16913 Germantown Road
Germantown, Maryland 20875-0320
Finding Meaning in An Empty Tomb
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sun, 04/24/2011
Here is a story from long ago.
There once was a man who lived in a time of great injustice. He was a member of a nation who was being subjugated by a group of people, an occupying people who had taken control of his country.
The powerful controlling group committed blatant acts of injustice against the powerless group, and there seemed to be little that would make a difference or that would help.
The man, this story’s main character, decided to do something. He began to point out the injustice that was everywhere apparent, but which was never stopped. Other people began to listen, and became less and less patient with the unjust system, and less and less willing to go along with it.
The powerful group became nervous, because it looked like change was coming, and those who had been persecuted would soon be getting more power. The man, our main character, became revered by his people, and was even sometimes grudgingly respected by his opponents.
And although the man was never personally violent, and lived out his belief that you should love even your enemy the way you would love yourself, the man was killed as a direct result of his work to free his oppressed people.
His death was met with overwhelming grief. His work was continued by others for years and years and years, and his name is remembered even today.
Who was this man? It’s hard to tell from this story. Was he Mohandas Gandhi, in India? Was he Martin Luther King, Jr., in Alabama? Was he Jesus of Nazareth, a Roman subject? It’s hard to tell from this story, because the story could apply to all three of them. All three of those men could be the main character in the tale that I just told you.
Each of these men’s individual, particular stories has of course its own individual, particular qualities. Martin Luther King lived in mid-20th century America and fought against a system of white racism that had been present here for centuries, which up until then no white person in power seemed to think was worth changing. He was killed by a white man as he gave yet another speech defending the rights of the poor and the workers of his nation.
Mohandas Gandhi worked over the turn of the last century to push for rights for Indians in South Africa and in India itself. His work led to the liberation of India from the British. He was murdered by a fellow Hindu who believed Gandhi had a role in the Muslim partitioning of Pakistan.
Jesus lived two thousand years ago as a subject of an empire who used his people to further their goal of world domination and acquisition of riches. Jesus subverted that hierarchy and told people that the most powerful among us are actually the poorest, that our children are the ones closest to heaven, that the peaceful and meek, not the powerful and strong, would dominate the world that was to come. Jesus was killed by a puppet government just as he was really starting to get the word out.
All three stories are interesting and compelling in their specifics. But, let’s face it, it is the particulars of Jesus’ story that are especially eye opening. Because the official story of Jesus’ life does not end with his assassination by his enemies. In the story about Jesus, the tale of his death at the hands of his oppressors is pretty much just a blip in the legend, overall.
You can’t say the same about King or Gandhi.
With King and Gandhi, their deaths are still in our collective memories as sudden, horrifying and tragic ends to the work of their amazing and inspiring lives, lives spent helping people who really needed someone to stand up for them.
I invite you to reflect for a moment on how you feel when you think of King and Gandhi’s assassinations. It’s pretty devastating, isn’t it? When I hear the stories of those deaths, I feel incredibly sad. I wonder about a world that would destroy someone who is doing so much good, destroy them much like Abel was destroyed in our reading this morning, leaving them covered in blood and not a hint of life left in them, not a whiff.
When someone does so much for others, the end of their life is unwelcome enough. Their murder at the hands of enemies that they never would have had in a perfect world is the obscene straw that breaks the camel’s back.
And there’s something more about how I feel when I think about Gandhi and King being assassinated after all their work defending the defenseless. The fact that they were killed makes me afraid. It leaves me sure that I will never try to be like them.
Because it would be hard enough to develop the wisdom and fortitude it would take to stand up against injustice the way that those two men did. It would certainly take all the goodness that I possess, and probably more goodness than I could ever generate. But on my very best days, I could see myself living such a life, defending the poor, standing up for the voiceless. On my very best days, I could see myself doing that, working to make a world that’s fair for everyone.
Except for one thing. One thing breaks this camel’s back, and that is this: I won’t do it if someone’s going to kill me at the end of it all. If I’m going to be gunned down after all that hard work, I have to say that’s a deal breaker for me. I have a family, after all, and frankly I like to be alive, and I don’t want someone to take my life away from me. I couldn’t bear having my family or community threatened or injured. So when I hear these inspiring and true stories about Gandhi and King, who made a difference in our world and paid the ultimate price for it, I can think to myself, “those men were good, and their deaths were tragic” and it does not occur to me that I should be doing what they did. They seem like aberrations, impossible to copy, ridiculous to even try. They are to be commended, but not to be replicated.
The story of the good man Jesus who died is different than the stories of the good men Martin and Mohandas who also died. Martin and Mohandas lived noble lives, left a legacy of peace and love, and got themselves murdered. Jesus lived a noble life, left a legacy of peace and love, got himself murdered, and then rose from the dead in body and spirit and took his place right next to God.
