Some places are just down right scary: dark alleys and empty parking garages immediately come to mind. In any TV drama, if a person is walking down an alley or through an empty garage, there is going to be trouble. Let’s add another such place: churches at night. That’s right: churches at night. As nice as churches look today, with brightly polished brass, lots of candles, stained glass windows, and flowers everywhere, return to a church at night by yourself and see how you feel as you walk through a large and dark room. It won’t be so charming.
You are right to guess that I have been in a lot of church buildings at night. What I have always noticed is that, unlike our houses, the light switches for churches are never conveniently located by a door. We always have to walk somewhere in the dark to get to them. Simply not knowing what we might trip over adds to the fear factor. There may be the least ray of a streetlight coming in through the windows, but the colored glass turns it into odd shades. There may be a candle flickering somewhere, but it casts huge, moving shadows on far away walls, making us see strange shapes. All of the visitor’s senses are confused. And worst of all, a church is a big space with lots of nooks and crannies, and we always feel that someone is watching us from behind a pillar. Some altar guild members have confessed their own scared feelings to me. To be honest about it, I will admit that even I want to get out of a dark church as quickly as possible, and I am one of the more rational people you will ever meet.
The last time I walked through a church at night it dawned on me that church buildings have a lot in common with tombs, and indeed many older churches have tombs in them; they are dark, shadowy, otherworldly places, sometimes disconcerting. For all of our talk about the church being a safe environment and a place of sanctuary, the reality is that when we are in a church building in the middle of the night, we would most likely feel safer sitting in our car in the parking lot outside. We need to get out of that dark room. The old business degree-holding voice inside me admits that if that is the case, we’ve got a marketing problem.
Or perhaps we don’t. Go re-read today’s gospel. Mary Magdalene and Peter and the beloved disciple come to the tomb. It is dark. They are afraid to go in. It probably feels scary because that is what tombs are like. We are not comfortable with those liminal places between life and death. When they do look in, each of them sees something different. They can’t wait to get out. Two of them immediately go home where it is safe. But at some point they see everything differently, and the world has not been the same since. That is definitely NOT a marketing problem.
If you have ever been with me when I talk with people about to be baptized or confirmed, you know that I emphasize the need to be in church week after week, month after month, year after year. In fact, the words of the baptismal covenant ask for a promise to do so. I ask you to do so because being in church changes who we are and our relationship with others. We cannot help but be changed by sitting in a room week after week with whoever it is that walks in, old or young, rich or poor, married or single, long-time resident or recent immigrant, and then, with those very people, pray and sing and listen to scripture and share a meal of bread and wine. It is how we are taught that we are the many and varied members of the body of the risen Christ. But church is not where God calls us to live.
When we take note of today’s gospel, we realize that the followers of Jesus do not stay at the tomb. They get out of there. Raymond Brown, perhaps the world’s foremost commentator on John’s gospel, states that Peter and the beloved disciple leave the tomb and go home precisely so they can get out of the way and let Mary Magdalene see the resurrected Christ. Think about the 21st century implications of that statement for a moment; let’s get out of the church so that we can start seeing the resurrected Christ.
As for me and my ministry as your bishop, I am glad you came today. In fact, you and I need to be here, but I want us out of here soon so that we can start seeing the resurrected Christ in our daily lives. Go home and share a big meal. Visit your friends. Leave this place and get back into the real world, the world of gardeners and lawn care workers, the world of beloved friends and those who infuriate us, the world of bankers and students and mechanics and stockbrokers and schoolteachers, and there see Jesus. We need experiences of resurrection that remaining in this room cannot give us.
Consider the experience of Mary Magdalene. Looking into the tomb, she does not see Jesus. Instead, she sees messengers who call into question her assumptions. That sounds a lot like what my call is to be for you: someone who will call into question your assumptions when you come to church and point you in a new direction. Mary has to turn around and face the world and the people who inhabit it before she begins to see the resurrected Christ. Think of the implications of that statement for a moment.
For all their popularity, I frankly do not want family life centers to dominate churches, centers where all of one’s needs are met, from coffee shops to basketball leagues to knitting classes, cocoons of believers sealed off from the outside world. I want us to visit the tomb and then leave so that we can start seeing the resurrected Christ in one another. That is how our neighborhoods and cities and states and nations and even the entire world itself is going to be changed. It is how peace will replace warfare and how love will replace cold indifference. It is how the kingdom will become present. I want us to get out of this place and see Jesus.
Churches are tombs. They are empty most of the time, a fact that drives productivity experts crazy. They can feel profoundly otherworldly. But they are important because they are precisely the places in which our sinful assumptions are questioned and our old prejudices exposed. This room is as important to the proclamation of the gospel as was that empty tomb in Jerusalem. This is the place from which we go in order to experience the same thing that Mary Magdalene did on that first Easter Day. Scripture is not simply historical; instead it transcends history.
Those of you who have followed what I have had to say since becoming bishop know that I keep talking about open doors. I keep reminding anyone who will listen that churches must have them, figuratively and literally. The doors in the back of this room are the stone that covers the tomb, and stones that cover tombs must be rolled away. The gospel does not give us any other option. People of all sorts and conditions, the virtuous, the meek, the confused, the self-righteous, the doubting, the people who have been left on the margins by the very church itself, need the invitation to peek in, to have their assumptions questioned by the messengers, and get the chance to turn around their lives, go back outside, and see all the amazing guises under which the risen Christ walks the earth today. We may have begun this service with the proclamation that the Lord is risen indeed, but we will the chance to live it for ourselves once we say our prayers, share our bread and wine, and are sent back into the world where nothing, and no one, will scare us again. Amen.
The Rt. Rev. Larry Benfield
Easter Day, April 24, 2011