April 20, 2014
Three days had passed and she was overwhelmed with exhaustion. Mary could hardly tell if she was dead or alive. But what was the difference now? He was gone. Just like that, this little spark of hope he had kindled in her was snuffed out.
And now it was time to clean up the mess. Mary knew this routine. Go to the tomb. Try to keep the stench at bay, but go early before the smell of the body overwhelms you. There were so many deaths these days. But this was the hardest one of all.
She went as soon as Sabbath ended, reaching the tomb before anyone was in the streets. It was so dark she could barely see in front of her. At first she thought the sleeplessness and the grief must be playing a trick on her eyes, but as she got closer she could see it had really happened. Her heart went into her throat and she chocked out a cry. Someone from that angry, seething crowd had been here to desecrate the grave, to further turn the knife of her loss. Or maybe it was grave robbers. It seemed like hours that she stood there before the gapping mouth of the tomb, shaking so badly she couldn’t move. And then, in an instance, she turned and ran.
So begins our Easter Gospel. It’s a story that starts in the darkness. It’s a chaotic scene one accompanied by screaming, weeping, loved ones running back and forth. It’s a story about expectation, what you think you’re going to get. It’s a story about expecting to find Death but instead stumbling face-first into Life.
Today’s story continues with Mary leaving the tomb to tell the other disciples what she’s seen. They return to confirm that, indeed, the body of Jesus is gone. But curious things have happened. If grave robber had been here why would they leave the only thing worth any money – the grave clothes. And who would undress a corpse just to steal it, neatly leaving a piece of cloth folded in a corner? The two disciples confirm Mary’s story and then return home.
The first to encounter the risen Jesus will not be one of these inner-circle disciples. Instead this honor is saved for a woman, Mary Magdalene who plays only a minor role in John’s Gospel. Weeping beside the tomb she finally musters the courage to look inside herself. And to her utter shock there sit two angels who ask her, “why are you weeping?” Hoping for some answers she asks them where they have laid Jesus. Then she hears the question repeated from outside the tomb.
Maybe the voice seemed familiar. Maybe it was a whisper, disguising the speaker’s identity. Mary doesn’t recognize its source. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
We know what Mary came to see. We know what she anticipated. She came to see the corpse of a wise teacher, a brave revolutionary, a man who died for the cause. She came to reconcile herself to her crushed ideas about Jesus, to bury her hope. In an instant in one word, in the speaking of her name, those expectations are shattered. Jesus is not dead; he is risen.
This question to Mary, sitting there in the pit of her grief, reflects back on us today. Whom are you looking for? What did you come here to see?
The expectation for Mary is that Death gets the final word. Death is the enemy of this story. This is what Karl Barth calls “the great ‘no,’ the shadow that hangs over our human life and accompanies all our movements. It is the judgment which reads: You, your life or what you think is life has no meaning because it has no right to exist and therefore cannot last. Your life is rejected life! It has no value before God or before your fellow-being, not even before yourself!’ Death means that this ‘no’ has been pronounced over us. Death means that we inescapably wither and wilt, returning to dust and ashes. This is death as paid by sin.”
Without this Easter day we remain chained to these deaths, anticipating the great death that awaits us at the end of it all. But these expectations are thwarted. Something else happens. I heard an incredible story yesterday that perfectly summed up what this day is about. The Guardian news shared a report about an Iranian man named Saeed was about to be hung for the murder of a man named Abdollah whom he killed during a knife fight when they were both just teenagers. The riveting photos were captured by an Iranian photojournalist. In the first picture Abdollah’s mother is seen approaching the makeshift gallows where Saeed, the murderer stands, a noose around his neck. The mother goes up to her son’s killer and slaps him across the face.
Under sharia law a victim’s family is sometimes involved in the execution, so the scene so far is unremarkable. But what happens next is anything but ordinary. The woman moves towards Saeed again, only this time she reaches out not to strike him but to remove the noose from around the neck of blindfolded man. She looks him in the eye and says one word – “forgiven.” In one of the final photos the mothers of the two men, victim and murderer, embrace each other as they weep. How is such a thing possible?
