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My granddad always said our family had Canadian roots, but we didn't know the details. So last autumn I wondered into a quaint cemetery aside a country church in rural Ontario. Engraved deep within a weathered and moss-grown stone were words, words my family had long forgotten: the names of my great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother. William Murray. Eliza.
My curiosity roamed. Who had they been? Had they danced together? Had his hands trembled when he proposed to her? Did she brush her hair in a Victorian mirror before bedtime? They must have been Christian, I thought. After all, here they lie in a church graveyard, and two of their sons became ministers.
Who were these people whose blood and faith flow still through my veins and why is it their very names teeter on the brink of extinction?
I was suddenly humbled-saddened, if I'm truthful. I thought--how long will I be remembered, how long before I'm forgotten? Presidents and poets enter posterity, but they're few, and I'm not among them. Maybe you're not either.
How long will you be remembered? A century from now, will some descendant with a strange curiosity and a bit of time on his hands pluck your name again from amidst the other millions of names lost otherwise to memory?
Stacy Horn not long ago wrote an essay about the dignity of being buried in a Potter's Field. You remember what a Potter's Field is. In Matthew's gospel, Judas is horrified at himself after selling Jesus out. He can't wait to get rid of his blood money, so he throws it into the temple. The priests use the money, tainted as it is, to buy a field from a potter, and they make the field into a cemetery for, as Horn describes them, "the poor, the unclaimed, the unidentified."
Well, New York City has had a Potter's Field since 1869; and since then, you'll never guess how many people have died in that city with neither family nor money. Potter's Field contains the remains of 750,000 people, nameless, faceless, perhaps completely forgotten, human beings. And the city adds 1,500 to 3,000 every year. (Stacy Horn, "Potter's Field," National Public Radio/All Things Considered, aired July 25, 2001)
So far, I've taken you to two cemeteries, a country graveyard in Ontario and to New York's Potter's Field. You may be thinking, "It's Easter. Why is the preacher going on about death? Isn't Easter about life and resurrection and triumph?" Well, you're right, of course. Easter is about these things. And, yet, if we are to absorb Easter's full joy, we must also understand what we're up against. We cannot understand how tall God is until we understand how far God has knelt to be with us. You see, death is real. Death is our enemy.
Every Sunday many congregations remind themselves of this reality just as they complete reading the scripture lessons. They say, "The grass withers and the flower fades." Well, we fade too. We wither and we die. Not long ago, on Ash Wednesday, many of you attended worship services which reminded you that we are "dust and to dust we shall return."
We don't like that. So, in our culture we avert our eyes from death. Not 100 years ago we died in our family homes, surrounded by loved ones. Neighbors would gather as the body lay in state in the home. Children would see death, be included in the rituals of death.
Now, most of us die in hospitals or nursing homes away from loved ones. Uniformed people we likely do not know take our bodies away. Family members might view our body only later, skillfully masked by morticians. "Oh, they've made her look so alive."
Often, we don't even use the word death anymore. We use euphemisms like "deceased" or "passed away" or "gone home." Many newspapers have stopped printing obituaries in favor of something called "in transition." Death is no longer real enough even to headline the obituaries.
I am routinely told by 30-somethings and 40-somethings that "This is the first funeral I've ever been to." It's as if our entire culture has seen one too many episodes of "The Roadrunner" cartoon. Wylie E. falls off that cliff and slams a coyote-shaped hole in the earth and, still, he picks himself up good as new. Nothing to worry about. Death is not real.
From the make-believe world of violent movies to the institutional way we have come to die, we have not given death its due. We have segmented death, cordoned it off, dealt with it by not dealing with it.
And, yet, if resurrection is to make sense to us, we must look at death. Because death is real. The Bible says that death is the enemy. There is nothing intrinsically immortal about us. We will die, and most of us will be forgotten in due time.
Jesus died too. He was really dead. He had slipped into no Rip Van Winkle coma. His heart no longer beat. His lungs filled not with air. His body was prepared for burial by people far more accustomed to seeing death than we are; they knew what they were talking about. Jesus was dead. No pastoral lie could cover the truth. No well-meaning euphemism could salve the wound. At that moment, Jesus did not live on "in the hearts of his disciples." He would not be with them forever because of their naïve vows "never to forget." Jesus was dead. It was finished. Party over. Last one out, get the lights.
So come with me now to yet another burial place. A tomb stands in the distance. Jesus is laid in it. At least Pilate had allowed the dignity of a proper burial. Joseph of Arimathea took the body and laid it in that tomb, there, just over there. Wait, who is that? It's Peter, running with another man. We recognize him, but we can't recall his name. They run to the tomb and peer in. They seem stunned, even confused. The body is not there!? The cloth that had been on Jesus' head-it has been rolled up and set aside. And Peter and the other disciples believe, but what are they to believe? They stumble away, somewhat unsure of what to make of all this.
