Early Tuesday, while it was still dark, three men pushed luggage into the Brussels Zaventum Airport. The bags didn’t hold extra shirts and a toothbrush, but explosives, triggered near the departure gates, collapsing ceiling panels, shattering glass. An hour later, the Maelbeek Metro Station. Before the sun rose here, 31 people dead, 270 wounded, the world again in terror.
Early in the morning, while it was still dark, a man in the woods near Kroger and 15/501 rubs the sleep from his eyes. He is one of the 34 people in Durham, according to this year’s Point in Time Count, that are unsheltered. That’s the lowest number since 2005, but that’s still 34 daughters and sons, brothers and sisters, who wake up on the ground, or under a bridge.
Early, while it is still dark, she rolls out of bed. He’s sleeping. He has fallen again, this is the fourth time, the disease is progressing. Everyone is trying so hard to support him, her. She is going to keep him at home no matter what, but for the first time she wonders if she can do it alone…
"Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb." She felt the weight of the previous days as she walked. After all the dusty roads, lepers healed, time around the fire, she had finally begun to believe that He was the One who would to change things. Until the soldiers came upon them in the garden, when she saw Judas, who they thought was their friend, betray with a kiss. Jesus let himself be carried away, through the trials, the beatings. Every time that whip came down on his back she felt something within her die. The nails, cross lifted high. The images – maybe you have some of these from some of the worst moments of your lives – the images she wished so desperately she could forget.
She walked down the hill to the garden tomb. The stone was gone, and she ran back, shakes the disciples awake: "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." Peter and another jump up – John records the footrace, making sure we know who gets there first, chest heaving, to the edge of the tomb. The linen wrappings were there, another cloth, too. The other disciple steps in, and saw, and believed. Then, in something that is amazing to me, John says the disciples left and went back home. But Mary stays, leans in, tears dripping down her chin, and two angels sit, who hadn’t been there before. They ask why she weeps, and she sputters: They have taken him. I don’t know. As she wonders if she can feel any MORE overwrought, another guy is there, who also asks her why she weeps. Supposing him to be the gardener and, I would imagine, about to take a swing if anyone else asks her why she is crying, she pleads: If you have taken him, just tell me. I will go get his broken body. I will bring him back. Her heart felt like it was going to explode.
But in that moment, the Jesus who was standing right in front of her spoke her name. Mary. She calls back – rabbi, teacher – and they embrace. He clasps her hands, sending her back out. Go to them, he says. Go tell those disciples who have gone home and back to their nets. Go tell the world, the world in which bombs go off and children get sick, in which the marriages of people we love fall apart, politicians posture and pander and try and make us so afraid, of anyone different from us. Tell them, he says. Tell all of them that I am alive. And that the world is new.
Easter is usually pretty easy to get excited about in the church, for us preachers, too. We pack in chairs and the music, right as that magnificent first hymn begins, soars. But this year, I must confess, I just wasn’t feeling it. I don’t know why. The world is in tough shape, but I don’t think it’s any worse than it was last year or the year before. I also was feeling a bit like this was a charade – once again, the church will stand up and tell the same story, it’s the same every year and whether we remember the details or not, it’s the same. Jesus was dead, then he wasn’t, and we’re supposed to feel good about that. Yes, the music is wonderful and the energy feels great in here, but the cynic in me wonders how much we really buy of all this? Whether we’re excited to be here or are humoring someone in our family or maybe a bit of both, why should we care?
But here’s the moment I keep coming back to. After the disciples had gone home and Mary had seen the angels she turned and is facing a man she thinks is the gardener. But, John tells us it was Jesus, and he spoke to her, asking her why she was crying, and she didn’t recognize him. Jesus was right in front of her, but she couldn’t see. All of which forced me to consider – and this isn’t new, the church has suggested it for a long time – what if all the terror in the world is NOT what is most real? This is not to deny the hurt we have felt in our own bodies through chemo, in our hearts as the relationship crumbles, in our souls when people we love die and we miss them every day. But, what if, just like Mary was looking right at Jesus but didn’t SEE him, what if, IF, through Jesus Christ there are possibilities in and through the bombs and the homelessness, the addiction and brokenness? What if suffering is not all there is, what if death is not the end, what if, because of Easter, whether we can see it or not, everything is different?
Occasionally we see. Friday was National Medal of Honor Day. The Medal of Honor, presented by the president, is reserved for this country’s bravest military heroes. But every year, past Medal of Honor recipients get together to recognize civilians. For the first time this year, one of those Citizen Honor awards went to a kid – a 10-year-old boy named Myles Eckert. Two years ago Myles found $20 in the parking lot of a Cracker Barrel in Toledo, Ohio. "I kind of wanted to get a video game but then I decided not to." He changed his mind when he saw a guy come in in uniform, who kind of reminded him of his dad. So he – 10 years old – wrapped the $20 in a note that read, "Dear Soldier – My dad was a soldier. He’s in heaven now. I found this $20 in the parking lot when we got here. We like to pay it forward in my family. It’s your lucky day! Thank you for your service. Myles Eckert, a Gold Star kid." Army Sgt. Andy Eckert was killed in Iraq five weeks after Myles was born. All Myles has ever had are pictures and dog tags and stories people have told him.
After lunch at Cracker Barrel, Myles asked his mom to make a stop – he wanted to go to the cemetery, and by himself. She took a picture from the car that I’ll post with this story on the website. You follow footsteps in the snow and Myles is there, by the flag that stands in front of the gravestone, presumably telling his dad all about it. Myles later helped raise nearly $2 million for Gold Star charities. And for his selfless service, the Congressional Medal of Honor Society gave him its highest honor, and he wore his father’s dog tags to the ceremony.1
I read something compelling this week from a colleague, who points to scholar Walter Brueggemann’s suggestion that we consider Easter as a verb. The notion, this colleague writes, "that Easter is a verb, that God is in the business of Easter-ing, if you take that seriously, then, my goodness, the things that you imagine going on in the world aren’t really going to last" – those awful things aren’t the most real. IF God is in the business of Easter-ing all creation, then we have a truth we MUST proclaim – from the rooms of the cancer center to tough schools in East Durham, from the shelter line to homes in Hope Valley that are gorgeous but filled with conflict or emptiness, from war-torn nations to the graves of soldiers and their beloved children like Myles. Life is hard. The world stinks right now. But IF God is still Easter-ing, then the church MUST proclaim that death is not the end, and that all the world, all of it, is FILLED with God’s love in Jesus Christ, and that is really, really good news.
Christ is Risen. Christ is Risen Indeed. Alleluia. Amen.
1. "Boy who gave soldier $20 he found wins high honor," CBS News. March 25, 2016.