And that part of the story is important to me, even though I’m a Unitarian Universalist and my people have a history of rationality and I worship with atheists and I’ve never seen anyone I know come back from the dead and arise into heaven even though I thought they were good people too. The part of the story about Jesus’ resurrection is important to me because if I am left with only the first part of his story then I am not inspired to change anything about myself and I continue to be too afraid to help Jesus’ cause of making the world fair for all of us.
Unitarian Universalists as a group have struggled with the Easter story since the beginning of our history:
We have always tended to use science to explore our world, and science tells us that once you’re dead, you’re dead, Jesus or not.
We UUs haven’t believed that Jesus was God, and so the generic Christian notion of a risen Lord that saves has failed to inspire us as a religion.
And many of us don’t like to be told to just believe in something that we can’t wrap our minds around, because that seems manipulative and unfair.
UUs have in this way created the perfect storm, the perfect storm of Eastery unbelief.
I’ve seen UUs replace Easter with a spring celebration, using flowers and eggs to tell a story about resurrection and rebirth. I’ve heard UUs tell children that Jesus’ memory was so powerful and the work he did so important that it was just as if he was still alive. And I’ve certainly been around many UUs who are just completely disinterested in a tale that seems closer to a wild fable than anything that could mean something to them.
But as a Unitarian Universalist I am a justice-seeking person, and when I am told to honor the lives of the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King I can’t help but notice that they were murdered and where does that leave me when I try to follow what they did? How can I come up here and tell you to think and behave in a way that lifts up the downtrodden and helps the helpless, all the while knowing that if you’re successful at it then you are in great danger?
It is Jesus’ story that helps me with this conundrum, the full story, complete with his physical resurrection and his installation at the right hand of the Father. I care less about whether the story is true than I do about what the story can teach me. And what the story can teach me is something that I already know: that love is far stronger than death. What could resurrection of body represent, other than full restoration, a complete reimbursement for a death caused by loving and caring for others too much, loving them more than you loved your own life?
The Easter story suggests that it’s possible that what I’ve learned from the lives of Gandhi and King about what happens when you make an effort to care for others is all wrong. Maybe it’s not true that it’s really hard, and you probably won’t be as good as those heroes who went before you, and if you are effective then you’re in danger, and if you die your work comes to an abrupt and impenetrable end.
Perhaps the order of the universe is this: that if you expend yourself fully for the good of others, then what appears as death in this world is nowhere near what it seems. Perhaps the true order of the universe is that such work is fully compensated at some level we cannot see. Perhaps the true result of defending the defenseless until you are endangered is your full restoration and your reserved seat right next to God, your reserved seat right in the lap of the very source of the goodness that you worked so hard to bring to our world.
The story of Jesus’ resurrection makes me ask this: What if we don’t know the half of it? What if all we can understand about the power and limits of doing the right thing is nowhere near the full story? What miracles could happen in the world if we began to treat the poorest, those most oppressed, as if they were the most important to us?
Sure, none of us have seen anything like the miracle of the resurrection. We can’t ever know if that really happened. But who can predict a miracle?
Isn’t it a miracle for a nation, built by people that nation enslaved, to finally give those people full citizenship? That’s what Martin Luther King did for us.
Isn’t it a miracle for a conquering country to decide to turn a huge and fruitful annex back to those from whom they seized it? That’s what Gandhi did for us.
In the gospel of Matthew, after Jesus was killed, his followers went to his tomb to wash his body, and the tomb contained no body but an angel who said I know you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised as he said he would be (Matthew 28:5).
What if we can learn from this that our dead heroes aren’t lost to us after all, even if the evil in the world ends their lives? Matthew also says that those who are mostly interested in saving their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for God’s sake, for the sake of all that is most good, will find it (Matthew 16:25).
I’ll say it again: what if we don’t know the half of it? What if we have no idea how far-reaching and life-sustaining our good deeds are? What if loving acts and the people who perform them really are, in some way that we can’t fully grasp, immortal?
At the end of the day, Jesus’ story, complete with resurrection, tells me I should do good without fear. It says to me that if I do good for others in this world that rather than signing my death warrant I might be opening myself up to the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ story tells me that those who are most blessed are the poor, the mourning, the meek, those who seek justice, the merciful, the pure of heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, and that it is my job to stand with them no matter what happens, because my reward, which I cannot now see or know, will be vaster than anything I can dream, and the things I fear will prove in the grand scheme of things to be nothing to be afraid of at all.
What would change in this world if that were true?
What would change in your life if you believed you could stand for the most downtrodden without fear?
I would like to find out. I hope you’ll join with me so we can try.