Nobody knows why firefighters are firefighters. Not even they can tell you why. It’s time somebody try. Firefighting is the most risky of all dead-end jobs and yet also the one where most workers are most likely to punch in early. It’s hard enough to believe that; it’s impossible to explain it. Wives hate the hours. Kids love the noise.
Any day at the firehouse the bell from hell puts the dispatcher on the horn with a barn fully engulfed. Into the bunker pants, turnout coat, grab the mask and go. Minutes later you’re on site. As others run out with the animals, you go in. You’ll need all you can carry. The four pound axe, a six-foot rake, the halligan bar. In the scary dark with the heat eating your ears, you’re gouging out and tearing loose and pulling apart, gulping air and tasting black. Your windpipe is closing and you’ve lost track of which way is out. Is it worth it?
Donations are down, volunteers are scarce, and they’ve cut your budget, so now your job is more difficult and more dangerous. Your air is low. Inside your mask you’re throwing up. There’s a searing ember down your neck. Torn gloves expose a smashed hand. So you emerge from the holocaust hugging, with your elbows, somebody’s singed kitten.
Now you’re back at the station house. You’ve unstuffed your nostrils with soapy fingers; you can almost breathe again. Next come the tedious hours as you and Brillo gang up on the grimy tools. The cleanup crew at the firehouse is you when windows need washing and toilets need cleaning and floors mopping, you do it. They both go with the job.
Then there’s that night another volunteer company gets there first and you see this wet-eared rookie hot-dogging ahead; his academy boots still shiny. You lose him inside the crackling dark and you forget about him until your helmet-warning bell says get out. The chief is calling you off. You get out; the other guy didn’t. He had heard a scream from the bottom of a burning basement stairs and he headed down there, when on the bubbling tarpaper roof the three-ton compressor broke through, that day we lost two. Oh, yes, firefighters cry, but only briefly because now comes the inevitable and evermore paperwork just in case OSHA complains or somebody sues. Is it worth it?
The intercom barks again. This time it’s a warehouse, a big, fast, and multiple blazes, probably torched. Onsite engine men draped with icicles dragging an inch and three-quarter hose are waiting for your big line: ladder men can’t make the building without you. Search, rescue, ventilate. Eventually it’s over and out. You’re smoke smudged and sleepless and wrung out, but you won.
Back at the firehouse before cleanup, you and the guys sit a spell, tired but stimulated, drinking coffee and laughing, and feeling good about one another. Nobody outside your world can ever know this feeling. In any other uniform you get streets named after you for killing people; in this one you risk your life to save people. Until one day you run out of chances and at one final fire, either you buy it or you don’t. If you don’t, it’s only eventually to be brushed off with a puny pension or as volunteer hopefully sincere thanks from your neighbors. Yet there’s no way that you’d ever leave this job and you’re doubting even God knows why. You’re out of the shower now; most of the grime and some of the cynicism are down the drain, when you hear a strangely familiar voice saying, “It is worth it. It is worth it.” And you’re hearing this voice, and there is nobody there but you. It is a quiet voice from no where saying, “For salvaging things and people from flames, I have to rely on your hands.” You look around, still nobody. Yes, it is worth it.
Three weeks ago, I had the privilege of celebrating the life of one of the founder’s of the North Java Fire Department, Donald Almeter, or chief as folks in these parts lovingly called him. When his body was carried by the hearse into this town, two towering fire trucks with their ladders extended draped the American flag down the middle of Route 98. It was quite impressive and brought tears to the eyes of his children.
How impressive was that moment compared to what we don’t find this morning. The tomb is empty, and we don’t know where they have taken him.
At the chief’s Mass of the Resurrection, I shared that the light is better than darkness, hope better than despair. And in thinking of his faith, the chief reminds us that it is good for us to gather here in this church. For it is his life that speaks, not his death. It is his courage that he showed serving as firefighter and chief that speaks, not fear. And it is his hope and belief in the God who promises that we will rise with Him that speaks, not fear. And so I am here to talk to you about this neighbor’s faith in God and the resurrection.
If Easter Sunday has any real meaning, if this worship service this morning contains any real hope or joy, it all comes from precisely the fact that as a real human being, Jesus really and genuinely died. Without a real death, there also cannot be a real return of life. If Jesus’ death on Good Friday was just some play-acting on the part of a divine being, then this story is nothing but nonsense. You just cannot get excited unless the human being who had been Jesus of Nazareth not only had the utterly human ability to die but he really did get to that mortal point when the heart's electrical activity stops, the blood within the body pools and discolors, and the brain goes dead.
Anyone here who has ever had to deal with the death of a loved one knows that the finality of death can make you desperate and a little crazy. My last patient was a father whose 16-year-old son died in a garage fire a year ago on March first. Believe me every time I see this dad, he goes a little crazy with regret and guilt. “He should have been there to save his son.” You can't fix it, reverse it, or make it go away. The person you loved is just gone in such a way that you cannot reach him or her any longer. My heart breaks when some of you say to me, in the months following the death of a longtime spouse, "Just about every single day I still catch myself thinking, 'I can't wait to tell him about this.'" The sickening feeling of finality descends on you anew the moment you find yourself wishing that. You can't tell them anything. Not anymore.
