Facing the Inexplicable

The Rev. Matthew I.Potts, Easter Sunday, 2022The Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, PH.D., Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church gives his sermon on Easter Sunday. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.



By the Rev. Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Ph.D.
Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals
Faculty of Divinity

(The following is a transcript of the service audio)

May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh God, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

Welcome everyone to the Memorial Church on this Easter day. Happy Easter.

Thank you. I just want to start with some thanksgivings. First of all, I am very thankful just to be here with all of you today, the kind of triumph and joy that sang out from the Memorial Room this morning is something I felt and feel deeply in my heart. This is the third year of the pandemic. Two years we have not been able to gather here and commemorate this day together. It really is my joy to be your minister and to be the one honored to convene you all here to proclaim Christ's Resurrection to one another and to the world. So thank you for being here. I want to thank also the staff of the Memorial Church, who are just the most lovely and hardworking group of people. They have worked so much. Can we give them applause here?

All year, this year, because of the circumstances it's been a difficult, taxing, unpredictable thing, and they have performed their duties with grace, and poise, and consideration and diligence. And I'm really grateful to be with them. This week in particular, I was trying to count before the service. I think we've done 12 services in seven days, eight in the last four or five. People have been here long hours with smiles on their faces almost every moment and I'm really grateful. I'm grateful too, to our music department and the University Choir. I want to say thank you to all of you. Yeah. Applause to them as well too. I'm going to talk to you all a little bit directly here. Right now during the opening hymn while we were singing that final verse I had a little moment with you. I was looking up at you singing at me and I was singing back at you. It has been such a joy to serve this church with you this year. So thank you so much. Thank you.

So here we are Easter morning and we have this good news that Tara read for us, the witness of these women and of Peter of the empty tomb and of the Resurrection. I'm called up here to say a word about it. We haven't been at church for Holy Week, the last few years. And so this week I've been talking to my kids. I have three, a 12, a 10 and an eight year old. And I thought, "This is the problem when your dad is a priest and a preacher. I thought it'd be a great idea for us to read all the passion narratives together and then to talk and then to read all the Resurrection narratives and to talk about it and learn." And here's what I learned. I learned that I am surrounded by skeptics in my house. They are not taking any of these stories for granted. They have lots of questions. Some of the questions are long standing.

I remember when Cami was four and we told her a very simplified version of this story, not the one from the Gospel, just a simple version of it. And after I told it to her, Cami frowned and said, "Well, that didn't happen." And even now I think Cami has lost the boldness of a four year old, but they have questions. And one of the things we circulated, all three of them was, "Who took the body? Where'd the body go? That's not there anymore. Somebody must have taken it. So who took it?" A lot of the conversations around who ended up taking it. In fact, they're reasonable questions. We talk about childlike faith, but my children are rational creatures. One of the things Cami said was people do not rise from the dead. That's true. They don't, which is why this is a remarkable thing that has this gathering here 2,000 years later.

The reasonable questions, the tomb is empty what happened to the body? Where did it go? And in asking these questions I think my kids maybe sound not unlike some characters in our Gospel story this morning. When the women leave the tomb and they go to the men, to the male disciples, and they tell them what they have seen, or in fact what they have failed to see that the body is not there, that the tomb is empty. It says that, "The 11 did not believe them." "It was idle talk," they said. Idle talk. The Greek word for idle talk here is the word "lyros" which means useless speech. Like when someone's out of their mind and they speak babble that's what this word means. Useless speech. That's what the men heard when the women who were the first apostles of the Resurrection came to them to tell them about this.

I think maybe I'm not quite as skeptical as my kids, although we'll get to that in a minute. But there's something about this definition, useless speech, that left me wondering as I prepared these remarks for today. "What's the usefulness of the speech?" You heard us shout that proclamation from the Memorial room. The Lord is risen. Indeed, what is the use of us saying that? Listening to Emmanuel read the prayers and the account he gave of flooding all over the world and waters rising and violence everywhere. What we see in the world around us with gun violence, injustice which seems ineradicable. Crisis looming everywhere, all around us.

