Sermon Preached Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014
There’s a story making the rounds about a woman who looked out of her kitchen window one day to see her German shepherd shaking the life out of a neighbor's rabbit. Her family did not get along well with the people next door, so she knew this was going to be a disaster.
She managed to distract the dog with a broom until he dropped the now extremely dead rabbit. She panicked. She did not know what to do. So she grabbed the rabbit, took it inside, gave it a bath, blow dried it to its original fluffiness, combed it out until the rabbit was looking good, snuck into the neighbor's yard, and propped the dead rabbit back up in its cage. An hour later she heard screams coming from next door. She called over the fence, "What's wrong?" and the neighbor said, "Our rabbit! Our rabbit! He died a week ago. We buried him, and now he's back!"
People in the ancient world knew dead rabbits tend to stay dead. They also knew that dead rabbis tend to stay dead, too. The theologian N. T. Wright notes that there were many messianic movements in the first century. And in every case, the would-be Messiah got crucified by Rome just as Jesus did. But not in one, single other case do we hear the slightest mention of the disappointed followers claiming their hero had been raised from the dead. They knew better."
That’s what makes our story different. It is so implausible that it has to be true…you couldn’t make it up! We know the end of the story of Jesus’s death on the cross. We’ve had the spoiler alert. And yet, we come back again and again…we LOVE the story of Easter.
On Good Friday, I got a facebook message from my friend Mary, sending all her colleagues in ministry a prayer. She prayed that we would just simply and faithfully tell the story: Of women in the dawn hush ...of men running half-believing ...of rolled stones and folded grave-clothes ...of a supposed gardener saying the name of a crying woman ...of sad walkers encountering a stranger on the road ...of an empty tomb and... of overflowing hearts. We’re here to hear the story again.
Many people go to extraordinary lengths to avoid hearing the end of a story — films they haven't seen yet or books they haven't read yet. They get very upset if they learn the ending. The famous movie reviewer Roger Ebert once warned his fellow critics that they don’t have the right to play the spoiler. But there was an interesting study a couple of years ago from two researchers at the University of California, San Diego. The study suggests that spoilers don't spoil stories. Instead, contrary to popular wisdom, they might even enhance our enjoyment of a story. The study ran three experiments based on 12 short stories. Each version of the story was read by at least 30 people. Surprisingly, the researchers found that the participants preferred the "spoiled" versions of suspenseful stories. For example, in one case, participants were told before reading the story that a condemned man's daring escape is all just a fantasy before the noose snaps around his neck. That spoiler alert helped people enjoy the story more.
One of the researchers had a theory about why people liked getting a spoiler alert. He said, "It could be that once you know how [the story] turns out … you're more comfortable processing the information and you can focus on a deeper understanding of the story."
We hear the Easter story, again and again every year. We love the story, and it doesn’t hurt at all that we know the ending…in fact I think it’s true: It helps us enjoy it more and maybe, if we allow it to, it might lead us to a deeper understanding.
Because that’s what I want to uncover this morning. I want to uncover what impact the Easter story has on your life. How does the resurrection shape and form the way you live? And do you really know the story for yourself? I wonder if we might just accept it as we’ve been told it, without really experiencing resurrection ourselves? I’ve been thinking about these things for some time now. And I found an image that I think captures the conundrum.
This is a painting by Frank Wesley. I found it in a book by Naomi Way called Exploring Faith with a Brush. I’ve seen two names attributed to the painting. On Frank Wesley’s website it’s called "The Two Marys and the Tomb." In the book, it’s called“As It Began to Dawn” - I like this second title much better. I came upon the image about six months ago while I was on retreat in TX and I was immediately drawn to it — I adopted it as my personal icon during the retreat and used it to guide my prayer time. When I came home, I made it the wall paper on my computer, so I’ve seen it hundreds of times. And every time I do, I find it to be a striking image. It’s a moment within that first verse of our reading from Matthew: “Early on Sunday morning, as the new day was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went out to see the tomb.” I believe the painting captures the precise moment, when, the tomb first comes in to view. It’s just barely getting light, perhaps misty fog was hanging in the air.
It’s a captivating and haunting image, all at once. The Mary in the foreground is the older woman. She is bent with grief; beyond consolation. Her gaze is blind, downward, she is not open to any other answer than what she knows in her pain. The other Mary, the younger woman, has her arm protectively around the older. She’s looking up, perhaps at something that surprises her. It is the moment when suddenly, there is a new possibility — that there may be a different ending to the story. Her faces registers confusion, but there’s a flash of hope there too.
