Sunday, April 12, 2020

Phil Kniss: Beyond terror, toward hope

Easter Sunday: “Show us your resurrection power and love”
Matthew 28:1-10

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These past weeks we’ve all done things we never did before,
    and never imagined doing.
Well, I’ve never preached an Easter homily
    with the world in quarantine,
    and human beings dying by the tens of thousands.

I have, however, preached into the darkness on Easter Sunday.
    Last year, I preached
        two days after the untimely death of Norah Brubaker.
    Three years ago,
        I preached resurrection two days after we bombed Afghanistan
            with what our military called “the mother of all bombs.”
    As I look back at old Easter messages,
        I notice a pattern during Holy Week—
            typhoons, wars, plane crashes, suicide bombers.
        Easter comes and goes and evil keeps rearing its ugly head,
            as if the universe is taunting,
            “Oh, so your God is all about love and life?
                Well take a look at this!”

So in light of the devastation that is COVID-19,
    what is the true and deep Gospel word of Easter,
    that will hold up in the face of all this suffering?

Surely, we’ll find that Gospel word in the Gospel reading, right?
    We heard the resurrection story according to Matthew, chap. 28.
    This is where we will find words to ease our fears,
        calm our anxiety,
        comfort us in our state of unease.

Except . . . that’s not what Matthew gives us.
The resurrection scene Matthew paints for us
    is not deep peace and comfort and reassurance.
    The main characters in the story are panic-stricken.
    They are filled with fear—intense and paralyzing.

The scene at Jesus’ tomb was not the peaceful forest on our bulletin.
    Not like any typical Easter picture.
        No sun peeking through the trees,
            or edging up over the horizon,
                painting the sky red and orange and purple.
        No angel relaxing on the tombstone.

Matthew says, while it was still mostly dark,
    “suddenly there was a great earthquake . . .
        an angel of the Lord, whose appearance was like lightning,
            came down from heaven and rolled away the stone . . .
        For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men.”
    Did you get that?
        Highly-trained armed guards were terrorized,
            and fell over in a dead faint.

    In some other Gospel versions, disciples arrive after the fact,
        and they calmly explore their surroundings,
        wondering what just happened.

    Not in Matthew.
        Here, resurrection happens after the two Marys arrive.
        What they experience is a fear-inducing, earth-shaking,
            cataclysmic eruption.
        They saw, and felt, the “violent earthquake.”
        They saw the angel remove the stone with a rumble.
        They saw the guards convulse and faint.

    The angel tries to calm them,
        “Do not be afraid;
            I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified.
            He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said.”
            Take a look, they say. God is in this disruption.
            Now, go.
            “Jesus is going ahead of you to Galilee. Go meet him.”

        The angel gave the women a missional message—
            go where Jesus is going,
            do what Jesus is doing,
            be about what Jesus is about.
        This is the new order of things.
        The powers of evil and death
            have been conquered by the powers of love and life.

    After all is said and done,
        after this earth-shaking event,
        the bottom line of Matthew’s message is,
        “Find Jesus, and don’t be afraid.”
            Find Jesus, and don’t be afraid!

Then after they listen to the angel and follow directions,
    on their way to find Jesus,
    the two Marys are gifted
        with the first human encounter with the risen Jesus.
    Before they ever got to the other disciples,
        Jesus met them on the road, and repeated the same message—
            “Go where I am going, and don’t be afraid.”

“Don’t be afraid” were the first words out of the mouths
    of the angel and of Jesus.
    I guess they figured those words of caution,
        were the most appropriate thing to say at that terrifying moment:
        “Don’t be afraid!”
    From our safe distance,
        resurrection might feel purely joyful and happy.
        But for those in the middle of it,
            if it was joyful, it was a terrorizing sort of joy.

    Now, if it had only been a loved one coming home,
        then yeah, joy and delight would be the reaction.
    But this was a new reality crashing in, violently, on the old reality.
        Any life-change is difficult.
        But world-shifting change is fear-inducing . . .
            Always, I think it’s safe to say.

    I think we all realize,
        we are now in a world-shifting time of change.
        And it is frightening.
        We are afraid of death—our own, or of masses of people.
        We are afraid of an economy in a death spiral,
            and what it might mean to our future quality of life.
        We are afraid that it might make the world more dangerous,
            and people more cruel,
            and political leaders more oppressive.