And then we come to this church and we cry out together. The Lord has risen indeed. How is that useful? And what is the use? We do have in this proclamation the promise of a sweet hereafter, but if the incarnation of Jesus means anything, it is about not just the here after, but the here and now. God with us and among us, here and now. What do we do with this story? What is its use? I said I'm slightly less skeptical than my kids. I'm a modern person. I believe in science and so forth. I believe in the Gospels, but I don't put a lot of truck into them as forensic historical accounts. I think that they're meaningful and true in other words. And so I use my interpretive acrobatics to wiggle around some of the healing stories and some of the other miracles, but Resurrection is of singular importance and it's harder to wiggle around.

And my kids and their questions and maybe even these early apostles are right to say, "This cannot be." The nature of a miracle is that it is not something that ought to happen. It defies every expectation. And so we are not wrong to have different expectations. It makes no sense. The story, it makes no sense. All these questions stand. But if we look closely at the stories from the Gospels of what this Resurrection was like, I think we do find that the people who went through this experience were just as confused, and just as afraid, and just as uncertain as anyone now, about the events of that day.

I spent time with these four accounts with my kids this week. And one thing that's remarkable is how each of the Gospel stories in their account of the Resurrection say something different. It's never clear and it's always odd and weird and difficult to follow. Mark says nothing about Jesus. Did women just run away afraid? In Matthew, Jesus appears to a crowd of folks but some of the people in the crowd can't see Him. In Luke, Jesus takes the form of unrecognizable strangers and then vanishes into thin air and eats with them. In John, Jesus does the same, except He also has the ability to pass through locked doors. These things are not accountable. We don't know how to tell the stories of them and the stories that we have are difficult to follow and uncertain.

And if we hone in on today's lesson, the one that Tara read about the women coming to the tomb, it tells us right in the text how uncertain and confusing and fearful these moments were at the tomb. The women come and the English translation we have says that, " The women were perplexed by what they found." The Greek word that's translated as perplexity here is "aporia." It's actually a lone word in English. It means absolute confusion. The Greek actually means to be lost, to lose your mind. To be so confused you lost your mind. And so the women come to the tomb expecting to see the dead body of their friend and teacher and Lord, and it is gone and there are strangers there saying impossible things and they are out of their mind.

And then it says that, "After this, they were terrified." That's actually a pretty good Greek translation. The Greek word here means something like paralyzed with fear. And then they go to Peter and tell Peter, "What's going on." And Peter goes to the tomb and looks in. And our translation says, "He was amazed." The King James says, "He wondered at it," which seems especially civilized and calm. The Greek word, "thaumazo" for what Peter goes through here. It means that he lost his senses. He looked in the tomb and it was empty and he could not make a sense of it. And he was out of his mind.

So maybe I think maybe if we attend to this passage, maybe something else is going on here. Maybe what this passage is doing what it's asking us to do, it's not making sense of things. It's telling us what we ought to do, how we ought to behave and how we ought to treat each other when nothing makes sense. Maybe the fear, and the confusion, and the wonder are the point. Maybe Easter is not an explanation of what happened. It's an account of what we do when we're forced to face the inexplicable. Just think for a moment about these women. Reflect on them, try to enter their minds at dawn on Sunday morning about 2,000 years ago.

Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna and the other women, imagine what their weekend has been like. They saw their friend, and their teacher, and the Lord, the one in whom they had placed all their hopes. They saw Him tortured and mutilated and murdered. And they'd been sitting with that grief for days. But the body has not been prepared and so they need to do the most awful thing they can imagine this morning. They need to get up and go to the tomb and wash that body. Treat it with love even though he is gone and care for it. And to do that they need to get past a Roman guard who were not guaranteed to treat them well. And they have to roll back a stone, which is too large for them to move. And in spite of all this, they get out of bed and they gather up the spices, and they gather each other, and they go. They don't understand what happened to Jesus.

