Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Threatened with Resurrection

Rev. Kathy Donley

3/27/16

 

Scripture Lesson:  Luke 24:1-12

 

The first Easter began in fear.  Luke says the women were terrified, and later in the chapter, that the eleven disciples gathered together, possibly in hiding, were startled and terrified by Jesus’ appearance.  Mark says the women were alarmed and fled in terror.  Matthew says they ran from the tomb with fear and great joy.   We tend to emphasize the great joy part of Easter.  We sing the sad, fearful songs on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, but today we celebrate.  Which is how it should be.

 

But that’s not how it began.  Easter morning began while it was barely light.   The women were likely afraid of the authorities.  Going to Jesus’ grave would make a connection between themselves and him; and perhaps lead to more suffering.  The empty tomb is like a crime scene – the body has been stolen.  Crime makes us fearful.  And then the men in dazzling clothes, presumably angels, terrify them.  All of Jesus’ followers have been through the trauma of the last few days. That trauma undoubtedly has put them on edge.  They are probably easily frightened right now, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have good reason to be afraid.

 

We already know the story.  We are not surprised by the empty tomb.  And we are in holiday mode.  We want to celebrate Easter, and so, it may be hard for us to appreciate the visceral fear of that morning. 

 

It may be easier if we reflect on our own fears, the things that wake us in the night or give us nightmares, the burst of adrenaline we feel if our mind strays to certain situations, our dread of paying bills or filing taxes, or the sick feeling that we are letting our family members down, and for some of us, even more dangerous things.

 

In his book Our Greatest Gift, Henri Nouwen wrote, “We are fearful people.  We are afraid of conflict, war, an uncertain future, illness and most of all death.  This fear takes away our freedom and gives our society the power to manipulate us with threats and promises.”  He wrote that in 1994, but it sounds like it could have been last week.    He goes on “When we can reach beyond our fears to the One who loves us with a love that was there before we were born and will be there after we die, then oppression, persecution and even death will be unable to take away our freedom”[1] 

 

“When we can reach beyond our fears to the One who loves us  . . . then oppression, persecution and even death will be unable to take away our freedom.”

 

I believe that Nouwen is absolutely correct, that there is a spiritual strength which leads to great freedom.  I also believe that many of us never experience it.

 

Perhaps a focus on the both the threat and the joy of resurrection will help unpack that idea, but first a true story:

Ten years ago, when we lived in Indiana, about this time of year, there was a horrific traffic accident.  A van with students and staff from Taylor University was hit when a semi-truck driver fell asleep and crossed the median.  Five students and one staff member died at the scene.  Someone had the difficult task of notifying all those parents and family members.  Six people had died.  There was enormous grief in each student’s home community and in the Taylor University community.  Two more staff and one student were injured and hospitalized.   The student, whose name was Laura, was very seriously injured and non-responsive. Laura’s parents rushed to her bedside.  She was in a coma with a neck collar on and tubes and monitors attached to her.   She was so battered and swollen from the accident that she unrecognizable.  Before they got to her room, the doctors prepared them for how hard it might be to see her in that state.  Her parents and her sister kept vigil at the hospital for 5 weeks. Five weeks of praying for her recovery, of monitoring any and all signs of progress, of phone calls back home to Michigan to update the rest of the family.   And then, finally, Laura regained consciousness . . . only she wasn’t Laura.  Her name was Whitney.  She was another Taylor University student who had been on that van with Laura.  The two young women had each been mis-identified. 

 

Whitney’s family had been informed that Whitney had died.  Fourteen hundred people attended her funeral five weeks earlier.   Her college degree had been awarded posthumously.  For over a month, her family and friends had been certain that Whitney was dead, but now she wasn’t.  For over a month, Laura’s family had been by her bedside, watching her heartbeat on the monitors, but now they learned, she had died 5 weeks earlier.   

 

The angels say to the women at the tomb “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”  It completely confounds their expectations.  They know that Jesus died.  They watched him be buried.  If someone had said to Whitney’s parents, “Why are you visiting her in the cemetery?  Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” it would not have made any sense to them.    If we can imagine how difficult it must have been for both families to understand and come to terms with what had happened – then maybe we get a better sense of how perplexing it was for the women at the tomb. 

 

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?”     The angels meant it literally – Jesus was alive and living people don’t dwell in tombs.  The angels meant it on a literal level, but it’s a good question on a metaphorical level too.  

