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AfterWords | Hope is Kindled (March 31, 2024)

AfterWords is a series of community-contributed reflections intended to further the conversations that begin during Parish sermons.

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A 3-Minute Read
by Eric Seidel

What Easter stories are you living? What lesser-than stories are you living?

Jordan gave us a theologically life-giving word on Easter, then hit us with a powerful question at the end. Focusing our attention on Mary, Jordan pointed out that Mary was the first to live an Easter story. She learned of the risen Jesus and instantly became filled with astonishment and great joy. Acting on God’s instructions, she then joyfully carried that Easter story to others, the first person ever to do so. What stood in stark contrast to Mary, though, was the story the disciples were living. They were still grief stricken by the events of Good Friday. They were living a story that was the result of pain, suffering and powerlessness. The painful events of Good Friday still lingered, so they shut themselves off, seemingly dejected and hopeless. Mary was now living an Easter story.  The disciples were living lesser-than stories. What Easter stories are you living? What lesser-than stories are you living?

That hit me in a tender spot. I was subject to layoffs in January and have been navigating unemployment since then. The day I lost my job wasn’t that difficult for us. It was the days that followed that were difficult. I learned quickly that the world of unemployment is rough. I had never been in this place before. On this journey, I learned that it can be really easy to have high hopes, only to be robbed of that hope and left wondering how the situation will get better. You make a connection, get a couple initial interviews in–only to be ghosted a week later.  Complete strangers connect with you offering to help you in your search, but only for a steep price. You meet tons of people in similar situations, gaining a sense of solidarity, later learning some of those people have been searching for 6–12 months.  You get to the fourth interview (fourth!), only to be turned down after doing everything they ask.  It’s hard to hold an Easter story while being unemployed. 

So when I ask myself what Easter or lesser-than story I am holding, it strikes deeply.  Upon reflecting, I’ve found it helpful to ask further, what life-giving hope am I holding on to? What heart-wrenching despair has a hold of me?

The disciples’ lesser-than story was a story of heart-wrenching despair. They had no hope in their station of life. After the events of Good Friday, we find them hiding in a room, terrified of what may become of them. Their leader was just tried, judged and executed. What would the authorities do to his followers? John’s Gospel says they were afraid, so they hid by locking themselves in a room (John 20:19).  Upon hearing the news from Mary that Jesus was risen, Jordan pointed out to us their response: “The apostles didn’t believe a word of it, and thought they were making it all up” (Luke 24:11 MSG).  Who can blame them, really?  For all their mistakes, the trauma Jesus’ followers went through after Good Friday merits empathy. A crucified messiah was a failed messiah. Whatever hope they had in Jesus had died with him. They were left dealing with the consequences of the perceived failure. Thus, their response to Mary is apathetic and cold. Their response reminds me of what Nate said to Ted Lasso when the near-winless AFC Richmond football club was confronted with the prospect of playing the best team in the league, “No, it’s hopeless.” The disciples, like Nate, were living a lesser-than story. 

Mary, on the other hand, operated differently than the other disciples. Jordan pointed out that all four Gospels paint a slightly different picture of Easter. They all have a little different color. There is one thing, though, that they all have in common. Every version of Easter morning starts with Mary, either by herself or with another character, going to the tomb of Jesus. Ponder that contrast for a moment. Jesus’ ardent followers are still hiding in a room, stricken with despair. Mary, on the other hand, is still going to Jesus, even after his death. Luke’s Gospel tells us that Jesus had driven seven spirits out of Mary (Luke 8:2). As a result, she followed Jesus to the very end. Jesus was a persecuted criminal. Being the follower of a persecuted criminal was not looked upon highly. That didn’t stop Mary from going to him even after his humiliating execution. Even in the midst of the darkest season for Jesus’ followers, she still went to him. Mary had the courage to step out and go to Jesus even in the despair that his other followers were subject to.

She was a perfect person to be the first to experience the Easter story! God had broken into the world through Jesus. Through Jesus’ life, death and now resurrection, God transformed the human person’s story. Through Jesus’ life, sin was no more. Through Jesus’ resurrection, death was no more.  God transformed the human person’s story from despair into hope. The things that held humanity captive (sin and death) were soundly defeated. Bursting with joyful elation, Mary’s love for Jesus could not be held in. The Gospels say different things about her immediate response: amazement, great joy, worship and devotion. But more importantly, the Gospels are uniform in their description of her commission from God. Mary was to be the harbinger of this new story of hope. First an angel, then Jesus himself instructed her to “go and tell.” She would be the very first person in history to go and tell the good news of the Easter story written for all people.

That story started at a moment in history on Easter with Mary taking the news to the disciples, but the story of God breaking in and writing a new story of hope in our own lives is the continuous work of God. As challenging as unemployment has been, what’s been so immensely powerful has very little to do with me. It’s been the INCREDIBLE people around me. God has come to visit me through all these wonderful people. My family calling me every week asking how I’m doing. Guys in the church sharing their stories of failure and success that has been an inspiration to me.  Much-needed resources arising out of circumstances I never would’ve dreamed of, which could’ve only come from God and God’s people. Similar to Mary, I have felt God’s people come and tell me how God has transformed their stories. Stories of how job loss, income disruption and resource depletion were redeemed to become something empowering. The stories are countless! There’s not enough space here to share the work God has done transforming people’s stories into something greater. All that to say is that it’s helped me see my work differently. I’m no longer restlessly asking God about the job I don’t have and instead asking what it is that God has already given me that I can use. I suspect the despair that takes a hold of you during unemployment is founded on the ideas that your work is your worth and your resources are finite. It’s so easy to presume that–if you believe you are alone. But what a lie the world tells us! It’s simply not true! God does not abandon us, nor does God ignore our condition. God broke in at one moment in history to change the story. God continues to break in to change our story. It started with Mary. It continues on all these years later.

Jordan mentioned, but didn’t spend too much time on, theories of atonement that have arisen throughout history. If your story is like mine, you grew up thinking there was only one theory of atonement, only to learn later there are as many atonement theories as there are denominations. The power of Easter (and Good Friday for that matter) can easily be wrestled away with all manner of atonement theories. Many of them are valid. Some of them are suspect. All of them are complicated. No doubt, one thing is certain. On Easter Sunday, God dealt with all the things that ail us and started a new story through the person and work of Jesus.  It’s a hope-filled, Easter story that turns us away from the lesser-than stories that can leave us with heart-wrenching despair. 

Jordan ended his sermon by asking us to reflect on two questions, “What Jesus-filled, Easter story are you living? What lesser-than story are you living?” As we reflected, I couldn’t help but wonder for a moment what Jesus was saying to himself when he saw Mary running back to the disciples, hiding in their despair.  Who knows for sure, but if Jesus said anything at all while he watched his first believer go and tell, I imagine he looked on with a smile and said what J.R.R. Tolkien would later say: “Hope is kindled.”

What lesser- than stories are you living? What Easter stories are you living?

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