Tag Archives: Easter

How did that tomb get empty, anyway?

Preached at Head of Christiana Presbyterian Church, April 5 2015, at the Easter Sunrise service outside next to the cemetery

A cemetery is a strange place, isn’t it? Eerie, sometimes. Often for us it occupies an in-between space of life meeting death, death meeting life. We don’t like to think about what happens there, once the bodies get into their graves. Oftentimes we don’t even get that far – we leave the casket perched on its rollers, hovering above the emptiness, as we say one last prayer and then turn away to let the funeral staff take care of getting the body, finally, underground.

The same is true for that odd silent day called Holy Saturday. It is the nether space between the mourning of Good Friday and the rejoicing of Easter Sunday; and when it begins, Jesus is in the tomb, and then by the time we get back at sunrise on Easter morning, the tomb is empty and the graveclothes are folded, no longer needed.

And we don’t quite know what happened in between. We don’t know what was going on that day, under the earth in the deep cool stillness of the tomb.

Was Jesus weaving a silken cocoon around himself, to grow wings and burst out just before morning, renewed and transformed? Or was Jesus busy descending into Hell, as the creeds affirm, grasping souls by the hand and pulling them up out of torment, like some grand Renaissance painting? Was he observing his sabbath, lying there on the hard stone shelf, coming slowly back to consciousness as God painstakingly knit his flesh back together?

How do we get from the agony and despair of the crucifixion to the astounding joy and new life of Easter morning?

And the truth is, we don’t know, and we won’t know. But the mystery is one of the things I love most about Easter, when we get right down to it.

I don’t know how God brings life out of death; all I know is God does. I don’t know how broken places are healed or torn things get mended or despair ever becomes hope. All I know is that, sure as the night becomes day, healing comes. And the scars will still remain, but slowly the blood clots and the wound scabs over and the white blood cells work away, and the skin regrows.

Well sure, but most of the time dead things stay dead! Yes. Except this one time they didn’t.

And what Easter means for me is that God is life, and God is love, and God can do whatever God wants for God’s beloved ones.

And I know that there is one force pulling us toward death, whether you call that entropy or sin or just the way the world works; and there is something else pulling us back toward wholeness and life and love. I know I am caught in their tug-of-war, and I suspect we all are, most of the time.

* * *

And so this mystery – the sacred unknowing of these in-between spaces – that mystery means that God does not need us to be good enough or devoted enough or pious enough to “deserve” to be healed. That’s what grace is about. Somehow, miraculously, God finds us where we are, wherever we are, and tugs us back toward life.

Whether we’re feeling lost and alone, or mostly okay except for the nagging doubts in the back of our mind that we just don’t look at too closely, or like we might as well be dead in the tomb with Jesus, God is there with us. God has been there, God is there, and God brings life there too.

Sometimes it comes so slow we might not notice right away, and sometimes it’s a rush of warmth like a bear hug from a dear friend, and suddenly the weight lifts from your chest and the world is a little less broken. All these things that tug us back toward life – these are God and these are Easter, and sometimes there is nothing else to do but throw back our heads and shout in thanksgiving.

Christ is risen! Indeed! And so I lift my voice with the poet e.e. cummings:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Expect the Unexpected

Preached April 20 (Easter Sunday) at Head of Christiana PC

Matthew 28:1-10

Last weekend, while we were celebrating the odd spectacle of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem – through a back gate, riding a donkey – that afternoon in Kansas, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan went on a rampage at a Jewish Community Center and a nearby Jewish retirement community, shooting at 6 people and killing three of them.

In Chicago, 36 people were shot in unrelated incidents in about as many hours. Four people are dead, and at least one more is still hovering close to death. The hate crime in Kansas was all over the news, with plenty of commentators to acknowledge how tragic it was.

And yet the ongoing violence in Chicago seems to have registered barely a blip on our radar. Last weekend’s shootings have become the norm for that city, for any number of reasons that authorities and community leaders are still puzzling out. People are living in fear. The aunt of one victim told reporters it’s gotten so bad that every time she leaves the house, she doesn’t know if she’ll make it back alive. The shootings don’t shock us anymore. We make excuses – oh, they probably had gang ties – because we don’t want to see it for what it is. The truth that young people are being shot for little more than growing up on the wrong block is too painful to bear.

Instead, we remember the absurd theater of our King of Kings riding down a back street on a donkey, while people line the streets with their cloaks and wave branches, shouting “hosanna”… which means “save us.” Save us, they cried! We are terrorized by the Romans, with their chariots and war horses, and our normal is death and oppression! Save us!

