"While We Were Perplexed"

Sunday sermon from Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013
Text: Luke 24:1-12
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

The women in my family have always been a mystery.

No, wait, I'm sorry, I read that wrong: the women in my family have always loved mysteries. Yes, that's right.

Sarah and my mother both, as long as I have known either of them, have had a soft spot for cheap dime-store mystery novels or your run-of-the-mill hour-long television procedural. I don't even know the names of the ones Sarah reads; she goes through the novels so quickly that she will occasionally be halfway into a new one before realizing that she's already read it, and I know that when she has the house to herself it's more often than not an occasion for a few episodes of Elementary or The Closer or any of those shows where a dead body shows up and then other people figure out what happened.

My mother loves them, too, and she raised me on a steady diet of mystery novels and Matlock and Murder, She Wrote. And I did love them for a while, and I read all the Hardy Boys and Bobbsey Twin books, but then something changed. I think I became a purist. What I really wanted from a mystery was a smart detective, someone who could put all the evidence together and figure out the answer; I was in it for that moment of epiphany when the camera would zoom in on Jessica Fletcher's face and she would course-correct the conversation with some dramatic flair and announce, "I think I know how the good Doctor met his end." To me, that's what made a mystery a mystery. And that may all sound perfectly obvious. But trust me for a moment when I say that half of the things that we call call mysteries never do that at all. The Hardy Boys might find a couple of clues, but only rarely do they figure the whole thing out by themselves; more likely the clues lead them to the old abandoned mine or that lighthouse outside of town or whatever it is, and the bad guy is there waiting for them, and it starts to feel a lot more like an episode of Scooby-Doo than a real mystery, like we're just waiting for the end of the chase scene so that the bad guy will rip the fabric mask off his face and give us the whole confession. It's not a mystery; it's a thriller, because the bad guy ends up doing half the work of getting himself caught. In a real mystery the detective has to figure the whole thing out. That's what I wanted.

And that's why my first mystery love, forget Hardy Boys or Jessica Fletcher, my first mystery love was a boy named Encyclopedia Brown. Encyclopedia Brown is basically the Doogie Howser of detectives, but the books are more puzzle than plot. Each one will have maybe a dozen discrete episodes in which somebody in the neighborhood avails themselves of Encyclopedia Brown's homespun detective agency. I always imagined it looking a bit like the psychiatry booth where Lucy treats Charlie Brown. And then Encyclopedia Brown will investigate for half a dozen pages, and then, just as he is about to pronounce the solution to the mystery, the text cuts off. Now, the book says, it's up to you! Can you figure out who stole the postman's bicycle? Can you figure out where Ms. Violet's dog has run off to? Read it over, look through the evidence, make your own decision, and then flip to the back of the book to check your answer against Encyclopedia Brown's conclusions. And it was straightforward enough. There was always some hole in the evidence. Someone's testimony never quite added up. I remember one in particular where the testimony rested on a sword that had been engraved after the First Battle of Bull Run, and observant readers were meant to figure out that nobody in the immediate aftermath of the First Battle of Bull Run would have called it that, because nobody would have known that there would be a second one. That sort of thing. Holes in the evidence. It was my first love. It was a real mystery, a purist's mystery.

There was only one problem, which was that I was absolutely terrible at it. I mean I had no idea. I could read over and over and get nowhere, and the evidence, in my hands, was totally unhelpful. Either everybody sounded trustworthy or they all sounded suspicious; any one of them could be liars or just plain confused, and none of them could possibly be as confused as I was, staring at the last line of any of those mysteries, trying to suppress the desire to flip to the end of the book and see the answer, and yet totally dumbfounded. So eventually I just gave up, caught between my purist standards for what mysteries should be and my fundamental inability to solve any of them. Mostly these days I read nonfiction. Because at some point I started to despise the feeling of having all the evidence in front of me and yet feeling totally perplexed.

I suspect that Mary and Martha and the women who come to the tomb in Luke's Gospel might have felt much the same thing. It has been the customary three days since the crucifixion, and since Joseph of Arimithea carried Jesus down from the cross and laid him into a newly-cut tomb in the side of the rock. It hads been the customary three days and the women have brought the customary ointments and perfumes with which to adorn and treat Jesus's body. Three long days, and they arrive first thing in the morning -- and there's nothing there. Joseph had rolled a large stone in front of the opening, but the stone has been rolled away. Joseph had laid Jesus's body within the grave, but the body itself is gone. It's a mystery. In some ways it's the funhouse-mirror version of a mystery; instead of security guards finding a dead body in the opening of any episode of Law & Order, we now have these women expecting to find a body and instead finding nothing at all. And Luke says that they were totally perplexed.

The women are totally perplexed. In Luke's hands the word doesn't have a negative connotation; it doesn't mean they were skeptical or critical. It just means they didn't know what to think. And they don't know what to think despite having a pile of evidence to work with. They've got the evidence at the scene, of course: the stone is rolled away and the body is gone. But if they could flip back through the pages of the story they'd find all new kinds of evidence, the prophesies that Jesus had made, the promises he had made, the story he had told about how he would die and be buried and then be raised from the dead. Now, it's true that in the next moment angels appear and remind the women about all of Jesus's promises. But it stretches credibility to think that they wouldn't have already remembered what he said. If your friend told you he was going to rise from the dead, that's the sort of thing that sticks in your head, right? No, these women had all the evidence at their fingertips, and the evidence perfectly fits the story, and even they who saw the tomb for themselves couldn't believe it. That's the hole in this evidence; they're the hole in this evidence; even though they're right at the scene of the crime, in the hands even of its best eye-witnesses, the resurrection of the Messiah is something close to un-believable.

