Monday, April 1, 2013
Luke 24: 1-12
I thank Susan for writing a luminous Easter poem for us. Poetry, after all, is the language of Easter. We may speak in prose the rest of the year, but on Resurrection Sunday, only mystical metaphor and surprising paradox and bracing imagery will do. If you left behind your frilly Easter bonnets today, that’s fine, but I hope you brought your poet’s heart. We simply cannot sing alleluias or declare the great affirmation that “Christ has risen!” unless we do so as poets.
So before we peer into the emptiness of Christ’s tomb, I invite you to hear a poem that introduces other images of emptiness. This poem, attributed to the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tsu, notices the empty space in a wheel, a pot, and a room:
meet in the hub.
Where the wheel isn’t
is where it’s useful.
clay makes a pot.
Where the pot’s not
is where it’s useful.
Cut doors and windows
to make a room.
Where the room isn’t,
there’s room for you.
So the profit in what is
is in the use of what isn’t.[i]
Emptiness has value: in use of things, in the life of faith. This poem names three common items that are valued because of the space they don’t occupy. A wheel is formed by the spaces between the spokes. A clay pot is able to function because it creates an empty space. Anda room is able to hold you because there is emptiness within. When we look at wheel or pot or room, we usually pay attention to the materiality that takes up space, but the poet notices the importance of the empty space—where the pot, for instance, is not. The poet reminds us to see emptiness—within a wheel, a pot, a room—as positive. Emptiness supports functionality and possibility.
To this list of things that are useful because of the space they make possible I would add Christ’s tomb. This sermon is my ode to the emptiness of the tomb that allowed the Jesus of history to walk forth as the Christ of faith.
When the women who came to anoint Jesus’s body with spices and oil first enter Luke’s story of the resurrection, they peer into the dark. They assume they’ll meet death. Death is perhaps life’s greatest certainty, especially graveside. But this tomb is empty. Oddly, Jesus is neither in the grave nor anywhere else in the twelve verses the lectionary offers today to celebrate resurrection. In this entire pericope, there is no mention even of Jesus’ name. It’s as if Jesus has fallen off the stage in the drama of his life. Except in the first chapter of Luke, which reports events prior to Jesus’s birth, and the first verses of chapter 3, which focus on John the Baptist, this is the only portion of Luke’s Gospel devoid of Jesus’s words or deeds. The text itself is as empty of his name as the tomb is empty of his body. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James are named. Peter is named. Two men dazzlingly arrayed are described. But at the very point when Luke’s readers anticipate seeing evidence ofJesus’s defiance of death, they find no sign of him. There’s no trace of the object of their search who is the subject of Luke’s Gospel. No signs of life. But no evidence of death. Instead, we enter into emptiness.
The emptiness of which this story speaks, let me hasten to say, is not nihilistic. If we think a vacant space has no possibility for meaning, if we trust solely in what is prosaically physical and material–then the Easter tomb may confound or terrify us—as it first unsettled the women who entered into that dark abyss.
But inside that empty tomb is potentiality.
Because inside that tomb there is hope for new life.
And inside that tomb there is a means of new direction.
Easter, like any new spiritual adventure, like Creation itself, starts with emptiness: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering” (Genesis 1: 1-2a). Emptiness was the condition for Creation that Genesis captures poetically.
Modern science is also impressed with the potency of emptiness. I realize I promised you poetry today, but science sometimes sings to me as elegantly as poetry. NASA’s website explains what has only recently been discovered: that “roughly 70% of the Universe is dark energy,” that dark matter makes up about 25%” of the Universe, and that “the rest—everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter—adds up to less than 5% of the Universe.”
One of several current explanations for dark energy “is that it is a property of space. Albert Einstein was the first person to realize that empty space is not nothing. Space has amazing properties, many of which are just beginning to be understood. The first property that Einstein discovered is that it is possible for more space to come into existence” and “’empty space’ can possess its own energy. Because this energy is a property of space itself, it would not be diluted as space expands. As more space comes into existence, more of this energy-of-space would appear.” Thus, an essential, expansive energy is still at work today, which scientists at this point simply, poetically, dare I say, spiritually, call a mystery.[ii]
In the Christian epic, the mystery we retell is about an empty tomb that becomes a womb out of which the Risen Christ somehow, in some sense, emerges. In liminal space, the burial clothes of Jesus are cast aside, and the Christ of faith is able to stride forth, unfettered by death clothes, imbued with a renewed and renewable energy, animated by God’s loving Spirit.
