A Homily for the Third Sunday of Easter
Texts: Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; St. Luke 24:36b-48
Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Risen Lord, who has conquered the grave and will come again in victory to raise us up. Amen.
Christ is risen. Our Lord is victorious over Death. So why does Death still pack such a punch?
As many of you know, I spent a few days after Easter camping and hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Visiting the Smokies is a little bit like travelling back in time. If you take US-441 through Cherokee or Gatlinburg, you leave town and pass a giant park sign on the side of the road. Suddenly, civilization disappears behind a veil of trees as the wilderness spreads outward. Once you pass by the visitor’s center, the road narrows and the woods grow deeper. In early April, many of the trees are just starting to bud and the animals are only beginning to emerge from their winter dens, as though the new life of spring is preparing to erupt forth in all of its glory. By the end of May, the forest will be verdant, a majestic array of greenery spread out for miles in every direction. But even now, the forest floor is covered with moss and ferns, almost as though the woods are upside down, with the emerald canopy on the bottom.
If you know anything about the Smokies, it’s probably this: before the national park was created, the land had been clear cut by logging corporations and settled by farmers. Stop by the Elkmont Campground if you’re in the park, and visit the camp store; there, you’ll find bleak, sepia-tinted photographs of a barren landscape that’s all but unrecognizable. Stumps and decaying logs dot the landscape. Trains cart off timber, and shanty towns replace the now-familiar elm groves, supporting the massive workforce needed to clear-cut the land. The acrid smoke of locomotives rise up to meet the mountain mists. In other regions of the park, poor farming and land management degraded the soil, leading to massive erosion. The only patches of green were resort areas set aside for the wealthy and patches of kudzu introduced as a form of erosion control. For decades, destruction ran roughshod over the peaks.
The land was set aside as a national park in 1934, and suddenly forests shot up. BY the time FDR visited to dedicate the new park in 1940, it was a land renewed, the towering trees giving cover to ferns and delicate lichens. Wild animals came roaring back, and today over a thousand black bears and a herd of elk call the park their home. What was once a patch of bad soil has become the most biologically diverse national park in the United States. Life returned to the mountains.
In seminary, I spent a summer working in Gatlinburg and leading worship services at the Elkmont and Cades Cove campgrounds. That was the summer that I truly learned what resurrection looks like, seeing the pictures of destruction that gave way to more shades of green than I could count.
In the Smokies, life conquered Death in less than a century.
And yet today, Death still packs a punch.
Acid rain and invasive species threaten the park’s plant and animal life. In December 2016, fires tore threw the park, devastating entire mountainsides and the residents of Gatlinburg and the rest of Sevier County. (I might add that recovery efforts are on-going even fifteen months later. Both Lutheran Disaster Response and the Appalachian Service Project are on the ground rebuilding homes. Your gifts to these organizations help bring about new life.) The new life in the park is delicate; a small spark, a subtle shift in the pH of rain, or an insect smaller than your fingernail can completely devastate the landscape.
As I climbed up Chimney Tops last week, I passed by areas where the scorch marks were still evident. A once-lush ridgeline that hosted eight different ecosystems is now barren and exposed, the soil washed away and the stones and stumps bleached by ash and the sun.
Death still packs a punch.
I know I don’t need to convince any of you of this; simply turn on the news. See the turmoil continue to play out in Syria, the use of chemical weapons followed by US, French, and British airstrikes. Hear the cries that rise out from the streets of Douma.
What gives? Why is Death still prowling our world like a hungry wolf?
Is it that our Baptism somehow didn’t “take”? If we have been joined to the Body of Christ in these baptismal waters, and if the Body of Christ is risen, then why does Death continue to plague us?
Has our faith been in vain?
We know that we will rise with Christ, but what we will become has yet to be revealed.
We’re very much like the Smokies, living into the joyous new life of the Resurrection, but precariously perched on the edge of an abyss. It doesn’t take much for Sin and Death to come roaring back into our world. A phone call on an unsuspecting Friday can completely upend our entire lives.
We are caught between the already and the not-yet. Christ has already conquered the grave, defeating Sin and Death. The outcome is decided.
But Sin and Death still prowl about this world like a roaring lion. We look for that which has yet to pass, when Christ returns in final triumph to raise us up from the dead.
We are so very much like the disciples, startled and frightened. But take heed, dear ones, because even in our fear, Christ our Risen Lord comes to us, offering strength to endure. He comes speaking words of comfort, asking, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” This new life is not ethereal, not ghostly. We will be raised not just in spirit, but physically.
These things that we take for granted – the slight temperature change of shadows cast through the forest canopy, the smell of wet moss, the way a loved one feels when you hug them, the sound of a son’s voice, the taste of broiled fish – these things we don’t notice until they’re gone: all of this will be restored, made perfect, made to be what God has always intended for us. Life – real, physical, tangible, palpable, and glorious life – will conquer Death.
This new life is already bursting forth around us, even in unexpected places. In baptismal waters, the Resurrection is pouring into our world. Through the Sacrament of the Altar, Christ’s Risen Body is made truly present. All around us, we are seeing fore-glimpses of Christ’s triumph. New life is radiating out from Easter morn like roots from a green blade rising out of the soil. Even through our tears, we see signs that, someday and soon, all shall be well.
For now, Death still packs a punch. It still hurts. We will continue to weep and mourn for a time.
But a day is coming when all of creation is restored.
A day is coming when our Easter joy will be complete.
A day is coming when the Smokies will grow, green, vibrant, and lush.
A day is coming when the streets of Douma are filled again and forever with the sound of laughter.
A day is coming when graves are empty and the sea gives up its dead.
A day is coming when Death no longer packs a punch, when we will weep and mourn no more.
A day is coming when the words of the Psalmist are fulfilled:
We will see the Good that the Lord has promised, and God’s face will shine upon us.
Our God will place gladness in our hearts, wiping away all tears.
And we will rest peacefully and safely in the Kingdom of God.
And on that day, we – yes, even we – shall be witnesses to these things.