When they get there and the tomb is empty, they don't understand that either. And when they call Peter and Peter comes, he doesn't understand it at all either. In this moment, in the moment of the passage we read they are still at fear for their lives. Their beloved friend and teacher is missing. They don't know what's happening and we don't know either. In fact, there may be only one indisputable fact, only one indisputable fact in all of this account. In spite of everything, they still love Him. And that love, that love is the thing they will trust most, not their fear, not their confusion, not their uncertainty. Their love. And I think what they find at the tomb is the wondrous possibility that the man they have lost might somehow still love them too.

Now, if that's what Easter is all about, then maybe it is not so mysterious after all or rather it's mystery is a familiar one to us. It's a mystery all of us live into because we, you and me, we love our way through uncertainty and misunderstanding and loss all the time. We've been doing it throughout this pandemic. We've been doing it for much of our lives. We know in our own lives that we don't need to understand, or to explain, or to know in order to love that the love can be true even when nothing else makes sense.

I think about my three children who have become so skeptical and I remember holding them in my hands when they were born. I remember feeling a wonder like Peter's, out of my senses and a fear that left me out of my mind. And knowing also that they would remain inscrutable to me in important ways, their whole lives, did not keep me, did not prevent me from committing myself to them in love. When I have hurt people I love, or when they have hurt me, I don't understand it. I don't know why we hurt the people we love or why they hurt us.

And yet when this happens, we fumble our way clumsily back towards reconciliation not because we understand, or not because we can explain, but because the love is still true and that's what moves us. That's what gets us up and gets us going. When we love people who are dying and suffering, we don't understand why they're dying and suffering. We can't explain it, but we give ourselves in love to those folks. And when those whom we love have died, when those whom I love have died, I still feel their love for me in my hearts. I still feel their love for me. It is real. And I can't explain why and how it's there, but it is true. And maybe the explanation isn't the point.

In the Gospel passage we heard this morning, this is what these women, Mary and Mary and Joanna, this is what Peter, this is what all of them are going through. They don't understand this any better than we do. In fact, the opposite is probably true because for those of us gathered here today, centuries of custom and tradition and orthodoxy have sanitized this account of Easter morning, made it facile and obvious. Resurrection just rolls off of our tongue. The Lord is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. As if saying this were just a happy ending to an otherwise sad story.

But what it is this morning, in this Gospel account we read is the perplexing, and confusing, and wondering continuation of a story that these folks do not yet know how fully to tell. A story of love which is so mysterious we cannot put it into words. We can only live it with our lives and follow it where it goes. We proclaim this day, we Christians, "The Lord is risen." So what is the use of this proclamation? What keeps it from becoming mere idle talk? I think if it is only a statement of certainty, and clarity and ease, then I'm not sure what its use is. But instead, we understand it as a statement mired in fear and confusion, and wonder, a statement of love, then it is profound and useful. Because our world is fearful and confusing and wonderful too.

And this is why this story is no idle talk because the response of these women, the response of Mary and Mary and Joanna, the response of Peter, their resolve to love one another, and to love Jesus through their confusion, and through their fright, and through their loss, their resolve to love all that cannot be accepted or explained, that resolve is true, and good, and right and the closest thing to Resurrection we have in this world, in this life. This love was given to them by Jesus.

It was sanctified by God and today and every day it is passed on to us as His disciples. Before the injustice of this world, which is real and fearful and confusing, before the threats we face and before all the beauty and wonder of this world too, this will to love, this will to face fear and confusion, and wonder with our hearts open, this resolve is utterly real and utterly useful, and the holiest thing we know. So if this is what the disciples mean when they proclaim to one another and to us that Christ is risen then I say, "The Lord is risen indeed. Hallelujah. Amen."