Sunday, April 16, 2017
Easter Sermon: A Visit to the Cemetery
A Visit to the Cemetery
James Sledge April 16, 2017, Resurrection of the Lord
I suppose it’s something of a stereotype. The women are the ones still trying to care for Jesus. There’s not much they can do, but they can at least go to the cemetery. They’d been briefly on Friday, but the Sabbath had interrupted, and they are observant Jews. Now, with the Sabbath over and morning breaking, they head there again.
I’m not sure where the men are. They’ve been AWOL since Thursday night, running away when Jesus was arrested. Peter makes a brief appearance outside the home of the high priest but denies knowing Jesus when people think they recognize him, and he’s not been seen since. Perhaps the men are in hiding, fearful that they could be arrested as well.
Or perhaps they’re upset and angry at how things played out. A week ago they were on cloud nine. They had visions of being part of Jesus’ cabinet with he took power. Yes, he had spoken repeatedly about a cross, but Jesus often talked in riddles. They had bet that Jesus was different from all those other Messiahs who appeared and then got executed by the Romans. But now he was dead. Some of them probably felt Jesus had let them down.
Regardless of where the men are, two women named Mary head to the cemetery early on a spring morning. Perhaps they stopped at the local Safeway to pick up some flowers. That’s the sort of thing you do when you visit a cemetery.
Most of you have probably made such a visit, perhaps taken some flowers, too. It’s a perfectly normal sort of thing to do. People do it all the time. People also go to cemeteries just to be there. They are quiet, peaceful places, often garden-like. There may be benches where you can sit and meditate.
If you go to Jerusalem, you can visit what some say is Jesus’ tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. But if huge crowds and the ornate church building don’t feel like a cemetery to you, you can always visit the Garden Tomb. It’s an ancient tomb of the sort Jesus was buried in. Some think it a more likely spot for Jesus’ actual tomb than the official one. Regardless, it does feel like a cemetery. It’s quiet, and you can sit on a bench and meditate.
One thing about going to a cemetery, whether to visit a grave or to meditate in the quiet, there’s not a lot of activity there. There’s the occasional funeral. Now and then the quiet is interrupted by a caretaker’s tractor or weed eater. A car may drive slowly by. But generally speaking, not much happens in a cemetery.
When you or I or Mary Magdalene visit a cemetery, we don’t really expect anything. We may get emotional, we may cry, but we know nothing will happen. Other than in movies or on TV, graves don’t open up and dead people emerge. Dead people stay dead.
Some of the world’s rules are flexible or have exceptions, but some are absolute. It’s just how things are. The sun comes up in the morning, and it gets dark again at night. It is warmer in the summer and colder in the winter. And dead people stay dead.
No one goes to the cemetery expecting to meet a loved one who has died. We may hope to meet them again someday, after we die. But not in this life. That just doesn’t happen. That’s the rule and it doesn’t get broken. And so we can go to the cemetery with our flowers that we bought at Safeway, knowing with certainty that while we may weep or pray or dream of day when we’ll be reunited, nothing will happen. That’s the rule, and we know it is true.
Mary Magdalene and the other Mary know it as certainly as we do. They will go, pay their respects, and leave their flowers. Then they will go and find the men, wherever they’re hiding, and start to think about getting back to life as it was before Jesus ever showed up.
We may do something similar today. We come to church on Easter, knowing full well what will happen. The music will be wonderful; the brass will play; we’ll sing and celebrate and rejoice. Then we’ll go back home and get back to our regular lives.
But when Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the cemetery with their flowers, the rules they are so sure of turn out not to be true. The earth shakes, a messenger from God appears, and it turns out that the dead do not always stay dead. The risen Jesus meets them and sends them to those men in hiding. “Tell them to go to Galilee where they will see me. Tell them to start thinking about lives that look nothing like they ever did before.”
What if the things we are so certain of turn out not to be true? What if we meet the risen Jesus? What if he’s there as we come to the table? What if we bump into him as we’re leaving? “That can’t happen,” we say. “That’s not how things work.” But what if what we know turns out not to be true?
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!