Luke 24: 36-48
You are witnesses of these things. What things, resurrection? What have we witnessed? What has happened that we did not see? Did we see, but not recognize?
I still remember that day on the banks of Watts Bar lake fishing with my grandfather. The fishing was not good that day. My grandfather had not caught anything. My main job on our fishing trips was to be quiet and to try to sit still. I was raised to believe that fish were equipped with an amazing ability to sense sound and movement. Most of the time, sitting still and being quiet was the best contribution I could make to fish catching efforts. Then I heard my grandfather call my name in a way I had never heard him say it. He called my name and pointed at my fishing rod. It was moving. There was a fish on my line, my first. Ever. All the way to the bank out of the water onto the stringer fish. Pappaw was beside himself. I can still see his smile and hear him telling my grandmother the whole story when we arrived back at the house.
If you have walked in the woods behind the parsonage, you may have noticed that there is big rock at the shoreline that is perfect for sitting. I can easily imagine sitting there fishing with my grandfather. His voice soft, “Be still son. You will scare the fish.”
If I were to see him sitting there or hear his voice, that would be a powerful mixture of memories, imagination and lingering grief. Because I was there that night at the Booth Brother’s Funeral Home. I stood at the doorway to the chapel. My grandmother, my mother, my aunts and uncles where standing in front of his casket receiving condolences from friends and neighbors. I saw my grandfather’s body.
Such a state of mind, bewildered by grief, is a good starting place for engaging the disciples’ response in stories like this Sunday’s Gospel reading. Peter has seen the linen cloths lying by themselves in the empty tomb, and Jesus has vanished after appearing to two of his followers on the road to Emmaus. Now, when those three are gathered with the other apostles and their companions, Jesus shows up out of nowhere.
The disciples take some convincing that Jesus’ earlier talk about rising again meant in a flesh-and-blood body. They think Jesus is a ghost, a spirit separated from material existence. It’s a bit odd to me that they find ghosts a more credible possibility in this scenario, but then I’m a beneficiary of a 2,000-year-old tradition about Jesus’ bodily resurrection. That aside, I’m sure I would join them in wanting to touch and know whether or not a person beloved to me really had a body like mine again after he had been lifeless.
It’s bewildering and bizarre that death takes from us the physical presence of the ones we love. And we’ve inherited these stories where God shows death up by doing something even more bizarre and bewildering, something completely contrary to what we have known and seen to be true.
Who really knows what happened on that first Easter morning. The tomb was empty. Reports begin circulating and Jesus appears, first here and there, to his followers. Jesus is alive
We need these stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances because We need a God who resurrects lives. We need a Redeemer who has a body like ours, with wounds both visible and hidden to the naked eye. We need a Messiah with whom even death is not a final limit for these bodies in which, through God, we live and move and have our being.
When I put myself among the first disciples, I share in their terror, fright, doubt, confusion and uncertainty. What are they witnessing. What is happening that they are not seeing? What are they seeing but unable to believe? In that moment, before we have words for and books about it, what are they witnessing? The agony of death and the bewildering wonder of resurrection together God refusing to leave us by ourselves. This is large, cosmic, life altering, world-changing.
In Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s cabin, Tom has just been sold and is on his way to Louisiana. He is separated from his family, who remain in Kentucky.
“In such a case, you write to your wife, and send messages to your children; but Tom could not write,—the mail for him had no existence, and the gulf of separation was unbridged by even a friendly word or signal.
Is it strange, then, that some tears fall on the pages of his Bible, as he lays it on the cotton-bale, and, with patient finger, threading his slow way from word to word, traces out its promises? Having learned late in life, Tom was but a slow reader, and passed on laboriously from verse to verse. Fortunate for him was it that the book he was intent on was one which slow reading cannot injure,—nay, one whose words, like ingots of gold, seem often to need to be weighed separately, that the mind may take in their priceless value. Let us follow him a moment, as, pointing to each word, and pronouncing each half aloud, he reads,
“Let—not—your—heart—be—troubled. In—my —Father’s—house—are—many—mansions. I—go—to—prepare—a—place—for—you.”
Cicero, when he buried his darling and only daughter, had a heart as full of honest grief as poor Tom’s,—perhaps no fuller, for both were only men;—but Cicero could pause over no such sublime words of hope, and look to no such future reunion; and if he had seen them, ten to one he would not have believed,—he must fill his head first with a thousand questions of authenticity of manuscript, and correctness of translation. But, to poor Tom, there it lay, just what he needed, so evidently true and divine that the possibility of a question never entered his simple head. It must be true; for, if not true, how could he live?”
Is it easier to be a witness to the resurrection if you have no choice? What if you could not live if it were not true?
While we were in Tennessee last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted a raid on a meat packing plant in Hamblen County, Tennessee, not far from where our sons live. It was the largest such raid in over a decade. 97 individuals were arrested and taken to a nearby National Guard Armory for processing.
