Sunday, April 4, 2010

Why Do You Look?

Why Do You Look?1

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Easter Day, April 4, 2010

Luke 24:1-12

Why do you look for the living
among the dead? NRSV

Brothers and sisters in Christ, grace and peace to you all in the name of our risen Lord, and in the name of all who continue to live in amazement at what had happened on that first day of the week at early dawn. The world is always baffled at the power of that empty tomb. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” That was the question of the two messengers at the tomb. And that is the way Easter began, not on a note of triumph and hope, but with a graveyard death-watch of the faithful at early dawn. “When the women came back from the cemetery on Easter morning, they brought with them word of an empty tomb and astonishing news: ‘He is not here but has risen!’ All Christian preaching begins here.”2

Burial spices in hand, the women came to the graveyard at early dawn – the Greek modifier translated as “early” literally means “deep” – “deep dawn,” that opaque and mysterious time in the crack between night and day. They came to observe the traditional practice of anointing the lifeless, decaying body of someone they loved to keep it from smelling bad. It isn't a very pretty image. Death never is. No one expected the tomb to be empty. No one expected that oblique promises of a resurrection would be real. Surely not the disciples, who stayed in hiding that morning, back at the Jerusalem bed and breakfast. Like the Emmaus Road travelers in the story immediately following this one in Luke’s gospel, the disciples were “slow of heart to believe.” There was no trumpet fanfare to sound a note of triumph over death when the women came upon the tomb, no chorus of heavenly angels heralding the event and calling nearby shepherds to come and take note. Just that haunting question – from two men standing beside them in day-glow outfits in the graveyard – to the women who came, anticipating no miracle, no surprises: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Why do you? Why do we?

“History,” it’s often been said, “is just news from a graveyard.” That’s a rather cynical way of putting it, of course, and it does capture a jaded world’s willful and death-denying blindness to the past, reflecting the myopia of those who live as though the world began when they were born and will cease to exist when they are gone. But the phrase is also a memorable description of Easter. And, odd as it often strikes us, this is what you and I have to proclaim to the world on Easter: News from a graveyard.

He is not here, but has risen. Risen as he said! While there follows no immediate, joyful exclamation, no hallelujahs, no angel trumpeters, there is something with which you and I – modern people that we are – can relate: surprise, fear, skepticism, and doubt. But as inheritors of the memory of this promise, believers are granted new eyes with which to see the world. You and I will always be among those who seek the living among the dead; because of our life in Christ we simply see the world differently than those for whom the world remains stuck on Good Friday. Most often we see the world differently because we want to change what we see. And by the grace of God, we do.

A little over twenty years ago now a book was published that carried the title Morning-Glory Babies3. It contained the story of a community of Christians who took up a ministry with babies infected with the AIDS virus. The author wrote, “From the perspective of the media, death is the essence of the story about our children. ‘A Moment of Sunshine in the Shadow of Death,’ was a typical headline from newspaper stories about us. Upon finishing a story about the arrival of a baby girl named Melissa, one television producer asked if his network could have an exclusive on ‘The End of the Story.’”

The end of the story. That is the way the world sees it, when they bother to look. But the founder of that AIDS ministry saw things through Easter-eyes. And he wrote of his deep frustration: “For me, ‘the story’ is that Melissa is beginning to walk, or that she sings duets with little David in an unknown language only babies understand.” That is the story for those who seek the living among the dead. He is not here, but has risen. Risen as he said! And it is the memory of that promise that gives us new eyes to see the world, even if what we do see is profoundly disturbing.

And it is. The intention of Easter is not to help us repress and suppress all the tragic and bad things that can overwhelm us, the purpose of Easter is to give us courage to face them. We may face them, we may enter the darkness, because we do not have to face them alone. The darkness is inhabited now. That is what those faithful women discovered at the empty tomb. And they left the tomb enabled to see the world through new eyes. Because, all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, the one who is really in charge of the drama of history is that same one who is now One with the victims of history: the despised and rejected, the cast-off and neglected, the undervalued and ignored, which, in the final analysis, includes all of us in one way or another, whether we perceive it or not.

