[Easter Sunday sermon preached at First Mennonite Church, Winnipeg.]
I confess that I have not struggled this much writing a sermon as I have in a while. I confess that for most of the week I felt like I was staring blankly and confused into the face of this reality we call resurrection. I confess that I followed numerous lines of thought trying to develop something insightful or meaningful. I confess that I failed. I confess that I would have preferred preaching on the Gospel of Mark which ends with the women terrified at the news that Jesus is not in the tomb and keeping silent out of fear. That strikes me as the most reasonable response to facing the reality of the resurrection. It is unintelligible, and perhaps fearfully so. We have no real framework for this reality other than through examples that seem to pale in comparison to the force of this event. But Paul nevertheless reminds the church in Corinth that the message of Jesus death, burial, and resurrection forms the message, the good news, by which we are saved.
So to be believers of this good news we cannot get around the call to face, to turn ourselves towards this event, this message. Again, as Paul warns us, to do otherwise is to risk believing in vain, believing for nothing. As I turned this week in meager attempts to face this message all that came was confession. I confess to know nothing more in light of the resurrection. I confess that it does not answer my questions or resolve my problems. I confess that rarely do I know or even have a sense of how this actually forms good news in my life and in the life of my neighbours and in our world. I confess that I am not satisfied that the resurrection’s only purpose is to offer some abstract hope saved for the future.
The Gospel’s resurrection is an event that is understood only as it decisively intervenes in the present order of the world. The resurrection is not about shuffling us out of this life but of something emerging within the flesh and fabric of this world. In John’s Gospel we find Thomas’s finger inserted into the open wounds of Jesus. In Luke’s Gospel the sacred Temple curtain torn overturning the traditional notion of how we relate to holiness in the world. In Matthew’s Gospel an earthquake tears at the earth splitting open tombs assembling a sort of political uprising of the dead reminiscent of the valley of dry bones and the restoration of Israel in the book of Ezekiel. And Paul, Paul counts himself among those who experienced the resurrected Jesus as he was knocked down and blinded, confronted with the truth of his actions. The resurrection, if it is anything, in the New Testament is something that works within this world and not simply for the next. In the week leading up to Easter I began to see that my faith could not give meaning to the resurrection because the resurrection is that reality which shapes and gives meaning to my faith.
As I struggled with this message I was encouraged by the writing of Serene Jones in a book titled Trauma and Grace. In the book Jones meditates on the tragic reality of trauma that can be caused by any number of expressions of violence. She asks how these often debilitating realities can be brought into or experience grace. Towards the end of the book she outlines the typical Christian message which says that God creates the world, the world gets in trouble, and God redeems the world. And as a result something new and good emerges. In this storyline “Sin is met by grace, and grace conquers it.”
This is one model of the Christian story, perhaps of the Easter story the can give us hope; a hope that at any moment grace, or resurrection as we are talking about this morning, might dramatically intervene and restore matters. This storyline can motivate us to work for change and keep away feelings of despair. But as Jones sat with the realities of victims who suffered from traumatic violence she began to question that basic storyline. She was confronted with the realities of lives that never fully emerged from emotional and psychological wounds inflicted on them. And for those who do experience some healing it is never as clear as the traditional story of salvation wants to claim. The past is not erased. The memories do not vanish. And the effects of the trauma can remain a daily challenge.
