When I got my first job out of seminary, I was the pastor of beautiful downtown church in the very heart of Appalachia. A historic church, they were going to pay me a good salary, set me up in the parsonage across the street from the country club. By my earnest expectations of vocational success, I was definitely off on the right foot.
I had two suits then—that I’d gotten from a guy who’d died at one of my friend’s student churches. I had them both dry-cleaned. I bought a couple of nice shirts, and had them pressed. Susan bought me an expensive Waterman fountain pen. New business cards. New office furniture. I was pretty sure that I was Milburn Drysdale.
The Sunday I got there, I met a little 93 year-old woman named, Lucille Scott. Everyone just called her Scottie.
Scottie, came up to me at the pot-luck dinner after church, and, apropos of nothing, gave me a big kiss. She was about 4-foot-nothing and 98 pounds. She wore a floral print shift that she’d likely had since the Beatles made their big splash on the Ed Sullivan show. And she had on those old cat-eye glasses with the Coke bottle lenses—the kind you don’t really see much of anymore—which made her eyes look enormous, especially when she smiled—which was often.
Scottie said to me, “I want you to come out to my house on Friday to see me.”
And I did. She was near blind and deaf, but she liked to talk. Lord, that woman liked to talk.
She talked about her family, and about the food she liked. She talked about her flowers, which she called Nicodemus flowers, because they only bloomed at nighttime. She told me about growing up in a mining camp, and what it was like before electricity and indoor plumbing, and how they had to do all their shopping at the company store owned by the coal mine—and paid for their goods not with dollars but with company scrip that ensured that they couldn’t spend anything they earned outside the camp—and allowed the coal company to keep all that nice coal money right there in the family.
I went to her house regularly. I didn’t say much—not much was required of me, except to be there and to listen to her tell stories.
And every time I’d get ready to leave, she gave me a big kiss. Scottie died a little over a year after I arrived. It was sad … but, she was 94 years-old, so nobody was shocked. I put on the better of my two suits, and buried her on a hot August day.
I missed her, though. But I didn’t have a whole lot of time—new job, lot of responsibilities. I had two suits and a fancy pen. But I was sitting in my nice office, thinking about Scottie one day, some time after she’d died. I’d stopped doing something important; I don’t know what it was now. But I remember thinking about her wrinkled face, and the boney finger she waved in front of her when she spoke. And I remembered her Nicodemus flowers. And I thought, “This job isn’t about suits and pens and business cards. I’m not somebody special because I’ve got those things. I didn’t hit the vocational jackpot, which allows me to walk around like an important guy who plays golf at the country club on Thursdays and gets free dry-cleaning down at Sharp’s Dry Cleaners. The job isn’t the job. The job is Scottie.”
Did you ever have that? The thing isn’t the thing. The thing is something else entirely.
I got a new iPad recently. It was time. The other one gave up the ghost.
I love getting new devices—faster, more power, more storage.
And this one is fast. And I got it out of the box, and set it lovingly on the table. And I turned it on, trying to hear the sacred hum of bytes screaming through some kind of inner space. I put all the apps I needed on it, synced my Dropbox … getting it just right … just the way I need it for work.
But then I said, “Now what? It’s up and running. It’ll blaze through heavy demands on memory. It does just what I need. So, now that that’s done, what do I do?”
What’s the obvious answer … the one it usually takes so long to dawn on me?
Get back to work. Right?
It’s so easy to think that something besides the work is the work.
Fiddling’s not the work. Adjusting’s not the work. Setting up is not the work.
The work is the work. You buy the right equipment—the right suit, the right pen, the right computer—not as an end in itself, but so that you can finally get back to work. Those things are tools to get work done. They’re not the point; the work is the point.
That’s what struck me as I was reading through John this week, getting ready for Easter once again. Holiest day in the Christian year, right? You’ve got angels, and panicky disciples, and a distraught Mary Magdalene. Pretty big stuff.
But the thing that jumped up and kind of smacked me in the face as I was thinking about all this big stuff was the empty tomb.
The empty tomb. That looms pretty large in the world of Christian symbolism, doesn’t it? Somebody starts talking about the cross, and you can be pretty sure that the empty tomb isn’t far behind.
And why not? The empty tomb stands as a kind of placeholder for the more abstract concept of resurrection.