So let’s review what really happened on the first Easter morning. Our story begins simply: Mary Magdalene treks to the tomb. She notices the stone has been moved and, apparently without any further checking, concludes that there is something fishy going on. Similarly, if you went to the grave of a loved one only to discover the headstone cracked in two and mounds of freshly dug dirt all around, you wouldn't bother, probably, to hop into the hole to see if the casket was still there. You'd high tail it out of there to call for help. What had happened was obvious. Since Jesus had been dead, and since Mary knew what dead looked like and how undeniably Jesus had fit the bill that past Friday, if he wasn't in the tomb where they laid him, then someone else had taken him. As a general rule, dead folks don't do a lot for themselves. This is not some silly a television program about the walking dead.
Peter and the other disciple, probably John, make the same conclusion, albeit only after a bit more of a thorough investigation of the alleged crime scene. Taken together, verses 8 and 9 of this passage indicate that Peter and John and Mary did not tumble to the notion that Jesus had been raised from the dead. What John says he "believed" in verse 8 is obviously the conclusion that something fishy, and maybe even grizzly, had gone on.
What follows is the now-famous scene of Mary Magdalene weeping her eyes out over this latest indignity visited upon a man she loved. Twice the Jesus-incognito figure asks Mary why she is weeping. Often we read this ironically: that is to say, we know there is actually no reason whatsoever to weep and so we inflect Jesus' words with a tone similar to what a parent would take toward a child who is crying over a dead pet when, really, the pet is just fine and sleeping over in the corner. "Jimmy, why are you crying? Knock it off and open your eyes--Squeaky is right over there!" But I suspect that is the wrong way to inflect the voice of Jesus here. Jesus knew better than anyone that Mary Magdalene's tears are representative of the tears of all humanity. This is the weeping, the bitter spilling forth of salty tears, that has enveloped the human race for ever so long now. It is the tears of the firemen when they lose a fellow firefighter, or the tears of a parent when their child had died in a fire. Why was Mary crying? Mary wept because death had done to Jesus' body what death does to each person's body: renders it vulnerable to decay, decomposition, as well as totally defenseless against the whims of those who might be minded to abuse a corpse.
Jesus twice asked his logical question out of a deep well of both compassion and empathy. Mary Magdalene on Easter morning is a sign of each of us when we remember our spouse, parent, child or friend at the wake. Listen: Easter does not happen here in this church with its decked out in flowered sanctuary. Easter doesn't happen at he restaurant where we are having brunch with family. Easter doesn't happen on all those hillsides where this morning people gathered to watch the sunrise. Easter is not about an Easter bunny and kids getting chocolate candy. That is not Easter despite what you read in Sunday’s newspaper ads.
Listen: Easter happens in a fire when a firefighter carries out one of the victims of a terrorist bombing in Belgium, it’s the phone call I got from London when the emergency doctor told me that my sister-in-law died on the tarmac of London’s Heathrow airport of a heart attack, it’s the E.R. at Buffalo General when the doctor comes out to the waiting area and shakes his head. We couldn't save him. Easter happens at Marley’s when that first glimpse of your parent or spouse in the coffin hits you like a cinderblock to the solar plexus. You can't breathe. Easter happens in the barns and homes where men and women watch each other slowly kill themselves with alcohol and drugs, where life has become a living death. Easter happens on the nursing home floor where once strong-bodied men and women lose their memories due to Alzheimer’s and life has now come down to this long wait for death. Easter happens where death is, because that is the only place it is needed.
So this day is a reminder to you, as it was to Mary Madeline long ago on a morning outside Jerusalem, Jesus comes up from behind to ask, "Why are you weeping? Why are you depressed? Why are you so afraid that you, too, will end up in that wheelchair? Why are you so sad?" Every one of those questions has a perfectly logical answer. None of us weep without cause. Mary Magdalene didn't either. She, like each one of us, had an absolutely good reason to cry that morning, and had God not done that day a new thing the likes of which had never before been known, Mary's reason for crying would have also been correct. That's why Jesus doesn't rebuke her for crying. There is here no hint of "Knock it off" or "Silly woman, open your eyes!" Jesus himself knew that he and Mary both needed the tears if the truth of what had just happened was going to come to mean exactly what it still means: we have the hope of new life smack where we need it most: in the midst of a world full of suffering, death and dying.
Make no mistake, Jesus could have moldered in that tomb the same as anyone else. Jesus was raised from the dead only because of and by the power of God his Father. And that is my hope and your hope: we too would, without God's help, stay deader than dead the moment our hearts kick out on us. But Jesus demonstrates God's fierce determination not to let that happen. We can and will be raised because Jesus was raised. That is what this morning is all about and God because He truly loves you will raise you up. Listen to the voice of God as Gannon, our choir director, sings the hymn “Be Not Afraid.”