Empty Tombs, Empty Sanctuaries

An Easter sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

April 12, 2020

Mark 16:1-8

The sun was rising, and the details of the world were coming into focus as light dawned on a new day, plants turning from monochromatic shades to vibrant green, the dew reflecting like diamonds; lumpy shadows on the path solidifying into rocks and stones; scary unknown predators at the side of the road morphing into the mailboxes, shrubs, and parked cars they had always been in the light of day.

And it was a new day. The beginning of a new week. And the women really needed something new.

When they were walking to the tomb that morning, as light dawned on a weary world, I wonder about their conversation about rolling away the tombstone.
Were they regretting the decision not to wake up some of the burlier disciples so they could be the muscle for the job?

Or were their concerns more along the lines of “great. Another tombstone to move. Another one of our loved ones. Dead. Another person to mourn. Another friend killed by the Romans. We thought it was going to be different this time.”

Biblical scholar Ched Myers asks: “Is there not in this anguished question an echo of Sisyphean tragedy?” (Ched Myers, et al “Say to this Mountain” Mark’s Story of Discipleship)

Are the women feeling as helpless as Sisyphus? For those of you who don’t remember your Greek Mythology, to atone for his hubris, Sisyphus’ eternal punishment was heavy labor, pushing a large stone up a hill every day, only to have it roll back down. No progress made. No change to believe in.

Are the women feeling as helpless as Sisyphus? Are they feeling that their work is futile and never leads to change or any good news? With their rabbi dead, were their hopes dead too?

I can think of lots of people who feel that kind of hopelessness in our world. This year, especially, I understand the early morning nature of Easter better in this empty sanctuary than I do with our usual triumphal celebrations. Don’t get me wrong, I’m ready to return to worshiping together in our sanctuary, with all the hoopla and celebration. And we will. And it will be great.

A seminary professor of mine, Bill Brown, wrote this week: 
“Christ’s Resurrection did not begin (or end) with large gatherings of Christians accompanied by choirs and organ blasts. It began with an “empty tomb” and three fearful women—a tomb emptied of death. This is the Easter to ponder such emptiness, to linger over it, indeed, to revel in it. This is the Easter to let our sanctuaries and chancels, our narthexes and choir lofts, remain utterly empty, not in despair but in testimony that lives are being saved in doing so.”

I’m grateful for the reminder that our isolated, lonely, ‘exile for the good of the realm’ fears and anxieties are also in the Easter story, written right into the text. People were hiding in their homes, afraid of the Romans, rather than of contagion. The women in Mark’s gospel represent us, stumbling in the darkness, heading toward who knows what, determined to respond as faithfully as possible, aware there are risks, even if we aren’t fully sure what they are.

I wonder if the women were feeling the weight of that emptiness as they walked to the tomb that morning. They had hoped Jesus was the one who would save them from the weight of Roman oppression. They had hoped he was ushering in a new world. Instead they had seen his body, broken on the cross.
Dreams dead, crushed in sisyphean ways.

‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’

When they looked up, they saw the stone was gone, already taken care of. The weight that was impossible for them to handle was gone. In the growing light of the early morning, the women see an open space where they might have expected obstacle.

The women entered the empty tomb, ready to anoint the body of their teacher. How could they possibly have been ready for what was waiting for them?

Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’

We’re told their response to the young man in white’s instructions was that they ‘fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.’

I contend this is the truest true statement in the Bible. There’s no sugar coating here. There’s not a sense that our first response to the resurrection should be a simple, calm happiness, or even celebration.

Terror and amazement seized the women—it grabbed hold of their collars and pulled them off their feet. Imagine those moments in your life when you have felt like that, unable to control your body’s response to news you received.

The first times Alden, and later, Elliott, drove off in the car, a newly minted driver’s license in hand. I held it together while they were out on the road. It was only when the car safely pulled up in front of the house that I started shaking, my body’s way to disperse all of the fear, worry, and anxiety I’d been holding. Anxiety and relief seized me.

When a loved one makes it through a dangerous surgery.

Or when they don’t.

