Shocked into Bliss

easter flowers coverEaster flowers and Lord's Table, FPCE  +  Gospel of Luke 24:1-12Today’s gospel reading begins with despair, and a routine checklist of duties with which despairing people busy themselves at times of death. Despair tells you not to get out of bed, because, like the Preacher of the Old Testament said, “all is vanity, and a striving after the wind.”[1]  But there’s the pastor to meet, the flowers to buy, the lunch to plan, and the body to prepare.  So you brush your teeth, put on your clothes, grab your checklist, and begin your rounds, because somebody has to take care of the details surrounding death.When you feel the dissonance between the despair of death and the portrayal of Easter in popular culture, then you realize that the Church hasn’t done itself any favors by making Easter only about chocolate bunnies and jelly-bean-filled plastic eggs, as fun and nice as those things are for our children. That’s the image that some of our young people grow up with: a sanitized Christianity which, when confronted by despair, is not up to the challenge. If you are to hear the Easter sermon, and I am to properly preach it, then we must acknowledge the despair with which the Easter story begins, and our own pain and sadness about parts of our lives.Craig Barnes, president of Princeton Seminary, describes what he used to see from his preacher’s seat on Sunday morning. “In the third pew …  is a new widow who’s back in the church for the first time since her husband’s funeral. A few rows back on the same side of the sanctuary is a family that is coming apart at the seams. The husband is angry that his wife wants to take a promotion that means moving the family. She’s angry that he’s holding her back. They’re both angry that they can’t get their teenage son to talk to them. The teenager, sporting a shock of purple in his hair, slumps in the pew to make it clear that’s he angry about being dragged to church.Behind them, a young father cradles the baby girl the pastor baptized a few weeks ago. He tells himself she’ll never grow up to have purple hair. Two pews behind them is an older couple whose daughter is a wildly successful attorney in New York. She never talks to them.Across the aisle, two-thirds of the way back, sits a well-dressed gentleman who will leave the worship service to go to the Alzheimer’s unit of a nearby nursing home to visit his wife. A couple of pews in front of him is a middle-aged couple who want the pastor to fire the youth director. And sitting just ahead of them is a single mother with a son in the army who’s hoping something will be said about those who put their lives in harm’s way.The choir finishes its anthem. The pastor walks to the pulpit, prays, and dares to say, “Hear the word of the Lord.”[2]The sound you hear at the instant may not be the sound system malfunctioning, but rather the pastor gulping in anxiety about the challenge. A simple message “I’m-ok-you’re-ok,” or “Let’s-move-ahead-with-the-power-of-positive-thinking” doesn’t cut it. And so I believe an important principle upon which we should base our Easter conversation is honesty about the pain in the passages we read, and the pain we experience in our collective lives.In this week’s news, it’s been impossible to miss pain and grief about the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. One commentator said that the coverage is symbolic of white privilege, when such extensive attention can be given to a church fire in a foreign land, while the intentional fires in several Southern congregations receive comparatively little.  There’s some truth in that. Another satirical writer, after digesting several perspectives, commented that the Notre Dame fire has become symbolic of whatever we want it to symbolize.  There’s some truth in that.From this preacher’s perspective, the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral is at least partially symbolic of church neglect in an increasingly secular society. The cathedral was born of deep devotion, built at tremendous cost. Many of you know that in the cathedral forecourt rests a marker, the “Zero Milestone.” From it, the distance to other French cities is calculated. While it is not the geographical center of the nation, the cathedral milestone is symbolic of what was once the spiritual center of the nation, before the ravages of neglect took hold.An article in Thursday’s Wall Street Journaloffered insight into the long history of neglect. You can Google it if you’re interested.[3]Apparently, most of the locals who grieved the burning cathedral knew little about these issues. For them, Notre Dame was not a Christian sanctuary in which they spent time praying, but rather a historic monument they looked at in passing, assuming it always would be there. They grieved the loss of cultural heritage achieved through the devotion and labor of previous generations, which might have been preserved had they more regularly worshiped, served, and donated. As they cried tears, and sang hymns, one could hope that their attention might be drawn back to the cathedral as a center of faith formation.The aftermath of the Notre Dame Fire also will remind us that pain and grief are followed by opportunities to experience the presence of God in new ways. If we calm our minds and quiet our hearts, then sometimes the grace of God appears unexpectedly, like it did for the disciples at the tomb. In that moment, we are, as Jim Friedrich wrote in a recent opinion piece for the Christian Century, “shocked into bliss.”[4]Pastor Elam Davies tells about such a moment one evening from atop the Great Orme, a massive limestone outcropping on the north coast of Wales.[5]Visitors go to the top of the Orme to view see the sunset. Or, as Davies says in his own poetic way, to see “the sun as a ball of fire descending behind scudding clouds, transforming an ocean into myriad colors, and the moving clouds as if they were a kaleidoscopic evidence of beauty.”On this particular evening, the attention of Elam and his wife Grace Davies was drawn from the sunset to a rather beat-up car that had pulled up next to theirs. They saw an older couple with an adult child, who obviously was disabled in a serious way. As the ball of fire was descending into the gray ocean, the couple moved around to the back door of the car, and tugged their son toward the edge of the back seat, where he could bring his legs down toward the ground. But the young man didn’t have enough strength to lift his head. Just as the sun was to give its final burst of glory, the father put his finger under the young man’s chin and lifted his gaze toward the horizon.Elam Davies says that at that very moment, he knew that God was being revealed.  God was there in the glory of the sunset, of course. But, even more, God was there in the parents who moved beyond the disappointment of the lost future they had originally hoped, to point their son to hope beyond hope.There is potential for something like that to happen at Easter, and in every Sunday worship. We arrive with our anxieties and anger, our sadness and grief, our despair that the world is going to hell, and all hope is lost. Then, the sun rises, with its beautiful light and life-giving potential to shock us into bliss. This Easter, may a gentle hand tilt your head; may you see the One in whom there is life, and love, and grace.NOTES[1]Ecclesiastes 1:14.[2]Craig M. Barnes, “Faith Matters: Listening all the way into the pulpit,” http://christiancentury.org/article/faith-matters/listening-all-way-pulpit, 16 March 2018, accessed 12 April 2019.[3]Valentina Pop, Drew Hinshaw and Nick Kostov, “Decades of Neglect Threatened Notre Dame, Well Before It Burned,” The Wall Street Journal, 18 Apr. 2019, https://www.wsj.com/articles/decades-of-neglect-threatened-notre-dame-well-before-it-burned-11555624252, accessed 19 April 2019.[4]Jim Friedrich, “Preaching on Easter Sunday isn’t about convincing people,” The Christian Century, 3 April 2019, https://www.christiancentury.org/article/opinion/preaching-easter-sunday-isn-t-about-convincing-people, accessed 19 April 2019.[5]Elam Davies, “The God in Whom We Can Be Confident,” Sermons for the City, Franklin, TN: Providence House Publishers, 1996, pp. 35-39.