Sermon offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest for the Easter Vigil, April 19, 2014.
A few months ago, the curate at Heavenly Rest and I took about a dozen youth to a ranch for a weekend of fun and spiritual formation. In spite of my initial apprehensions about the experience, it turned out to be one of the highlights of my ministry at Heavenly Rest. We had some incredibly powerful conversations and uncovered some extraordinary spiritual insights that would have been advanced even for a group of mature adults. But my favorite moment of the weekend took place on Saturday night. We were all worn out from a long day: we had discussed Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, hiked through the mud (I only just cleaned off my boots), and participated in a pretty emotional healing service. I assumed that our charges would want to turn in early and watch a movie, but instead we gathered around a fire that had been built a few hours before. After stoking it back to life, we began to tell stories. In this age when kids are supposedly more interested in their smartphones than anything else, a group of teenagers sat in rapt attention as we exchanged stories about ghosts and goblins. For the most part, these were the campfire stories that you and I grew up with; they followed a very particular formula that we adapted to the circumstances. All of them ended with a twist or a jump scare or a “But he had been dead the whole time!” No matter how frightening, in other words, we expected that final scare. We knew what was going to happen next. We knew how these stories were going to end.
Tonight, we too gathered in darkness around a fire and we too told each other familiar stories. In some ways, these stories are similar to those that we told around the campfire. They are so familiar to us that we anticipate what happens next; we know how they are going to end. And yet, at the same time, we must recognize how radical these stories really are. As our prayer book puts it, these stories are “the record of God’s saving deeds in history”; they are part of the larger story of how God “saved his people in ages past.” While we know how these stories end, in other words, they do not end they way they are supposed to end. These stories run contrary to the way the world works. Life is not supposed to come from nothing. Oppressed people are not supposed to be released from slavery. The poor are not supposed to feast at the same banquet as the rich. All of these stories point to a God who will not accept the status quo, a God who refuses to be complicit in oppression, a God who interrupts the world with grace and love, a God who shows us what the world can be.
No story embodies the unexpected nature of God’s love better than the story of the empty tomb. Over the past week, we have heard the familiar story. Jesus, a rabbi and healer, enters Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. While he’s there, he raises eyebrows by disrupting the Temple economy. The Roman occupiers and religious leaders agree that he is a dangerous rabble rouser and decide to execute him. After he is betrayed by a disciple and abandoned by his friends, Jesus is handed over to die a criminal’s death. Taken down from the cross, he is placed in a nearby borrowed tomb so that his remaining disciples can go home to observe the Sabbath. Early in the morning on the first day of the week, two of Jesus’ devoted disciples, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, arrive at the tomb to finish what was left undone, to anoint the body of Jesus with spices. But when they arrive, they are told, “He is not here, for he has been raised.” After the long saga of Jesus’ passion and death, the women who come to the tomb to honor the body of Jesus are told that he is no longer there.
Even if the story ended there, even if Jesus never appeared to his disciples, it would represent a shocking turn of events. According to the way the world works, those who challenge the authorities are punished, the oppressed are rarely vindicated, and those who are abandoned by their friends die alone. This all happened to Jesus. And yet, according to the way the world works, the dead are supposed to stay dead. Those who have been executed are supposed to remain in their graves. The world is supposed to forget those who died the deaths of criminals. The empty tomb disrupts this conventional wisdom. The empty tomb forces the disciples to embrace the possibility of Resurrection. The empty tomb challenges the status quo and points toward a God who interrupts this world with a love that raises the dead to life. It’s no wonder Matthew tells us there was an earthquake when the women arrived at the tomb; he could not imagine it any other way. Just as earthquakes take us by surprise and throw us off balance, the Resurrection shocks us out of our complacency and forces us to look at the world in a new way.
In many ways, the Resurrection is the most challenging aspect of the Christian faith. On one level, this is related to whether we are able to believe extraordinary things. Let’s be honest: the Resurrection is difficult to believe. As far as we know, people do not come back from the dead. The conventional wisdom that crucified Jesus remains to this day. The dead stay dead; that’s the way the world works. But remember that this is also how the world worked for the disciples. People did not come back from the dead with regularity during the first century. The likelihood of the Resurrection was just as small then as it is today. A few verses after what we heard this evening, Matthew even tells us that some of the disciples continued to doubt, that they were simply incapable of embracing the possibility of Jesus’ Resurrection. But in spite of all of this, that early morning two thousand years ago caused the disciples of Jesus to change the way they looked at the world. The empty tomb caused them to reshape the way they understood their relationship with God and with one another.
It is at this, much deeper level that the Resurrection truly challenges us. Trusting the Resurrection is not just about believing that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. Trusting the Resurrection is about believing that Resurrection and renewal possible in our life and the life of the world. Too often, we are plagued by the notion that we are hamstrung by fate or destiny, that our lot in life is fixed and there is nothing we can do about it. Too often, we are convinced that reconciliation between adversaries is impossible, that old hatreds never die. Too often, we affirm that the powers of this world have already won, that we are mere pawns in a game that is beyond our control. Yet the Resurrection calls us to recognize that our lives are filled with possibility. The Resurrection calls us to recognize that the only thing required for reconciliation is relationship. The Resurrection calls us to affirm to the principalities of this world that their power is fleeting and that true victory belongs to God. In the words of that hymn we heard at the beginning of this service, we are called to recognize that the Resurrection puts wickedness to flight, casts out pride and hatred, restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn. Trusting in the Resurrection means turning away from despair and living our lives with hope.
In the kitchen of the house where I grew up, there are bells hanging from the window locks. For 364 days of the year, these bells remain in their places, gathering dust and occasionally prompting the odd question from a curious visitor. But on Holy Saturday at about 4:00 in the afternoon, my father, my brother, my grandmother, and I gather up these bells and carry them into the living room. There, my father cues up an old record of the choir of Saint Stanislaus (his childhood church) singing Polish liturgical songs. We listen as the choir sings about Jesus’ temptation, passion, and death. Then, just after an old priest warbles a sentence about the Resurrection, we start ringing those bells as loudly as we can as the choir sings the Polish version of “Jesus Christ is risen today.” As you can imagine, it makes a terrific noise, one that generally impels my mother to go outside. The ringing overwhelms any conversation; it even drowns out the voices of the choir on that old record. The ringing of those bells interrupts our day, casts out all other distractions, and makes us completely present to the reality of the empty tomb. In so many ways, this is exactly how we are meant to understand the Resurrection. Just as those bells interrupt our day, the empty tomb interrupts the status quo and forces us to look at the world in a new way. Just as those bells cast out all other distractions, the Resurrection casts out despair and insists that we live our lives with hope. Just as those bells momentarily make us live completely in the present, the Resurrection requires us to shape our lives in light of the empty tomb. Ultimately, the Resurrection reminds us that we are part of God’s story, the story of a God who interrupts the world with grace and love, the story of a God who shows us what the world can be.