Easter, Year C
I have a question for you all. Why are you here? I am sure there are many reasons. Many of you might not be sure what that reason is. Some of you are here because you come every Sunday and church and faith are important to you. Some of you are here because it’s Easter and your family has always come on Easter. It’s a tradition. Some of you are here because the world is changing far too fast and you yearn for something that doesn’t change, something you can rely on. Some of you are here because you want to hear the music and see the church full of lilies and azaleas. And while some reasons may be better than others, I don’t believe there is a bad reason to be at church. Because the ultimate reason for your presence here today is that God wants you here and will use whatever excuse necessary to get you here.
While I do not know why you are here, I bet that none of you are here for a surprise. I suspect very few people (if any) came to church thinking, I wonder what’s going to happen today. Is Jesus going to rise again? Are we going to sing Jesus Christ is Risen Today? We come to Easter Sunday with a certain set of expectations. And I get that. I know what it is like to go to church with expectations. I was raised Catholic and one of the things I loved about the Catholic Church was the music. I go to Catholic Church once a year when I am on vacation and visiting my parents in New York and let me tell you, I get very annoyed if I don’t hear any of my favorite hymns. Often I end up there around July 4thand get a bunch of patriotic hymns, which really annoys me. I think, I show up once a year, you would think that they could play my hymns. I realize that is not a good attitude. I should be there to worship God, but sometimes, I get too wrapped up in nostalgia and end up irritated.
When the women went to the tomb, we know what they were expecting. They were carrying spices so that they could anoint Jesus’ dead body. It was an important religious custom that they were performing. Of course, that is not what they ended up doing. As we all know (because we have heard the story) the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty. No dead body to anoint. The text says that they were perplexed.
The windows in my office overlook our beautiful cemetery and I often see people visiting graves of loved ones who have died, either carrying flowers or just going to visit. Imagine one of those people arriving at a grave and seeing the gravestone pushed over and a gaping hole with fresh dirt around it. It is almost unimaginable. Consider the fear, the confusion, the anxiety. Would there be hope? Probably not…because dead people don’t come back to life. It’s one of things in life we depend on, death and taxes. Once a body is buried or put in a tomb, that body stays there.
In the Gospel story, when these women discovered the empty tomb, they were approached by two men in dazzling clothes (most likely angels). The presence of these men did not bring comfort. They brought more fear. The women could only bow their heads. Instead of greeting the women or telling them not to be afraid (which is what angels typically did), these two men asked them a question, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Then the angels reminded the women of the things that Jesus said to them when he was alive. Meanwhile, we the readers are drumming our fingers impatiently asking ourselves why these women are so obtuse. Jesus told them this was going to happen. Why are they so surprised? Why? Because he died! These women saw him die and saw him buried. Where else would they go to look for him besides a tomb?
To their credit, they were able to take it all in. When the angels reminded them of what Jesus said, they remembered Jesus’ words, heard them with an entirely different perspective. They remembered how they felt about him when he was alive, the way he stirred not only their hearts, but the hearts of the masses, the way he healed people, the way he loved without condition. They remembered him and his words. In remembering, they believed. They were able to overcome their limited expectations and find hope in that empty tomb.
Why do you look for the living among the dead? We do that all of the time. After the horrible fire was extinguished at Notre Dame Cathedral, we saw pictures of the charred remains. We saw the video of the wooden steeple falling to the ground. We saw the hole in the vaulted ceiling. But the most amazing picture was that of the gold cross surrounded by smoke and embers, seemingly untouched. It stands in defiance of the wreckage that surrounds it. Life in the midst of death.
It might seem that the question those two angels asked is meant to point out the error on the part of the women, the foolishness of looking for Jesus Christ in a tomb. But they weren’t foolish at all. They were loyal to the end. What they realized deep in their hearts, was that sometimes we do find the living God in the most desolate of places. Despite the fact that they were expecting to find a dead body, they were open to the possibility of life. If they weren’t, they would not have listened to those angels. They would have come up with a rational explanation for it all. They laid down their meager expectations as soon as they were reminded of Jesus’ words.
In the resurrection stories, Jesus often had to remind the disciples, before they could recognize him. In the Episcopal Church, we do that every Sunday when we celebrate communion. We don’t just do it on special days. We do it every Sunday because we need that reminder. Our lives are so full of distractions—we need someone to remind us every Sunday of who Jesus was, what Jesus said, how we died, and how he rose again. Read the Eucharistic Prayer. It’s all there. We say those words every Sunday. Then because Jesus realized that words are not always enough, we receive the body and blood of Christ at the altar rail.
God calls us to let go of our meager expectations. Our Lord is so much bigger than we can imagine. He comes to us not only in the emptiness of a tomb, but in the charred remains of a burned cathedral, or the steel beams forming a cross in the wreckage after 9-11, or the darkest moment of our lives. Death, nor fire, nor war, nor sin can conquer our God or confine our God. Allow yourselves to be surprised by God. Allow yourself to be reminded of God’s deep and enduring love. Come to God’s altar. Come again and again.
Sometimes the challenges of our lives forces us to build walls around our hearts and we find that it is easier not to be reminded of God’s love, because then we open ourselves to being disappointed. I understand that fear. But this is Easter Sunday and those walls cannot protect you from a living God. If we believe in a living God and a loving God, then those walls will shatter. They will come down and God will come in to our hearts and our lives.