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April 17: Easter Sunday

Luke 24:1-12

"Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here. He is risen!"

That's what these mysterious men, these apparently angelic messengers, say to the women who arrive at the tomb on that first Easter Sunday. These women came expecting something other than this. They came expecting to find the body of their friend, their teacher, and to perform their duty. In the ancient world, there were no funeral homes, no hospitals to dispose of bodies or prepare them for burial – you didn't outsource that work to professionals. It was a holy thing – a religious obligation – a way to honor a loved one, to mark the end of life and grieve their loss. Preparing a body for the grave by anointing it with perfumes and oils was a holy job, and one reserved for family and close friends.

And, there hadn't been time to do that job on Friday. On Friday, Jesus had been crucified – put to death, murdered, by an unholy alliance of religious elites and political rulers who were afraid of the trouble Jesus was causing, the movement he was leading, the upside-down Kingdom of love and justice and inclusion that he was proclaiming. He was a threat to the way things were done – just as he is still a threat to the status quo, to all of us who prefer to have nice feelings and spiritual jargon and religious self-help plans rather than God's radical, boundary-breaking, border-crossing, margin lifting, world-transforming, love being put into action.

So, because he was a threat, Jesus was put to death. But, he was put to death at a very inconvenient time for those who loved him. You see, as he died on Friday, the sabbath was approaching. The sabbath is the center of the Jewish calendar, a weekly day, beginning at sundown on Friday, when faithful Jews rest – taking a break from all their labors. And this was not just any sabbath, but a sabbath that lined up with Passover, perhaps the holiest day, the most significant holiday, of the Jewish year – a day when the people celebrated their central story, the story of God liberating them from their slavery in Egypt. So, once sundown on Friday hit, these women – Jesus's friends – could not care for his body, because they had a religious obligation to honor the sabbath and celebrate the Passover.

And, so, when Jesus died, in the waning minutes before the sunset, he had been thrown in a nearby tomb – we can imagine them rushing, as the light fades, trying to get it done in time – because once the sun set, they would have to wait to do anything, to tend to the body of their beloved friend, to perform this ritual essential to their grieving – they'd have to wait to do all of that until Sunday morning.

And, that's when we meet these women in today's story. These faithful friends of Jesus, who have spent the last day sitting, waiting, mourning. What must that sabbath have been like for them? How could they rest as they sat in grief over the loss of their teacher? What must that Passover celebration have been like? On Passover, they would have told the story of a God who saved the people, of a lamb that was sacrificed to provide the people with protection, of God setting the people free. It was a story of hope from hopelessness and unexpected, overwhelming joy. In fact, it has very much in common with the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was one of the earliest ways that Christians understood what happened on Easter – as God's new Passover, as God doing all of that – saving the people – all over again, in a new way. But, in this moment, for these women, in today's story, we aren't there yet. On that Passover, as the women sat and waited to do their duty, how could they know about the new thing – the joy, the transformation, the resurrection – that they were about to encounter?

What were they expecting when they went to the tomb? Did they have some inkling, some hope, that resurrection was a possibility? After all, Jesus had hinted at it – had almost flat out told them – that death and resurrection was the destination of his ministry, the goal of his time among them. But, of course, they hadn't really understood what he meant, they thought he was speaking metaphorically – after all, who could really believe that someone, a real person who they knew, could really die, and really be buried, and really rise from the dead days later? This story didn't just become hard to believe after the rise of modern science. Folks back then were, after all, much more intimately acquainted with the realities of death than we are – we pay other people to take care of dead bodies, but these women had likely done this many times before, had taken spices and perfumes and ointments and rubbed them on the bodies of their dead loved ones, preparing them for the grave, saying goodbye to them.

What were these women expecting on that first Easter Sunday? I'm not sure, but, whatever they were expecting, it couldn't have been this. They came there to anoint a body for burial, but the body is now gone. They came to say goodbye to their friend, but now he's not there. They came expecting solitude and grief, but instead they are greeted by these angelic messengers bringing an announcement of unimaginable joy. I don't know what they were expecting, but whatever it was, this wasn't it.

What are we expecting this Easter Sunday? What do we think, what do we hope, what do we imagine that this day might bring us? I know that I have certain expectations every Easter Sunday. I expect lots of pastels. And people in fancier clothes than they might wear on a normal Sunday. I expect to have a giant lunch at around 3 this afternoon, to eat a bunch of ham and lamb and potatoes, and then to fall asleep on the couch by 5. I expect, every Easter, to eat a Cadbury Cream Egg as my unofficial Easter breakfast after the sunrise service – and to come down from the resulting sugar high somewhere during the middle of the sermon.

But those aren't the Easter expectations that brought you here this morning. You can eat a Cadbury Cream egg, cook some lamb, and wear pastels without ever coming to worship. So, why are you here? Why are we doing this? What do we expect?

For some of us, maybe we are here because our family dragged us here, and what we are expecting is a nice meal afterwards. For others, we are here because we always come to worship on Easter, and so we expect for that tradition to continue. Maybe you are here but you don't really expect anything – like those women, you just expect this to be like it's always been, for the dead to stay dead, for your life to keep on going, for this just to be a thing that you do, with nothing too special about it. Or, maybe you're here because you are expecting – you are hoping – for something to change in your life. You are ready for transformation. Maybe you, like those women on that first Easter Sunday, have been stuck in despair for what feels like forever. Maybe you're expecting – praying for – your own divine messengers, someone to shake you out of your comfort zone and tell you that things can change. Maybe you came into today expecting the ordinary – Easter eggs and candies and pastels – but secretly hoping for something more: for a word of hope when life seems hopeless, for the promise of resurrection in a world that seems to be ruled by the powers of death.

