Easter Irony

easter-sunrise-woodlawn-cemetery  Years ago, I had the wonderful opportunity to tour Israel. In Jerusalem, we visited the Garden Tomb, one of two sites proposed as Jesus’ burial place, and the one that still looks garden-like today. We listened to the tour guide explain the history of the site, and the reasons why it is believed to be the actual tomb of Jesus. The moment finally came when the crowd of tourists was given permission to move forward and into the narrow doorway of the stone sepulcher, and to imagine what it might have been like for the first disciples to discover that Jesus was not there.

The crowd, in its excitement, was not very orderly. People pressed in upon one another, and the closer we got to the doorway of the tomb, the more jostling and elbowing for position there was. Caught in the middle, I began to chuckle at the irony of it all. In our exuberance to see the place where the Prince of Peace rose from the dead, we tourists were acting rather unpeacefully. Sometimes, actions speak louder than words, and ours were saying, “I want to worship the Lord of love, so you had better move before I push you out of my way!”

Sometimes there is unhealthy irony in expressions of Christian faith, a state of affairs that seems deliberately contrary to what we might expect.

Such unhealthy irony was on display in letters recently received by four congregations in the southern part of our regional presbytery. Someone is especially unhappy that the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., through its democratic process, is changing its constitution so that same-gender couples may be married in the church in states where such a marriage is legal and when the wedding is approved by the Session. This particular someone wrote letters quoting scripture and saying, in part, that churches that accept this action should be burned to ground, and warning that this could happen to any church that performs such a wedding.[1] It’s ironic that someone who claims to understand the truth of the Bible would send such letters. It is in the realm of extremist religion where, in the name of love of God and the sanctity of a belief, people engage in hate-inspired and unholy behavior, like the writing of anonymous, threatening letters, and possibly the burning of churches.

The New Testament, and the proclamation of the Church, bears witness that in Jesus Christ, God did something about hateful, unholy behavior. The cross, the chief symbol of our faith, is an ever-present reminder of that truth. Originally, the cross was a tool of oppression to keep in check all those who might consider opposing the will of Rome. Crosses in public places were symbols of Rome’s omnipotent political power, reminders of the gruesome end facing anyone who opposed Rome’s authority. But when a cross was used to execute Jesus, what seemed to be the end of a subversive leader, instead was the beginning of the most powerful movement for freedom, education, health care, advancement of the arts that the world has ever known. Slowly but surely, the cross was transformed from a symbol of fear and oppression into a symbol of faith and freedom.

A decisive moment in that shift took place in the event we read about in the 16th chapter of the Gospel of Mark. When the first Easter dawned, everyone was in agreement that Jesus was dead. His side had been pierced to make sure that the life was drained out of him. His body had been placed in a tomb carved in rock, and a stone rolled against it. A guard unit had been placed at the tomb to ensure that Jesus’ disciples could not steal the body, and cause further mischief. Then, the grave is visited, an angel speaks, no body is found, and the disciples first react in fear and disbelief. The news of Jesus’ resurrection is so disconcerting that they run from the tomb in terror. As time goes on, the disciples come to realize that fear is not the last word. Something else is waiting for them beyond violence, death, and fear.

These days, you don’t have to look far to find stories of violence, death, and fear. You and I read many of them, too many, so many that they make us cry. One such recent story came out of North Carolina, where a 46-year-man gunned down three college students, allegedly because their car was in his reserved parking space. The shooter is described as an atheist; his victims just happened to be Muslim. In an environment where many did not know the victims, and those who did were not sure exactly what to do, a Jewish rabbi provided an example. His name is Eric Solomon, leader of a synagogue in Raleigh, NC. He attended the funeral of the three students. In the wake of a hate-inspired violence, he was a witness to love-inspired peacemaking. He writes that with his black kippah on his head, he stood on a soccer field with 5000 Muslims, and wept.

He explains that his response was possible only because over the course of his tenure, he has made building bridges with Muslims a high priority. In fact, when he was installed as rabbi, Muslim leaders came to participate, not an easy thing to accept in the Jewish community. He says that it was the first time in known memory that observant Muslims set foot in his synagogue. He says that his congregation received these honored guests as if they were entering the tent of Abraham, that it was one of the proudest moments of his career. He writes, “The goal I held aloft for my congregation was always clear: proper fulfillment of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” In order to love our Muslim neighbors, we needed to know their practices, stories and faith. With increased understanding, I believed that we would have a clearer lens through which we could see our commonalities and a more compassionate eye with which we could honor our differences.”[2]

When the horror of execution-style murder struck this community, few could imagine a way forward. Few people living in town could imagine what might happen beyond violence, death, and fear.

Rabbi Eric Solomon reminds us that God can be at work in the midst of the worst crises. His story echoes the truth of the Easter story, a truth described by Presbyterian writer Frederick Buechner when he says that the worst thing isn’t the last thing about the world. It’s the next to the last thing.[3] There is more to Easter than fearful moments in a cemetery. Beyond violence and threats of violence, beyond fear and death, is the glorious truth affirmed for nearly 2000 Easters: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! To God alone be the glory, great things God has done! AMEN.

[1] Nichole Cartmell, “Four Heartland Presbyterian churches get threat,” KFVS12 News online, 24 March 2015, http://www.kfvs12.com/story/28605286/4-heartland-presbyterian-churches-get-threat#

[2] Rabbi Eric Solomon, “One Rabbi’s Response to the Chapel Hill Shootings,” “The Blog,” Huffpost Religion, Posted: 03/24/2015 7:28 pm EDT Updated: 03/24/2015 7:59 pm EDT, accessed 26 Mar. 2015-03-26http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-eric-solomon/one-rabbis-response-to-th_b_6932618.html

[3] Buechner is quoted by W. Dale Brown in “Of Fiction and Faith: Twelve American Writers Talk about Their Vision and Work,” which is cited in “Pulpit Resource” vol. 28 no. 2, p. 22.


~ by JohnH1962 on April 5, 2015.

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