Thursday, April 20, 2017

Easter

Christ is Risen Indeed!
Jeremiah 31:1-6
John 20:1-18

            It is understandable that there are times, at least, when we find the resurrection so distant from us that it doesn’t really affect our daily living.  We live in a cynical age, an age of pessimism and despair.  I listen to the words of popular songs on the radio.  20, 40, 50 years ago the words were things like, “Every little thing she does is magic” and “Love is all we need” and “I can see me loving nobody but you, for all my life!” and “God only knows what I’d be without you!”  But today words to popular songs on the radio include “I’m not going to write you a love song!” and “All these fairy tales are full of it, one more stupid love song, I’ll be sick!” and “Now you’re just somebody that I used to know!”  and “And now it’s clear to me that everything you see ain’t always what it seems.  Falling from cloud nine, crashing from the height.”  “Who died and made you king of anything”  “I don’t care for your fairy tales, you’re so worried about the maiden but you know she’s only waiting on the next best thing.  Once upon a time in a far away kingdom, man made up a story said that I should believe him, but go and tell your white knight while he’s handsome in hindsight, I don’t want the next best thing.”  “Gotta move on and be who I am.  I gotta do what’s best for me, You’ll be okay.” “No one said it was easy.  No one said it would be so hard.  I’m going back to the start.”  Even Christian lyrics express this broken idea of love, “How I wish we could go back to simpler times, Before all our scars and all our secrets were in the light, Now on this hallowed ground, we've drawn the battle lines, Will we make it through the night?”  Etc.
            I read a wonderful book called The Beethoven Factor by psychologist Paul Pearsall (Charlottesvill, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing, 2003).  In it he discusses what he calls the eighth deadly sin or “Acedia”.  He says, “Acedia was removed from the list of deadly sins in the sixth century by Pope Gregory the Great, but this sin of living with fatigued apathy, cynicism, ennui, and general spiritual weariness is still committed by millions every day.  In fact, languishing now far exceeds depression as the number one emotional problem in the Western world.  Unlike those whose life crisis led them to discover the capacity to thrive, flourish and savor, three of four of us are missing out on the full gift of being alive.”
And this cynicism is not just relegated to the secular world.  It exists in our churches as well.  Gil Rendle’s book,  Journey in the Wilderness (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010) looks at the alarming rate of decline in our Christian churches in the United States as well as the attempts over the last 50 years to stop the decline, to reverse the decline.  Every effort we’ve made has been unsuccessful, though we have tried many things with these different attempts.  And this does not just leave congregations fearful (especially where finances are concerned), desperate and needy.  It affects individuals and perhaps especially clergy.  There are increasingly too many clergy for the smaller number of congregations.  But it is more than that. 
Studies show that pastors work harder than ever now, with decreasing rewards as we are paid less, focus more and more energy on building our churches, and are often blamed for their decline at the same time.  I have a pastor friend of another denomination who went to a renewal of his clergy vows and was sharing with me the ethos of despair and pessimism and cynicism that he experienced among his colleagues who were there to renew their answer of “yes” to God’s call for their lives to be clergy.  They chose to do this renewal of vows because they love God and love the church, and yet there was a strong feeling of depression, of sadness, of despair, even in that renewal as they looked at the struggle to find lasting employment in declining congregations, as they struggled, sharing ideas about how to keep small congregations in shrinking denominations from dying, and realizing the many things that have been tried without success. Is it any wonder that we find stories of the resurrection distant?  Inaccessible?  Irrelevant?  That in many of our congregations people sit, even on Easter, and say “Christ is risen” as if they were saying, “It’s raining outside today” – as if it didn’t matter, as if it made no difference to their lives at all?
