Sunday, April 8, 2012

(Easter) The shredded shroud

Easter 2012 -- Resurrection and Covenant
Isaiah 25:6-9

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The long 40-day journey is over.
We made it! We’re home!

We started (what seems like ages ago) on Ash Wednesday—
a day devoted to being honest with ourselves
and with God,
about our sin.
It was a day to remember 
how far we have fallen from God’s purposes,
how estranged and alienated we have become 
from each other,
from ourselves,
from creation,
from God.
Some of us marked ourselves with ashes
as a tangible reminder.

Then began our 40-day journey of reflection.
Some of us were more intentional about the 40 days than others.
Some fasted, from one thing or another.
Some engaged in daily practices of prayer and reflection.
Some just made an extra effort, when they thought of it,
to say a prayer,
to sit in silence,
to mend a relationship,
to show kindness to a stranger,
to walk in the woods.

All of us, who worshiped here at Park View in these 40 days,
took time each Sunday to think about the covenants 
God has made with us, and with creation,
across the ages.
The covenant with Noah.
The covenant with Abraham and Sarah.
The covenant at Mt. Sinai with all the people.
The covenant of healing.
The covenant written on our hearts.
Then last week on Palm Sunday,
we looked at the new covenant Jesus established,
by demonstrating a very different kind of kingship,
a different kind of political life and community.

Now here we are at Easter.
You might have thought we finished with talk of covenant.
We just need to enjoy our all-out celebration of new life, of freedom,
of joy, of conquering the power of death and destruction.
Everything is alleluia!
The Easter explosion of life and light is for everyone,
and for everything living.
Easter is cosmic.
It is eternal.
Covenant is more particular, and local.
It’s about relationship with God and each other in community.

So you may have assumed this is not the Sunday to focus on covenant.
I beg to differ.
I don’t recall ever speaking specifically about covenant
on Easter Sunday morning.
But that is where my mind has been drawn this year.

I think it’s absolutely appropriate to think about Easter 
as an act of covenant-making by God with humankind
and all creation.

In a way, it’s a perfect conclusion
to a series on covenant that began with Noah.
God’s covenant with Noah, was not just with Noah, of course.
It was with all creation.
And it had no conditions attached to it.

After the great flood, and the rescue of a few,
God promised never to destroy the whole earth again.
Never. No matter what.
It was just too painful for God, apparently.
And this promise not to destroy all life
was a one-way covenant.
It did not depend on Noah’s actions,
or the actions of his descendants.
Which, as you might recall, went downhill.
Fast. And far.

Now this Easter covenant God made
was also not just for those relatively few disciples of his
who were so grieved,
and then so cheered by his being raised, and appearing to them.
This resurrection covenant is for all creation, for all time,
no matter what.
Not unlike the post-flood covenant.

And this covenant is embedded in whole story of scripture.
It didn’t just show up unexpectedly and out of the blue
when Jesus was raised.

Did you hear the prophet Isaiah?
That’s Isaiah, of the so-called Old Covenant.
7 The Lord of hosts . . . will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations; 
8 he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people
he will take away from all the earth,
for the LORD has spoken.
That’s a striking metaphor.
“The Lord will destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples.”

I don’t know how many of you have had the experience
of seeing a dead body in a shroud, or a body bag.
In my line of work, I’ve seen it too often.

Not to be too morose, here.
But the shroud that Isaiah said was cast over all peoples,
the sheet that was spread over all nations,
was exactly that kind of shroud.
A death wrap.
A cloth used for burial.
Unlike our cultural practice of dressing people up for burial,
and making them appear to be sleeping,
many cultures enshroud their dead from head to toe.
That shroud stands for something incredibly strong.
It not only performs a practical function of covering the body
so it can be handled for burial.
The shroud, which covers even the face,
is a strong symbol of the finality of death.
Once we are shrouded, death has the last, and defining word.
The shroud defines us.
We cannot be mistaken for being asleep.

