Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:30 a.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24
When Jesus emerged from the tomb, justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty rose with him. Something has happened in and through Jesus, as a result of which the world is a different place, a place where heaven and earth have been joined forever. God’s future has arrived in the present.
N. T. Wright, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense
It can be a challenge to proclaim Easter in a Good Friday world, can’t it? That point was made even more clearly to me on Maundy Thursday. I had just walked out of our noon worship service, where my colleague Hardy preached a powerful sermon on Jesus’ commandment to love one another, when an alert from NPR popped up on my phone stating “US drops ‘mother of all bombs’ in Afghanistan.” Regardless of what you think about that decision, none of us can escape the dissonance between Jesus’ proclamation that it will be our love, not our power, that matters and our decision to use the biggest non-nuclear weapon we’ve got. Add to that the instability with North Korea and all of those other stories of fear and terror that we could list and by Saturday many of my preacher friends were emailing each other about how big of a challenge it will be to proclaim Easter in a Good Friday world.
Lest you think it’s just we preachers who struggle with this, author Anne Lamott, who has been traveling around the country on her latest book tour, posted on her blog Wednesday that many of the people she encounters feel “cursed, cut down, scared to death. . . . It’s as if we’re all waiting for biopsy results for someone we love,” she writes. “We try to be brave.” But that challenge is why I am thankful for the way this story from John begins: “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb . . .” Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark . . .
Mary Magdalene certainly lived in a Good Friday world. The happenings of the last week seemed nothing but a blur to her. The week began with such promise and hope—Jesus riding into Jerusalem, surrounded by “Hosanna!” Yet then everything fell to pieces right before her eyes. Judas betrayed him. Peter denied him. Most of his disciples scattered and fled. And all those people who just a few days earlier were singing “Hosannas” got so caught up in the fear and the group-think and the political power struggle that they started shouting “Crucify!” instead.
As we heard last Sunday, Pilate instructed the soldiers to do just that. Now Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried in the tomb. So when the Gospel writer penned, “while it was still dark,” he actually made a profound understatement of just how dark it was. Just how dark it felt to Mary Magdalene and the others and how they felt it might just be that kind of dark forever. After Friday, they had a whole different perspective, one defined only by gloom, by what was not going to happen anymore.
And yet, even while it was still dark, Mary decided to make her way to that tomb. But when she arrived, Mary felt completely undone by what she found. The stone had been rolled away. Clearly someone had desecrated the grave of her Jesus. Was it not enough they had humiliated him? Was it not enough they had killed him? Was it not enough they had won? She ran back to the male disciples who were all still in hiding, locked up in their own dark rooms of fear and guilt, and she told them what had happened: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
And even though it was still dark, immediately after Mary made her report, as you heard, Peter and the beloved disciple took off to go and see for themselves. Unlike Mary, though, they did not stop at the entrance of the tomb. Peter went in first, and the beloved disciple followed. They, too, saw the tomb was empty. But then they noticed the grave clothes that had bound Jesus’ hands, feet, and head were rolled up, nicely and neatly, and nothing they saw made any sense. Who takes off the burial clothes before removing a body? Who folds things up when desecrating a grave? Peter and the other disciple did not understand. Like Mary, they believed the body was gone, but they could not fathom what had happened to it. It was still so early, and it was still so dark. It still felt like Good Friday to them. That was the only perspective they had. So Peter and the other one returned back to their homes and once again locked the doors behind them.
But Mary could not make herself leave, and as she abided in that place, Mary wept and wept. At some point, though, she must have realized her eyes had adjusted, grown more used to the darkness. So she bent down to look inside the tomb for herself. She saw what John reports were two angels in white, sitting where Jesus’ body had been laid. But Mary, having now adjusted to being in the dark, did not see them as angels. You can tell by her response. She did not know who they were, but they brought her no comfort.
She was, after all, living in a Good Friday world, and everyone knows you don’t see angels in a Good Friday world; you only see strangers. You don’t feel comfort in a Good Friday world; you only feel threat. You don’t greet people with kindness in a Good Friday world; you only peer at them through eyes dimmed by suspicion and mistrust. When you live only in a Good Friday world, when that is your only perspective and your eyes have gotten too used to the dark and you’re crying over a stolen body, a stolen hope, a stolen promise, then everyone you meet is not a potential friend but, rather, they are a potential thief (Anna Carter Forence, “Preaching the Text,” www.goodpreacher.com). Even two angels sitting in an empty tomb.
“Woman, why are you weeping?” they asked. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Now I must confess Mary showed a lot more restraint in that moment than I might have shown. Whenever my eyes get too used to the dark and I find myself living primarily with the perspective of a Good Friday world, I become a lot angrier than Mary appears to be.
