Easter Sermon: “What They Stood For”

Many would say that it’s not hard to believe in new life on Easter Sunday, especially in a lovely Connecticut town after a week of especially welcoming weather, and in a world mostly reopening after being mostly closed for so long.  

New life of one kind or another is all around us right now, and a person would have to be pinched, indeed, not to have some sign of it in mind this morning.  

Two years ago, when everyone was battening down the hatches, our deacons decided to venture out and deliver Easter lilies to folks in our church family.  

And it was only as the seriousness of COVID really dawned on us all that our Senior Deacon began adding names to the list, and calling back the florist to order more lilies, not once but twice, as our sense of who might just need a little sign of hope began to get bigger and more urgent. 

Proclaiming new life may not feel quite so defiant as that this morning. 

Some—and doesn’t everyone have a brother in law like this?—might even say nature and science have really stolen some of the church’s thunder this year when it comes to new life, although I don’t think so.  

God’s handiwork takes any number of forms, and God’s hand is stirring the waters in any number of situations.  

For those with eyes to see, there is plenty of God in what has led us to this point. 

In any case, if for a season the church had to make sure the lilies found you, now many folks, and certainly all of you here, have come to the church to find the lilies, and we are glad.  

New life has new meaning for us this Easter, and we are delighted to be sharing it.  

On that first Easter, it is clear that nobody woke up with an expectation of new life. 

This week, I watched a 45 minute walking tour via Zoom of the Via Dolorosa, the sorrowful road, which is what Christians have called the path that Jesus walked through Jerusalem as he carried the cross on Good Friday, all the way to Golgotha, outside the city gates, where he was crucified.  

On the morning of the third day, the women going to the tomb would have walked some of those same limestone streets.  

Faded now by the centuries into a golden yellow today, back then, some of those streets were still newly-cut and would have been dazzling white, particularly in the harshness of the Middle Eastern sun. 

Not that this would have been the case when the women set out, carrying spices to prepare Jesus’ body for burial.  

When they stepped out from wherever they were – maybe the upper room? — it was probably a half hour before dawn, and all would have been shadow—and given the heaviness of their hearts, that may have suited them just fine. 

In a city bursting with Roman soldiers and willing collaborators, it was probably wise enough to have some shadows to duck into. 

Scripture does not offer a definitive list of whom from among the women who followed Jesus were the ones who went to the tomb. 

It’s fairly certain that few of them were from Jerusalem, specifically, and it’s possible that none were, which bears mentioning only because it is not clear how they would have known exactly how to get where they were going—especially in the dark.  

Their newness to the city, notwithstanding, there was at least one map already seared on their hearts: the map of Good Friday…the path that Jesus had walked on that last day. 

The Via Dolorosa. The sorrowful road. 

Calling it that would have made perfect sense to the women on that early Sunday morning back then, too.  

You can picture them threading their way along, maybe not entirely sure if it’s supposed to be a right or a left at some point among those narrow streets, but then one of them murmurs: “This is the corner where he fell,” and they realize where they are.  

 A little later, his mother might say: “This is where I was standing when first saw him.” 

Then a bit further along, someone else, maybe Joanna, the wife of Chusa hesitates for a moment, and then says “This is where he was dizzy, and the Libyan man had to carry the cross for a while. “ 

And so they “hand in hand, with wand’ring steps and slow, through” the city “made their solitary way.” (John Milton)

Retracing those steps through the twists and turns of those close streets meant reliving the whole terrible thing. Remembering what it had been like to see it happening.  

It’s hard for me to put myself in their shoes. 

Faith and hope are so intertwined so much of the time, and yet there seems to be a kind of hopelessness to their faithful service on that morning that I have never experienced.  

The poet Robert Hayden has a poem that refers to “love’s unseen and lonely offices,” and surely this is one of those. 

At most, it seems to be a one-sided gesture of devotion that is destined to end wherever it stops, and that cannot expect anything by way of formal conclusion.

This is all the more so when they arrive at the garden and see that the stone in front of the tomb has been rolled away.  

Not many folks would have felt compelled to proceed at that point.  

At least, I don’t think many would.  

If it wasn’t quite dawn yet, and there were still a few gloomy corners among the other burial vaults, some might have folded themselves into one of those for a while and watched the open tomb for signs of movement or listened for the sound of marching soldiers. 

Others would have decided that this last gesture was apparently not meant to be and would have gone back the way they had come. 

But there is a kind of love that refuses to stop loving.  

There is a kind of love that won’t stop, even as the dangers rise and the pain sears and there is no map and there is no plan and any sense of control evaporates, and these women knew it.  

They knew what it was to love like that.  

Some of them had known it from giving birth, which required them to lie at the gates of death itself in order to bring in new life. 

Some of them knew it from being the most immediate witnesses to Jesus’ death.

And they knew that kind of love from Jesus. 

On the cross, they had seen it on his face. 

In that supreme act of tenderness and vulnerability, they recognized a power that can only come from the source of life itself. 

And so when two men dressed in white, dazzling as the limestone of Jerusalem at noon, appear and tell them that Jesus is risen…when the two men ask them “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”…the women stand there, puzzled for a moment—“perplexed,” as Luke says, but only for a moment. 

Luke also says they were terrified, and so they were…but only for a moment. 

Because standing for life amid what seems as if it must be death was who they were. 

It’s why they were there.  

It’s what they stood for.  

And not just them.  

It’s what the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who helped bring Moses into the world, right under the nose of Pharoah, had stood for.  

It’s what the Hebrew people, stepping into the waters of the Red Sea, trusting even as they waded up to their necks that God would deliver them, had stood for. 

It’s what Ruth, the grandmother of King David, remaining with her mother-in-law in the face of famine, had stood for. 

It’s what Ezekiel stood for, literally standing in a valley of dry bones, when he hears a voice telling him to ask if these bones shall live. 

It’s what every healing, every feeding, every pronouncement of forgiveness Jesus ever did had stood for.  

It is proclaiming the power of life in the face of death. 

For Jesus, that power can only be understood in terms of a love that is greater than we are—a love that calls us from narrow lives focused only on ourselves to the greater vocation of living as children of God.  

We see that love in the faithfulness of the women on Easter morning. 

It’s the love they had seen in Jesus on the cross: a love that refuses to stop loving—a love that proclaims the power of life, even in the face of death—a love that the Church would come to affirm as nothing less than the way, the truth and the life.  

We affirm it again this morning. 

We affirm it whenever we see the presence of the risen Christ alive in acts of healing, forgiveness, dignity and peace, lifting the world from perdition to redemption, and despair to joy.  

It is not so easy in these times to keep an open mind, much less an open heart.  

But the empty tomb of Easter reminds us that the God who is at work in the world is almost certainly at work on us, rolling back every stone with a love that even death itself could not contain.  

It announces the God who always stands for us, and so teaches us to stand, strong in our commitment to the good, and defiant in our capacity for hope.

Alleluia.  

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