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It has to be personal

Updated: Apr 9

A church really isn’t the best place to celebrate Easter.

It would be much better if we were at a cemetery right now.

Why is this? It's because for us to truly celebrate Easter, it has to be personal.

For many of you, it is.

I imagine that for many here today, you attach a name to the promise of Easter. The name of your husband, wife, son, or daughter.

It's my challenge this morning to make Easter personal for each and every one of us.

As I worked on this message last night, I thought of most unusual book: We’ll Be the Last One’s to Let You Down: The Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter

I read Rachel Hanel’s memoir a decade ago. Her story has proved to be unforgettable. I can't remember exactly how I learned of it. I may have read a review in the paper. Or perhaps I saw it in a bookstore, or on the shelf at the library. To be honest, I don't remember.

"Rachael Hanel’s name was inscribed on a gravestone when she was eleven years old. Yet this wasn’t at all unusual in her world: her father was a gravedigger in the small Minnesota town of Waseca, and death was her family’s business. Her parents were forty-two years old and in good health when they erected their gravestone—Rachael’s name was simply a branch on the sprawling family tree etched on the back of the stone. As she puts it: I grew up in cemeteries.

And you don’t grow up in cemeteries—surrounded by headstones and stories, questions, curiosity—without becoming an adept and sensitive observer of death and loss as experienced by the people in this small town. For Rachael Hanel, wandering among tombstones, reading the names, and wondering about the townsfolk and their lives, death was, in many ways, beautiful and mysterious. Death and mourning: these she understood.

But when Rachael’s father—Digger O’Dell—passes away suddenly when she is fifteen. she and her family are abruptly and harshly transformed from bystanders to participants."


Today we can't bystanders. Not if Easter is truly to be Easter. We must be participants. Sometimes, we have no other choice. Michelle Campbell reminds me of this.

Michelle Campbell died of cancer at the age of 58 back in July 2017.

Her funeral was held right here, in this sanctuary. However, her committal service took place up north. Michelle was buried in a cemetery next to Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church located outside Albany, Minnesota.

There was something very unusual about Michelle's committal service. Her grave was dug by her cousins. I can only begin to imagine what that must have been like.

Like I've been trying to say, for today to be good news for us, it has to be personal.

For Easter to be Easter, we must confront the horror of evil and death. We must do so without closing our eyes to the reality that confronts us today.

In order to do this, I have one more story to share with you before we head to Jesus’ tomb. It’s heart-wrenching story. It’s one that can make you sick to your stomach. At least, it should.

Lately, I've been haunted by Eli Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir.

Wiesel was a young Romanian Jew when his family was rounded up and sent to a concentration camp. All would perish, with the exception of Eli. A decade after he was liberated, he wrote Night. It is a deeply moving and disturbing book. I would like to share just one stomach-turning story with you.


“Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing...

And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes.

And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him.

His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.

Behind me, I heard the same man asking: "For God's sake, where is God?"

And from within me, I heard a voice answer: "Where He is?"

"This is where - hanging here from this gallows."

That night, the soup tasted of corpses.

That night, the soup tasted of corpses.

Now, at last, we're ready to go to Jesus' tomb.

This year, we listen to Matthew's version.

After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

They were in for the surprise of their lives.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I can't help but wonder. As the two Marys made their way through the quiet, darkened streets, did they talk at all? Or did they walk in silence. I also can't help but wonder. Had their soup tasted of his corpse the past few days?

Matthew tells us that the two Marys were determined to look at Jesus' tomb. They had seen him die. They had seen him hastily buried. Now, they were going to say goodbye to their teacher and friend.

There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

Matthew's account literally drips with irony here. Days earlier, it was soldiers who had put Jesus to death. Now they, in a great reversal, fall over, dead-like, from fright at his tomb.

With the soldiers scattered on the ground just outside the tomb, the angel said to the women, "Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here. He has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples. He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him. Now I have told you.

Can you picture the woman standing there? Surely they almost passed out from fright just like the soldiers at their feet? Can you see the shock and awe on their faces as the angel's message sank in.

So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid, yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.

They didn't get very far.

Suddenly, Jesus met them. "Greetings," he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him.

Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee. There they will see me."

This raises one important question for us. It's one that holds the key to this day.

Why Galilee?

It had been foretold from of old. Matthew mades this clear at the outset, when Jesus began his public ministry.

Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali in order to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah:

"Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles (nations), the people living in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.

This remains the message of Easter. This good news is for you and me, and for all living under that same shadow.

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