march madness: “the madness of an unbelievable resurrection and the unbelievable loss of fear,” march 27, 2016, easter sunday


(Resurrection River, painting by Krystyna Sikora)

Responsive Call to Worship
We gather at the tomb
of too many of our hopes and dreams.
We gather amidst too much grief
at what and who’s been lost to us.
And yet
we gather to speak words of hope—
to sing words of assurance—
to be told the story again,
that in the end, life wins.
In the end, love wins.
In the end, it is death itself that dies.
Alleluia! Christ is risen.
Christ is risen indeed!

Witness of the Closed Canon, i.

Luke 24:13-35
Now on that same day two of them
were going to a village called Emmaus,
about seven miles from Jerusalem,
and talking with each other about all these things that had happened.
While they were talking and discussing,
Jesus himself came near and went with them,
but their eyes were kept from recognizing him.
And he said to them,
‘What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?’
They stood still, looking sad.
Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas,
answered him, ‘Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem
who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’
He asked them, ‘What things?’ They replied,
‘The things about Jesus of Nazareth,
who was a prophet mighty in deed and word
before God and all the people,
and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over
to be condemned to death and crucified him.
But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.
Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day
since these things took place.
Moreover, some women of our group astounded us.
They were at the tomb early this morning,
and when they did not find his body there,
they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision
of angels who said that he was alive.
Some of those who were with us went to the tomb
and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him.’
Then he said to them, ‘Oh, how foolish you are,
and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!
Was it not necessary
that the Messiah should suffer these things
and then enter into his glory?’
Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets,
he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.
As they came near the village to which they were going,
he walked ahead as if he were going on.
But they urged him strongly, saying,
‘Stay with us, because it is almost evening
and the day is now nearly over.’
So he went in to stay with them.
When he was at the table with them,
he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.
Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him;
and he vanished from their sight.
They said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning within us
while he was talking to us on the road,
while he was opening the scriptures to us?’
That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem;
and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together.
They were saying, ‘The Lord has risen indeed,
and he has appeared to Simon!’
Then they told what had happened on the road,
and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.

Witness of the Open Canon, i.
“Hallelujah,” Cohen/Ballenger

I heard there was a simple chord
that David played and it pleased the Lord.
Cause You know the truth of music, don’t Ya?
Well it goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift—
the honest king composing hallelujahs.
Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

Well your faith was strong, but you needed proof.
You saw him coming from your roof.
Hope and all your dreams they overthrew ya.
Well you joined the crowd and sang along.
You never knew what you said was wrong,
as from your lips he drew the “Hallelujah.”
Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

And yes, I’ve been there before. I’ve said the words,
then known the flesh they wore.
I used to think that I’d be loyal to Ya.
But with all I’ve seen, though it might sound harsh, love is not a victory march,
it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.
Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

Maybe there’s a God above, but all I’ve ever learned from love
was not to trust in happy ever after.
It’s not a beacon in the night; it’s not someone who’s seen the light.
It’s a cold and it’s a lonely hallelujah.
Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

You say I took his name in vain,
but all that hope was never feigned.
And even if it was, well what’s it to ya?
There’s a blaze of light in every word.
It doesn’t matter which you heard—
the holy or the broken hallelujah.
Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

I did my best; it’s not enough.
The truth of life is it gets tough.
And I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool ya.
And even though it all went wrong,
I’ll stand before the Lord of song
with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah.
Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.

Witness of the Living Word, ii.
I was talking with the preachers’ camp folks the other week.
We were looking ahead to Easter—
reminding each other
that come Easter Sunday morning,
we preach—and I do mean we!
Your presence here is part of a great sermon
that is our proclamation of good news.
We preach to someone in the pews who’s pulled it together
just enough to get to church this morning—
maybe for the only time the whole year—
hoping no one notices—
that there aren’t any clues—
nothing to indicate
that it’s all held together so very tenuously.

We preach to someone who hears of Jesus’ death—
of Jesus in the tomb—
and thinks, “That’s me—entombed—dead.
I mean, I sure don’t feel alive—
all hope—all joy—scourged out of me—
any hope pierced with thorns and nails.”

We preach to a new widow wondering what Easter means—
“What does it mean for me—alone now?
And what does it mean for my dead husband—
who is, after all, still dead this Easter Sunday morning?”

