Nonsense and Wonder

There’s something hilarious to me about the way that we approach the Easter story.

I don’t want to seem critical of anyone else, so just look at what I did to prepare for this service:

-I bought bagels and cream cheese at Kroger.

-I microwaved a second cup of coffee yesterday.

-I arranged my living room books by the color of their spines while “thinking about stuff.”

-I read a lot of articles on Sojourners

-I painted my nails a very spring-y shade of pink.

-I made music.

-I told Luke’s story of the resurrection to a supremely uninterested cat.

-I bemoaned my inability to play Christ the Lord is Risen Today on the piano.

-I did some laundry, but that was more procrastination than anything else.

This is how I prepared, Friends, for a communal recognition of the notion that dead people don’t always stay dead.

Do you see the disconnect, there? We’re talking about a totally dead guy who walked out of his tomb to make a dinner date in Emmaus, and I prepared for the yearly commemoration of that story by painting my nails Peppy La Fuchsia.

It’s not bad. I think they’re cute. But we’re talking about a possibility that could send you to Walmart for fresh underpants. It’s the possibility that death itself, contrary to everything we see in the always-dying world, doesn’t win in the end.

It’s not that drinking coffee and playing the piano were wrong, somehow. It just feels out of proportion.

Maybe, in the end, there’s really no way to prepare. I mean, we’ve been following Jesus on this journey to Jerusalem for weeks, now, and he has explained and reexplained to his disciples that he’s going to die and then rise again in three days. He’s done everything short of drawing them a flowchart.

And still, they don’t get it. Jesus rides into town on a peaceful donkey, and they hail him as King. A couple days later he gets arrested, then tried and crucified just like anyone else who looked to be leading a rebellion, and all is lost.

They forgot what kind of story they were in. They weren’t prepared.

Maybe none of us are.

The women, at least, were prepared to take care of a dead body. As soon as they could after the Sabbath, they took off for the tomb to clean Jesus up.

But you heard the story- when they got there, they found grand total of zero dead Jesuses and in the body’s place, two gleaming men who ask one of my favorite questions in all of Scripture: why do you look for the living among the dead?

I love this question in part because it makes me wonder where these angels were when all the other angels were at etiquette school. Here are these women, grieving and traumatized, standing in a cemetery to say goodbye to a friend who literally embodied their hopes and dreams…. and the angels are using the good Gospel news of the resurrection to troll them?

Why are you looking for the living among the dead? Because they thought he was dead! I mean, I know they missed all the predictions and parables and explicit statements about exactly what was going to happen in Jerusalem, but do you have to rub their faces in it?

They were prepared for a dead Jesus, as much as they could be. They weren’t prepared for a risen Jesus. Maybe none of us can be.

It kind of makes me wonder what the hot nail polish shade was circa 35 AD, and whether or not Joanna and the Marys and the other women had split a bottle in anticipation of Jesus’ sure-to-be-glorious triumph in Jerusalem.

Makes me wonder if they picked it off on Saturday, not knowing what else to do with their hands.

But how do you prepare to have your world rocked? How do you prepare to be told that basic elements of your life are not what they seemed, that basic truths are not in face self-evident, that your whole life has to be reevaluated in light of a question asked by two snarky guys in gleaming robes?

How do you prepare for the possibility that the things you thought were dead are coming to life?

The ways that we prepare for Easter are beautiful and trivial at the same time, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Easter is the highlight of the whole church year, the day when most of the church remembers together that the weight of human sin couldn’t keep Jesus in the grave. We dress up, and we decorate, and we make special music, and this is all wonderful and worth celebrating.

But I wouldn’t be worth my fair trade coffee, as a Quaker minister, if I didn’t remind you that Easter comes once a year but you meet with the resurrected Christ every day.

Easter comes once a year, and it’s great. There are special services, and special decorations, and families get together and we affirm life and it’s beautiful.

But also on Easter, and on every day before and after Easter, we encounter the living God. We meet with the presence of love and compassion. We are offered the opportunity to live resurrected lives of grace and mercy, knowing that Christ has defeated all the sin and the shame that would have held us back.

Maybe that sounds like nonsense to you. Maybe it doesn’t. Either way, let’s look at the words that described the first disciples as they met with resurrection glory.

The women came to the tomb to care for Jesus’ body, but the body was missing. They were perplexed, puzzled, wondering.

Then, they saw the messengers in gleaming robes. Let’s be honest, here: none of us would be calm and composed if the love of God appeared to us like this. The women were terrified, awestruck, and frightened.

