April 16th Easter Steve Jungkeit

Texts: Luke 24: 13-25; Philippians 4: 4-9
Easter Sunday

Jesus, Again
(or, Your God is Too Big, Part IV)

            Somewhere during my childhood, I learned a song in Sunday School that was meant to sum up the entirety of my inner world.  It went like this:

I’m….inright, outright, upright, downright

Happy all the time.

I’m inright, outright, upright, downright

Happy all the time.

Since Jesus Christ came in,

And cleansed my life from sin,

I’m inright, outright, upright, downright

Happy all the time.[1]

            I may have been 5, or 7, or 9.  I no longer remember.  But I do remember that at that young age and then continuing into early adolescence, there was an assumption that the major issues and questions of life had been decisively settled.  There was an assumption that at 5 or 10 or 12, our inner worlds had been arranged and organized around this figure named Jesus, and the God he represented.  The assumption was that to encounter Jesus would make us happy and good and well behaved and likeable.  The assumption was that Jesus would clean us up.

            The only problem was that I didn’t feel especially happy all the time.  I wasn’t morose, and I wasn’t unhappy all the time either.  But usually I was a bundle of contradictory emotions, especially as I grew older: anxiety about where I fit in in my school’s social hierarchy, worry that I wouldn’t be able to complete a task that had been assigned to me, confusion and fascination about the sexual desire that was awakening in me, frustration with the rules and expectations of my parents, sadness about this or that major event taking place in the world.  In short, I didn’t feel happy all the time at all.  I felt messy, chaotic, insecure, and more than a little fraudulent.  Jesus didn’t leave me feeling happy so much as he left me wondering why my own inner life didn’t look and feel the way I was told they ought to.  In time, I came to realize that I didn’t much like Jesus, or the God that he supposedly revealed.  In time, I wished to be free of that Jesus and his cloying happiness.  In time, I wished to be free of that God and his moral and emotional captivity.    

            I’m guessing most of you didn’t sing that song as kids, and we sure don’t teach it around here.  But I’ll confess that Easter morning sometimes fills me with a similar apprehension.  A rhetoric of victory, triumph, joy, and excitement surrounds the day, as we proclaim this thing called resurrection, as we celebrate the triumph of life over death.  “Lives again, our glorious king, alleluia.  Where O death is now thy sting, alleluia,” the words of our opening hymn go.  Don’t get me wrong – I like a celebration, probably more than you know.  I enjoy singing those hymns.  I wish everyone was able to feels a sense of settled contentment within their souls, to feel the sense of empowerment and ecstasy that we sometimes call joy, or happiness.  But there are times at Easter when I feel a disconnect between the emotions we sing about, and the way we actually feel in our hearts and in our guts, down there where the spirit meets the bone, as one of my heroes, Lucinda Williams puts it.  Sometimes I worry that all the Easter rhetoric, however well intentioned, winds up leaving some of us feeling like I did as a kid – unsure about why our inner worlds, let alone the world outside of us, fails to match up to the ideal of triumphant joy being espoused on Easter morning. 

       My hunch is that, for all the ways we project a sunny confidence on a morning like this, somewhere deep inside we actually feel a whole lot more messy than our suits and dresses, than our flowers and family meals, let alone all this triumphant Easter rhetoric, might actually suggest.  My deep suspicion is that we wonder whether the Easter story actually speaks to the human condition at all, our condition, where we mourn those who are no longer with us, where we feel time slip from our grasp, where we worry and wonder about our children, where our bodies and our emotions fail to conform to the ideals we espouse.  My sense, here in Old Lyme, is that beyond our houses, and our clubs, and our social circles, and our families, and our frenetic activity, there’s a throbbing pain that only emerges here and there – in a long silence, in a vacant look, in an ache of disconnection and loneliness that overtakes us early in the morning or late at night.  Down there where the spirit meets the bone, we’re way messier than Easter tends to allow, and I’ve sometimes caught myself wondering if some among us wind up leaving Easter Sunday feeling a little worse for all the ways they fail to conform to the ideal of resurrection.  If that names you, know that there are times that I feel much the same.  If I’m honest, I actually feel like more of a mess than what Easter, or my public persona, might suggest.

