Sermon by Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
First Congregational UCC, Manhattan, KS
March 27, 2016 - Easter Sunday
Sermon Text – Luke 24:1-12
Earlier this week, I was working in my office and needed to run upstairs to get something out of the Conference Room. I was working alone in the building that afternoon and as I stood up to leave my office, I had an instinct to grab my phone and take it with me. And then I had a little argument with myself:
“That’s dumb. You don’t need your phone. You’re just running upstairs.”
“But what if something bad happens while you’re upstairs? You might need it. I mean, what if an earthquake happens…or the boiler explodes…or your kids’ school calls because something happened to them…or….?”
“Okay, no, seriously. That’s ridiculous. Don’t take your phone.”
So I didn’t. And I returned from the second floor unscathed. Whew.
It took me a lot of years to discover that my internal, almost-constant monologue about worst-case-scenarios is not necessarily a normative experience. It’s the way my brain is hard-wired. Thankfully, with the help of great therapists, I’ve been able to learn to cope with and control my anxiety.
But even for people who don’t struggle with serious anxiety, the world can be a scary place. I’m not going to do my typical from-the-pulpit laundry list of all the horrible things going on in the world today....because it's Easter. Instead, I’m just going to let you silently ponder your own for minute. Get in touch with your own sense of just how messed up our world seems these days.
Whether you were contemplating global or local issues – things affecting our entire planet or just your little corner of the world – I’m guessing all of us have things that have us worried or scared, anxious or on-edge.
I wonder how the women felt that first Easter morning as they went to the tomb. Can you see the parade in your mind’s eye? Last week we gathered in this sanctuary and we waved our palms. The rocks cried out. The children raised their voices, “Hosanna! Save us!”
But this week it’s a very different parade. We, who try to follow in the Way of Jesus, have had quite a journey this week. And after all the whispered plans, the cries of acclamation and disgust, the back-room dealings, the ugly scene at Golgotha….here we are. Still.
And this morning there’s another parade. This time it’s much smaller. Just the women. We’re not sure how many women, but in Luke’s gospel three are named – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James – and Luke refers to the “other women” with them. So it seems there are at least five women making the solemn procession.
Here they come - early to the tomb. They are carrying with them their supplies – spices carefully prepared for taking care of their friend’s body. Did they feel sad? Scared? Tired? Angry? Hopeless? Resigned? We don’t know. We aren’t told.
But here they come – right into the eye of the storm.
It’s been a week of chaos. The destructive forces of evil unleashed in Jerusalem. The warnings from Jesus were clear – he told them and told them that things wouldn’t end well. But they were all surprised, I think, at just how ugly the forces of hate and suppression and oppression can be.
As the winds die down and the storm rests for a bit, the women come in the quiet of the morning to the tomb. Why do they do it? Well, duty I suppose. I mean, I doubt that anyone relishes the idea of anointing a dead body, but someone’s gotta do it. And it’s likely easier done with friends.
So here come the women – five or more of them – in their quieter parade. They walk straight into the aftermath of the Mess of death, ready to do the work that must be done.
Only….not. Because there is no body to be found. That giant heavy stone is gone and the tomb is empty. And suddenly, before they even have time to come up with any theories about what’s going on, two shiny, gleaming men appear to chastise them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.”
They say this like it makes any sense at all. What are shiny men-angels always so confident and confounding? Don’t they know the dead are supposed to stay dead? Come on. Everyone knows that.
I’m not gonna lie. I’m a little annoyed that the women are chastised. I mean, of course they’re looking for the dead among the dead. That’s how it works. Bodies don’t live again after they’ve died. Duh.
This is, of course, why everyone thought the women were full of a bunch of hogwash. That’s a fancy translation from the Greek word for “idle tale”: hogwash. One of my favorite preachers, Anna Carter Florence, translates it a slightly different way but I can’t bring myself to tell you her translation from the pulpit. She says that Greek word, leros, is more directly translated as an impolite word quite similar to cow manure.
So that’s what the menfolk say. That these women are full of leros - hogwash – cow manure. The dead stay dead. It doesn’t make sense to look for the living among the dead because the dead won’t be alive – they’ll be dead.
Might I pause for a moment and note that you may be in utter agreement with the menfolk. I wouldn’t blame you if you were. I, personally, have never seen a dead person become un-dead. I get it.
But this story – this wild hogwash-tastic story that is at the center of my faith – confronts me again as it does each year. The winds of this powerful gospel-storm knock me off my feet once again and I am breathless with uncertainty and doubt. Because – what if? What if it’s somehow true? What if death isn’t the end? What if there is More?
Honestly, though, wouldn’t it somehow be all so much simpler if we could tidy things up a bit? What if empires played nice and behaved reasonably? What if politicians didn’t spend so much time worrying about who uses which bathroom and, instead, funded our schools? What if corporations could be trusted to always have our best interests at heart? What if we each felt certain there was enough to go around and everyone had enough to share? What if our biggest problem was forgetting to get the trash to the curb in time for morning pick up?
That would be nice. But that doesn’t seem to be the world most of us live in. And it’s not the world these women lived in, either.
I wonder if there’s something about being keenly aware of the Mess that makes the More seem plausible. When you’ve stared death in the face. When you’ve seen evil on the nightly news – or in person – and recognized it for what it is….I wonder if confronting the Mess somehow opens your heart to the possibility of More? I’m not sure.
What I do know is that this is a messy story. I assume that’s why we have at least four different versions of it in our holy texts. Everything’s a bit out of control. And these women have been in the thick of it. They were there as Jesus walked to Golgotha. They were there at the cross as he was executed. And they made their solemn parade to the tomb early on that first Easter morning. They had seen the Mess – walked with Jesus right into the storm head on. They were willing to look right into the eyes of the dead among the dead. They did not flinch.
Peter, too, had seen some Mess. After all, it was Peter who denied Christ three times – most likely out of a desire to save his own hide. And after he had done so, he wept bitterly. He knew what the Mess looked like. He was mired knee-deep in the Mess. He didn’t have to look any further than the closest mirror to see Mess.
But Peter – “But Peter!” – says the author of Luke. “But Peter got up and ran to the tomb.”
While the other disciples stood there so sure, mansplaining the women, chastising them for their idle tale…Peter was curious. He went to see for himself. I have to wonder if there was something about his own experience of looking right into the eye of that Messy storm of his own soul that made Peter willing to suspend all common sense for a moment and reach out for the impossible.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”
Well, probably they weren’t really looking for the living among the dead at all. Probably, the women were just going about their business – trying to slog through the Mess of evil and its aftermath and they got accidentally caught in the middle of the More.
What if showing up for the Mess and its aftermath matters? What if God is in the middle of the Mess and invites us wade into it, too? What if showing up for the Mess is how we find the More?
Easter is a big story. A Messy story. A story that cannot be contained on this one day – thank God Almighty for that.
The spirit of Easter – the More beyond the Mess - lives on today in you and in me. Easter is the impossibility of life from death; triumph from tragedy; love in the midst of hate; hope in the midst of terror.
It may be just the Messy story we need today as we allow ourselves to journey into the More of Resurrection Hope together.