Finding Life in a Place of Death

This was the sermon from Easter Sunday:

When the women go to the tomb on that Sunday morning, they are expecting to find a corpse. Because Jesus died after noon on a Friday, it was not possible to properly prepare his body for burial. The women who had followed him all the way from Galilee returned on Sunday morning to complete the task. They would perfume the body with spices, then tuck it away in a little room to decompose. In about a year, their Jesus would be nothing more than dry bones, collected, rearranged, and moved to make room for another body, the dead piled on top of the dead. The women came to the tomb expecting death.

But a funny thing happened. When they arrived at the tomb, the stone was rolled away. This stone is a large, heavy, wheel-like disc that rolls in a track. It is a cold, hard boundary between the place of the living and the place of the dead.

This is how we like it: death behind a wall where we can’t see it. Underground. Made up and dressed nice. Somewhere in the far future behind years of healthy eating and miracle drugs and desperate surgeries. We live as though life and death are binaries, separated by a wide chasm of good choices. But that boundary is not so thick, not so heavy, that chasm not so hard to cross as we would like to believe. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, the hands of angels move it aside so that we can witness the truth.

The women came to the tomb expecting death and we often do the same. We worry about death. We fear it. But that fear turns in on itself and somehow brings death closer. We buy guns and build walls and pray to Jesus to take us home. But Jesus never left.

The women came to the tomb expecting to find the dead body of Jesus, the man who they followed from Galilee. For three years, they supported his ministry. They travelled the long road to Jerusalem, the road to suffering and death. They followed him because he offered them salvation.  He offered them freedom. He offered them equality. He offered them a voice, a voice that was their own. They came to the tomb expecting to find all their hopes and dreams lying dead, a lifeless body torn apart by a cruel empire.

Instead, they found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. It was not what they expected. They were perplexed, anxious, confused. Thankfully, there were some friendly angels in fabulous clothes to remind them of what they already knew: that Jesus told them this would happen. Speaking with the eschatological title “the Son of Man,” he told them that he must be handed over to sinners – for Luke, the wealthy elites who oppressed the common people – be crucified, and on the third day rise again.  This must mean that Jesus was, in fact, alive. They were in the wrong place to see the risen Christ because they were looking in the place of the dead. Where they expected to find death, they found a hint of life.

Both Mark and Matthew tell us that they left with joy, fear, and amazement, but Luke simply says they returned from the tomb and told everyone the Good News. Because the tellers of the tale were all women, the apostles were of course skeptical. You know how women are. They get all emotional and excited. They can’t be taken seriously. They certainly can’t be president. We need the reserved dignity and moderation that is the nature of men.

The Gospel of Luke has been called “The Women’s Gospel.” Luke features women far more than Matthew and Mark. For every parable about a man, there is a corresponding parable about a woman. Yet there is a tension in Luke’s treatment of women. Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza and others have pointed out that, while Luke features women, he does not often give them a voice. Over the course of Luke and Acts, women become less prevalent. The resurrected Jesus does not appear to women in the Gospel of Luke as he does in Matthew and John. The women an empty tomb with an angel and men get the risen Jesus. And yet, here, I think, is an opportunity to read against the text or perhaps excavate things that Luke hints at, but can’t fully live into. It’s possible that Luke is describing what happened after Jesus’ death – the gradual marginalization of women – while suggesting that it should not be so.

Chief in the evidence against Luke is the fact that the women’s account of the tomb is dismissed. Peter believes enough to go check, but his amazement seems required to validate the claim. When Cleopas and another disciple meet Jesus unknowingly on the walk to Emmaus, they cite the women’s account with some skepticism. Though Peter was amazed at what had happened, the takeaway seems to have been that no one saw Jesus. Then he says to them: “Oh, how foolish you are and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared!” Perhaps I am being a generous reader, but isn’t it possible that Jesus is including the women among the prophets here? They spoke with divine beings and delivered the good news of the resurrection. In Cleopas’s remarks to Jesus, he repeats that it was the claims of the women that are in question and Jesus’ response is that they are foolish not to believe the prophets.

