Sunday, May 04, 2014

The surprising experience of resurrection

In the wonderful 1939 movie, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is picked up, holus-bolus, by a tornado from her aunt and uncle’s dustbowl farm in Kansas and plonked down, house and all, on top of a wicked witch in a land that’s even further away from anywhere than home was – a dangerous and wonderful place called Oz where Dorothy’s only friends are missing the essential ingredients – a Scarecrow who needs a brain, a Tin Man who wants a heart, and a Cowardly Lion who yearns to be courageous – and they all set off together down on a desperate journey down the yellow brick road to find the Wizard of Oz who they hope can give them a heart, make them clever and brave, get them home again. The irony of course is that at the end of the road and all its dangers they find a pretend wizard who nevertheless teaches them the most important thing of all - that the resourcefulness and courage and love they need has been growing inside them all along the way.

A colleague who finds he has his best ideas and writes his best sermons on the move told me he was recently given a gift by his family – a little paper-weight with the words engraved on it, solvitur ambulando, ‘it will be solved in the walking’. Like Dorothy, my friend has discovered that what we think we don’t have sometimes comes to us fully formed along the way. The important thing is to keep moving, because it’s movement, not stagnation, that stimulates creativity.

The Gospel, I think, is teaching us something similar, telling us that we will be transformed not by sitting and waiting but by movement – that we are going to encounter and be changed by the risen Christ in the process of spiritual growth, movement, pilgrimages whether involving physical journeys or journeys into new ways of seeing and understanding. We are transformed by our moving. God’s Easter Spirit is found most significantly in process, rather than stability. To experience God’s inspiration more fully, we have to be on the move, because God also is on the move!

Why? Because resurrection is about a whole new way of being, new ways of seeing and understanding, new relationships. As Mary Magdalene discovers in St John’s Easter morning story, resurrection is about learning to see familiar landscapes in a new way, daring to let go of old certainties and limitations and allowing God to tease our closed minds into recognising new possibilities, new connections. As soon as we open our minds to the paradox of resurrection we discover new ways of understanding our relationships with the people around us, new ways of understanding who we might be ourselves. A living faith, resurrection faith, we discover, is not about holding fast to the certainty of ‘old time religion’ but about strapping ourselves in for a white-knuckle ride through change, dying to much of what we thought would last forever and waking up to new challenges and new resources that we never dreamed possible. Discovering that the God of change – the God of resurrection – is always there ahead of us, creating us moment by moment as the future unfurls in front of us.

Does that sound scary – or exciting?

Maybe we allow this talk of resurrection itself to become over-familiar when we open the Lectionary every year at around this time to find that the season of Easter is upon us. But just imagine that very first Easter. Imagine being there. Imagine daring to believe that what experience and common sense, not to mention medical science, tells you is impossible, has just become the most fundamental reality of your life. Imagine being confronted by the realisation that the God of history, the God of scripture, the God of synagogue and timeless liturgy is none other than the God of novelty, the God who casually blows away all your preconceptions of what’s right and proper and what’s not – the God of resurrection who doesn’t play by the rules.

Because if I’m right – if resurrection is fundamentally about creativity and change and new perceptions – then what ‘new thing’, what novel practices and behaviours might God be calling us to right now? How do we respond to resurrection in all its surprise and novelty in our personal lives and in our life together as a parish? If living by resurrection challenges us and inspires us to expect something new – what new thing might God be about to do in our lives? If we take seriously the experience of the divine willy-willy of resurrection – well, what are we going to do differently?

Today, two pilgrims on the way to Emmaus find resurrection as they walk! Exhausted and depressed by the house of cards tumbling events of Passover Week, it seems they’re going nowhere in particular. Bible scholars tell us Emmaus can’t be found – none of the contenders for this ancient village a few miles out of Jerusalem make any sense even as a night-time stopover for these refugee disciples. If one of them is named Cleopas then the other may well have been the profoundly courageous Mary, the wife of Clopas who John’s gospel tells us stood with Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary of Magdala at the foot of Jesus’ cross. It’s a journey without much sense of hope, walking for the sake of being somewhere else when hope itself - and everything you’ve lived for - seems to have been extinguished. Even the rumours of resurrection are unsettling, more than they can cope with.

The point is, it’s a journey we know about – a journey that most of us have been on at some point in our own lives, the journey to nowhere in particular.

But then, Luke’s Gospel tells us, a third pilgrim joins them. Hidden from their recognition, they journey toward nowhere with the Risen Jesus, not knowing that everything is about to change, that their own resurrection is as close as the next footstep. This, too, is an experience we know something about, the experience of being drawn, in spite of ourselves, at a time when we are most alone and most lost, into a new experience of life, new resources, a renewed sense of direction and purpose, the gift of the courage and wisdom of others that rekindles our own. I think it’s often like that. Right when our journey seems to be headed nowhere is when, if we are prepared to take notice, God offers us a resurrection experience, a new take on the reality of our own life, a new perspective on those who travel alongside us.

Resurrection, as I’ve been suggesting, is not static but fast-flowing and fleeting – God holds it out to us over and over again but the trick is, whether or not we catch hold of it depends on our reflexes. And see in this gospel story, still submerged in their own depression and lethargy, the two travellers do something remarkable. They reach out in hospitality to their fellow traveller, even though their hearts are breaking, their spirits are exhausted, and their bodies worn out. As the stranger prepares to walk on to his next destination, they invite him to supper. And, true to the promise Jesus made on the night before he died, it’s exactly in that moment, in the action of breaking and sharing bread, that they recognise the risen Christ in the one who has offered and shared himself with them. But, just like Mary of Magdala realised earlier that same morning, they discover they can’t hold on to the Jesus they knew. As soon as they get the point, it fades from their sight. Resurrection experiences come and go, you can’t hold on to them. Moments of assurance are fleeting. Inspiration is transitory. Health is temporary. But God is in every moment, filling it with holiness and then moving on the next and inviting us to follow. Faithfulness is about remembering but it’s also about the sort of movement that creates new memories and new possibilities. Hospitality is the open door to creative transformation.

So what are we going to do next? There’s something here, I think, about trust, about knowing for sure that even when we don’t know where we’re going, the God who creates the world we live in and time itself is going to meet us before we get there. There’s also something about understanding resurrection as a process that isn’t just completed in Jesus of Nazareth, but can only be completed in us – when we open ourselves to what God wants to show us, when we learn to live Jesus’ own practice of radical hospitality then Jesus is resurrected – the risen life of Jesus is experienced in the Christ space of new possibilities that God creates between us.

Above all, I think, it’s about recognising that resurrection life never stands still. Keep moving. Follow the yellow brick road of your life. Keep assuming that, no matter where you are on your journey of life, the God who created you and brought you this far has still got something new to show you. Just up ahead. Expect to be surprised. Expect Christ to come to life all over again, in you.