       Over the past several weeks, I’ve been pulling apart popular conceptions of God and Jesus that I believe get in the way of encountering the frail, Human One who appears to us in the pages of the Bible.  I’ve been asking all of us to reconsider the usual characteristics we attribute to God – God as awesome, God as powerful, God as in control, God as a moral judge, God as great, God as a Big Powerful Sky Father, in other words.  And I’ve been asking us to reconsider Jesus, not with all the divine superlatives we’re used to placing upon him, but as a frail human being who invites us to embrace our own frail flesh, in all of its wounded and messy and beautiful humanity.  As I read each of the Gospels, I hear Jesus arguing and demonstrating and agitating against the Sky Father, telling anyone who will listen: “You’ve got God all wrong.  God isn’t big at all.  God isn’t the Almighty.  God is humble.  God is a child.  God is a beggar.  God is a servant.  God is a body, hanging from a tree.  Notice how different those images of God make you feel.”  Notice how different it feels when it’s that man, that God, who is resurrected.[2]

            But here, on Easter morning, something within me and maybe within you as well starts waving and shouting: doesn’t Easter counter those notions of weakness?  Isn’t that the moment when all the triumphalist theologies of power and might regain their footing and reassert their dominance?  Isn’t Easter the moment when the Sky Father, the power source in the clouds, steps in and reanimates a dead man, bringing him back to life?  Isn’t Easter where we learn who Jesus really was, a figure with divine attributes, the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity?  Isn’t Easter kind of like the moment when Clark Kent sheds his ordinary identity, revealing himself as one with superhuman powers?  In traditional theologies, Easter is precisely the moment where divine power reasserts itself, so that the shabby figure hanging from the tree gets transformed into something gleaming and majestic.  Easter becomes the mechanism that finally lets us skirt the humanity of Jesus.  Understood in that way, Easter becomes one more way for the Sky Father to assert his control, one more way to get you and to get me to clean up our acts, to quit once and for all being the mess that we most deeply are.

            I’d like to resist that Easter impulse.  And I’d like to do so by having us revisit the disciples on that first Easter.  Their situation speaks not to some ideal of moral perfection, but to the chaotic and upended world of real human lives.  They’re something of a mess as well.  They’re in mourning.  They’re in shock.  They’re confused.  They’re fearful.  They’re lost.  They’re lonely.  They had just witnessed the death of their friend, and with that death, they had felt all of their hopes sliding into the abyss.  Jesus was a person they came to trust deeply, and they had come to believe that he really was God’s chosen one.  To see him take the hand of a woman in pain, and to see how that pain seemed to recede in his presence, to see him calm the spirit of a troubled man, to see how people throughout the countryside responded to his words, to witness him arguing back against the authority of religion, to feel the bonds of friendship that developed among them all – everything about this man made them feel special, connected, purposeful, somehow at home within the world.  But the events of that terrible day had unhoused them.  It left them flat on their backs, staring at an empty sky.

            That’s how we find the two disciples on the road to Emmaus shortly after Easter morning.  They’re unmoored, undone, adrift.  They’re a mess.  They talk about all that occurred in the past several days, their speech punctuated by long silences.  A stranger falls into step beside them, somebody they’ve not seen before.  He asks, rather impertinently, what it was that they’ve been talking about, and the disciples are incredulous, for everyone’s been talking about the execution of one named Jesus.  Even so, they’re raw enough that they open up, and the sadness comes pouring out of them, as if in a torrent.  The man listens carefully and well.  He doesn’t tell them to get over it.  He doesn’t tell them to go back to their lives.  He doesn’t tell them to get their act together.  He simply meets them within the space of unmooring, within the nonspace of having been unhoused, and he walks with them for a while.  We don’t know, exactly, what the man says.  We simply know that his words stir something within the two grieving friends so that later, they say that their hearts burned within them, and they are certain it was Jesus.  We don’t know what he said, but I imagine it running something like this:

            “I know what it’s like to lose something you love.  I know what it’s like to feel alone and adrift in the world.  I know what it is to feel the world collapse around you, and to feel the sky go blank.  I know what it is to feel abandoned and alone.  I know what it is to feel forsaken.  I know that the world can feel like a cold and empty place.  When it does, try to notice the presence of a broken and wounded man walking beside you.  When it does, try to notice the invitation in the eyes of your friends when you break bread with one another.  When it does, remember to greet the stranger, because you’ll find me there.  I know you thought that God was something big, something powerful, something majestic and glorious, and I know it hurts when those expectations are shattered.  But try to trust this gentle presence that does walk beside you.  Try to trust that it will be enough to hold you and envelop you.  Try to trust that it signifies a warm beating heart at the center of the world.  Try to trust that this gentle presence wishes you well, and is comfortable allowing you to be the mess that you are.  Try to trust that, in this strange non-space called resurrection, you’ve been given the freedom to be yourself, the freedom to be a mess.”[3]

            There are no fireworks.  There’s no spectacle.  There’s no display of power or might.  There’s only a simple encounter, an experience, one that leads to a sense of connection, and to hearts of flesh that burn and beat within those two forlorn disciples. They simply trust that the presence is real.  I do too. 

