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Sunday, April 15, 2018 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m.

Cognitive Dissonance

Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 4
Luke 24:36b–48

Refresh us with your holiness, Lord. Give us the vision to acknowledge anew that beneath every inch of what we see and every word of what we know, a broad and loving hand is ever there to hold us in the divine entirety of your endless love, and that, gloriously, we are your children and you are the God to whom we belong.

James Schaap, God for Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter

Were you ever told that lament is out of place in the season of Easter? Or have you ever gotten the message that fear or grief-soaked tears are somehow unwelcomed in the middle of sung alleluias and refrains of “He is risen?” Even if you were not told that directly, I can understand how it could feel that way. We are, after all, still in the season of Eastertide—the season of proclaimed joy and hope. We are still singing Easter hymns and saying alleluia every chance we get. The colors in the sanctuary are still the vibrant rainbow colors of resurrection new life. The prayers and the liturgy still shine with the hues of Easter glory.

During this time of year we remember our particular call to proclaim that we are people defined by the full news of the gospel—the full news that though we might be able to kill God’s love, we cannot keep it dead and buried. The full news that declares that the stars will be put back in your sky; that the women’s empty-tomb tale did eventually get told and believed; that the resurrected Christ is forever the wounded Christ; that Love will have the last word on all of creation. During this time of year, we hear the full news of the gospel—the promise that declares we are an Easter people.

And yet that truth does not mean that lament is out of place or that fear or grief is unwelcome, for while we are Easter people, we also live in a still very broken world. With all the news that has unfolded just this past week, I imagine you already know the truth of our brokenness—the chemical weapons attack on civilians in Syria; our country’s military response in conjunction with our allies; the absolutely exhausting political news emanating from Washington, D.C., not just this week but every week; the discovery that hundreds of Chicago homes have been found to have dangerous amounts of lead in their water; the pictures of parents in hazmat suits walking into schools in order to bring attention to the unsanitary conditions into which we are putting our children. All of that and so much more has unfolded in just one week during this season of Easter.

So how are we supposed to do it? How are we supposed to keep living as Easter people in a still very broken world? I suppose we could pretend that inexplicable brokenness does not exist. We could attribute a reason or a cause for everything painful that happens: the “everything happens for a reason” philosophy. If we declare everything has a reason, then we might feel like we can keep it from happening to us or those we love. It takes a lot of our energy to live in such a way, but we could do it. I know people who do.

Or we could pretend that since we are Easter people we can just not feel the emotions of lament or fear or grief. We can be the “happy Christian” who claims that any feeling other than joy indicates a lack of faith. Because we know Jesus, this way of life goes, we must not ever feel sad or scared or overwhelmed, because those feelings would mean we don’t trust enough. That would mean that we are not faithful enough. Even though living with such an elaborate charade ends up closing us off both to ourselves and to each other, we could do it. I know people who do.

But perhaps we ought to look to the first disciples and notice their reaction to Easter. How did they handle the dissonance of “He is risen” and fear? How did they handle the balance of Easter joy and Good Friday brokenness? In her book Trauma + Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World, the President of Union Seminary in New York, Dr. Serene Jones, dives into this part of Luke’s Gospel through the lens of what happened on September 11, 2001, in New York City. And because of that lens, she cannot help but see this entire account (beginning with the road to Emmaus and continuing through the eating of the fish) as a tale of trauma and survival. For Jones, the disciples are disoriented witnesses to a devastating event. They are trauma survivors. Even though they were not the ones put up on the cross, they bear in their speech and bodies the reality of the horror that unfolded before them and forever pulled their lives into its drama” (Serene Jones, Trauma + Grace, p. 39).

That trauma is one reason why those first disciples were huddled in fear behind a closed door that Easter evening. It is one reason why they had such an incredibly difficult time believing the news that Jesus had been raised. Even though by this point in Luke’s Gospel they had already heard that news two different times, they were still so stunned by that trauma that they were unable to recognize the testimony as true. So when they heard it from the women that morning, they blew it off as simply an idle tale. Then when they heard another resurrection testimony from the two travelers from Emmaus, they were still full of skepticism and critique. We can easily see them with their arms crossed across their chests and doubtful grimaces on their faces.

We understand their hesitation and doubt. It might only be the Third Sunday of Easter, but after a week full of news like this past week, we might find ourselves crossing our arms and grimacing: “Doesn’t look much like Easter to me. Little children attacked with chemical weapons. Bombs shooting across the night sky. Cynicism and tribalism running amok in Washington. So much scandal. So much pain. Can’t even hear the echoes of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ anymore.” When we are honest, we understand the hesitation and the doubt—perhaps some of you even understand the trauma—all carried by those disciples. On that first Easter evening, the disciples were scared and tired and sick of all of it. Their hearts had been broken. It had been three days since Jesus had died, and all they had left was lament. All they had left was their fear. “He is risen? Idle tale. Seen on the way to Emmaus? Wishful thinking. It sure does not look like Easter to me.”

