Most people wouldn’t put a four foot wide picture of a cemetery in their living room. But, as of just a couple weeks ago, my family isn’t most people. The picture you see here now hangs in our living room over the couch. And I’ll tell you, it’s a real conversation starter. “Um, is that a cemetery?” “Yeah.” “Huh.”
This photograph has sentimental value to us. It was taken by my wife’s uncle, David Kaufman, a Canadian photographer and documentary film maker, and a wonderful artist. One of David’s passions is capturing forgotten or overlooked or disappearing places.
This picture is part of a series of photos David has taken of Jewish cemeteries in Poland. This one in particular is in Warsaw. You see, Polish Jews were decimated in the Holocaust during the Second World War and so there is no one left to care for these cemeteries. Many are rundown, forgotten, abandoned. In some cases tombstones have been pushed over. A far cry from our beautiful Rose Hill Cemetery, where I’m guessing many of you parked this morning.
But what is stunning about this photo is the way, despite having no one to care for it—out of the midst of death and abandonment, new life springs forth. Look at how the trees have grown up from among the graves and now create this beautiful canopy, with the path leading to the horizon.
When Jenny suggested we put a picture of an abandoned cemetery in our living room, you might image, I was dubious, but I love this photo because it shows how life springs forth out of death.
And it reminds me of Easter. After all, the Easter story takes places where? In a Jewish cemetery. Jesus was tried, beaten, and crucified and then laid in a tomb in a Jewish cemetery, in a cave with a stone rolled in front of it. And that is where our story takes place, three days later on Sunday morning.
Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” (what a way to be remembered in the annals of history!) come to the cemetery as dawn is breaking. It’s interesting to try to put ourselves in their shoes. What where they thinking? What were they feeling? Why were they even there? In another account of the Easter story, they came to anoint Jesus’ dead body, because they couldn’t when he died because of the Jewish Sabbath. But there is no talk here of that.
So, why have they come? In our minds, we think, to meet the resurrected Jesus, of course—but they don’t know that. In fact, just the opposite. They had come to make sure he was dead. One commentator says that Matthew’s version of the story may reflect a burial custom that existed at the time that when someone died, people were to come to the tomb for three days to confirm the person was actually dead, that they weren’t buried alive.
So, imagine: the women go to the tomb on Friday after Jesus has been laid there, press their ears against the stone, in the hope that Jesus was somehow alive, even after that terrible crucifixion. They listen and hear only silence. They come again Saturday, with a slim hope that Jesus might still be alive. They listen. Nothing. And now they have come on Sunday, the third day. There’s no way Jesus is alive. What they have come to do here at Sunday at dawn is confirm that Jesus is dead. They have come to bear witness to death and not to life. They weren’t hoping to find Jesus alive. They were coming to admit to the inescapability of death.
Don’t we look at our world, our lives in the same way? We pick up the paper, we turn on the TV, we read the news online, and what do we expect to find: violence, war, hate, disfunction. We pull up the news, we look at our world, expecting to find death.
I may have said this before, but my father-in-law is a journalism professor, he covered, wrote, produced the news for twenty-five years, and I’ll never forget when he told me that people interpret the news in terms of threats—what poses the biggest or most immediate threat to them. Number one? The weather. Number two? The starting pitcher for the Phillies. Just kidding. What he was saying was that each morning we do our own threat assessment, just like the CIA. We ask: what could go wrong? What could hurt me or those I love?
We look at the world and what we expect to find is death.
The angels says, “He is not here; he has been raised.” These are world-changing, life-changing words. “He is not here. He is risen.” The death you came to confirm, the death you expected to find, has been destroyed by the power of God, by the power of love.”
And now nothing will ever be the same.
Because the death we expect to find when we look at our world has been defeated by the risen Christ, the power of resurrection and love. Jesus died one of the worst kind of deaths you could die—crucifixion—he was abandoned by his closest friends, the disciples. He was dead and buried. Dead. Dead. Dead. Three days dead. And now alive.
Like the two Marys, we can never look at our world in the same way again. Because now death, suffering, abandonment, and despair no longer have the last word. They no longer determine our destiny. Every story of death that we see, every story of death that we tell, all bear the seeds of resurrection and new life—not just when we get to heaven—but here and now.
Today we proclaim that Christ is risen, and so are we, and so is God’s world. Amidst the world’s dysfunction God is bringing forth harmony. Out of the world’s suffering, God is bringing forth hope. Out of so much death, God brings forth life.
And so it is for your life now. The story of your life is forever altered. Perhaps you look at your life and see disease, brokenness, hopelessness. God sees the power of life, and the persistence of love.
Like an abandoned Jewish cemetery, new life springs forth amidst the so much death. All the head stones of your life: grief, regret, shame, loneliness, pain, fear, broken relationships. Amidst these, new life bursts forth from the dark earth and reaches to the sky, exploding to life. All because God loves you.
It is our own Easter earthquake.
When the Marys see Jesus they fall at his feet. And he tells them: “Do not be afraid.”
How could you not? Earthquake? Angel? Empty tomb? Resurrected Jesus? But not just that: everything they thought they knew had changed. Their stories were suddenly open-ended.
I’m a writer. I love to write, and I like knowing the beginning, middle, and end. I like to know where I’m going and how I’m going to get there. And there is nothing more troubling then when that trajectory goes off course, when I don’t know what happens next (of the very thing I am writing.)
And I think we have our own narrative of our lives, the arc, the trajectory, the story. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and we are somewhere along that journey. The Marys had already written a story about religious and political persecution. About loss and grief. It was a bad story, but at least they knew how it ended. But then Jesus rises from the dead and just as suddenly as he appeared, all bets are off. Our lives are open-ended. Nothing is written. Now anything and everything are possible. That can be a terrifying, and a beautiful and joyous and a wondrous thing.
Jesus tells them to go to Galilee, back home, that he’d meet them there. And we head back to our homes and our neighborhoods. Jesus will meet us there as he has met us here. In Word and song and Table.
“Don’t be afraid,” he says. This is the first day of the rest of your life. Amen.
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