Sermon on Empty Tombs and the Suddenness of Dawn

Sermon on Empty Tombs and the Suddenness of Dawn April 9, 2014

illustration by the amazing Franco Vignazia

2014-04-06 HFASS Podcast NBW Sermon(1) <—- click here to listen along

Years ago, when I was faced with preaching this text about the raising of Lazarus, I was struggling with what to say about it, so instead of writing my sermon, I went that week and got this tattoo of Lazarus. And then, the next day, I finally came up with a sermon. It was like magic. Don’t know what to say about a Bible story? Easy. Go sit under a tattoo needle for a few hours and it will come to you.

But this week, when I was again wondering what to say about this familiar story, I stupidly thought “well, I guess I could just get another tattoo of Lazarus and then, like last time, it will come to me” because, see, I just really love a formula.

Because bottom line is, I want to know what to expect. Which is of course another way of saying I think I am afraid of being surprised. I will repeat something that worked, or return to a way of understanding life that is worn smooth rather than risk the unknown. And when it comes down to it, I think sometimes the over familiarity of stories like the raising of Lazarus can work against us really hearing them.  Meaning, as soon as the text says, there was a certain man named Lazarus who had taken ill, we know how the story ends. Oh yeah, he’s the one Jesus raised from the dead! But I found myself this week wishing I could hear this story again for the first time.

Because when we are so familiar with this story, when we already know what to expect, then we forget that those who were there: Mary, Martha, and their friends. WERE TOTALLY NOT EXPECTING resurrection. Resurrection is crazy and unexpected and out of nowhere. Were I them, I would have expected that Jesus would come and console me, perhaps apologize for being late and then we’d have dinner and move on with our lives and Lazarus would remain dead. Period. End of sentence.  Because staying dead is what we expect dead people to do.  But for Jesus to weep and tell them to roll away the stone? For Jesus to call out the name of their dead brother and then for the dead to walk? Are you kidding? That, people of God – was not expected, it was not part of any formula and it was 100% surprising.

There are those who will tell you that all you have to do, to be a disciple of Jesus, is apply the formula of believing and behaving a certain way and you can live with nothing but certainty.  But I suggest the opposite is true. Being a person of faith doesn’t mean you get to be certain.  If anything it means that like Mary and Martha, you get to be surprised. What if faith is about recognizing that when something is not expected, not formulaic and 100% surprising – that perhaps it’s the work of God.  Because honestly, we can manage the expected and unsurprising all on our own.  When it’s weird and seemingly impossible and somewhat out of nowhere – now that feels like a God thing, not an us thing.

Since I told myself I couldn’t get another tattoo, I kept staring this week at the one I already have, namely at Lazarus’ eyes. I can’t imagine Lazarus expected to be raised from the dead. So, when Jesus called his name and he walked from his own tomb, when his eyes opened, unexpectedly, I’m sure he didn’t know to shield them. I can’t help but wonder how much the transition from the deep darkness of a grave to the light of living day must have been painful. He, like his sisters, had to of been surprised by the suddenness of dawn.`

That’s the thing about tombs. Sometimes we don’t even know we are in them, until the light breaks from on high. But I know we all have them.

I wonder what it is for you.  Is there something buried.  Thought to be dead? Something that you have left for dead? What in your life might have been in such darkness that any kind of dawn would feel sudden and unexpected causing you to shield your eyes?

Sometimes tombs are about how we treat things in our life and though they represent the end. This relationship is over. This life of faith has ended.  That time of happiness will never return. There’s a big stone covering that thing I used to feel or I used to love or I used to be and anyway, it’s started to smell of rot. That part of me is totally dead, period. End of sentence. But as great African American preachers often say – “where we put a period….God puts a comma”.

Having a God of resurrection means that the story is seldom over when we think it is.

I had put a period at what I thought was the end of the sentence when it came to me and the Church of Christ, the conservative church of my childhood. There was a heavy stone in front of the tomb and I had walked away from it long ago.

But last week, as I was standing in front of hundreds of people in Houston Tx, doing a Q & A at the end of one of my talks, suddenly the next guy I called on said “Hi.  My name is Jeff, and I am a preacher at the Church of Christ down the road” I thought, oh…here we go and I braced myself.  I braced myself for some kind of self righteous BS about what the Bible says. I braced myself for what I was expecting, which was so much smaller than what happened.  See, the Church of Christ preacher didn’t say anything of the sort. Instead, he merely said “Nadia, I don’t know if anyone from the Church if Christ has ever apologized to you for there being no room in our denomination for your amazing voice, so I just wanted to make sure you heard it from me. Nadia, I’m so sorry”. That’s all he said.


And then a stone rolled away and I stumbled out of a tomb I didn’t even know I was in. Before I realized what was happening, my eyes filled with tears and through a strained, closed throat I fought to say “no.  no one has ever said that to me. Thank you” and it was like my eyes had to painfully adjust to the light. Where I had put a period, God put a comma.

Weird and unexpected and not something created by a formula, much like the photo essay Ruthie posted about yesterday from the New York Times. There is a project of reconciliation in Rwanda. 20 years after the conflict, those who were imprisoned for war crimes and genocide could be released if their victims were willing to reconcile and the perpetrators were willing to admit their wrong and if both parties were willing to live a new life and do it together in some way. The photo essay was of, among other things, people who had moved to a place of forgiveness and love with their enemy. In some cases, becoming a mother to the very man who killed their children.  When Ruthie posted the story she wrote: “I can hardly believe this. It’s bat-shit crazy.  Who does this? This is why I believe in God, she wrote…because things like this exist in the world”  That is a confession of faith like what Mary and Martha must have had.

Only God can do this.  Only God something so weird and unexpected and 100% surprising. Only God can call us out of tombs in this way.

In the season of Easter I often use a prayer at the Eucharist that says:

Therefore, with all who lost faith,

all who walked away in sadness,

with the women at the tomb,

and the men who hid in fear

we confess ourselves surprised

by the suddenness of dawn

and confess together the great mystery of faith:

Christ has died

Christ is risen

Christ will come again.

So as we move through this final week of Lent and into the great 3 days of Jesus’ own death and resurrection. Don’t assume you already know how the story goes. Be surprised.

Surprised by empty tombs, surprised by the thing you never saw coming. Surprised by how you can have something or someone taken from you which you thought you couldn’t live without and then finding yourself living without them anyway, surprised by sobriety, and that people can love you. Surprised that you tear up when receiving the Eucharist and that oh my gosh, you aren’t afraid of that one thing you used to be and surprised that maybe you can actually have a relationship with your body that is not adversarial anymore and surprised that a relationship you thought was dead is not and that maybe everyone doesn’t hate you after all. Surprised, as we say, at empty tombs and the suddenness of dawn.

This is how the God of resurrection is wanting to be known all around us.  It’s happening everywhere, faith just lets us recognize the surprise of it.  Thanks be to God. Amen.


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