01 Apr, 2018

We Will Rise Up

01 Apr, 2018

We Will Rise Up

by Louise Westfall

The Easter proclamation according to Mark, in the sixteenth chapter at the first verse.  Hear the good news!

16 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.[a]

Believing takes practice. Madeline L’Engle made the point in A Wrinkle in Time, but it could also provide commentary on this account of the Resurrection.

The text is immersed in disbelief: Who will roll away the stone sealing Jesus’ grave?  Who is this messenger and what does he mean?  And in the end, the women are frightened into silence.  Immobilized by an encounter they could not comprehend.  Certain they would not be believed (and they had good reason; in those days a woman’s testimony was not admissible even in a court of law).   I read the text this year and could not help but think of the women in our time fearful of speaking up and not being believed.

The #MeToo movement has freed women’s voices to speak out about their experiences of sexual abuse and professional misconduct.  Truths once shrouded in secrecy have been brought to light, to the effect of healing, new understanding, a different reality.

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome came to believe.  Perhaps even before they understood, they found their voices and courageously spoke their truth.  Jesus has been raised from death.    For how else did the disciples come to know?  How else would we know, but through the testimony of others?  The good news the women shared changed everything.

Fear and love.  Many have concluded that those are the two most powerful dynamics in human life, ones that determine outcomes, shape decisions, provide motivation, and build the foundation for life.  Fear or love.   Which is it?  That is the essential question to ask on Easter.  Jesus was raised from death, and that changes everything.   Except does it?  The march of human history down two millennia suggests otherwise.  The Resurrection didn’t bring an end to war; didn’t reconcile enemies or create world harmony and peace.  The Resurrection didn’t eliminate poverty, disease, or violence.   Jesus was raised from death, yet every one of us will die.  Our glad cries of Alleluia!  Christ is risen indeed! — do not drown out our tear-stained grief at the graves of our beloved ones, nor alleviate the pre-dawn fears about our own mortality.   Believing takes practice.

I was intrigued to read psychologist Steven Pinker’s most-recent bestseller because it uses data to offer a distinctly different perspective.  In Enlightenment Now:  the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, the author describes his research as an antidote to the fearful apocalyptic vision of the world so prevalent these days.  He understands human history as an arc designed by reason and intellect, moving humanity toward a better life.   And there is plenty of evidence to back his claim, both in the developed world and globally:  rising life expectancy, gross world product and incomes; declining infant and maternal mortality and deaths from starvation.  “Everything is amazing!” he writes, “And none of us are as happy as we ought to be, given how amazing our world has become.”   While he acknowledges all is not as it should be — he cites climate change and the threat of nuclear war as two examples — these are problems to be solved, and humans are perfectly capable of doing so when we perceive them to be solvable rather than when we are frozen by fear or locked in denial.

It’s true, we’ve come a long way since the smoky fires of our Neanderthal ancestors.  While I was writing this sermon on my laptop, I was also doing a load of laundry, the dishwasher was running, Spotify music selections were playing through my phone, the NCAA finals were on TV (muted), and I could continually fact-check sermon references via Google.   I love progress!  And I deeply appreciate the human capacity to think, explore, create, design, and pursue enlightenment.

I understand the appeal of Pinker’s approach and find it helpful in some ways.  But I wonder if his definition of progress is too limited.  He’s rejected the gloomy reality of “the Fall” and its fatal consequences:  human inclination toward selfishness driven by fear that persists in every age. Though our culture is more sophisticated and our knowledge vaster than at any previous time, there are some things that never really seem to change.   Why is it so hard to love, for example?  Why are we so suspicious of “the other” as a threat to our well-being?     When life is amazing and progress is everywhere, why do people report that they are less happy than they expected to be?  A cyberworld of connectivity and virtual reality seems to have done little to overcome the social isolation experienced across the generations from teens to seniors, a proven trigger for opioid use disorder, anxiety, depression.     Despite enormous gains in disease prevention and cure, the vulnerability of our mortal bodies always looms large, and the inevitability of death casts a shadow over even the healthiest one-hundred-year old.  Incidents of human violence have continually escalated over history.  In about 3000 years we have “progressed” from sword to atomic bomb.  We have never invented weapons we did not use, nor created ones less lethal than those they replaced. Fear convinces nations that peace on earth will come about only through power and global dominance.  [from an article by John Dominic Crossan and Sarah Sexton Crossan in the Christian Century, January 31, 2018, pp 24-25]    Friends, human progress is an unreliable source of hope that has created as many fears as it has allayed.  By itself, it seems incapable of replacing fear with love.

What does remove fear and transform it into love is something that can’t be measured, counted, or manufactured.  It’s not irrational, but it is beyond reason.  The Bible struggles to put it into so many words, and wisely doesn’t try to explain it logically.    Jesus was raised from the dead by the power of God.   What ended on the cross was the tyranny of fear, its power to rule our lives and choices.  The empty grave opened a new way to live, one governed by love and its power to change even the most calcified heart and bitter realities.   Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death is your sting?”

It’s a truth we can’t prove with the scientific method.  In fact, the best way I know to practice believing the resurrection is through the example of others for whom it makes all the difference.   Ordinary people whose trust  in the power of God to raise the dead has strengthened them to live fully in this world — with its contradictions and failures and perplexities — from the perspective of love.

