Easter and Empathy

[A sermon on Luke 24:1-12; for an audio recording of this sermon, click here]

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen indeed, Alleluia! This is the proclamation of Easter morning. It’s the reason the church is full of joyful flowers, and it’s why our songs and prayers are full of praise.

But it’s NOT anywhere in our Easter gospel reading… did anyone notice that?

For such a joy-filled day, in many ways the pinnacle of our faith story, the gospel story seems a little… lacking in celebration, doesn’t it? In the two brief scenes of Jesus’s followers encountering evidence of the resurrection, no one says “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

The women who first discover the empty tomb experience confusion, and then fear, before they eventually remember Jesus’s words and run back to tell the disciples what they have seen.

But the disciples express scorn, and even Peter who decides to investigate the story comes back… amazed, which means that he does not yet remember Jesus’ words about resurrection, and he’s certainly not ready to start shouting Alleluia. He’ll get there, as will Jesus’ other followers. But not immediately. Not on Easter morning.

[So, as a side-note. If you are having a hard time believing in resurrection this morning, you are in good company. You have as much right to be here as the apostle Peter!]

In fact, maybe we all need to take a pause in our rush to celebration, and really listen to this story. Today’s gospel reading is a beautifully honest account of the way that we human beings react to things that we are not expecting. It offers us relatable examples of the warring instincts most of us have when we encounter something that violates our anticipated script:

At first we feel fear about what the change means,

or maybe we try to protect ourselves from the disruption by shrugging it off, or mocking the messenger,

But if we can get past those emotions, maybe we can begin to feel some curiosity too… the willingness to investigate… or the chance to remember, to discover connections to what we already know and have just forgotten. This Easter story is an invitation to consider the things that help us grow into our encounter with the gospel, with God acting in ways that we are not expecting.

Speaking of things we aren’t expecting… I found some insight on this story from a rather unexpected source this week: National Public Radio. I don’t usually look to NPR for my sermon illustrations. I mean, I agree with the advice of renowned theologian Karl Barth, that the pastor should preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other... and NPR is one of my sources for thoughtful and well-researched reporting... but I don’t expect it to explicitly talk about - of all things - Easter sermons!

But, what should I find this past Monday morning but a story that did just that! It was a story on the decline of empathy in American culture. The story made a reference to “Easter Sunday sermon(s)” in the introduction, and then summarized the decline in question with these words:

“Americans these days seem to be losing their appetite for empathy, especially the walk-a-mile-in-someone’s-shoes Easter Sunday morning kind.”[1]

I was struck by the quote because “empathy” isn’t the first word I think of when I hear the words “Easter Sunday sermon.” My associations – my “expectations” so to speak – are words like resurrection… new life… and hope. But as I studied the story this week, I realized that “empathy” (or rather the lack thereof) is a really helpful frame for understanding why there is so little celebration in our Easter gospel lesson.

Empathy is about the ability to take someone else’ perspective, to set aside our unique set of assumptions about how the world works, and how people ought to move through it, and to consider that we might actually have something to learn from someone with different experiences. But fear, and the defensiveness that we retreat into when we feel threatened, work against empathy. They shut us down from any new information – even good news – because curiosity and hope are too dangerous when we are feeling vulnerable.

And thinking about today’s gospel, I think that’s what’s behind the disciples’ scorn about the story the women brought back from the tomb. They were too afraid to be open to a story of resurrection. They were in full-bunker-mode, terrified that the authorities were coming for them next. And - as the NPR story highlighted - in the context of conflict, we lose our ability to empathize with anyone with whom we don’t already identify – we only listen to and believe the people we already agree with. The people who say what we expect them to say, and don’t call us to learn anything new.

It’s a tendency that clearly goes back at least 2,000 years, but it’s also a condition that is increasingly contributing to the polarization of our society. According to a nearly 60-year study cited in the article, empathy has decline by 40% in just the last generation! In our current cultural moment, we are really struggling to open our minds and our hearts to people with different experiences from our own, and it’s hurting all of us.

It’s hurting our relationships – making us angrier and less loving towards neighbors and family members who disagree with us.

It’s damaging our ability to value and learn from the incredible diversity of our nation.

And, I believe, the loss of our instincts for empathy can even block us from hearing God, if God is saying something that doesn’t conform to our expectations… whether God’s word for us is a rebuke or a hope of resurrection. When we aren’t open to be surprised, to learn, we aren’t open to God’s transforming work in our lives.

Which is why we need this story of an unexpected resurrection.

So... what can today’s gospel story teach us about becoming open to unexpected stories? What are the things that make room for gospel in our hearts – for the story of the surprising ways that God is at work in the world?

We see one hint in Peter. Presumably, Peter’s first instinct, along with the other disciples, was to sneer at the “idle tale” the women brought back from the tomb. After all, Peter is not exactly known for his tendency to think carefully before speaking.

But then, he takes a step outside of his protective bunker. He goes to see for himself.

He doesn’t just assume that he already knows what to think about the women’s story of resurrection. Instead, he investigates. And when he does that, he finds his own evidence. An empty tomb. Discarded graveclothes. Things that he has to ponder – with amazement - because they are part of HIS experience now. He didn’t just reject the women’s story, he opened himself to see what they saw, so now he has a story of his own… a story to lead him into God’s transforming work of resurrection in his life, as we will see in the coming weeks.

And the women take us even farther along the road toward the transformation that happens when we open ourselves up to an unexpected story, when we open ourselves up to God’s resurrection work in the world. They start in confusion and fear, but as they listen to God’s messengers, they remember. They hear things from the scary, otherworldly, totally unfamiliar men in front of them, that make a connection to their own experiences. They hear echos of words they heard from the teacher they trusted. They recognize that the hope they are being offered isn’t actually foreign to them.

On Maundy Thursday we heard in Jesus’s call to “do this in remembrance of me” an expansive command to participate in the work of wholeness, the work of remembering Jesus’s broken body, by BEING Jesus’s reunited body. And here we hear the command to remember again – this time from the angels:

“Remember how he told you.”

He TOLD you that rejection and suffering followed by resurrection has always been the plan. This isn’t an unexpected story you have to defend yourselves against. This is the story you are part of. Don’t you remember?

If we can remember that we are part of this story - the story in which suffering is followed by resurrection - it stops being a strange and unexpected story that scares us or puts our guard up. It becomes our story – a story of NEW LIFE! A life where empathy can thrive, because God’s resurrection work dismantles suspicion, and tribalism, and conflict, because it’s a story where death loses.

And if death loses, what else is there to fear?

Nothing! That’s the point of the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the new creation that God is preparing:

A city of joy and a people of delight

Where there is no weeping, and everyone has what they need, and even the animals live at peace with each other.

And NO ONE shall hurt of destroy on all God’s holy mountain.

It’s a vision of perfection, of course, that’s not our story yet. But it is the goal of resurrection. Jesus wasn’t raised from the grave to save his own life. He was raised to save ours.

And in this present moment – a moment when empathy is disappearing, and we are losing our capacity to listen to experiences we don’t share, or perspectives we don’t already agree with – we need to be saved. We need resurrection!

And I think that part of the good news in our gospel today, is that resurrection doesn’t always look like what we expect.

Alleluia. Christ is Risen. Christ is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

[1] The End of Empathy, by Hanna Rosin https://www.npr.org/2019/04/15/712249664/the-end-of-empathy?

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