We preach to the sick wondering what resurrection means
when their own bodies are working against their health.
We preach to the overwhelmed and the stressed out
who aren’t sure they would recognize good news if they heard it.
We preach to those whose years remind them
there’s so much less time to live than has been lived.
We preach to all of us who have a sense of the fragility of life.

We’ve also been talking a lot over the last year or so,
in general, about our culture of death—
an idea—a phrase I feel has consistently come up
to indicate a prevalent/common/rampant
focus on what does not bring life and life abundant—
an investment in death
that minimizes and cheapens and denigrates and mocks—
as a perspective small enough to see only its own near horizons—
a violently dualistic reduction of beauty and tragedy,
the joyful and the fearful, the truth and its distortions—
into right and wrong and us and them.
So what do we have to say this morning?

And we can weave the affirmation through the service
maybe even the response—
with varying degrees of enthusiasm!
He is risen. (He is risen indeed!)
We can sing the glorious songs of resurrection.
We can sing all the alleluias.
We can proclaim the Easter story—
which is what many of my preaching professors claimed
is all we need to do on Easter Sunday morning.
We can talk about Easter experiences—
resurrection truth—
in our own lives.
But for someone on whom death maintains a stranglehold—
choking hope and life—stifling joy and any sense of anticipation—
for the one barely holding it together—
for the one in deep grief—so lonely—
for the one who feels dead to the world—
who feels the world is dead to her or him—
for the one who knows death is close,
so what?
So he rose. Good for him.
So it’s meaningful to you. Good for you.
What’s it to me—this year—right now?
And as appropriately suspicious as we should always be
of the highly individualistic,
that’s a good—important question.

Do we have a real word of good news today for such as these in our midst?
Do we have an honest word for those of us
who do not know resurrection—
who may desperately long for it,
but can’t relate—don’t believe—
for whom it makes no sense—
for whom it doesn’t ring true—
for whom it is at best a wish-it-were-true fairy tale,
and at worst a manipulative escapist lie.

Not to mention that it’s a given
that most of us as followers of God in the way of Jesus—
a given that even most of us know the truths of death
far better than we do any truths of resurrection,
do we have a significantly relevant word for us—
that is more than, “Oh, it’s Easter; here’s what we’re supposed to say”?—
that is more than just more emphasis on resurrection—
let’s see how much we can say it—
that’s more than more of the same old story—
the same old affirmations of what once happened
that was supposed to change everything,
when everything doesn’t so much feel changed.
And yet it’s not like we’re going to get something more than that—
some amazing undoing of death—
some personal experience of resurrection truth today, right?

It is, in truth, an Easter Sunday preaching bind.
If we move from the triumphal entry last week
to the triumph of Easter this week,
we leave all those mired in death floundering.
But if we acknowledge the pervasively powerful reality of death,
then what do we have to say—
to offer anyone that is, in truth, good news?

There is an immense challenge to both the reality of death
and the truth of resurrection—
both of which have to be affirmed,
if we want to have anything worthwhile to say.

Friday, August 13, 1954
on page 12 of The Victoria Advocate, in Victoria, TX,
there was an Associated Press article out of New York City
I read this past week,
about Mr. Hanns R. Teichert, a Chicago decorator,
who bought a painting in May of that year
from a New York antique dealer for $450—
a 25 by 20 and one half oil on wood
Madonna and child.

Wanting an expert’s opinion on his purchase,
he took it to Dr. Maurice H. Goldblatt,
director of the art galleries of the University of Notre Dame,
who after inspecting it, suggested an amateur
had overpainted parts of the painting—
including parts of the face and neck
to make them look narrower
(I’d like to point out this was long before photoshop!).
Goldblatt recommended removing the overpainting.
The results were, as he put it, electrifying.
With the overpainting removed, it looked to Dr. Goldblatt,
in his expertise, like the painting was done
by none other than … Leonardo da Vinci!

So here/hear the truth.
Reality is overpainted in the image of the status quo
and offered to us on the cheap—
overpainted to make it seem more manageable—
in the effort to maintain some semblance of control—
to impose a conformity comfortable to us.

When you consider who we understand God to be,
when you think of the vibrant colors and textures,
the wild diversity of creation—
the celebrations of variations
named good and blessed in the name and in the image of God,
it’s madness—it is madness—to accept anything less than that.
But we do.
And when you embrace such madness,
you embrace its inevitable consequences.
When you vote to open that door,
you don’t get a say in what comes in through that door.

