Friday, April 17, 2009

easter for disoriented people (psalm 30)

It is the middle of the night, you’re sleeping, and something wakes you up. A family pet makes a sound, or the phone rings, it’s a wrong number, someone trying to reach someone else, or it’s the wind moving the branches of trees around you. It is disorienting, and you find it difficult to fall asleep again.

I’m glad that it is Easter. I love the season of Lent, it appeals to the disciplined part of my nature, but given everything that has happened over the past few months, it seems like the whole world has been observing Lent. We’ve all been profoundly affected by the global economic crisis--- the ranks of the hungry and homeless are swelling, we have been cutting back in a variety of ways, retirement accounts have lost value, friends have lost jobs ---we live in disorienting times. I’m ready for Easter. I need this, and surely we all need this!

When we open the Bible, we discover that it is filled with disoriented people: Abraham called to go into a far country, Israel in slavery to Pharaoh, wandering in the wilderness for a generation, then seeing their empire/kingdom disintegrate before their very eyes, then they are sent into exile.

We see the disciples and the religious leaders who don’t quite know what to do with Jesus; the disciples don’t get it, the religious leaders get it but they don’t like it. We see Jesus who wonders if he has been abandoned by God, who knows that he has been betrayed by his friends, who is then crucified by his enemies. On Friday evening we gathered here in the darkness, to remember and perform and re-tell this story. The Bible records this long journey of suffering, and one of the images for this experience is night. The night can be chaotic, uncertain and dangerous. “I cried to you for help”, we read twice in Psalm 30. When we are disoriented we find ourselves laying awake at night. Maybe we are worried? Confused? Cistracted? Angry?

What keeps you awake at night? Knowing that there are people in our community without shelter? Knowing that there are children in our world who are being sold into slavery? Knowing there are people with gifts and abilities and initiative in our community, but with no meaningful work? Knowing there are people who do not know that God loves them?

Or, perhaps, it’s more personal: the loss of someone close; or the death of a dream; disappointment with yourself, or with God; guilt over the sins you have committed together with our whole sinful society; trying to figure out your place in the grand scheme of things, or wondering if there is a grand scheme of things?

What keeps you awake at night? Sometimes there is much that is wrong in our world, in our lives, we sense this and it bothers us. At other times, we are oblivious to it. Sometimes we are not even aware of this need, we are anesthetized to the pain and the guilt by entertainment or medication or diversion. A prominent political leader was asked what he thought about torture, and he responded, “ I sleep like a baby”. Sometimes we are “sleepwalking through life”, having grown accustomed to the status quo.

When we become comfortable, how does God get our attention? Throughout history God has spoken through dreams and visions, this is one of the ways God enters into our unconscious life. Otherwise, we might not “get it”. The Bible can be understood as an extended unified narrative in which God seeks to get our attention through his mighty acts: a beautiful and glorious creation; an act of political liberation; a set of laws; the voices of prophets, reminding us to worship God, to keep the laws, to remember the poor; and lastly, and most dramatically of all, he sends his own son---a perfect human being, the completely sacrificial life, the redemptive and yet grotesque death on a cross.

One of my favorite authors is Flannery O’Connor, a native of Milledgeville, Georgia, which is in the very center of my home state. In her lifetime she was overshadowed by other Southern authors such as Truman Capote and Carson McCullers, who were much more popular, but in the last twenty-five years their works have faded, while she has risen in stature, to be compared alongside figures like Faulkner and Hemingway. A devout Catholic, she died of Lupus at the age of only thirty-nine.

O’Connor’s short stories are filled with memorable characters, misfits and freaks: a hitchhiker kills the bickering multigenerational family who gives him a ride; a woman marries off her mentally challenged daughter to a one-armed tramp; a hypocritical Bible salesman meets a woman who has been crippled by a hunting accident, seduces her and steals her wooden leg; a mentally disturbed Wellesley student throws her copy of a Human Development textbook at the more proper middle aged woman who has been staring at her and calling her white trash. I could go on.

