My mother Della Mae Trainor loved cooking Mexican food, painting, watching reruns of Golden Girls, shopping at Target, and playing Scrabble, which by the way she was very good at. Her birthday was September 18th. She was born in Nashville, Tennessee. She was married to my father for 49 years. She delivered my sister and me by C-sections. She was a unique person, with a very specific set of gifts, weaknesses, fears and joys. A little over ten years ago I stood by her bed as she died. I watched with Mary, Lucas, my sister and an Episcopal priest as the heart monitor displayed on the little TV screen above her bed went, over a period of several minutes, from 70 to 50, then to 30, then to zero, where it stayed. I never saw her again after that.
I never got another chance to call her and tell her how I was doing. I never got another chance to share a joke one of us had heard. I never got another chance to feel the touch of her hand. I never got another chance to hear her say, as she often did, that she loved me. It’s been ten years, and I still think about her almost every day.
Death is a very big deal. It is an event of enormous importance.
I am encouraged and strengthened by the knowledge that I will see Della Mae Trainor, my mother, again someday. I am confident of it. I look forward to it. But how do I know that will happen? Maybe my knowledge is wrong. Maybe when my mother died and when I die, nothing happens. Maybe the couple hundred pounds of organic molecules that make up Jim Trainor is all there is to me, and that will decay away in the earth, and that’ll be the end of my story. Based on what can be measured in a chemistry or biology lab, or what any of us has ever seen, or what many people will tell you, there’s no reason to expect anything more than that. No reason at all.
So why does this confidence of mine persist? It persists because the greatest gift you and I ever received was an empty package. That gift was a tomb, a small cave carved in a rocky hillside, covered by a large stone. And there was supposed to be a dead man inside. But he wasn’t there, like everyone expected. The tomb was empty.
What happened? The Roman army had killed this man just a couple of days before, and they were very good at killing people. When they killed someone, they stayed dead. Now, it is true this was a very special man – even the people who disliked him, like the religious authorities and the government officials, would agree to that. And this man had a group of followers who had been with him for several years. They testified that they saw him do many amazing things: heal people from terminal illnesses, raise the dead, create food for a hungry crowd out of nothing. And they said that his teaching was amazing and came with commanding authority. They had concluded that he was the son of God. They said they had heard him say that he was destined to be killed and then after three days he would rise again. But they all admitted that at the time they didn’t understand what that meant.
When some of his followers found the tomb empty, they were in disbelief. They figured that someone had stolen the body. They were ravaged with despair and grief and fear. But then something very unusual happened. One of the followers, a woman who had been healed by Jesus, was waiting outside the tomb on the day they found it empty. She was sobbing in grief. But she was interrupted by a man who she would later say was Jesus himself, alive. She told the others but they didn’t believe her.
Then over a period of the next month or so, many other people saw him alive also. Over five hundred people. Many of them wrote down their experiences of seeing him, and we can still read their accounts today. It was very strange. In some ways he was just like the old Jesus was, he ate and talked and you could touch him and feel him. But now this new Jesus also could pass through walls and things like that.
These experiences totally changed all the people who saw him. At the time of his execution, his followers were all petrified with fear that they would be the next ones executed by the violent and very powerful Roman army, and they had good reason to be afraid. This was not a regime that showed mercy or cut you any slack at all. But somehow what they had seen changed them. They claimed it was the risen Jesus. And it caused them, almost overnight, to become fearless. They went everywhere telling people, anyone who would listen, about this Jesus. They were so convinced about what they had seen that they faced down the most bloodthirsty persecution. The authorities massacred them – they crucified them, they beheaded them, they set them on fire, they had them pulled apart by wild animals. Almost all of them were murdered for telling what they had seen.
But even though the authorities were doing the best they could to kill them off, the word spread that Jesus was the son of God, that he was very God himself who had come to earth. That he had come for all people everywhere on earth. That through him you could be forgiven all the sins and screw-ups of your life. And that if you believed in him – that is, trusted in him, followed him, staked your whole life on him – well, then you would have eternal life. You would rise from the dead because he had overcome death.
Now a lot of people didn’t believe this. After all, like I said, no one ever rises from the dead, gimme a break. They laughed and they sneered and they even lashed out violently. They still do.
But the word kept spreading, and there was something about the way the story got told, something that had to have come from the Holy Spirit, that many people came to believe.
For two thousand years the word was spread, faithfully repeated with care not to exaggerate or distort the original reports. There was much effort to push back on this movement. Governments from all ages tried to wipe out this belief in God through Jesus, and they tried the most extreme measures, but they all failed. Eventually the story came to my town and your town, where it continued to be repeated. Many people laughed at it, paid little attention to it, or were even hostile to it. But some believed it.
Why did they believe it? Because the story had the ring of truth. Because so many people had risked so much to keep the story alive. Because a careful logical scientific study of all the evidence we have can find no better explanation for what happened on that day a long time ago in a backwater part of the Roman Empire, than that God rolled the stone away from a tomb, and Jesus, alive, walked out. And because, after he came out of that tomb alive, he said that he would be with us always until the end of time, and the experience of the Church has been that this is still true. That today, April 24, 2011, Jesus is still alive.
And this Sunday, all of us, of all ages and from all kinds of backgrounds, will be hearing the story told again. We’ll be hearing what is pretty close to the original reports from people who saw it. And like everyone else who has ever heard that story of what happened in Jerusalem 2000 years ago, we have the freedom to laugh at it, to yawn at it, to become angry about it … or to listen to it and consider it and ponder it and maybe to believe it.
And if we believe it, we, like those first followers of Jesus who believed it, will never be the same. We will not have to wallow in the shame of our sins -- they are forgiven -- and we will not have to fear anything ever again, because our fear has been cast out by his perfect love for us.
I believe the story. With my head, looking at the evidence and thinking logically as a person who was a research physicist for twenty-five years, I believe it. And after listening to the testimony of people – from beggars to kings -- through all the ages who had concluded that the story is true, I believe it. And at the innermost levels of my heart, where the deepest truths reside but are not easily put into words, I believe it is true.
And that is why I know that I will see my mother again someday. It’s not just wishful thinking, some little tale I’ve fooled myself with because I can’t face the cold hard facts of life. Yes, I will see Della Mae, and I am convinced that it will be a day of great victory and joy. St. Paul says that it will be like putting on a crown, and St. John says that it will be a time when every tear will be wiped away from my eyes. That’s what will happen someday to me. But what Jesus did affects me right here today also -- I know that this Jesus who overcame death and the grave has promised not to leave me here twisting in the wind. He is with me every day, through his Spirit, to guide me, comfort me, embolden me, and use me for his glory and to serve his people, right here, right now.
Now what? It’s up to you what you do with this story. You are absolutely free to just blow it off. Nobody will criticize you for doing that – in fact, some might commend you for being rational and savvy. But maybe you won’t blow it off. Maybe you will hear this story, maybe you will believe it, maybe you will feed on it, maybe you will be changed – made new – by it, and maybe you’ll go out and tell others, because the greatest gift of all history is just too good to keep to yourself.