By Rev. Joan Kessler
Some of you here this morning may be familiar with the classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit. It chronicles the story of a stuffed rabbit and his quest to become real through the love of his owner. One day while talking with a fellow toy, the Skin Horse, the Rabbit learns that he can become real if his owner really and truly loves him. Their conversation on this matter goes something like this:
“What is REAL?’ asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender… ’Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?’
“‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
“‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
“‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
“‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?’
“‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’
“‘I suppose you are real?’ said the Rabbit. And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive. But the Skin Horse only smiled.
“‘The Boy’s Uncle made me Real,’ he said. ‘That was a great many years ago; but once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.’
This morning, we read of the Easter story and find the empty tomb in John’s gospel. But truly, all four gospel writers tell of similar experience that early morning. In John we read of Mary Magdalene, Peter and the unnamed disciple, running to the place they believe Jesus was buried to find the stone to entrance has been rolled away. And to their utter amazement and astonishment, Jesus’ body is nowhere to be found.
It doesn’t seem to matter how often I read the Easter morning trek to the cemetery; I am still amazed by this news…. Jesus is gone! That just never seems to grow old on me. I can almost feel myself running along with Mary, out of breath, looking but not seeing…. she tries to make sense of something that seems completely unreal. The two men enter the tomb and find Jesus’ graveclothes neatly organized and rolled up in a place by themselves. John tells us that the two disciples saw and believed and then not knowing what else to do at that particular moment, they headed for home.
Mary deals with the shock in a different way. She stays in place. She weeps. She goes into the cave to look for herself at its emptiness only to find she is not alone. Two angels sit where Jesus once lay. When she turns around in fear, she encounters the risen Christ standing before her, but she doesn’t recognize Jesus. He speaks to her, asks for whom is she looking for… and then he calls her by name.
Every year, when I sit down to write my Easter message, I am confronted with how to deliver the message He is not here…. He has been raised. Resurrection is a most peculiar event. Science can’t explain it. Theology likes to try but that’s not really what we are needing this morning; some lengthy exegesis of this scripture reading. What makes Easter real this year? What is it about an empty tomb that makes this story real for us in 2022?
Well, maybe we start by looking at what doesn’t make it real and go from there. Easter is more than our gathering together at the beach in the early morning cold. Easter isn’t made real by our coming to this place for worship. It’s not just about hearing a version of the old story retold – the first Easter morning where they find Jesus’ body gone and as we heard in John’s account and his appearance to Mary Magdalene. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Easter can’t be rationalized or explained away. We may understand but we can’t intellectualize this event.
So, what does make Easter real? What makes us believe in the possibility of being raised from the dead into new life and of Jesus’ presence being alive today in our world? What makes the Easter message real is when we feel and experience this story happening to us in our lives, and when we see it happening in our world, and when we participate in making it real. What makes this story real is when you choose to enter into your darkest tomb of grief and sorrow; of despair and hopeless not knowing if you will come out alive or find even a glimmer of light, but you go in anyway. The Easter story becomes real when each of us risks going into our darkest place with a bit of hope that we may stumble into a new possibility of what living and loving are about. God hasn’t left the dark tomb but rather is found in those places of our lives. What makes something real? What makes this Easter story real? The Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit says it best when he says, “Real…is a thing that happens to you.”
What made the story of Jesus being raised from the dead real to those first disciples was not a literal empty tomb or seeing Jesus in bodily form after his execution or crucifixion. What made it real to those first disciples was being able to feel the continuing presence of Jesus with them, to be able to recognize the same Spirit they had known in him during his historical life continuing to be present, and to still experience the power they had known in Jesus continuing to operate—the power of healing, the power to change lives, the power to create new forms of community.
That is what made the Easter story real to those first disciples and it is what makes it real for us today. An empty tomb becomes real when we experience those moments in our own lives when we move from death into life—when we are able to let go of patterns of behavior that have hurt us, and dare to step forward into new ways of being; when we honor our grieving and allow time and grace to renew our joy and our hope; when we can step outside our comfort zone to get to know the stranger in our midst and soften our hardened hearts. In these places of hope and love and forgiveness, we know in our very beings that the Easter story is real.
There is one more thing that makes the Easter story real for us today. Easter is God’s “yes” to Jesus and “no” to the powers who executed him. Easter is not about an afterlife or about happy endings. Easter is God’s “yes” to Jesus against the powers who killed him. God raised Jesus. God’s justice won out!
One of the pieces of wisdom that the Skin Horse imparts in The Velveteen Rabbit is his comment that becoming real doesn’t happen “all at once.” He tells the rabbit that it takes a very long time, and while he uses much simpler terms, his message is that you must undergo transformation. You won’t look the same once you are real. In fact, he says, you don’t become real until “most of your hair has been loved off.” Part of the temptation of Easter is to see resurrection as a one-time event. But as we know, and as the Skin Horse knew, and even as the biblical writers point out throughout scripture, resurrection and transformation happen over a lifetime—not once and for all.