And frankly, if they can't believe it, what hope is there for us? According to the most recent numbers I could find, about seventy percent of Americans believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. But that's got to be one of those questions that people answer "yes" to even while having their doubts. Sure, on one hand, we stand here every week in worship and in the words of the Apostle's Creed claim that on the third day Jesus rose from the dead, but, do you believe it? Do you believe it? Do you believe that the man Jesus Christ died and was buried and lay in the tomb and on the third day was raised from the dead? Now, there are any number of voices out there who claim to be able to prove that the resurrection happened, beyond the shadow of our doubts or disbelief. As far as I can tell, they claim that the evidence is overwhelming: that the testimony of the four Gospels, combined with Paul's account of seeing the risen Christ, combined with some scattershot archeological records about a burial site -- they claim, and I've even seen it done with equations marking the probability of the resurrection as a function of textual attestations divided by the elapsed time -- they claim that somehow, as holders of all of the relevant evidence, that we can work out the solution to this mystery beyond a shadow of a doubt. But I ask you, if these women, who had themselves seen Jesus work miracles beyond explanation, and who had themselves heard Jesus prophesy about his own resurrection, if these women found the tomb empty and stood nothing but perplexed -- if they couldn't figure it out, what hope is there for us?

Do you believe it? Every Sunday when we say the Creed, do you believe it? 100% of the time? Maybe 70%? Maybe that's too high. Do you really believe that death has been defeated? How could you, when the evidence to the contrary is so overwhelming. Exhibit One: read the headlines. In February the United Nations estimated that seventy thousand Syrians had died since the outbreak of that country's civil war, hundreds if not thousands of them women and children, much of the fighting done in the name of the God we worship this morning. Has death really lost its sting? Exhibit Two: the images of last December, when twenty children and six adults were gunned down at Sandy Hook elementary school. I would add "for no reason" but that seems redundant: how could there possibly be a reason? Remember the pictures of parents screaming in horror, an Advent season turned unspeakably tragic. Has God really come into the world? Exhibit Three: you tell me. Day by day the natural toil of our lives bids us closer and closer to the end, and I know that last Easter there were people in these pews whose places are now empty. You tell me the toll, the cost, the heartache of trying to put Easter back together again in the wake of loss that will never leave us quite the same. In hospital rooms, at hospice bedsides, in funeral parlors and gravesides, do you believe it? Considering the evidence, how could you? How can we say anything but that the in the light of the evidence before us, that death wins every time? Or with this evidence in one hand, and the Gospel in the other, how can we be anything but perplexed?

And yet.

And yet, "while [the women] were perplexed, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The men said to them, 'Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.'" The men in dazzling clothes -- tradition calls them angels -- proceed to remind the women of all of promises Jesus made concerning his own resurrection, and the women become convinced. But again, there's no way that they could have forgotten those promises. It's not their own re-examination of the evidence that gives them clarity, as if they could just flip back through the pages and have their own self-contained epiphany. No, it's not the message that makes them believers. It's the messengers. It's the angels. It's the men from God come to bear this news. It's that while they were perplexed, even while they were perplexed, God was working to make them see. And it's a pattern we see over and over in the resurrection stories: that even though the disciples have been told that Jesus has risen from the grave, even they can't quite push aside the evidence of the world: they don't recognize him, or they don't believe him, or they simply hide in their rooms and refuse to face the day. Every single Biblical character faced with the mystery and majesty of Easter morning ends up nothing but perplexed. And every time it is God who opens their eyes, God who breaks down the door, God working to make them see.

We cannot be anything but perplexed. The evidence of the world is too much upon us. But while we are perplexed this Easter Sunday, God nonetheless comes. While we stare at the empty tomb is confusion, God is nonetheless at work. While we are are stricken with doubt, while we are paralyzed with disbelief, while we just don't know what to make of any of it, God is at work, making all things new. This is the glory of Easter Sunday: that it's never been ours to figure out, that it's never been ours to decipher, that it's not an equation to be solved or a thesis to be proven, that if you linger at the tomb in doubt or confusion, that if you woke this morning not knowing what to make of any of it, that if when we rose to say the creed you thought to yourself, "I just don't even know what to think of any of this" here's the good news: that even while we are perplexed, God is still at work, rising from the grave. So Easter doesn't need you to figure it out. Easter isn't even a very good mystery. It's more like a thriller. And this is the moment when God tears through the fabric of creation itself to announce in no uncertain terms: "You are mine, and I am in charge."

The evidence of death is staggering. Day to day, week to week, year to year, time runs its course and the broken world seems to crumble in around us: in hospital rooms, at hospice bedsides, in funeral parlors and gravesides, in headlines and heartache from another year that has slipped so quickly away. The evidence is overwhelming. But this morning, this sacred morning, when God rolls away the stone from his own earthly grave, when God tears through the fabric of creation itself, when the light of the Almighty pours through that tear into the darkness of this unforgiving world, this morning we proclaim holes in the evidence. Though we hear everywhere the cries of those who suffer and mourn, we nonetheless stare through the open tomb and proclaim "Death Shall Have No Victory!" Though we see everywhere the lingering shadow of decay and despair, we nonetheless stand in the empty spot where his body lay and proclaim "Darkness Shall Not Bind Us!" The story of death and despair, the story of the brokenness of all things, the story of inevitability itself: in the wake of the great power of Easter Sunday that story can no longer hold, and it can no longer hold us. Herein lies our hope: that Jesus Christ is Risen Today! Alleluia! Amen.