Sermon: Sunday, April 5, 2015: The Resurrection of Our Lord — Easter Day

Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9  +  Psalm 118:1-2,14-24  +  Acts 10:34-43  +  Mark 16:1-8

“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

6a00d8341bffb053ef0120a6e0b890970b-500wiThat was the question preoccupying the women as they came to the place where Jesus had been lain that first Easter morning. I guess I’d never given it much thought before, how striking it is that scripture makes a point of telling us that after “the sabbath was over Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome the follower of Jesus” came to the tomb prepared to do the heart-breaking work of anointing Jesus’s body for death even though they had no idea how they would get to it because there was a massive stone blocking their entry.

Who does that? Who sets out to do a difficult, a heart-breaking task without a plan for how to even get through the door? Not the men, apparently. It was the women. It was the women who had stayed with Jesus even at the hour of his death. It was Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons, a sign that she’d suffered from a complex, life-threatening condition. It was Mary the mother of James, one of the young men who’d followed Jesus throughout his ministry. It was Salome (not to be confused with dancing Salome, the daughter of Herodias, who’d asked for the baptist’s head), remembered by early tradition as the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who I imagine came so that her sister would be spared the sight and smell of her own son’s dead body. These were the women who came to the tomb without any idea how they would get in, just knowing that their love for the Lord would not allow them to stay away.

A woman grateful to have been given her life back. A den mother to the pack of young people chasing after Jesus. A sister who did what needed to be done. Don’t these women sound familiar to you? Don’t you think they exist in some incarnation in every community? I feel like I’ve met them over and over again in every church I’ve ever belonged to. I know they are members of this church. I suspect if you stick around long enough you may become one of these women.

Before, I’d always heard that line about them not knowing who would roll the stone away as a clue in the text about the size of the stone, the impassability of the barrier, a set up to the miracle of its movement signifying that nothing could contain the risen Christ. But if it’s that, then it is also something else, it’s a clue about the depth of their devotion to the Lord they had known, their unyielding love, a signifier that nothing would keep them from the new life they’d just begun to taste as they followed Jesus. Even if they did not know how they would ever move forward, they knew there was no going back.

“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

They came with their spices, prepared for the worst, ready to find someone to help, a gardener perhaps, or some day laborers who would roll the stone away so that they could do their duty in that place, that blessed cavern where they thought they’d find their Lord. Instead, when they arrived that Easter morning they found the stone already moved and inside the tomb a young man, dressed in white, sitting on the right side.  Our minds immediately make the leap from “young man” to “angel” because of the texts in later gospels. Matthew’s gospel calls the greeter at the tomb a “messenger” (the word we often translate as “angel”) and Luke’s gospel describes two men in dazzling white garments, but Mark’s gospel simply says a “young man, dressed in a white robe.” I immediately think about our brother Ryan Coffee who was baptized last night at the Easter Vigil. When he asked me what to do to prepare for his baptism, I told him he might consider wearing something white as a gesture to the ancient tradition of draping those who emerged from baptismal waters in a white robe. So he showed up last night in a crisp white shirt and a blue tie and told me he felt like a waiter. From where I’m standing right now looking out into this vast, cavernous sanctuary he was seated with his family and with Rachel over there, on the right.

I kind of adore this little detail in Mark, “As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side.” When the faithful women arrived at the tomb that first Easter morning expecting to find no one, no help, instead they find a young person, and he’s sitting on the right side. I wonder whose seat that was he’d taken. It was such an aggravation that when the gospel writer sat down to turn the oral tradition into a written text it couldn’t be forgotten that the young man was sitting on the right side!

And what a counterpoint this young adult is to the mood of the three women who came when the sabbath was over, ready to perform the appointed rituals. There he sits, as if waiting for them to arrive, as if knowing that they would come because wherever the Lord was, these women would be there too. But also, wherever the Teacher was, this young person would be as well. We don’t know what drew him to the cave that morning, or who sent him there, but he was also there that Easter morning and with a message for the women: “He has been raised. He is not here.”

