Ten years ago we were getting ready. I had been awarded a Lilly-sponsored Clergy Renewal Grant, and we were preparing to take a series of journeys beginning with a family trip to Korea. It was called a Homeland Tour and was made up of families like ours, with one or more children adopted from South Korea. Naturally there was a lot to prepare. Especially since I was going to be out of the pulpit for an extended period of time. We had to prepare, the church had to prepare. La Donna’s dad had to prepare, since he decided to accompany us on this trip, for a couple of reasons. He figured we needed a grandpa along, and he wanted to go back and see the country in which he had spent his military service. Mostly, he told me, he wanted to see if it had rebuilt, to see if anything grew there, since the war had pretty much devastated the land. It reminded him of a gravel pit, he said, and he really wanted to see if there was something green there now.
So, we were all preparing for this trip. A long trip, to what was for most of us anyway, an unknown destination, an undiscovered country. But we weren’t the only ones preparing for a long journey. La Donna’s mom was also putting things in order, getting ready for a journey. She was dying of cancer, had been fighting it for some years, but was beginning to tire from the struggle. Our journey had a schedule, hers didn’t. At least not one we knew. In the end, she set out on her journey before we were finished with the preparations for ours.
Which meant, of course, that we had a whole other set of preparations to make. These preparations caused us to set aside those preparations for a while. Many of you know when someone you love dies there is a lot of work to be done. And wrapped all around the doing is the feeling - of loss, of hurt, of anger, of ... well too many emotions to mention here. The emotions often get aside so that we can do the planning, make the preparations. Don’t they? “I ain’t got time to grieve.” Or is the grieving, the feeling, a part of the preparations?
When Beverly died, Don said that he probably shouldn’t go to Korea. It just wouldn’t be right. We nodded our heads, we understood. In the midst of the preparations it didn’t seem right, it didn’t seem possible. Who could go on a journey of discovery when one’s heart was broken? Who could plan for tomorrow when today seemed so bleak, so painful, so empty? No, keep your head down and make preparations. It is the only think that makes sense.
Luke 24:1-12 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. 2 They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in, they did not find the body. 4 While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. 5 The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, "Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. 6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again." 8 Then they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. 11 But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
They brought the spices that they had prepared. It was the only thing that made sense that Sabbath day following the darkest Friday they could remember. There is work to be done here. Preparations to be made. At Aldersgate when a death is announced the machinery goes to work. The system of caring for leaps into gear. Preparations are made. Is there grief, is there brokenness and doubt and hurt so real that you can almost taste it in the air you breathe in? You bet there is. More or less depending on how close you are to the person being celebrated. But regardless of feelings, of personal grief, there are preparations to be made, meals to cook, tables to set.
They brought the spices they had prepared, because they had a job to do. Luke doesn’t even know how many went to work that Easter morning. He names three and then throws up his hands - other women, he says. Don’t ask me. The workers, the preparers. They were ready, they were at work. Ready to go and deal with the body. Except ...
The tomb was empty. Well, ... dang. Luke says they were perplexed at this. Hmm, you sure we got the right tomb? Maybe it is that one over there. Maybe it was not this cemetery at all. I thought you were here when Joseph and Nicodemus put him in it. Weren’t you paying attention?
Did they start to accuse one another? Or were they all equally perplexed? Retracing their steps. It was dark that Friday afternoon. They’d slept since then. Or hadn’t slept, as the case may be. But Luke’s choice of words seem fairly benign, just confusion. That lasts about a verse, however, half a verse until the shiny guys appear. Who are they? Luke calls them men who glow. He says angels earlier in the book, but now it is men. Has he gotten hesitant toward the end of the story? Chapters one and two have angels dripping from the pages. But now it is men. In dazzling clothes. Wandered there off the Las Vegas strip perhaps. They show up and just stand there. At first. Then the women notice them and fall on the ground. “Bow their faces to the ground” our translation says. Could be a simple nod, a look away, women don’t look men in the eye in public, not in those days. But given that he also says they were terrified, falling face down seems more likely. Plus it is an undeniable sign of the holy.
Then they speak. Once the women fall down, the shiny guys give directions. Like cemetery caretakers who notice the women are in the wrong place. But in this case it isn’t the wrong place in the cemetery, or the wrong cemetery either. They shouldn’t be in a cemetery at all. “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” The guys had to have smiles on their faces when they said that. They had to know that such a sentence wouldn’t make any sense to the women while they lay there face down in the dirt. Not dead? What do you mean not dead? Of course he was dead. He breathed his last! Didn’t you read the last chapter? For heaven’s sake!
Which must have set off another round of laughter from the shiny guys. For heaven’s sake. Of course for heaven’s sake. And for earth’s sake too. For your sake and for mine. That’s why he’s not in that tomb. That’s why he’s roaming the countryside looking for the bus back home.
Then, Luke says, they gave their only word of instruction: Remember. And they remembered. They had to be reminded to remember. Remember what he said? Remember all those words? All that instruction? All that teaching, all that warning? Remember, they said looking at the spices they had spilled all over the ground when they fell, all the preparation he was doing for you? Then they remembered. That’s what we’re doing when we gather week after week, Easter especially, we’re being reminded to remember. All those words. All that life. Remember?
The funeral had taken place, the preparations continued. There were people to notify, insurance companies to contact, death certificates to hand out. The preparing never ends it seems. But Don says to La Donna in passing, “If I were to go to Korea, what would I need to take with me?” He wasn’t committing to go, just wondering. Is there life after death? The preparations continued. And one day when La Donna and her dad were out delivering papers to proper authorities, he says, “maybe we should run over to Sears and get me some traveling clothes.” So, she smiles and changes the route a little bit, squinting in the light of the sun that peeked out from behind the dark and dreary cloud. She came back to Fort Wayne and we completed our preparations and then the five of us flew to a home we didn’t know across the sea. And Don was pleased to see how green it was, how new, how alive. Death, the death of a nation or of a land, had lost its sting, as up from the gravel pit of a grave arose a nation of beauty and innovation, of creativity and of faith. What faith, churches of the tens of thousands worshiped the resurrected Lord.
Sometimes it is in the preparations that we come to grips with life. Life in the midst of death, life after death and life before death. The theology of Easter is so deep and rich and full, but one thing that it clearly proclaims is that death is not the end that we sometimes think it is. And the preparations we made for one purpose might be needed for something else entirely.
I don’t know what those spices the women prepared that first Easter morning all included. But I suspect that the next person who came to the cemetery to look for a loved one caught a new scent, one that hinted of life in all its fullness.