Disturbing Promises and Whispered Alleluias
There is something wildly out of sync with the gospels' version of Easter and our own. All over the world we’ve got festivals and parades, cantatas and vigils, trumpets and choirs, sunrise services and shouted Halleluiahs! And we’re not being sarcastic or ironic at all.
Our Easter is brimming with confidence. Easter is fanfare and glory, flowers and fancy hats; it’s the service that our music minister uses the word “bombastic” about, in a good way. We Christians do up Easter good.
But the first Easter wasn’t that way at all.
And even in all the ways the gospel accounts differ about Easter, one thing that is similar through them all is the hushed, confusing, unsure nature of it. It’s scary and strange and nobody knows what to make of it.
We are all about grand finales. The giant firework show at the end of the 4th of July display is how we operate in all things. Our romantic comedies always wrap up with the wedding, and we’re all a sucker for a happy ending.
And maybe we’ve turned Easter into a happy ending. The dessert after the veggies.
Jesus was born and grew up, and taught and healed, was amazing and misunderstood, and then he died a terrible, tragic death…and then he rose from the dead! The end! Love wins!
And it does win.
But not the way we think.
So we sit in church on Easter and know that its supposed to feel victorious and triumphant, and sometimes it does, but how many of us have niggling in the back of our minds the children who haven’t yet been pulled out of the sunken ferry boat in S. Korea?
How many of us just lost someone we love and wonder what the point of all this “Jesus saves” business is when cancer seems more powerful any day of the week?
How many of us have watched marriages crumble before our eyes and treasured friendships utterly fall apart, and struggled endlessly to find a job, and can’t quite make the bills this month, and are watching someone we care about bowed down with depression, or fighting a gripping addiction, or battling that big secret ourselves, and wonder what this fantastic, bombastic celebration has to do with any of that?
Easter has some big shoes to fill.
Some big expectations to dash.
But the story before us today is a wondrously honest one, in that it doesn’t quite do up Easter like we would if we were the architects.
The gospels, for all their attempts to share the resurrection story in the most convincing way- indeed, it is the hinge point of everything- they don’t actually say a word about the resurrection itself. They show Jesus die in excruciating detail – everyone saw it; it was a publicly-shared, corporately culpable event. But now resurrection happens like a whisper, a wait, what did you say? a message passed along with hand on shoulder and heads leaned close, you’re not going to believe this, but…
They say he’s not dead. They say he’s alive.
The tomb is empty. No, I saw it myself. Grave clothes just laying there.
Where did they take his body? That’s the first response.
And that’s the only logical conclusion. Where have they moved the lifeless, dead body? There is no other possibility. When things are dead, they are not coming back.
And the rumors swirl, and nobody is completely buying it on an empty tomb and some far-fetched angel gossip.
Yesterday I wondered throughout my Saturday what that vast, gaping Sabbath day was like for Mary and the disciples. Not even work to distract them. All those followers of Jesus who had watched him die the day before, as we heard the story unfold Friday night, leaving after the loud noise and the shaking earth into the darkened evening and the emptiness where he once was.
Everything died with him.
All their hopes for the whole world, not to mention their own lives, died along with him.
They didn’t know Sunday was coming.
This was now reality. Defined by death.
Where you grieve, learn to let go, figure out how to move on in the world without hope, without that person, that dream, that way you saw yourself, that possibility, that bill of health. Dead. Over. The gaping hole of emptiness defining the future from that moment onward. And sometimes that day lasts a really, really long time.
So when Mary came to the tomb that day it was for only this purpose, this moving on without purpose. This sitting in loss.
And so, when she sees Jesus she doesn’t recognize him. Of course she doesn’t.
She’d seen him die. He was dead. And the rolled away stone and empty grave clothes and racing disciples, and even the question of the angels – they did nothing to clarify any of it. Jesus being there, alive, was impossible.
So when he stands before her, she thinks he’s the gardener.
Please, she begs him; tell me where he is.
And then he says her name, Mary.
And in that encounter, whatever she knows to be true about how the world works, and what she’s experienced before, and what is real and what is impossible, is thrown on end.
And because he sees her and calls her by name, and she recognizes Jesus.
The tellers of these tales aren’t so concerned, as we are, with how it happens – they don’t want to convince you to believe in the idea of resurrection or come to their version of our religion.
They are telling you the stories of people seeing Jesus.
