Sunday, April 20, 2014

Phil Kniss: Laid open to infinity

Easter Sunday
John 20:1-18; Colossians 3:1-4

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Easter’s been a long time coming this year.
    A very long time.
    Easter has been later than this.
    But never this long coming.

I don’t need to remind anyone here, that it’s been a long, cold winter.
    Yes, I do mean the weather,
        the meteorological season
        of cold temperatures and long dark nights
        caused by the earth being tilted away from the sun.
    But I mean so much more.

It’s like the whole world has been tilted away from the sun,
    in a metaphorical sense.
This has been a season of unseasonable darkness,
    death, grieving, fear, anxiety.

This is true in our congregation.
    People we love have suffered more than anyone should.
It’s true in the wider church, embroiled in a conflict,
    bringing anxiety, uncertainty, and some would say, darkness.
It’s true in our local community,
    where neighborhoods have been traumatized by murder,
    friends of ours have had their lives upended
        by accident, illness, abuse, crime.
It’s true all around the world.
    Violent oppression, religious warfare, ethnic violence,
        earthquake, landslide,
        accidents of airplanes and ferries.
    So many lives lost,
        that numbers lose meaning, become incomprehensible.
Everywhere it is winter.
    This kind of massive loss of human life is cold and dark,
        be it by accident,
        by force of nature,
        or by the will of power-hungry and hell-bent tyrants.

Why do long, cold winters
    put us in such a state of longing for spring and new life?
The answer is obvious, in a way.

This much cold and darkness and evil
    over time, becomes nearly unbearable.
    We need a reprieve. A lifting of the burden.
        A Sabbath from suffering, so we can breathe again.

So a season of buds and blooms and warm sunlight helps.
So does this spiritual season.
Having journeyed with Jesus toward the cross,
    we were lifted in spirit by the explosion of light and color
        last night at the Vigil,
    and by hearing, once again this morning,
        the resurrection story of God’s victory over sin and death.
    We are lifted.
    We are filled.
    And we begin to heal.

But what kind of healing is it?
    Has death truly been conquered, once and for all?
    Have the wounds disappeared?
    Is the pain gone?
    Are tears a thing of the past?
    Will our Easter joy now last forever?
What kind of healing has Easter wrought?

If we are honest, of course,
    we have to admit that the bubbly optimism spring brings,
        and the high spirits of Easter,
        and the echoes of the “Hallelujah Chorus” today,
        may not be with us next week.
    Or tomorrow.
    Or for some, even this afternoon.

We look for, but rarely find,
    an Easter impact that lasts.
Where darkness fundamentally changes into light,
    where loss is undone, or at least transformed to gain,
    where warfare ceases, injustice is reversed.

Our faith confesses boldly that Death was conquered at Easter.
    And indeed, it was.
    But death . . . then continued.

So was God just teasing us with Jesus’ resurrection?
    Letting us know that, yes,
        there is something greater than death, in the great yonder,
        but none of us will experience it in our lifetimes.
            And probably not our children’s.
            Or our children’s children’s.
    In fact, countless human generations have, in spite of Easter,
        not seen death truly done away with.

    People still die, in droves,
        they die in body and mind and spirit.
        Evil is still on the move.
        Suffering and injustice and violence and grief
            still pierce our lives in the most unwelcome ways.

Sisters and brothers,
    we cheapen Easter,
    if we make it a mere psychological fix
        to the “winter of our discontent,”
        to borrow from Shakespeare.

That’s all our culture knows to do with Easter,
    and Christians, I’m afraid, generally don’t do a lot better.

    But if that’s all Easter is—a short-lived escape
        from our collective darkness and winter chill . . .
    If Easter’s only gift
        is another chance to psychologically and spiritually
        try to rise above the sin and suffering and death of this life . . .
    If the only real function of Easter
        is to push the pain away, out of sight and mind,
            until the next time . . .
        then, my friends,
            we are right now engaging in a gigantic waste
            of our time and energy.

    You could accomplish the same thing this afternoon,
        by taking the hand of someone you love,
        and going for a stroll around the arboretum across town,
            to marvel at the tulips and redbud.
    And that’s a good thing.
    Something you ought to do.

