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Every year it’s the same story, more or less.
Oh, some of the details may change—how many women, how many women named Mary, how many angels and how dazzling they are—but the bottom line is always the same:
The stone has been rolled away and the tomb is empty.
Ah, you’re thinking, but maybe the women went to the wrong tomb.
As if the gospel writers knew you would say that, they’ve taken great care to note that there is something in the tomb after all: a linen burial shroud. As if to say: Come on, if someone had simply stolen the body, do you really think they would have taken the time to undress him? As if to say: Remember when Lazarus walked out of his tomb still wrapped in death? This is different than that.
And those angels? Every year they see the horrified faces of the grief-stricken, love-sick women and blurt out something like, “It’s okay! Not to worry! He’s not here because he is risen!” As if that makes any sense at all.
Still, we get caught up in this story every year—because, even if we can’t quite swallow all the particulars, we want to believe that God’s love conquers empire, injustice, hatred and, yes, even death. We need to know that death does not have the final word.
Many of us love it that women have a central role in the story, that they’re the first to hear the news and the first to tell it. We want to be like those women: Witnesses to the resurrection! The first preachers of the Gospel! Still shaking in our boots, perhaps, but also professing new life, our broken hearts bursting anew with Easter joy as we belt out the sacred hymn: “Christ the Lord is risen today! Alleluia!”
But the devastated and frightened male disciples are not so sure. In this year’s account they go so far as to respond to the women’s resurrection news with a collective dismissive put-down, calling their words an “idle tale” or, as one translation puts it, “nonsense.” And that might have been the end of it if Peter—poor, self-disgraced, Jesus-denying Peter—had not run to the tomb to see for himself.
I love this story as much as anyone, and most of the time I believe it with all my heart, but I this year . . . , this year, I must confess: At times I have found myself wondering if resurrection is indeed an idle tale.
When terrorists struck not only in Paris and Brussels but also in Turkey, Nigeria, Yemen, Ivory Coast, Iraq, Afghanistan, and seemingly every day in Syria. So much violence and death, so many graves. Where is the resurrection? I wondered.
When presidential candidates traffic in talk of huge walls, closed borders and carpet bombs even as children’s bodies wash up on foreign shores and 60 million people wander the earth in search of home, resurrection can feel like a pipe dream. When entire categories of people—religions, races, sexual or gender identities—become targets of hatred and exclusion, when almost every day brings still worse news about the impacts of our changing climate—resurrection faith can feel naive and, well, idle.
And then there’s the illness that strikes without warning and stays seemingly without end, pulling the rug of life right from under us. There’s the loved one who dies, the partner who leaves, the job that ends, the health that fails, the child who can’t find her way, the heart that cannot bear one more disappointment. Real life, in other words. There are tombs of despair, loneliness, and depression that seem sealed on every side. There are relationships mired in pain and situations seemingly forever stuck.
And where are our angels of mercy? we might wonder. Where is the new thing God is doing? When will we be dazzled with good news?
So it was on a Friday long ago and far away, when the Prince of Peace, Lover of All, and Hope of the World was reduced to an object lesson in empire’s capacity to crush and kill. Even before Jesus breathed his last, it seemed his kingdom-of-God movement was finished, his followers shaken, scattered and not likely to cause any more trouble.
Yes, we know the story. Yes, we love to tell the story.
“Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!”
But we want our own resurrection stories. We want a resurrection faith that is more than a simple denial of reality or a stubborn defiance of the facts. Resurrection faith must mean more than turning off the news, covering our ears, and singing la-la-la while the world burns. Resurrection faith is not an everything-is-fine fairy tale. Even one of the Easter accounts notes that the women ran from the tomb with great joy, yes, but also with fear.
What we really want is to get up from our own apparent graves, cast off our own failures, regrets and all that binds us, and to walk out of our own tombs into the brightness and joy of a brand new day. What we want is to be able to start over, innocent and whole—but wiser this time. What we want is a holy do-over, another chance to get things right. We want our very own Easters. Right?
Now this is where I’m supposed to remind you that resurrection is God’s miraculous doing, that it is only because Christ is risen that we have any hope of resurrection. Here is where I am supposed to say that we need to stop reducing resurrection to nothing more than a normal stage in the cycle of life. Here is where I’m obliged to remind you that resurrection, unlike the proverbial pulling up of boot straps or any other of myriad individualistic myths, is not something we make happen, try as we might.
