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St Paul's ChurchSermon preached by E. Suzane Wille, Seminarian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, Connecticut
The Great Vigil of Easter – April 11, 2009

Alleluia! Christ is risen! +

The Lord is risen, indeed.

But the women who showed up at the tomb that first Sunday didn’t know it. They came after Jesus’ arrest, when all the disciples had scattered in fear. They watched as the one who promised the kingdom of God was crucified. They attended Joseph of Arimathea as he took Christ’s body down from the cross, wrapped it in a linen cloth, lay it in the tomb, and rolled a stone against the door of that tomb.

The women mourned the death of their hopes on Friday, during the Sabbath on Saturday, and, finally, they did what they were supposed to do: they pushed their grief deep down, accustomed themselves to disappointment and the fact that they were alone, and they bought spices, to go anoint the body. They weren’t even sure they were going to be successful, for they had seen the rock that had been rolled in front of the tomb. Who would roll it away for them?

And then, they round the corner, see the tomb, and the rock is rolled away. There is no dead body, only a young man in a white robe, an angel, and the women were alarmed. And the angel announces the good news that they are looking in the wrong place: “Look, don’t be scared,” he said. “You’re looking for Jesus who was crucified, but he’s not here. He’s been raised from the dead and has already left for Galilee, where he said he was going. Tell his disciples to meet him there; if you go, you will see him again.”

This is amazing news! The women are terrified, though; they flee from the tomb only to be met by Jesus himself. The women knew the story, they had heard the stories of God’s amazing power and faithfulness, the same stories we heard tonight: God freeing their ancestors from slavery and defeating their oppressor Pharoah. They knew that God had promised that all who thirsted would drink and that all who hungered would be fed in ways that only God can provide. They knew that God promised to transform them, cleansing them of sin, and to be their God forever.

They knew all of that, yet when Jesus was crucified, they did what most of us do when facing unmanageable loss and grief, they squared their shoulders and prepared to get on with life, readjusting their expectations, putting aside their hopes. They were ready to perform the final ministrations to a man who was no more than a man, who in the end, couldn’t do anything to really help them. And then, amazingly, they find that this time, this time, their hope was alive! The promises were true!

Though we are not capable of fully understanding the enormity of God or even the events we remember together tonight, every year we travel through Holy Week. And we realize again that we are not so distant from the high priests or from the bandits hanging next to Jesus. We are kin with the Roman guards and with the ones casting lots at the base of the cross. We cry right along with the women on the hillside, with Mary, losing her son, and we jeer alongside the skeptical onlookers. We are one with Pilate and Caiaphas – and with Peter and with John. We are somehow intimately connected to all of these characters, and we are intimately connected to Jesus. For we are one body with all humanity, and miraculously, have also been invited to be one body with Christ. Jesus is the thin place that opens those two disparate worlds to each other. And even in the darkest hour of Lent – on Good Friday – the day Jesus cried out in despair, “My God, why have you abandoned me!?” and breathed his last in as human an experience as there can be, we are mysteriously assured that this is holy ground, that God is right here with us, and that the cross is but a thin place that shows us the way to new and eternal life.

Ten years ago, on this night, I was baptized, welcomed into the Body of Christ. I had been moving towards God for years and finally felt ready to say ‘yes’ wholeheartedly to God, and to a particular Christian community. I had prepared for nearly a year, with a group of fellow travelers, to be baptized at the Easter Vigil. A few nights before the Vigil, I was talking to my good friend Jon, who was a member of the church and a very faithful Christian. I told him how excited I was, how ready I was to be baptized and to join the church. But, I confessed, I still had a problem with the resurrection. “I think,” I said, “that Jesus was a great teacher, uniquely in touch with God, who shows us how to live, but I’m not sure about the resurrection.” Jon looked at me carefully, and he said, “I believe in the Resurrection because it tells us that Life wins.”

All the molecules in the room shifted when he said that. In an instant, I got it. Life wins.

That is what we celebrate tonight. That out of death, and fear, and despair, hope, and joy, and life triumph.

And I’ve seen it. And I know you have, too.

Last summer, I was in South Africa, and I visited one of the townships there, a place where blacks still live separated from whites, where unemployment can reach 80%, where children are orphaned daily by AIDS. And there I met women in the township who were part of an amazing project. They had gotten themselves organized, trained as child and youth care workers, and now they spend the whole day, beginning as early as 4 in the morning, travelling to the homes of AIDS orphans, many of whom now live with their poor grannies, and they help those children get ready for school, organize the household finances, buy groceries and cook. And after school, they take the children to a playground hat they built where it is safe and the children can play as children should.

Out of the despair of poverty and death-dealing AIDS, this community is rising, women who were not educated and who could barely support themselves or their families, now have training and employment. Children orphaned now can stay in their homes, rather than being sent to an orphanage. A whole community has been resurrected.

Christ IS risen. Life wins.

Too often, though, like the women on the first Sunday after the crucifixion, we adjust our expectations, prepare ourselves not to hope for any more, resign ourselves to hopelessness and death. But we’re wrong. That’s what the Gospels tell us. Our God is NOT a dead God, not a God who is locked up, still, quiet. A God we must care for but not expect anything from.

Instead, God meets his disciples, and tells them to go back to Galilee, where he will be. But we know Jesus is going to ascend to heaven, so what’s in Galilee?

The people, his ministry and teaching. He is sending his disciples back to do the work.

He doesn’t want people to just talk about him, grieve for him, or even worship him. He wants them to return to the work he has done and now gives us to do: preaching and teaching, healing, and loving. Christ’s resurrection is real. Life wins. But we are meant to be resurrection people, who rise up as the body of Christ, and go among the people to do God’s work. So don’t expect to go to the tomb and see a God who is dead. And understand why the women were afraid to see Jesus raised: they realize that God is real, that our lives must be different, alive, joyful, loving, and in service to one another.

For if Christ is raised, if Jesus is who he says he is, then we can’t live our lives as sleepwalkers; instead we are meant to live as he did, in service and love, of God and of one another. If that’s the case, we might prefer to leave him in the tomb because it would be easier. But it would also be death.

And Jesus is with us in death: he is with us at the unemployment office, at the sickbed of a loved one, during the funeral, after the breakup, next to us as we sin and as we face our shame and remorse at that sin.

So go there. Go to all the broken places in your life, feel all the grief, and the sorrow, and the pain. Go right into the tomb and look squarely at all the deaths in your life. But don’t get comfortable. And don’t expect that Jesus is going to sit there quietly, playing dead. He’ll be with you, but he’ll be raising you up with him, finding resurrection in all the dead places in your life.

So, go into the tomb but get ready to run to Galilee. Get ready to be joyful again. Get ready to have your life turned upside down. Because Hope conquers despair. Love defeats fear. Death does not have the final word, death does NOT win. Life does.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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