Sunday, March 31, 2013, Easter Sunday
Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, Senior Pastor
Christ is risen!
Christ is risen, indeed!
In the small community of Swift Creek, South Carolina, it is an annual tradition for the entire town to show up at the cemetery very early on Easter morning for an Easter sunrise service. While the rest of the year, the Presbyterians and Baptists and Episcopalians worship in their own church buildings across town from each other, every Easter Sunday morning before dawn everybody gathers in the pitch dark to worship together while the sun gradually rises over the surrounding hills.
One year, just like every other year, all the Christians in town (which, as you might imagine, is a group of pretty much everybody who lives in Swift Creek, SC) crowded into the small town cemetery, standing around awkwardly, waiting for that beautiful moment when they would all sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” while the sun came up with the stunning visual reminder of resurrection.
As they stood there in the dark, the typical service unfolded. The music minister from the Lutheran church led the first hymn, the Baptist preacher prayed. The service went on as planned, until it was time for the sermon—which was the responsibility of the Methodists that particular year. But it was still dark, so the Methodist minister went to his car and found a flashlight, then tried to hold it while juggling his sermon notes. After the sermon someone else prayed, they sang a final hymn, and another one of the town’s preachers gave the final benediction to bring the service to a close.
Awkwardly, when the last “Amen” was said, it was still dark; the sun had not even started coming up.
Turns out Easter was very early in March that year, before daylight savings time, and the sun would not even begin to come up for another whole hour. The people of Swift Creek, SC came out to celebrate resurrection in the dark, and when it was over they trudged back to their homes…in the dark.
If I ever consent to leading an Easter morning sunrise service, which is highly unlikely, I will be sure to double check what time the sun is supposed to rise. But I thought the story of the Swift Creek ecumenical Easter morning sunrise service was fitting for us today, because for all the lilies, beautiful new Easter clothes, bunnies and triumphant music, the truth is that sometimes Easter comes and goes and we are still in the dark.
We want resurrection, but we don’t know how…or what…to believe. When we look at the world, when we look at our lives…we can see that that darkness of death are so very real. And, if we find ourselves in that place this morning, we are not alone. The same was true for all of Jesus’ friends that first Easter.
The way Luke’s gospel tells it, the women saw Jesus die, so naturally they thought the same exact thing you and I would have thought: that death is real, and that they needed to drag their tired and grief-worn bodies out of bed to attend to the realities of death–embalming a body.
Exhausted and worn from days of crying and nights of restless worrying, they’d come to the tomb that morning with their spices and oils to give him a proper burial. It was their duty; it was what you do when somebody dies because, as we know and as they knew: death is real.
Luke tells us that they came to the tomb where they had left his body just a day before, and the heavy rock that should have kept him untouched had been rolled away. The stone cave was gaping open, and Jesus’ body was gone.
The women were terrified, confused, as they peered into the cave and saw two men dressed in glowing garments who acted like the women shouldn’t have been surprised in the least to find Jesus gone. But they were. Why? Because death is real—it happens all around us all the time.
Then the women heard the men witness: “Why are you standing here looking confused? If it’s Jesus you’re looking for, you shouldn’t be surprised that he’s not here. He told you what would happen, back when you were hiking the hills of Galilee together—don’t you remember? Now, head home. He is risen!”
The women remembered. When they heard the witness of the men in the tomb, they remembered what Jesus said about resurrection.
So, they quickly left, as any of us would do, and they hurried to where Jesus’ other disciples were gathered, waiting for news from the tomb. Breathless, tripping over each other maybe, they poured out an account of what they had seen and they tentatively dared to mention what the men in the tomb had said—remember what Jesus told us? The women bore witness to a miracle, turning everything they knew about the human experience on its head. Death is real–they’d seen it with their very own eyes.
But it’s not the end.
