Breaking Into Life
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, April 21, 2019, Easter Sunday.
Text: Luke 24:1-12
When someone dies our expectation is that they will stay dead. And when they are dead and buried, it is our custom to return to the burial place, the place of death. We care for the grave, perhaps we bring flowers, or stones, signs of honor and remembrance. At dawn, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James came looking for a dead body to anoint, came to care for the old expectation. They would have been deeply weary on that early morning, worn out from the events of the previous weeks and from grief. They would have expected nothing more than a sealed tomb, Jesus’ dead body, and the slow but certain return of business as usual. That would mean no more hopeful speculation about relief from the imperial powers or talk of the Kin-dom of God breaking in, promising dignity and justice for all (even them). Business as usual would be the familiar sense of powerlessness, of being invisible, and maybe some nagging sense of how foolish they’d been for getting their hopes up. Nothing is going to change. Same old, same old… //
Like the women on that first Easter morning, pain in our personal lives or the overwhelming brokenness of our society and world may lead us onto a familiar path of hopelessness, of expecting nothing more than the same old cycles of suffering, greed, exploitation, violence and death. Our cynicism and fear and exhaustion and grief—our experience of the world that disappoints us over and again—all this tempts us to trot back again and again to the familiar place, the stuck place, the place of death. This can look many different ways: self-medication that leads to addictions, losing ourselves in soul-killing work, maintaining habits that isolate and depress us, doing nothing to change relationships that are stagnant or abusive, doing the same thing again and again expecting a different outcome, obsessing over things that do not give life or joy, and on and on it goes. We know how to run ourselves into the ground. We know the paths to the grave quite well. Poet Wendell Berry says, “The question before me, now that I / am old, is not how to be dead, / which I know from enough practice, / but how to be alive…”[i]
How to be alive is the question.
The story we tell today gives us some clues to the answer. When the women arrived in the grave, they encountered something unexpected, something altogether new. Not only is the stone rolled away, but the tomb is empty! And then, two well-dressed men show up saying, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Things are getting seriously weird now. But all signs in this moment point to the astonishing notion that Jesus is not dead. Jesus must know how to be alive—even when all the worst-case scenarios have not only happened but landed solidly upon his body and mind and heart. How does Jesus live after all that he endured?
I have been meditating on a part of the narrative that comes before the women’s arrival at the tomb as I ponder the wonder of Jesus’ resurrected life. I imagine that many of us think of resurrection as something fairly simple—like waking up after a nap, a painless, easy stroll into a life filled with beauty and goodness. But consider these words of poet, Denise Levertov who writes:
… there must take place that struggle
no human presumes to picture:
living, dying, descending to rescue the just
from shadow, were lesser travails
than this: to break
through earth and stone of the faithless world
back to the cold sepulchre, tearstained
stifling shroud; to break from them
back into breath and heartbeat, and walk
the world again, closed into days and weeks again,
wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit
streaming through every cell of flesh
so that if mortal sight could bear
to perceive it, it would be seen
His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,
and aching for home.[ii]
This makes me consider that, for Jesus, resurrection was perhaps more difficult than dying. Far from a simple, painless getting up and stepping out, I think of how hard it would be for Jesus to choose to return to us when all he wanted to do was go home, to break through “earth and stone of the faithless world” that had rejected and killed him, to travel back through the acutely painful memory of shroud and tomb, to be “closed into days and weeks again” with his world-inflicted wounds gaping for everyone to see—in some ways more vulnerable and exposed than ever.
This shifts my perception of resurrection. And let me be clear: the resurrection I’m focusing on today is not the resurrection that happens “when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease,” though that is certainly a glorious part of the Easter promise. The resurrection I’m inviting us to consider today is the day-in/day-out question of how to be alive, of how to break out of the daily, deathly temptations to apathy and cynicism and fear and hatred and rage and selfishness and addiction and isolation and emotional numbness. To break out of death is to break into life. And what Levertov’s image offers is a reminder that breaking into life—at least if Jesus is our guide—is not a walk in the park.