“He has been raised. He is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” (Mark 16:6-7)


Galilee by the sea, as it might have appeared during the life of Jesus.

Where was Jesus to be found? Ahead of us, in Galilee, where it all began. In Galilee where Jesus appeared after John the Baptist was arrested, proclaiming the good news of God’s immanent reign. In Galilee, where Jesus had called the disciples away from their nets. In Galilee, where Jesus had preached and healed and drawn a crowd. In Galilee where he’d told them he would be after he was raised up, though they’d not understood what he was saying (14:28). In Galilee, where Rome still ruled but people were rising up. In Galilee, where life was happening, in all it’s painful, messy, uncertain ways. In Galilee, the crossroads of the world, where I’m imagining the risen Lord met this young adult and asked a favor. “Could you go to Jerusalem, where I’ve recently been hanging out, and look for these three women. You’ll find them in a garden, at a tomb. They will come, I know they will. They keep coming, even when everyone else abandoned me, they keep coming because they love me and I love them. They will come with oil to anoint my body, but they’ve forgotten that I was already anointed for death at Simon’s house in Bethany and I have no need of that particular gift any more because I am not dead, but alive. Will you tell them I’ve left this place, but that I wait for them in the future, and will you ask them to share this message with the others, Peter and the rest of the brokenhearted?”

They met at the tomb, the faithful women and the unknown young person. They were there, together, but Jesus was not there with them. Jesus was already back out in the world scattering seeds that would break open settled earth bearing new life.

“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?”

It was God who rolled away the stone. To Mark it doesn’t seem to matter how that happened. Matthew’s gospel says there was an angel and an earthquake, but to Mark and Luke and John it could just as easily have been the grounds crew in the garden. What matters is the barrier is gone, the stone is rolled away, a certain death has given way to a risky, new, uncertain life.

So the faithful women flee, terrified of the future but still amazed at everything God had done in that place, because they were afraid; and we can understand their reaction because who hasn’t felt such fear when they suddenly realize that the rest of their life, no matter how short or how long that span of time may be, will look nothing at all as we’d imagined?

And that’s how Mark’s gospel ends, at least originally. No great commission to go and make disciples, no meet up on the road to Emmaus, no seaside breakfast with the disciples after a hard night of fishing. Just this meeting between the faithful women and the unfamiliar young man, a message delivered, an assurance made, and a fleeing in terror as if to leave the question with us, who hear the story today, to decide what will happen next.

What will happen next?


Sermon: Sunday, April 21, 2013: Fourth Sunday of Easter

Texts:   Acts 9:36-43  +  Psalm 23  +  Revelation 7:9-17  +  John 10:22-30

Apostles act.

That’s what the stories keep showing us, over and over, throughout the season of Easter.  Apostles, filled with the power of the Holy Spirit poured out at Pentecost, acting in the powerful name of Jesus, are saying and doing what Jesus, during his earthly ministry, said and did.  The risen Christ is rising up, ascending into all of creation, through the actions of those who know and love the Lord.

So, in some ways, the book of Acts is predictable.  What Jesus has already done in Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ followers now do in the Acts of the Apostles.  Jesus called the disciples away from their nets; the Apostles call together a community in which everyone shares all that they have.  Jesus cleanses a leper and heals a paralyzed man; Peter heals a crippled beggar and a paralyzed man.  Jesus is challenged by the religious authorities; the apostles are thrown into prison.  Jesus is brought before the Council, before Pilate and Herod and made to testify to his actions; Stephen is called before the Council to account for the acts of the apostles.  Both are put to death, but the community around them continues to grow and grow and grow.

Then comes this story of the raising of Tabitha from the dead, and we are met with elements both predictable and unexpected.  Once again we have a story in which the apostles are empowered to act as Jesus did.  So, as Jesus raised the widow’s son at Nain; as he raised Jairus’ daughter by taking her hand and calling to her, “Child, get up;” now Peter is called to raise a woman in Joppa.

