Sermon for Easter Sunday

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Grace to you and peace in the name of the risen One.

They had come to do right by the dead. They'd come to clean up the mess that death usually makes, certainly this death. They knew the blood would be everywhere, staining the linen cloth and the powdery, rough-hewn rock of the new tomb. There had been so many wounds, so much mess. Agony.

And they had been there, you know, those women. They'd stuck it out up on the hill and now and forever, they would remember every long minute, all the endless day of dying. To be honest, they were relieved when he died because it was so inevitable--death, that is--just go on and be done with it.

And now they'd come to do right by the dead. To clean up the mess. To array their pathetic weapons--some little spices and some liniments--against the stench. Because death stinks. And death always wins--soon, like with their friend and teacher, or late. Death wins.

No matter. They'd come to do right by the dead. Just like we would.

And so on the first day of the week--today--they trudge over to the tomb. And to their astonishment, they find the heavy stone rolled away. And before their weeping, round eyes, a young man sitting there pointing further in, deep into the tomb and nobody, NO BODY there. The tomb is empty. The tomb is empty and they are stricken with terror. They'd come to do right by the dead and what is this? They are appalled. He should be here and be dead. And, instead, the tomb is empty.

Now we all know there are all kinds of empty. All kinds. An empty sky when you're hoping for a picnic and an empty sky when you're parched for rain. There's an empty stomach when you struggling with a diet. And there's empty when you're struggling with no food.

There's an empty calendar when you have way too much to do and you're taking a yearn for a break from a busy schedule. And there's empty when you have nothing to do, no plans, and the days just stretch out and on and on into what seems like nothingness.

And then there is an empty room when you know somebody you love is on their way home. And there is a whole other kind of empty when you know they are not.

So, there are all kinds of empty and really an empty tomb, that doesn't sound like a good one. The women were seized with terror and who wouldn't be?

In my family and probably in yours, we cherish the places where we bury our dead. In my family, we bury high upon a bluff looking out over the Mississippi River. And we mark our tombs with words chiseled on stones and we plant our favorite flowers around the graves. And then we visit our dead under live oak trees, dripping with Spanish moss and glossy-leafed magnolias and twisted cinnamon-barked crepe myrtles. And we walk around and read the names. Lots of people I love--my father, my grandparents are buried there with their grandparents and their sisters and brothers and cousins and kin. And there's a solace in a visit to their graves, a grounding, a reality that you can understand and care for and make sense of. And, oh, an empty tomb there, that would be beyond unsettling. An empty tomb would be violation.

This past summer--a heartbreaking image during the floods from all those hurricanes battering the Carolinas. I watched the TV one night and to my horror there were caskets floating around the streets of one of the towns, lifted up out of the ground as the water soaked and pressured and flowed and ebbed and took with it everything--houses and cars, hogs and kittens, the future and the past--swept into a giant river of chaos, flooding through the countryside, leaving behind devastated people, shattered homes, empty tombs, which are, after all, the homes--the final resting places for our dead--are they not?

And yet, and yet when the young man points, and clearly he is a holy presence, when on that early morning so long ago, the young man points further into the tomb, he cries not in sorrow but in triumph, "The tomb is empty!" A cry of victory, not loss. A declaration of love. Not horror. Go and tell, "The tomb is empty."

Well. The women are terrified by the emptiness. They would have known what to do if death had been there. They'd have done right by the dead just like we would. But what do you do with an empty tomb? Mark says it was both awful and full of awe for them and they ran away and said nothing to anybody.

But, of course, they did.

Wherever you are today, you know they did, because here we are with the story told and retold and passed as a living treasure from friend to friend, from sister to brother, from father to daughter. On and on, told and retold, until now here we are and we know what they saw. The tomb was empty. He is risen! He goes ahead of us and we will see him. "Go," the angel says, "and tell."

All of them in the Bible story--the ones who saw the empty tomb--are dead now. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome. Dead and gone to their tombs and even their tombs lost now in the shrouds of time. And today either we retell a story about them that's a fairytale like "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" or we remember a truth, real and alive for them so long ago and real and alive for us right now, this day, this time, this place, this living, you and me.

And today, either we clutch a story about them that is just the fabrication of desperate, fearful people wishing death away, or today is the day you can stop counting your losses. And today either we follow in a 2,000-year-old procession of fools or today is the day to begin believing in miracles, because today either we retell a story that finally is alive or today is the day after death has done its worst, and life wins.

And so today is the day to stop trying to do right by the dead. Instead, just rejoice and do right by your living. Help somebody who's hurting. Open eyes of love for someone who is blind. Free a captive. Heal a wound. Feed someone who is so hungry. Give your gifts of love--you have some, you know--and your gifts were bought with a price. And now--today--is a good day to rejoice and give your gifts and love somebody alive.

For you can rejoice and not grieve. Your dead are not at home in the tomb. They are alive in the deep heart of God. That is the sure and certain hope given to us this day in the risen Christ. And so today is the day to stop being afraid to die. Today is the day love is stronger than death. Today is the day Christ has burst his three-day prison. The tomb is empty. He is risen. Our Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia. Alleluia. Amen.

Let us pray.

O God whose Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, triumphed over the powers of death and prepared for us our place in the new Jerusalem, grant that we who have this day given thanks for his resurrection may praise you in that city of which he is the light and where he lives and reigns forever and ever. Amen.

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