I just read an interesting story this past week. Let me share it with you and then tell me if you think it could be true or not.
It reportedly happened on an Easter morning in a church out in East Texas. The call to worship had just been pronounced, and the choir began the processional singing, “Up from the Grave He Arose (“with a mighty triumph o’er His foes”),” while marching in perfect step down the center aisle to the front of the church. The last woman was wearing shoes with very slender heels. Without a thought for her fancy heels, she stepped onto the grating that covered the hot air register in the middle of the aisle. Suddenly the heel of one shoe sank into the hole in the register grate. In a flash she realized her predicament. Not wishing to hold up the whole processional, without missing a step, she slipped her foot out of her shoe and continued marching down the aisle. There wasn’t a hitch. The processional moved on with clocklike precision.
The first man after her spotted the situation and without losing step, reached down and pulled up her shoe, but the entire grate came with it! Surprised, but still singing, the man kept on going down the aisle, holding in his hand the grate with the shoe attached. Everything still moving along like clockwork.
Still in tune and still in step, the next man in line stepped into the open register and disappeared from sight. The service took on a special meaning that Sunday, for just as the choir ended with “Allelujah! Christ arose!” a voice was heard under the church shouting, “I hope all of you are out of the way ‘cause I’m coming out now!”
The little girl closest to the aisle shouted back, “Come on, Jesus! We’ll stay out of the way!”[i]
So, what do you think? You think that really happened?
Listen, I’ve been East Texas, and I think it’s entirely possible. At any rate, if it didn’t happen that way—it sure should have.
Of course, Easter morning about more than just staying out of Jesus’ way. Although, to be sure, sometimes we do tend to get in his way.
But we gather here on Easter morning, in this place and in these numbers, because we have heard that Jesus, indeed, arose from the grave. And – beyond the pageantry and the music and the glorious memories of Easter past – we gather as a community of faith today because Jesus’ resurrection has a special meaning in our lives—or because we long for it to have deeper meaning.
The story this past week has been one of betrayal and arrest, prosecution and persecution, condemnation and crucifixion. This morning’s scripture reading places us in the aftermath of those tragic events as a few grief-stricken women make their way to the tomb just as the sun begins to rise.
This little women’s guild are the first to respond to a sorrowful situation with the intention of addressing the pragmatic needs of the moment—as it has ever been—by honoring the dearly departed in caring for the family with flowers and phone calls, lunch receptions and home-baked casseroles, prayer chains and prayer shawls. In this case, Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and one other have come to do what needs to be done, regardless of their own loss and sorrow[ii] by bringing burial spices with which to anoint the body of their beloved friend and teacher.
It is what the faithful do when confronted with the harsh reality of death—they keep moving forward, marching to the beat of a promise that someday things will be different; someday the sun will rise again on happier days.
One moment these four women, overcome by grief, are yet tending to the practical details of death; the next moment they are overwhelmed by the perplexing reality of the resurrection.
And suddenly that first Easter morning took on a whole new meaning.
Interestingly, our bible story this morning does not end with a chorus “Alleluias!” There are no guarantees offered in this text, and precious little reassurance. Mostly we are left with the amorphous assertions of two ghostly figures and the amazed ambiguity of the menfolk. Only the women are convinced. And their words are taken as an idle tale. In fact, the Greek word used here suggests that the men thought the women delusional.
So, if you’ve come here today looking for proof, then you are going to go home sorely disappointed. Because all we can offer you is the testimony of four lowly, somewhat bewildered women—and millions upon millions of witnesses hence as to the power of the resurrection. And it is up to each of us to determine – when we leave this place – what we will take with us when we go.
On Holy Monday of this past week, the beautiful, historic Notre Dame Cathedral caught fire. Hour after hour it burned out of control; as the day wore on it became increasingly doubtful that this magnificent testament to the church could be saved. Millions of people – people of all religious persuasions and naught – watched in dismay as Our Lady suffered the rising flames.
Diane and I gasped, along with the whole world, as the 300 foot spire came crashing to the ground in a blaze of glory. With countless others we grieved at the very thought of the loss of so much history and heritage; so many priceless works of art, much less the venerated holy relics that were being housed at Notre Dame, including the Crown of Thorns which had been preserved and protected and hallowed from the day it rested on the head of our Crucified Lord.
Finally, after hours of grueling watching and waiting, word came that, while extensive damage had been done to both the interior and exterior of the Cathedral, the main structure and the two towers would be saved.