Lot of attention on that, isn’t there? Resurrection. The empty tomb. Christianity has a lot riding on those things.
But then I got to thinking, “You know, all the trumpets, and the lilies, and the loud exclamations of the victory over death, and the up-from-the-grave-he-arose stuff is pretty flashy. But there’s still the empty tomb—which, everything else aside for a moment—still just kind of sits there, doesn’t it? Empty, I mean.”
I know we use the empty tomb as a symbol—but our symbol may be doing more work than we know. We look at the empty tomb, and it’s so easy to think that the important work has already been done.
God tapped Jesus on the shoulder on Easter Sunday morning a couple thousand years ago, and bam! Everything’s changed.
Jesus rose. The disciples breathe a sigh of relief. We sing the songs, smell the flowers, and think, “I wonder if the ham will be finished cooking by the time the grandkids show up for dinner.”
It’s nice. Easter gets draped in bunnies and pastels. Because … the empty tomb.
But, you see, that may be a bit too easy. The way Easter often gets celebrated, it’s easy to think that the “empty” is the work. That the missing body is the point.
But the empty tomb is just that—empty. It does’t mean anything if there’s not a gardener standing outside, waiting to be recognized.
If Mary stays pondering the empty tomb, she’ll never get outside and hear the voice of God in the voice of the guy tending the begonias—which is so often where God shows up.
The resurrection is central, of course. But when we say that, we have to know that we’re also saying that Jesus didn’t stick around and make a shrine out of the empty tomb.
He didn’t stick around to bask in the glory of his victory. He shuffled out of his jammies and got to work.
The disciples, when they showed up on the scene, they went in, looked around, saw the linens on the floor, and took off.
And Mary, when she found out what had happened, she didn’t pitch a tent and say, “Empty tomb! That’s all I need. I think I’ll stick around here and try to invite people to come in and hang out in this sacred space. We can have designer coffee and some donuts from Krispy Kreme, and put people in charge of dusting the stone out front. We can get name tags for the regulars, and set up committees to make sure nobody messes up the tomb. There’s plenty of room for parking. It’s going to be brilliant!”
No. The minute Mary sees the emptiness, she starts looking for some explanations. But before she gets two steps into her journey, she runs into Jesus.
But notice where Jesus is; he’s outside. Mary doesn’t find him until she looks away from the empty tomb.
The emphasis in John’s Gospel seems less to be on what happened than on what happens next.
What does the resurrection mean?
If it means anything, it certainly means God’s cosmic “yes” to Jesus and the reign of peace and justice he fought and died for, and God’s “no” to the systems of domination and death that killed Jesus for challenging the powerful by seeking to center the needs of the vulnerable.
But the question to us is, “Now that you’ve got this shiny new resurrection, what are you going to do with it? Are you going to hang out with it, thinking all the work’s been done two thousand years ago? Or are you going to realize that the freedom the resurrection brings is the freedom to back out of the tomb, go out into the garden, and get back to work?”
You see, it’s not that the resurrection isn’t cause for celebration; it’s that we’ve misunderstood celebration. We thought it meant release from duty, a time to set down our work and head to the party. But the story of the gospel is that resurrection doesn’t free us from labor; it offers us labor worth giving our lives for. We find our greatest joy, our greatest expression of celebration in the work we’re entrusted to do.
What work is that?
Why, it’s a continuation of the work that Jesus himself did—healing the sick, feeding the hungry, setting free the captives—remembering the forgotten.
True freedom for those who follow Jesus isn’t about the right to refuse to bake gay wedding cakes; it isn’t about “keeping God in schools”; it isn’t about making sure America remains a “Christian nation”; and it certainly isn’t about retaining the right to step on the necks of undocumented immigrants or Muslims or People of Color or LGBTQ people or anybody else who threatens our ability to say and do what we want without being challenged.
True freedom for those who follow Jesus is being given the opportunity, no matter how much it costs, to love those whom Jesus loves.
But the thing is, we have to leave the empty tomb to do it. We remember it; we love it; but we see it as a place from which we’re sent out into the world—because that’s where the sick, and the hungry, and the imprisoned are. That’s where the work is. And that’s where Jesus is.
You want to know what Easter’s all about?
The most loving thing I can tell you is that you’re going to have to get back to work to find out.