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Easter 1, The tomb is empty

The following sermon was preached by David L. Miller, former Cornelsen Director of Spiritual Formation, Dean of the Chapel, in Augustana Chapel at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on Wednesday, April 11, 2007.


John 20: 1-18

I.

Who are you looking for?
What do you want to see?
Familiar questions to me during my years of traveling and writing.
I stammered my answer, but it was ever the same:
I want to see the suffering.
Send me where tragedy is thick as a summer storm, where there food is scarce, where justice is a joke, where mercy is weakness, where thousands flee home in panic, where parents bury their fondest dreams in road ditches as they run.
Send me where the children are too weak to cry, where death and life lock in mortal combat on the frontiers of humanity.
Send me there.

Why?
Because, I'd answer, I want to reveal the faces that will force people to care.
I want to shock them into compassion for the victims of a world gone mad.
That was true. But it was half-truth.
I feared speaking the full truth lest people think me crazy.
I wanted to see, but I sought the face my soul needed to see to live.
I went to find what the beloved disciple discovered at Jesus empty tomb.
I wanted to experience what he experienced, to feel what he felt, and be lifted from despair and grief over the fallenness of life. I wanted to discover I dwell in a world lit up from within by a love that just can't be killed.
The beloved disciple came to the tomb, he saw and believed that no tomb can hold the love of the One who holds him.
That's what I wanted to know. So I went.

II.

I went to southern Sudan, traveling rutted dirt roads amid crushing hunger and chaos.
Long before Darfur became a household name southern Sudan was the hungriest, most brutal place on earth.
I traveled dirt tracks through the bush several days ahead of a food convoy.
Along the roads walked tens of thousands of refugees, fleeing government troops as fast as their famished frames would carry them.
The troops would take a village, fence it off and let nothing in and out: forced starvation.
They would smashed the heads of children against stones and throw their limp bodies in the village well.
Stories spread and the population fled their thatched homes in droves: two million displaced in the south, living, sleeping and dieing in the bush.
Pastors of congregations bore wafers of bread from the altar to celebrate Eucharist in the low bushes for a thousand, five thousand and more. The body of Christ for the dieing.
In those days, the darkest place on Earth may have been Ame in the hundred degree heat of mid-day.10,000 people camped there. They had little food, no medication, no relief workers. UN workers had pulled out after their people got shot and killed after getting caught in the middle of a fire fight between government troops and rebels.
People carried all they owned on their back, their seed long since eaten. Household items littered the road where people dropped them when they became too heavy to bear.
Human bodies no longer looked human. Children's ribs and pelvises were shrink- wrapped as if some terrible machine had sucked every ounce of moisture from their bodies. Men, six and a half feet tall, weighed maybe 75 pounds. They sat on the ground holding their knees, looking more like giant insects than human beings.
There was a hospital at Ame, a concrete bunker with a dirt floor built by the army for riflemen.
Inside lay 15 or 18 bodies, human beings, barely alive, in various stages of dying. My eyes adjusting to the dim light, I saw them. They lay motionless.
Crawling among them, I tried to make some sign with my hands to communicate.
But what was there to say?

At the back of the bunker, I sat and helplessly watched this forsaken scene.
In the darkness nearest me, a young woman, perhaps 20 or 21, crouched over a tiny body, a little girl, not much more than a toddler. But toddling was done for this child. She lay motionless beneath a dirty cloth. The woman, her mother I supposed, held the cloth close beneath her chin. This was a death watch. The young woman sat, keeping watch over the final hours of a beloved child.
I said nothing, watching as the scene play to its awful close. But I noticed:
The young woman fingered a necklace. It was little more than a dirty string that my eyes followed in its course around her neck. Her fingers twisted something hanging on the string as it lay at her chest.
What was it? I watched and saw. It was a cross, fashioned of discarded wire picked up along the road.
And I knew what to do.
I touched her arm, getting her attention. I made the sign of the cross large across my chest. Her eyes went wide, and she whipped the cloth from the child and tugged my hands, pulling me down to her little one.
What did she want?
Seconds passed, but soon I think I knew. She wanted me to bless her child for dying. She wanted to commend her little one to the arms of a mercy that had so badly been denied her in this life.
I knelt in the dust, laid both hands on the little girl's head, and commended her to the care of the risen Christ, praying that she would find a gentleness in Eternity to redeem all this brutality.

