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     Sermons | Passionate worship

    This sermon was preached by the Rev. Keith Cardwell at Swift Presbyterian Church.

    April 12, 2020 | Easter Sunday

    Empty Church, Empty Tomb
    John 20:1–18

     I  WISH WE WERE ALL gathered today in the buildings. The 8:00 chapel filled. The 10:00 crowd with hats and kids and excitement. Ms. Debbie already talked about what Easter is usually like around Swift Church and how it’s different this year.

    Today, instead of bells and music and laughing children and egg hunts, the Swift Church grounds are vacant. The buildings are empty. How do we celebrate Easter with emptiness?

    Empty is a negative word. Your children and grandchildren would have been terribly disappointed this morning if their Easter baskets were empty. You get worried when your bank account is empty.

    † † †

    I DID A QUICK SEARCH of the word “empty” in the Bible. The translation I looked at — 48 times it is used. Every time is a negative. Genesis 1 says “the earth was without form and empty.” There are empty hands. Empty words. Empty bellies. The rich go away empty. Naomi laments she went to Moab full (family) and returned home empty.

    There is one time I saw that’s positive: Actually, it’s a form of the word “empty.” It is in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi.

    [Christ Jesus] though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,

    7 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
    And being found in human form,

    8 he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.
    Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,

    10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

    11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

    † † †

    WE TALK ABOUT the empty tomb. That phrase is not in the Bible. It’s a heading for today’s Scripture reading from John. “The empty tomb.” Of course, on that early morning 2,020 years ago, Mary and the other women didn’t think of it a positive. For them it was a negative:

    Someone has taken the body.
    We don’t know where it is.
    They have taken my Lord away.
    Tell me where you put him.

    It’s only later that the negative word “empty” becomes a positive word.

    ■ Empty tomb means Jesus is alive.
    ■ Empty tomb means Jesus is roaming about.
    ■ Empty tomb means Jesus is no longer confined by physical time and place.
    ■ Empty tomb is good news.

    † † †

    I’M SAD WE’RE NOT on Swift Church property this morning. That we’re not in the chapel and sanctuary. I miss not having Easter breakfast provided by the deacons. I miss the excitement. I miss the joy, excitement, and love on display when family from near and far come together for worship.

    This Easter, the church buildings are empty. No rehearsals. No Bible studies. No youth group. No Sunday school. Just a few people here and there doing the basic work that has to be done on site.

    But empty doesn’t have to be a negative word. You know the church is more than a building. You might remember the children’s song:

    “I am the church! You are the church!
    We are the church together!”

    That children’s song carries so much meaning in today’s environment.

    “Sometimes the church is marching;
    sometimes it’s bravely burning,
    sometimes it’s riding, sometimes hiding;
    always it’s learning.”

    We’re going to sing that song in a few minutes.

    † † †

    SOMETIMES THE CHURCH is in the building. Sometimes the church is on the march. Sometimes the church is hiding. Sometimes the church is burning with the Holy Spirit.

    We’re always learning. Learning how to be church outside the comfortable walls of our lovely sanctuary and chapel. Learning why we even come to the building. Learning if we really want to be part of the marching church.

    Maybe, just maybe, an empty building, like the empty tomb, is good news. On the day of Pentecost, the disciples were frightened, alone, hiding in the upper room of someone’s house. The church of Jesus Christ was dormant. It was not until the disciples emptied the building that the Words of Christ became known to the world; that the love of God through Christ was lived out; that death turned to resurrection.

    † † †

    TO EMPTY THE BUILDING takes a lot of courage — or maybe a plague. The building is safe. The people are safe. We can “do” church without leaving the building. You and me being the church in exile during corona virus takes strength and faith. Adapting the writing of Walter Brueggemann:

    ■ Out of the building we are open to the neighbors. In the building we are safe from the neighbors.

    ■ Out of the building we are generous. In the building we keep and store.

    ■ Out of the building, we commit acts of compassion. In the building, we do not notice those in need.

    ■ Out of the building, we commit to acts of justice for the weak and the poor. In the building, we might see them only as threats.

    ■ Out of the building, we pray in the morning, care through the day, rejoice at night in thanks and praise. In the building, we are endlessly restless and dissatisfied.

    † † †

    IT WAS AN EMPTY TOMB, then an empty room. Maybe it takes an empty church:

    ■ to show the church is alive.
    ■ for the people, who are the church, to roam about free.
    ■ to not be confined by physical time and place — 8 or 10 on Sunday morning.

    † † †

    ONE DAY we will gather again. I look forward to that. I miss each one of you and pray for you daily.

    Until then remember I, you, we are the church together and the church apart.

    Go and be the church, live the Easter message by serving others in the name of the risen Christ. Amen.

    — Keith Cardwell   

    «Maybe, just maybe, an empty building, like the empty tomb, is good news. On the day of Pentecost, the disciples were frightened, alone, hiding in the upper room of someone’s house. The church of Jesus Christ was dormant. It was not until the disciples emptied the building that the Words of Christ became known to the world; that the love of God through Christ was lived out; that death turned to resurrection.»


    ►This is the Word of God for the people of God:

    John 20:1–18
    Holy Bible, New International Version

    The empty tomb
    Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”

    3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.

    Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene
    11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

    13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

    “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

    15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”

    Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

    16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

    She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).

    17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”

    18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

    — This is the Word of the Lord.
    — Thanks be to God.

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    Foley, AL 36535
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