April 4, 2021
*You can see a video version of this sermon on Youtube.
The murder trial for the police officer accused of killing George Floyd began last week. The first days were filled with testimonies of those in the crowd. The store clerk, the firefighter, the neighbor, the mixed martial artist, the high school student who had gone to the store to get snacks and a cell phone cord. They all described feeling helpless as they watched the officer hold his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes. Many of them cried as they recounted Floyd repeating, “I can’t breathe.”
In hearing the voices of those who witnessed George Floyd’s murder, I better understand the trauma and grief and guilt that so many who witnessed the crucifixion must have felt. How they wanted to do something but didn’t know what they could do. How they knew that if they tried to physically intervene, they would also face the violence of the state. How they lose sleep thinking about what they could have, should have, done.
And yet, despite their feelings of helplessness and guilt, these witnesses weren’t passive. The firefighter, when she came upon the scene, told the police officers they needed to check Floyd’s pulse. The mixed martial artist called the police—on the police. The teenager started recording the interaction on her cell phone. And now, more than ten months later, they are all tending to Floyd’s body by testifying in court about what they saw.
I don’t think we give Mary, Joanna, Mary, and the other women enough credit for their functioning in the face of death. At the supposed end of Jesus’ life, in the wake of violence and the depths of grief, they bear witness and they tend to the dead.
You might have noticed that in the aftermath of the crucifixion, the revered Twelve are nowhere to be found. Judas has betrayed Jesus. Peter has denied him. James and John and Matthew and the rest might be part of “all of Jesus’ acquaintances” who stood watching the crucifixion at a distance, but once Jesus has died, they seem to disappear.
It’s Joseph of Arimathea—a member of the council–who asks Pilate for the body, who takes it down from the cross, wraps it in linen, and carries it to the tomb; an intimate and physically demanding act of love and service.
It’s the women who, despite the trauma of seeing their dear friend and teacher murdered, are thinking ahead to the spices and ointments that must be prepared; who realize they will need to know where Jesus is laid if they are to come back and tend to the body; who stumble after Joseph in the growing darkness to note the location of the tomb.
The women do observe the Sabbath, but as early as possible—very early in the morning, at deep dawn—they make their way back to the tomb, carrying the spices and ointments they have prepared for Jesus’ body.
But instead of a dead body, the women find an empty tomb. And then the “men in dazzling clothes” show up and ask, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”.
It seems to be a rhetorical question, but the answer is that they are not looking for the living among the dead. They are looking for the dead among the dead. Which is a reasonable thing to do. Tending to the dead is considered a true good deed in the Jewish faith, because the dead cannot repay the kindness offered to them.
Do you feel some affinity for these women—bleary-eyed and tired, trying to be faithful, traumatized by death and yet still seeking ways to tend to the dead? We have so many dead to tend to these days. Victims of police violence. Victims of anti-Asian and other hate crimes. Those who have died in the three public mass shootings over the last two and a half weeks. Over 2 million, 800 thousand who have died of COVID.
Like the women, we are traumatized and weary, feeling helpless, yet still trying to do something. We are working for reforms in the criminal legal system and policing; we are speaking out against hatred and prejudice; we are working to reduce gun violence; we are wearing masks and getting vaccinated and volunteering at vaccine clinics. We are struggling to be kind and generous even when we feel grumpy and exhausted.
We are stumbling through the darkness of deep dawn to tend to our beloved dead in the best ways we know how.
Some preachers this morning will talk about the women’s lack of faith because they expected Jesus to be dead and were terrified by the empty tomb. But I say that the faith of these women is the truest, fiercest kind of faith: to look for the dead among the dead; to be willing to tend to them despite weariness and discomfort; to bear witness to the death and the powers that enact it even when those powers do their best to keep it quiet.
My friend Dayna Olson-Getty compares these women to Mamie Till, who insisted on an open casket for her son, Emmett, so that the whole world could see his brutalized body—a 14-year-old black boy lynched by white men. Dayna compares the women at the tomb to Lezley McSpadden who wept over her son Michael Brown’s body in the streets of Ferguson after he was shot and killed by police, and who went on to speak out against police violence.
There is nothing easy or passive or cowardly about tending to our dead. It takes great faith and compassion to go to the tomb with spices in hand, ready to unwrap and lay hands on the body of a beloved.
This is the faith that God honors on Easter morning. This is the faith that allows the women to receive the angels’ proclamation: “Jesus is not here, but has risen.” This is the faith that makes these women the apostles to the apostles, the first preachers of the Gospel, the human source of the Good News that we still celebrate two thousand years later.
Luke writes, “[R]eturning from the tomb, [the women] told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.” I wish Luke had given us more of this first Easter sermon; I wish he had written down the “all this” that the women told. I imagine they said that the tomb they had seen sealed was now open.
That their confusion had given way to remembrance and clarity.
That their fear had turned to courage.
That in seeking to tend to the dead, they had received the news of resurrection life.
I imagine they told all of it because if they only told the good parts—the open tomb, the clarity, the courage—no one would understand the power of what they experienced.
I imagine they told all of it because you need an intimate understanding of death to truly appreciate the life that is claimed and proclaimed in the resurrection of Jesus.
Like that other Joanna who was looking for the dead and found the living, I also want to tell “all this.” To proclaim the fullness of the Easter message.
That the power and love and life of God has overcome death itself—in some profound and incomprehensible way that is beyond us and that holds us safely and tenderly. Always.
Also, that the power and love and life of God has overcome earthly collaborators with death. The resurrection life made known that first Easter morning continues to challenge and subvert all power that relies on fear and violence; it continues to demand truth in the face of lies; it continues to give courage to those the system seeks to intimidate and terrify.
And this overcoming of earthly collaborators with death—while also profound—is not incomprehensible. Like the women who went to the tomb, we are invited to be part of this overcoming.
As we are faithful in tending to our dead, we are called and empowered to also tend to the resurrection life that God is breathing into the world. The two go together.
Those of us willing to bear witness to the death, violence, and grief of God’s beloveds—those of us stumbling to the tomb in the deep dawn—will find ourselves in the best position to also hear the Good News: Jesus Christ is Risen!
Christ is risen indeed.