            I think I sensed that presence, and that burning, beating, messy freedom this past week, when a number of us journeyed down to New York to see the musical Come From Away.  If you haven’t seen it, sell everything you own to get a ticket, move heaven and earth to get yourself there.  It’s an extraordinary piece of art about the community that forms in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when planes are diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, because US airspace has been closed.  It depicts the fear and panic and confusion of people trapped in airplanes on the tarmac for more than 24 hours, with little or no information about where they are or why.  Those planes become little tombs, as everyone’s worst fears and paranoia begin to run rampant.  Eventually, in a show of extravagant hospitality, the people of Gander receive the stranded travelers into their town, though most people still have no idea what’s happening to them.  In one of many scenes that moved me to tears, a bus driver carrying people from the airport to the town tries to coax an African couple off the bus.  They don’t speak English, and so they’ve understood nothing of what’s happening to them.  It stirs up latent traumas within them, and they refuse to leave.  But the bus driver notices the woman carrying a Bible, written in her native language.  He knows it well enough to find a verse he knows, from Philippians 4: “Do not be anxious in anything.”  He shows it to the couple, and it’s what they need to feel enough reassurance to trust those around them, at least a little.  It’s enough to move them out of the tomb of their fear.    

            It was a messy, chaotic, liminal space that all those travelers entered on those days after 9/11.  It was a space of mourning and anxiety, confusion and panic.  But it was also a space where everyone was given the freedom to be the mess they most deeply were at that moment.  Impenetrable walls seemed to come down, and genuine and heartfelt connections occurred, even as less genuine connections dissolved.  Moments of tenderness took place that were embracing enough to hold everyone, even in the midst of a crisis.  A cookout, a corny joke, a bottle of whiskey – these became signs of grace, moments of tenuous but real connection.  The world had come undone in some profound ways, but the genuine hospitality and shared vulnerability brought something alive within those who were trapped in that space.  “Somewhere in the middle of nowhere,” they sing as they depart, “we found our hearts.”

            I think it’s like that in resurrection life.  We’re ushered into a liminal space, a space of mourning and grief, a space of confusion and uncertainty, a space of profound messiness.  The Big Powerful Sky Father doesn’t reassert his power.  The shiny majestic God doesn’t return to prop up governments, moral programs, and family values.  The Almighty doesn’t reappear to clean you up and make you presentable to your relatives and friends and everybody at the club.  Instead, something far more profound takes place.  An opening occurs in which you’re free to give voice to your deepest self, in which you’re free to express all that’s been welling up within you, in which you’re free to receive the lives of others without judgment or condescension, even as you’ve been offered the same by them.  Tragedies still unfold.  Mourning still requires work.  But somehow a small, vulnerable, and gracious presence walks through it with you, offering you the freedom to suffer, and the freedom to be a whole person, fully alive to the sorrows and also the profound joys of the world.  “Somewhere in the middle of nowhere, we find our hearts.”  I’m doing my best to trust that sense of resurrection.  I’m doing my best to trust that Jesus, again.  Maybe you are too.

            The freedom to be a mess that occurs in resurrection life should not be confused with the freedom to make a mess.[4]  It’s not to be confused with licentiousness or self-absorption.  Rather, the freedom to be a mess is what gives us the capacity to truly listen to others without defensiveness.  The freedom to be a mess is what gives us the strength to reach out to those unlike ourselves.  The freedom to be a mess is what offers us the courage to hear the cries of pain emerging from parts of the world that feel foreign and strange to us.  The freedom to be a mess is what offers us the willingness to open ourselves to refugees, to enter the worlds of those threatened with deportation, to expose ourselves to the sorrow emanating from a place like Haiti, or a place like Palestine.  The freedom to be a mess is what provides us the shelter to experience a genuine transformation of heart and soul, as we risk exposing the vulnerable and shabby core of who we most deeply are, and discover the presence of a vulnerable and shabby, but genuinely inviting God, walking beside us, whispering a word of love into our souls.  It may not make us happy, not all the time, but it might just make us real.

            Somewhere in the middle of nowhere….we find our beating, burning hearts.  Somewhere in the middle of nowhere…we find Jesus, again.     

 

[1] This sermon, and the entire series of sermons that precede it, have been inspired by the writings of Doug Frank.  In particular, his book A Gentler God has proven indispensable for my sense of religion, Christianity, and yes, Easter.  One of the moments that first drew me to his work was a citation of this very song in an article published years ago in a magazine called Books and Culture.  His description of the song and the world it conveyed mirrored my own experience nearly identically, especially within the Brethren world I was immersed in as a child.  And so I offer this story as my own, while paying homage to a friend who helped me unpack that experience.

[2] See Doug Frank, A Gentler God, pg. 207.

[3] The freedom to be a mess is an image I’m borrowing from A Gentler God.  See chpt. 11, entitled… “The Freedom to be a Mess.”

[4] A Gentler God, pg. 363.

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