So Jones searched for another theological storyline, another plot that might account for these realities. But nothing fit. She could not give meaning to the reality that some remained in the grip of their trauma. She found no theological model, no system of thought that would satisfy the reality she faced. So what happened? Jones accepted that she could not run ahead of the realities she saw and bring back a message that would solve or at least understand these experiences. She could not see beyond these circumstances in order to give meaning to them. What emerged rather was a new commitment to remaining present and attentive to the realities as people experienced them and then remain open to what might come when we place our lives in the context of this story of grace, this story of resurrection. Jones could not give the meaning of the resurrection ahead of time, she could only think about what it meant to turn our bodies, our faces, our stories, our lives towards the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
So if we do not give meaning to the resurrection but that somehow the resurrection gives meaning to our lives then we are called not to understand or explain but simply to bring ourselves before it. This is easier said than done. We tend not to bring our lives out into the presence of someone else. Rather we import some form of knowledge or belief to fit our lives into. That is perhaps an abstract way of putting it but the examples are simple. I feel insecure or fearful about my place in the world. This, I think, is a common experience. However, most often we do not learn how we can bring this feeling out in the presence of a loving relationship rather we accept whatever belief or role in the world that is closest to us. I feel insecure so I must attain an affluent career; I must secure myself by dominating those closest to me; I must project beauty so that I am desired and valued; I must try harder; I must lash out at the world or God who is the source of this insecurity; and so on. Often unconsciously we accept the pre-made meaning for our experiences rather than learning to sit with our reality and open it up to an account of one who passed through the greatest insecurity and created a space where hope and life could be seen beyond it.
In some of the most raw and stark imagery I have encountered David Foster Wallace’s book Infinite Jest recounts some of what it means to turn and be present to the pain in our life. The main character Don Gately is a recovering drug addict working as a support worker in a house for recovering addicts. In the course of events he is called on to defend a number of its residents from a physical attack. This places Gately in the hospital where he is faced with the drug addict’s dilemma of whether or not to receive pain killers. Gately believes that the vulnerability of his pain is preferred to the life of false and seductive comfort that drugs lead him into. Lying there in bed Gately has no recourse to the things we turn to deal with our pains and anxieties whether it is drugs and alcohol or money and status. Gately is badly hurt so he can’t move and he has a tube in his through so he cannot speak. Gately is forced to sit, to lie there as though entombed with his pain. In anguishing detail we have access to Gately’s thoughts and concerns. In coping with the pain Gately reduces his life down to each second. He could not fathom even a string of 60 seconds of the pain so he walled in each second, he remained present to each space between heartbeats and breathing. Foster writes,
No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead. . . . He hadn’t quite gotten this before now, how it wasn’t just the matter of riding out the cravings for a Substance: everything unendurable was in the head, [it] was the head not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing a recon and then returning with unendurable news you then somehow believed.
This is I think something of encountering the resurrection, the story of Easter, in the formation of our faith. It is something of what it means when Paul says in our reading by God’s grace I am what I am. Paul makes no secret of his life persecuting the church. Paul embraces the truth of his forgiveness. Paul acknowledges his ongoing struggle with sin. Paul remains complicated, even contradictory at times. In other words he remains human. Coming to the cross and turning to the resurrection is not an exercise in forgetting our sins or finding a magical escape from them. The cross and resurrection opens the space where we can learn to bring all of ourselves to be present and attentive there. This will call for times of mourning and silence and it will call for times of wonderment and celebration. It is a space that may not yield answers but it may yield wisdom and deep resilience.
In language strikingly similar to David Foster Wallace, Serene Jones reflects on the necessary posture of grief and mourning when we face the violence and pain in the world in the presence of the Easter story. She writes that,
[Grief] requires a willingness to bear the unbearable. . . . If you can learn to truly mourn, then there is at least the possibility of moving on. Not because the wound is mending or traumatic scars suddenly vanish. . . . The gift of mourning is that fully awakening to the depth of loss enables you to at least learn, perhaps for the first time, that you can hold the loss: you can bear the terrors of heart and body and still see your way forward with eyes open.
By the grace of God to continue to be who you are. Did you come to hear hope this morning? Do not miss it here, as slight as it may seem. This may be the small but indestructible kernel of the resurrection. As Paul says later in our text it is the seed that is sown perishable but raised imperishable. If there is hope in the resurrection; if the resurrection indeed forms our faith today it is in no small part because we can find our lives increasingly in its presence. To the extent that we conceal our anxieties, insecurities, and pains from the presence of Christ in his resurrection we will keep ourselves from the simple and fundamental truth that though death may surround us the gathering and witnessing of the faithful will testify that it has not prevailed.
We do not give meaning to the resurrection. We turn to it and we confess it as we confess our lives in its presence. May God receive these confessions full of mourning and wonder and tune them to the rhythm of grace, to the refrain of resurrection, to the song of life in which we now raise our voices.