Looking for the Living Among the Dead
The First United Presbyterian Church
“Looking for the Living Among the Dead”
Rev. Amy Morgan
April 21, 2019
17 For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and delight in my people; no more shall the sound of weeping be heard in it, or the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity; for they shall be offspring blessed by the LORD-- and their descendants as well.
24 Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox; but the serpent-- its food shall be dust! They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain, says the LORD.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.
2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb,
3 but when they went in, they did not find the body.
4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.
5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.
6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee,
7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again."
8 Then they remembered his words,
9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest.
10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles.
11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.
12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
They looked on in horror. They wept in the streets. As a holy place of worship went up in flames. This was the scene on Monday evening, as the Cathedral of Notre Dame burned.
This morning, we awoke to fresh horror as we learned of the bombing of churches and hotels in Sri Lanka that destroyed not only sacred spaces but also killed hundreds and wounded thousands.
These griefs are fresh, but they are not new. This was the grief of the Jewish people in Jerusalem in the year 70 AD, around the time the stories of Jesus’ resurrection began to take their final shape. The temple in Jerusalem was the beating heart of Judaism in the first century, the sanctuary that contained the very presence of God. It was central to Jewish identity and religious practice. It had already been destroyed once and rebuilt. But in the year 70 AD, it was set ablaze by Roman troops attempting to quell a Jewish rebellion. Thousands of Jews perished, women and children killed and any survivors carted off into slavery.
The Jewish historian Josephus describes the scene: “As the flames shot up, the Jews let out a shout of dismay that matched the tragedy; they flocked to the rescue, with no thought of sparing their lives or husbanding their strength; for the sacred structure that they had constantly guarded with such devotion was vanishing before their very eyes.”
That is how many people all over the world felt watching the fire at Notre Dame. The Vatican’s culture minister said that Notre Dame cathedral is a “living creature” that has been reborn before and will continue to be the “beating heart” of France. Even though only about 5% of the French population attends church, Notre Dame is part of French national identity, not solely a symbol of religious identity. Watching the cathedral burn was like cutting the heart out of a nation that has already been in conflict over economic justice. The spire that drew our eyes to the heavens collapsed. A “sacred structure,” cared for with great devotion, was vanishing before our very eyes.
This is also how Jesus’ friends and followers felt on the day he died. They had lost, not just a man, not just a leader, but a priceless treasure. A Healer. A Teacher. A Prophet. A Priest. A King. All had vanished before their very eyes on the cross. The sacred man they had followed with such devotion was gone.
We can only imagine that this is how the people of Sri Lanka feel today. People and places they loved vanished, gone, destroyed. The shout of dismay to match the tragedy.
Life is scarred with these losses. Losses that are unimaginable. Losses that unravel the very core of who we are. Losses that unmoor us from our identity.
They may not amount to a national tragedy. They may not make the evening news. But we have all experienced sacred things we cared for with great devotion vanish before our very eyes.
Death is perhaps the most obvious sort of loss. We are cut to the heart when we lose someone we love, a sacred human being, someone of immeasurable value, someone who made us who we are, someone who connected us to our truest selves.
But there are many other kinds of losses, precious and sacred things that may be destroyed. There are tangible things, like family heirlooms and photographs, keepsakes and artwork and collections. And there are intangible things. Like independence. Security. Respect. Trust. Even hope.
The women at the tomb had experienced the loss that comes with death. They had lost someone sacred, someone to whom they were deeply devoted. But they had also lost their investment in a cause and the leader of a movement. They had lost their sense of purpose. They had lost hope for their future.
And when they arrived at the tomb, they discovered that they had also lost the body of Jesus. Luke tells us “they could not find the body,” they don’t even have a corpse to show for their losses.
While they are at a loss about this fresh loss, two men in dazzlingly white clothes suddenly appear. Other gospels are explicit that these fellows are angels, but Luke is too down-to-earth for that.
But these men ask one of the most profound questions in all of scripture: Why do you look for the living among the dead?
The answer seems obvious. Because the women are not looking for someone who is living. They are looking for someone who is dead. They saw him die. They put his lifeless body in the grave. They have plenty of empirical evidence that Jesus is, in fact, dead.
And so they are looking for death. A dead body, dead dreams, dead ambitions, dead hope. They are looking for the death of everything Jesus meant to them.
But it is not there. Death is gone. There is no dead body. And so if the women are looking for dead things, they have come to the wrong place. Why do you look for the living among the dead?
And with those words, Easter arrives.
In that question, the possibility of resurrection, of hope, of life is introduced. With that question, everything we thought we knew about death is uncertain. Because of that question, each time we see death, we start looking for new life.
Why do you look for the living among the dead? Why do we look for God in a building? Why do we look for meaning in a body count? Why do we look for our future in the past? Why do we look for our self-worth and identity in possessions? Why do we look for our security in institutions?
We are looking for death. When sacred structures and sacred people vanish before our very eyes, when our possessions are destroyed, when our institutions fail, when our health deteriorates – we go looking for death. Death is what we expect to find.