We have come to expect violence and injustice, somehow, and even death – at least in some places, happening to other people. Even in our own lives, no matter whether we think of our lives as full of death beyond all hope of redemption or whether we have just settled into a routine that is more or less comfortable, and if it isn’t always life-giving, at least we know what to expect most of the time. And the best we think we can hope for is more of the same.

Death doesn’t always look like a stopped heart or a last gasp of breath. We feel death creeping in at a broken relationship, a career ended too soon, in fears created out of nothing, or created by lifetimes of discrimination, in a young person losing hope for the future, in the ghosts of depression and mental illness that sneak into our consciousness and start telling lies; we feel death at the loss of our strength and our independence as we age, at the loss of sight or hearing that connects us to our world.

Any of those feelings might connect us with the characters in this Easter story. Whether we are with the women who come to mourn at the tomb, the guards who pass out in their terror, with the beloved friends who have locked themselves away and can’t bear to see their rabbi humiliated so publicly, with the crucified Jesus, violated by the men in power, or alone and broken in the dark of the tomb; or even with the betrayer Judas, or with Peter, terrified of the consequences of standing publicly with Jesus.

And wherever we connect, if we’re honest we don’t expect any kind of dramatic change in our own lives. If we’re going to a grave, we expect to find a grave. If we are hidden away, not speaking publicly for fear of the consequences, we expect to stay hidden for a little while. If we feel broken or alone, so often it can feel like nothing could possibly change that. We expect dead things to stay dead.

But that is not how God works. Whatever happened between that Friday evening when the tomb was closed and that Sunday morning when the stone was rolled away, somehow God has brought life, and brilliant, blinding angels, into this place where there was only death. Somehow that wounded, lifeless body is full again, with the breath of God within him and the Spirit upon him. And that is both beautiful and terrifying.

They are afraid because of the angels, sure – it sounds like angels would be pretty intimidating – but they’re also afraid because what if they’re telling the truth?? Afraid because dead people are supposed to stay dead! And afraid because if it’s true, more people will die – the Romans are not going to be happy. If this guy, the rabbi who broke customs at every turn (who dined with sinners and touched lepers and trusted even women and foreigners with his gospel), this one who preached a revolution not of violence but of loving your enemies, of all things – if this guy is back, then nothing is going to be the same.

If Jesus is alive, that changes everything.

And, thanks be to God, that does change everything. “Do not be afraid,” he says. And goodness knows he doesn’t mean that scary or awful stuff won’t happen anymore – our story leaves out the following verses where the chief priests are busy trying to spin a story that Jesus’ body was actually stolen rather than mysteriously raised – but do not be afraid because death is not the last word.

We think we have learned how this life stuff works, what to expect – at some point we think we know that friends will betray us, politicians will lie to us, someone will hate us for no good reason, and then we’ll die, hopefully not too painfully. But Jesus breaks all those rules. He was hated, betrayed, and then killed by corrupt leaders in one of the most gruesome ways that humans have devised to kill one another. And on Easter, he still comes out on top.

It’s as if to say, none of that really matters. God’s love will always beat the ways that death creeps into our lives. God’s love is always bigger than our petty betrayals, or our political maneuverings, the changes that rock our foundations (whether chosen or forced on us), and even bigger than the demons of shame and anxiety and hopelessness that torment us.

Christ is risen, and nothing is quite what it seems to be anymore. To Rome he says, you can’t terrorize us and humiliate us anymore, because we are no longer playing by your rules. To our fears he says “do not be afraid,” and we know he means it because he’s been through the most fearsome things we can imagine. To our grief he says, “Greetings,” I’m back. To our boredom and apathy he says “go and tell my brothers and sisters!” and this mission, if we choose to accept it, will send us off on a whole new life. To our anxieties he says “rejoice!” because if he can make it through the cross, then we with Jesus beside us can make it through whatever challenges face us.

Christ is risen, and that changes everything. Alleluia!

‘Okay’ Is Not Enough

I spent this past week, Holy Week, traveling with a group of UD students in Haiti. We were there with a group called CODEP, working with a rural community in the mountains outside of Léogâne.  The land was beautiful, even though it has been ravaged by centuries of deforestation and natural disasters; and the people we met were equally strong and beautiful, battle-scarred by poverty and 80% unemployment, in many cases losing what little property they had to the earthquake or one of the many hurricanes to which they’ve become so vulnerable.

