Sunday, March 27, 2016

Phil Kniss: Why are you looking here?

Easter Sunday: The story goes on
Luke 24:1-12; Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

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So is Easter the end or the beginning?
    In the church calendar, there’s always a little ambiguity.
    Easter Sunday marks the end of 40 days of Lent,
        a season of fasting and repentance.
    And it marks the beginning of 50 days of Eastertide
        a celebrative season ending on Pentecost.

Easter is a pivot point
    in the middle of a 90-day period of Christian worship and reflection,
    three months . . . one-fourth of our year is oriented toward Easter.
    It’s the end and the beginning.

Maybe you gave up something for Lent—
    chocolate, sweets, Facebook.
    Today, you’re off the hook.
    Lent is over. Finished. The End.
        Of course, if you did it for health, you may continue,
            no one is stopping you.

But today you can also begin something new.
    In celebration of God’s transformative and life-giving power,
        now is a good time to take on a new spiritual practice
        that nurtures hope, that embraces the life God intends for us.

So Easter can mark the end of wandering in the wilderness,
    or the beginning of a new challenge and adventure.
    End or beginning,
        it’s our choice what to make of this pivot point.

But seeing what’s going on in this world, and in our country,
    and in our communities, and our churches,
    I think I know which side of the pivot point we might prefer.

I think many of us find it compelling
    to think that today might be the end of the wilderness,
    the end of not knowing where solid ground is,
    the end of a spiritual, social . . . and political . . . homelessness.

    It feels like many struggle under a prolonged sense of homelessness,
        or disorientation,
        to use Pastor Barbara’s word from last Sunday.

I’m not suggesting our unease
    is equivalent to the suffering of our neighbors
        who are literally homeless.
    I ate lunch this past Monday
        across the table from a 20-something homeless man.
    I didn’t know he was homeless,
        until he brought it up late in our conversation.
        In fact, “homeless” wouldn’t be my first way of describing him.
        He was a man with a lot of sadness in his life.
        Homelessness was one of a whole heap of barriers
            he was trying to overcome—
            addiction, underemployment, illness, family betrayal,
            his girlfriend is in jail,
                and the state took away their 3-month-old,
                whom he visits 30 minutes a week.

    We were just having lunch.
    He didn’t ask me for anything,
        and I didn’t have anything to offer at the moment,
            except a listening ear for 20 minutes,
            and a promise of prayer.

    You know, it’s only a matter of degrees that stand between us—
        in our various states of disorientation—
        and our desperate neighbors who live on the margins of life.

    In one way or another, the vast majority of us
        who came here to worship on resurrection Sunday,
        want some good news about where we can find home.

What is home?
    Clearly, home is more than physical space.
        Home is where we can find and embrace
            our truest self, in our truest community.
        It’s where we discover and accept who and where we are.
    Jean Vanier, founder of a world-wide network
        of communities for persons with disabilities, said,
        “‘Going home’ is a journey to the heart of who we are,
            a place where we can be ourselves
            and welcome the reality of our beauty and our pain.”

The Gospel stories of Easter, and the Gospel of Luke in particular,
    I think are powerful homecoming stories.

The disciples were far from home in the dark days after Jesus’ death.
    They were lost.  They were fearful.  They were confused.
    They had no idea who Jesus really was.
        And worse, now they didn’t know who they were.
        Up until Friday, they were disciples of Jesus.
            Now who were they?

The women, apparently, were the first to venture out of hiding.
    They knew the first step toward whatever would become home
        had to start with taking care of Jesus’ body,
        giving it a proper and respectful burial,
        finishing the job that was done hurriedly Friday,
            when a spare empty tomb was located.
    They had to bring closure to what was,
        before they could start working on what would yet be.

So Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James,
    and other women with them,
    ventured out with the burial spices and other things needed.
When they got to the tomb,
    it wasn’t what they saw, but what they didn’t see, that alarmed them.
    There was no body.
    There needed to be a body,
        there needed to be a process of closure.
    A body was what they needed to find at this place of the dead,
        in order to move on toward a place of life and living.
    And it wasn’t there.

And while they stood there, “perplexed” as Luke puts it,
    two men appeared, angels apparently.
    And they had one burning question for the women.
        “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
    In other words, “You are looking for life.
        Why are you looking here?”

    “Why are you looking here?
        This is the wrong place.
        He is risen.
        Don’t you remember what he said?”

And Luke makes this comment:
    “Then they remembered his words.”

    And this is where their journey home began in earnest.
    There was still plenty of disorientation to deal with.
        But they were moving toward home and toward life.

