Lord of the Living

A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Claire Nevin-Field on the Feast of the Resurrection

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When my daughters were young we went through the inevitable “I want a hermit crab” stage. I steadfastly resisted all pleas, but my firm resolve ultimately came to naught. My daughters had gone off with a friend’s family to the beach and into one of those ubiquitous shops that has a myriad of stuff no one really wants or needs, except for the 5 minutes you are in the store, and the hermit crab display was front and center. And so at the end of the day they returned home with their new, treasured possession, a box with two hermit crabs in it. I was somewhat less than thrilled, but what can you do? We were now responsible for feeding and sheltering these two little creatures of God. As you can imagine, the thrill of the crab wore off pretty quickly and so the crabs spent the bulk of their time unsupervised. And, of course, it wasn’t long before one of them, after, as I like to imagine it spending endless hours in a box hatching a plan a la The Great Escape, freed itself from its box and went rogue. Despite all our efforts, we just could not locate the darn thing. Until one morning we found the shell—just the shell. An empty shell. The occupant was long gone (although we did manage to locate said occupant about a week later by following a noxious odor).

While this might be stretching it for an analogy, this is sort of what the disciples discovered that morning (not the noxious smell part)—an empty shell of a tomb, its occupant MIA. Mary, the first one there, didn’t even make it into the doorway to see anything. She was completely thrown off by the fact that the stone was gone and the door was open—and she just knew someone had stolen her Lord’s body, so she ran off to tell Simon Peter and the beloved disciple—who both headed quickly back to the tomb, whether to double check on her story or to start a search party for the body we don’t know. But when they got there they discovered Mary was right. The body was gone. Odd that the grave-robbers would have taken the time to undress the body and neatly fold the clothes up, but they were looking right at the evidence so what else were they to conclude?

You might think that those who had been closest to Jesus, who had heard him predict his own death three times and hint, more than hint that the story wouldn’t end there—you might think they would have had some insight. But no. John tells us they remained in the dark because they—not one of them—understood scripture—especially the part about Jesus rising from the dead. John also tells us the beloved disciple looked into the tomb and believed—what he believed isn’t something the Gospel tells us. But that seemed to be enough for the two men, so they headed home.

Mary—she stayed put. She wanted to be near the last place she had seen her beloved—to mourn, watch and wait—see what might happen next. And so the rest of the story belongs to her. She sees the angels and has a chat with them—for some reason never once thinking that they might be responsible for the missing body. And she is the first to see the Risen Lord, cleverly disguised as the gardener—all decked out in fresh new clothes. And when he spoke to her, when he called her name, she believed. Peter and the other disciple had believed too, even though they had no evidence—they had seen nothing really to warrant belief. Just an empty tomb.

And while this decidedly odd story might be a shaky start for a religion, might seem a bit fantastic, some 2000 years later this story, the empty tomb, the pile of old clothes are still pretty compelling. And we still spend an awful lot of time peering into the tomb and trying to answer all the questions the story generates. What really happened? How did it happen? What were the mechanics, the physics? What would a forensic team have found if they had put yellow tape around the whole garden and meticulously combed over every blade of grass, every inch of the empty tomb, every fiber of the folded clothes? And we also still try to figure out how to explain it all to anyone who doesn’t quite believe.

Resurrection, the dead coming back to life, is pretty far out of our experience. Something I would venture no one has ever seen. No one saw it happen that morning and to the best of my knowledge no one has seen it since. Jesus’ resurrection was about the only thing in his life that was totally and completely private—a moment or moments between him and God. No witnesses. No one ever could or will be able to say exactly what happened in that tomb because no one saw it. They all showed up after the fact. Peter and the beloved saw the clothes. Mary saw the angel. Everybody else was still asleep or lingering over their morning coffee and the latest issue of the NY Times. Which is all actually OK, because despite the disciples’ inability to immediately and completely connect the dots, putting together everything Jesus had said with the Scriptures and coming up with the clear answer, despite this obtuseness, they know not to hang around the tomb and wait. Even they knew that a graveyard is not the most likely place to encounter the Lord of Life—so, instinctively, they took off. They could see Jesus wasn’t there. I suppose if he had wanted to he could have sat in that tomb a while and waited for them to find him—a divine game of hide and seek. He could have been sitting there when they showed up glowing with Resurrection light and shouting “guess who”? But he wasn’t. The Risen One had too much to do and too many people to see to sit still. The Living One’s business was among the living to whom he appeared four more times in John’s telling of the story. And every time he met with them they changed a bit—they became more confident, bolder and stronger. Every time he met with them they became a little more like him.

It is these appearances and what happened in them that are the real focus of the resurrection story, because despite our endless fascination with the “how” of the empty tomb none of us can ever really know—at least not in any way that would answer all questions. Exactly what happened in the tomb some time between Friday night and Sunday morning was between God and Jesus. Easter, as we know it, really began the moment Mary heard the gardener say her name and she knew, she knew who he was. That is the miracle. The encounter with the living God. And it still is the miracle. And every time we encounter him we change a bit—we become a little more confident, bolder, stronger, a little more like him.

Every time we see him in the gardener, in our friend, our lover, our child, the man with the sign asking for food outside the WaWa, the person who irritates us the most at work, our mother’s wrinkled face—we encounter him. We encounter this puzzling, intriguing, funny, challenging, brilliant, comforting, life-giving Savior who refuses to stay put in a tomb or anywhere else. So when someone asks me to justify my belief in the Risen Christ, my confidence in Resurrection, my answer, while short on forensics, is long on love. It is a response that, to quote Fred Boechner, includes “I can’t prove a thing, but there’s something about his eyes and his voice. There’s something about the way he carries his head, his hands. The way he carries his cross. The way he carries me.” I know he lives because I live, because we live. Because I have met the Risen One in all sorts of places and people, and because of this I know we are not alone. I have encountered his comforting presence in the depths of grief and despair and felt him breathe life back into me—and I have watched him to do the same for countless others. I believe because while we never know how, when or where the Living One will turn up next, we know he will. Because the gardener is always standing nearby ready to greet us—to catch our attention, bring us up short knowing we have just encountered the Lord of Life—then to send us out into the world carrying that life within us—sharing with the world the abundant, endless life of the One who is the answer to all questions.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

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The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field

The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field is the rector of St. Peter's Church.

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