Yet just as the Gospel of John proclaimed to us last week, so Luke also proclaims: None of that kept the risen Jesus away from those disciples. Their lament did not keep him away. Their utter disbelief did not keep him away. Their grief and their fear, their huddled posture and their crossed arms—none of it kept Jesus away. As a matter of fact, Jesus chose to come and be with them precisely in the middle of their lament and disbelieving. Again, Serene Jones: “[This] is the story of the agile, insistent presence of grace in our midst. . . . And notice—Jesus shows up right then. Even though they are too disordered to see him, he walks along with them, in their trauma, in their silence. . . . It is Jesus who has come to them” (Trauma + Grace, p. 39).

Just as John reported, so Luke reports: “Peace be with you” were the first words out of Jesus’ mouth. Yet unlike John’s account, Luke reports that the disciples were startled and their lament quickly gave way to complete terror. But again their reaction did not dissuade Jesus. Even though his disciples were terrified of him, Jesus did not leave. Instead he asked them why they were frightened and why their hearts were full of doubt. Then he did something incredibly gracious. He tried to help them make room for joy and hope to slide in alongside their lament and fear.

Jesus carved out that room by getting concrete with them. He showed them his hands and his feet. When those disciples looked at his hands, they saw the same hands that had clasped their own in prayer; the same hands that had lifted children to his knee; the same hands that had healed and made clean; the same hands that had blessed bread and broken it; the same hands that were marked by nails and by pain. After they had all examined his hands, they then looked down at his feet, and they saw the same feet that had walked miles upon miles beside them on dusty roads; the same feet that rested in the waters of the Jordan and in the Sea of Galilee whenever it got too hot; the same feet that trudged the road to Golgotha; the same feet that were marked by the tools of crucifixion and death.

After they examined his feet, they looked back up to his face, and Luke writes this wonderful summary: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” As I wrote in my devotion for this morning, I think that is the best description of what it is like to live as Easter people in a still very broken world: “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.” Joy and disbelief and wonder all mixed up together.

Other ways that phrase is translated are “they still couldn’t believe what they were seeing”; “they still could not believe it because of their joy and amazement”; “their joy was so great that they still could not believe it as they were dumbfounded”; “they stood there undecided—filled with joy and doubt.” And finally the translation from the Revised English Bible: “The disciples were filled with unbelief and amazement because it seemed too good to be true” (as noted by David Ewart at Joy and disbelief and wonder all mixed up together. It might be the best description of faith I’ve ever come across, for the fact is that faith is so often living life as if the promises of God are true.

Living this way can be an act of cognitive dissonance—living as an Easter people in an obviously still-broken world. This is why, for me, Luke’s story of the reaction of the first disciples is critically important. One reason it is important is because we see that this struggle has been ongoing from the very first Easter evening. The second reason is because it appears that being honest about that struggle might just be what opens us up to God’s presence. First, the struggle: Presbyterian preacher Frederick Buechner goes so far as to say that if we do not share this struggle for faith; if we do not sometimes recognize the cognitive dissonance in which we live; if we do not know this combination of joy and disbelief and wonder all mixed up, then we are either kidding ourselves or we are asleep, because we all know, just as those first disciples knew, that we are an Easter people who live in a still very broken world.

We are a people who claim that “he is risen” as we go and prepare food to hand out in the Melas Ministry Bag Lunch line or to serve dinner tonight in Anderson Hall to anyone who is hungry. We are a people who hum the “Hallelujah Chorus” while interviewing for job after job after job. We are a people who purposefully call a service after a death not a funeral service but a service of witness to the resurrection. We are a people who pray “Lord, have mercy” when the nightly news comes on and we feel totally overwhelmed but we pray anyway because we trust God cares. We are a people who regularly experience this strange mixture of joy and disbelief and wonder, just like those first disciples. And just like those first disciples, we too can find a gracious reality in that honest struggle. That is the second reason this story is important: it is important because, as we see in this story, that struggle, that mixture, may just be what keeps us open and alert to recognize the presence of our risen Lord.

That is exactly what happened for those disciples. The mingling of their disbelief and their wonder and their joy seemed to prompt Jesus to try again to meet them where they were, even eating a bite of fish in order to open their eyes so they might recognize him. Eventually, with a bit more persuading and even some Bible study, they did. They finally recognized him as their Jesus, and then they finally recognized themselves as his Easter people. Yet if they had simply pretended that everything was OK or that they were perfectly OK, they might not have been so open and alert to the risen Lord’s presence, and who knows what their story might have become.

So I say welcome to worship in this season of Easter. Welcome to all who hold fear. Welcome to all who regularly entertain doubts. Welcome to all who struggle to reconcile their education with their desire for faith. Welcome to all who are reeling with grief. Welcome to all whose tears come unbidden every time they sit in a pew. Welcome to all who feel like outsiders. Welcome to all who feel like they will never belong or who have no idea why they even came this morning. Welcome to those whose daily prayer will always and only be “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.” Welcome to all who long to live as God’s Easter people in a still very broken world even though none of it makes any logical sense. Welcome to you.

All of those authentic ways of being in this space might just be the very things that will help you to keep being open and alert to God’s presence in your lives, for it seems that God is always looking out for that strange mixture of joy and disbelief and wonder, hoping to be recognized, wanting to embrace.