And Mary--Mary is here too. She sits in the utter exhaustion of loving the Lord with her everything only to have been let down, taken for a ride. It's not true, she thinks. This message of love and grace and of God's consuming passion for the people has gotten itself killed by the world's cruelty and callousness. Just when she thinks she has seen God, he evaporates like a mirage into the midst of self-delusion. But now she must try to forget, even as she has been forgotten.
Someone approaches her. Who is it-the gardener? He asks Mary, "Why are you crying? Who are you looking for?" which is after all a pretty logical question to ask a weeping woman in a graveyard. Mary, assuming the worst, blurts out at him, "Look, mister, if you've taken the body, the least you can do is tell me where you've put him."
He responds-this man. Quietly, gently, he says, "Mary." Jesus recognizes her even from the other side of death. He calls her by name. And Mary crumbles in thankful emotion and praise.
"Rabbouni," she says, "Rabbouni."
You see, the world may forget, but God in Christ always remembers us, knows us by name.
We talk about death on Easter precisely because we Christians know what is more real, most authentic, and it's not death. Some wag commented once that there are only two sure things in life: death and taxes. Well, he was wrong! Taxes are the only sure thing now because death has been defeated! Christ is victorious! In Jesus of Nazareth, as Huston Smith points out, God deals with the chief dilemmas of human life: the anxiety of our guilt and the fear of our death!
Frederick Buechner, in his memoir The Eyes of the Heart, writes about an imaginary conversation with his long-dead grandmother Naya. And they speak about death.
Naya says, "When someone once asked your Uncle Jim if some friend or other had passed away, he answered in his inimitable fashion by saying, 'Passed away? Good God, he's dead.' And I know just how he felt. I always thought passed away was a silly way of putting it..."
Naya continued, "It is the world that passes away," and flutters one hand delicately through the air to show the manner of its passing. (Frederick Buchner, The Eyes of the Heart: a memoir of the lost and found, New York: Harper Collins.)
It's the world that is passing away. God gives us that infinite gift in Christ's death and resurrection. God invites us to leave behind the world's self-importance, to escape the ultimate delusion that what matters most is living in the world, being remembered by the world. Turns out, that in the grand scheme of things, the world isn't permanent at all. It is passing away. God's faithful are bound for what most matters, for what truly lasts.
We have visited three cemeteries so far-in Ontario, New York and in first-century Palestine. Let's drop in on just one more.
Several years ago I visited the Little Big Horn, site of Custer's infamous Last Stand. It is a terrible and amazing, heart-breaking, and awe-inspiring place, wonderful and horrible simultaneously. It's like life in that way, full of contradictions, irresolvable tensions.
On that painful day in 1876, with his arrogance and bravado, Custer led five companies of his own men to their slaughter. Six generations have come and gone since, and those who fought there on both sides are now largely forgotten. At least, they are mostly forgotten as individuals, and yet they are remembered on the battlefield itself. You see, the battlefield is littered with white headstones marking the very spots of their individual deaths. After the dust cleared that violent day, the Native Americans collected their dead and burned their bodies on the scene, as was their custom.
The slain soldiers of the 7th Cavalry, however, lay unprotected to the weather for some days before army reinforcements arrived to bury their bodies. The reinforcements were in a rush, though. They were charged to pursue the military campaign, after all. So they hurriedly buried their fallen comrades in shallow graves, intending that later the army would send the necessary manpower to unearth their bones and give them a more proper burial. But how in such a hurry, could they mark these shallow graves? How could they assure that their dead comrades would be remembered by name?
The hurried soldiers scribbled the names of the fallen on small pieces of paper and they folded them. And next they stuffed the names into spent shell casings. And then they made crosses from the abandoned teepee lumber of the Indian camp. And, finally, at the head of each shallow grave, they thrust the shell casings deep into the ground with the points of their makeshift crosses.
I was impressed by these savvy efforts to preserve and remember the names of the fallen. I marveled that the 7th Cavalry went to such lengths to remember the names of the dead and how, ironically, six generations later those names mean so little to all but a few.
Remember the 7th Cavalry.
Now, recall Calvary. It was on Mount Calvary that Jesus died.
And your name is written at the bottom of the cross.
Jesus calls you by name from even the other side of death.
Jesus remembers other names, too, and calls those names out as well. And you will know these names.
Hello, Mary. Hello, Apostle Paul. Hello, Aquinas and Augustine, Calvin and Luther. Hello, William Murray, and top of the day to you, too, Eliza. Hello, Bob and Jan and Brittany and Beatrice and legions of family and Christian family members from before.
And, oh, hello Jesus.
"I have seen the Lord."
Will you pray with me?
O living Christ, you danced on your grave and now you call us to that dance, even by our names. Fill us with the infinite joy of your resurrection that we may be resurrection people to this world even as it passes away. Amen.
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