People such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose book on Christian community, Life Together, we’ve been discussing this year.  German pastor, professor, and writer during the Nazi era, he was executed for his role in the resistance movement, including a plot to assassinate Hitler.  Though he might have remained in safety in the United States where he had come to study, he returned to Germany to stand with his people against the genocidal violence of the Nazis.  He acted courageously not because he was unafraid, but out of conviction that there was something more important than fear, something stronger than fear.

People such as Lebanese Presbyterians who are responding to the flood of refugees fleeing the ravages of war in neighboring Syria.   Among the actions they’ve done is to convert a war-damaged building in the city of Zahre into a school for refugee children.  Over 110 children ages 4-13 attend, mostly from Sunni Muslim families from Aleppo, Damascus, Raqaa.  They teach Arabic and English, science, math and social ethics, but perhaps just as important is creating a place of security and caring after the refugees’ difficult and dangerous journeys.  One parent told a teacher “We’d been treated like animals until we were helped by you Christians.”   The teacher responded by simply summarizing her worldview:  Love never fails. 

People such as members of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, who five months after a gunman killed more than two dozen worshipers, have announced plans for a new sanctuary and outreach center.  Pastor Frank Pomeroy spoke of the project as a sign of resurrection, a beacon for a community that’s still healing.  He knows what he’s talking about, as one of the victims was his 14-year-old daughter Annabelle.   It defies all logic to imagine rising from his personal heartbreak and the community’s fear, but he did so, because he holds to another, greater reality based on his trust in the God of life.  In explaining this to an inquiring reporter, he used the same words as the Lebanese school teacher.  In our faith, love never fails. 

People such as you.

Friends, Easter affirms the power of God to free us from the fearfulness of death.  The word “resurrection” is translated in the Greek as “uprising,” and that’s a significant addition to our understanding.    The good news is not simply that Jesus Christ is risen today, but that we are too.   Because Christ lives, we can rise up each day with the hope of loving bigger and better than the day before.   Out of the ruins of this hurting world, out of the ruins of soul-less progress, out of the ruins made by human choice and random chance, God is able to raise us to life.

Let’s practice believing together.   Alleluia!    Alleluia!   Alleluia!

Thanks be to God!

What does remove fear and transform it into love is something that can’t be measured, counted, or manufactured.

What does remove fear and transform it into love is something that can’t be measured, counted, or manufactured.  It’s not irrational, but it is beyond reason.  The Bible struggles to put it into so many words, and wisely doesn’t try to explain it logically.    Jesus was raised from the dead by the power of God.   What ended on the cross was the tyranny of fear, its power to rule our lives and choices.  The empty grave opened a new way to live, one governed by love and its power to change even the most calcified heart and bitter realities.  Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?”

It’s a truth we can’t prove with the scientific method.  In fact, the best way I know to practice believing the resurrection is through the example of others for whom it makes all the difference.   Ordinary people whose trust  in the power of God to raise the dead has strengthened them to live fully in this world — with its contradictions and failures and perplexities — from the perspective of love.

People like Dietrich Bonhoeffer whose book on Christian community, Life Together, we’ve been discussing this year.  Pastor and seminary professor in Germany during the Nazi era, he was executed for his role in the resistance movement, including a plot to assassinate Hitler.  Though he might have remained in safety in the United States where he had come to study, he returned to Germany to stand with his people against the genocidal violence of the Nazis.  He acted courageously not because he was unafraid, but out of conviction that there was something more important than fear.

People like Syrian and Lebanese Presbyterians who have converted a war-damaged building in the city of Zahre near the Syrian border into a school for refugee children.  Over 110 children ages 4-13 attend, mostly from Sunni Muslim families who have fled violence in Aleppo, Damascus, Raqaa.  They teach Arabic and English, science, math and social ethics, but perhaps just as important is creating a sense of security and caring after their difficult and dangerous journeys.  One parent told a teacher “We’d been treated like animals until we were helped by these Christians.”   The teacher responded by simply saying what motivates her: Love never fails. 

People like members of First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Texas, who five months after a gunman killed more than two dozen congregants during worship, have announced plans for a new sanctuary and community center.  Pastor Frank Pomeroy spoke of the project as a sign of resurrection, a beacon for a community that’s still healing.  He knows what he’s talking about, as his 14-year-old daughter Annabelle was one of the victims.  It defies all logic to imagine rising from his personal heartbreak, and his community’s fear, but he did so, because he holds to another, greater reality based on his trust in the God of life.  In describing this to an inquiring reporter, he explained it in the same words as the Lebanese school teacher.  Love never fails. 

Friends, Easter affirms the power of God to free us from the fearfulness of death.  The word “resurrection” is translated in the Greek as “uprising,” and that’s a significant addition to our understanding.  The good news is not simply that Jesus Christ is risen today, but that we are too.  Because Christ lives, we can rise up each day with the hope of loving bigger and better than the day before.  Out of the ruins of this hurting world, out of the ruins of soul-less progress, out of the ruins made by human choice and the randomness of chance, God is able to raise us up to life.

Come on, my friends, let us rise up together.  Alleluia!  Alleluia!  Alleluia!

Amen.

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