Saturday, March 30, 2013

Practicing Resurrection ~ Easter Sermon (Isaiah and Luke)

What does it mean, to practice Resurrection?

The gospel of Luke doesn’t offer us many clues.

Did any of you read it this morning, or perhaps yesterday, in preparation for today?  If you did, perhaps you were left with a feeling of dissatisfaction, with a sense that much of the story is missing, with an empty feeling of having been left hanging.

Luke, nearly 2000 years ago, wrote what seems on the first reading, or perhaps on the hundredth reading as well, a simple story.

There are some women, three of them named –Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Joanna – and at least two of them not.  They have prepared spices with which to tend to the body of their beloved friend Jesus, the one who was killed by crucifixion two days earlier.  If you were there, or if you had been following the story with Luke as your guide, you would know that Jesus had been crucified on a Friday and that by the time his body was removed from the cross, the Sabbath would have been about to begin and it would have been too late for anyone to do much of anything beyond placing it in a tomb.  The Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday and continues until sundown on Saturday, so the women would not have been able to travel safely to an isolated cemetery until Sunday morning.

They arrive at the cemetery, they find the cave-like tomb open, and inside, instead of the broken body for which they hope to care, they are confronted by two men who appear, dressed in dazzling clothing,who ask them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?  He is not here, but he is risen.”  Then the men remind them of what Jesus had told them in the past about this event – that he would be handed over to sinners and crucified and rise again.

The women do remember, and so they leave to find the other disciples, and to tell them what has happened.  The other disciples don’t believe them; they call the women’s story “an idle tale,” or “nonsense.”  But Peter, apparently wanting to see for himself, dashes to the graveyard to look inside the tomb and then, finding nothing but the grave clothes lying limply where a body should be, goes home.

And that’s it. That’s the story as we have it from Luke.

The women do not flee from the tomb in terror as they do in Mark.  There is no earthquake and no sudden appearance of Jesus to the women as there is in Matthew.  There is no dramatic encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene as there is in John.  There is simply this story of an empty tomb, of a group of women who are described as “perplexed” or “wondering,” a group of disciples who don’t believe them, and one disciple who comes to see for himself and, seeing nothing, is as baffled as were the women. And the words of two dazzling figures who remind the women that Jesus had told them to expect this.

It’s not much to go on.  If this were all that we had, if we were a group of first century folks reading or listening to the  Gospel of Luke, hearing this story for the first time, and if we stopped at this point for the day, what would we have?  If we wanted to practice resurrection, how would we know what to do?

We would have this simple story of a few characters, several of them not even named, in a desolate setting, having some sort of supernatural encounter. 

And we would have the verbs that the gospel writer used to describe these few people, these few followers of a man who has been killed and whose body has now mysteriously disappeared.  Depending upon your translation, the women and the other disciples are variously described as:

Perplexed. Terrified.  Frightened.  Amazed. Wondering.

Maybe those are our clues.  Maybe, more than in the events themselves, we find in the words describing these immediate reactions and responses our instructions about how to begin to practice resurrection.

Be perplexed.  Be frightened; terrified, even.  Be amazed.  Wonder.

Not because a terrible or menacing event has occurred.  Not because your grief threatens to undo you.  Not because there is no hope, or because evil has gained the upper hand, stealing body as well as soul and spirit. 

But because God is doing a completely new thing.  A completely different thing. Something so new and different that it will take days, years, a lifetime, all of history, to comprehend.

Something for which we use words like:

Salvation. Reconciliation.  Healing.  Restoration. 

Something so vast, so powerful, so all-encompassing, that we can only begin to grasp it by allowing ourselves to be perplexed and terrified and frightened and amazed and wondering. 

Can we put this something into a box and say, “Now we have been saved from hell, from the possibility of a forever separation from the love of God” – well, that’s part of it.  Can we contain this something by saying. “The kingdom of God has come among us and we need to share that news” –that’s part of it, too.  Can we define this something by saying that “Love and justice and mercy now live among us in Jesus Christ and we are called to live those gifts to the fullest” – that, too, is part of it. 