Luke’s Gospel has also been called “The Gospel of the Poor.” From the beginning, Luke sets up the story as a cosmic battle between good and evil and the good characterizes the lowly, the laborer, the outcast, where the evil characterizes the high-born, the powerful, the elite. Sinners are rich and the righteous are poor. The arc of the narrative is to overturn the current order to strike down what is high and raise up what is low.  It’s known as “The Great Reversal.” In many places in Luke, women are the representatives of the lowly, especially widows, those who depend on societal support. So if we are looking for the righteous in our world, we need not be restricted to the widow, alien, and orphan, though those are often good places to start. We simply have to find whoever is marginalized in our world.

When we are confronted with the weighty matters of glory, our first step should be to listen to the marginalized, to those who come face to face with suffering and death. When the black community says that they are being terrorized by police, as they did for years before the Rodney King beating, as they did for years before Ferguson, we have to listen. Instead, we wait for video – and not just one! After Eric Garner is strangled and 12-year-old Tamir Rice is shot and Sandra Bland is harassed, arrested, and found dead in her cell, we’re still not sure. We find ways to dismiss their claims, to blame the victim. We advise them on how to behave properly, to be respectful and do what their betters tell them to do.

When queer kids tell us about bullying at school and the rejection of their families that leaves them homeless, we tell them to toughen up or deny who they are. When women speak of their hardship in having their only source of medical care taken away, we tell them to just go to another doctor. When the impoverished cry out for food, shelter, health care, and safe communities, we tell them to move and get a job. When the victims of global poverty and endless war try to do just that, we tell them to wait and wait and wait. When people who experience death on a daily basis – sometimes literal death, but often the smaller deaths of being told they aren’t good enough, don’t belong, or don’t matter – when the suffering cry out to us we turn a deaf ear.

But these are the witnesses to the resurrection. Only by going to the cross and seeking out the dead can we find life. So, for those of us who are privileged – and I would bet that everyone in this room is privileged in some way – we can only see the resurrected Jesus if we walk alongside those who suffer. This is the Gospel. As James Cone says in A Black Theology of Liberation, “there can be no theology of the Gospel which does not arise from an oppressed community. This is so because God is revealed in Jesus as a God whose righteousness is inseparable from the weak and helpless in human society.” If we cannot even listen to those who suffer, we have no part of the Gospel.

We see this Gospel in action. Out of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Jordan Davis, Sandra Bland – the list, sadly, goes on and on and on – out of these tragedies, we see the BlackLivesMatter movement finally expressing the frustrated dreams of a generation that saw the hard fought gains of their mothers and fathers taken away – taken away in the War on Drugs, trickle-down economics, voter suppression, unequal housing and education – the list, sadly, goes on and on and on. Out of the AIDS crisis that devastated the gay community while the White House denied its existence, we got an organized resistance that fought for same-sex marriage and non-discrimination ordinances, and continues to fight to maintain what has been gained and gain even more for our queer family. Out of this latest in the ongoing assault on women’s rights and fundamental dignity, I believe we will see women empowered like never before. This is not “just” politics. This is the resurrection life.

It is not that this suffering and death is somehow justified or “worth it” or “serve a purpose in the greater scheme of things,” but that it can be redeemed. Those deaths – whether of black people at the hands of police and vigilantes, or of queer people at the hands of parents and closeted bullies, or of women at the hands of abusive spouses or substandard medical procedures – those deaths can never be justified. They are never worth it. But contained within each of these moments of suffering, there is the possibility of new life just waiting to be witnessed and proclaimed and fought for. If we turn our eyes away from death, we never get to see life. If we cover our ears to lament, we never get to hear exultation. If we don’t go to the tomb and we don’t pay attention to those who do, we are fools and we will miss out on the greatest gift in all creation.

The women went to the tomb expecting to find death. But in that cold tomb of despair, they found the hope of new life. This is the Gospel. This is the Good News. This is the resurrection.

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