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Sunday, April 8, 2012

Destroying the Shroud

The gift of Jesus’ resurrection for us goes beyond knowing we will have a life after we die.  Jesus’ risen life among us fulfills Isaiah’s promise that the shroud of death and grief which hovers over our lives and our world is destroyed forever, even now.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, The Resurrection of Our Lord, year B; texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; Mark 16:1-8

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

I am weary of death.  Weary of the pervasive persistent presence of death in this world.  Weary of seeing the face of death every time I open a paper, or turn on the news.  There is a Eucharistic Prayer written for use during the final Sundays of the Church Year which begins: “Holy God, holy and mighty, holy and immortal: surrounded by evil and bordered by death we appeal to you.”  Surrounded by evil and bordered by death.  That’s the way the modern world seems to be.  In fact, I can’t get the image Isaiah gives us this morning out of my mind, it’s such an accurate description of our experience.

He envisions a great death shroud, a pall, spread over all the world, over all humanity.  The sheet which we’ve seen in countless images in news, in the media, pulled over the face of someone who has died: that is what has wrapped the world, Isaiah says.  We’re on a dead planet, whose face is covered by a sheet, he says.

And isn’t that our reality?  I don’t think there’s another generation in human history which has a greater experience of being aware of so much grief and suffering on a daily basis than ours.  With global news coverage 24 hours a day, seven days a week, we never have a moment where we are not made aware of someone’s death, someone’s grief, someone’s suffering.  And it accumulates like the ash falling from an erupted volcano, deepening and suffocating.  Anxiety, terror, fear – we never can get away from it, out from under it.

In times before now, each person, each community, suffered whatever death or pain came to them, to their neighbors, to their loved ones, and of course it was often terrible.  But it was limited to their circle, the ones they knew.  Occasionally, they might hear of a tragedy affecting others far away.  We, on the other hand, have the same experience in our personal lives as our ancestors, but on top of that is an endless and relentless outpouring of too much information from everywhere else: this disaster, that attack, this famine, that disease.  And we barely process the latest news before another one shoves its way into our consciousness.

And this experience is global.  Except in a few areas, people around the world share the same immediacy of news, the same overwhelming sense of the pervasiveness of death and suffering on this planet.  And with the relentless onslaught, we’re all becoming increasingly hardened to suffering and death because of our over-exposure.  It’s incredibly difficult for us or for anyone else to find hope for a future.  And I wonder if we’re becoming so callused we’re in danger of losing our compassion and empathy.

So when Isaiah promises that God’s new creation will be a destroying of that shroud of death which is over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations, I pay attention.  Because if that’s true, and if what we celebrate today has anything to do with it, this is Good News beyond description.

We gather here on Easter Day with the powerful reminder that in Jesus’ resurrection, there is a life for us after this one.

In Jesus’ killing of death, there is promise of that for each of us, a life after we die.  Then God will wipe away all our tears, as Isaiah says, and destroy the death that faces all of us.  From the beginning, the disciples understood this about Jesus’ rising from the dead.

But it seems to me that what we need almost as much is for God to destroy the shroud that’s cast over us now.  Because though in Jesus we have hope for those who have died, and that’s good, we live under that sheet now, in this life.  It would be good to know if there is a lifting of the shroud for us right now, not just the promise of tears wiped away in the future, beautiful as that promise is.

And I believe that’s exactly the hope we find in Jesus’ resurrection.

The end of Mark’s Easter story is powerful and abrupt: “The women went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”  These faithful women, first to hear the Good News, are stunned into fear and silence because of it.

Now of course, we know that they came out of it, even that morning – they did tell the other disciples, and the news spread before noon that something amazing had happened.  But not at first.  Their fear – of death, of the unknown – stops them.  And that’s the place we find an opening for us to enter this story.

The reality of death and suffering, the shroud that exists over the peoples of the world, the sheet over all nations, freezes us, too.  We are numbed from over-exposure.  We understand, oh, yes, we understand what it is to be so afraid and confused and lost that we say nothing.  To be so overcome by the sense of dread and death that we feel nothing.  That we find no hope.

So our Good News is that these women quickly realized what it meant that Jesus was alive.  And they found freedom from all their fear, and powerfully witnessed to the explosive love of God that had changed everything.

For them.  And for the world.

That’s our Good News: God’s love, God’s life are our gifts to cherish in this life, too.

Think about this: none of these first disciples had yet experienced what we all know, what everyone here has experienced, the death of a loved one and the sure promise of that loved one finding eternal life in Christ.  All they knew those first days was that if Jesus was alive, then all their fears, all their griefs, all their terror, could be let go.  That God’s love, now shown to be more powerful than death, could be theirs and give meaning to their whole existence.  That they had no need to be paralyzed into inaction, no need to be afraid.

So within weeks they were facing imprisonment, and threats to cease telling of Jesus’ resurrection or be punished, even the possibility of death, and they were facing it with joy, with boldness, and with love.  Creating a community of love they’d never known to exist before, a community where all shared with one another, where they gathered to worship around the signs of God’s love, where they regularly went out and told others about God’s healing, life-giving, death-killing love.

For these disciples, the shroud of death was lifted from them, even in this life.  And so it is for us.  Living as people who know Jesus is risen from the dead, we can and do look at death differently.  Not just because it isn’t the end.  But because it means we can also truly live here.

Freed from fear, freed from terror, freed from anxiety, we can live in love and grace and risk any consequences.  The pall, the shroud, is lifted, because God’s love is ours and we cannot be taken from it.  We now can envision a daily life filled with the grace and love of the risen Jesus that makes all things bearable, and illuminates all darkness, and is transformed.  Where each act of love and grace lifts the pall and shows God’s death-defeating love to everyone.

In fact, we can face the pervasive death in this world with compassion and love, knowing what we know, but also carrying the healing grace of God to those who don’t, to those who are in grief.  Because the power of Jesus’ risen life can remove our calluses, take away our weariness, and restore our joy that we might be compassionate, loving people in a world where too many still sit under death’s shroud.

I’m grateful that Mark tells us of the women’s fear.  It gives us our entry into the story, a place to join them, and thereby move with them into their fearless lives.

That’s the true celebration of Easter we seek: that we live our lives freed from death’s power to shut us down, to bow our shoulders, to slow our walk, to crush our spirits, to deaden our hearts.  We live our lives filled with the love of a God who loved us even after we killed God’s Son, and in rising from death, gave life and purpose to us now even while foreshadowing the life that is to come.

Jesus is risen, and the shroud that covers this world is torn to shreds, even now.  We may still be surrounded by evil and bordered by death, but we belong to the Risen One who is breaking through all those barriers, even now, and giving us life and hope, even now.  And so we sing, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

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