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Let Yourself Be Surprised!


“Let Yourself Be Surprised”

March 31, 2024 Cobleskill United Methodist Church- Pastor Anna Blinn Cole

John 20:1-18

Easter Sunday



About 6 years ago April Fool’s day fell on Easter Sunday.  I was serving Warnerville UMC at the time and a member of the church offered a few weeks before Easter that she had baby chicks and would I like to include them in the service.  Without a moment of hesitation, it was a resounding YES.  I mean, why not?


Turns out a few weeks make a lot of difference in a chick’s life.  When Easter rolled around, in came the laundry basket of chicks, except now instead of cute little yellow fluff balls, they were long, leggy teenage chickens.  And boy did they know it, too.  While we had fun seeing them at children’s time, the laundry basket “container” only worked so long as the service progressed.  One by one they figured out how to climb out and by the time people came for communion there were teenage chickens wandering all over the front of the church.  It was a mess afterward, but it was the kind of Easter no one at that church will remember for a long time.  And you know why?  Because the whole ordeal was delightfully out of the ordinary.  It was a surprise, even for me and I had “planned” it.   


These days surprises are pretty hard to come by.


We have weather people who tell us what to expect tomorrow and most of the time they’re right.  I now have a little notification on my phone that pops up to stay, “You can expect the rain to begin in 15 minutes.”   We have traffic apps that will tell us which roads to avoid because of traffic and even where the cops are parked along the interstate.  I was even checking updates on scores for the March Madness game this weekend on ESPN and I noticed in the corner a little line that gave the percentage chance that each team was going to win.  I’m not saying these things are always right, but the point is, we have a tendency to engineer surprises out of our lives.


For people and a culture that likes to be in the know and have things under control, surprise is inconvenient, at best, and terrifying, at worst.  I don’t want to be surprised if I don’t have to. If you’re throwing a birthday party for me, I’d rather be prepared, have myself put together, and count down the days to it rather than be caught completely speechless in the moment.  


However, life doesn’t  fit very well into a neat and tidy box of predictability.  And herein lies the challenge / opportunity.  


For those of you who haven’t been with us the past few weeks and even those of you who have…. We’ve been doing a series of messages around the idea of waking ourselves up to God with different spiritual practices. We’ve been adding colors to our altar because the world outside was too gray and white and because the different practices that we were trying were designed to bring joy into life by bringing us closer to God. 


We don’t talk about waking up to God because it sounds nice or because it’s a happy topic.  We talk about it because we have to.  Ordinary life is like tunnel vision.  It’s a slog to get through one day and then on to the next.  What’s the point in living like that?  There has to be more to this life than just getting through each day.  That’s why we must open our eyes. The meaning in life that we long for comes when we look beyond ourselves.  I hope those of you who tried to do something outside of your ordinary routine this Lent found some small piece of joy.  I hope you noticed that God was already waiting for you there in that moment.  


I was out for a morning walk this week.  I decided to resume the practice of listening to public radio during my walk for this week as our spiritual practice for the week was community.  It didn’t take very many blocks for the main headline on the news to stop me dead in my tracks.  A boat twice the size of a Cobleskill village block had knocked down the Key Bridge in Baltimore.  I, like you probably, immediately searched for the video.  It was a surprise that seemed too shocking to be true.  Over the course of the next few hours and days there were many levels of tragedy that unfolded.  But in those initial moments of shock, it suddenly felt like the only thing to do was to stop and just be.  I don’t know how long I stood there on the side of the road but it was long enough for the story to finish and my fingers to get cold.  And that was okay.  


There’s nothing good about tragic surprises.  But the act of letting ourselves be surprised is actually really important. I would even venture to call it a spiritual experience.  What’s hard about surprise is that it makes us feel vulnerable.  It causes uncertainty.  Yet those very things that make us uncomfortable, are, actually necessary to staying present to the impact of the moment.  At its most basic level, surprise is like a crack in our togetherness.  Individually, or communally.  Surprise is a crack in our control.  A crack that cuts through any façade we might have had up to keep the unexpected at bay. 


