In a summer full of BAD news – crisis in Egypt, murder in Durham, aggressive and nonsensical partisanship in Raleigh and in Washington – one of my favorite stories of the summer happened in a strip mall in California. Around 10:30pm on July 31, the executive director of San Bernadino Sexual Assault Services received a call from the company that handles the office’s security system. Motion had been detected, the police called. By the time everyone got there the deed had been done – burglars finding their way in through ceiling tiles, taking all of their computers, doing an additional $5000 or so in damage. To a small nonprofit, as you can imagine, it was devastating. "We thought," the director said, "we were never going to recover. Each computer and the information it contains is so important to the work we do."
The police surveyed the scene, shut things down for the night. Everyone went home, only to be called back a couple of hours later. Candy Stallings, the executive director, rushed back to her office to find something that neither she nor the police department would expect: The burglars had returned everything they had taken – the 6 towers and brand new laptop – and even left an apology note tucked away in the laptop. "We had no idea what we were takeing (sic)," the note read. "Here your stuff back we hope that you guys can continue to make a difference in peoples live. God Bless." She’s got it framed on her desk, and the publicity has led to a wave of attention, support and donations that help build on their care for people in crisis.1
Resurrection is about the unexpected. But, before you talk about resurrection, I think we first have to talk about miracles. The bible is full of miraculous spectacles, God-infused events, from creation to the flood, Moses called by a burning bush, God parting the Red Sea for the Israelites, marching out of slavery. All of these events, as recorded, point to the same theological truth – that God, in God’s power, intervenes in creation on behalf of God’s people. When things seem like they aren’t going to work, God makes them work.
Jesus’ life is full of these moments. He casts out demons, heals lepers, makes blind people see. He calms storms, even raises his friend from the dead, standing outside of his tomb and bellowing, LAZARUS, come out!2 Modern Christians, those of us who do our best to be thoughtful about our faith, often have an uneasy relationship with these kinds of things. Except in rare, rare occurrences, we don’t witness stuff like this. We see God at work through small things – the care of friends, sometimes we feel a stirring within as we pray. But walking on water feels like a bit much. We can understand that the function of these stories is to underline Jesus’ divine power, to support the gospels’ claim that Jesus is the Messiah, the holy one of God. We can understand that John adds the odd detail of 3 or 4 miles out so we think this can’t be faked, that this is further evidence that Jesus is who he says he is. And, from where I sit as a believer in Jesus Christ, I don’t even necessarily need to believe that these things happened exactly as the text describes. What I do believe is the truth underneath Jesus walking on water or miraculous healings – that Jesus CAN do things like this, if filled with the very power of God.
BUT, for me, the resurrection feels different. I need to believe that Jesus was actually, physically, raised from the dead. It seems to me the whole thing depends upon this point, that is both a theological and a historical one. Jesus was born in a miraculous way to Mary, but no one would sing Christmas carols if Jesus hadn’t been raised from the dead. It is the end of his life that gives his birth meaning. Jesus’ life would still be as good a model as has ever existed, in the ways he tended to others’ wounds, broke down barriers of race and class, socialized with those on the margins, challenged us to see how our money and our stuff consumes us, calling us to give it all away. But, if not for his resurrection, I wonder if anyone would remember this guy who walked dusty roads in the middle of nowhere in Galilee. I don’t even think people would remember his death, as painful and crushing as it was. Other criminals were crucified by Rome that same day. Year after year Rome executed criminals – they used crucifixion for almost 1000 years – killing thousands and thousands of people.3 Other than their families, who remembers those that go to the electric chair or receive a lethal injection? Nobody. We don’t pay attention, because death happens every day. Regardless of form or time or place, death comes to us all.
Except for this one day, one early morning sometime in the mid-30s in the Common Era. As Mark tells us, and each gospel does a little bit differently, on the morning after the Sabbath three women got up, in the dark, and headed with spices to anoint the body. They were worried about the things we worry about, the mechanics, the stone being in the way, the grass around the headstone grown a bit high. The mechanics, the will, the grief, the family relationships, the stuff death forces us to wade into. It had not occurred to them, it seems, that anything else would be different. Death comes to us all.
But the stone had already been rolled back, and there was an angel sitting there, and they were alarmed, and they should have been, and he noticed and said do not be alarmed, I know who you are looking for. He was dead. Painfully dead. But, he has been raised. He is not here. Go tell everybody, that he is alive, that he is free, that death is NOT the end, and it will never be the end again. Go tell everybody.
And again, Mark tells us, they were terrified. And they should have been, because resurrection means things that weren’t possible before ARE. That grace is real. That hope has the potential to surprise us, to do more than any of us could ever imagine doing even on our best days. And resurrection means that a couple of thieves – who knows what motivated them to steal, how hard their lives were, the choices they had made. Resurrection means they could not be bound by who they are or what they did. Resurrection means that you and I are not defined by who the world wants us to be, and that we CAN love ourselves exactly as God made us. That we can work for reconciliation in the relationships in our lives that aren’t the way we want them to be. And that, while evil is real. And pain is real – this you know. We can know that even when this life is awful, and even when this life is filled with cancer and addiction and divorce and depression that grips us, that even death is not the end. That God creates hope where there was none. God offers a vision, even as we glimpse the dream of community as we remember the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this week. God’s hope is always bigger. We proclaim this truth every Easter, every funeral we do, with every ounce of ourselves, that God’s promises extend even through the pain of death, and that because of Jesus Christ’s resurrection we can have hope in the community God is creating that is beyond time and space, binding us all together in love.
Another one of my favorite stories of this summer happened here, around 9am Wednesday morning. Annette had first come to Housing for New Hope, about to lose her home where she and her 4 kids lived. Things got hard, and they ended up working their way through Interfaith Hospitality Network – maybe sleeping in one of our Sunday School classrooms. Folks worked with her through the school system to keep their kids in their schools, and she got connected with Wheels for Hope and, with our help, purchased a car, so she can get to work in Morrisville, so she can take care of her family. And 50 or so of us stood in a circle to bless that car, the van pulled up right against the curb out here, as a little rain began to fall, and Annette, with tears in her eyes, thanked this incredible network of collaborative services. As she wiped her eyes, she said, I once thought this day would not be possible. But it is. But it is.
The angel said to the women, "You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised. He is not here…but go, tell the disciples that he is going ahead of you…there you will see him, just as he told you." Because of Christ’s resurrection, we are empowered go see Him out there, to be a part of some fairly impossible things. You elders and deacons about to be ordained and installed, we expect the impossible. Not on your own, but God’s love, resurrection, in community, creating possibilities we can barely imagine.
All praise be to God, the resurrected one, who is making all things new. Amen.
1. "Burglars return stolen computers to nonprofit, leave apology note," CNN.
2. John 11:38-44.
3. "Crucifixion," Wikipedia.