised Christ Jesus from the dead, and God can raise us too, from death, from hopelessness, from despair and grief. Every sign of new life around us echoes in the chorus that sings of God’s triumph. And because of this, every good and new thing is cause to celebrate. We can look at a new situation and see all the potential it holds. We can enter into a new phase or space in our lives and see not the worries but the vast possibilities… looking not at what is left behind but what is opening up. Changes in our lives often involve grief, just as the disciples grieved for Jesus. But what we can learn from the disciples is to allow ourselves also to be overwhelmed by joy.

 I wonder what God might be bringing to each of you as new life right now. Maybe a new person in your life, a grand-child or a new friend or neighbor. Maybe a new idea or inspiration. Maybe a new reality that does not look like a blessing as all – if your hearing is beginning to fail and your other senses have to work harder for you. We know that even in hard times there is a blessing to be found, as in Christ Jesus even death has been overcome. I wonder what new life you may be experiencing right now. For me, the season of Lent has brought me new lessons in grace and forgiveness. It’s never easy to learn something like this, and to take a look at how badly you need it. But the prospect of facing life with more grace is new life indeed, and liberation from my old ways.

I want to take a few minutes to turn it over to you with that question. What new life is God bringing to you, this Easter? You can answer in a word or a phrase, lifting it up like we do the prayer requests. The story of the walk to Emmaus told us that the disciples realized afterwards, their hearts had been “burning within them” as they heard Jesus explaining the scriptures to them. Somehow they knew that the Lord was near, but they did not know just exactly HOW near he had been the whole time.

Each of the words you have lifted up - and the ones that weren't spoken - represents a little story in your life. I pray that each of these stories - what you are experiencing today - may be a sign of new life for you in hindsight. That you may someday look back and realize that your hearts had been burning with the nearness of God, in fact that you might know Christ was walking with you all along and guiding you although unseen. This is our great hope and our deep joy; that Christ is risen and is with us.

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