A few summers ago I worked as a chaplain in a hospital.
One night I was there late, on call,
and I got a phone call from one of the units
that a man’s wife had died.
And so I went up, not sure what to expect.
A nurse caught me on my way in the door to the waiting room
and pulled me aside to tell me the situation.
The man was younger, in his late forties.
His wife had been in surgery.
Everything had looked good,
she was recovering and talking to him, cracking jokes.
And then everything wasn’t good.
She took a turn for the worse, and then she died.
It was not expected.
I spent more than two hours
with that man in the waiting room that night.
I stayed with him as he inhabited this strange, uncanny place
that exists in the wake of cataclysmic news.
It was as if his mind was in two different places at the same time:
one was his old life,
the one when his wife was having surgery,
but was going to be better soon.
The other was this...new place.
This place where she was dead.
And I could see him shifting back and forth.
He’d carefully recount the story of the surgery,
what all the doctors had said and when,
and then begin to weep, his head in his hands.
And then he’d shift suddenly into telling me about his wife,
all in the present tense.
Stories about who she was and what she had liked.
I asked how they had met and he told me the story
the same way I’m sure he told it at dinner parties
and we laughed
as if everything was fine.
And then something would pass over his face,
like a cloud casting a shadow,
and he’d remember that she was gone.
We talked past midnight, until everyone was gone
and only the security guards and the night nurses paced quietly by on their rounds.
It was as if he wanted to stay in the waiting room.
Because once he walked out those sliding glass doors
into the hot August night,
he wouldn’t be able to push off this new reality any longer.
In the waiting room,
no one knew but him.
In the waiting room,
it wasn’t real, not yet.
It wouldn’t end with the sliding glass doors, either.
Hearing she was gone was one thing,
but knowing it was another.
The new reality would descend in pieces.
Months later he would still roll over in bed and expect to find her there,
still hear her voice.
Death came all at once to her,
but for him, it would come bit by bit,
a piece at time.
This morning I celebrated Easter
with the little kids who came to the other church where I work to dye Easter Eggs.
We reenacted the whole story of Holy Week,
galloping down the hallway as if on donkeys
while parents waved palm branches over our heads,
sitting around a table in an upper room
where we ate pieces of pita bread
and drank dixie cups filled with grape juice,
sitting quietly in the dark chapel as I told the story of what happened
on that hill outside Jerusalem.
And then, we all got on tiptoe
and snuck down the hall to the darkened sanctuary where we crouched quietly
until two angels (okay -- teenaged girls) popped up in the pulpit and yelled,
“Why do you look for the living among the dead! He is risen!”
And then the lights came up and music started playing
and the girls threw fistfuls of rose petals down on the kids from above.
This is the way we usually tell the story of Easter:
the story of what happened that morning at the tomb.
It’s a little bit like a surprise party, actually.
A brief moment of disorientation followed by a loud
and lots of party hats.
But there is more in-between to Easter.
In fact, the news of Christ’s resurrection
is just as bit by bit, as piece by piece
as the sudden news of a loved ones’ death.
We may be told,
but we also have to see,
We have to experience it for ourselves.
Or it isn’t quite real.
On Friday the women made the spices to anoint Jesus’ body,
and on the Sabbath they waited and they prayed.
Now it is Sunday, the sun is not even up,
and they are here to tend to his body,
to prepare him for burial
and when they arrive they find that the stone in front of the tomb
has been rolled away.
And he is gone.
The first witnesses to the resurrection are greeted
not by presence
but by absence.
Not by celebration
but by emptiness.
An empty tomb
filled with a whole lot of nothing.
The lights do not come up
and no one yells, “surprise.”
There is fear.
There is the feeling that reality has just split dangerously apart.
The sense that they are in two places at once.
Their past lives,
where Jesus was dead, his body laid in a tomb,
and this one, where these two men, dressed in shining garments
“Remember? Remember what he told you?”
And they do remember
as if recalling a dream,
that he had said that this would happen.
A new creation begins to dawn.
A new world in which everything is turned on its head
and death has no hold over them.
But they are still in the waiting room.
It will take more than emptiness and absence.
It will take presence.
It will take Christ appearing at their sides.
Walking with them along the road
then sitting down with them and breaking bread.
Appearing among them and saying
“See, look at my hands, look at my feet.”
It will take encounter,
with the living Christ,
the resurrected God,
still bearing the wounds of death,
for that new reality to blossom into something that looks like belief.
And this is faith:
to sit in the waiting room
in the wake of impossible news
and to wonder just what it is that is dawning.
Is it possible that faith looks more like grief
than it does like joy?
Is it possible that faith is more absence than presence?
Is it possible it can take a whole lifetime to piece faith together?
A whole lifetime of thinking that you hear her voice in the next room over?
Of turning in bed to find she isn’t there?
A whole life time of remembering?
Remember what he told you. Remember.
And still we sing, Alleluia.
And still we say, The Lord is risen indeed.
We say it not because we are happy
but because we are trusting.
That a new creation is dawning
and we have somehow caught the hem,
and God is bringing us,
into a new morning,
a new place,
a new world.
that though there is absence
there is also presence.
That every so often,
Christ does appear.
Not on a dusty road outside Jerusalem
but on a crowded sidewalk in the city.
In the eyes of a stranger whose hand brushes yours
or in moment of sudden beauty: the way the light slants through the avenues at twilight.
Here at church as we pass bread from hand to hand,
or through the voice of someone you love who’s far away
over the telephone.
That Christ is among us.
This is the night.
The hinge on which creation turns.
You may feel sometimes that you have one foot in the old world
and one in the new.
And you are right.
Just sing Alleluia.
Just sing it and trust
that God will make it new.