Wouldn’t you be scared, visiting a cemetery and finding that your loved one was missing and two strange glowing men had taken their place?

The messengers told the women that the Lord had risen, and they took this information back to the rest of the disciples. The disciples thought that this silly story – that someone would come back from the dead – was just an idle tale, just something that the women made up or imagined, just nonsense.

Here’s the thing about nonsense, though- we make sense of things based on what we already know. For instance: when you look at a tree, you see all the individual leaves.

Some of that clarity, however, is supplied by your own mind.

You know what a tree looks like, and what leaves look like. You’ve spent your whole life looking at trees, in a sense- you can pictures the trees in the yard of your childhood home, and the trees along your favorite walking path, and the trees that lined your work commute. You’ve spent your whole life looking at trees.

But what matters more, here, is that your brain is incredibly powerful and it still has all of those images of trees that you’ve seen. Your brain remembers the tree outside the classroom window, and the tree that seemed a little bit scary, and the tree that seemed so easy to climb.

You have all of these pictures of trees, just residing in your brain. And knowing what all these different trees look like, under different lighting and in different seasons, gives your brain a rich sense of what a tree should look like.

So, you look at some trees in the distance. Or, more accurately, you look at an indistinct mass of green and brown.

Your eyes can’t bring you enough information to really see that mass, but your brain also has the memory of every other tree it has seen. Your eyes alone would just see a muddy mess, but your brain has seen other banks of trees and knows how to interpret these confused green and brown light waves- and because you have seen so many trees before, you now see trees with leaves blowing in the breeze.

That mass of green and brown would have been nonsense to you, but you know how to make sense of a tree. And so your brain accepted the various bewildering light waves that entered your eye, and made sense of them, and showed you some trees.

Maybe our ability to do such things is wonder enough, but let me press it further.

We’ve been tracking words, through this story of resurrection. Words like perplexed, wondering, terrified, awestruck.

But here’s the thing: we’re surprised by the uninvited. That’s not particularly exciting or new.

But think about it as I’ve described your eyes to you. They take in all sorts of information, but your brain has to make sense of it for you. That requires you to have a master map in your brain, one that tells you how to react, one that tells you how to understand the world.

So here’s the difference between nonsense and wonder! You have this map in your mind that tells you how to interpret the world. You’re human, so let’s be honest: it’s a map that includes retaliation, and using people, and violence.

But look at the events of this week, on Bible time. The almighty Son of God, who could have called down angels to protect him, died on a cross instead.

Is that nonsense, or is it cause to wonder?

The Son of God was laid to rest, dead in a borrowed tomb.

Is that nonsense, or is it cause to wonder?

On the third day, Jesus wandered out of the tomb, just as alive as you and me.

Is that nonsense, or is it cause to wonder?

Depends on the interpretive lens that you bring, doesn’t it? Because in some sense, the answer is both, It’s nonsense for so many reasons to believe in a God who would live that story.

But you still have to wonder if he really meant it. Because what if Jesus believed in a wonderful sort of nonsense, when he laid his life down on the cross. What if Jesus were taking all the things we think of as ugly nonsense and making them beautiful again

We can reject these possibilities as nonsense, easily enough. But I’d like to suggest a cosmic sort of change. We imagine a sweeping battle between good and evil, but I don’t think that sums up humanity very well. We all think that we’re on the good side, and that makes for flat storytelling.

So here’s my vote, instead: I’d like to see a cosmic battle between nonsense and wonder. Nonsense and wonder are both reactions to recognizing that you don’t have enough information available, that you can’t research hard enough to understand.

But nonsense says no, no way, where wonder says maybe. Wonder says that might just work. Wonder says it’s worth a shot.

So let me offer you this, as we approach our time of waiting worship: you can approach new life as though the concept is nonsense, or you can approach new life with wonder. Either nonsense or wonder can serve as the screen you use, when you approach something new

For what it’s worth, the Gospel leaves me firmly on the side of wonder. God in the Easter story brought wonder out of a situation that was nonsense to the disciples, and God continues to turn our nonsense into wonder.

So, let me go back to my initial question: in your worship, prepare to wonder. This Easter, this celebration of God Almighty becoming human and dying and coming to life again: prepare to wonder.

In the light of Easter, prepare to wonder. Prepare to take nonsense at face value, and to praise when nonsense takes root and begins to grow.

Nonsense and wonder are, I think, flip sides of the Easter coin. Let it land one way, and death reigns and none of this makes sense.

But let it land on the wonder-side, though, and see how the story fits together.