Easter People in a Good Friday World

A sermon preached by the Reverend Jered Weber-Johnson

Easter Sunday

April 20, 2014 at 8:00 am and 10:00 am

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church

St. Paul, Minnesota

Growing up in an ethnically Tlingit village in southeastern Alaska, I was afforded the good opportunity, like most Alaskan primary school students, to learn about the ways of the indigenous inhabitants of our region through a statewide curriculum known as “Cross-cultures” (sounds like the ’80s, doesn’t it?).  We were taught how to sew and bead, how to draw according to the custom of master artisans, and we learned the stories and myths that had shaped a beautiful culture.  Each week, an elder from the community would come to instruct us in the ways of her people – Tlingit, and Haida, and white children, side by side by side.

I recall with great clarity the week we were told we would be learning how to dance some of the traditional dances which interpreted the sacred stories.  Immediately, what had been a wonderful immersion into a life and culture wholly different from my own, became a moral struggle.  As the teacher prepared the music and explained the steps, my stomach began to roll and turn, the words of my own grandmother echoing in my ear, about how dancing is a sin – a surefire way to find oneself in fire.  I nervously raised my hand and asked to be excused.  When the elder asked me why, I replied that I was a Christian (knowing full well that she was a longtime member of our local Presbyterian church), and that Christians didn’t believe in dancing.  I can’t recall how big her eye-roll was, but she excused me to the hall, where I was to sit for the remainder of the class.  I remember feeling like I had done something good, something righteous – I had stood up for my faith.  I was a Christian, and this was me being faithful, so I thought, in the face of grievous persecution!

However, in addition to being Christian, I was also a very curious and extroverted young boy – I couldn’t bear the thought of being left in the hall while my peers had so much fun.  As the elder would later recall to my mother, she would intermittently catch glimpses of me staring through the narrow glass window in the classroom door, and later when coming to tell me the lesson was over, she found me, all alone in the hall, earnestly attempting the steps and moves of the dances my faith had “forbidden” me to dance!

Sadly, often in our wider culture, even within the church, we have come to believe as I did as a little boy, that being Christian is about adhering to a set of admonitions and prohibitions.  We forget that the term Christian was ascribed to the followers of Jesus by those outside the faith, for the visible ways we lived in community with one another and the ways we engaged the world–for the way we cared for the sick, gave alms for the poor, the ways in which we served one another, and practiced radical forgiveness.  Indeed, being Christian has always been about identity, and that identity draws its primary cues from this, the resurrection of Jesus.  So much so, that over the centuries we have come to describe ourselves as an Easter people. 

And, taken on first brush, this sounds like an easy assertion to accept.  Easter is about life and hope and Springtime and possibility. Sounds good to me.  But, Easter is a complex and challenging day, as our Gospel points out; the resurrection, the story of the empty tomb and the folded linen burial wrappings doesn’t fit immediately or easily into the way we have come to conceptualize it with eggs and bunnies.  The story of Easter resists our cultural inertia toward the precious and the cute and the happy.  It is a story that begins with grief, that turns to anger and despair.  It is riddled with misunderstanding, and ultimately seems to be asking more of us than at first brush we are willing to yield or to offer.

That is because the story of the resurrection, the feast of Easter which we celebrate this morning, comes to us by way of great suffering.  We come to Easter through the door of Good Friday.

And so it is in the wider world.  As best selling author and spiritual writer Anne Lamott reminded listeners in an interview a few years ago on NPR, we are an Easter people living in a Good Friday world.  We, like Mary, come to Easter surrounded by a world permeated with grief and pain.  And, as we know, suffering can shape identity just as much if not more than any other life experience.  In a recent exploration of suffering in his column for The New York Times, David Brooks wrote that “suffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control.”

But, as we witness in the exchange between the Risen Lord and Mary in the first light of morning there in that garden, out of grief can come great hope.  At first, through her tears, still surrounded by the events of Friday, Mary sees Jesus and mistakes him for the gardener.  Knowing the tomb is empty and adding anger and despair to her sadness, she demands of him to tell her where the body has been taken.  She is incapable of seeing this great hope and new life that stands right in front – her sight is clouded by grief.  That is, until she is called by name.  There in the garden of a new creation, lost in grief, she is given her identity back.  She is named and she sees.  Eyes open she shouts to Jesus whom she knows and has loved “Rabbouni!” a term of affection and relationship.

I was with an elder member of my family recently.  He had suffered a stroke in the last year, and had lost the ability to eat, and according to his kids he had slowly slipped into a depression.  His stroke, his family said, compounded the grief he was already wrestling with after losing his son five years ago.  In preparing to visit I had been watching old family movies and had found one wherein this elder relative and his son were fishing together.  I asked his children if I might bring it to show him, and their response was not surprising given how we approach suffering as a culture.  I was told that he was already surrounded by pictures and memories of his son, and that being so surrounded, he was unable to heal from his grief, and move on.  I could bring the movie they said, but, they didn’t feel it would help him move on, it could only serve to bring him more pain and grief.

Still, I brought it, and after mentioning it to him, he eagerly accepted the opportunity to watch the movie.  The first scene opened with his son behind the lens of the camera, doing the filming and the narration, and at once his voice filled the room.  I watched as he listened and as he watched himself.  First his son called him by name. “Hey dad, do you got a fish on?  Hey dad, is that a big one?”  With each naming, with each word spoken across the divide of grief, a smile spread further across his face, his eyes glistening with tears.  It was as if, in the midst of the pain of hearing his son, he was becoming a father all over again.  With joy he was receiving his identity anew.

As Brooks writes about suffering, sometimes the least logical and yet best response to suffering, instead of moving on or insulating oneself from more pain, is to make oneself open to even more hurt “Many people don’t come out [of suffering] healed; they come out different. They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically. Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that almost always involve suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them. Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability. They hurl themselves deeper and gratefully into their art, loved ones and commitments.”

And this is Easter – to face into and through this Good Friday world, to face into the darkness and grief of this world, and to remain vulnerable and open to the possibility that hope will find us in the face of another, to know and be known in and to remember who we are.

In the resurrection, like a shaft of light onto a darkened stage, we are bearing witness to the God of everything coming into our midst reclaiming and renaming us and all creation anew.  This may be a Good Friday world, but we are an Easter people. And, we have been given our lives back, our wounds still visible, but no longer defined only by them, but by the resurrection we have seen in Jesus.  Wherever we have seen lives reconciled – whether in Rwanda and South Africa, or in St. Paul or in your own home – wherever we have remained vulnerable in the face of further pain and loss, wherever grace is extended and hope offered, there is the risen Christ alive and at work in the world.  “Do not hold onto me,” he says, “but, go and tell.”

So proclaim it with your words and with your life – the world has changed, and is changing still and we with it – we have seen the Lord.  He is risen.  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!!!

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