So what we think is real is what is real overpainted
with the passing priorities of ever-changing times—
with the presuppositions and presumptions
of our always limited perspectives—
the assertions and the assumptions associated with our culture—
our economy—our politics—our way of life—
prescribing to and for us a limited life—
circumscribed in familiarity—
risking only small hopes and even smaller dreams.

Reality is now, in truth, so well overpainted
and so taken for granted,
that it takes a drop—a fall—an accident—a tragedy
to gouge—
to scratch away what obscures—
to shock us with the realization that what we accept as real
is obscuring something else—something more.

And when we strip it all away—if we can—
that heavy handed editing by the ministers of the status quo—
if we get below the surface—
if we get to what’s true,
it’s electrifying—
a God-created reality still defined by blessing as very good.

Now it’s certainly not that all we experience is good—is blessing,
but it’s the truth that beneath it all—behind it—beyond it all—
is grace that cannot be denied.

And so it’s the sheer brilliance of Leonard Cohen’s writing:
“There’s a blaze of light in every word.
It doesn’t matter which you heard—
the holy or the broken hallelujah.”
In lives holy or broken,
there is grace that cannot be denied—
and love and goodness and blessing—
in hallelujahs meant and hallelujah’s longed for.

You see, I really don’t believe in the loss of fear.
A reality without fears and without tears
is utterly unbelievable to me.
I do believe in facing and overcoming the paralysis of fear—
the priority of fear.
I believe in cultivating a sense of a larger whole—
of which fear is a part—and tears—
of which death is a part,
and in which resurrection is not some external reward
to counter what’s hard—what’s tragic—what’s wrong—
some magical vindication to counter death.
This is a whole—a reality in which resurrection is not even an event in time,
but, rather, an experienced, always in the present participation
in the reality—the truth of God—
the reality—the truth—that informs the whole.

But you have to scrape through the overpainting—
the fear that’s been built up through the years—and the greed,
not the love—
the layering of anger and defensiveness about things that don’t matter,
not grace—
the texture of rejection and smug superiority,
not inclusion.

Joy can do it too—actually—
strip away the veneer—get us below the surface.
But we tend not to think so much about joy.
We enjoy joy,
and so the deeper implications sometimes go unnoticed—
the, “Oh, my God, how rich and beautiful and holy.
Why—how is this not a priority—not the truth?
Why—how is it that we are a culture
of death always overpainting the blessing
that is life?
So that while the fullness of life takes place
within the truth of love and grace and blessing—
that is the truth of resurrection—
that we experience—that we know is true—
in moments of intimacy and honesty and community—
in beauty and in grace,
that we nonetheless reject and deny as what’s fundamentally real—
as many times as the rooster crows
each and every morning.”

I do so believe in the ultimate victory of Easter.
But even that’s been overpainted
in the triumphal tones so easy to hear
of vindication—of we win you lose.
The reality and the victory of resurrection is that it lives amidst defeat.
It lives amidst a world defeated—
overpainted by profits prioritized and by violence mythologized—
by a killing pace and persistent manipulations of fear.
God’s victory lives within people who feel defeated too—
within everyone’s sense of loss and despair—
everyone’s hopelessness—
everyone’s grief and anger—
until breaks through
the truth that we win only when no one loses—
when all are loved and all love—
and the truth that ultimate victory is not a moment in the story of Jesus long gone—
nor a moment yet to come—
in some great gittin’ up mornin’ to come,
but the realization of the truth of God in time—all time.

As a preacher—invested in the integrity of the rhetorical,
pondering matters theological,
I am regularly frustrated—especially this time of year
by the use of cyclical imagery—
the imagery of spring—
even the powerful affirmation of good that can come after hard—
the use of any of that—all of that—
to indicate resurrection—
when it seems to me, there’s a qualitative difference.
That’s such poor overpainting!
Resurrection is not renewal. It’s not rebirth.
It didn’t naturally cycle around on an annual basis
throughout the life of Jesus.
But neither is it, as we tend to tell it,
a singular, unbelievable, impossible happening
(with the caveat that all things are possible with God).
He was dead. He was buried. He is alive.
That’s overpainting too.