As disciples of Jesus practicing resurrection, we are invited to do all of those things and more.  We are invited to proclaim that salvation is at hand.  We are invited to the deep and sure knowledge that, in the face of so much evidence to the contrary, God’s kingdom of love reigns over all other kingdoms of self-centeredness and acquisitiveness and materialism and manipulation and politics and violence.  We are invited to get out there and live into God’s gifts of love and justice and mercy by assisting homeless people and feeding hungry people and repairing the homes of our neighbors and supporting the education of children in Liberia and in Rwanda.

We are invited to practice resurrection in all of those ways. But most of all, we are invited, this day, to join the women and men who followed Jesus in their excitement, in their bewilderment, in their fears, and in their astonishment, because what that empty tomb represents, what those limp and useless grave clothes tell us, is that: Things are not as they were.  History has been challenged.  The course of events for all of creation has been altered by a God who will. not. be. satisfied. to let sin and destruction and hopelessness and death have the last word.

I don’t know what Jesus’ followers talked about among themselves that morning after they went home.  I don’t know what they did.  I imagine that much of the conversation was like that which follows any death.  “What now?”  And that it was heightened by the missing body.  And by the words of those dazzling men, whom we presume to have been angels: “Remember what he told you.”

How would they have put that morning together?  What do you do when, as the poet William Butler Yeats described it in another devastating, heart-wrenching, and bewildering context, “things fall apart [and] the center does not hold.”  Where do you find a new center?  How do you practice resurrection?

Perhaps as they sat together, made breakfast, drank their coffee, expressed their fears to one another, perhaps those early followers of Jesus recalled not only his words, but other words they had learned.  Who knows?  Perhaps they even recalled those other words given to us this morning, from the prophet Isaiah:

"I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.  . . .  I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.  . . . They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.  . . . Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear. The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.   . . .   They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the Lord."

New heavens and a new earth.  Joy.  Delight.  The building of houses and the planting of vineyards and the lusciousness of fruit.  The peaceful cooperation of those who were once predator and prey.  The absence of hurt and destruction.  A God who answers before we call.  A God who hears before we speak.

What happens when things fall apart and the center no longer holds?

God creates anew.  God revises.  God heals. 

God creates not just a new heaven, or new heavens, someplace far from here to which we will be transported when we die, someplace far, far away where we will no longer suffer as we do here.  God creates a new earth!  New lives for all of creation!  New lives in which all will care for one another, all the way down to the wolf and the lamb.  New lives in which cities and gardens alike will be teeming with joy and with nourishment.

No wonder Luke leaves us hanging on Easter morning, pauses us in a moment of stunned silence.  No wonder the women and men who followed Jesus are a bit bewildered and lost, wandering back to their homes in a state of confused apprehension.  No wonder.  No wonder at all.

The wonder is not that they respond as they do.  The wonder is reserved for what has happened.  Death has been conquered.  Love has triumphed.

Jesus, who accompanied us through the delights and rigors of human life, who continues to walk with us through our own triumphs and failures, our own joys and sorrows, who can be present to us because he has lived as we do – Jesus who did not turn back but followed us even into the end which we must all endure – Jesus has completely, powerfully, overwhelmingly, defeated death by transforming it into life.

Jesus has taken the horror of death -- the torment, the bodily disintegration, the despair, the grief – and demolished them all.  He has begun the work of the new creation; in his rising he has flung open the door that leads to the light and life of new heavens and a new earth, to the full presence of God in which we, too, will be transformed by love.

Go ahead:  Be stunned.  Be amazed.  But let the fear go.  Practice resurrection.  Because love wins.

Happy Easter.


  1. Wow.

    Robin - this is stunning. And wonderful.

    Tonight I go to the Vigil. At 9:00 pm. It starts in darkness. My daughter Molly will enter from the back of the church with a candle. A small flame. She will come forward to be anointed with oil.

    Her decision to walk, for today, with the faith that Jesus is doing exactly what you say in this sermon.

    I'm humbled. And in awe. Thank you.

  2. "Something so new and different that it will take days, years, a lifetime, all of history, to comprehend."

    Amen and Amen!

  3. Practicing resurrection....looking through a door flung open. Thank you, Robin!