And ever since, followers of Jesus have used baptismal words and waters, in which they are poetically “buried” and then raised from, to embark on a similar spiritual journey that one Gospel writer called a new birth. We don’t pretend that the faith journey is as simple as a ceremony, but we do think there are spiritual lessons for us that are pictured as a death to the old and a rising to the new. Other religions have other beautiful symbols and ceremonies depicting transformation. But baptism is our practice and our poem.
In order to follow the Risen Christ, we figuratively enter the tomb until we cast off, like binding grave clothes, deadening compulsions and patterns: our killing prejudices, bitterness, greed, and anger; our destructive feelings of pride or unworthiness; our life-sapping addictions to substances or others’ approval; our enslavement to culture’s claim on us; our plain ol’ meanness or fear or our need to be in control.
When we can enter an emptiness where our truest self can separate from the death clothes we thought made up who we are—which often happens after great loss or disillusionment—it at first feels like a kind of death. But this little death can eventually lead to newness and growth. The Spirit that hovered over the waters of creation still moves among us today, bringing life from emptiness. The dark tomb may actually become for our new selves a womb. So says the hopeful poem of resurrection.
What happens inside the empty tomb for individual Jesus followers can happen for the church itself. As Christ’s new body, the church needs a spaciousness. In the tomb we have not only received new life but a new message. Christ is risen is the message we must live out and share—though maybe not in ways you’ve come to think of as evangelism. All the other Gospel accounts of the resurrection include instruction at the empty tomb to tell the other disciples, but in Luke that instruction seems implicit and the women do indeed tell the others. Of course, their message is considered “an idle tale” at first, a crazy story.
Some may think we’re crazy, new church, as we leave behind the petrified parts of 20th century Christianity and move out to follow the still moving spirit of Jesus, to listen to the still speaking God. Let’s thank God the Church can return to the tomb of rebirth at times, but let’s not hunker down into an entombed existence. Instead, let’s seek what enlivens our spirits and gives life and liveliness to others.
So here is my prayer for us on this Day of Resurrection. I think you and I have been with Jesus in the tomb for 3 days, figuratively, for 3 years, literally. I have gratefully experienced with you God’s spaciousness and creativity among us. I think we have been learning some difficult but saving lessons that apply to us as individuals and some, which I’m speaking of now, that apply to us as a faith community, and these lessons are not quickly learned if they are deeply learned.
For instance, I think we are casting off hand-me-down doctrines if they reek of death. I think we are in the process of recognizing that God’s liveliness is not served by clinging to others’ limiting expectations of the programing a church must offer, or the kind of building a church must occupy, or a list of “thou shalt nots” the church must maintain, or liturgy and language the church must use.
We are participating in what Phyllis Tickle describes, in The Great Emergence, as a great rummage sale the Church holds every 500 years or so, in which the dominant forms of Christianity lose their place of pride and some items in the Church’s attic get tossed.[iii]That doesn’t mean we are discarding traditions willy nilly. In fact, we are reclaiming some previously under-valued traditions. But we are trying to use these days of pared-down spaciousness of mind and heart and spirit to see ourselves—and the Christian faith—unfettered by culture’s trappings. I think, my friends, that Open Table is increasingly going to walk out of the Open Tomb to bear witness to God’s limitless love. I think we will increasingly be able to speak and act against the powers of death that continue to crucify with military might, religious slogans, corporate greed, entrenched prejudices, short-sighted leadership, and disregard for the poor.
As we exit the tomb/womb of renewal, having looked for Jesus where we thought he would be, let’s remember that he’s likely a step–or probably a leap, quite possibly a light year–ahead of us. Our goal is not more bucks in the plate or more butts in the pews. Our aim is to follow Jesus. To a place of emptiness. And new life beyond.
Christ is not here. Christ is risen.
We postmodern, poetic Christ-followers can proclaim that message without fully fathoming it. We can proclaim it best by living it. The God we have met in Jesus is alive. Alleluia!
[i] Lao Tsu, “The Uses of Not” from Lao Taoe Te Ching. Trans. Ursala K Le Guin. Reprinted in Leading from Within, ed. Sam M. Intrator and Megan Scribner (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2007) 197.
[iii] Tickle, Phyllis. The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008.