Monday, April 21, 2014

Easter Incongruity

Sermon notes for Easter, 2014.

Nearly fifteen years ago this autumn, my wife and I both arrived in the Bay Area within weeks of each other from two very different parts of the world. But it didn’t matter if you came from western Japan or the American heartland: the Bay Area was just as expensive and roiling with newcomers scrambling all over each other to get it while the getting was good. Some of you will remember the dot com bubble, and perhaps some of you, like me, find our current milieu eerily similar.

It seems we live again in a familiarly cynical, self-absorbed time. Business-as-usual involves 101 turning into a parking lot twice a day, sky-rocketing housing prices, old neighborhoods being rapidly gentrified by bidding wars, and an almost palpable feeling that you’d better get yours while the getting’s good.

It always strikes me during Holy Week and into Easter how incongruous, how out-of-step our observance of these high holiest days of the Christian year appear against the backdrop of Southern Marin and the wider Bay Area. And this year felt conspicuously incongruous, as stopping for time only to think about where we are headed and why might just lose us the race. Even more would stopping from business-as-usual long enough to think about a God who dared to risk everything for us – even death on a cross.

To paraphrase another passage of Christian scripture, the cross is foolishness to the world. Resurrection more so. A society of winners and losers depends on the certainty of death and a kind of inevitability for the victors. That is how the world is built and maintained. Even if we don’t always see it, we feel it in our exhaustion and uneasiness with the present time and how it distracts us from the warmth and beauty of a spring day, or the scents of the flowers, or dulls and anesthetizes us from the pain and wonder of those priceless gifts the world has not yet invented a way to commoditize: love, generosity, and compassion.

And yet we are here. Like Jesus’ first disciples at the tomb.

Those first followers gathered at Jesus’ tomb must have also felt – to the core of their being – the sudden incongruity of their lives with business-as-usual. Business-as-usual meant the Sabbath in Jerusalem was over, and much of the population was back at work for a new week. The religious authorities were poring over their latest dust-up with a charismatic pretender who had threatened both their tightly held traditions and their fragile economic/political agreement with the Roman occupation. But fragile as it was, they had come to rely on it for their prestige and power. And with the death of Jesus and the dispersion of his followers, that fragile alliance would hold. Pilate, governor of the occupation, and the garrisons under him had just executed another criminal and rabble-rouser: probably one of many during his tenure. Crucifixion was always a handy way to frighten and shame the locals into line and get rid of threats to the Pax Romana at the same time. So the tribute to Rome from this dusty, irascible, little country in the backwaters of empire would keep flowing for the foreseeable future. The Roman occupation could start a new week resting on its laurels that the drama of the weekend was satisfactorily resolved. They had done their jobs, and business could go on as usual.

But not so for the disciples at the tomb. They had planted their lives in a different garden, in an economic and sociological dead-end, a graveyard far outside the halls of power – about as far away as you could get. Jesus had taught them not to base their lives, their essence and hearts, on the rat race as they had known it. And much good that did them. Now they were far beyond the reach of the comfort of business-as-usual, stuck with a dead teacher, prophet, rabbi, and friend. And who needs a dead Messiah? They didn’t. And even if they had the imagination and savvy to turn him into a political martyr, his closest supporters and friends were scattered in fear, with no political alliances to leverage with any effect. In the tomb with Jesus was the dead barest beginnings of a revolution called “the kingdom of God.” The kingdoms of the world had defeated the Jesus revolution, cutting it down even before it had a chance to fully take root, crushing it under the heel of human empire, the well-practiced art of manipulating the mob, and the weighty, inevitable structures of economic and military hegemony.

And so imagine their surprise when they find the tomb empty, the stone rolled away!

When Mary Magdalene encounters the Risen Christ, how can she but mistake him as the gardener? That would be business-as-usual: the only expected stranger we might encounter in the company of the tombs and the dead.

It will take her, and Jesus’ other followers, a moment—or more than a few – for them to perceive the Risen Christ. And it will take a whole community to help us realize what the resurrection means…

God in the Risen Christ tells us it will no longer be business-as-usual. Something fundamental has changed, and God has broken into the world, rolling away the stones of tombs and ushering new life for the dead. The race the world offers is unmasked and emptied of its power over us. We are offered a different kind of life: one not rooted in fear, death, and competition of a cynical and self-absorbed age. Instead we are offered a life that conquers fear and death with abiding compassion, love for others, and unimaginable grace. So the question for us this Easter, then, is this:

Will we decide to continue business-as-usual? Or will we look where the women of the Gospel looked: into the margins, the graveyards, the dead ends of our lives and souls and those of others? Perhaps the incongruity of the broken bread and the common cup will awaken us this Easter to discover Christ rising to new life, the Jesus revolution arising again among us. Perhaps we will uncover our calling again as Christians to “turn the whole world upside down” in ways the world cannot understand, recognize, nor ably oppose.

The weapons of the Jesus revolution, after all, are not fear, guns and steel; nor are they venture capital, hedge funds, and technological innovation.  They are instead compassion, generosity, forbearance, forgiveness, and that wild peace in the face of death that resurrection engenders: a peace that signals our freedom from the final tool the world employs against us, death itself. And these priceless Easter virtues are here for the taking. Will you take them up again?

We remember today this promise: we are first and foremost an Easter people. This world will pass away, just as did the Roman Empire and many kingdoms since. Jesus lives forever. And so, then, might our truest selves born anew in him: our Easter selves, fresh as the spring, fragrant as the flowers, powerful as the seasons, and given as new life for everyone.

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