Pr. Scott Kramer
Of all the images in Matthew’s account of the Easter story, the one that I identify with most this year is the empty tomb. Here we are, Jakub and Marissa and me, just the three of us. The worship space is empty. Those of you who are here week after week are not here!
Today, as we conclude the season of Lent and continue the season of social distance, you—the Body of Christ—are not here.
Some of you have a lifetime practice of coming to weekly worship. That pattern has been disrupted. Online gatherings like this may be some consolation, but it’s not the same as “being there.”
I will say, though, that the Easter story has come alive for me this year in a way that it rarely has over the course of my life. There is a deep truth in the empty tomb. What we are experiencing through social distancing makes explicit what has always been true: You, the Body of Christ…are not here!
We who have developed a regular practice of Christian worship are, if I can put it this way, at something of a disadvantage. Habits of a lifetime may lead us to think of the church building as the “house of God”—as if this is where God hangs out. Or, we might be inclined to think of God as hanging out “in here”—in my heart. This can lead to the habit of thinking of faith in God as a private matter: “Just me and Jesus.”
But ideas that never change—relationships that never change, including our relationship with God–can lead the human heart to become as much a tomb as a cave carved out of stone. He is not here.
I don’t mean to say that God isn’t present in the church building or in our worship. I don’t mean to say that God isn’t present in the human heart. What our Easter story affirms, though, is that wherever we need to believe God resides…is at best only a glimpse. He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him! says the angel. A few verses later, Jesus himself confirms what the angel says: Tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
God is always out ahead of us, leading us, calling us to follow. And yet, how powerfully inclined we are to stick with what we know, or, what we think we know. Notice in the story when the women see Jesus they take hold of his feet. In the alternate Easter story for this day from John’s gospel, Jesus’ response to this is very direct: Do not hold on to me, he commands.
We may not be in the habit of thinking of Easter as a story about social distancing, but “Do not hold on to me!” challenges us to put some distance between what we’ve always believed and where God now is leading us. To put it a different way: to let go of habits of the heart, and mind, and body that keep us at a distance from what we fear.
This Easter story acknowledges our human experience of fear: the guards at the tomb were afraid of the angel. The women themselves left the tomb “with fear…(and great joy!).” The command of the angel to these women was the same as Jesus’ command: Do not be afraid. Or, better: “Don’t let your fears run your life!”
When fear does run our lives, we may find ourselves clinging to something from the past that may offer a spiritual “fix,” but which has no lasting, saving power. The tomb is empty. He is not here. He is going ahead of us.
Easter, the central story of our faith, is the story of God’s love for all humanity and all creation. It acknowledges not only the reality of death but the necessity of death to generate new life–resurrection. We see evidence of this deep truth in the natural world around us. But this natural rhythm seems harder for us human creatures to accept. Rather than accept and even embrace death, we long to return to the way things were.
This past week a retired friend of mine e-mailed me this quote by author and poet Sonya Renee Taylor, reflecting on our life after the virus:
We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding and hate. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.
Here is someone who speaks the language of resurrection. She speaks of love.
The tomb is empty. As a society, as a church, whether or not we’re talking about COVID-19, we dare not long for the way things used to be. He is not here. He has gone…ahead of us.
You, friends, the Body of Christ, are not here these Sundays in spring. You are out in the world, the human embodiment of the Living Christ. There in the world, you are given the chance to point to love wherever it is found. Just as the empty tomb was unexpected, so it is with God’s liberating love in the world. This is a love that is not confined to nation, or race, or religion. God’s love is not bound by human categories of believer and unbeliever, religious and atheist, Christian and non-Christian. No, the Living Christ appears wherever and in whomever self-giving love is found.
So…don’t be afraid. Go out and find where love has gone ahead of you and has shown up unexpectedly. Be the place where love shows up unexpectedly.
The tomb is empty. For he is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!