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Thursday, March 28, 2013
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 10:34-43 OR Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, I Corinthians 15:19-26 OR Acts 10:34-43, John 20:1-18 OR Luke 24:1-12

We human beings (and probably many of the other creatures of the world) live, more or less, by some level of expectation.  We expect people to stop and go according to the colors of the traffic signal.  When traveling we follow the directions of a GPS or a map or even a stranger who tells us where we’ll find our destination.  We plan to do certain tasks tomorrow in the expectation that it will come.  We go to work and expect our job to still be there.  If we are of a certain age we expect the Social Security check to be there in the bank account on a certain date.  We become accustomed to the ways of a spouse or friend and figure we can make a reasonably sane prediction of his or her behavior---unless we’ve learned that he or she is completely unpredictable (which can be nice in its own way).  To telegraph a piece of where I’m going:  When we bury people, we expect them to stay in the grave---or if we, for some reason, need to exhume the body, we are certain we will open the casket and find it!

Sometimes our expectations get a little grandiose, not exactly connected with anything very realistic, and sometimes things don’t work out as expected.  Something happens that defies expectation.

This week’s lectionary reading from Isaiah offers a vision of the future that is somewhat fantastic.  (By the way, there are many alternative readings for Holy Week and different Easter liturgies.  I’m working only with the ones for Easter Sunday morning.)  When people are in harsh circumstances and looking for a way out (as is the case in this reading), they often conjure up or latch onto visions of a whole different world to which they will escape.  In this case they hear someone (or some group of prophets) speaking in the name of Isaiah (3rd Isaiah?) about “new heavens and a new earth.”  (Isaiah 65:17).  God will provide them with a place “where no more shall the sound of weeping be heard . . . or the cry of distress.  No more shall there be . . . an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime.” (vss. 19-20)  Read for yourself the full description if you wish, ending with the wolf and the lamb feeding together, etc.  (vss. 21-25)  It sounds like some of our images of heaven, a place where “they shall not hurt or destroy.”  (vs. 25)  They lived in anticipation of a resurrection!

Those exiled Jews did return to their homeland, but things were never quite the same and long-term security has continued to evade them (and their neighbors) through all the centuries since.  Such visions of peace have nevertheless beckoned and sustained human beings and nations again and again.  Unfortunately people and nations have also bowed to the temptations of power and acquisition and accumulation.  It sometimes seems as if we find visions of social resurrection attractive and then go out and refuse to live by those expectations.  It's as if we headed out from Portland on a trip to California and got on a plane bound for Greenland.

The Psalm is basically the same as last week, including a few new verses and eliminating a few others.  In those new verses the tone is more victorious with an emphasis upon victory over death.  “I shall not die, but I shall live.”  (Psalm 118:15-18)  Such a focus is obviously appropriate for Easter morning, and this week the reading ends with the words, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  (vs. 24)  “What better theme verse for Easter?” we might ask.

Philosophers, theologians, and people in the street have often reflected on the meaning of life lived under the shadow of death.  Many words have been written.  We have a great variety of expectations on what is on the other side of death.  The reading from I Corinthians offers Jesus’ resurrection as a model of hope.  “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied,” i.e., according to this reading, our commitment to Christ is about more than our days on earth.  (I Corinthians 15:19)  Scripture also stresses that it has much to do with the living of our lives here, but this reading looks beyond that.  Our death and resurrection is somehow like that of Jesus.  “ . . . all will be made alive in Christ.”  He is “the first fruits.”  (vss. 22-23)

As in the Psalm, a victory is depicted.  All human power and authority meet their match.  (vs. 24)  “The last enemy to be destroyed,” we are told, “is death.”  (vs. 26)  I don’t always think of physical death as an “enemy.”  There are times it is tragic and unjust, perhaps inflicted by the violence and hatred of warring factions or lone shooters, but death, per se, is part of the “natural cycle” of our humanity. 