People’s lives being changed by Jesus.
Believing in his resurrection is just a side-effect. It’s not the goal and it’s certainly not the point. Whether or not you buy it doesn’t change the reality that Jesus comes to us.
And we don’t always – ok, almost never- recognize him right away, especially when we’re looking for the dead Jesus of black and white bible stories and simple answers, or the dead Jesus of martyred sainthood and powerful example. This Jesus is one who’s been through death, who, in fact, is right there with all who are in it now. And life looks really different after its been through death. Suffering changes you; taking on our suffering changes God.
So Jesus looks different.
He looks like the gardener tending to life in the early morning dirt near a tomb, or the unknown traveler on a long, dusty road in honest conversation, or the famished guest at the table, holding out his broken hand to your doubt, or the one cooking breakfast on the sea shore while you’re head is in the nets and the work, and the your eyes are on the task in front of you.
So we may not recognize Jesus right away, but nonetheless, Jesus recognizes us and calls us by name.
And so Easter actually unfolds gradually, not like the Christmas Angels’ triumphant alleluia! filling the night sky, heralding God’s entrance into humanity, but a breathless moment here, a surprising encounter there, a sudden setting aside of reality as it was for reality as it has come to be in a dead and risen God, where hope can spring unbidden and unexpected from abject despair, and new things are born when we’ve given up hanging onto what has died.
In weakness, God entered into all that defeats us and submitted completely. And it defeated God too. And all was lost.
Until it wasn’t.
Until love crawled out from under defeat and reached out to Mary in the garden and told her that a new set of rules now governs the game.
Instead of saving us out of misery, Easter drags God into it.
And with the risen Jesus right there in it with us, the end of the story is decided, and there is no death so great that life is not greater, no hatred so powerful that love will not prevail.
So here’s the plan, I think.
We are going to sing it out big and do it up good.
We are going to bring out our trumpet and our dancing shoes, and in the face of a world mired in death and heavy with sorrow and broken with injustice and pain, we are going to celebrate that we are not in this alone, and that death does not get the last word.
We are going to raise our voices in loud lament for the places death dominates – we are going to grieve, oh, we will grieve, with those whose pain is real and raw and whose horror is stark and unyielding. Because that’s where Jesus is right now; and that’s what Jesus is doing.
But as silly or skeptical as it might make you at first blush, we are also going to rejoice, and celebrate, and proclaim death’s defeat – not because we’re naïve or indifferent, but because Easter is not some grand finale, happy ending that wraps up every loose end or heals up every wound.
Oh no, Easter just complicates everything, really. It breaks it all open and thrusts us back into the messy world where God is relentlessly present and the Spirit is always moving and we could come upon the risen Jesus at any moment.
And, I am going to give you one more disturbing promise before we’re finished here, and its not that you’ll suddenly be able to wrap your mind around resurrection or you’ll have some kind of perma-faith, festive and joyful.
No, it’s the true promise of Easter, and that is this: Jesus will meet you. This year, this week, this month, perhaps this very day, you will be encountered by the Risen Lord. You may not recognize him at first, most likely you won’t. He might look like a neighbor, or friend, or stranger, or enemy. Jesus might meet you in a hard-struggled reconciliation, an unearned forgiveness, a glimpse of selfless generosity, the freedom of unfettered joy, or a soul-cleansing, sobbing release, or Christ might come to you in a deep, knowing silence that fills you with peace. Something or someone that suddenly helps you feel the bigger picture, the love that holds us all and will never let us go.
You might not even realize it was Jesus until you’re telling someone else about it. Or until you’re listening to them tell you about some encounter they’ve had and suddenly you’ll know – that was Jesus! – right there, in your life, calling your name!
And it feels hushed and sacred, and confusing and thrilling, because it invites you to wake up and join in deeper, where things break you open more, and fill you up more, and you share life with others, and let them share it with you, and you resist evil and easy targets and apathy, and hold out for hope and love, trusting that they are the last word in this new reality.
And finally, for those of you who are waiting in the darkness after the death, the shadowed Saturday of grief and impossibility- you may be there for a long time. But it will not be forever. And it will not define you. Because our God brings life out of death, and love gets the final say.
So let’s sing our Easter hymns, and lift up our heartfelt prayers, and leave here as people ready to be encountered by our Risen Lord, whenever, and wherever he may meet us.Alleluia! Amen!