But I don’t believe people everywhere flock to Easter services,
    because they believe church is the best place
    for a little post-winter, psychological and emotional pick-me-up.
I think people are here today,
    and in countless churches around the world,
    because they deeply seek, whether they realize it or not,
        they seek some larger Gospel truth to stand on,
        in a world that seems ever more incapable of holding us up.

They want to hear what difference the Easter Gospel really makes,
    as they navigate the pain and suffering of this life.

And I believe that’s what you want to hear, so let me tell you.
    Not that I know something you don’t already know.
        But sometimes, we just need to hear it said again.

God, in Christ, came into this world of sin and violence and darkness.
    And through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus,
        unmasked and defeated the powers of death,
        showed those powers to be powerless
            to define our lives.

The miracle of Easter is not that death was crushed,
    never to be heard from again.
    Even Jesus carried with him, post-resurrection,
        the scars and wounds of his cruel death.
    When he appeared to his disciples, with his wounds,
        Jesus was saying,
        “Here I am, still human, still visibly wounded,
            still with you in your brokenness.
            Touch my wounded body.
            And peace be with you.
            I will be with you, always, in this way.”

The miracle of Easter resurrection is
    that God’s ultimate power over sin and death and evil was revealed,
        shaming the powers that dealt in death.
The Gospel truth of resurrection is that life itself, our life, any life,
    is larger than what we see here.
    Life has more meaning, more significance,
        than whatever evil currently limits, restricts,
            or impinges on the life we have now.
    In other words,
        suffering, death, pain, and injustice may well continue.
        But because of Jesus’ resurrection,
            those things do not, and cannot, define our lives.
        God has the last word, and only true word,
            on what life means, and what life is worth.

So how do we live in such a way that
    God’s resurrection power defines our lives,
    instead of the suffering and death that remains with us?

It means we stop living in fear.
    And we open ourselves up instead.
    There is nothing, even death itself,
        that can undo what love has already done.

Because of resurrection, we need not live captive to self-protection.
    We need not suffer under the tyranny of self-orientation.

Many people I know, people you know,
    consciously choose a life
        of open, generous, self-giving, hospitality, and vulnerability.
    Not because it guarantees them safe passage in this world.
        But because the resurrection gives them reason
            to live in hope and trust
            in a God who gives meaning,
            even to lives that are laid down, and laid open.

My sermon title, “Laid Open to Infinity,”
    comes from Wisconsin poet Elizabeth Rooney,
    a follower of Jesus who took up poetry late in life.

She wrote,
    “Now is the shining fabric of our day
        torn open, flung apart, rent wide by love.
        Never again the tight, enclosing sky,
        the blue bowl or the star-illumined tent.
        We are laid open to infinity,
        for Easter love has burst His tomb and ours.
        Now nothing shelters us from God’s desire—
        not flesh, not sky, nor stars, not even sin.
        Now glory waits so He can enter in.
        Now does the dance begin.”

Rooney imagines the resurrection
    as an act of divine love that tears open, flings apart
        the fabric that might otherwise shield us
        from the wild and wonderful work of God.
Now, because of Easter love, nothing shelters us from God’s desire.
    We are “laid open” to the whole universe.

So much of the human suffering this winter brought us,
    strikes deep fear and anxiety into our beings,
    precisely because of our normal posture
        of enclosing ourselves,
        protecting ourselves.
The same Easter love that burst open the tomb,
    desires to lay us open, too.
    So that God’s glory might enter in.

The poem resonates with the Epistle reading today from Colossians.
    The apostle calls us to live oriented to “things that are above,
        not . . . things that are on earth,
        for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

When we die to self—
    this personal and private self we try so hard to protect—
        we open ourselves to a new and deeper life.

That’s the Gospel Truth of Easter that most people completely miss.
    In our culture’s obsession with self-protection and self-fulfillment,
        we actually work against the God of resurrection.
    The God of resurrection invites us to lay down self,
        that we might truly live.
    Laying down self opens ourselves to others and to God and to life.
        That is how we live with personal suffering.
        That is how we live with a church in conflict.
        That is how we live in a world of war and tragedy.
    We do what’s counter-intuitive—we open ourselves even further.

    The God of Easter morning wants to see us laid open to infinity,
        so that the wounded Christ may enter in,
        and the healing dance might begin.

—Phil Kniss, April 19, 2014

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