But the Easter truth is: we are looking for the living among the dead. We are looking for a life that is yet to be among the ruins of the life that was. We are looking for a future among the ghosts of the past. We are looking for hope among the gravestones of despair.
The women are not criticized for doing this, and neither are we. It is human nature, I suppose. It is rational, perhaps. To focus on the destruction and horror. To assume that dead is dead. To look for what we know instead of what we wish we could believe.
But the question asked by the men in the tomb also comes with an invitation. An invitation to remember. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.
Remember God’s promises to Israel. Remember the words God spoke through the prophets. Remember what was announced by angels and sung by an expectant young mother. Remember what Jesus taught. Remember how he healed. Remember how he was betrayed and humiliated and crucified. Remember, he is risen. Remember he promised resurrection. Remember that he has promised to be with us always. Remember that he will come again. Remember.
Memory is what motivates our hope. The memory of a loved one motivates our hope that they are not gone forever. We do not seek them among the dead. The memory of a treasured possession motivates our hope that what it meant to us – a connection to our family or a beloved place or our sense of identity – is not lost without it. We do not seek it among the dead. The memory of our physical abilities and what they allowed us to contribute to the world around us motivates our hope for living and serving in new ways that are not limited by our disabilities. We do not seek them among the dead.
For the Jews of the first century, the memory of the temple in Jerusalem motivated them to deepen their ritual, study, and prayer, to find a new life for the temple in the everyday patterns of life and religious practice. Though all that remains of the temple structure today is a segment of the Western Wall, Jews still turn toward it in prayer and visit it on pilgrimage because it motivates their hope that the third and final temple will someday sit there, in the new Jerusalem God has promised. At Jewish wedding ceremonies, a glass is broken to remember the destruction of the temple. This is not an act of mourning, but an act of remembrance that motivates hope that the lives of these two people will be changed forever, just as the Jewish people were changed forever when the temple was destroyed. As the temple burned, the Jewish people knew that things would never be the same. That memory motivates hope, a hope that things will never be the same. They do not look for the living among the dead.
As Notre Dame burned, social media was flooded with memories – of trips to Paris, of concerts and pilgrimages, of prayers and priceless art. Those memories motivated hope that the damaged portions of the cathedral could be rebuilt. Hundreds of millions of dollars have already been pledged for this effort.
The rebuilding of the cathedral is not an attempt to resurrect the past, to restore a dead building. As art historian Kevin Murphy put it: “[Buildings are] not static. They’re living things, and they register in their fabric this very long history. That’s what’s fascinating about a cathedral that’s hundreds or more years old; it’s seen this incredible unfolding of history and it registers that history in its actual fabric.” The memories of Notre Dame, which stretch back over 800 years, motivate the hope that this building is alive with all the meaning and devotion that has been given to it over the centuries. We are not looking for the living among the dead.
The memory of Jesus motivated hope for Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them. They shared this hope with the apostles, who thought they were delirious with grief. But Peter must have remembered something, something that motivated hope, something that drove him to run to the tomb, looking not for death, but for life.
Peter’s amazement at what he found in the tomb was shared in the stories of resurrection that, for decades, were whispered in secret and proclaimed in synagogues. These stories were preached in marketplaces and discussed in house-churches. And in 70 AD, they began to be written down and preserved.
When the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, Christians were a small, persecuted sect of Judaism. The temple was sacred to them, too. For them, the memory of the temple motivated hope for a spiritual temple, for sacrifices of the heart, for a new heaven and a new earth. And this hope powerfully shaped how the story of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were recorded.
The earliest of the gospel narratives to be composed is the gospel of Mark, written just after the temple was destroyed. In this gospel, Jesus correlates his body with the temple, his death and resurrection with its destruction and rebuilding. Memory of the temple motivated hope in God’s plan to be present in the world beyond the Holy of Holies in the temple, to live and breathe, to bring new life, eternal life, even. The early Christians were not looking for the living among the dead.
And so today, as this new tragedy in Sri Lanka continues to unfold, we are confronted once again with the Easter question and the Easter invitation. We are challenged not to look for new life in the graves of resignation or despair, apathy or anger. There is life, there is resurrection, in the midst and through this horror. Memory will motivate hope for those communities of Easter people struck by this horrific violence. And God, who in Jesus Christ experienced violence and death in his body, is with them even now in their suffering, preparing a resurrection. We remember these promises. And we hope.
Because of the Easter question and the invitation to remember, we go looking for resurrection in every devastation. Sometimes the wait is long. More than three days. Sometimes there is no proof that a resurrection has taken place. Only the absence of a body, a negative space, that confirms death and sin and brokenness have lost, have vanished before our very eyes. But we remember, and our hope is motivated, so that we can set aside what we know and look for what we wish we could believe. And in time, that hope, that wish, will become what we know. It will become the story we tell. It will become the temple where God’s presence can be encountered. Remember. And hope. Amen.