We buried our mailman this past winter. It came as a surprise. He was sixty years old, considering retirement, and dropped dead after shoveling his aunt’s driveway. It was sudden and caught all of us off guard. I heard the news as I was traveling with my family after Christmas, and I listened to the message from the funeral home three times just to make sure I had the name correct. Certainly it couldn’t have been Leland they were calling about. I saw him just last week, like I see him almost every day, driving his mail route.
There’s nothing quite like the funeral of the mailman in a tiny, rural community. Everyone shows up: his neighbors, his friends, the people on his route, fellow letter carriers, the former community mailman who, though in a nursing home, has outlived his successor. Everyone shows up, because when the mailman dies, things just are not the same anymore.
Things changed after Leland died. The town post office itself, a tiny room in the side entrance of a parishioner’s home, the only post office in a nineteen-mile radius, closed in the days between his death and his funeral. After his death, the powers that be in the United States Postal Service changed his route, parsing it up. Instead of being assigned a new mailman, Leland’s route was carved into three pieces, and each piece was tacked on to a neighboring community. Our town’s mail route is literally gone, our community divided into pieces and gobbled up. A failing economy will do that to a place. Budget tightening does not have time to grieve or to mourn the past; it seizes the opportunity for downsizing and efficiency.
Our mailman died, and truly our town is dying. Our church has already buried the banker, the shopkeeper, the creamery operator, and the schoolteachers. The bank, grocery store, creamery, and school are all long gone.
Like the altar at the conclusion of Maundy Thursday, my former small-town-turned-desolate-community is being stripped away, piece by piece, until it is bare and a shadow of its former self. At least the altar retains the promise that all the paraments, candles, and flowers will return bright and early Easter morning. In the church there is the promise of resurrection. As one looks around town, any sort of resurrection seems like wishful thinking. Aside from the church and a few homes, most of the buildings show their age, some uninhabitable and falling down. Though neighbors care for one another, there is no pedestrian traffic to be found, and even the cars are scarce. Except on Sunday or a funeral day, most of them pass through town, ignoring the speed limit as they hurry off to some place larger and busier.
These folks could use some resurrection. They want their town back. The post office certainly needs to be resurrected so that the frail elderly do not find themselves driving nineteen miles to the nearest post office to mail a package. And Leland’s young widow would not shy away from the hope of having her beloved back. In this community of faithful and church-going Christians, they know the promises of resurrection, but looking around, the town feels stuck in the waiting.
After the long and penitential season of Lent, Easter comes rushing in with much needed sunlight, cheer, and hopefulness. Alleluias, withheld for almost seven weeks, abound at the sunrise service. Young people are cooking away in the kitchen preparing the Easter breakfast, and flowers spill over their containers and seem to be popping up everywhere at church. Many of the mothers and grandmothers sport their fancy hats, and the children, high on chocolate and jellybeans that the Easter bunny left them, tear through the church in their pastel dresses and button-up shirts. No matter the heartaches of our town, it is all celebration come Easter morning.
Easter morning the stone is rolled away and the empty tomb is exposed. “Do not be afraid… he is not here,” the angel tells the women who arrive at Jesus’ tomb. “He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him,” the angel promises in Matthew 28.
From this Easter proclamation, our world, so hungry for resurrection, gets two things. First is the assurance of the resurrection of the dead. This truth, confessed countless times in the Creed, is here spoken by the angel to the women at the tomb: Jesus has been raised, you will see him. And as Paul so clearly proclaims, by baptism you are united to Christ in his death and resurrection, so just as you die, you can be assured of resurrection. For our mailman’s widow and all who lost loved ones this year, this assurance cannot come often enough.
In addition, there is in the empty tomb and the savior on the loose a hope in God’s provisions for the time being. Jesus appears again to the disciples and other followers so as to encourage them in faith and to call them to the witness they are to make. What’s more, even before his death and resurrection, Jesus taught his disciples to pray, asking God for the grand coming kingdom of God but also for the simple, daily needs of food, forgiveness, and protection. I’m assuming my community will never look like Lazarus, walking out of the tomb even after he had begun to stink of death, but I know, to borrow from Martin Luther, that our heavenly Father will provide all we need from day to day.
Indeed, the interesting thing about losing the town mailman is that it affects everyone; the community deliverer is gone. The one who went from home to home, person to person, bringing what we needed, is gone. Leland was known for stopping to chat with folks all along the route. He brought big packages up to the door, which is no easy task when it comes to long, winding rural driveways. He checked in on the homebound and elderly. He delivered mail, community news, and even a sense of routine and structure. Ask anyone who has spent time at home during the day; it doesn’t take long before you can set your watch to the delivery time of the mail or newspaper. There is comfort and a sense of security in this routine.
Maybe losing one’s mailman, losing this dependable deliverer, is a glimpse into the hiddenness of God between Christ’s death and resurrection. Death breaks us when it leaves us not knowing what to expect next.
When Christ is betrayed, put on trial, and killed, the deliverer is gone. The one bearing good news has been snatched away by death and nothing is the same. The disciples deny him, then clam up and hide, practically climbing into the tomb themselves. At times, my community feels the same way. The deliverer, the future, the hope is at times difficult to see. Have we all just climbed into the tomb and assumed our own deaths because our changing world has left this community behind?
My desk is covered with materials put out by my denomination and local synod urging rural congregations to discover hope, revitalize communities, and move forward with a “missional” agenda. These programs are fine, and they are certainly constructed in good faith by people longing to make sure the rural church they grew up in and so loved can survive into the future. But truth be told, no program is going to bring Lazarus back or defeat death; we need Christ’s resurrection.
The good news is that death has long been defeated and the tomb is empty; Jesus Christ is risen, our deliverer lives and brings this message to all who hear his word. This deliverer will not pass away or fade with time.
All of us live in the tomb, dead in sin, fighting our ever-aging bodies, and carrying heavy burdens. But maybe there is some particularly good news for the residents of my small town in all of their funerals and reminders of mortality. Maybe when we know what little permanence this world has to offer, maybe when our lifetime has seen the school, bank, and grocery store close, and when all of our neighbors have moved away or died, maybe then the resurrection of the dead sounds like a wonderful celebration, and the savior’s call a welcome sound.
In Mark 10, Jesus declares to his disciples that many who are first will be last and the last will be first. In our country of increasing abundance, rapidly changing technology, and gadgets that do just about everything, there are more and more temptations to grab hold of in place of God. In one’s big house, with a wide screen television and a refrigerator full of food, life in this world sounds pretty good, a place I would like to stay. On the other hand, when one knows scarcity and heartache, there is a hope in God’s future promises.
We need Easter. It’s been a long winter and we’re ready for the tomb to be empty, ready for resurrection. Would that Christ could come calling on us, bring the big packages up to the house, and stop in for coffee.
Katie Koch is pastor of United and Our Savior’s Lutheran Churches in rural northwestern Minnesota.