Text: John 20:1-18
He is risen and just as important we are being raised. Hallelujah! If on this Easter morning you woke up with joy and celebration in your heart, this day is for you. If on this day you awoke with despair and darkness in your heart, this day is for you too. For you see, resurrection only makes sense when we have known the dead places of heart, soul, mind and body. There can be no resurrection without some kind of death. So today, when we celebrate the culminating joy of our most sacred season of mystery and magnificence—the day when the stone has been rolled away and the tomb is empty—all of us belong to this story. Hallelujah. Hallelujah. Hallelujah.
Easter morning is a powerful crescendo for our faith. We mark today the power of resurrection and life. Jesus’ liberation over death, over lost dreams and hope, over separation from those whom he loved. Today is about LIFE and living. Nothing should be taken away from the importance and significance and beauty of this day. And yet, you know and I know from our life experiences that Easter is more of a journey than a destination. It is a process that happens as we move spiritually from the dead places in our lives to places of new life. As our text has said, this is the day that we mark the empty tomb, the empty tomb that heralds the miracle of resurrection. But I will say again, resurrection is more of a journey than it is a destination. The next few weeks and even months our faith narrative will continue to carry us through the unfolding drama of the risen Christ appearing to his disciples—on a beach cooking fish, in a locked room where fear hangs heavy in the air, on a dusty road paved with questions and doubts. Each time Christ attempts, even after his death and resurrection, to help the disciples grasp the meaning and power of the events of his life and his death and his resurrection.
And so as we mark this auspicious day in our faith narrative I want to spend some time thinking about how Easter morning with its empty tomb is a turning point—a quiet and almost overlooked moment of transformation and change that has begun but is almost missed by those closest to it. And lest we, like those early disciples, stand in danger of missing the empty tombs of our day, I want to tell the Easter story through the lens of three current day empty tombs in our own world. They serve as Easter stories for 2014!
The first story is of a man whose birth name is Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Born in Argentina on December 17, 1936 he was the eldest of five children of Mario Jose Bergoglio, an Italian immigrant accountant and Regina Maria Sivori, a housewife born in Buenos Aires to a family of northern Italian origin. Before going to seminary, Jorge worked as a nightclub bouncer, a janitor sweeping floors and as a chemical technician running tests in a chemical laboratory. In 1969, after completing seminary, he was ordained a Catholic priest. Throughout his public life, both as an individual and as a religious leader, he has been noted for his humility, his concern for the poor, and his commitment to dialogue as a way to build bridges between people of all backgrounds, beliefs and faiths. Today, we know this man as Pope Francis.
Pope Francis become the leader of the Catholic Church in a time of great unrest and decline, partly the result of sex abuse scandals by priests and the cover-up of those scandals by the Catholic Church along with biblical doctrines that many Catholic’s describe as alienating them from their faith and spiritual life. In February of this year, a writer for the Washington Post wrote citing a recent poll among Catholics that: “Most Catholics worldwide disagree with church teachings on divorce, abortion and contraception and are split on whether women and men should become priests…” Pope Francis’ response: he has chosen inclusive language, has played down the importance of following hierarchy and has warned against the church locking itself up “in small-minded rules.” Whenever and wherever he speaks, his message is one of forgiveness, inclusiveness, concern for the poor and marginalized and love of neighbor. He insists that the Catholic Church must shift its focus from identity-building to wider spiritual outreach—healing wounds and aiding “those who are most distant, who are forgotten, who are most in need of understanding, comfort and help.” He even called a rare “extraordinary synod” on “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family” in which he asked bishops to survey Catholics about their views of cohabitation, same-sex parenting and contraception, among other things.
What makes Pope Francis an Easter story? He is standing in an empty tomb. He has shown the courage to rise up out of dead places like ecclesiastical in-fighting over doctrine at the expense of feeding the poor and welcoming the stranger. Dead things like institutions that care more about power, privilege and domination than compassion, grace and justice-love. Dead things like one percent of the population hoarding wealth while many of the other ninety-nine percent are homeless and hungry. Pope Francis is standing not in a closed, somber, decaying tomb, but in an empty tomb, trying to move his institution to resurrection. Protestant churches and their religious leaders would do well to follow this bar bouncer turned Pope and declare too that the tomb is empty and the resurrected One is among the living. Hallelujah!