When they heard the women’s witness–their resurrection story–the men weren’t so sure. But at least one of the men started thinking back. With the witness of the women to guide him, Peter remembered what Jesus said, how his life and his teaching led them all to hope for what didn’t even seem possible before. So, tentatively, Peter went next to confirm what the women said. Having heard their resurrection story, their witness, Peter had to go see for himself, because he, like everyone else, only knew what they knew: that death is real.
And thats how resurrection made it’s way into the world that morning. Unlike the other stories of resurrection in the Gospel accounts, Luke’s story doesn’t say that anyone instantly believes. There’s no Jesus, appearing just in the nick of time to help them overcome their doubt. There’s no moment of clarity in which everybody’s perception is overturned.
No, it happens gradually, as the story is told, over and over. First the women, stumbling to the tomb in the dark, encountering resurrection through the witness of the men in the tomb…then the women going to the disciples, telling their story of resurrection to a doubting group of Jesus’ followers…then Peter, struck by the women’s witness, heading to the tomb. It all started there, this witness to resurrection.
And, shortly after Easter day, the disciples all started bearing witness, going around telling this incredible story of Jesus’s death…and the miracle of his resurrection. They told the story over and over in the weeks that followed and little groups of people began to form, telling each other the story of resurrection again, bearing witness to God’s presence and the hope of life over death.
And slowly, slowly as it did that first Easter morning, resurrection became reality for people who needed to know the truth of God’s work in this world: that death is real…but its not the end.
And what about us? Here we sit, 2000 years after that dark Easter morning, when the story unfolded and the first ones who experienced resurrection had the courage to bear witness to it. If we listen to their witness, we’ll begin to remember, if we try, that resurrection runs through our lives, all the time. God is well at work in this world and in our lives, each one of us has a resurrection story to tell, a story that helps us know and remember that while death is real, it is not the end.
One of my favorite resurrections stories in modern literature happens in Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Color Purple. The story of sisters Celie and Nettie is told in the form of diary entries and letters, and the story begins with Celie, a poor uneducated young black woman in 1930s Georgia, who has been the victim of abuse her whole life long. Celie is forced into a marriage against her will, to an abusive husband, and Celie and her sister Nettie go to live with him. Things get really bad, and Celie pleads with her sister Nettie, dearest person in her pain-filled life, to leave and go to the home of a local pastor to make a new life for herself. Nettie leaves in a heart-wrenching goodbye, all the while promising to write to Celie.
The time passes, and no letters arrive.
In her hopelessness and despair, Celie begins to believe that Nettie has died. After all, what other scenario would make any kind of sense? There was no word from Nettie; there was no evidence she was still alive; it’s likely that the pain and horror of the lives they lived had just gone and swallowed her right up.
Then, one day, Celie finds a packet of letters Nettie has written over all these years, letters hidden by Celie’s husband who preferred that Celie live in the hopelessness and desperation.
Pulling the precious letters from their envelopes, Celie could hardly believe that Nettie had been alive all this time. Her words of love poured from the pages, like a soothing balm on a broken life. Just the thought, just the possibility that it might be true, changed everything for Celie. She read the final letter in the stack:
“Dear Celie,” Nettie wrote, “I know you think I am dead. But I am not. I been writing to you, too, over the years, but your husband said you’d never hear from me again and since I never heard from you all this time, I guess he was right. There is so much to tell you that I don’t know, hardly, where to begin…. but if this do get through, one thing I want you to know: I love you, and I am not dead.”
Today we’re confronted with the question of whether we have the courage to take our own tentative experiences of resurrection…the ways in which we know God is real and at work in this world and in our lives…and bear witness of that reality to the world.
Because sometimes Easter morning comes and goes in the dark, and, confronted with death and despair on all sides, we feel unable to remember the Easter miracle of resurrection.
But here’s what we have to remind us: we have their stories of resurrection…and your story and your story and my story and your story… that we bring as we stare together at a gaping, empty tomb and bear witness to the miracle of Easter: that death is real…but it is not the end.
Can I get a witness?