Luke 24:1-12: Have you ever stopped to really consider how wild God is? Raising the dead. Unheard of. Turning a funeral ritual into an evangelistic crusade. Out of this world. Using the mouths of women to proclaim God’s good news. Of all things. God seems to be taking a walk on the wild side here, a side so wild that the closest ones to Jesus have a hard time grabbing ahold of this new reality. They had heard the prediction about dying and rising straight from Jesus’ mouth, not once, but multiple times. But they never were able to internalize it, accept it, believe it could be true. Maybe they thought Jesus was just full of theological mumbo jumbo that went over their heads. Maybe they never could get past the idea that he would be taken from them and killed, so that blocked them from really hearing anything wild about what would come next. His predictions of the awful and the wonderful events to come went only as far as their eardrums– no penetration into the head and the heart. We all fall into a similar trap—we hear what we want to hear, and we block out what we can’t handle, especially in an emotionally charged conversation. Some things are just too wild for us to appropriate.
How wild to use the women followers as God’s first mouthpiece. Women who were expected to stay in the background, provide the community’s infrastructure, raise the children, but not to be the spokespersons for God or the preachers of an important message! These women are shocked at first, amazed that they found the tomb open, then terrified at the shining presence of two strangers. They weren’t expecting anything other than a dead body. Like anyone else, they knew that a dead person remains dead. How wild that the tomb is now empty. How wild that they see a strange sight of two messengers from God. And how wild that their roles suddenly shift from the anointers of a dead body to the tellers of a story about a teacher who is no longer dead. In Luke’s account of the events of this resurrection morning, the shining men in the tomb give no instructions to pass the news on to others. There is no need. The women choose to act. They choose to become the story tellers of the wild news that he is no longer dead, but alive, just as he said. The women take it upon themselves to spread the word: death could not hold him! Surprised as they are, they have been handed an opportunity rarely offered to women in their day and time, and they are ready to tell about the wildness of God.
The apostles, eleven of them now, marked by our 11 lilies gracing the front of our worship space today—these are the men who were closest to Jesus, but they just can’t make the leap. It is too wild, too strange, too confusing. The women’s story sounds like idle talk or gossip. It sounds unbelievable– not just because it came from the mouths of women, but mostly because they are describing a man who was dead and now is no longer that way. Say, whaaaat?
This God is so wild that the truth was too hard to believe right away. Indeed, this God of ours is so wild that the truth is still sometimes hard to believe. We come here on this resurrection day because we want to believe that life does win over death, because we want to believe that God has the last say. Does life really win in the end? Too often we look around us and can feel swallowed up by death, violence, hatred, illness, hopelessness, competition, fear, and sin. We sigh when we open the newspaper or turn on the news or drive through a depressed neighborhood. We look for signs of the resurrection, signs of God at work in this world of woe and get frustrated when the barriers block our vision like a large rock rolled in front of a tomb.
Barriers like hate infused harm to innocent people. Again? We say, when we learn of the racial hatred which fueled a church burning spree in southern Louisiana over the last several weeks. Over a 10-day period beginning in late March, three black Baptist churches were torched, leaving charred remains and ashes where a place of worship once stood. Each congregation today has had to find another place to celebrate the resurrection because their buildings have been destroyed. The place where they were baptized and married. The place where they mourned the death of grandma and grandpa. The sense of loss of a spiritual home is compounded by the hateful intention fueled by racism. The sting of death is sin. But God gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Death does not win. Hate does not win.
A hateful fire destroys a building but does not burn a congregation down. Out of the ashes has risen a sense of commitment and determination to rebuild even stronger. I love what Pastor Freddie Jack, President of the Seventh District Missionary Baptist Association in Southern Louisiana said–“They changed our dwelling, but they didn’t change our faith.” Three congregations continue to live as witnesses to a risen Savior. Neighbors and strangers have reached out to offer financial and emotional support, and that in itself is a sign of resurrection, of new life, of God at work in the midst of what looks like the end of the road. Life continues, resurrection hope abounds.
But the wildness of God is this: after the devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris early this week, after the damage to the iconic structure that helped to identify a city, a culture, and an expression of faith for more than 800 years. the outpouring of support for these three small black Baptist churches and their need for funds to rebuild out of their ashes has gone wild! Thanks to the power of social media and the compassion of strangers near and far, the churches’ rebuilding fund soared to 2 million just this week, from donations large and small, as one response on this side of the ocean to faith communities who are hurting in any part of the globe. The funds will be shared equally among the three congregations, and each of them will be able to rebuild their worship space.
I have never experienced a fire that destroyed a place of worship—I can only imagine the sorrow and loss felt by people who have been directly impacted by the loss of a sacred place. Our family did experience the fire of a critical institution, however. The school our children attended for many years in Hickory, North Carolina, burned after their new school was built. It had been an empty building, waiting for a buyer, and someone cooking a meal around the back of the building started a fire. Word got around the neighborhood and we went to watch. We watched the flames lick the dark night sky as the firefighters worked to quench the flames. We remembered the field days and the learning, the lunches and the tests, the teachers and the staff who made that building a home for growing minds and friendships. The school building was a part of our family’s daily life for years. It was a sobering night for us, and the days that followed brought a sadness every time we drove by the old shell of a school, black soot around its windows just like the images you have seen of burned houses of worship.
A seminary classmate of mine, Rev. Thom Shuman, has a gift of words that carry emotion. Listen to his words shared this week after the cathedral fire in Paris:
these stones were shaped by master masons
and stained with the blood of fumble-fingered apprentices;
these stones encased stunning windows
crafted by artists long, long forgotten;
these stones heard chants, prayers,
great organ pieces, and unaccompanied songs;
these stones contain the whispers of grace,
and drip with the tears of centuries of pilgrims;
these stones cry out that
out of smoldering ashes come hope,
out of brokenness comes healing
out of death comes resurrection. (Thom Shuman)
Indeed, resurrection requires death first. New life surges when the old life has died. It is the same for you and for me, it is the same for our churches, for our neighborhoods, for our city.
Amidst the ashes rises hope, life, courage, energy, even joy as people focus on the meaning of this wild, wild story of resurrection. Who knew that rich families in France would compete to see who can give the most toward rebuilding Notre Dame? Who knew that a fire in Paris would spur generosity in the US? I call that resurrection hope. It is not just the rich and famous. It is everyday people like you and me who are supporting the effort to rebuild the three burned out Baptist churches. Suddenly when a landmark is damaged, hearts and pockets are opened in a way they had not been before. Out of death and loss come new life and energy. It is the stirring wildness of God, moving in an unexpected way, bringing light and hope for new life out of the ashes.
Totally wild. The power of resurrection, this fierce power of life, can not be tamed. Where is the wildness of God stirring in you? Calling you to act, to speak, to serve, to sing? Resurrection is always a surprise, wherever we glimpse the grace of God turning over tragedy in our own lives in elsewhere in the world. Today we give thanks to our wild, wild God who raised Jesus from the dead. He is risen! He is risen indeed. Amen