Sermons

Not Here; Rev. Dee Ledger, Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019

 

On the surface, the Easter story is a preposterous claim.  It isn’t scientific, yet it has survived even the most dismal and humiliating of circumstances, as well as centuries of apathetic, hostile, or demeaning critics.  It doesn’t promise prosperity or a better bottom line to its proponents, and it seems more fairy tale than fact.  It is, quite frankly, an embarrassment to some of its keenest believers.

“Where’s the body?” some ask.

Others ask, “Where’s the proof?”

And our children ask with wonder and trust in their eyes, “Mommy, how exactly does a body rise?”

Now there are times when my mind has risen early, but my body refused.  Usually, this happens on Monday mornings.  But sometimes the body refuses with age, with trying experiences, and with sobering realities like tornado threats, paralysis, or a terrible shock to the system.  The body refuses to rise, while the anxious mind is like some kind of nimble gymnast doing double twisting double-back layout. And of course, we are aware of it. There are dreams in which the body feels immobilized but the thinking mind remains active like it’s overloaded on caffeine.  Even so, the body stiff and stricken won’t move, and gravity has its way with us.   Many of us have had this experience and so we fall under the illusion that mind and body are separate.  Yet, in Christian thought, the body and mind are a complex unity, and not separate.

And despite our propensity to separate mind and body in life as well as death, despite our dualistic thinking, our faith boldly declares bodies will rise again.

They can rise like my stubborn cactus growing an extra limb after its main stem suffers wet-rot, and like bread rising from yeast. They can rise like cicadas after 17 years of dormancy, and like the dying woman who receives a badly needed heart transplant, or like the shy agoraphobe leaving his house for the first time despite his tremendous fear and limited social connections. They can rise like the twinkle in a great-great grandpa’s eyes as he holds a newborn, and they can rise like love from the dying embers of a faltering relationship.  The question is not will they rise, but will we join in their rising?

This Easter story is so preposterous that even the disciples—the male disciples—originally thought this was an “idle tale,” just some kind of women talk.

For the women: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James were the first witnesses and the first to see that our so-called wisdom in death and life only extends so far.  They were the first to attend to Jesus’ anointing for burial, the first to rise at early dawn, and the first to trust God’s messengers in that dark and dismal place, and the first among his followers to bravely proclaim—despite ridicule and the usual man-splaining—that Jesus, despite all evidence to the contrary, was not among the dead, but among the living.

This is a story less about our capacity to believe or to not, and more about God’s character.  It is a story less about gaps of logic and more about God’s care  for human beings—both in life and in death.  If Easter’s answer prompts a question: it is whether you and I can place our trust in the kind of God that raises bodies, hearts, minds, and spirits whenever and wherever dangerous and insecure powers condemn people to live: whether that is on a cross, in a tomb, in a closet, in a threatening diagnosis, or in economic and terror filled mass graves.

What does Easter say about a God who dares to raise the limits of our small minds, or to raise the souls of those entrapped by vice, victory, or the vicissitudes of daily living?  What does Easter say about the dignity of those bodies who die on too many crosses across our world and are left without anyone to claim them and to take them home?

This is a God who cares about bodies.  A God who notices and disrupts the death trade as-business-as-usual.  A God for whom death will not have the final word, or the final summation of events.  This is a God for whom death is not a threatening warrior but a vanquished foe, a God who disarms an enemy, transforms the pain in the wake of destruction and chaos, and makes death take a backseat to a resurrected existence.

Bodies matter to God—all bodies, wherever they suffer, wherever they die, however disposed of, disparaged, or glorified.  In her book, An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor writes that it is not possible to lean into God’s love for my body, without simultaneously recognizing that God loves “all bodies everywhere.”[1]

There is an unseen character—often un-proclaimed in our Easter stories.  A wealthy man by the name of Joseph of Arimathea, and he is a member of the Council that helps to indict Jesus, though he does not agree to the plan, the action, or the death.  He is a good and righteous man and he expectantly awaits the kingdom of God.  Because of this, he dares to go the powerful Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body and it is in Joseph’s tomb where Jesus is laid– a tomb that was unused and newly built   So, it is Joseph’s future tomb from which Jesus rises due to the intercessions of this man, a counterpoint to Pilate for whom Jesus’s body is just another necessary political decision laid to rest.. The women watch and follow this Joseph of Arimathea as he tenderly cares for and lays Jesus to rest, this Jesus for whom it was said, “he had no place to rest his head.”

