Monday, April 9, 2012

Resurrection: The Unprepared Dream

The following sermon was written by the Reverend Scott Walters of  Christ Episcopal Church and is published here with his permission.

What’s your dream about being unprepared or ill equipped? When you were in grade school, maybe you had that dream in which your teacher is handing out a test on material you’ve never seen before. Or the one in which you’ve shown up for the same class, but for some reason, you’re not wearing pants. Either dream is pretty effective at producing a feeling of inadequacy, helplessness, unpreparedness.

Of course, Freud said that we have those embarrassing naked dreams because we’re all born exhibitionists. And it’s true that pants aren’t strictly necessary to the task of writing an essay on the Louisiana Purchase or reciting the multiples of seven. But I still say the dreams are really about the fear of being unprepared.

When I was a carpenter I dreamt of working frantically to finish a job. But when I tried to make a cut, I was suddenly holding my five year old son’s plastic Fisher-Price saw. It made a nice growling noise when you pulled the trigger, but it wasn’t much good on a 2X4.

Anxious priests have an archetypal “I can’t find my place in the prayer book and the whole congregation is looking at me” dream. An added complication in mine one time was that the chancel had become a huge set of organ pedals that I was trying nonchalantly to make my way across, honking all the while.

And that’s another curious element in these dreams: our nonchalance. We try to play it cool. We’re slightly relieved that somehow no one has noticed our predicament. And the future that we dread—be it a failed test, horrified stares at our uncovered nether parts, irate clients, or glaring congregants—the future that we dread has never quite arrived in these dreams. So we hold on to a little hope that nobody will notice how sadly ill equipped we are to face whatever it is that’s coming. Maybe the world will return to normal before they do. Maybe we’ll somehow be prepared for the future when it actually arrives.

What’s your dream about being unprepared?

The morning of the Resurrection must have seemed like a bad, confusing dream to the women who arrived first at the tomb. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome thought they were prepared. Even if the gruesome, tragic, unjust death of Jesus on Friday was beyond anything they could have imagined, they did know how to move forward. They did know how to begin making sense of things again.

Generations of Jewish practice and faithful devotion provided tools and good work to do even in a moment like this. Tend to the body. Bring spices. Anoint it, because even bodies finished with the long work of breathing are holy. And dealing carefully and reverently with the dead is one way we make our way through death.

We do other things too. You write a note, send flowers, drop off a casserole. You stop by the house to say that you don’t know what to say. Which is often all that the grieving really need to hear. By grace, these feeble efforts are somehow enough, even in the midst of death, to help us begin another day.

So the women knew what to do with the body, but they wondered about that stone. There’s something helpful about having a very concrete problem to solve in moments like these. Maybe even their wondering was a diversion while they walked. But when they get to the tomb, the stone’s been rolled away. There might have been a split second of relief, before a strange dream-like state swept over them. The stone has been moved. But how? And why? And what in the world could this mean?

Inside the tomb—inside the dream, they must have hoped—there’s a young man in a white robe. And he tells them that Jesus is not there. He is risen.

Which is, of course, the heart of the Christian good news. To us “He is risen” means all is well. The story ends happily. The forces of death and evil have not prevailed. But that’s not how the first witnesses to the resurrection in Mark’s gospel respond.

For the women, it’s the unprepared dream in full force. What do we do with these spices? What do we do with our elaborate engineering schemes to move the stone? What do we do with the peace we were actively making with the death of our friend? How does anyone make peace with the no longer dead?
And St. Mark, God bless him, leaves us dangling right there. Mark ends his telling of the good news right there. With alarm, and terror, and amazement, and fear. He leaves us with three women, at that moment when the dream goes completely weird.

Why would he do such a thing? Where’s the Great Commission, the glorious ascension, the breakfast of fish on the beach and Jesus telling Peter to tend his sheep? Well, they’re in Matthew, and Luke, and John, that’s where. For reasons we may never fully understand, Mark ended his gospel with three women running away from the tomb, too frightened to speak.

But where you decide to begin a story and where you decide to end it is part of the story you tell isn’t it? Is there some facet of the Good News of God’s redeeming work in Christ that comes to light when we stop the Easter story right here and pay attention? What do we learn, or what do we experience of the gospel if we linger in that moment when the world stops making sense, when we find ourselves completely unprepared for the strange future that has just arrived.

Well, maybe the gospel writer is marking this place in the story as holy ground. Maybe he’s showing us that sometimes when the tools we’ve brought with us from our past—our oils and spices, our rituals and our habits, our theories and understandings and beliefs—when those tools appear suddenly inadequate and useless, life may not be coming completely apart. God may be doing something utterly new. Resurrection may even be at hand.

But take note: we may not feel like ringing bells and shouting “Alleluia.” We may want to run away. A disruption as thorough as resurrection might not be such an easy thing to take. Because our past, our gifts and our accomplishments, but also our sins and failures, can be hard to let go of.

Lewis Hyde once said that we forgive “once we lose attachment to our wounds,” which makes some sense, doesn’t it? Our wounds are familiar. The places in our souls that have been damaged can become dear to us. And to let them go, to let the Resurrection reach them, to really believe that the cross has emptied them of their power, can feel like a loss of self. Our wounds can be so real that we wonder if there is even a self down beneath them at all. “What is my story if it’s not the story of my pain, my anger, my suffering?”

But by thrusting us into the moment of Resurrection, the first strange moment in which it’s so frightening and disorienting, maybe Mark is helping ease our fear or weaken our resistance to forgiveness, as strange as that sounds. Because Christians believe that the power that sent those women running away in fear on that first Easter morning, is still alive and at work, even in lives like yours and mine. We believe that in the holy mysteries of bread and wine, in the waters of baptism, and through the grace of the Holy Spirit in countless other ways, we are presented again to the power of Christ’s resurrection. We believe that God’s attachment to our sins and our wounds has been severed. And maybe our attachments to them can be broken too in this encounter, opening us to a new life, a new future, a new kind of hope. It might just take a little courage, which is another name for Christian community, to keep us from running off.

If Resurrection as a bad, embarrassing dream still doesn’t work for you, here’s another image to try on. J and P headed to the hospital yesterday afternoon, because it was time for L to be born. And I have a hunch that when J—I can speak more to his experience—I’ll bet that when J held his little girl for the first time, it was the dream of being unprepared—naked in class, toy Skilsaw in hand, lost in the prayer book, whatever— to the nth degree. I’ll bet the feeling washed over him that a dozen lifetimes could never prepare anyone for a moment like this, a moment in which the future we thought we had a handle on splits wide open.

And in that moment, it would be impossible for a father to tease the joy and wonder out from the fear in the face of something so miraculous and transformative. Weak-kneed fellows that we are, it’s incredible that dads don’t all flee the hospitals, seized with terror and amazement, don’t you think?

Which makes me think that Mark didn’t cut his story short at all. He got it just right. Because if we assume resurrection life is all sweetness and light, all calm and tranquility, we might just miss it. For the deeply transformative moments in our lives are always made up of that potent mixture of joy and hope and fear and amazement, everything those women must have felt as they fled the tomb. When God forgives our past and breaks open the future before us, how could we feel anything less than that? Amen.

And may the peace of the Lord be always with you.

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