On Friday, we left early in the morning so that we would have time for a tour around the capital city of Port-au-Prince before we headed to the airport. If I thought I had seen poverty and destruction in the rural areas, it was nothing compared to what I saw in the city.  The fault line runs right through the center of town, and with people living packed together in crumbling cinder-block buildings, the destruction from the earthquake three years ago was enormous.  And still, three years later, people are living in tents in the shadow of the ruins of the National Cathedral; temporary shelters that have become permanent.

Then we turned down a wide street, and one whole side of the street was filled with people lined up watching someone coming down the road.  Most of them were dressed up in white, with elegant straw hats and headscarves and old baseball caps as protection from the sun.  As we got closer I could see what they were waiting for: a man dressed in white, with a brown cloth twisted around his head, shuffled under the weight of a heavy cross.

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I’d heard about this kind of Good Friday procession before, especially in Latin American and majority-Catholic countries, but seeing one in person just took my breath away.  I had been so worried about packing, and getting everyone on the bus, and what we were supposed to do once we got to the airport, that I hadn’t even thought about it being Good Friday.  And here we were, in a city of crumbling ruins, brightly-painted businesses selling everything from mattresses to Super Glue to roasted chicken with plantains, and houses made of plywood and tattered USAID tarps, and the whole neighborhood was gathered to remember Jesus and his journey to the cross.

It seems like we haven’t been too eager to talk about the crucifixion in most of the communities I’ve been a part of.  For a lot of American churches, particularly white Protestant churches, it’s much more comfortable to gloss over that part of the story.  Death is messy, and state-sanctioned violent executions are even messier.  Can’t Easter just be about chocolate and bunnies and marshmallow chicks??  Do we really have to deal with the whole death part?  Why not just skip straight from the hosannas of Palm Sunday to the alleluias of Easter?

In places like Haiti, death and suffering seems to be an unavoidable part of life.  People would ask, “Koman w’ye?” (how are you?) and look a little startled when I would answer “byen!”  I didn’t understand it until we were getting ready to go, and one of our hosts, smiling, wished us a trip home that was “papli mal,” not too bad.

The expectations are a little different.

Here, it seems like we have to put on a brave face most of the time.  When a spouse, or parent, or child dies, we are allowed a little window when we can be not okay in public, but at some point people are going to start expecting us to be done grieving and be back to “normal.”  We don’t like to talk about our suffering, and we’re certainly not prepared most of the time to talk about the suffering of others.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have pain.  We all have wounds, we all have scars in various stages of healing, but some of us hide them pretty well.  It is as if we are stuck on Saturday — we’re trying to forget the grief of Good Friday, trying to hide the fear that we’ve just wasted the last three years of our lives on a foolish quest, not even daring to hope for the miracle of Sunday; just trying to convince ourselves that everything is okay.

But everything is not okay.  Tragic things do happen here too, and sometimes our grand plans don’t work out and we feel like failures, and innocent people suffer here too, and relationships end, and sometimes life is just hard.  But still we force ourselves to smile and say “I’m fine!” and pretend that everything is okay.  But it’s not — because okay isn’t good enough.

“Okay” leaves no room for miracles.  “Okay” is just barely getting by.  “Okay” says, my problems aren’t worth making a fuss over.  We can tolerate the violence and the injustice for the sake of getting back to normal.

But if we stay there, only letting ourselves see the acceptable, monochrome gray of okay-ness, we will never get to the miraculous burst of color that is Easter morning.  It is only when we brave the stench of death and bend down to look into the tomb that we can begin to understand the truth of resurrection.  We can hide, afraid, in our locked rooms, but we will not see Easter until we really see the wounds that our brother Jesus holds out to us.

That death was real, and it left real marks.  And because that death was real, that resurrection can be real.  Because the miracle of Easter is that even though death is real, and violence is real, and suffering is real, they’re not the end of the story.  On Easter, even a wounded body is raised to glory.  Even the most broken places in our lives are filled with the hope of resurrection.  Even us, each one of us who carries secret shames and hurts and fears and losses, even we will be raised alive and rejoicing, carrying our scars like trophies that show the world who we are and where we’ve been.

And even to us, with our silent wounds, the tears we might cry when no one is looking, even to us the risen Jesus comes, and calls us by name.  The one who walks beside us has known pain, like ours and far worse than ours, and has come through the other side more radiant than ever.  Today, the world is more than okay — today, the world is rejoicing.

Kris se leve vivan!  Christ is risen!  Alleluia.