By the time most of you read this it will be Easter, so here is my Easter sermon, which looks at Jesus’ encounter with Mary in the garden outside of the tomb where he had been buried. Happy Easter!
Years ago, Ginger and I were in Athens, Greece on Orthodox Easter. As we were checking into the hotel, the desk person said, “Christos anesti!” When w didn’t answer, he said, “When I say, ‘Christos anesti,’ you say, ‘Alethos anesti.’ I’m saying, ‘Christ is risen,’ and you’re saying, ‘He really did it!”
His translation—and his enthusiasm—have stayed with us ever since. His exuberance was contagious and is representative of the way we celebrate Easter regardless of location or language. Christ is risen. That’s the big news—the good news; even so, the story is a lot to take in, isn’t it?
Not just the empty tomb, the whole thing: Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. In between then and now, the story has picked up all kinds of interpretations, like a snowball rolling down the slope of history, making us feel, sometimes, as though how we celebrate Easter is a test of faith, like there’s one way to do it or we’re wrong. We sing triumphant hymns and proclaim that Christ is risen. The confidence is inspiring, and not necessarily universal.
If you are here this morning and, like Mary, aren’t sure what to do with the empty tomb, you are in good company. We have talked before about trust being at the heart of faith, rather than belief—that we are not united by our doctrine but by our commitment to trust God and one another as we do the best we can to live out Christ’s teachings. What the gospel writers offer us is not an explanation, nor is it a doctrinal statement. They didn’t know how to comprehend it; we still don’t. How can resurrection be explained?
If the resurrection were meant to be a historically verifiable occurrence, God wouldn’t have performed it in the dark without eyewitnesses. . . . Not a single canonical Gospel tells us how it happened. We don’t know if it was a typically warm Palestinian morning or unseasonably cool. We don’t know if the earth shuddered when he arose or if it was preternaturally still. We don’t know what he looked like when he was no longer dead, whether he burst the tomb in glory or came out like Lazarus, slowly unwrapping his shroud and squinting with wonder against the dawn.
The gospel writers don’t go into statements of cosmic significance, and the stories they tell are not the same from gospel to gospel, but they each offer accounts of the impact of Jesus’ presence after his death. They tell small stories about Peter on the beach, about Thomas in the upper room, and about those on the Emmaus Road—all of which we will look at in the weeks to come—and about Mary Magdalene in the graveyard, whom we consider today.
Mary gets a lot of exercise in John’s account. We don’t know how far the cemetery was from where she was staying, but she walked there before daylight to mourn—to take care of the body. When she got there, the tomb was open and empty, so she ran back to where the others were and woke them up with her news. Then they all ran back again. The two men with her went inside the tomb, saw the grave clothes folded, and then went back home.
Mary looked in after they left and saw angels who asked why she was crying.
“They took my Lord and I don’t know where they put him,” she said.
The angels didn’t answer, and when she turned away from them, she saw a person she assumed to be the caretaker—the gardener—and she repeated her answer when he asked her the same thing. Her grief at his death was compounded by what she thought was a robbery or some other kind of deception. She couldn’t make sense of the circumstances, so she said, basically, “Just tell me what happened,” hoping, perhaps, that an explanation would bring some sort of comfort.
Instead, Jesus called her name—“Mary”—and she recognized him. Then, once again, she ran to tell the others what had happened.
Over the millennia since that encounter in the graveyard, Easter has become a loud and boisterous celebration in most cases, but it started small. We don’t have any accounts of Jesus preaching on the hillside after his resurrection, or healing, or anything other than a handful of personal encounters, and in every one of them those affected went looking for others to tell. They thought his death was the end of the story and it was not.
One of the ways we can talk about life is to say we live in a graveyard. We all know we are going to die. We are surrounded by the markers of those who have gone before us, of those whom we love who are not here. Death is not something other than life; it is part of it and has been from the very beginning. The promise of the resurrection is not that we won’t die. Our days here are numbered. Resurrection offers us a glimpse of another dimension beyond what we can explain. In Celtic spirituality, they talk about thin places where the barrier between what we comprehend and what we cannot opens up so that we can encounter a dimension beyond this life. In cosmology, they talk about how everything in the universe is made of the same energy—the same spirit, if you will—that connects in ways we cannot comprehend. We know from quantum physics that time and space are not as set as they seem.
Every day of our lives we are a part of things we can’t fully comprehend, and death is one of those.
When Ginger pastored in Marshfield, Massachusetts, the church had a tradition of an Easter Egg Hunt after worship that took place in the cemetery adjacent to the building. The youth group would hide the eggs among the tombstones and the kids, decorated as brightly as the plastic eggs, filled the graveyard with life as they looked for candy. I still have an image in my mind’s eye of one little girl named Gabby sitting on top of a headstone, stuffing her face with chocolate as fast as she could before her parents caught up with her.
If you need a viable metaphor for resurrection, that’s pretty good. To say we live in a graveyard is not to say life is hopeless. Life is full of joy and beauty and surprise that all ride alongside of grief and pain and sorrow. We are connected to it all. We belong here. God breathed us into being and put us here together for these beautiful and difficult days. We do not have to earn the right to be noticed by God. We do not have to be good enough to belong. All we have to do is listen for our names.
The old spiritual “His Eye is on the Sparrow” speaks to the trust that lies at the heart of faith as it leans into Jesus’ words that God knows when every sparrow falls. Jesus didn’t say anything about God catching every little bird, but he made it clear that the sparrows didn’t go unnoticed. God knew their names.
Why do I feel discouraged? Why do the shadows come?
Why does my heart feel lonesome and long for heaven and home?
When Jesus is my portion my constant friend is he
His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me
I sing because I’m happy I sing because I’m free
His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me
We have made a joyful noise this morning and filled the sanctuary with festive flowers as we proclaimed that Jesus really did it. Hear also what is underneath the alleluias: listen for Love to call your name. Amen.