Does it matter? Does it make a difference? We come here every week to proclaim the good news that Christ is Risen. We come here as a statement that it does matter.  It matters more than anything else in the world. It is the deepest truth we will know and experience and it makes all the difference in our lives.  I stand here and proclaim this every week because I believe that it matters.  I do it more because I have seen that it is true.  I have experienced that it is true.  I have experienced the presence of the risen Christ, and I have experienced again and again that death, especially death for others, out of care, out of compassion, out of grace, ends with the resurrection, with renewal, with new life when we are open to God’s movement and God’s ever-changing love.  The truth that began with Jesus’ resurrection that God will raise us from death, this is a truth that transcends everything.  It is a truth that is so deep, that is so important that even our fairy tales and classic stories espouse this truth again and again and again.  What is the most popular selling book other than the Bible?  The Harry Potter series made more sales than any other book in the history of publishing except for the Bible.  And how does the series conclude?  (spoiler alert - so anyone who hasn’t read the entire series yet may want to cover their ears for a moment), 1st Cor. 15:26 is quoted in the final Harry Potter book, when Harry visits his parent’s graves. He is disturbed by these words “The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” but Hermione tells him that these are not words to be disturbed by but that they bring comfort. Harry finds that in order to stand up and defeat the evil in his world, Lord Voldemort, he has to defeat his fear of death.  It is the fear of death that he has to conquer, and to conquer it, he has to be willing to die to save his friends.  But as we know, that death, just like Jesus’ death, does not have the final word.  And while Harry Potter is a story, a fairy tale, I believe that a large part of its popularity is not just that J.K Rowling is creative and inventive, but that, like most deeply appreciated literature, it tells truths that tap deep into our psyche.  The truth of love protecting Harry against evil, the truth of love being a stronger “magic” than any other, the truth of a life lived connected to Love or God being stronger than even death, the truth of resurrection after death – all of these truths speak to us deep in our souls.
            Again, we see this in most of our classics.  The ones that are more existential in their faith end with the death – like in the Tale of Two cities – they end with the idea that love is being willing to die for another.  But the ones that speak to Christians the most tend to be the ones that include the resurrection following the death.  Authors such as Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, but also secular authors tell the same story.  And we love these books because they speak truth.  They speak the truth not only of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but of ours as well.  They speak the truth that we all need to hear, that God loves us more than we can imagine.  And that it is out of that love, out of that love that transcends everything that we are given new life after every death if we only open ourselves to the God who gives it.
If we can see this, if we can embrace this, if we can experience the resurrection, we can live, not only in the life to come, but NOW as well – letting go of our fear, letting go of our languishing, living into hardiness, happiness, healing, growth and HOPE.
            Paul Pearsall told this story in the Beethoven Factor, “There stood Beethoven, gravely ill and totally deaf.  Eyes closed, he kept conducting the orchestra even after they had ceased their performance and the audience had risen to its feet in thunderous applause.  As a singer stepped from the choir to turn him around to see those whose shouts of “bravo” resonated throughout the concert hall, tears of elation filled his eyes.  Perhaps the worst loss a composer could experience had been the catalyst for a remarkably adaptive creativity that allowed him to transcend his tortures to become immersed in the thrill of conducting the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, the “Ode to Joy”.  At that moment, and not only in spite of but because of his adversity, Beethoven had experienced the thrill of thriving through adversity.”
            As Christians we would tell the same story, with one extremely important difference.  We would put it in terms of the cross.  Because of the pain of the cross, there is a resurrection.  Because of Jesus’ willingness to die for love, new life, greater life, better life, God’s life can shine not only through Christ, but through us as well.  As a church, the story is the same.  Gil Rendle continues in his book to the promise that even for the church a resurrection is promised, though we will not know yet what that looks like.  All of us, as community and as individuals are invited into new life by the resurrection of our Lord.  Will we seize it?  Will we embrace it as we face challenges, hardships and even death?  Will we raise our voices in song, in exclamation, in praise for the God who calls us to LIVE into all the blessings of each day?  Will we say with enthusiasm and with conviction, “Christ is Risen, He is risen indeed!”  For that is the truth.  The deepest truth. 
     Christ is Risen!!

            “He is risen indeed!”