The day after Christmas, after the presents were unwrapped, we went back. My maternal grandfather had died 11 days prior, at 101 blessed years old, and we had headed to the mountains for a funeral. After the celebration of his life, scurrying back here to finish Advent, then up the mountain again Christmas Day, we went back to the veteran’s cemetery, on a quiet hillside in Black Mountain. We stood, first, in silence. We checked the fresh dirt. We talked with our kids about how much Bop loved them, answered their questions about the mechanics – where is he, exactly? In a box? How far under the ground? It doesn’t hurt him, does it? We surveyed the gravestones that told stories, some of decades of life and love, some of years cut short – one young man from the valley died in Afghanistan last spring, 20 years old. I imagine that some point in your life you have been there, on a similar hillside with people you love. The wind blows over tear-stained cheeks.
Easter always begins in the dark. Mary and Mary got up early, as the first day of the week was dawning, to go and see the tomb. Mark and Luke have the women go with spices to anoint the body (Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1), but in Matthew they don’t take anything but their grief. They needed to see the grave once more, to find him there, to believe that after all this, he really was dead. His death meant the end of the astonishing journey upon which they followed him, of the miracles, the healings, the late nights around the fire. It was over. They would return to the tomb, see him there, and walk back home, back to the rest of their lives.
Yet God intended something different. The silence of their grief is broken by a tremor, barely noticeable, becoming a shudder, and the shaking begins. They cling to each other, seeking stability as the ground underneath them buckles. And, to make the scene even more dramatic, an angel descends from heaven, rolls back the massive stone in front of the tomb and sits on it! His appearance was like lightening – shining, clothes as snow. For fear of the angel – Matthew adds a tinge of irony – the ones guarding the crucified one become like dead men themselves.
The angel quickly moves the action forward. "Do not be afraid," says. I don’t know about you, but most of the time when I have had people tell me not to be afraid, or not to worry, most of the time I don’t believe them. There is too much to fear, too much, as parents wait for word of a ferry down off the coast of South Korea, as gunmen walk up to Jewish Community Centers, as one quarter of Durham’s children still live in poverty. As friends we enjoy decide they can’t be married anymore; as people we love get sick and die. People have told me not to be afraid before. Most of the time it feels like when a doctor tells me a surgery is routine. As far as I know, routine surgery is surgery happening to someone else’s loved one. In it all, the angel speaks words we hear in scripture over and over, to Abram (Gen. 15:1) and Joseph (Gen. 46:3), Moses and Jeremiah (Jer. 1:8), Joseph, Mary, and startled shepherds on a hillside. Do not be afraid. Look, come here, see the empty tomb, then get out of here. Resurrection isn’t here anymore. He is going ahead of you to Galilee – THERE, the angel says, you will see him.
Jesus didn’t go back into the Jerusalem for the crowds to swarm him with love. Sure, Galilee was home, but most of his recent ministry had been preparing the disciples for their trip up to the big city where the action happened. The sophisticated city-folk would have viewed Galilee as a backwater. What if the king comes to town and skips out on Jerusalem to head somewhere out a bit…like Bahama. Jesus returns and shows up in Stem.1 Jesus didn’t hire the best consulting firm to manage his return. He took off down the road back to Bahama…back…to Galilee…And it is THERE that we will see him, the angels say.
In his book Brother To A Dragonfly, Will Campbell, Baptist preacher and theologian, an outstanding radical fellow back through the 1950s and 60s, recounted a conversation with his irreverent friend P.D. East. The conversation took place in Alabama during the Civil Rights movement. They had just heard of the killing of a young seminarian, Jonathan Daniels, who was registering black citizens to vote. East complained about the role of the church – how quiet he thought they were – in those turbulent times; he said the church reminded him of an "Easter chicken." He then described the baby chicken he had given his little daughter, Karen. The Easter chicken was dyed a deep purple. Will interrupted his friend to remind him that white is the liturgical color for Easter, but P.D. ignored him.
P.D. went on to describe how the baby chicken started feathering, and the new feathers were Rhode Island Red. They took this half-purple, half-red chicken and put it into the chicken yard with the other chickens. At first, the little chicken was different, and the others knew it was different. It did not bother the others or enter into their fights. But little by little it began behaving just like the rest of the chickens. It would peck and fight, knock other chickens down to catch a bug. "And now," said East, "you can’t tell one chicken from another. They’re all just alike. That Easter chicken is just one more chicken."2
Here’s my sense of how this thing works. Too often each year – and I do the same exact thing, so I’m not picking on you – we leave here as the same old chicken. I don’t know what brought you here this morning – whether you have been at the heart of this place for many years, whether you are filled with faith, or whether your well is feeling a bit dry. Whether you are here because you love the music and pageantry of Easter, you need it, or you are simply humoring your parents or grandparents and sitting through an hour. Whether you are confident, or whether you are weary. I’d imagine most of us are closer to weary. There is much in this world worth being afraid of. But each year, every single year, we strike up the brass, the lilies, the 8:30 people get the choir, too, and it is magnificent. We pack in extra chairs and we sing!
But the second we leave here, we’re the same old chicken. Again – I’m not picking on you, I do the same thing. We slip back into the same old roles with the same family as we argue about the fixins over lunch. We leave mad about the same things, leave with the same fears. But the heart of the resurrection – the whole point of this day – is about possibilities. Because Jesus Christ was dead and is dead no longer. He is alive, and there are possibilities, options, a future, with HOPE! Not just at the heart of the city, but in Galilee, in those forgotten, out of the way places. It is there, where people are standing in lines for a meal, for a job application, to see a loved one at the jail. It is there, in Intensive Care Units, under highway bridges, that we will see him. Jesus didn’t come back to shout his love inside pretty sanctuaries adorned with flowers, or even in the halls of power, but in Galilee, where people are tired, and lonely, and about to lose hope.
I’d like to humbly suggest this morning that we ought to leave here resolved anew to not stay the same old chicken. Resurrection, after all, is about possibilities.
The sheer absurdity of it all calls us to reconcile…maybe with someone you need to start over with, or that you have shut out for so long, to offer a hand to the kid you see being bullied or to invest in a new way in your family, in your marriage.
The sheer absurdity of it calls us to dream…that even if your job makes you miserable you can have an impact, that we, here, can be a community that is indispensable to Durham, feeding the hungry, tutoring kids, supporting teachers, for others, for the poor, helping make sure homeless vets have somewhere to live.
The sheer absurdity calls us to Galilee, to odd and out of the way places…THERE we will see him. And as we see Him, with fear and great joy, we will encounter possibilities we can’t even imagine…
Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen Indeed! Death is NOT the end. Alleluia. Amen.
1. Some of this material comes from, "Preaching Easter in Alabama," by Will Willimon, in the Easter 2008 Journal for Preachers, pp 5-6.
2. I was reminded of this story by the Rev. Joe Harvard’s piece, "Preaching the Easter Texts: Can I Get A Witness?" in the Easter 2014 Journal for Preachers, Volume XXXVII, Number 3, p 11. Campbell’s book (Continuum, 1977), is well worth a read.