It seemed like a good idea at the time.
A few months ago, back when things were normal, we planned a six weeks series of conversations about death and dying. It’s a hard topic. But together, we would confront our fears and engage our imaginations. We would talk about our experiences of grief. We would explore what scares us about death: Is it the pain of dying, or being forgotten, or ceasing to exist - or existing forever? We would speculate about what happens after we die. It would be a safe space to talk about death without the pressing grief of recent loss. And what better time than Lent to meditate on the brevity of life?
But then, by a few weeks into Lent, the coronavirus reached the United States. And suddenly, the potential for loss and grief became very real. Seeing what happened in other countries, we realized that a lot of people were going to die here. Before it was all over, we would all probably know someone who died from COVID-19. So Erin and I wondered if this series was still a good idea. The social isolation was already giving some of us some dark thoughts. Maybe this wasn’t a good time for fixating on death. We thought about canceling the series altogether.
But at the same time it felt like the exact right conversations to be having. We were seeing all around us the various ways that people respond to the fear of death, some healthier than others. The crisis was revealing what people valued most and we were seeing the best and worst of humanity. The prospect of death has a way of doing that. And it would do no good to look away.
At one end of the spectrum, we’ve seen pandemic profiteers hoarding hand sanitizer and price-gouging their customers. We’ve seen elected officials urging our elders to sacrifice their lives for the good of the economy. We’ve seen the One Percent exploiting an international public health crisis to enrich themselves and their friends. And we’ve seen spring breakers stubbornly partying at the beach and Christian pastors recklessly still passing the plate at church.
But at the other end of the spectrum, we’ve seen front-line workers running our society while putting themselves at risk. We’ve seen medical professionals saving lives while working without proper protective equipment. We’ve seen people sewing masks so their neighbors can buy groceries or go to their jobs. We’ve seen churches adapting to the lockdown to keep congregations and communities safe.
In similar ways, in our little congregation, we’ve seen what’s most important to us. Being together and seeing each other’s faces has drawn us to many, many Zoom gatherings. We care about our neighbors and communities so we’ve been scrupulous about social distancing. We want to help so we’re delivering groceries and sewing masks and mobilizing relief efforts. And many of us - whether we really want to or not - are slowing down. We’re making more time for family and friends, for baking and gardening, for reading and writing, for exercising and meditating.
Erin and I were reflecting on how many of us are slowing down and prioritizing different things than we did a few months ago or even a few weeks ago. And she said, “People shouldn’t have to die in order for us to make these changes.” I agree. We shouldn’t have to be locked down or lose our jobs in order to have enough time for family and hobbies and the things that make us healthy and happy. People shouldn’t have to die in order for the rest of us to do what’s good for us and for others.
But that often is the way of things, isn’t it? When the fragility of life confronts us, it inspires us to change.
Maybe you’ve seen this in your own life. Perhaps a health scare or the loss of a loved one has motivated you to make a big change: to work less, to get sober, to visit church, to take risks, to be present, to be authentic, to volunteer.
We’ve certainly seen this pattern in society. Before the labor movement won safer and healthier working conditions, many workers died in factory fires and mining explosions. Before the civil rights movement won voting rights and desegregation, children were bombed and adults were beaten and shot. Before activists mobilized society to find treatments and prevention and hopefully one day a cure, an unimaginable number of people died from AIDS, in another pandemic.
We are often careless with life. But sometimes, when we are afraid to lose it, we realize that we can’t go back to what was normal. We have to go forward to something new, to something better.
That is sometimes how it works. And even more see when a hero sacrifices their life for what they believe in. The deaths of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Harvey Milk galvanized people’s commitments to their movements. And something similar happened to the disciples of Jesus after his death. But it was not quite the same.
In our gospel reading, the women were on the frontlines of the crucifixion. The men were in hiding, but the women were the last ones at the cross and the first ones at the tomb. They went there because the rituals of grieving were predictable and reassuring. They were normal. Jesus was almost certainly not the first loved one that they had lost. Did you know that the average lifespan of Jews in the first century was probably just 28 years old? Disease, famine, and war took their toll. So the women had buried others. Probably their parents. Maybe even husbands and children. And they were seeking comfort in the familiar smells of the spices and the familiar sounds of the prayers.
Archaeologists have uncovered tombs like the one Jesus was in. Inside, they found bowls and jars for spices and perfumes that loved ones left there to cover the odor of decomposition. So we have some idea of what the women were planning. They would have passed through the first chamber, ducked low under a second doorway, and entered a tiny chamber where the body of Jesus was beginning to smell. After anointing Jesus’ head, they would have left the sweet-smelling stuff with his body as they left the tomb.
But I don’t think that was all that they planned to leave behind that morning. They were going to bury more than the body of Jesus that day. They were going to bury their hopes for a better world. In just a few years of ministry and teaching and friendship Jesus had given them hope that a better world was possible. A world in which bodies were healed, relationships were restored, oppressors were overthrown, and religion was authentic and sincere. But the powerful held on to their power, and Jesus died.
And when that happened that vision for the kingdom of God on earth died with him. And the women needed to grieve this other loss, too. They needed to mourn that other world. In order to carry on, they were resigning themselves to the normal they knew, the world with cancer and racism and chemical weapons and televangelists. For a few years they had seen glimpses of the promised land, but now it was clear they would never enter into it. So it was time to get comfortable again with what was familiar, and what better way to do that than to climb down into that tomb and look Death right in the face.
But this death was not like the other deaths.
As soon as the women arrived, all their plans were thrown out the window. The stone was rolled away. Jesus was missing. And an angel was there with a message for them: “Tell the boys Jesus is going on ahead of you.”
Which, of course he is. Jesus is always ahead of us, calling us into a better future.
Nobody believed them at first, of course. But over time, even the men began to feel that Jesus was still with them. They began sharing stories with each other of Jesus sightings. First, it was Mary Magdalene. Then, it was two of the men on the road. Then finally, it was all of them while they were sharing dinner. And they heard Jesus say, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.”
The empty tomb took on a significance that an occupied tomb never would have. The disciples began to believe that Jesus was God. If this is true, it means two mind-blowing things. First, the crucifixion shows us that God is in solidarity with us in our suffering. Second, the resurrection shows us that God takes the side of the suffering, the poor, the powerless, the unjustly abused - and raises them up.
The image above is from a mosaic in the Church of the Holy Savior in Chora, Turkey. It depicts the resurrection - in Greek anastasis or “uprising.” Jesus is flanked by Abel, the first murder victim, and John the Baptist, the first martyr. He is standing on the broken gates of Hades, over the broken locks and bolts of freed prisoners, while yanking Adam and Eve from their own graves. Not only is Jesus rising from his own grave but he is bringing everyone up with him. As Paul wrote, “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor 15:22). It's a communal resurrection. An uprising for the people!
After the resurrection, there was no normal that the disciples could go back to. They could not go back to business as usual. They could not accept the world as it is. Instead, they could only go forward into a new reality where the rich and powerful - and not even death - have the final say over us.
During this Easter season, in a period of pandemic, let’s follow their example. Forget getting back to normal, whatever that was. Forget accepting the world as it is. Instead, let’s commit ourselves even more to the new reality of the kingdom of God, where faith, hope, love, peace, and justice are at home with us.
Like Paul, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Another world is possible!