Monday, April 5, 2010

This Unexpected Day

Easter Day 4.4.10
Psalm 118:14-24; Isaiah 65:17-25; Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18

Please pray with me: On this Resurrection morning, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of each of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

From this morning’s Gospel: “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”

We have had a wonderful Holy Week, a week that I will not soon forget. Even though not all of you were able to attend all of our events, I believe that the spirit of our church has been strengthened in the last few days as we have reflected upon Jesus’ great love for each of us—my own spirit has been renewed—and I know that each of us will be blessed in unexpected ways. And then there was yesterday. Often we don’t know what to do with Holy Saturday, but it has been described as a time of holding our breath, waiting in faith and hope for what will surely happen.

And now we have reached Easter! Easter stands for everything life-affirming, for everything that fills us with joy. Christians call themselves Resurrection People. And that is true. This week I have loved rereading John’s story of the very first Easter morning. Each book of the Gospel records a somewhat different experience, but we are always allowed to preach John’s account on Easter morning. Maybe it never contains precisely these things. It does not start with joy and celebration. Instead it mirrors what can be our faith journey. It is initially a story of shock and disappointment, grief, confusion, and then mistaken identity. But it ends with such a powerful affirmation of the Easter promise that it thrills me. This is our story as Christians, this is Easter, and we can’t remember the first Easter too often.

First of all there is Mary, coming by herself to the tomb in the dark and discovering that the heavy stone has been rolled away. Grave robbers, some evil-minded authorities who are not yet satisfied with their cruelty? By simply calling them “they,” Mary registers her despair. There was at least one occasion when, as a chaplain intern, I rushed to say a final prayer over a patient, only to find that the body has already been removed and the bed was empty. In Mary’s case, she wanted a chance to say a final, private goodbye—a hopeless memorial really—but she needed to make sure that the mortal remains of Jesus’ tortured body had been treated with respect. She had one fixed idea, fueled by her loving obligation as an observant Jewish woman to tend the deceased. She expected to find that dead body, surely not a grave that had been tampered with. There had to be something, for one last time, to which she could connect her memories. She probably did not remember Jesus saying on several occasions that “where I am, you cannot come.” If she did remember, she could hardly have understood.

Peter and the Beloved Disciple, whom we know as John, responded immediately. There is that amazing race to know! Peter is the first into the tomb. The way in which the head cloth has been rolled up by itself is puzzling and the two do not know what to think. Probably not grave robbers. John writes that the Beloved Disciple saw and believed, but did not yet understand that Jesus was risen. He believes the Empty Tomb and maybe that Jesus himself has had something to do with that. He may remember that Lazarus had to be freed from his graveclothes. But as yet there is no evidence for Resurrection. And so the disciples return home. The Empty Tomb is not Resurrection. Non-believers will grant us the Empty Tomb. This is not yet the Easter we know and love.

For reasons we can understand, Mary simply remains. But when she actually peers into the tomb, she sees two angels. Not that she’s impressed or even acknowledges them as significant. In fact, she turns her back so that she can look hopelessly around outside. There has been no God-talk from Mary. This impersonal “They” she is blaming is not God. And so when a figure appears, she supposes that he is the gardener. She is totally incapable of recognizing him. Think about it: a gardener makes sense; it’s what one would expect. Not a “God-related being” (David Kelsey, Imagining Redemption, Lousiville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), not the risen Christ.

But then the unexpected happens! Christ does what he promised he would do for each of us. He calls Mary by name, and faith and hope rush in! How often does this happen! We think we have totally lost Jesus’ voice and then suddenly, unexpectedly, the grace of His love finds us and we are aware of His presence.

In Mary’s story, he calls her by name, but he does not want her to touch him. This is not intended as a reunion story with hugs and eager conversation. That makes it merely sentimental, not Gospel-worthy.

It is also not a complete story. It will be complete only with Jesus’ ascension. That is the news Jesus wants her to spread. It includes us as well, and here comes the good news of Easter: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Mary is not complicated when she delivers Jesus’ first Resurrection message. That is why I quoted it at the beginning of the homily. What is important to her is that she has seen the Lord. After Jesus’ death, she has actually seen him. She now knows that the love of God embodied in him did not last only as long as the Incarnation. It is not temporary. Cross/resurrection/ascension, those three, forever change the way God can be experienced in this world and by us.

This is the day when we know, because of the witness of Mary and others, that Christ is risen, that Christ is risen indeed, that Christ is a living presence among us. We can still turn our backs on him. We can fail to recognize the Risen Christ in our midst—to say nothing of angels. We think we know the Easter story. I dare say, we may think ourselves superior to Mary and the male disciples. We know what is coming. Or do we? By its very nature, Easter must overthrow every expectation that the world and nature give us.

It is also true that Easter will affect each of us differently, as it does in our Gospel this morning. Sometimes, as on that morning for Peter and John, the process is incomplete—even though they raced with one another to find out what had happened to Jesus. Sometimes, as for Thomas, there must be proof. But we mustn’t trash Thomas; he is the first to call Jesus “My Lord and my God!” Sometimes the emotional love for our Christ, our Jesus, is so absorbing, as it was for Mary, that we miss Christ’s new word to us. Mary almost does, and yet Christ’s word of Grace reaches her. She is blessed enough to hear him call her by name and to respond.

She had loved Jesus. She had been faithful. Still, on the first Easter morning, she needed conversion. Turning her head and her heart to believe something that she had not anticipated, had not thought possible, she begins to experience a fullness in a Christ whom she must know in a new way. She is immediately given a task by Jesus and she goes to witness.

Mary announces, proclaims what she has seen. But this Lord is our Lord, this God our God. At Easter—on Easter morning—Jesus tells us that our conversion is still unfolding. And, like Mary, after conversion, comes commissioning. We are being commissioned this morning. The news of the ongoing Resurrection is bursting to be shared. Like Mary, we are invited to find our own voices by speaking this news! We know it is true. Resurrection is here! We can start by saying it again: The Lord is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Let us pray: Dearest Lord Christ, this day of Resurrection is a day of new beginnings. Help us to turn around and recognize you wherever you choose to be. You have loved us to the end. You have spoken to us in many ways. Give us grace to love you in return, to be messengers of your love and doers of your word in ways as unexpected as your own. Help us to fill all of creation with your hope. We pray in your name. Amen.

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