 

Why do we seek the living among the dead?  Why are we living as if we are dead? Why do we expect to find life by holding on to that which deadens us, which dulls our senses, and diminishes our joy?  “Why do we cling to deadly bigotries, toxic worry, unchangeable past mistakes?  As a country, why do we expect war, torture, capital punishment, mass incarceration and the widening gap between rich and poor to be life-giving?”[2]  

 

One theologian says, “We want to tend the corpses of long dead ideas and ideals.  We cling to former visions of ourselves and our churches as if they might come back to life as long as we hold onto them.  We grasp our loved ones too tightly, refusing to allow them to change, to become bigger, or smarter, or stronger.  We choose to stay with what we know in our hearts to be dead, because it is safe, malleable, and so susceptible to [improvement in our private memory].”[3]

 

The angels ask “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” That question challenges us to let go of everything which is dead and death-dealing.  The power of Resurrection, which is fundamentally the power of Love, calls us into new life and radical freedom, the kind of freedom that outlasts oppression, persecution and even death.

 

Julia Esquivel knows something of that power.  She is a Presbyterian poet from Guatemala.  She has worked as a teacher, principal, and pastoral social worker.  Because of her work on behalf of the poor and oppressed in Guatemala, she was threatened and harassed by police and the army for many years.  She narrowly escaped kidnapping, arrest and assassination.  Finally, in 1980, she was forced to go into exile to save her life.  From exile, she continued speaking about the suffering in her country and the hope she found in the gospel.  One of her poems is called “Threatened with Resurrection”.  In it, she speaks of those who have been massacred and are now dead, as if they are threatening the living with Resurrection.  She says,

What keeps us from sleeping
is that they have threatened us with Resurrection!
Because every evening
though weary of killings,
an endless inventory since 1954,
yet we go on loving life
and do not accept their death! 

They have threatened us with Resurrection
Because we have felt their inert bodies,
and their souls penetrated ours
doubly fortified,
because in this marathon of Hope,
there are always others to relieve us
who carry the strength
to reach the finish line
which lies beyond death.
[4]

 

Julia understands Jesus’ resurrection as a sign of victory over the oppressive powers of sin and the equally oppressive powers of politics, economics, hostility and war.  To affirm Resurrection is to affirm Life, and to affirm that life by steadfastly and continually opposing the death-dealing of injustice, oppression and all forms of sin and evil.

Resurrection is a joyful victory.  It is also a challenge to live life in all its fullness, in the radical freedom and strength that comes from knowing the God who loves us before we are born and beyond our death.

As Julia says, Resurrection is threatening.  On that first Easter, it was threatening, de-stabilizing, to the women and the apostles who would have mourned Jesus and then gone back to their normal lives.  Instead they went on living out the gospel, and many of them went all the way to crosses of their own.  It was threatening to the political and religious authorities who thought that they had safely buried Jesus and his message.  It is always threatening to anyone who would rather go on as if the cross were the end of the story.[5]  Those who seek the living among the dead.  Those who cling to bigotry and hostility, those who stay within the safe margins of what is familiar, those who are perfectly content with systems that enable our deathly ways of life while impoverishing and destroying others.

But for those who are less committed to the world as it is, the good news of resurrection is a game changer.  The church has long been guilty of promising people life after death, but Resurrection says that there’s life before death too.  Abundant life.   Life in all its fullness. Resurrection is most threatening when we who believe in it simply refuse to act as though we are dead, but instead embrace its challenge and its joy.

Howard Thurman, that great African-American theologian from the last century said, “Don’t ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.  Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” 

People who have come fully alive – that’s the threat of Resurrection. 

Julia ends her poem like this:

That is the whirlwind
which does not let us sleep,
the reason why sleeping, we keep watch,
and awake, we dream.

 . . .

It is the internal cyclone of kaleidoscopic struggle
which will heal that wound of [the fallen]
it is the earthquake soon to come
that will shake the world
and put everything in its place.

No, brother,
it is not the noise in the streets
which does not let us sleep.

Join us in this vigil
and you will know what it is to dream!
Then you will know how marvelous it is
to live threatened with Resurrection!

To dream awake,
to keep watch asleep,
to live while dying,
and to know ourselves already
resurrected!
[6]

 

Sisters and brothers, Christ is risen

and we are threatened with Resurrection!

 


[1] Henri Nouwen, Our Greatest Gift: A Meditation on Dying and Caring (New York:  HarperCollins, 1994), p. 16

[2] Jeff Paschal in Feasting on the Gospels, Luke, Volume2, Cynthia Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson, editors, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2014)   p. 347

 

[3] Nancy Claire Pittman in Feasting on the Word Year C, Volume 2, David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, general editors,  (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009) p. 351.

  

[4] Julia Esquivel, Threatened with Resurrection; Prayers and Poems from an Exiled Guatemalan Ann Woehrle, trans. (Elgin, Illinois: Brethren Press, 1994).

 

[5] Justo Gonzalez, Luke, Belief Commentary Series, (Louisville:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010) , p. 276

 

[6] The poem, translated into English, may be found at this link: https://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/spiritus/v003/3.1esquivel.html

 

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