Bishop Russell's Easter Greeting 2020
WHAT WILL WE DO WITH AN EMPTY TOMB?
Two Sundays ago I was at St. Simon's in Fort Walton Beach in order to live stream the worship service. I’ve already reflected about that experience in an earlier video; but, now, here is the rest of the story.
As I sat in the silence before the service began, so much was not right. The room was empty, and it dawned on me that it would remain that way. And in that revelation, the reality of this worldwide disaster was laid bare before me. So much is being lost, and there is so much loss. Unfinished conversations, unfulfilled dreams, uncompleted plans. Postponements and cancellations. So much uncertainty and fear. And of course, the sickness itself and the suffering and death it has unleashed around the globe. The church was empty, and with each thought, I felt my soul emptying, too.
As I sat there, a distant memory from seminary began to emerge. It was my first year in our studies of the New Testament. We were looking at the Easter stories, and our professor began to talk about the empty tomb. He made the comment that no one ever denied that the tomb was empty. He went on to talk about the power of the Roman Empire. He made the case that if there was a way to discredit the story, the powers, principalities and politicians would have done so. They were experts at political spin and notoriously adept at squashing any propaganda that threatened their authority. And yet, no one ever denied or discredited that the tomb was empty. Then he asked us, “So the question to ponder is what will you do with an empty tomb?”
It also dawned on me as I sat in that empty room, this is exactly where Easter has always begun. No matter which story you read, it began at the grave in an empty tomb. That was the sign that something had happened, but it was too soon to know just what it was that had happened. What do you do with an empty tomb?
Knowing what they knew about the certainty of death, it made sense that the only answer was a cruel joke or thievery. Someone had taken his body which only deepened the abyss of emptiness in Mary’s heart. As John tells it, Mary has a come apart. The reality is laid bare before her. She is empty. So much was lost when Jesus died, and now his body is gone too.
And then, there is that moment when Jesus simply says her name, “Mary.” Someone once wrote “how small a thought it takes to fill a whole life.” And with that small thought, Mary’s heart begins to fill. Whatever Easter is, new life, new creation, redemption, salvation - whatever Easter is - it is the answer to a deeper question than my professor asked of us. And the question is this, “What will God do with an empty tomb?”
What God does is God fills it up. God fills it up with a choice, the choice for life. And God has made the same choice for you as he made for his Son. God will not give up on us. God will never forsake us. This is what God does at the grave. And it is not just about one day long ago, and it is not reserved for after we die. This life begins today, and it begins right here in our emptiness.
So then what will we do with this empty tomb? Believe? Maybe, but then again what I think is being asked of this day is not if we believe, rather that we will be open to being surprised.
Now you need to know that being open to surprise is not as easy as it sounds for it means entertaining the idea that the story is seldom over when we think it is, and that the reality that is laid bare around us right now is not the final scene. Being surprised means letting go of being so certain about the world around us so that we might begin to be surprised by God’s reality.
And this idea of being surprised at least for me, it always seems to begin with small thoughts. Take for instance in that empty room. It was so insignificant. It happened during the prayers of the people. I was being lulled into the familiar rhythm of words I have heard my entire life, when suddenly the priest said, “And we pray for expectant mothers.” How small a thought can fill an entire life. I think I gasped.
What better sign of new life and greater reality is there in this world than an expectant mother? They are full of life and hope and love for a future yet unborn. I was surprised! And that surprise began to chip away at the emptiness. Right there in that empty room, I began to fill. I don’t know what you call that, but I call that Easter.
Easter is about being surprised when you do not understand or being surprised by the kindness of someone you have written off. It's being surprised by new love after losing someone you love. It's being surprised that you find yourself laughing when all you have known are tears. It's being surprised that you can feel something after months of being numb. It's being surprised that you are no longer afraid of that one thing, whatever that is, or being surprised that the past truly is the past and you strangely feel free.
What will we do with an empty tomb? I for one will stand in the emptiness and dare to be open to surprise. To listen for a song, even at the grave. To watch for a sign, even when its dark. To listen for a word, even when it is silent. And I will sing of that surprise into this empty world.
One of the most beautiful anthems in our prayer book is in the burial office. “You only are immortal, the creator and maker of humanity; and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and to earth shall we return. For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, 'You are dust, and to dust you shall return.' All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
So what will we do with an empty tomb? We will sing. We will sing the song of Easter surprise. Alleluia.
The tomb was empty. And that room was empty. But that does not mean that Jesus is not risen. And all our empty buildings does not mean that the church is empty. Because you and I are the church.
So church, what will you do with an empty tomb? Be open to surprise. And sing. Let us sing out our song; and let the world know that the tomb may be empty, our buildings may be empty, but our hearts are filled. Our hearts are filled with life because of what God did with the tomb. Our hearts are filled with joy, filled with mercy, filled with hope. So lets sing. To help you with your song, here are a few folks from our church to help finish this sermon.