Looking for the Living Among the Dead

Scripture: Luke 24:1-9

I got my vaccine last weekend, my first shot of Moderna. I know a lot of people who have talked about tearing up when they got theirs, but to be honest, mine was a pretty anticlimactic experience. I spent 35 minutes in the car driving to a CVS in Dale City; traffic was unusually heavy, according to Google Maps; I waited in a short line in the cosmetics aisle, got a prick in my arm that I hardly felt, sat in a folding chair for 15 minutes, and left. I didn’t even get a sticker.

At the same time, I am really, really grateful. The fact that we have this technology feels nothing short of miraculous. There are so many people around the world who will not have access to a vaccine anytime soon. And despite the traffic, the process was easy and painless.

Last year, as we celebrated Easter, we were at the beginning of this pandemic, although I’m not sure we knew it was still the beginning then. The news was filled with death and a lot of us were really on edge and we were still getting used to everything being moved online and it was generally pretty un-Eastery. But of course that first Easter itself started off pretty un-Eastery, as the women walked to the tomb, and so there’s some beauty in that, when you can claim resurrection when everything around you smacks of death.

This year feels different. There is hope on the horizon. Vaccine rollout is ramping up, restrictions are being eased, some of us are getting to see our families again for the first time in a long time. It feels, in some ways, like dawn is already breaking. And maybe that makes resurrection a little easier to believe in this year.

AND, at the same time, it’s been a year. It’s been a year. And a lot of us are tired and stressed and burned out and grieving. And even as vaccines are increasing new cases are again, too, and we’re in a little bit of a race against time, and it’s not quite obvious yet that everything is going to be OK again. And as much as we want to see people again, we’re also kind of dreading the day that we have to wear something other than sweatpants. It’s this weird, messy, precarious, in-between place that we’re in. We’re starting to breathe again – and at the same time we’re holding our breath.

And so this year, it’s in the midst of all the messy, precarious, hopeful weirdness that we gather to proclaim and remind each other of the truth of resurrection. It’s in that place of grief and exhaustion and relief and gratefulness that we hear the story once again of a man who died and some women who came one morning to anoint his body with burial spices and found an empty tomb instead.

The story is itself a jumble of grief, and hope, and fear, and confusion, and amazement. It begins early in the morning, when as far as anyone knows nothing has changed. The cross, and the forces and powers that put Jesus there are, as far as anyone knows, still the end of the story. The women come with burial spices, ready to anoint the dead body they fully expect to find, because obviously, when there’s a dead body on Friday, there’s a dead body on Sunday. These things don’t just change.

Except when they do. Because there is no body in the tomb that morning. The stone seal has been rolled away, and the tomb is empty. If you are these women, what do you do with that?? You don’t just automatically snap right into joy and celebration. You look at each other in confusion and fear and wonder what on earth is going on. But they don’t have long to try to figure it out, because suddenly there are two dazzling men in standing in front of them and it is clear they are about to hear something they have never heard before, and that they will hardly dare to hope is true.

Sometimes, life feels like the grief and despair of Easter morning before the women reach the tomb. And sometimes, life feels like this moment in the story, caught somewhere between death and resurrection. Usually, on average, and not just a year into a pandemic, we are somewhere between the past and the future, somewhere between brokenness and healing. It’s messy and precarious and it’s part of the Easter story.

The story doesn’t leave us there. The good news that Christ is risen will be definitively proclaimed! But, in the Gospel of Luke, at least, that news isn’t just announced straight away. Instead, the dazzling men outside the tomb begin with a question: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

It’s a rebuke, or at least it comes across that way. You’re not going to find him here. The living, breathing, human being you’re looking for is not going to be found in a tomb.

And it’s possible there’s a question for all of us in that. Because, in all of the mix of hope and fear and grief and exhaustion and longing that is our lives, it can be easy to look for life in places we will never find it. How often do we find ourselves looking for life – for meaning, for hope, for redemption – in the accomplishments we can rack up, in the promises of things we can buy, or in the self-righteousness of our own prejudices, which we strongly suspect that Jesus would share, or even in a vaccine, and some promised return to some idealized “normal”?

Can you imagine two dazzling, angelic creatures looking you in the face and saying, “If you’re looking for life here, if you’re looking for Jesus here, you’re in the wrong place for that”?

At the same time the rebuke seems a little unfair to me. Why are they looking for Jesus there? Well, because that’s where they left him on Friday, and again, generally a dead body on Friday is a dead body on Sunday. They haven’t shown up to the tomb looking for the living among the dead, they are very explicitly looking for the dead, burial spices still in hand. But death is not what’s there for them to find.

Unfair or not, it’s this question that stops me in my tracks every time I read this passage. Why are you looking for the living among the dead? Maybe it’s not so much as a rebuke as a challenge. Because, for us, who know the rest of the story, for us, who know the answer to why Jesus’ body isn’t there in that tomb, it seems to me that looking for the living among the dead is exactly what we as Christians should be doing.

We know the rest of the story. We know the tomb is empty because of the angels’ next words: He is not here, he is risen! We know that hate, and fear, and oppression and shame don’t get to have the last word. We know that God’s love and mercy and welcome does. Which means that we actually can show up at the tomb looking for life in the midst of death.

I don’t just mean that we can be optimistic, always look for the silver lining, or that everything is going to work out the way we want it to. That clearly is not the case. Death is real, and all the forces that play into it. For the more than 550 thousand people who have died from Covid since the beginning of the pandemic, death is real. For George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the other Black people who have been killed by police violence, death is real. For the Asian women killed in the Atlanta spa shootings, death is real. For Jesus, death is real.

Death is real and so is sin, and fear, and despair.

But because we know the rest of the story, we know that God is at work creating new life even in all these things.

And the thing is that it’s usually not such a neat story, and we don’t just move instantaneously from death to resurrection. We usually get to spend some time in that messy in-between. It’s the in between of healing grief, and fighting for justice not yet realized, and being faced with the work we need to do on ourselves, and it’s the messiness of forgiveness that isn’t just like flipping a switch, and it’s beginning to take the meds, and it’s that first in-person trip back to your favorite grocery store, and it’s life and death all mixed together. God is at work in the chaos, exhaustion, despair, the messiness of life.

So why do we look for the living among the dead? Because we know Jesus is there.

And where else are we going to find resurrection except in the midst of death?

And where else are we going to find healing if we don’t look in the midst of brokenness?

And where else are we going to find grace, if we don’t look in the places we thought that grace couldn’t reach?

It’s been a year, and in some ways it feels like dawn is breaking, and in some ways it feels like the pull of the tomb is just as strong as ever, and sometimes we’re looking for hope and answers in all the wrong places. But even in that in-between, we know the rest of the story. He is not here. He is risen. Go tell the others. He is risen ideed.