Sunday, April 16, 2017

Phil Kniss: Resurrection Shakeup

Easter: We live
Matthew 28:1-10, Colossians 3:1-4

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Three days ago our country dropped a bomb in Afghanistan,
the largest non-nuclear one ever used.
The “mother of all bombs,” we are told.
It was intended to knock out some key operations of ISIS,
and intended to shake the earth so violently,
as to collapse underground caverns,
and bury any ISIS fighters hiding in them.

As a peace church,
we could certainly question the thinking
that drives such a military strategy,
and we could question, vigorously,
the morality of such massive institutionalized violence.

But that’s not the reason I opened my Easter sermon
with this very recent example of death and massive destruction.

I mention it because of the sharp contrast . . .
and . . . the striking similarity,
between the news accounts of this bombing,
and the biblical texts describing the events
of Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection.

In both cases, there was a cataclysmic interruption of reality.
In both cases, the earth shook violently.
In both cases, paralyzing fear was a result.
But obviously, the intent, the means, and the outcome,
could not have been more different.
And the irony of this bombing happening
the day before Good Friday,
well, it’s just beyond words.

I gave this sermon the title “Resurrection Shakeup”
well before the bombing happened.
Because that’s what Jesus’ resurrection did,
both figuratively, and literally, according to Matthew.
It shook things up—in a world-shifting way.

So let’s look at the way Matthew tells the story.
And the different Gospel writers do tell the story differently.
They each seem to want to emphasize certain aspects.
When you read John’s account for instance,
you are struck with the raw grief of Jesus’ absence.
In John’s account the women get to the tomb
after the resurrection happened,
and everywhere they look there is a distressing absence.
They don’t see what they expected to see,
and it grieves them.

But in Matthew’s telling of the story,
the resurrection happens right after the women arrive,
and what they witness is not an eerie absence,
but a fear-inducing, cataclysmic eruption
of something entirely new and earth-shaking.
As the two Marys stood there at the still closed-up tomb
there was a “violent earthquake”—violent,
and an angel appeared, rolled away the stone.
The guards were so scared,
they themselves shook so hard they apparently convulsed,
and became like dead men.
Then the angel calms the women,
reassures them that God is in this eruption,
this interruption of the normal,
and that they should go tell their compatriots the good news.
“Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee.
Go there, and meet him.”

It’s a missional message—
go where Jesus is going,
engage in the life Jesus is engaging in,
be about what Jesus is about,
do what Jesus is doing.
This is the new order of things.
The powers of evil and death
have been conquered by the powers of love and life.
This is Matthew’s bottom-line message—
“Find Jesus, and don’t be afraid.”
And even though the Gospel was written decades later,
I think Matthew meant for his readers to understand
that message was for them,
as much as for the Marys and for the Twelve.
Find Jesus, and don’t be afraid.

And it was actually on the way to find Jesus,
that the Marys were gifted with the first encounter with Jesus.
Before they ever got to the other disciples,
Jesus met them on the road, and repeated the message—
go to where I am going,
and don’t be afraid.

“Don’t be afraid” were the first words out of the mouth
of both the angel and Jesus.
Pretty appropriate, under the circumstances.
Resurrection might feel like a purely joyful and happy thing,
from our safe distance,
but that’s not really the case.
Joyful, yes. But it was a fear-filled joy.

See, it’s not simply a matter of a loved one returning.
If that’s all it was,
then surprise, delight and relief, might be the primary response.
But this was new reality crashing in, violently, on the old reality.
Any change is difficult.
World-shifting change is fear-inducing . . . always,
I think it’s safe to say.

The resurrection of Jesus is the dawning of a new creation.
New creation!
Not tweaking things a little bit here and there, to improve it.
But new creation.

The resurrection throws open the gates to a world
where God turns everything on its head.
The resurrection means we let go of a world
where we are familiar with its terrain,
where we know its contours,
and let the love and life of God have at it—
to remake it in the way God chooses.

Julia Esquivel
is a Guatemalan poet and minister and human rights activist,
She wrote a poem called, “Threatened with Resurrection.”
That poem inspired Parker Palmer
to reflect about his own hesitation to embrace resurrection.
Palmer recognized something in himself,
that maybe we can identify with.
Sometimes, he wrote, he fears the movement toward new life,
more than he fears death in its various forms.
Because he’s gotten so accustomed to the life he knows,
even if it is a diminished life.
Sometimes, Palmer said, our pathologies, our illusions about life,
are actually useful to us in some way, so we cling to them.

Quoting Palmer,
“If I lived as if resurrection were real,
and allowed myself to die for the sake of new life,
what might I be called upon to do?
What strange and difficult tasks might be laid upon me?
What comforts taken away?
How might my life be changed?”
He sounds like the apostle in today’s reading from Colossians.
When Paul wrote of our resurrection life in Christ,
he said—both as encouragement, and as ominous warning—
“For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.”

See, Jesus’ resurrection is not an intellectual litmus test,
it’s not intended to test the validity of our belief system.
No, the resurrection tests our willingness to act,
to move into new territory.
It tests our readiness to live a larger and fuller life
than the one we are so familiar with.

Accepting the resurrection as true,
forces us off our comfortable home turf,
and into a new land, with untraveled and unmapped terrain.
Believing is just the beginning.
God invites us to live a resurrection life.

Into these times in which we live,
where despair is rampant,
where institutionalized violence gets ever more horrific,
where kindness and gentleness are harder to find,
where hope often hides beneath the surface unseen,
into these unlikely times,
comes crashing a world-shifting violent earthquake
that sets false powers on edge—
it is the fearfully good news that
the old is being done away with,
and God’s new creation is at hand.

Did you hear that?
The old is being done away with . . .
even over the objections
of those of us who have a vested interest in the old.
The old is being done away with,
and resurrection life is breaking into our reality,
and shaking the earth.
God is making a new creation.

New life is on its way!
That’s the news we proclaim on this day—
yes, even this day that stands at the beginning of a week,
when there will be, not one, but three funerals in this very space.
On a week where people will gather here with their raw grief,
and their gratitude for the gifts of life.
On a week where we carry out rituals
that underscore the reality and finality of death,
here we will also proclaim the Good News of Easter—
that death does not have the last word—ever!
Neither physical death,
in the face of our hope for resurrection in the age to come.
Nor the countless other ways the powers of death
make their ugliness known in this world.

Whether we are ready or not,
whether those invested in death-dealing powers want it or not,
new creation has already been ushered in
that morning the Marys went to the tomb . . .
and new creation is still being birthed today
in many ways of which we now are witnesses . . .
and new creation has yet to be seen
as God readies the world
for something beyond our abilities to imagine.

This is our reality.
Why would we not have hope?
Why would we not sing and celebrate and feast at the table?
Which is precisely why we are going to keep on doing just that.

Let’s turn to number 273 in the blue hymnal, and sing
“Low in the grave he lay,”
a hymn where the music itself portrays this Resurrection Shakeup—
where the old is suddenly interrupted,
with something new that God is doing.

—Phil Kniss, April 16, 2017

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