Pivoting to Joy
A sermon on Luke 24:1-12
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Tangerine Newt on Unsplash.]
I have heard this story too many times to count, but it still always it fires my imagination.
I have felt the weight of the grief the women carried as they approached the burial place of their beloved teacher. I have imagined the confusion of arriving at the tomb and finding the stone unexpectedly moved, and the tomb devastatingly empty. I have squinted my eyes at the dazzling brightness of angels suddenly standing before me, and strained to hear angelic voices reassuring me in the midst of total confusion. I have wondered if I would have had the courage to carry the message of resurrection back to men I wasn’t sure would believe me.
It is such a familiar scene, and yet… I find it still has the power to grab my attention with a new detail.
Maybe it’s because I am usually wanting to push ahead to the revelation of joy, but for whatever reason I never before really noticed one little detail in the first verse of our reading: The women came to the tomb, “taking the spices that they had prepared.”
When I read that phrase in my Easter preparations this year, it fired my imagination in a new way. I imagined how tears must have mingled with the spices and salves the women mixed before the Sabbath rest on Friday night. I felt the weight of the jars in their arms as they walked through the quiet of early dawn. I wondered if the strong scents of the embalming spices stung their eyes, or if they offered a sweet perfume to ease them along the path toward the tomb where they expected to rub them into their Lord and teacher’s lifeless body.
Just a few weeks ago we heard the story of Mary kneeling at Jesus’ feet to anoint them with costly perfume and dry them with her hair. This scene, also, is suffused with the scent of the burial spices.
Just like that anointing, the preparation of these spices was an act of intense and vulnerable love.
They were coming, as they believed, to care for Jesus’ empty body. They were daring the risk of exposure to the authorities as his followers. They were prepared to face both the pain and the fear in order to offer one final act of service to the one they followed and loved, by rubbing preserving spices into his cold skin, caring for the shell that was all their thought they had left of him.
It’s such a powerful detail. It speaks of such deep love and courage. And yet… It is the wrong preparation.
When the heavenly messengers appear, and the women cower in fear, the first words are not words of comfort, but of confusion.: “Why are you here?”
It’s as though the shock of the women’s presence in this place of death had jarred the angels out of their scripted part. We expect them to say, “Do not be afraid.” That’s what angelic messengers always say when they appear to people in the scriptures, in order to open their listeners’ ears to the words they have been sent to speak.
But here, even as the women do, indeed, bow to the ground in terror, the dazzling speakers appear to forget their lines. They aren’t expecting fear. They cannot understand the women’s grief. It is the women whom they think have gone off script.
“Why do you seek the living among the dead?…Don’t you remember what he said? He has been telling you since the beginning, back in Galilee. He told you he would be killed, but he also told you that on the third day he would be raised. So why are you looking for him here?!”
The consternation is a bit unfair. For, although Jesus had predicted his death several times in Luke’s gospel, he had not specifically identified the means of execution. And that means was shocking for its witnesses. The women had endured watching their beloved teacher’s slow and brutal suffocation, in a manner of death that made him the object of public mockery and curse. They were justified in being overwhelmed by the distress of Friday’s scene.
But the messengers were justified as well in their correction of the women. For Jesus had forewarned them of his death. And he had offered them hope to carry them through the awful scenes of Friday’s execution. He had told them that he would be raised on the third day. If the women had only credited his words. If they had pushed through the discomfort of imagining his death, then they could have been prepared on Easter morning … not with burial spices, but with expectation of seeing him again.
Having conquered death.
They could have been prepared for joy!
To the women’s credit, after days of grief and preparation for the tasks of death, they pivot almost immediately. They DO remember Jesus’s words, and they believe the message of his resurrection, even though … unlike in the other gospel accounts… they do not see him, yet, restored to life. They return to the other disciples with the good news of Jesus’s resurrection.
And, here, the women show up well against the reaction of the male disciples (all but Peter) who show no willingness to shift their expectations, disbelieving the women they have travelled with for all this time… dismissing their words as “an idle tale.”
And in this contrast, between most of the men’s stubborn hold on their grief and disappointment, and the women’s willingness to abandon their expectations and preparations in order to embrace an unforeseen joy, I see the challenge and the invitation of this Easter story for our community.
We too have a long history of hearing the promises of God: Promises that the walk of faith is not an easy one… that it will sometimes lead us through the valley of the shadow of death… that the easy way of power and victory is not the way of Christ… But promises, also, that this way IS the way of life… and that we are a resurrection people who are called to always look for the “new thing” (Isaiah 43:19) that God is doing.
Like Jesus’s male and female disciples who walked the long road with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and who endured the trauma of his crucifixion, we too have suffered exhaustion, fear, and trauma in the last few years. We have lost beloved members to the pandemic, and also to the frustration and division it amplified. We have tried to practice loving dialogue as racial tensions exploded across the country, and have found that we still have much to learn about how to lean into discomfort and Jesus’s kind of radical love of neighbor. We have come back together in this space looking different than we did before, and carrying the pain and the fear of those changes. I know that I, for one, have sometimes wondered if some burial spices might need to be prepared for the church that may not come back to the life I imagined for it.
But there are two options modeled for us in this Easter reading:
One way is to stay locked in our expectations, as most of the male disciples did… unable to see the new things God is doing because they don’t make sense to us.
The other way is to abandon our familiar preparations when we realize they are not what resurrection calls for. To be willing to pivot into the joy of good news and new life that we never expected.
Because resurrection is not the same as restoration. It does not bring back exactly what came before. Resurrection brings back life, but it looks different. It carries the scars of pain and loss, but it finds a new wholeness.
A few weeks ago, at the Loving Listening session hosted by our Reconciling in Christ Core Team, Ben voiced a challenge for our community to be open to the new thing that God is doing among us. He talked about how, for decades, our outreach ideas have been focused on one particular demographic: the nuclear family with young kids. For the most part, this is not who God has brought into our community, but it has remained our focus. And maybe it is time for us to pivot from this unnecessarily limited vision of the future life of our congregation.
Maybe it’s time to recognize that there are dozens of churches eager to welcome the typical all-American family, but not so many looking to welcome the people who have far too often been kept on the outskirts of the American church.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community, who have been ostracized or shamed by so many congregations.
People of color who have had to accommodate themselves to white culture in order to be welcomed into predominantly white churches.
Neuro-diverse people, and people with disabilities, who need a church that knows belonging is not about conforming or ability.
What if the resurrection life for Abiding Peace looks like the joy of truly welcoming and celebrating a community where all are welcome to show up in the wholeness of who God has made them to be?
That is the kind of hope that I believe this Easter story calls us into. And even if it’s not the story we were expecting, or the story we have been preparing for, it is the joyful story of hope and resurrection.
Thanks be to God.
 See commentary discussion by Amy-Jill Levine and Ben Witheringtom III in The Gospel of Luke: New Cambridge Bible Commentary, Cambridge University Press (2018), p. 651-652.