Christ is risen. (Christ is risen indeed.) Alleluia.
Last week I perked up when I heard Garrison Keillor say (in a rebroadcast of Prairie Home Companion) that the preachers in Lake Wobegon were getting their Easter sermons ready. He said that Pastor Ingqvest from the Sanctified Brethren, and Father Wilmer at Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility, were preparing to tell their respective flocks about “Why we believe what we believe.” That’s why they get paid the big bucks, he said.
I was stopped in my tracks – and not by the big bucks. Is it really a preacher’s job to tell people why they believe what they believe? I know, I know, I take Garrison Keillor too seriously; 11year old Elijah reminded me that Lake Wobegon is not real. It might not be true, but there must be some truth there or so many people wouldn’t listen every week.
So why do we believe what we believe? Why do we come to church on Easter Sunday, the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox? In some churches, the Easter Sermon has to be very convincing, because it is the only Sunday many of those gathered step in the church building all year.
But you all don’t need that sermon. You are here year round. You know that every Sunday (and during the week as well) we are asking the questions of our faith, why and what and how, all year long. You know that this is a safe place to ask those questions and still have a place to belong.
But still, we might ask, do we show up each week because what we read in the bible is true? Do we plan worship, sing hymns and spiritual songs, teach our children, pray and read scripture because it is all true?
I ask this especially today because this text about resurrection, at the heart of our faith, is not a simple one: beautiful, exhilarating, intriguing but not easy. Jesus and his followers, perhaps a community about the size of this one, have experienced an excruciating few days. After a glorious, if a bit unexpected, entrance into Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, their teacher and friend is arrested, beaten, interrogated, humiliated, tried, tortured and killed.
The suffering is not unlike what others have experienced where Rome is in charge, where the empire uses terror and fear, turning people against each other so it can stay in power. But now it has come home to this ragtag band of healers, Jewish misfits and incidental prophets who are just beginning to believe that the reign of God is coming soon, that in fact the Messiah might be in their midst. The new reality is upon them and then it is gone, it is finished.
How can one even begin to describe the agonizing pain of losing Jesus this way? He was a man of such integrity, who lived compassion, spoke truth, showed the way, built connections, recognized injustice, acted with courage. He was friend, teacher, spiritual leader, savior. The core of his being was so strong that he did not even protest the group of religious leaders and soldiers that came to arrest him. He just wondered aloud why they did it under cover of night.
Now he has been murdered in a public execution, with thieves and criminals, treated as a lawbreaker instead of the law fulfiller that he was.
After watching the mob justice (or injustice) and the cruelty of crucifixion from a distance, the urge to stay safe, to protect themselves from the same fate is too much for the disciples. It is slightly safer for the women to follow Joseph of Arimathea to the tomb, to take note of where Jesus is laid.
But the sun is going down, the Sabbath is upon them. Having come from Galilee to Jerusalem, some 5 days journey on foot, the women have to return to the homes where they are staying. There they prepare spices and ointments for the burial and then prepare to sit in sorrow on the Sabbath.
Now, it is the morning after the Sabbath; it is early, the sky is just beginning to lighten, the birds are singing their morning songs and the women are on the road to the tomb, spices in hand. They arrive at the tomb but they don’t see his body – instead they see two bodies, alive and spouting riddles: “Why do you search for the living among the dead?” They are reminded of what Jesus had said about rising on the third day.
Joanna, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, return to tell the others, the women and the men, what they have seen and experienced. The other women believe what they hear but the men – the apostles – they label the whole episode nonsense. They do not believe.
It must have been a bit scandalous that it was the women who discovered that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb. The women have this prominent role in the resurrection story. They are given the good news – Jesus is no longer in the tomb, he is alive – and they are told to share it.
But the men don’t believe it, can’t believe, at least not at first. Perhaps their disbelief is what became scandalous in the ensuing years because in later versions of Luke 24 there is an extra verse inserted, verse 12 – Peter goes to the tomb where he sees that it is empty except for the cloth. And then Peter departs in amazement.
So, why do we believe what we believe?
Each of the four gospels gives us a different account of how the scene unfolds. In Luke, the male disciples are told by the women but they do not believe. In Mark, the women flee in fear from the tomb and tell no one. In Matthew, the women run to tell the disciples but as readers, we are not privy to how that turns out. In John, Mary Magdalene goes alone to the tomb, then tells Peter and another disciple who race to see for themselves. What are we to believe? How are we to believe?
We believe not because it is true though there are certainly those of us who believe these stories to be true. We believe because we know the truth of the story. Like the women who went to the tomb, we believe because we have experienced the truth of the story ourselves. And though Jesus rose, though his body disappeared from the tomb, this is not how we experience death and life today. What we find at the tomb today is a metaphor, powerful and true nonetheless.
Take a moment to think about when you have experienced a dead time in your life. —————–Perhaps it was the tragic death of a loved one, maybe the death of a dream, maybe depression or another illness; maybe it was a violent intrusion or attack. You might be living with that intense ache right now.
Remember you how tended that sorrow, and fear? —————————- Remember how you went to the place where you laid that dead dream? Or perhaps you carry the grief and pain with you constantly, not able to lay it down.
It is not easy to go to the tomb, not everyone does. It does not happen in just two days. It takes much longer to see through our tears, to believe that leaving the house has any purpose or meaning at all. The trek to the tomb is not without bumps and obstacles and risks. It feels dangerous, what if someone sees us. What right do we even have to go and when we get there what good will it do? We are well intentioned with our ointments of care and comfort, well intentioned with the obligation to care for the dead but what is the point, really? What good can it do?
It is a brave thing to make that journey, in the dim light of dawn. It takes courage. Yet those who go have little power, over their emotions, no power over death, or even power over life. But those who go to the tomb carry with them a longing for connection with the one who has gone, a longing for connection with their lost self – eaten away by depression. Those who go to the tomb, go with a tender compassion to care for the dead and by doing so care for themselves. It takes courage to care for a dream that has died.
Can you remember, can you imagine, going to check on the tomb, the place where you hold the pain? ————— Unexpectedly there is a crack of light. The heaviness that seemed immovable is not in the same place, not in the same way. What was total destruction, where there was no joy, could never be joy, has somehow shifted. The stone that was so unyielding is moved, perhaps ever so slightly.
Now there is beginning to be room for new life, new breath, where there was none before. You wonder if the tomb contains anything at all. Then you remember the courage, compassion, integrity, the truth of that man Jesus. You might even try fumbling your way toward some gratitude, compassion, connection with others yourself.
Of course, some people will say it is impossible. They will laugh and scoff and say it is nonsense. It seems safer to stay hidden in the house, in shame and fear. It is more reasonable to declare that death steals all joy, that when life ends, it is the end – forever. Period.
But when we take the risk to go toward the pain, to the tomb, we find a whole new way of looking at things. It surprises us with the unthinkable. What we had planned, the care we were prepared to give is not needed because the tomb is empty. What was dead is no longer there to receive our care. It is alive and now in a strange new way, we are too. “Christ is risen.”
The women went to the tomb and in seeing no body, they understood that Christ was alive. In spreading this joyful news they rose to new life themselves, they found within themselves something that they had not even known was there.
In the empty tomb we see that death does not have the last word. We believe that what looks like the end is a new beginning. In the end is our beginning – as we ourselves rise up to meet life.
May it be so. Alleluia.