The U.S. Internal Revenue Service is charging Southern Provisions, the meat packing plant, with evading taxes, filing false tax returns, and illegally employing undocumented workers. Southern Provision paid employees weekly in cash. The investigation began after authorities learned of large amounts of cash withdrawn from the bank by the business on a weekly basis — more than $25 million over the last decade. Clearly, the costlier crimes in this situation were committed by the owners or by employees well above the paygrade of the 97 workers actually arrested in the raid.
Those arrested all had brown skin. Their crime is same one that has brought people to this land for the last five hundred years, they want a better life for their families.
Detaining and processing 97 people takes time. Three O’clock rolls around and it is time for children to get out of school. Mom or Dad is not there to pick up at school. Why? Where? No one knows. Some Children get off the school bus. No parent at home. Why? Where? No one knows.
Slowly, word begin spread, extended family, friends and neighbors stepped in to care for children who had seemingly been abandoned. That evening many of those concerned and worried ended up in the sanctuary at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Morristown, TN. For them, sanctuary was much more than the name of large room where people worship. It was their shield and their protection. The parents of some the children gathered there had already been moved to a deportation center in another state, but they did not know that. They, along with others were still waiting to hear what had happened to mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles who worked at the plant.
I do not know if a priest celebrated mass with the crowd gathered there that evening. If one had, it would not have been with bread and juice like we use here, bread that symbolizes Christ body broken for us and juice that symbolizes Christ’s blood shed for us. No, for those who might have received communion there the bread and the juice would have been the body and the blood of Christ.
I don’t believe that way, but I do wonder. I wonder what it would be like to have my world torn apart in the way those children had theirs torn apart. Not knowing where my parents are, not knowing why they were not here with me, would a symbol be enough to sustain me? In the midst of such crisis and chaos, would I need more, something real, real body of Christ broken and wounded, for me, like me,
No, I don’t believe that way, but what if believing that way was the only way I could live, the only way I could make it through the night?
What I do know is that through the evening and into the night, people came from neighboring towns and counties. People with different ways of thinking about God brought food, clothing, personal care items, cots, blankets and prayers. Some dropped the items off and returned to their homes. Others came to stay the night and help out anyway that they were needed.
Empty tomb, risen savior, body of Christ.
You are witnesses to these things? What things? What are we seeing? What are we missing. Witnesses to what?
Roddie Edmonds is a person whose name you have probably never heard. I had not heard his name until this week. As soon as I learned about him, I immediately asked myself why I had never heard of him. He is from Knoxville, Tennessee. He died in 1985. I was before then. I could have bumped into at the West Town Mall. The reason I had never heard of him was because Master Sargent Edmonds was like most every other WWII veteran I have ever met. He did not want to talk about the war. When he came home, he went to work and took care of his family. After he died, his wife gave his son a box of his dad’s personal belongings. In that box, Roddie’s son found two diaries. He started reading.
I can only imagine what he was feeling as he read about the day that the commandant of the German POW camp put a gun to his father’s head. Since Roddie was the highest ranking non-commissioned officer in the camp where over 1200 Americans were imprisoned, the commandant told him to assemble all the Americans who were Jewish in front of the barracks the next morning. What the commandant saw the next morning was over 1200 American soldiers, an estimated 200 of them Jewish, assembled in front of their barracks. When the Commandant saw that all the camp’s inmates were standing in front of their barracks, he turned to Edmonds and said, “They cannot all be Jews.” To this Edmonds replied, “We are all Jews.” The German took out his pistol and threatened Edmonds, but the Master Sergeant did not waver and retorted, “According the Geneva Convention, we have to give only our name, rank, and serial number. If you shoot me, you will have to shoot all of us, and after the war you will be tried for war crimes.” The German gave up, turned around, and left the scene.
On February 10, 2015, Yad Vashem, The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, recognized Master Sargent Roddie Edmonds as Righteous Among the Nations.
Do I know what happened an that first Easter? How the stone was rolled away? What it was like for those disciples to encounter Jesus after the crucifixion? No, I don’t know. But when I hear about and see people doing the kinds of things that I believe Jesus would be doing if he were here with us now, I cannot help but think that he is here with us now, alive.
When folks offer comfort and support to people whose lives have been turned upside down. That for me, is a testimony, a witness to an empty tomb and living savior.
When people like Sargent Edmonds, find the courage to stand with those who mistreated and hated because of whatever it is that makes them different. That for me, is a testimony, a witness to an empty tomb and living savior.
When you offer food to hungry children, When you give support and love to the sick and the dying and when you stand with students who working to make schools safer. That to me, is a testimony, a witness to an empty tomb and a living savior.
Clarence Jordan said, “Jesus’ resurrection is not to convince the incredulous nor to reassure the fearful, but to enkindle the believers. The proof that God raised Jesus from the dead is not the empty tomb, but the full hearts of his transformed disciples. The crowning evidence that he lives is not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.”
You are not only witnesses to these things, I see these things in you. When I do, I see a risen savior. Amen.