Those are the familiar elements of this story.  But there are some odd features to this story as well.  First of all, we are told the woman’s name.  She isn’t “the widow’s son,” or “Jairus’ daughter,” or “the woman with an issue of blood.”  She is Tabitha in the Aramiac, and Dorcas in the Greek.  She was a woman who was notable enough that she was known by name, not only among the believers, but in the among the Gentiles as well.

So, we might think, she must have really been somebody.  Perhaps a wealthy woman, or the wife of someone powerful.  But that isn’t what we’re told.  This woman, Tabitha, isn’t defined by scripture as anyone’s daughter, or wife, or sister, or mother.  She doesn’t matter because of the man she is related to.  Instead, she is described as someone who was “devoted to good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36).  Like all who follow Jesus, she is now known for her acts.

This is odd, and perhaps even troubling for Lutherans, who are constitutionally averse to any whiff of works righteousness.  We are trained to immediately discount any notion that our actions have any relationship to God’s saving power, which comes to us by grace through faith.  So, to all you dyed in the wool Lutherans out there, I simply say, “wait and see.”  These acts are important, Tabitha’s good works and charity, and the fact that they are described here makes this healing miracle different from most others, where very little is said about the person being raised.

Once Tabitha had died, scripture says “they” washed her and laid her out in an upper room.  Then the disciples, who are in Joppa, call for Peter, who is in Lydda where he has just healed a paralyzed man named Aeneas.  But our English language obscures an important feature of the story.  If you read the text in English, it says that the “disciples” called for Peter.  If you read it in Greek, you see immediately that the noun for “disciples” has been rendered in the feminine form, indicating that the disciples who called for Peter were a community of women.

That may not seem terribly unusual to you, here, today.  We’re finally, perhaps, a generation or two removed from debates in the church about the role of women.  This congregation has had women serve as ushers, lectors, Council members (even chairs), and pastors.  There is no role in this community that is not open to women and men alike.

But that has not always been the case here.  If you don’t already know the stories, you should ask one of the bold women among us who were here back in the day when the ushers and Council members and pastors were all men.  They remember those stories, because they were here for them.  And some of you have come to this congregation from communities where women still are not allowed to preach or to lead on the same terms as men.  Some of you have told me that one of the reasons you’ve chosen to raise your children here at St. Luke’s is so that your daughters as well as your sons hear from the earliest age that there are no barriers to the forms of service they can offer to God and to God’s people on account of who they are, or who they become.

Those are the kind of women who surround Tabitha’s bed, women the scriptures explicitly call “disciples.”  What’s more, these women, these disciples, call for Peter with what I think we have to call an attitude of expectation.  Unlike the widow at Nain, who wandered into Jesus path with her dead son; unlike Jairus, who called for Jesus while his daughter was still alive; these women see Tabitha dead, they wash her body, they lay her out in the upper room, then they call for Peter, because they already know that God is at work in this apostle acting powerfully to bring life and healing to people and places left for dead.  They have an expectation of resurrection.

I actually think that expectation is the beginning of this miracle.  Had these women, these disciples, been of the mind that the world was limited to what they’d always seen and known, then they would not have called for Peter.  They would have cried sorrowful tears and anointed Tabitha for burial and seen her to the grave.  They would have preached a nice homily about what a devoted and generous woman she was, and then buried her in the ground.  But that is not what the women gathered around Tabitha do.  Instead, believing that God had been set loose when the stone had been rolled back from the cave; believing that Jesus had delivered on his promises, and that there was indeed an Advocate blowing wildly through the world and acting on their behalf, they call for Peter with an expectation of resurrection.

Without this expectation, there would have been no miracle.  Without the apparently crazy conviction that the world as it is is not the world as it will be, nothing new can happen, no new life can begin.

Sisters and brothers, don’t we need to hear this message today?  After this week?

Think back to all that has happened since the last time we gathered.  In Boston.  In Waco.  In Washington.  Bombs, and explosions, and guns.  Acts of terrorism.  Human disasters.  Failed leadership.