Flannery O’Connor was once asked why she chose to express herself in this way? She replied, “writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse and for the unacceptable…To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures…”

EASTER is just such a story. There is nothing measured, gradual, or predictable about it. It is not like a flower breaking through the ground, winter becoming spring. It is an earthquake, a massive stone rolling away, an unsettling conversation with an angel (a messenger? a gardener? someone I know?) It is the veil of the temple being ripped into. It is the risen Lord appearing to Saul, who has persecuted him, Peter, who betrayed him, Mary, who grieved the loss of him. It is disorienting, it is enough to wake us up! It is the riveting and true story that is at the center of life for all who have faith. As Karl Barth, the great theologian has written:

“In Jesus, God himself came into the world, which he had created and against all odds still loved…It happened through this man on the cross that God cancelled out and swept away all our human wickedness, our pride, our anxiety, our greed and our false pretences, whereby we had continually offended him and made life difficult, if not impossible, for ourselves and for others. He crossed out what had made our life fundamentally terrifying, dark and distressing…He did away with it. It is no longer part of us, it is behind us. In Jesus God made the day break after the long night and spring come after the long winter.”

The women come to the tomb while it was still dark, they can’t sleep. Mary is standing outside. “Why are you weeping?”, she is asked. Her response is practical: “if you have taken the body away, tell me where it is!” Why is she weeping? Why would we be weeping? We weep because we grieve a loss: Loss of hope in a secure future that we had imagined? Loss of hope because our sin seems to have permanently enslaved us? Into the loss, into the darkness, into the grief and guilt, there is an intervention. In the Psalm, God intervenes. “You have drawn me up”, Psalm 30. 1; “You have healed me”, Psalm 30. 2; “You have brought up my soul from have restored me to life”, Psalm 30. 3.

And so the intervention prompts a second question. We move from “What keeps you up at night?,” to “What brings you joy?” The Psalm gives us a vivid picture of this transformation: You have turned our mourning into dancing. I will confess here that I am a terrible dancer, and my wife---and we have been married for many years---knows this. It was so when we met. I could square dance a little, but she would quickly say, “that’s not dancing!” She was a girl from the Carolinas, I was from Georgia. In Georgia they have never heard of shagging, and God did not give me the natural abilities to learn how to do it.

If mourning is about death, dancing is about life (we dance at weddings, in hopes of yet another generation to come). You have turned our mourning into dancing. In reading this psalm and planning for this day, the image that kept coming to mind was our Winter Wonderland dance, and everyone, and included in that number the Joy Class, out there dancing in Charter Hall.

A member of our church had come to me with the idea for that evening: “Could we have a dance?” “Yes,” I said. “Do you really think it would be ok?” “Yes, it will be ok.” “It will be a real dance, are you sure? “It will be great.”Where did we get the idea that dancing was not appropriate in church? You have turned our mourning into dancing. A friend reminded me of a wonderful insight of G. K. Chesterton: “The essential difference between the medieval and modern worlds is that “the medievals envisioned life as a great dance, whereas we envision it as a mad race.”

You have taken off my sackcloth, and clothed me with joy.

Joy. And so, if I asked you the question, “what keeps you up at night?”, it is also fair enough to ask a second question: “what brings you joy?” What brings me joy? Our daughters’ celebrating a national championship in basketball. Sharing a chili dinner with the homeless. Listening to that viola last Sunday. The anticipation of a few days in the mountains this spring and summer, and seeing the Braves, once or twice. Cooking out on a grill with friends. The sheer joy of watching the Joy Class dance on that winter evening. I could go on…

Mostly, what brings me joy is the promise of the Easter Gospel, which is the word after the last word on the cross, the word spoken from the throne in the Revelation to John, the promise that “God will wipe away every tear, that death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the one who is seated on the throne says, “Behold, I make all things new (21. 4-5).

This brings me joy. Flannery O’ Connor was right. I am sometimes hard of hearing, and at other times I am almost blind. I need the choir to shout it all out for me! And I need an unmistakable sign: a rainbow, maybe, or an empty tomb and a risen Lord! In disorienting times, we need ears to hear and eyes to see. What brings you joy? We think we have heard the last word. Like Saul, we think our rebellion against God is the last word, but there is the Risen Christ: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Like Peter, we think our betrayal is the last word, but there is the Risen Christ: “Peter, do you love me?” Like Mary, we think our grief is the last word, but there is the risen Christ, speaking her name: “Mary.”

We think we have heard the last word: weeping may linger for a night. But there is a word after that: Joy comes in the morning. Brothers and sisters, believe the Good News. It is no longer the middle of the night, thank God.

The Lord is risen. The Lord is risen indeed!

Morning has broken!

*Thanks to Ben Witherington and Ralph Wood who read this sermon prior to my preaching, and to Bishop Grant Hagiya for his devotional on Psalm 30 at the Ministry Study Commission in March.


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