Risking Joy: Easter Message from April 4, 2021
Scripture: John 20:1-18
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Message: Risking Joy
At the age of 22, just having graduated from Princeton, Suleika Jaouad was living abroad in Paris, working toward her dream job of being a journalist, maybe even war correspondent. Her life was ahead of her, full of possibility. But she had this nagging issue. She found herself weak and winded just walking a few blocks or up a flight of stairs. An itchy skin rash that started in her senior year never seemed to go away, only getting worse and worse. She figured it was just that she was burning the candle at both ends, and needed to get more sleep, maybe pay more attention to healthy eating.
After a weekend trip to Amsterdam, though, she collapsed. This led to a stay in a Paris hospital, followed by an emergency flight home to New York. In the hospital in New York, she was diagnosed with leukemia and given a 35% chance of survival. At 22. At that point, Jaouad’s work and will became lazer focused on surviving.
Four years later, after a successful bone marrow transplant and countless rounds of chemo and radiation, and weeks and months on end in the hospital, she was cancer free. You’d think this would be a point of celebration, right? Her own personal resurrection story. But it was at that point that Jaouad said, “The hardest part of my cancer journey began when the cancer was gone. That heroic journey we watch play out on Instagram and see in the movies? It’s a myth. And it isn’t just untrue. It’s dangerous because it erases the very real challenges of recovery.”
Today is Easter. The pinnacle day of our faith, the day on which we move from the kingdom of the dead to the kingdom of the living. We celebrate resurrection! New life conquering death! But as Jaouad has testified to, to move from the kingdom of the ill, or the fearful or the dead, to the kingdom of the living, is the hardest part of the journey.
One of my favorite characters to lift up on Easter is Mary because she shows us how to re-enter the kingdom of the living. We meet her in the scripture today as she has come, early in the morning, to the tomb. She has found the stone rolled away! She runs to Peter and the beloved disciple and says, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
And so Peter and the beloved disciple take off running toward the tomb. The beloved discipled gets there first, looks in, and sees the wrappings that had been around Jesus’ body lying there. Then Peter arrives and enters the tomb, followed by the first disciple. In the tomb, they both see that the linen wrappings are there, and they also see that the cloth that had been around Jesus’ head is rolled up and put off to the side.
Then the scripture tells us that while the beloved disciple “saw and believed, as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” Why does the scripture say that the beloved disciple “saw and believed,” then immediately say that they “didn’t understand?” What was it the beloved disciple believed if it wasn’t that Jesus had risen from the dead?
What Peter and the beloved disciple saw was an empty tomb. So what the beloved disciple believed was that Jesus wasn’t there. The beloved disciple believed that Jesus’ body was gone. It doesn’t seem like Peter was even able to go that far, rather receiving the sight of the wrappings and cloths as a puzzlement without answer as of yet what had happened to Jesus. Not really even believing that Jesus wasn’t there. Maybe he was off to the side or somewhere close. Peter seems to be expecting that there was some explanation, or that they’d come across his body soon.
And then the focus turns back to Mary. We find her weeping outside the tomb. Presumably Peter and the other disciple have already walked away. In her grief, Mary looks inside the tomb and sees two angels sitting where Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the foot. “Woman, why are you weeping?” they say to her. “They have taken my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him,” she says through tears. Then turning, she sees Jesus standing there, but she doesn’t recognize him. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Jesus asks her.
Maybe he’s the gardener, she thinks. “Sir,” she says, “If you have moved the one who is in the tomb and laid him elsewhere, let me know and I’ll take him away.” And then Jesus speaks one word to her: her name. “Mary!” Jesus says. And in hearing her name spoken by the one who gives life and is life, Mary herself is pulled into the new land of the living. She opens her heart and exclaims “Teacher!” and she sees Jesus for who he is, though he is not the same as he was.
Throughout Lent we’ve been focusing in on the events of Jesus’ passion, and his path from the cheering crowds that greeted him in Jerusalem, to the cross just one week later. We’ve zoomed in on the risks he took to teach us about love and justice, service and humility, and reconciliation. We’ve thought about what risks each of us is being asked to take as we walk with Jesus. It has been a long arduous walk, culminating just a few days ago with the lowest points of his betrayal and brutal death. And now, as we come to this morning, we’re being asked to risk again. To risk…Joy.
As Suleika Jaouad has said, learning to live again was the hardest part of her cancer journey. When she was finally well, Jaouad said she missed the ecosystem of the hospital, its orderliness, its routines. “Everyone there was broken,” she said. And in that common brokenness there was comfort. When she was in the hospital, she knew her only job was survival. I wonder if this is a little like where Peter and the beloved disciple were living at that moment. They were still among the broken, just trying to survive. Not let any more hurt in.
But Jesus calls us to do more than just survive. He calls us to live. To live with fullness, to live with hope, to live with love, and ultimately, to live with joy. To risk living with joy is perhaps the hardest thing we have been asked to risk. Think of the things we’ve been asked to risk during Lent: to risk temptation, to risk rejection, to risk for justice—well these things are also not easy—they take courage, but if you fail, the attempt has valor, meaning, purpose. But to risk joy takes courage and something else, even. When we are focused on surviving, there is a way in which we have to barricade our hearts. To keep the body going, the emotions that come with the loss of a previous way of life, or the feelings of betrayal at being sick or harmed, have to be put aside. These emotions take energy to acknowledge and to process, and there is a sense that that energy cannot be spared.