Not that we don’t try, not that there is anything wrong with trying. After the terror attacks in Brussels last week, defiant residents organized a demonstration for today that they called the March Against Fear. Well, yesterday they canceled it—because of, you guessed it, fear of more violence.
You see, resurrection is something God does. It is a divine disruption of the all-too-human order of things.
While all of that is true, I’m not sure it’s what we came to hear this morning. We’re better at efforts to control than believe—even when what we want to believe is that God has already defeated evil and oppression, suffering and death, and that they no longer have any true power over us. That is resurrection faith, right?
Here at First Church we have focused recently on what it means to be grounded, to be centered, to live firmly rooted in the solid ground of what is true, healing, just, life-giving, world-changing, and worthy of praise. We have considered how to be grounded in God, grounded in hope, grounded in relationship and promise, grounded in the now, and grounded in Christ, even the Christ on a cross. Today we consider how to live a life grounded in resurrection.
And here’s some good news: It’s more about opening than believing. It’s about orientation and intention, about choosing to look for new life amid the rubble, about trusting that God is at work even in the midst of death. It is a life choice, a way of seeing the world and walking through it.
To be grounded in resurrection is, especially when all hope seems lost, especially when evil seems to have won the day, to choose love over fear, healing over hatred, nonviolent resistance over violence, solidarity over division, forgiveness over festering bitterness, reconciliation over estrangement and restoration over brokenness. To be grounded in resurrection is to choose to open our hearts to the promise that, despite all the evidence, despite all the messages to the contrary, we have all we need, and all we need is here.
To be grounded in resurrection is not to deny or discount the power of death or the evil in our world; indeed, it often requires walking right into the pain, acknowledging what is not working, and letting go of what is dead. It requires the discipline to stop looking for the living among the dead. To be grounded in resurrection is to look for the new life that is always and ever happening. It is about telling the stories. It is about becoming the angels who say, when all seems lost, “Remember that time? Remember God’s promise?” It is about living the stories again and again and again. It is about waking up every morning and wondering, “Where will I find resurrection today? What new things is God doing today?”
It’s a tall order, I know. To ground ourselves in resurrection is its own kind of a miracle, actually. It is not about mere optimism or pollyana-ish hope; it is about choosing to live through death and into new life.
To be grounded in resurrection is to rejoice at the renewed health of one who seemed all but gone.
To be grounded in resurrection means not giving up when another anti-racism banner is stolen—but just getting a better one and hanging it higher. It means getting a bigger and better one and hanging it higher. It is s about rejoicing when our dining room downstairs—the same room where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King once spoke at a church supper—is standing room only for a meeting of people who believe that black lives matter.
Last June, when a young white supremacist shot and killed nine African Americans at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, I was in Washington, D.C. When I got the horrifible news, I went to the Metropolitan A.M.E. Church to offer my condolences and help to the church’s pastor. I would like to say I made some kind of difference, but mostly I just wept in the face of the pastor’s improbable strength. You see, he was grounded in resurrection.
The next day, when I returned to the church for a prayer service, I was still a mess. My privileged white heart was wallowing in grief, despair and doubt. Was there any hope for racial justice? Any way out of our love of guns and violence? Was resurrection just an idle tale?
The African American church members ushered me to a seat near the front. Poster-size photos of the nine murdered saints were displayed. Death was everywhere, it seemed. But the service began with rocking praise music. The pastor, whose dear friend was among the dead, offered a prayer of thanksgiving. And even as we mourned unspeakable hatred, violence, and loss, we were reminded of Jesus’ admonition to love our enemies.
After all the scriptures had been read, the prayers had been said, and the clergy of different faiths had offered their sympathy and support, the church’s pastor walked over to the music leader and whispered something in his ear. For all I know it might have been “Christ is risen!” Then he announced a change in the program.
The photos of the dead would be brought back to the front of the sanctuary, and church members would then process around the sanctuary while we sang the closing hymn—not the one printed in the bulletin but a different one. And so it was that with the faces of the dead right in front of us, with the tomb of racist violence closing in on us, we sang “It Is Well With My Soul.”
To be grounded in resurrection is to walk into the heart of darkness and death, as Jesus did. It is to walk with the suffering and stand with the oppressed, as Jesus did. It is to walk out of our tombs singing. It is to sing ever louder, that we might make way for resurrection nonsense and Easter joy.
This is no idle tale. This is the way of God’s Easter people, and that is who we are.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!