But there are more empty tombs. Last spring, many of us felt a kind of death as North Carolina passed Amendment One, banning same-sex marriages and civil unions. It felt, in those days and weeks after the vote that we had been dismissed and disrespected by our neighbors and our families, by our own. Then, on June 26, just over a month after North Carolina’s vote, the U.S. Supreme Court rolled away the stone, striking down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act (known as DOMA) in U.S. v. Windsor. Since then, 17 states, plus the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage. Recently, U.S. district courts in Utah, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Virginia, Texas, Michigan and Ohio have declared that state constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage violate the Constitution of the United States. We are not there yet, but make no mistake, the tomb is empty!
Before I tell this third and final Easter story, I want to remind us that on that original Easter morning, there was chaos and much fear. Yes, the tomb was empty, but the disciples assumed that Jesus’ body had been taken and defiled. They were so afraid that they hid for safety. Yes, the tomb was empty, but in the early moments and days, it was unclear that that meant resurrection. And so it is with empty tombs. In the moment, we may be afraid, we may feel despair, we may be very unsure of the outcome.
Empty tombs. Here in our own state there is a movement declaring that the tomb is empty. It is called Moral Mondays. There have been times in the past two years when I have despaired that our movement is not enough, that it cannot safeguard our people as we hoped it would, that it cannot undo the damage the legislature has done. No, we are not standing in a place of assured resurrection. And yet, each time we show up to protest, each time we march, each time we sing, we announce that the tomb is empty. That the love of Christ is let loose. That the resurrection has begun.
Barbara Brown Taylor, writer and preacher, writes about collecting cicada shells as a child. She says that she liked them because by hanging them on her sweater or—better yet—in her hair, she could usually get the prettier, more popular girls at school to run screaming away from her, which somehow evened the score. She also liked them because, in her words, “they were evidence that a miracle had occurred.” She writes: “They looked dead, but they weren’t. They were just shells. Every one of them had a neat slit down its back, where the living creature inside of it had escaped, pulling new legs, new eyes, new wings out of that dry brown body and taking flight. At night I could hear them singing their high song in the trees. If you had asked them, I’ll bet none of them could have told you where they left their old clothes.” She goes on to say, “That is all the disciples saw when they got to the tomb on that first morning—two piles of old clothes…and that is where so many of us continue to focus our energy: on that tomb, on that morning, on what did or did not happen there and how to explain it to anyone who does not happen to believe it too. Resurrection does not square with anything else we know about physical human life on earth. No one has ever seen it happen, which is why it helps to remember that no one saw it happen on [the first] Easter morning either.”
She concludes: “The tomb is just the cicada shell with the neat slit down its back. The living being that had once been inside of it was gone. The singing was going on somewhere else, which may be why Peter and the other disciple did not stay very long. Clearly, Jesus was not there…He had outgrown his tomb, which was too small for the resurrection. The risen one had people to see and things to do. The living one’s business was among the living, to whom he appeared not once but four more times in the Gospel of John. Every time he came to his friends they became stronger, wiser, kinder, more daring. And every time he came to them, they became more like him.”
Easter began the moment the gardener said, “Mary!” and she knew who he was. That is where the miracle happened and goes on happening—the tomb is empty! And we are called, not to stay there debating the details, but to venture through the empty tomb to encounter the living Lord. Barbara Brown Taylor is suggesting that we leave the tombs behind, that we shed them, escape them. That is great advice when we can. But we must not get discouraged when our place is at the door of the tomb declaring it empty. We are a people called to bear witness to the empty tombs, sometimes shedding them, sometimes walking through them, and always bearing witness to the living Christ—like Pope Francis, like 17 states in the U.S., like the Moral Monday movement. Our business is among the living. We must do the work of rolling away the stone and announcing the empty tombs in life while listening for the gardener calling out our names.