An Empty Tomb, Fearful Women: The Resurrection: A Sermon for the Great Vigil of Easter, Year B

April 7, 2012

A few days ago, I was walking on Capitol Square. It was a beautiful day, warm, sunny, the crabapples almost in bloom. I looked up and across the square and saw in front of me two familiar buildings—the State Capitol and next to it, the steeple of Grace Church. As I looked, I was reminded of the history of those two buildings, of their long presence next to each other, of the visions of their builders to create and shape a vision of a certain kind of society and polity. I thought, too, of their intertwined history, the men who in the nineteenth century wielded power in both places—Fairchilds, Vilases, et al. From a distance, both church and capitol look solid, secure, built for the ages.And yet. Then I thought of the present state of both of those institutions Grace Church, the Church overall, and the Capitol, all that it has seen over the last fourteen months. In some sense both institutions, church and state, are in crisis, with a loss of faith in institutions, a loss of our way.

I’ve cited the statistics before, but they are worth repeating—more Americans than ever before identify themselves as non-religious. It’s over 10%, even higher among young adults. The Episcopal Church has seen a decline of some 20% in attendance over the last decade. Religion, Christianity, the Episcopal Church are in decline.

I don’t need to cite statistics about our civil society. We are bombarded in this state and nationwide with evidence about the immense problems facing us as a nation, and apparent unwillingness to address most of the problems in any meaningful way. It’s just as bad on the global scene.

We know things are wrong in our culture, in religion and in our wider civil society. I’m not sure any of us know how to make things right, how to cast a vision for a way forward, either for religious communities or for our common weal.

For all the beauty, power and permanence that are projected by these two buildings, by the beauty of Grace Church and the inspiring presence of the State Capitol, there is a stark question facing us. How will the society and communities these buildings represent, will live into the future? What lies ahead for them, what lies within them? What life and vitality will emerge from them in the coming years or decades?

On the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome made their way to the tomb. They worried how they might enter it to perform the accustomed rituals, but they knew what lay within. They had watched Joseph of Arimathea and others lay Jesus’ body in it, the day before. They expected to do their duty, to anoint Jesus’ body, and undoubtedly, to weep and mourn at his death.

Instead, they found the tomb empty, and received the good news that Christ had risen. And what did they do? They fled, in fear and amazement, and told nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

With these words, Mark’s gospel ends, the first gospel. It is an ending that has puzzled readers for twenty centuries, puzzled us so much that quite early on some scribe decided to fix it, providing the ending we all want, stories of Jesus appearing to his disciples. Even if we find the resurrection hard to believe, we find it even harder to understand why Mark would have told the story this way, with the women fleeing from the tomb, in terror and amazement, and keeping silent about what they had seen.

Why were they afraid? Why are we afraid? They came to the tomb knowing precisely what to expect, knowing what they would find. Instead, their expectations, their world, yes, their faith, all of it was shattered. Their world was turned upside-down in a moment, and they didn’t know what to do.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there. Mark doesn’t tell it that way because he doesn’t know about the resurrection. He tells it that way because for him, the truth of the Gospel lies there. Throughout the gospel, Jesus has been somewhat mysterious. His disciples don’t understand him; often, they get him completely wrong. Demons recognize, the centurion who executes him identifies him as the Son of God, but his closest companions seem not to get it. There’s irony, mystery, paradox here. And most dramatic of all, there is Jesus’ own cry from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We are left to wonder what it all means. We are left to wonder, is Jesus the Christ?

The resurrection is supposed to answer that question finally, convincingly, irrevocably. But instead, we get the empty tomb, with its ambiguous evidence and the testimony of a “young man:” “He is not here, he is risen.” And the women go home, in fear and amazement, and tell nothing to anyone.

Mark’s ending is like an empty tomb. It proves nothing, but yet it proves everything. Because what happened? Well, the women must have told someone. Jesus did appear to the disciples, and they told the world. But in the empty there was nothing. No body, no proof, no certainty.

He is not here, he is risen. These words have been said, sung, exclaimed thousands, millions of times, over the centuries, in a myriad of places, in countless languages. It is the sum and substance of our faith. But do we believe it? What does it mean, for us, now, tonight, in this place? What are the consequences of our exclamation that Christ is Risen? What does it mean for our future?

The women who came to the tomb expected that what they would see would fit neatly into their world and their life experiences. They expected to find the body of Jesus, and worried only how they might gain access to the tomb. This building has been here for more than 150 years and over that time, we who enter it, or even those who walk by, think they know what it represents, what it means, what it does. We expect it to be here for another 150 years, the state house for another century, pretty much doing what they’ve always done.

Yahweh asked Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” It is a question God asks us now, today, “Can these bones live?” What is our answer? Are we like the women who kept silent because of their fear, who dared not to hope and believe in the truth of the resurrection, the reality of Christ’s ongoing presence among them? Or is our answer like that of Ezekiel, “Lord, You know.”

In a few minutes, I will baptize Pamela and Katie. They have chosen, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, in spite of all of the questions we live with as human beings, the uncertainty, fear, and befuddlement that our society and world share, they have chosen this day to commit themselves to Jesus Christ, to allow the new life of Jesus Christ to blossom in them.

Whatever this building, these buildings represent—are they empty tombs?–what matters is the life that is experienced and nurtured here, the life that goes out from here. With Pamela and Katie, all of us will renew our baptismal vows. We will promise to go forth from this place, to bear witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and to the faith we have in him. We will promise to seek and serve Christ in every person, loving our neighbors as ourselves. We will promise to respect the dignity of every human being. We will promise to be the agents of new life in Christ in the world around us.

Mortal, can these bones live? Our answer must be yes. It must be yes to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, yes to the possibility of new life in Christ, yes to God’s ongoing and surprising work in the world. We must say yes to our shared task and ministry of being a resurrection people, living anew and sharing that new life with everyone we encounter. Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

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