What you and I know of the world, what you and I see in the world is often profoundly disturbing. But what we see in the cross of Christ is God’s abiding commitment to this world; a cross that invites everyone of us to be just as committed to it. But beyond the cross, and confronted with the resurrection, you and I live with God’s determination to change the world as it is.

This is where the faith of Easter departs from mere optimism: that every cloud has a silver lining or our culture’s sentimental substitute of flowers that bloom every spring for the Bible’s declarations about resurrection from something really and truly dead. That is not what we are about at Easter, because there is a resounding presupposition behind what we proclaim when we say: “Jesus Christ is risen.” And the presupposition is this: that the work of that One who revealed his purpose in his first sermon at Nazareth, quoting words from the Old Testament prophets about healing and liberation, that work continues unabated from that time to this. It has not been silenced by the powers of death; it is going on. The resurrection is about God’s determination to change the world, as it is.

And the reason that’s the best news the world has ever heard is because you and I have been drawn into it. There is a job for us to do in a business that has no unemployment index. Maybe you’re not sure you can do the job if you take it. But I can promise you that you will be granted what you do not, by nature, possess: the determination, imagination and daring to participate in that work; to become stewards of life in the kingdom of death. Why else do you look for the living among the dead?

And we know it is that, don’t we? When the lilies are distributed all over town to shut-ins and grieving people, when carillons stop ringing the tune to “Jesus Christ is Risen Today,” when Easter day is done, racism will still be rampant in our world. The poor will still suffer. Assault rifles will still be selling like hotcakes. The homeless will still be without shelter. The emergency rooms will continue on as beehives of activity. Children will carry on breaking their parents’ hearts, and parents will persist in letting their children down. Healing and liberation will still be needed, because God is still determined to change the world as it is. And if we decide to be employed in this work, we will be found among those who seek the living among the dead, because God’s determination to change the world doesn’t go anywhere unless we do.

You and I don't have to produce blueprints for an ideal world in order to know where God’s life-giving energies need to be directed for healing and liberation. We simply need to look at the world as it is and see this world of ours through the lens of Easter; see the world as stewards of life in a kingdom of death. And when we do, we know where God’s compassion and commitment to change direct us.

Henri Nouwen, spiritual father to a whole generation of preachers, once wrote,

“The resurrection is God’s way of revealing to us that nothing that belongs to God will ever go to waste. What belongs to God will never get lost. The resurrection doesn’t answer any of our common questions about life after death such as: “How will it be? How will it look?” But it does reveal to us that love is stronger than death. God’s love for us, our love for each other, and our love for those who lived before and will live after us is not just a quickly passing experience, but a reality transcending all time and space.”4

Possibly you have seen or read these figures that tell us if the entire world population consisted of only 100 people:

67 would be poor
55 of them would have an annual income of less than $600.00
50 of them would be homeless or live in substandard housing
50 would be without adequate, safe drinking water
47 would be illiterate
35 would be hungry or malnourished
6 would be Americans, and would hold 33% of the world's income
1 would have a college education

More often than not, figures like these are mentioned to make some sort of case for our guilt by association. But in God’s eyes, it isn’t a matter of guilt. It’s a matter of grace. They are merely a cross-index for liberation and healing; directing the resources of healing where they are needed. Deploying the energy and love that is essential for liberation ... where it will make a difference, where “nothing that belongs to God will ever go to waste.”

And you and I are drawn into that work because the best news in the world is always news from a graveyard; good news about the universe, and about God. And as we find ourselves drawn to seek the living in this world of ours, we come to know something unique about who God has created and loved in this world.

For this world is not an orphan asylum hurled through endless space. We are travelers here, knocking on the door of the universe, asking, “Is anybody there?” And our Easter faith answers that question. “There is somebody there. The darkness is inhabited. Now... and forever.”

My sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you all from our risen Lord. For he is not here, but has risen. Risen as he said!

Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

I owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. George Chorba for seminal ideas in this sermon.
“Empty Tomb, Empty Talk,” by Tom Long, Christian Century, April 4, 2001, p. 11.
Morning-Glory Babies: Children with Aids and the Celebration of Life, by Tolbert McCarroll, St. Martins Press, 1988.
Our Greatest Gift, by Henri Nouwen.