Why did Jesus do it? For the same reason Jesus did everything: LOVE. It might have been the hardest thing he did to break through and to come back to us, but Jesus did it freely out of love. He must have known that we needed his return if we were to have any chance of breaking out of death ourselves. Otherwise, we’d never believe it’s possible. We desperately need to know how to be alive and on this day Jesus shows us how it’s done.
And how it’s done—breaking out of death and into life—is only possible through love—through God’s love for us gives live and helps us see that we are worthy of love and our love for God and for others. Love is what gives us the power to overcome our desire to just check out, to abandon who or what needs our attention; love is what helps us let go of grudges and rage and negativity. Love is what helps us break through things that are hard, that want to hold us hostage, that want to diminish us, that want to keep us scared, that want to keep us stuck, that want to keep us dead. If Jesus is our guide, we see that breaking into life will likely involve some self-sacrifice, deep patience, and lots of forgiveness. Don’t you know?...breakthroughs take a lot of work and are often a long-time coming… //
We know if we’ve been paying attention that there’s no detour to Easter, no way to get there without traveling the redemption road that takes you directly through the cross and the tomb. Breaking into life will require a willingness to descend into the places of our grieving and shame and shadow and fear and pain. The old expectation would be that all that stuff is there to stay and so best to just avoid it since we have to lug it around forever, letting it steal life from us day by day, letting it lure us into numbing behaviors that deaden our senses and our lives. But the Easter promise is that when we are willing to be honest and to confront the place of death—the pain and grief and mindless rut in our core—Jesus meets us there every time and will take us by the hand, call us by our name, forgive us, heal us, set us free, and help us break through into new life, again and again.
But breaking into life does not offer an escape from the hard things of the world. The world Jesus broke back into was a world still unable to trust the good news of resurrection proclaimed by those who had experienced it first-hand; the eleven male disciples called the women’s testimony a Greek expletive (“idle tale” is the G-rated translation…it’s more like what organic farmers put on their gardens). It was a world that still struggled to perceive who Jesus was, as evidenced by the story on the road to Emmaus that immediately follows. We know all these years later that resurrection doesn’t make the world any less unjust, dismissive, violent, clueless, or greedy. Breaking into life will mean stepping back into a world that is cold and hard and has hurt us and scares us and disappoints us and gets it wrong again and again.
So why do it? Why do this hard work instead of just binge-watching Netflix or losing ourselves in distractions and addictions? Because it’s how to be alive—truly alive in the way that Jesus shows us life is meant to be. Because it promises meaning and joy even in the midst of the struggle. Because it is the way to grow in love and courage and peace and freedom and justice.
The resurrection moments experienced in this life don’t lead us away from the world, don’t help us escape the world, but lead us into the world changed. Through the grace and love of God, we, like Jesus, start to be “lit from within” and, little by little, find that we are able to live, to rise!, even in the face of our worst fear, even when things go wrong, even when we totally screw up, even when everything has crumbled around us. By the amazing grace and resurrection power of God, we find that we are able to love even in the midst of pain, that we are able to forgive even when we are under attack, that we are able to serve even when we are weary and worn, that we are able to be humble when it would be easy to strut about, that we are able to accept our limitations with grace, that we are able to be more and more fully alive through participation in the life that Jesus has revealed, a life of love and service shared freely with and for others.
On this Easter day, the power of God’s love resurrects Jesus and all the old expectations get smashed to pieces. And, because Jesus breaks into this life, in your life, we are not abandoned to hopelessness, we are not abandoned to fear of death, we are not abandoned to cynicism or powerlessness or isolation. We are not left only with faded memories of a dead teacher. The living Christ breaks into the world and into our lives to journey with us, to love us, and to show us how to be alive…today and forevermore. Thanks be to God!
[i] Wendell Berry, “2001:VI” This Day: Sabbath Poems Collected and New 1979-2013, Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013, p. 222.
[ii] Denise Levertov, excerpt, “Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell” https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/ikon-harrowing-hell