In those empty tomb kind of moments, time moves at a different pace as our minds and hearts imagine a million different scenarios we hadn’t needed to consider before. Our world is living through an empty tomb moment right now. I trust I’m not the only one having trouble sleeping, as generalized worry pervades everything.

And God’s messenger reminds us not to be alarmed.

With all apologies to God’s messengers who greet us at empty tombs, a simple message not to be alarmed has never once helped anyone stop being alarmed.

When our bodies face news of such magnitude—for good or bad—and when our mind can’t keep up with what our eyes are seeing or what our ears are hearing—it is then that terror and amazement seize us, stopping us in our tracks,  so we have time to process.

However terror and amazement have grabbed hold of you lately, I won’t tell you to pretend it hasn’t happened.

But I note that Mark ends the story in that exact moment, when the women flee in their terror. And that’s actually been helpful to me this Holy Week, full of bad news from around the world.

God has rolled away the stone. Jesus is not in the tomb. Resurrection, and the hope of it, has been ushered into the world in ways that require us to see and hear things in new ways, understanding things we’ve not had to face before. Light dawns on a weary world.

And our story is not scripted. The women thought they were going to anoint a dead body, but faced a different situation when they walked in to the tomb. I find it a hopeful reminder that in this time when our old scripts no longer fit the story we’re in, that God is ahead of us, writing a new story. God is rolling stones away from the tombs of our lives in ways we cannot control or predict.

And we, together, in these weird days of pandemic and disruption, become the body of Christ for the world, witnessing to the resurrection.

When the women fled the tomb, seized with terror and amazement, I hope they tossed the burial spices off into the shrubs, light beginning to dawn on them that they showed up to Easter with the wrong tools. Or I hope they wondered if they could maybe repurpose those spices and grave clothes, maybe making face masks as so many of you have done, or binding the wounds of the world, providing comfort and solace to people in pain, beginning the slow hard work of resurrection.
Ched Myers writes:
“Resurrection is gratuitous—a pure, unearned gift of God. It is the ultimate test of and the only hope for a disciple’s faith. At the same time, we are called to eke out resurrection bit by bit, step by step on the Way. Sometimes our experience of resurrection is glorious and clear. But most often it is the fruit of long, painful labor—birthed, but needing nurture.” (p 209 Say to this Mountain)

The rolling away of the stone is a job bigger than any one of us can do alone.. As we move through this pandemic, there will be lots of stones in need of our collective rolling away efforts. Whatever it looks like on the other side of this contagion, we have an opportunity to rebuild society in more just and equitable ways, rolling away stones of oppression and inequality. If we faithfully show up to the tombs, God will do the heavy lifting.

Episcopal priest Broderick Greer reminds us: “We are resurrection scouts: people claimed and loved by God, invited to mark and point toward surprising moments of beauty and resurrection.”

We cannot force people to trust in resurrection, but we can point people away from the tombs that wound their lives.

Pastor and poet Jan Richardson writes:
If you are looking
for a blessing,
do not linger

is only
a hollow,
a husk
where a blessing
used to be.

This blessing
was not content
in its confinement.

It could not abide
its isolation,
the unrelenting silence,
the pressing stench
of death.

So if it is
a blessing
you seek,
open your own

Fill your lungs
with the air
this new
morning brings

and then
release it
with a cry.

Hear how the blessing
breaks forth
in your own voice,

how your own lips
form every word
you never dreamed
to say.

See how the blessing
circles back again,
wanting you to
repeat it,
but louder,

how it draws you,
pulls you,
sends you
to proclaim
its only word:

(© Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com.
from Circle of Grace)

We’ll gather in person before long and will celebrate resurrection as reunion, as a big ol’ party with baptisms and communion, and all kinds of food. It will be a foretaste of glory divine, as the song goes.

And until then, we’ll look for resurrection in smaller moments and simple gifts.

May this Easter be full of unexpected blessing, reminders of God’s movement in the world, and hope for brighter tomorrows.

In all of it, we’ll proclaim Easter’s blessing in empty spaces.

One thought on “Empty Tombs, Empty Sanctuaries

  1. Pingback: Second Endings | Glass Overflowing

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