Here/hear now the good news.
Resurrection happened long before Jesus.
Resurrection happened long before Easter.
It’s not an unbelievable happening within reality, you see,
but a complete reevaluation of reality—of what’s real.
The reality of resurrection—the truth of resurrection
just became apparent at Easter to those telling our story—
became apparent to them after their experience of death—
after terrible loss—amidst paralyzing grief—
barely holding it together—having given up on hope,
when came the realization,
wait, it’s still all true!

There can be no truth—
there can be no reality
without Jesus.
That’s not how God created reality to be.

For the ultimate truth of Easter is God—
not an event—
who God is—
always has been—always will be—
and so who Jesus was—and is—
and who we are in God—always—
cherished and loved.

And hearts are still strangely warmed
in communion—
in relationship—
in conversation—
in intimacy—
in bread broken and shared—
even amidst the world as it continues to overpaint
and not just in memory—in remembrance,
but in presence—
in participation—
in the truth that is still true,
we are created in love for love to love.

It’s still not anything you’re going to talk yourself into believing.
No one’s going to convince you of it.
But maybe you can ask yourself to keep your eyes open—
to acknowledge wonder and gift, grace—blessing—
how many people smile at you—
how many people are willing to help—
how many people find bigotry and self-righteous exclusion
and moral indignation offensive—
how many people love their children—love children—
and want what’s best for them—
how each day offers gifts—
be it sunny, cloudless, cloudy, foggy, rainy, stormy,
snowy, hot humid cold dry
ow many different wonderful things there are to eat
(of course the psalm says taste and see that God is good!
[Psalm 34:8]).
Open my eyes, that I may see
glimpses of truth thou hast for me.

It’s not about having to believe in something
you can only define as impossible.
You just have to believe
that what’s real is bigger and richer
and deeper and more whole and more holy than you ever knew—
that God’s blessing is still the most basic,
most definitive truth of creation.
Isn’t that what we want to believe?

And so if you’re barely holding it together,
God loves you—
not in some possible future when you get it all together,
right now—in your effort—in the struggle—
and in what fragile hopes you have.

If you feel more dead than alive,
God loves you—not just in the little bit that keeps you going—
but also amidst your sense of forsakenness.

If you’ve lost your loved one,
God loves you—and your loved one—
as God always has—as God always will—
even within the grief—that devastating sense of absence.

If you live with illness,
the holiness of your days still embraces you
and graces you.

And if you face death—when you face death,
you do so knowing yourself loved beyond time—
you do so remembering the eternal truths you have experienced already.

And if you can’t believe God loves you—
and not just thinking that one day you will believe,
God loves you in the very honesty of your doubt.

There is beneath and behind and beyond it all—
a blessing—
even when things are hard and bad.
“And even though it all went wrong,
I’ll stand before the Lord of song
with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah”

In September of 1955, a year after the story broke
of what may have been a da Vinci painting,
overpainted, bought for $450,
The Age, a newspaper from Melbourne, Australia,
followed up, noting that Goldblatt’s suspicions
had been verified by four different art experts in Europe.

Turns out this particular da Vinci painting
was for many years in the French royal collection
(through the reigns of four different kings),
then displayed in a house in Paris,
sold in about 1880,
exhibited in London in 1894.
It “changed hands several times since then,
always being identified as the work of lesser artists”.
sold in 1916 at a New York auction
and then in 1926 it was traded in partial payment
[—in partial payment—]
for a landscape by Maurice Sterne

I looked up Maurice Sterne.
I looked up some of his paintings.
They’re not bad.
I liked them.
They’re not da Vinci’s!

So, more than Easter affirmation—
and, my goodness, more than Easter assurance,
my Easter question for you today—my resurrection question—
my faith and my God question—my life question—
why settle,
for the vision and the work of lesser artists?
Why settle for a reality less than blessed—
less than the goodness of God’s creation—
shot through with resurrection truth?

Don’t settle.
Don’t ever settle.

Witness of the Open Canon, ii.
Pierce Pettis, “Love’s Gonna Carry Me Home

Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
Luke 24:1-11
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn,
they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.
They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,
but when they went in, they did not find the body.
While they were perplexed about this,
suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.
The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground,
but the men said to them,
‘Why do you look for the living among the dead?
He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you,
while he was still in Galilee,
that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners,
and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.’
Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb,
they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.
Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna,
Mary the mother of James,
and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.
But these words seemed to them an idle tale,
and they did not believe them.


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