    With excitement and wonder,
        this group of women went and told the rest.
    But the other disciples in the house, I suppose—
        not yet having taken the first step out in search of home—
        were too disoriented to believe
            anything other than what they already knew.
    They considered it, Luke says, “an idle tale” or “nonsense.”

Yet, one of the disciples, Peter, did take a first step toward home.
    Luke writes, “He got up and ran to the tomb.
        Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves,
        and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.”
    It doesn’t say Peter believed.
    It says he wondered.
        And for now, and for Luke,
            that’s enough.
        Curiosity, wonder,
            the determination to seek, and keep seeking,
            is the path toward flourishing life.

The courage to seek and keep seeking,
    even without clear directional signs,
    is the way to finally find home, and find life.

The trouble is, many of us want resolution now.
    We want the certainty here and now and for us.
There are many who want
    the strong word to be spoken by the strongman.

That’s the dynamic going on in our country and world right now.
    Life feels tenuous and uncertain.
    No one can be sure they will be safe in a public space anymore—
        be it school, cafĂ©, airport, or subway.
    The social fabric that once held diverse societies
        together in harmony,
        is now being torn asunder.
    Religious foundations are trembling under us.
    Churches and their institutions are downsizing or closing.
    Political discourse has lost even a semblance of dignity,
        or civility or thoughtfulness.

And in the midst of this widespread wilderness and homelessness,
    many of us are searching . . . in earnest . . . for home.
    But we often run to places where it won’t be found.
    We are looking for life,
        but we are poking around in the tombs.

    The burning question of the angels still hangs in the air,
        “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?
            Why are you looking here?”

Looking for home and for life in these troubling times,
    some of us run toward a place
        where the right political ideology will win the day,
        and the right party will be put in charge.
    If that’s you running there,
        I pray some angel, so to speak, will meet you and ask,
        “If you are looking for life,
            why are you looking here?”

    Some of us run toward a place of financial or material security,
        believing if our investments are strong,
            our accounts healthy,
            our lives equipped with every comfort measure,
            then we can relax, then we can live well.
        If that’s you, may some angel show up and ask,
            “Why are you looking here?”

    Some of us run toward a place
        where we don’t have to made uncomfortable,
        don’t need to come face-to-face with people,
            or ideas, or movements,
            that contradict our thinking,
            or challenge our way of life,
        thinking we can find home if we can stay in a place
            inhabited by others who look, think, and act like us.
        If that sounds appealing, and you’re running that direction,
            I pray an angel blocks your path, and poses the question,
            “Why are you looking here?”

    Some of us, who love the church, run toward a place
        where our doctrines are pure,
            our biblical interpretation correct,
            and our church institutions safe and secure.
        If that is where we are looking for life,
            may God himself send us an angel to bring us up short,
            “Why are you looking here?”

The good news of Easter
    is that home can be found in the resurrected Christ,
        even when everything else has been stripped away.

Home, and the flourishing life, will not be found in
    a victorious political battle, or
    secure finances, or
    social uniformity, or
    doctrinal purity, or
    fail-safe church institutions,
        or any other humanly constructed system
        we might put our hope in.

When every earthly structure and power and system is stripped away,
    our hope is in the risen Jesus.
    And we see that hope expressed in the community of disciples
        who embody the life of the risen Jesus in the world today.

I’ve told the story of a “communion of empty hands”
    that took place in a huge prison camp.
Among the 10,000 political prisoners,
    a group of Christian prisoners
        one Easter morning had communion without bread or wine.
    The non-Christian prisoners helped out
        by surrounding the group and talking quietly
        so the Christians could meet without being noticed.
    An imprisoned pastor led the service, saying,
        “The bread is the body of Christ which he gave for humanity.
            The fact that we have none, is a symbol of our hunger
                and that of millions of others.
            The wine, which we don’t have today,
                is his blood and represents our dream of a just society.”
    Then he held out his empty hand,
        and placed it over the open hand of the prisoner next to him.
        “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you.
            Do this in remembrance of me.”
            They passed it around the circle, and then the cup,
                raising empty hands to their mouths,
                receiving the body and blood of Christ in silence.
    Afterward there was pure joy,
        as prisoners embraced one another.
        These disciples of Jesus found home
            in a prison camp on Easter morning,
            because the risen Jesus Christ was in their midst,
                in the absence of everything else
                we think of as essential for happiness and security.

Where are we looking?
    If we are looking anywhere other than to the risen Jesus,
        and to the living community of disciples
            who are continuing the resurrection life,
            then we are looking for the living among the dead.
    When the need is so great,
        and the desire so deep,
        and the stakes so high,
        may we not find ourselves looking for life in the wrong places.
        May this be the day we begin anew,
            looking for life in the Risen Christ
                in the Easter-shaped community.

—Phil Kniss, March 27, 2016

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