What, then, are we to make of this?  I take the hope of which the Gospel speaks to be one in which the power of death is overcome.  Love is more powerful than death.  Death, per se, cannot destroy us.  The consequences of life reach far beyond what we can see in the few short years of earthly existence.  This entire reading, and the Easter story itself, are full of mystery.  Some have suggested that the only appropriate response on Easter morning is one of awe.  We often put so much energy into trying to explain the unexplainable, when maybe it is enough to just show up and gape in wonder.

The two Gospel readings offered as alternatives certainly show that those who first went to where Jesus was entombed didn’t come away with easy explanations.  Mary Magdalene says, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”  (John 20:2 & 13)  It’s an explanation that many thought made more sense than resurrection.  Peter and John run out and see that she is telling the truth, but “they did not understand . . .”  (vss. 3-9)  We don’t see a sudden burst of celebration here.  They “returned to their homes,” where they stayed behind locked doors cowering in fear until evening.  It is only then that they began to experience the presence of the living Lord.  (vss. 10 & 19)

Mary, in the meantime, stays there near the tomb.  Jesus appears.  She doesn’t recognize him, saying, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him . . .” (vs. 15)  Only when he speaks her name does she recognize him.  She runs to tell the others, but Luke’s version of the story records, “But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.”  (John 20:18 & Luke 24:10-11)

When Luke tells of women arriving at the tomb he also notes that they were, at first “perplexed,” then “terrified.”  (Luke 24:4-5)  (Note that all the Gospel writers agree that the first people to arrive on that first Easter morning were the women, an observation worthy of at least another entire blog.)  What we have here are people who went to the tomb with perfectly reasonable expectations—that they would find a body.  The women, in fact, were carrying spices (vs. 1), probably to complete the preparation of the body which had been hastily done after removal from the cross.  Their expectations were shattered and they didn’t know what to think, how to react.

Contrast that with the wildly celebrative occasions we often experience in church on Sunday.  What if we came as if we were coming to a funeral, only to discover that nobody could find the deceased?  What if we came and the church was empty, nobody there?  Would some angels appear and say, “There’s nobody here.  They’ve all gone to various places where they are doing acts of living love.”?  Remember that in Matthew’s account, they are told, “ . . . he is going ahead of you to Galilee.”  (Matthew 28:7)

When things don’t work out as anticipated, someone is likely to ask, “Well, what did you expect?”  That response seems to imply that whatever happened is a result of something you did.  You should have been able to tell what would result from your behavior.  The phrase is often used when the result is a bad one.  Sometimes, though, the result is far better than we anticipated, so much better that we can’t even grasp for understand it.  All we can do is gasp in awe, or spend a lifetime living out and reflecting upon its meaning.

I thought about leaving the blog blank this week.  All those few who visit the blog would be expecting something and instead find an empty page.  Maybe one approach to Easter is for us to start filling in the blank, not-yet-understood page---following Jesus into the Galilees of our lives where he continues to live the meaning of Easter.

The reading from the book of Acts suggests another approach.  It follows a story in which Peter receives a vision about what is clean and what is unclean, encounters Cornelius, and concludes that God’s love is much bigger than he had previously thought.  He stands up to declare “that God shows no partiality”(Acts 10:34-35), and proceeds to tell the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection.  (vss. 36-40)  There are important phrases in the telling of the story:  “preaching peace by Jesus Christ” (vs. 36), “he went about doing good” (vs. 38)).  Central to Peter’s message, however, is the emphasis upon witnessing.  “We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and Jerusalem.” (vs. 39)  He’s not talking about something he has just heard about.  He and his fellow disciples “were chosen by God as witnesses.”  (vs. 40)  He’s talking about things they have seen and experienced.  Perhaps Easter is a time for us to talk about the resurrections we have seen and experienced as we’ve encountered Jesus and he has encountered us in the Galilees where we live every day.  Even though I began by asking what we expect, perhaps it is as important to ask what we have experienced---which, in turn, may shape what we expect.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, sir, for NOT leaving the page blank this week. You affirmed for me where I was thinking of going with the readings -- Easter = AWE!

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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