No, I am not trying to equate
    the life-affirming resurrection of Jesus
    with the death-dealing global pandemic of COVID-19.
These two realities are on opposite sides
    of the cosmic struggle between good and evil.

But this observation that both resurrection and COVID-19
    are fear-inducing events,
    reveals something important to me, on further reflection.

I should not look to Easter
    to provide merely psychological comfort and calm.
    The power of Easter
        does not lie in its ability to make things feel
        better and calmer and more palatable.
    The beauty of Easter and springtime—
        captured in the gorgeous flowers up here,
        and splashed all over creation right now,
        and spoken of so eloquently by Heidi in the children’s story—
            that beauty is a symbol of something bigger.
        It’s a reminder of the persistence of life.
        It’s a sign pointing to a larger reality.

But Easter doesn’t stop at symbol.
    Actually embracing the earth-shaking message of Easter,
        actually believing that God’s invitation to life,
        will overpower and decisively defeat
            any cheap substitute for life the world is throwing at us,
        that truth should turn our world upside-down.
    It should feel like an earthquake in a cemetery,
        that makes armed guards keel over.

    Think about it!
    Those guards were posted in the garden to protect the status quo.
        They were there to ensure that the powers that be—
            the political and religious empires—
            didn’t get knocked off their feet
                by whatever Jesus might do next.
        So they guarded the tomb.
        Just the fact that a tomb was guarded,
            ought to be a clue to how dangerous and frightening
                the Jesus agenda was to the powers.

    See, when we embrace the resurrection of Jesus,
        we embrace the great unmasking of every lesser power.
    And that is not a comforting thing.
        That is a shaking-in-your-boots kind of thing.

I get it that right now,
    most of us would be happy with normal.
    We’d be content if we could only go back to the year 1 B.C.—
        Before Coronavirus.
    But the world has changed, and we cannot go back.
        The notion that human beings are fragile
            is no longer theoretical, it’s real.
        We and all the powerful systems we create
            can be laid low by a microscopic life form
                that no one really understands.

    And we who pledge our allegiance to the Risen Lord Jesus,
        have a similar sobering reality to reckon with.
        The Gospel of Easter is also little understood,
            and can lay low all the powers and systems of this world,
            and can make them all tremble in fear.
        The big difference is
            that Resurrection Power leads to life, and not death.
        It moves us beyond terror, and toward hope.

    If today we wish to align ourselves with the God of Easter,
        with the God of persistent life,
        then be prepared to meet resistance from the powers.
        Be prepared to pay a price,
            in order to live the life God created us for.
        It might, at first, strike fear and dread into our beings.

    But the words of the angel spoken to the two Marys,
        are now, today, also being spoken to all of us
        feeling caught by the forces of death.
    “Don’t be afraid.
        Find Jesus.
        And don’t be afraid.”

As on other Easter mornings,
    we come to the Lord’s Table to partake
        of the very elements that filled the disciples with fear—
            Jesus’ broken body and shed blood.
    But today we partake not in fear, but in hope.
        Because of Resurrection,
            we can eat and drink in hope
            that the world is being turned on its head,
            that God is making all things new.
        This we can do, even when the world is dark outside.

Be prepared now to participate with us,
    wherever you may be.
    This communion is different than most,
        but it is still communion.
        It is a coming together spiritually, as one body.
        We are partaking in a manner that cares for the body.
            We leaders here in this space,
                are partaking exactly the way you are.
            We are using our own elements,
                and partaking of them in our own personal space.
        By doing it this way on this occasion,
            we are acting in love toward the larger body.
            We are showing care for each other,
                and for our larger community and world.
            This dear friends, is not a symbol of isolation.
                This is a beautiful act being done in community.
                Thanks be to God.
        Join us, will you?

The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed,
    took a loaf of bread,
    and when he had given thanks,
        broke it and gave it to them saying,
    “Take. Eat. This is my body broken for you.”
In the same way he took the cup after supper,
    and when he had given thanks,
        gave it to them saying,
    “Take. Drink. This is the blood of the new covenant.
        Do this in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup,
    you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

—Phil Kniss, April 12, 2020

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