Finished, I sat in the dust. The mother smiled slightly.
Nothing was changed, but everything was different.
Her little one would soon die of hunger, so, too, would those laying around us.
There were tears to shed, bodies to bury, hopes to grieve. Food and medical supplies would not arrive in time for this child.
But the air in the dark bunker glistened. There was far more here than the sorrow and frustration of helpless love, and the tears we wiped away were born not of sorrow but of a deathless hope and gratitude.
We were transported from a dismal present into a world where death no longer hunted human souls. It had been swallowed up by a living Jesus whose presence transformed the bunker into a holy space, where no one needed to tell us that the tomb was empty and Jesus is risen. It would have been redundant. We knew that he lives and triumphs not only over death but over this death, in this dark place, giving life to a dying child, and evaporating our despair in the incandescent heat
of a living love that cannot be confined to a tomb.

III.
Whom do you seek?
What are you looking for?
You come to know what I discovered in the bunker
You come to know what the beloved disciple knew in a burst of blessed intuition.
You come not to learn clever ideas or to reinforce a list of truths you fear
you'll forget before finals.
You come to see and know that the tomb is empty, that one who was living and dead is risen again.
You come to meet the One whom you fear losing far more than anyone or anything else..
You come to discover that you live in a world far more vibrant, wondrous, joyous and beautiful than you'd thought.
For you live in the region of Resurrection, in the precinct of epiphany, in the geography of grace where Christ lives and loves and labors to reveal holiness and a love that is deeper than death, a world where his irrepressible holy Presence abides,
refusing to be shut out of earth's darkest corners.
The risen glory of God shining in places and faces beyond our capacity to imagine.
IV.

Whom do you seek?
Unlike Mary Magdalene, you do not come here seeking a corpse.
She arrived at the tomb, consumed by tragedy and sorrow, wanting a quiet place to mourn and remember a lost friend in whose presence she felt more alive than ever she had been.

There are moments, too many, when we are more like Mary than the beloved disciple.
Like Mary, possessed by sadness or grief, weary from living and losing what we have most loved and needed, we have eyes that can only see tragedy and sadness. We meet each day gripped by anxiety or apathy, preoccupied with the petty insignificance of our lives and the ineffectuality of our efforts, possessed by the empty banality of the daily duty, cynical about our motives and those of others, doubting the worthiness of the institutions an d agencies in which we live and work.
But even the prison of ourselves this cannot close out the risen Christ.
"Mary," Jesus said to the Magadalene.
"Mary," her name, spoken in familiar tenderness, revealing the infinite love in which he held her, revealing the risen power which that breaks into the prisons of our making.
The Risen One comes, speaking your name into the gray malaise of your mind. He speaks tenderly that you, revealing that even when you don't have the intuitive and immediate faith of the beloved disciple, you are sought and treasured, loved everlastingly by the One who is Everlasting Love, the one who is the living and dead and risen again, the wild lion of eternity who wants … you.

"Don't cling to me," Jesus says to Mary.
You can't anyway.
The Risen One can't be confined to the familiar but ascends to fill all time space with the love that abides and endures.
There are no places where he is not, no dusty forgotten corners, no forsaken moments or misery, no dark bunkers that can keep him out.
Every place we go, every corner we turn is holy, a place of divine abiding.
Every face we meet is a face in which we best be prepared to meet the One who lives and to discover what we most need to know:
The tomb is empty and ever is shall be.

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