Expecting to meet darkness, a noose around the throat. That’s why we start of this day putting ourselves in a position to take Death seriously, to remember that this is a story that begins at a tomb. Many of us showed up before the sun rose, like Mary, in the cold gray light of the Oakwood Cemetery, right smack in the middle of Death.
I love this service because it helps me get closer to the first Easter day. I can still feel that chill in the air, the aching tired of waking up so early. Of course some Easter’s are more dramatic than others, last year in particular being of note when we shouted “We truly believe” against a torrential downpour.
But regardless of the weather, we start the day driving down the empty, black streets. For me, this is an important ritual. I want to be there when we walk down to God’s Acre because I need Death to remind me just how truly miraculous this day really is. Today we reaffirm that Jesus defeated those Deaths that mark the way towards our final death. I need to be surprised again by the announcement Fran made this morning that “the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, will also give back life to our mortal bodies.”
The Good News is that we no longer live tethered to the expectations of meeting death and pain at the tomb. The Good News is that Jesus is ready to explode the boundaries of our imaginations, to surge past that which we thought was possible. Jesus is alive and ready to make a way where there was no way. The Good News is that through the cracks of our gnarled, broken world the light of Easter dawn is seeping through.
As the sun rises over the gravestones, as we declare “for us, for us the Lamb was slain” it’s easier to imagine that this is true. It gets harder when we move out of the pews and back into our hurting world. The difficult thing is to live a resurrected life as a reflection of this surging, boundary-breaking hope. More often than not we live like the Japanese solider who was sent to a remote island in the Philippines during World War II. After his comrades were killed he never received the news that the war was over. Even when others told him the news, showering him with leaflets from airplanes, he refused to believe it. For 29 years he continued to hide in the jungle, shooting at everyone who approached. How often we are like that soldier, still living our lives like we are in the middle of the battle. But the war is over! Death has been defeated! Jesus has made our sin his own!
The Good News is that the light gets in. We encounter radical, resurrection acts of forgiveness every day as we wait in hope for the day when we will finally see that Death toppled forever. I think of this promise during the sunrise service. We begin that service together at the top of a hill at the Oakwood Cemetery. After saying part of the liturgy there we process down to the Moravian section of the cemetery, our God’s Acre. But first Hubert sends parts of the band ahead of us. It’s a sort of Moravian version of surround sound. As we walk part of the band plays a chorale and another part responds. They play back and forth, back and forth.
When we begin making our way down you can hear, but not always see the first band in the distance. And in the morning light, just for a moment you can almost imagine what it will be like when our loved ones are finally given new bodies, the day when Easter will be a joyous reunion of those who went to sleep in Christ and have woken again at the last day.
The Good News of Easter is that one day we won’t have to send of our band ahead. One day we will begin to play those chorales at the top of the hill and then we’ll hear it. We will hear those chorale responses being sung by of our loved ones. Our voices will be met by the voices of John and Ben, Joshua and Peter, Lynn and Willa and Jim and Avery.
Did you come today expecting Jesus to raise the dead, to defeat all our deaths along the way? Whom are you looking for? How do you expect the world will look like now that the Holy Spirit has been let loose into it?
The gift of this Easter Day is that God meets us, however we answer these questions. Whether we are Mary who needs to hear Jesus say her name; whether we are Peter and the Beloved Disciple who need to see the evidence; or whether we sit with the other Disciples in hiding, still waiting. He meets us in the darkness of doubt, in the loneliness of despair.
He offers to us a faith “too mighty to be encompassed by certainty, to wonderful to be found only within the boundaries of our imagination.” He meets us at the tomb, ready to surpass all our expectations. And there he asks us, “whom are you looking for?”
Friends, he is not the tomb. He is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Hallelujah.