Bodies matter to God.   How we treat them, where we put them, and the stories that grow around them.  Are they stories that show our humanity and our willingness to transcend our self-interest?  Are they stories that show how human beings, despite their frailty and cowardice, can rise—with God’s help– to more noble heights?  Does God care about the many bodies in our streets, in our jails, and in our hospitals?

The Easter story declares the affirmative, “Yes, yes, God does.”

But do they matter to us? 

Debie Thomas writes, “We must let go of the comfortable belief that our highest calling as Christians is to niceness. But this cannot happen if we keep our faith lives tethered at the level of intellectual abstraction. If we live a Christianity of the mind without also living one of the flesh. After all, it is with our bodies that we experience deep pain, deep anger, deep terror, and deep joy. It’s my chest that hurts when I mourn. It’s my face that burns when I’m angry. It’s my whole body that warms with pleasure when I’m happy.”[2]

In the gospel of John, Jesus declares his body a temple, a temple that would be raised in three days. “But he was speaking of his body,” not an actual temple, however beautiful, historic, or representative of the people.  I can’t help but to wonder how we might contrast the gracious, wonderfully generous, and speedy outpouring of significant funds for the Notre Dame Cathedral—a symbol of the church universal—as a ringing foil to our inability recognize a similar urgency around the many fires of hunger, starvation, extinction, poverty, environmental crisis, and diminished expectations for humanity in this world.  Which temple is more important to us: the temple of the body or of the church?

When the two angels greet the women in the tomb, they point the women beyond the grave.  This is a God who does not deny the pain and reality of death, but who points us ever beyond the grave.   These heavenly messengers ask the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  It is a good question.  The reality of death is so strong, such an insult to injury, that we search among the ashes for some tangible evidence of our beloved’s existence and mark on the world. There is something about our human need to touch the effects of their death in order to process more fully their life.

And yet, we are not left to ruminate and regret in graves.  The work of God is to point us beyond the tombs into which we venture or fall.  It is a shifting of focus from the partial lives which we might be tempted to live toward new paths and new chapters of our story which has not ended on this side of paradise or the next.  God lifts us from dead ends, dead truths, dead situations, dead choices, and our own damaging sin that creates a living hell for ourselves and others. God’s messengers point us beyond the grave to a greater wholeness, a greater journey and a greater truth than we have known.

To the question, “Where is Jesus?” the messengers declare, “he is not here… not among the dead…not standing in this empty tomb…but among the living, on the road, on the way. He will meet you there.”

Friends, what tombs have you visited lately?  When have you been tempted to make your home there?   Whom have you encountered there while blinking in the early dawn?  Are we, together, seeking the living Jesus among the dead? Easter says that we need not remain en-tombed.  Because he is risen, we rise too.

Sisters and brothers, Easter is not a question of verifiable proof, but an answer that can lift you from life’s sorrows to a new place of hope.

Thomas writes, “In other words, we come to the empty tomb as ourselves, for good or for ill.  We don’t shed our baggage ahead of time; it barges in with us and shapes our perceptions and conclusions.  What matters, then, is encountering the risen Jesus in the particulars of our own messy lives. What matters is finding in the empty tomb the hope we need for our own struggles, losses, traumas, and disappointments.  Whatever universal claims we make as Christians must begin in the rich, fertile ground of our own hearts, our own stories.  Whatever acclamations we cry out on Easter Sunday must begin with a willingness to linger in the garden, desolate and alone, listening for the sounds of our own names, spoken in love.  For our testimonies to ring true, they must originate in radical, intimate encounter.  The question is not, ‘Why should people in general believe?’ but rather, ‘Why do you believe?  How has the risen Christ revealed himself to you?’”[3] 

Sisters and brothers, today, may you hear and trust a truth to meet you in the hard facts of life, may you encounter a steadfast companion in the grave, and may you experience a promise to redirect your steps to where Jesus lives, so that you can live in freedom too.

Friends, he is not here.  He is risen!  Amen.

 

 

[1] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1675-the-temple-of-his-body

[2] Debi Thomas, “The Temple of His Body,” Feb 25, 2018. www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1675-the-temple-of-his-body

[3] Debi Thomas, “I Have Seen the Lord,” April 14, 2019.  https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay