I’ve been preaching Easter sermons for a while now. Easter sermons are…tricky. The biggest day of the church year, usually the highest-attended service of the year…and yet, it’s the hardest part of the story to explain, especially to us scientifically-minded 21st century folk.
Over the years, I’ve talked about resurrection literally, metaphorically, and literarily. I’ve focused on Mary, the disciple Jesus loved, and the two angels. I was relieved the year I read Barbara Brown Taylor’s insistence that an actual bodily resurrection isn’t really the point of the story. It might have happened, but it’s not the point.
In the past, I’ve talked a lot about what it means to believe in resurrection. I’ve seen it as my job on Easter to make the story as believable as I can.
But now I wonder if I’ve been coming at it all wrong. I’ve been so focused on helping us wrestle with the question of whether or not we believe in Jesus’ resurrection, I’ve blown right past the more important question: Do we want to believe in resurrection?
Do we? Do you want to believe in resurrection?
Resurrection probably wasn’t on the minds of the women who came to the tomb that first Easter morning. After a tumultuous and traumatizing week, the women were doing what women often do after crisis events–they tended to the rituals that would help get them grounded again. They collected the death spices and, just as the sun was creeping over the horizon, they made their way to Jesus’ tomb, intending to prepare his body for death.
A friend recently traveled to Japan for the funeral of a loved one. The funeral was a day-long event, with breaks for meals and reflection. The family had asked my friend to speak. As a pastor, she prepared the eulogy as she normally did–a word to the living. In the service, she soon realized that eulogies in this tradition were spoken, not to those gathered, but to the deceased. Third-person suddenly became first-person. My friend was deeply moved by the experience of speaking directly to her close friend in the presence of those gathered.
Another moving part of the burial ritual happened after the funeral. In Buddhist tradition, after the funeral, the body is cremated. “The coffin is placed on a tray in the crematorium. The family witnesses the sliding of the body into the cremation chamber, then the family leaves and returns at the appointed time.” Upon their return, “the relatives pick the bones out of the ashes and transfer them to the urn using large chopsticks or metal picks, two relatives sometimes holding the same bone at the same time.” (www.thefuneralsource.org)
When my friend told me about picking bones out of the ashes with chopsticks, I thought, “Say what?” As she talked, though, I realized just how intimate, how loving the ritual was.
That’s what the women were doing at the tomb so early that Sunday morning. They were preparing Jesus’ body in this intimate, loving way so they could say goodbye. Resurrection wasn’t on their minds; death was. And they were fully prepared to engage it head-on.
But when they arrived at the tomb, death wasn’t there. Jesus wasn’t there. The body wasn’t there. One cartoonist has one of the women saying to the other, “I hope you kept the receipt for those spices.” Resurrection had happened; no death spices needed.
Which, 2,000 years later sounds like a good thing, right? Yay! Hallelujah! But on the day in question, the emptiness of the tomb perplexed the women. What? Who? Where is he?
They had death on their minds, not resurrection.
What’s on your mind today? Resurrection? Or death?
Watching the news kind of feels like witnessing one long funeral procession, doesn’t it? Feeling the weight of all the pastoral concerns of our community of late, I was talking about it with someone this week. She responded with deep concern: “And what about the people in Venezuela?” Agh! I had forgotten about the people in Venezuela…and Nicarauga…and people walking hundreds of miles to escape political oppression and poverty in their home countries… I had forgotten about people in Mozambique and Zimbabwe and Malawi who might never recover from Cyclone Idai a month ago…I had forgotten about how quickly icebergs are melting, how fast seas are rising, and how the refugee crises we’re facing now have only begun to scratch the surface of what’s to come …I had forgotten about how people seem to have forgotten how to speak to each other with kindness…
Amid the crises facing us here at home, I had forgotten about the crises facing the world. In that moment, my heart fell. A picture of all of us submerged in death flashed in my mind.
You’re probably thinking: What kind of Easter sermon is this? It’s the kind of Easter sermon where we’re wrestling with the reality of resurrection…and the irony of wrestling with the reality of resurrection is that you can’t do it without facing the reality of death. And, I don’t know. It just seems like everyone across the globe is focused on death these days. We’ve grown so cynical as a species, so focused on ourselves, so unconcerned about others…
The response to the fire at Notre Dame in Paris symbolizes perfectly where the world seems to be these days…an 800 year old building burns and within a week, $2 billion is donated. The tally spiked as billionaires one-upped each other. Compare that to the $773 million in damage Cyclone Idai did in Mozambique. Thus far, $252 million has been raised. Don’t get me wrong. Restoration of iconic, historical buildings is important. But why aren’t billionaires one-upping each other in lifting up people?
It’s because we’re so focused on death. It’s because we’ve forgotten about resurrection. Or maybe we haven’t forgotten about resurrection. Maybe we’ve actively chosen not to believe in it. Maybe we like hanging out at tombs.
Why choose the tomb? Because resurrection requires transformation. And, if we’re honest, we don’t want to be transformed. We don’t want to change. If we had wanted to resurrect Earth, we could have made changes to lifestyles and governmental policies decades ago…but we didn’t do it. Why? Because we didn’t want to change. If we wanted to resurrect the lives of the hungry and impoverished, we could do that easily…but, as individuals and as a country, we don’t want to change. We could resurrect civility and kindness…but that, too, would require us to change. And we don’t want to change.
And so, we hang out at tombs, we remain steeped in death because, in truth, we really don’t want to believe in resurrection.
But here’s the thing. The world needs us to believe in resurrection. People of other faiths, people of no faith, they have their unique gifts to offer in healing the world. The unique gift Christians have to offer is our belief in resurrection. Our calling as followers of Jesus is to believe that death is not the end of the story. Our calling as followers of Jesus is to live as if God is alive and dwelling among us. Our calling as followers of Jesus is to quit hanging out at tombs.
Our calling as followers of Jesus is to open our minds and our hearts to being transformed… because transformed people is what the world needs…people who aren’t afraid to change…people who live God’s love boldly and creatively…people who are kind and generous and imaginative…
The world needs followers of Jesus to believe in resurrection because the world is suffering. Earth is suffering. People are suffering. Christians aren’t the only people who can heal the world, but we have a responsibility–an opportunity–to contribute what we have to act the world into wellbeing: our belief in resurrection.
So. What’s on your mind today? Resurrection? Or death?
If you find it easier to believe in death today than resurrection, here’s the good news: the first step of believing in resurrection is believing in death. If, like me, you look around and see all of us immersed in death, Good news! You have begun the journey to resurrection.
So, how do we get from death to resurrection? It’s a process. The women came to the tomb that morning focused only on death, prepared to get up close and personal with it. When they found the tomb empty, their focus on death blurred. They began to wonder. Once reminded of what Jesus had said about being resurrected, that’s when their minds and hearts began to be transformed. That’s when they began to believe in resurrection. But their journey to resurrection began with their willingness to face the reality of death.
Maybe that’s why the disciples found it difficult to believe in resurrection when the women told them about it. Maybe if the disciples, too, had been willing to get up close and personal with death, they too would have come to believe more quickly in resurrection.
When my friend told me about the funeral she’d experienced in Japan, I asked how long the ritual lasted. Ten hours. Ten hours of confronting death squarely, intimately. Literally, gathering their ancestor’s bones. Placing the bones in the urn. Sealing the urn. By the time the family had completed the death ritual, they were ready to begin the next phase of life.
Do you believe in resurrection today? Do you want to? Begin the journey where you are—whether you’re focused on death, perplexed by it all, or moving toward believing the reports you’ve heard from those who do believe. Begin the journey toward believing in resurrection. Because that is what the world most needs from us followers of Jesus today—a belief that the death that surrounds us is not the last word, a belief that God is alive and living among us, a belief that opening our hearts to each other is the best means, the only means of transforming the world.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan ©2019