Aren’t you tempted to give up?  Doesn’t it seem like things are only getting worse?  Like the world as it is is the world as it will always be?  Doesn’t it make you want to put your head down and wait for it all to be over?

The miracle of new life begins when the disciples act with an expectation of resurrection.  They call on Peter, who calls on Jesus.  We don’t hear it in this story, but in the one that immediately precedes it.  Peter gets a paralytic man back on his feet calling out to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you; get up and make your bed!”  It is so like the words Jesus used when he raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead, whom he said was only sleeping, “Child, get up!”  Before the name of Jesus, the powers of this world — sexism, violence, even the laws that govern life and death — are powerless.

I needed to hear that this week.  I suspect you did as well.

So, expecting a resurrection, the women disciples in Joppa call for Peter.  Once he arrives we are told “the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them” (Acts 9:39)

Again, the English here hides something from us.  The verb we translate as “showing” tunics and other clothing indicates that the widows are actually wearing the garments that they are showing Peter.  They are dressed in Tabitha’s good works.  They are robed in her righteousness.

There’s an interesting progression of descriptors of these women that I wonder about.  First there is a woman, a female disciple, named Tabitha.  Then there are the disciples, who are women, who call for Peter.  Now there are widows standing next to the body.  First a woman, with a name, who is the occasion for a miracle.  Then women, named disciples, who expect resurrection in their lives.  Then widows, draped with dignity, gathered around a woman they clearly love.

poverty has a woman's faceWidows, whom scripture tells us again and again were among the least powerful and most vulnerable people in the society of Jesus’ time because they had no man, no household, to care for them, gather in the upper room.  Widows, the least powerful and most vulnerable, know the power of the risen Lord and call for Peter to heal their friend, Tabitha.  The way the story is told, it’s almost impossible to tell: were the widows also the female disciples?  Was Tabitha one of them?  If so, where did she get the goods to craft the clothing that the other widows wore?

Remember, all the believers were living in community, sharing all that they owned and distributing it as each had need.  In that kind of community, in a community of radical sharing, it might be harder to tell who was a woman of means and who was a widow, since all were being cared for, and loved, and highly regarded.

I suspect the miracle started that far back.  Long before Tabitha died.  Even before she started stitching together the clothes those widows wore as their testimony to the power of the Lord of Life.  I think the miracle started when women and men, rich and poor, found a new way of living together that made sure everyone was fed, everyone was clothed, everyone was cared for.

For a woman, a widow, a paralyzed man, that kind of community would be a miracle in and of itself — and I don’t just mean then, I mean now.  When I think about the community of shared goods that marks the followers of Jesus in the book of Acts, I can’t help but think of the rummage sale and the potlucks and spaghetti suppers.  I can’t help but think about the women here, really, who take the remnants and cast-offs of other people’s lives and turn them into resources for those who are making do with less in these difficult economic times.

Like Tabitha, these women have names.  They are Betty, Pat, Judi, Dorothea, Dea, Kay and Hope.  There is always hope.  And these women know what it means to stand gathered around something abandoned, something left for dead, with the expectation of resurrection.  Their lives are a witness.

In the end, Tabitha’s good works and acts of charity aren’t forms of works righteousness, they are signs of the reign of God come near.  She does not earn God’s healing power as a reward for all that she has done anymore than the son of the widow at Nain, or the daughter of Jairus.  God heals Tabitha because God heals.  And Tabitha performed works of charity because, called by the Holy Spirit into community, these works were the sign of the new life that slipped out of the grave along with Jesus as a testimony of hope that the world as it is is changing.  People are being fed and clothed, with food and with dignity.

It’s been a long, hard week.  It has felt like the kind of nightmare from which you seem to wake up, only to find yourself in the next layer of the dreaming.  But Jesus comes to us under many names — Peter, Tabitha, Betty, Hope — and shakes us from our slumber.  Get up and make your bed.  The sun is rising.