Sunday, April 17, 2022

Phil Kniss: Is that a threat or a promise?

Easter Sunday – “The Whole World Turns”
John 20:1-18

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Lift your glad voices, indeed!
What a pure joy it is to be here today in worship.
What a pure, unadulterated joy to celebrate resurrection,
in a world full of death, and destruction, and violence,
and evil.
I don’t have to rehash the long list of sorrows
that are on our minds,
in our world of awareness,
even in our immediate experience.
From personal health, to grief, to politics, to disaster, to war,
we come this morning looking for relief.
For good news to outshine the bad.
And we get exactly that! Especially in the hymns we sing.

Just looking over the hymn text of what we just sang,
it’s like everything dark and death-like is obliterated.
Vain are the terrors!
Short is the dominion of death and the grave!
Burst are the fetters of evil!
Loud is the chorus of angels!
Full are the anthems!
Cheered is the deep valley of sorrow!
Jesus has risen and we shall not die!

And now you are expecting me to say . . . “but . . .”
But . . . I won’t.
I will say, instead . . . “AND . . .”

Because I do want to name another part of the image on the screen,
without deleting a single pixel of joy,
without darkening one bright and colorful dot of the picture
we have just been making with scripture, song, and prayer.

It’s obvious to all of us
that there is more to be said.
Because even though we proclaim today,
that all creation turns because of the resurrection,
we also know that Putin’s horrific war against Ukraine
is not going to go silent tomorrow,
the tornadoes are not going to stop,
our grievous losses are not going to be undone.

So here it is . . . 
“Jesus has risen and we shall not die! . . .”
AND . . . the resurrection should give us pause,
because is asks something of us that is not easy to give.
Yes, the world has turned, bringing us pure joy,
and bringing a new reality that not all of us are ready for.

I hope, if you’ve been with us for our journey through John’s Gospel,
that you aren’t acting too surprised.
We’ve been looking at a whole series of turnings in John,
nearly all of which advanced God’s purposes in some way,
but also brought with them some new and painful reality.

The same is true with resurrection.
I won’t call it a “down side,”
because I really don’t think it is that.
But it’s a reality we need to face.

Resurrection means opening ourselves to a whole new horizon.
Resurrection means God is turning the world as we know it on its head.
Resurrection means saying goodbye to a world 
where we are familiar with the landscape,
and comfortable with its contours.

Parker Palmer, in his book The Active Life,
ends with a chapter entitled “Threatened with Resurrection.”
He got his inspiration from a poem of the same title,
by Julia Esquivel, a Guatemalan poet and theologian.

Palmer comments that sometimes we cling to our pathologies,
because in some way they are useful to us.
He calls our pathologies, our illusions, “little deaths,”
which we somehow prefer, over a new and transformed life,
because we benefit from our illusions.

Resurrection puts us to the test.
It tests our willingness to move into new territory,
to live a larger life than the one we are so familiar with.
We would never say death and defeat are good things, of course,
but at least they’re understandable.
They are part of the familiar landscape of life.
Resurrection forces us out of our comfort zone,
onto a whole new uncharted expanse of land.

That probably explains the reaction of Peter and John,
when they confronted the empty tomb.
The resurrection story we heard from John 20
makes a point of the fact that Peter and the other disciple
(we presume John),
saw the empty tomb, and believed (v. 8)
They believed, but they didn’t understand the scriptures,
that he must rise from the dead (v.9)
So what did they do,
when faced with confusing evidence?
Their response is in v. 10.
“Then the disciples returned to their homes.”

They went back to the familiar. 
The safe environment of a house with doors that lock.
Standing in an open tomb,
in the presence of resurrection 
suddenly felt threatening, I think.
They couldn’t just stay there in that place,
where their world looked like 
it was about to be turned upside down.

By contrast, Mary Magdalene,
found it within herself to stay at the tomb.
To linger with this strange, threatening, and unknown reality.
It says in v. 11,
“But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. 
As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb.”
And she was rewarded with an encounter.
By staying there at the empty tomb, despite her fear and confusion,
she met first the angels,
and then she met Jesus himself.
Because she persisted, 
she was the first one the risen Jesus appeared to.
And she was called by name.
And she was able to go back to the disciples,
and report with confidence, “I have seen the Lord.”

Let’s be like Mary.
When we see signs of resurrection where we don’t expect them,
let’s linger.
Let’s stay with what frightens us, what troubles us.
When we detect the scent of new life, where we expect death,
let’s stay long enough to go deeper,
to step inside the empty tomb and look around.
If we are purposeful and attentive,
we might just encounter the risen Jesus.

To stay at the empty tomb
could mean different things, for different people.
It may mean we open the door to our grief a little wider,
show it hospitality instead of shutting it out.
It may mean daring to confront some darkness in our own lives,
instead of avoiding it.
It may mean a new level of vulnerability with someone.
It may mean taking a bold, and risky, action,
in relation to some injustice.

But probably in every case, it means daring to ask ourselves 
some challenging questions.

Parker Palmer asked himself these questions:
“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 might be taken away?
How might my life be changed?”

Believing the resurrection is only the beginning.
Peter and John were able to do that,
simply by seeing the empty tomb, and returning home.
We too can believe there is resurrection,
and go back home to life as usual.
It doesn’t require much risk or sacrifice.

May God give us the courage
not just to look quickly at the empty tomb, and believe . . . 
but to say “Yes” to God’s invitation to
stay and be transformed, 
to live the resurrection life.

In resurrection, there is both threat and promise.
The Risen Lord Jesus Christ,
not only asks us to lay down our own agenda,
and take the risk of walking toward an unknown horizon.
The risen Christ makes a promise to us.
I will walk with you.
I will never leave or forsake you.
You can trust me.
You can breathe in my Spirit.
My life is your life!

So let us rejoice, laugh, sing, and be glad that Christ has risen!
But let us never take it lightly.

Julia Esquivel, the Guatemalan poet I referred to earlier,
in her poem “Threatened by Resurrection,”
described resurrection this way:
“There is something here within us
which doesn’t let us sleep, 
which doesn’t let us rest,
which doesn’t stop pounding deep inside.”

If the idea of being resurrection people
keeps us awake at night, heart pounding,
we might just be on the right track.
May God give us courage.
May God give us grace.

—Phil Kniss, April 17, 2022

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