Two Marys, and two very different ways of experiencing the moment of possibility. For me, they have merged into one person, representative of myself perhaps — two sides of the same person that lives and experiences life and faith in very different ways.
There are well-known theories in psychology that suggest we all hold differing images of ourselves. How you understand yourself or yourselves affects the way we live, make choices, and choose pathways for ourselves. The past decade has had an explosion of research into this from the fields of psychology, neuroscience and behavioral economics. The traditional model of how we make choices is centered around psychic conflict, warring parts of the mind, instinct vs. reason, id against ego, unconscious motivations avoiding conscious recognition that sort of thing. It sounds like a lot of psycho-babble if it weren’t also true to our experience. We have two-sides to ourselves. Maybe it’s the inward and outward self, maybe it’s the physical and spiritual self. If you dig deep enough, you’ll uncover this incongruity — where something doesn’t match up. The research paints a picture of human intellect or reason as fighting forces within us that lead us astray. But there has always been an optimism about overcoming these influences through self-awareness and discipline. I will add one more reason to have confidence that we can introduce the two sides of ourselves to each other, and in the process become a whole person. Easter is what gives me this hope.
Let me give you a very simple example. I have two selves that often butt heads in the morning. I sometimes have trouble getting myself to do the things I love to do, like taking an early morning walk. I love to walk, I really do. So why don’t I do it all the time? When I take a walk, I experience both ups and downs. I love the early morning before the sun comes up, it’s a great time for thinking and praying, this time of year the birds are singing – which is an added incentive. These are the reasons I love to walk. But there are also down-sides to taking a walk, like getting out of bed (I’ve been known to have a bad snooze button habit). I also get painful shin splints sometimes, and blisters on my feet and if I push myself into a jog as I know I should, I get really winded. So when I think of taking a walk, my two selves argue about it all the time. Which will win? The self who treasures life-giving, pleasurable activity of walking? Or the self that indulges the sleep-inducing, lethargic choice of staying in bed?
Now let’s be clear…I don’t think it’s supposed to be this way. It just is this way. It is a consequence of our human condition. Our fate was sealed back in the Garden of Eden – our two selves: the life receiver, obedient to God, and the death-receiver, the one who turns away from God to serve his own selfish desires. There are parts of ourselves that are glorious — we soar above the angels when we have it all together. Our best selves are creative, caring, vital and thankful — all the time. Our worst selves are full of doubt, driven by fear, stooped by pain and struggling just to put one foot in front of the other much of the time. Who wins for you most days? Is it your best self or your worst self? I think at best I’m usually trying to strike a balance between the two. But even that isn’t as God intends it. God intends that we be wholly and completely alive.
In his book, A New Harmony, John Philip Newell talks about this problem. The problem of our fragmented selves. He quotes the famous psychologist Karl Jung, who said that wholeness in a person is about “integration . . . but not perfection.” Newell goes on to say that wholeness is about bringing into relationship again the many parts of our lives, including our brokenness, in order to experience transformation. It is not about forgetting the wound or pretending it didn’t happen. It is about seeking a new beginning that grows inseparably out of the suffering. It is not about returning to Eden, an unblemished state of innocence within us or between us. It is about bringing our origin in Eden, the root that connects us still to the sacredness of our beginnings, into the depths of our exile from Eden, including all of the woundedness that false decisions and wrong turns have created within us and between us in our lives.
This painting tells the beginning of the story. The two women and the way they met the dawning of the new day. But after the earthquake, after the stone is rolled away, after the angels tells them the amazing news, Verse 8 says: " They left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” Their sorrow, their grief, their brokenness was made whole and turned to joy. They were transformed...the resurrection made them new.
If we are to take the Easter story and own it for ourselves, Christ’s resurrection means that new life is available to all. Easter is a dying and rebirth — a chance to move forward with a wholeness that has eluded us until now. Christ died so that all that is broken in us may die with him. Christ rose so that we might be wholly alive. Knowing the end of the story helps us to own it and take its meaning into our own lives.
That is our story, and when we live it and experience the resurrection with Jesus Christ, we truly own the good news ourselves. Allow that which is life-draining to die on the cross. Allow that which is new and life giving to be reborn from the empty tomb.
Because death is not the last word. Grief is not the last word. Brokenness is not the last word. Fear is not the last word. Violence is not the last word. Hate is not the last word. Betrayal and failure are not the last word. No: each of them are left like folded grave clothes in a tomb, and from that tomb, arises Christ, alive. May we arise this day with Him.