Easter: April 21, 2019 Luke 24:1-12; Philippians 4
A few months ago I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts with Kate Bowler and she was interviewing a woman by the name of Margaret Feinberg. Feinberg was sharing how she had been writing a book about Joy several years ago, and from what I could tell in the interview, it seemed like a fitting topic for her personality. Even through my earbuds she was enthusiastic, energetic, very bubbly— someone that seemed very fun to hang out with. It made sense to me that she would be writing a book on joy. But then Feinberg went on to say that two weeks before she was going to turn in that manuscript to her publisher, after months and months of research and editing and getting it exactly right, Margaret was diagnosed with breast cancer. She was in her 30’s at the time, so it was a rather aggressive form of cancer, and she found that her life turned upside down. All of a sudden she was faced with medical appointments, treatment plans, and the side effects of all of the treatments, while still trying to work as a speaker and author full-time. Her husband is her manager, so without her speaking engagements, they would have no income and no way to fund their medical insurance, so she would save up all of her energy until she would go on stage, facing this new reality of living with cancer. In the midst of it all, she found that she could no longer publish the book she had written. Her book was all about finding joy in the really great times of life, and little of it seemed relevant to her anymore. So Feinberg ended up writing a completely different book, a book still about joy, but about what joy looks like when things look vastly different than we want them to. (1)
The women disciples went out early to put spices in the tomb. These are the same women who wailed as Jesus died. The same ones who watched as Jesus’ body was taken off of the cross. The same women who followed Joseph, the one who carried Jesus’ body to the tomb, so that they would know where to go to find Jesus’ body after the Sabbath. And when they get to the tomb early in the morning, what they find is enough to make them want to go back home. Did you notice the words used to describe the women’s reactions to seeing the stone already rolled away, the body gone, the angels? Words like perplexed; terrified; they bowed their faces to the ground. These are women who have seen too much, who are weighed down with grief, who are not ready to be surprised by what God is up to.
We often treat this day of Easter, this morning of resurrection as a morning of our strongest faith— everyone comes to proclaim the risen Christ and to do so with a resounding Alleluiah! But I there was no one to declare any certainties on that first morning. Instead, these followers of Jesus came to God in wonder and awe. Today is not a day to pretend we know everything, but rather a day to say quietly the one thing we do know: we worship a God of resurrection.
Herod and Pilate, the government leaders who were used to controlling things around them— they knew what to do when people got a little too excited for their taste, when an uprising seemed to be on the horizon. They thought that they could squash it all by nailing Jesus to a cross and watching his followers disperse. But apparently they didn’t know this God. And the religious leaders that handed Jesus over? The ones who were experts in the law and in Scripture, why didn’t they see this coming? They knew the story of how God’s Spirit hovered over the waters of chaos and brought life and love, and proclaimed everything good. They knew the stories of their ancestors who, though enslaved, followed God’s pillar of fire out of Egypt and into the promised land. They knew the story of Ezekiel— how this prophet of Israel in a time when everywhere you looked there was only death and war and violence— how God gave Ezekiel a vision of life coming out of the ashes— of bones rising up to live again. They knew all of those stories and more— so many more—we could make a grand list this morning if we wanted to. The Bible is full of stories of God’s unrelenting, life-giving, resurrection-making joy. Do you remember the name that God gave Moses when Moses asked God who he should say sent him to Pharaoh to let the people go? God said, tell them “I AM” sent you. Our God is a verb. Our God is a God who is on the move because God is always creating, restoring, healing, forgiving, loving. They thought they could break Jesus by nailing him to a cross. They thought they could control what God was up to. Instead, their actions broke open God’s love to spread everywhere into the world through the risen Christ. (3)
The Quaker author, Parker Palmer, writes, “...Your heart will at times be broken by loss, failure, defeat, betrayal, or death. What happens next in you and the world around you depends on how your heart breaks. If it breaks apart into a thousand pieces, the result may be anger, depression, and disengagement. If it breaks open into greater capacity to hold the complexities and contradictions of the human experience, the result may be new life.” (4)
God invites us, in our suffering, in our grief, in our fear, to allow our hearts to be broken open instead of apart. God invites us through the beauty of this world; through the laughter of our children; through the connection we have with one another, to allow our hearts to be broken open. Through Jesus’ life, the disciples’ hearts were broken open as they witnessed and participated in Jesus’ ministry of healing and transformation. Then in his death and then his resurrection, we see that their hearts continue to break open, continue to deepen in their ability to love God and the world. But it wasn’t an instant joy. Did you hear what the disciples say to the women when the women disciples tell them about the empty tomb? In the NRSV it is translated as nonsense, and in other translations as an idle tale. But that’s putting it pretty mildly. In the Greek, the word “leros”, literally means garbage. They thought what the women were telling them was garbage— and yes, there are more profane ways I could express it. These friends of Jesus don’t want to hear fake truths. They don’t want to look on the brighter side of life. They don’t want false promises. They are in the depths of despair. They have experienced significant trauma. Their hope and their understanding of God died with Jesus. And they don’t know what to do. (5)
And it is there, in the midst of that darkness that Jesus comes to them and speaks peace to them, invites their hearts to break open instead of apart, so that they can participate in the healing of the world. The disciples don’t get to a place of joy in our reading this morning. But they will get there. And that joy will not erase their suffering. It won’t even replace what they have lost. And it doesn’t necessarily even mean that they would choose to go through it in that same way if given the choice. But they will find joy— immense, unimaginable joy— when they are able to accept the gift of the resurrection— that Jesus is now in all places at all times, continuing to share love and forgiveness and life.
Paul wrote to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice... Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4)
This is said not from someone who has never dealt with anything difficult. No, this is written by a man whose life has been turned upside down because he has chosen to follow Christ. Paul originally, as a religious leader, heard the stories of resurrection and he too thought they were garbage. He chose to persecute those who were spreading that garbage. But then Jesus appeared to Paul— the risen Christ came to Paul and Paul experienced joy like he’d never experienced it before. So Paul gave up everything— a solid career, prestige, wealth, status. He endured a lot of suffering to share what he now knew about this risen Christ. Theologian Bruce Jenson says that is how you can tell that Jesus is now alive. People who are alive still surprise us. Notable people who have died, former Presidents or famous writers, philosophers, scientists— all of their work is studied and still influences, persuades, makes a difference in our world today; but they do not surprise us. Jesus, the risen Christ, surprised the heck out of Paul. And he spent the rest of his life trying to share the joy he found in following Christ. (2)
Perhaps you’ve experienced this Jesus, who keeps on surprising us. Perhaps you’ve experienced the risen Christ when you have walked through a divorce and found healing on the other side; perhaps you’ve experienced the risen Christ when someone you loved has died and you have gotten to a place not where you have stopped grieving, but a place where you now remember the joyful times too. Maybe you’ve experienced the risen Christ in a place in your life that you thought was dead, and then something shifts— a stone rolls away— and you realize that that part of you is very much alive again.
That is God’s unrelenting joy. God does not abandon us in our suffering; God does not leave us when the going gets tough; God does not go off to find easier times. God invites us to have our hearts broken open, to let God in, so that we can delight in God’s love. God beckons us to trust in resurrection on the other side of our darkness, to put our full trust in God’s grace. And there we will find the deep, abiding, relentless joy that only God can bring. Thank God for resurrection!
1) Kate Bowler’s Podcast, “Everything Happens” 2) WillWillimon.wordpress.com 3) Alan Storey at mannaandmercy.org 4) Healing the Heart of Democracy by Parker Palmer 5) Workingpreacher.org