But the truth is that we will never really live again if we leave the barricades up. Though the barricades may protect our spirit and certainly are meant to keep our bodies from breaking, they will never allow our spirits to be freed, and to experience true resurrection.
To risk joy is to lay wide open that most vulnerable part of ourselves, that part that is protected, guarded in times when we are just surviving. To risk joy is to open our hearts to true connection. It is to leave the land of the ill and the sick where we just are surviving and truly enter the land of the living.
In trying to rejoin the land of the living, Jauoad talked about the old ways that kept trying to pull her back. “And then there were the invisible psychological imprints my illness had left behind: the fear of relapse, the unprocessed grief, the demons of PTSD that descended upon me for days, sometimes weeks.” As we prepare to come out of more than a year of lockdowns and restrictions and illness and lack of connection and fear of an invisible virus and even death, we know the psychological imprints the virus can leave behind. And the truth is we all live with unprocessed grief, whether it be from a year of living through a pandemic, or from childhood pain, or an inexplicable loss, or other kinds of trauma.
In the resurrection, Jesus shows us how to transcend these things. Not that we would ignore them and say they don’t matter, but that we would be able to see them with new eyes, and to not hold on to them. In the resurrection, Jesus calls our names and invites us to be transformed with him.
“Do not hold on to me,” Jesus says to Mary. The reailty is that the post-resurrection Jesus, and the post-resurrection Mary, and the post-resurrection us, are not the same as the pre-resurrection us. If we try to recreate some previous reality, some childlike orientation, some pre-pandemic state, we will stay in the land of the sick. Things have changed. We have changed. In the resurrection, the Jesus whom Mary and the disciples had known had changed, transformed. If they were going to be able to accept the new reality, they had to let go of the old.
In struggling to be well, to truly inhabit the land of the living, Suleika Jaouad decided to take a 15,000 mile road trip, visiting people she had never met in person, but who had reached out to her while she was sick. During her illness she had started a blog that got picked up by the New York Times and turned into a column called Life, Interrupted. Its popularity was immediate and connected with the stories of cancer patients and survivors, families who had accompanied a loved one on the journey, and many others who had experienced their own life being interrupted. These persons included a survivalist in Montana, a teacher whose son had committed suicide in California, and a death row inmate in Texas. Many told her she was crazy, and taking a big risk to visit people she’d never actually met. But she set off, dismantling the barricades around her own heart, seeking connection and a post-resurrection life.
The Good News is Jaouad found not just life, but true wellness. She found an abundance and gratitude not even possible before her illness. But she had to risk joy to get there. As we begin to come out of this pandemic, how are we willing to risk joy? Let us not forget that there have been blessings. Life always brings us blessings, even in the most dire of circumstances. Our sufferings and our blessings have changed us. The Good News for us this morning is that there is life after illness, there is even life after death. And through it all, our God has been with us, showing the way to true life. May the God of resurrection manifested in the person of Jesus Christ be real to you in connection, in abundance, and in joy this Easter and always. Amen.
Order of Service (Bulletin) - April 4, 2021
EENTERING THE STORY
When It Was Yet Dark - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Opening Hymn: "Christ the Lord is Risen Today” (UM Hymnal #301)
Listening for the Story: John 20:1-18 - Susan Willm
Children's Message - Susan Jardin
Anthem: "Come On up to the House" by Tom Waits - Judy Kriege, Eiji Miura & Dianne Rush Woods
Message: “Risking Joy" - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Hymn of Response - "He Lives" (UM Hymnal #301)
Call for Prayer - Orion Lacey
Prayers of the People - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
The Prayer Jesus Taught (Lord's Prayer)
Offerings and Opportunities - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Offertory Music: “Christ is Alive" - Epworth Handbell Ringers
ENTERING THE WORLD'S STORY
Prayer of Dedication - Orion Lacey
Holy Communion - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Closing Hymn: “Christ Has Risen" The Faith We Sing #2115
Hallelujah Chorus - An Epworth Easter Tradition
Benediction - Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Postlude: "Widor's Toccata" - Rev. Jerry Asheim
SPECIAL THANKS TO:
Preacher: Rev. Kristin Stoneking
Video contributors: Rev. Jerry Asheim, Michele Arreola-Burl, Cathryn Bruno, Margot Hanson, Susan Jardin, Judy Kriege, Orion Lacey, Eiji Miura, Sally Nasman, Susan Willm, Dianne Rush Woods. Epworth Handbell Ringers: Chris Baetge, Citlali & Eda Naranjo, Paul & Sally Nasman, Cathy Travlos.
Video producer: Tai Jokela
Podcast producer: Ethan Toven-Lindsey
Livestream producer: Merrie Bunt
Liturgy and Design © 2019 worshipdesignstudio.com, adapted by permission.
Prayer of Dedication © 2021 enfleshed
Hymns reprinted/streamed with permission under ONE LICENSE # A-733809, CCLI Copyright license # 20022935, & CCLI Streaming license # 20476749. All rights reserved.
“Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” arr. Moklebust performed by the Chicago Temple Handbell ensemble (ft. Merrie Bunt, ringer #2)
“Hallelujah Chorus” audio recording courtesy of the Peterborough Singers. Images shared by Epworth friends and members as part of the Lent word-of-the-day challenge.