Not long after I came to Arlington Temple a wonderful woman from my previous church sent me a plant for my office. It was nice to be thought of, and I was happy to get it, because I like the look that a plant can bring to an office. However, I also knew that it would die. My mom had a cactus garden when I was growing up—this is the sum total of what I know about how to take care of plants.
And I wasn’t wrong. In two years and some change this plant has died many deaths. If you look closely you can see where its branches are gray and broken off in a lot of places, and where one of the leaves is turning brown at the tip. Other brittle brown leaves litter my floor around where this plant stands. Basically, I’ll be good about watering it for a while, and then I’ll go on vacation, or I’ll just get busy and forget, and the plant will start to die, until I notice it and desperately water it again, and somehow, life comes back.
I was sure when I came back into the office after New Year’s and saw how sorry this plant was looking that it was the end for real. I picked off the dead leaves and there were hardly any left, maybe two branches’ worth. It stood there, sparse, accusing. Out of guilt, I became really good at watering it for the next few days, not really expecting anything to come of it.
But then a few days later I saw these tiny, baby leaves appear. And they began to grow. And soon this plant, in spite of all my incompetence, was looking a little more alive again. This plant was determined to live.
This plant stands in my office as a reminder of the tenacity of resurrection. Resurrection, you see, is a stubborn thing.
We are told it was early morning, when it was still dark, that the women came to the tomb with their burial spices. Jesus had died on a Friday, just as the Jewish Sabbath was about to begin, and there hadn’t been time to give him a proper burial then. But they had not forgotten. Even if they couldn’t do anything else for him, they could do this.
They knew what they were expecting: a quiet garden, a sealed tomb, a linen-wrapped corpse, the stench of death. Death was death, after all.
Instead, they found the stone rolled away. Their hearts must have quickened as they went inside, wondering what was going on. Had someone taken his body? Why? What had they done? You can imagine their growing panic as they confirmed his body was nowhere to be found. When they turned they saw two men, or at least they looked like men, except they were glowing. The women cowered in fear—again, not knowing what was happening, but knowing it wasn’t normal.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” one man asked.
“He’s not here,” said the other; “he’s been raised.”
That is not what they came there expecting.
Death, we think, is the most stubborn thing in the universe. Death is the one that is universal, the one thing that can’t be made better, the one thing there is literally no coming back from. Death is the end of all ends.
But that morning, three women discovered that there is, in fact, something more stubborn even than death.
Have you ever been in a situation that it seems like there’s no coming back from? I don’t just mean literal death, which none of us have yet experienced, but maybe a prolonged illness, or grief over the loss of a loved one, or an addiction, or depression, or a period of life when simply nothing seems to be going right and everything is getting worse? Have you ever been in a situation where there is simply no life to be seen, no matter which way you look, and where it seems like there’s no hope for things to be different?
I believe that’s a story we can all tell at one time or another in our lives. Some of us can tell it looking back on it. Some of us might be still living it. The darkness seems to be closing in around us, and somehow, nothing can stop it.
It’s hard to believe that God is still at work, even in a situation like that.
But that’s what three women thought when they walked to the tomb that dark and quiet morning. And they found, in fact, that life refused to yield to death, and that God’s love and goodness couldn’t be stopped—even by the one thing with the power to stop everything.
There was a man who used to stop by the church a lot to meet with a homeless outreach worker. This man never smiled. I’m not sure if it would be correct to say he was always angry, but he always looked and sounded angry. If the outreach worker wasn’t there he would knock loudly on my door and complain in words that made no sense to your average person about how everyone was giving him the runaround. This had been going on for years. I thought we would do this forever.
But this man got housing earlier this year. We saw him at church on the morning of the day he moved in. He still didn’t smile, exactly, but you could tell he was happy. He actually told me, “Thanks for bearing with me.”
And there was new life, where I never thought I would see it.
He is one of a number of our homeless neighbors who have gotten housing with the help of A-SPAN in the past year or so. There’s another woman who was here a lot, but it often seemed like she wasn’t really here. It varied by the day, but it was hard to have a conversation with her that you could follow. But not long ago I saw her for the first time since she moved into her new apartment, and I had a clear, coherent conversation with her for maybe the first time. It felt like I was talking to a new person. And I hadn’t been sure that was possible.
So many forces came together to keep these two of our neighbors down—forces of poverty, and mental illness, and the wear of life on the streets—and those forces were powerful, and persistent. But in the end there was something that was even more powerful, and even more persistent.
Of course it’s not always simple as just showing up and finding an empty tomb. For Jesus, and the women at the tomb, resurrection happened nice and neatly: he was dead, and then he was alive. At least that’s the story as it was passed on to us. Hope was lost, and then it was found again. In John’s Gospel Jesus’s clothes are even nicely folded in the tomb.
We never do find out what happened Saturday—probably because no one knows. What did it look like for death to give way to life?
One day, after we die, we may wake up to find that everything has been made new. But in the meantime, resurrection isn’t always that neat and dramatic. Sometimes it’s more like one new bud on a dead plant. It’s one day sober. It’s the first time you laughed after the divorce or the death. It’s the first step you take when you can finally make it out of bed. It’s one reason to hope when for so long there has been no reason to hope.
It seems our lives go through cycles, sometimes, of death and resurrection and death and resurrection.
But because Jesus lives, because he died and got up, we have reason to believe that death will always give way to life again, even when it’s not as dramatic as an empty tomb on an early morning. Jesus lives, and God’s power of resurrection is still at work in this world around us, not only promising us life after death, but present wherever love and life and grace refuse to give way to the forces of evil and sin and darkness and death. Wherever, despite all appearances to the contrary, life claws its way out of the tomb.
I think one of the most hopeless-seeming situations in our world right now is the ongoing violence in the Middle East and all the refugees it has created. We’ve all heard the horror stories—true horror stories—of children drowning as they swim to shore and families being turned away at borders and living in miserable camps as they wait for anyone to say yes to them. It seems like there is nothing to be done and it seems like evil and hate and destruction, in that part of the world, have simply won.
But I read about the welcome refugees are receiving in Greece, of all places, which has had so many of its own problems to deal with recently. Greece has seen an influx of around 50,000 refugees so far and is expected to see up to 100,000 more. I read of one couple handing out chocolate-filled croissants in a refugee camp on the Macedonian border. I read of a chef who works at a luxury hotel on the coast drives to the border four times a week to feed people. Of a man who doesn’t drive, who takes long bus rides to the camp to deliver necessities. Shopkeepers whose profits have been destroyed by austerity measures are donating supplies. People who don’t have much are opening their homes. I even saw, attached to this article, a picture of people from the island of Lesbos helping pull a boat full of refugees into the shore.
Their actions may not change things on a global scale, but you can be sure God is still in the business of resurrection in this world wherever love stubbornly refuses to give way to hate and fear, wherever grace and generosity stubbornly refuse to give way to sin and greed, wherever life and light breaks through in the midst of death and darkness.
Everything may seem lost, everything around us may seem hopeless, but if we pay attention, we might just see the dawn breaking, and the first sounds of a stone being rolled away.
That Sunday morning, three women made their way to a tomb, burial spices in hand.
They knew what they were expecting: a quiet garden, a sealed tomb, a linen-wrapped corpse, the stench of death. Death was death, after all. There was no escaping or reversing it. Death is the most stubborn thing in the world.
Or is it?
Where God is at work, it turns out, there is something more stubborn even then death.
Where God is at work, life always breaks through.