Whatever you showed up expecting this morning, we are, all of us, a little bit like the women who we meet in today's story. Like these women, we have shown up to something relatively ordinary – they showed up to a garden tomb, we showed up to a school cafeteria that's dressed up to look kinda like a church. We probably came expecting a relatively standard experience – they were expecting to do their duty and anoint their friend's body for burial, we are expecting an hour of talking and music followed by honey-glazed ham. But, in the midst of those ordinary things, we – they and us – are hearing something extraordinary – the news that death has been defeated, that the way things have always worked is not the way things work anymore, that the grave is empty, that something new is happening, that failure is not permanent, that despair is not the end of our story, that resurrection rewrites the rules, that God is on the move, that an impossible victory has been won, that Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead.

That's the news they heard that morning, and that's the news that the church has proclaimed – the story the church has told – on every Easter Sunday since then. It's the story we tell today. And we find ourselves in a situation much like the one that those women faced. Because they've heard the story – they have heard that Jesus has been raised from the dead – but they haven't seen it yet. In a few hours, they will see him with their own two eyes, but, for now, they are like us – trusting in this story, forced to believe in words what they cannot see with their eyes.

But, then again, maybe our situation isn't exactly like theirs. Because, even though we haven't seen Jesus walking around, giving us proof that he's raised from the dead, we do have some evidence that they don't. Because, unlike these women, we have the church. And the church, over its history, I will admit, has been a mess. It's full of people, which means that it's full of sin, and hypocrisy, and failure, and abuses – we have not always lived up to the standard of Jesus. And yet, at times – consistently, across the ages, there have been people, in this thing we call church, who have lived lives that are only possible – lives that only make sense – if this resurrection thing is real. Early Christians who willingly accepted suffering and death rather than denying the story of Jesus. Reformers across the ages, working to help us listen for God's truth and put God's love into action no matter what society said. Folks standing up for justice – even if it cost them everything – because they believed that justice is God's calling, God's gift, our world's future. Regular faithful people – folks like the people in this room – who pray for those who are suffering, who show up when folks are sick, who offer love and compassion when people are in need, who give what they have away in order to impact the lives of others. These ordinary acts of love, these revolutionary moments of grace put into action, they are the best proof we have that the story these women heard is true, that God really is doing something, that resurrection is real, that the worst thing is never the last thing. What we have that they didn't is the last two thousand years – a history of God showing up, over and over again, when people gather in the name of Jesus and go out into the world to do his work.

So, we are a lot like these women, but we also have advantages that they don't have. It's worth asking ourselves how they responded to this world-shattering news. How did they react to this moment – to this tempest of emotions, to this cauldron of uncertainty and confusion and joy and hope all mixed up together?

How did they react? They went out and told others. And, though, at first, no one believes them – after all, would you believe it? Would you really believe that someone had risen from the dead, that everything you thought you knew about how the world works had been turned on its head? At first, no one believes it, but, soon, people start believing it, and these women – and the other disciples, the other followers of Jesus – they keep telling people about it, and those people tell more people, who tell more people, and it gets passed down the line, across two millenia, until it gets to us. This story, starting with these few women, who no one believed – it spread like wildfire, and the lives they lived – lives of justice and mercy and grace, lives of radical hospitality and world-transforming love – those lives are possible, they only make sense, because Jesus is risen. This story only gets to us, only gets handed down across the years, because Jesus is risen. People keep telling the story, new generations keep sharing it, we keep organizing our lives around it, learning to live this surprising, hope-filled love. The way that the women figured out that the story told by these divine messengers was true was by getting down to work – they spread the word, they staked their lives on this message, and, by living as if the story of Easter was true, they discovered that it actually is.

Like those women at the tomb on that first Easter morning, we come to this place in tentative hope, wondering what might come next. Our expectations are both shattered and exceeded. We are a mixture of disappointed and overwhelmed, crushed and overjoyed. We come to this place in hope, and Jesus invites us to discover the truth of Easter by joining those first women in sharing a story of hope, the story of the resurrection, by spreading the Good News that Jesus is risen. We are invited to embrace this unexpected hope by telling the story – and discovering that telling the story helps us learn to believe in the story. We are invited to join these women in their work by telling the story of Easter every day of our life.

Maybe we tell the story with words. Maybe we don’t use words at all, and instead we tell the story with acts of love and justice. Maybe we tell the story by welcoming strangers, by caring for the outcast, by loving someone who feels unloved. However we do it, we are invited, like these women, to tell this story, to pass on the Good News of Easter.

We came here not sure of what to expect, but we leave here with a mission: go, and tell the world the Good News, that Jesus Christ is risen. The forces of evil, darkness, and death are on the run. Our worst expectations, our darkest fears, they are not the end of our story. When all seems lost, there's still more that's yet to be written. Because Jesus Christ is Lord, and he is Risen. That's the story these women heard, the story they shared, the story we tell this morning. That's the expectation-exploding news we have to share.

This is the story they heard, the story we tell: Jesus Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! That's the story that the church's life is meant to point to! Jesus Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! That's the story that changes everything, that teaches us to expect the unexpected, that turns our graves into gardens. Jesus Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed! Alleluia! Amen!

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