I think we’ve all developed a kind of callousness.  I’m only 39 years old and I’ve seen more terrible, horrible things happen in the world than I would ever care to tell you about.  With each piece of bad news that comes over the air waves, I can feel myself adding a layer of protection.  A new piece of armor to shield me from the emotional distress of another heart-breaking piece of information.  The armor we put on is what we think will help us push through and stay strong in the tunnel of our lives.  It’s the armor that we think will protect us from pain and sorrow.  Until one day a tiny crack in that armor will let something unexpected through, and it will go deep… deeper than we could have imagined, and we will wake up and realize our whole body aches from the weight of that armor.   


That crack in your armor is the spiritual experience of surprise.  And it’s not a defect.  It’s a gift.  


I can think of no better a day to rekindle the spiritual experience of surprise than on Easter.  We hear the reading from John and we try to imagine what it must have been like for Mary to first come to an empty tomb and then later to see a man she believed to be dead standing before her eyes, living and breathing. If that’s not a spiritual experience of surprise, I don’t know what it is.  


You probably didn’t walk in here this morning to hear about Jesus’ resurrection for the first time.  You weren’t born yesterday.  Easter comes every year.  The stores switched over to pastels and Reese Eggs months ago. In 2024, almost 2000 years after Mary’s encounter in the garden, there is very little about Easter that comes as a shock.  Yet, still, somehow, 2000 years later the story should still have the power to stop us in our tracks. Because it’s the greatest story that’s ever been told.  


Another pastor I know met a woman on Friday who happened to be wondering out loud what this business with “good Friday” was all about.  And my friend told this woman, who was hearing for the first time, that on Good Friday, Jesus Christ—God’s own child—died, was killed at the hands of people who were disgusted by the unconditional love he offered to everyone he met.  My friend said after she told the woman this, it brought tears to her eyes.  


Those cracks in our armor are risky.  Because it is through those arresting moments of awe and wonder and genuine surprise that we open ourselves up to emotions that go deep, really deep.   And that’s scary.  And that’s why I think it’s so easy to plan surprises out of our lives.  To callous ourselves from experiencing feelings that might scare us.  


But this is the promise that God wrote into the sky with all the colors of the rainbow.  The worst thing in life is never, ever, the last thing. It can’t be.  That’s what the empty tomb is there to tell us.  If that news doesn’t surprise you, then you need to listen a little closer.  This whole thing, this Good Friday to Easter Sunday thing is about death and life.  It’s about how God continues, to this day, to reach into the armored suits we make for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, saying everything is going to be okay.  It’s about hearing that crack and saying with surprise and joy: Christ is risen.  He is risen, indeed.


It’s okay to feel things.  It’s okay to be surprised.  It’s okay to wake up in the morning and have your breath taken away by the reality of being alive for another day.  It’s okay to weep during the evening news.  It’s okay to gasp out loud when you find flowers growing where the snow just melted.  It’s okay. In fact, it’s good.  Very good.  

  

Now, please don’t hear me saying go crazy tomorrow with the April Fools pranks.  I hope my own family is listening to that.  But what I am saying is sometimes a little surprise in our lives is not terrible when the alternative is being too numb to feel either pain or joy.


---


Amy Oden, in her book, God’s Welcome, tells a story from the ancient desert mothers and fathers of the 3rd century. A novice asked the teacher “Holy one, is there anything I can do to make myself closer to God? The elder replied, “As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.” The novice responded, “Then of what use are these spiritual disciplines of prayer? The teachers answered, “To make sure that you are awake when the sun rises.”


There is nothing you can do, or anywhere you can go to separate yourself from the love of God.  Not even in death.  But if you are not awake when the sun rises, you might miss it all.  Let your guard down, be surprised, weep, laugh, mourn, be in awe.  God is with you.     


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