Sermon: Easter 2016

butterfly_goldMarch 27, 2016

Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed!)

Many of you are here because you have personally experienced this resurrection, and know the joy and wonder of it. Today is your day for delighting in the audacity and humor and glory of God.

Probably some of you have showed up this morning because church is where you hope you will encounter such power. This is where expect Jesus to be, especially on Easter Sunday. Maybe you fondly remember some worship services where you really did feel like God was present with you, filling you with hope and the assurance that you were not alone, not beyond the reach of grace.

And I’m guessing there’s also a fair number of skeptics here today, those who consider the stories of the Bible to be great lessons or fables, but don’t put much trust in them or in the God they describe. You may find the whole idea of resurrection too science-fiction-y to embrace. Or maybe you are somewhere on the spectrum.

No matter what brought you here today, I want to encourage all of you to enter into the story of Easter this year by adopting the role of Peter. When a group of grief-stricken women return from the grave where they expected to see Jesus, bearing a story about angels and resurrection, most of the disciples reject it as “an idle tale.” But Peter gets up to go see for himself. Now, he doesn’t leave the empty tomb with a newfound faith, a deeper confidence in Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. He leaves shaking his head in wonder. The empty tomb is not the answer, but it takes him more deeply into the questions. The key for all of us is to emulate Peter’s willingness to take a risk, to suspend his despair, his guilt, and his confusion and to seek God. His search fills him with wonder. Radical amazement, to quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, is the only way to respond to resurrection. This Easter let’s hunt for God as well as eggs.

What we see here or elsewhere on our search for Christ may not be what we expect. We are prone to showing up where we expect Jesus to be, only to be met by angels who wonder why we are looking for the living among the dead. How can we explain that we weren’t really looking for the living, but were anticipating a nice, stationary corpse? We forget that Jesus is an active God; the tomb is empty because Jesus has work to do elsewhere. If we spend all our time looking at where we think God will be instead of noticing where God is already at work, we miss the action. I heard a story once about the NY Yankees broadcaster Phil Rizzuto. A colleague was looking at Phil’s scorecard in the booth one day and saw a notation he didn’t recognize: “WW.” He asked Phil, “What is this?” And Phil replied, “Oh, wasn’t watching.” That’s what I mean; it happens to us all the time.

We can hardly blame the women for anticipating they’d find Jesus in the grave—or the disciples for doubting the story they heard. There was more than just normal confusion that first Easter. I really do believe that Peter—and maybe all the participants in the first Easter—had something like what we call PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), a mental disorder sometimes known as “battle fatigue” or “shell shock.” It affects people who have been in a war zone, but can also occur in those who have experienced or witnessed acts of violence, as well as in emergency responders, victims of sexual assault, or anyone facing extreme danger.

One of the symptoms of PTSD is disorientation. One of the top descriptors of that first Easter must have been disorienting. I mean, I can’t even guess at what it was like for Jesus, but for the mortals involved, disorienting is putting it mildly. I bet not many of us were surprised to hear a reading about an empty tomb today. We know resurrection is what comes after Good Friday. But the women at the tomb that morning had expectations about their task for the day, and I think we can safely guess that none of them included being met by angels.

Researchers who study PTSD say that during high stress times the part of our brain that is associated with the ability to place memories in the correct situational context, and the ability to recall a memory, is suppressed (which may be the cause of the flashbacks that often affect people with PTSD). That’s why talk therapy is an important treatment. And that, it seems to me, is what the angels engage in with the women, urging them to remember what Jesus said about being crucified and raised again.

It seems that the Good News is announced not to those who are best equipped to handle it, but to those who need it most desperately. Women with alleluias stuck in their throats. Men with survivor’s guilt and heavy consciences. That first Easter Sunday was just the beginning of resurrection. Yes, Jesus rose from the dead, breaking forever the truism that death has the final world, and its force continues to resonate. It might be useful to remember that most of Jesus’ closest disciples didn’t experience the news of an empty tomb as good news that first Easter morning—only later.

That’s because resurrection is not merely disorienting. It is also re-orienting. It deconstructs in order to transform. As Isaiah poetically puts it, God is doing a new thing, creating life where death appeared triumphant. It may seem like a “idle tale” to skeptics, but to those who know resurrection, this “tale” is pure truth. And Jesus, knowing that his followers would always be a little wobbly about ways of seeking and finding him, gives us something to help us remember and realign! On the night when he was betrayed, Jesus took bread and wine, blessed them, and gave them to his followers, instructing them that every time they shared these elements, they should remember him. Jesus presented us with a touchstone, a compass, a way to realign our connections with God and our neighbors again and again. We Christians are Easter people, finding Jesus again and again, being given new life, over and over.

Like our brother Peter. When he heard the cock crow, he knew he’d messed up big time. He wasn’t so different from the rest of us—weak and fallible, often pigheaded and short-sighted. The Scriptures make it clear to us that, though Peter didn’t see Jesus on Easter morning, Jesus came searching for Peter. When Jesus found him, he didn’t punish Peter. Instead, Jesus provides him with a resurrection of his own, calling him again to be a disciple, to witness to the power of love and forgiveness.

Resurrected Peter begins speaking publicly, passing on the story of Jesus “as of first importance.” When his listeners were “cut to the heart” and asked: “What should we do?” Peter extends the invitation that he and the other disciples received from the Risen Lord: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Peter knew what this re-orientation could do.

The Good News is that if Peter is like us, we can be like him. We, too, can be disoriented and re-oriented by the resurrection. We, too, are called and empowered to proclaim the Gospel truth, no matter what we imagine makes us less-than-stellar witnesses. We bear the same truth that Peter did: a global message of grace, affirming that God shows no partiality among nations or cultures. The resurrection is for all; salvation is for everybody. There are no resurrection-free zones or times. No walls can ever keep the resurrection or out.

Presbyterian author Ann Weems, who died just this week, expresses this idea beautifully in a poem:

In the godforsaken, obscene quicksand of life,

there is a deafening alleluia rising

from the souls of those who weep,

and of those who weep with those who weep.

If you watch, you will see the hand of God putting the stars back in their skies

one by one.

The deafening alleluia is as real and as thunderous now as it was on the first Easter. Its mysterious power still brings new life to the lost and vulnerable, the alienated and grieving. Resurrection plays no favorites—it reorients us all, continuously creating, healing, and making all things new. No insecurities or anxieties, arrogance or forgetfulness, nothing that reeks of death could ever drown out this glorious news: Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed!)

~Pastor Susan Schneider


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