Keeping this in mind, makes Isaiah’s prophecy especially striking.
All peoples. All nations.
Are now, already, wrapped in their death shroud.
In other words, death and destruction define them.
There is no mistaking the situation here.
The whole world is shrouded.
The whole world is under a covenant of death, you might say.

But . . . the Lord of hosts, says Isaiah,
the Lord of hosts is preparing a feast. 
Not a funeral meal, but a wedding feast.
A feast for all peoples, Isaiah says, in v. 6—
“a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow,
of well-aged wines strained clear.”
And then . . . then . . . when the banquet is ready,
God is going to rip off that death shroud 
that is covering all peoples.
And according to v. 7,
God is not only going to rip it off and toss it on the ground.
God is going to destroy the shroud.
Rip it to shreds.
It will be a shredded shroud.
And a shredded shroud can never—obviously—
never be used as a death shroud again.
This is a forever thing.
And it is for all peoples. All nations.

The resurrection covenant, foreseen by Isaiah,
has been fulfilled in God’s decisive action in Christ,
on that first Easter morning.
And we are invited to “sign on” to this covenant.
We are invited to live in light of the resurrection.

Because of that shredded shroud,
we are no longer under a covenant of death,
we are under a covenant of resurrection.
Resurrection now defines us.

Of course, that does not mean we don’t still deal, head on,
with the ugliness of death.

Easter did not undo or reverse the crucifixion.
Easter gave the crucifixion it’s meaning.

Easter did not nullify Jesus’ suffering and death.
Nor does Easter nullify the continuing suffering and death
in our lives today.

Rather, Easter is an invitation to us who believe,
to live full lives here in this broken and wounded world,
to actually move toward that brokenness, and pain, and death,
and meet the saving, death-destroying God 
right there in the middle of it.

Easter people refuse to let a death shroud define their lives.
Believing in resurrection is not an escape.
It is an invitation to live in genuine hope,
while surrounded by pain and suffering and death,
because we know who God is.
God’s trajectory through human history 
was shown in all those covenants God made in scripture,
it was predicted in the proclamation of the prophets,
and it was proven true in Jesus’ resurrection.
God is all about saving and restoring and redeeming.
God is all about making whole.
Easter people say, “God has, and God will.”

When the good news, symbolized in the shredded shroud,
becomes our good news—
when the Easter truth becomes our defining truth,
we can see fullness even in emptiness.

Thomas G. Pettepiece in his book Visions of a World Hungry,
told how one Easter morning in a huge prison camp,
filled with 10,000 political prisoners.
A group of Christian prisoners
experienced the joy of celebrating communion—
without bread or wine.
A communion of empty hands.
The non-Christian prisoners helped out
by talking quietly so the group of Christians could meet.
See, if it got too quiet, guards would get suspicious.
One prisoner, a pastor, spoke to the others gathered,
“The bread is the body of Christ which he gave for humanity.
The fact that we have none, is a symbol of the hunger
of so many millions of human beings.
The wine, which we don’t have today,
is his blood and represents our dream of a united humanity,
of a just society.”
Then he held out his empty hand,
and placed it over the open hand of the prisoner next to him.
“Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”
He did the same with all the others,
then together they raised their empty hands to their mouths,
receiving the body of Christ in silence.
They repeated this ritual with the cup, and afterward,
in a spontaneous expression of pure joy,
the prisoners embraced one another.
These disciples of Jesus found their true home
in a concentration camp on Easter morning,
because the shroud of death had once for all been shredded,
because the risen Jesus Christ was in their midst,
even if all physical evidence of it was absent.

Today, we get to experience the joy of communing
with the real and present symbols of Christ’s suffering and death.
Even in these nourishing elements,
taken with great joy and thanksgiving,
even in these symbols of Jesus’ broken body and shed blood,
is a tangible reminder of the shroud.
But today, we partake of these elements
knowing that shroud has been shredded,
that death will never have the last word.

So let us give thanks.

—Phil Kniss, April 8, 2012

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