Praise be to God. Unremitting grief suddenly turned into measured relief.
“But what had been tragically lost?” we all wondered.
And then, over the ensuing days of Holy Week, the stories started flooding in.
Stories of five hundred fire fighters who courageously fought the conflagration hour after hour after hour until they finally brought it under control.
Stories of a brave chaplain (Jean-Marc Fournier) of the Paris fire-brigade who led the way into the burning cathedral – even as flaming debris rained down upon their heads – risking life and limb to form a human chain to rescue as many invaluable items as possible—including the sacred Crown of Thorns.
Stories of a metal rooster – which shall henceforth be known as a `spiritual lightning rod’ – which sat atop Notre Dame’s iconic spire, that survived the fire and the fall in tact; along with a number of holy relics which had been placed inside the rooster for safe keeping—one of which was a thorn from the very Crown.
Stories about three bee hives that were home to some 180,000 bees that lived on the roof of Notre Dame. Generations of these good natured Buckfast bees – introduced to Notre Dame by a Benedictine monk in the 1920s – have been producing honey (now 155 pounds each year), which is sold to Cathedral employees. “It’s a miracle,” said Notre Dame’s beekeeper Nicolas Geant, “that the flames didn’t touch them.” Geant went on to say (as only a beekeeper could), “I was incredibly sad about Notre Dame because it’s such a beautiful building, and as a Catholic it means a lot to me. But to hear there is life when it comes to the bees . . . that’s just wonderful.”[iii]
It may seem a small victory to some, but the fact that no life was lost in the fire – not even small winged insects – is indeed symbolic of a larger miracle to me. For it is a symbol of our indomitable capacity as human beings to rise together in unity for a higher purpose. To preserve that which must be at all costs preserved.
And so, today the stories continue; about national leaders around the world and millions upon millions of the world’s citizens stepping up to pledge support for the rebuilding of Notre Dame Cathedral; about the deluge of prayers flooding into France to quench the fires of despair.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, in a television interview, remarked, “Like everybody else, when I first heard of this tragedy . . . sadness, oh, my Lord, confusion, just a—somberness that I said how could this happen to one of the greatest icons in civilization?”
But then Cardinal Dolan added, “All of a sudden . . . when I detect, for one, the overwhelming sense of sympathy and prayer that everybody started expressing to me, number two, the sense of . . . digging in and rebuilding, and saying `We’re not going to let this destroy the Church, we are going to begin to rebuild right now.’ When I saw [that] it reminded me of the almost hardwire in the human—in the human person of a sense of resiliency and hope and resurrection, which is really appropriate for this Holy Week: when that’s what we’re celebrating in the life of Jesus; when that’s what our Jewish neighbors are celebrating in Passover, that sometimes the more dismal the situation, the more hopeful we become. . . Sometimes when we look at – at something we love literally reduced to ashes – we [almost] automatically see life coming from that.”[iv]
N. T. Wright, in the same book from which we took the call to confession and the assurance of pardon today, wrote, “When Jesus emerged from the tomb, justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty rose with him. Something has happened in and through Jesus as a result of which the world is a different place, a place where heaven and earth have been joined forever. God’s future has arrived in the present. Instead of mere echoes, we hear the voice itself: a voice which speaks of rescue from evil and death, and hence a new creation.”[v]
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” the angelic bystander said to those grieving women. And might say as much to those of us seeking proof at an empty tomb today. For the reality of the resurrection is not to be found in this place—though we come here to bear witness and to celebrate it in our lives.
But the real power of resurrection you seek is out there in the world: whereby people are reinventing themselves, and rebuilding their lives; whereby people at odds are being reconciled to one another, and relationships restored to health and wholeness; whereby countless people around the world and across the generations have risen out of the ashes of despair into a new dawning of hope.
For the crucified Lord has risen. The power of resurrection has been set loose. Easter is rising in our world, in our time, in our history, and in our very lives.
(Gratitude to Shannon J. Kershner for title,
much inspiration and a little content in this sermon.)
[i] Hodgin, Michael E., 1001 Humorous Illustrations for Public Speaking, Zondervan, 2010.
[ii] Duffield, Jill, “The Women wasted no time doing the business death requires,” The Presbyterian Outlook, April 21, 2019.
[iv] Interview with Chris Cuomo, Cuomo Prime Time, CNN, April 16, 2019.
[v] Wright, N. T., Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, Harper Collins, 2009.