“Woman, why are you weeping?” I am weeping because of what happened when Manierre Elementary’s Principal Orr and the school’s eighth-graders returned from a college trip last week. They had been gone one week from the neighborhood located 1.5 miles from this church, a neighborhood that experienced another shooting this past week, including the shooting of a twelve-year-old who participates in our Chicago Lights Tutoring program. As they pulled up on the bus, one of his eighth-graders was crying. So Principal Orr asked her, “Why are you crying? Aren't you happy to be home?” And she said, “No, I wish I could go back. That was a life that I wish I could be a part of.” “She was dreading coming back into the community,” Orr stated. “She wanted to be away from the reality, the violence, they face [here] every day” (DNAinfo, 12 April 2017: http://dnain.fo/2oxzmPW).
“Woman, why are you weeping?” I am weeping because a US strike group is moving closer to North Korea and their dictator is completely unpredictable, and because we have fired missiles into Syria and now dropped a bomb on Afghanistan, and because it’s the ten-year anniversary of Virginia Tech, and because I heard a loud noise in the street outside the church last Friday and immediately assumed the absolute worst even though it ended up being nothing, and because I have no idea what is in store for our children. “Woman, why are you weeping?” Because they have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.
After Mary responded to those strangers, she turned around to leave, but someone was standing there, blocking her way. John tells us it was the risen Jesus. But since Mary’s eyes had grown so used to the dark that they had adjusted to being in it, she couldn’t see who it was. The heaviness of the dark, the constancy of the gloom, had so completely changed her perspective that the only thing she saw was a stranger blocking her way, someone who looked suspicious, a possible thief. “Sir, if you have carried him away, just tell me where he is and I will go and get him.” Don’t you hear the heartbreak in her voice? Let me just go and get the body and put it back where it is supposed to be, so that we can roll the stone back in place and be done with all of this. Let’s just get back to the way it is now, the way of Good Friday and darkness and pain, so that we can all get adjusted to it and learn how to survive in it.
But Jesus did not want her, us, to get adjusted to it. Jesus did not want her, us, to only have the perspective that is defined by gloom, loss, a sense of deep dark, the stories that lead on the news. Because of what happened in that tomb, the one and only event in Jesus’ life that was entirely between him and God (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Escape from the Tomb,” Christian Century, 1 April 1998), because of God’s willingness to absorb all of our human experience, even abandonment and death, into God’s own self, that old Good Friday vision did not get to pretend to win anymore. Death lost its sting. And Jesus longed for Mary to be able to see and to trust that claim. So he did the one thing he knew that would clear her eyes: “Mary.”
Jesus called her name, and by doing so, he transformed what she saw; he changed her whole life. John points that out in such a subtle way: he writes, “She turned.” Like “while it was still dark,” “she turned” is such a profound understatement. Yes, she probably physically turned back towards Jesus’ voice, but she also completely turned in terms of her perspective, her vision, what she was now able to see because of Jesus’ living presence and power. And as a result of her turning, she recognized him. Then Mary did what we all try to do after experiencing a powerful moment of transformation. She went from seeing resurrection and confessing her faith, to trying to grab it and contain it with both hands (Anna Carter Florence, “Preaching the Text”).
So Jesus had to remind her that was not what she did now. No, now that she had experienced the gift of this new Easter perspective, the gift of this new Easter vision, the gift of being able to see moments of resurrection and possibility and new life in all kinds of people—even in people who thought they were just living ordinary lives but who Mary could now see were actually working alongside God, transforming the world by their kindness, their acts of justice, their generosity towards each other and towards strangers, their willingness to speak up for those afraid, their ability to listen to each other without yelling—now that Mary had been given that gift to see all of that important transformative resurrection work happening all around, she had a job to do. She had to go and tell. She had to give words to her new perspective, to her new vision and why.
The risen Jesus was counting on her to do so. God had decided that was how the Easter word, the Easter news, was going to get out. It was going to seep out into the world through her voice, through your voice and mine. Now that Mary had been given this transformed perspective, this Easter vision, Mary was free to live into her calling to be, as Jim Wallis of Sojourners wrote this week, a midwife of hope for all those she encountered. A midwife of hope. It sounds lovely, but let’s be clear: Hope, Wallis wrote, is not simply a feeling that you have, or a mood that you conjure up, or a rhetorical flourish you insert. No, hope, especially biblical hope, especially Easter hope, is a choice. It is a decision. It is an action based on faith. Hope is the very dynamic of history. Hope is the engine of change, the energy of transformation. Hope is the door from one reality to another (Jim Wallis, “While the Men Were in Hiding, Women Delivered the Greatest News the World Has Ever Known,” Sojourners, 13 April 2017, www.sojo.net).
Hope is what gives us the courage to keep fighting for all people—including eighth graders in Old Town, people on the Korean Peninsula and in Afghanistan and Syria—for all people to be whole and to be safe. Hope is what the risen Jesus gave to Mary the moment he chose to appear to her in that garden, to call out her name, to clear her eyes from the limited perspective of death and darkness, and to charge her to go and tell the others.
On behalf of her risen Lord, Mary was now charged to be a midwife of hope for anyone and everyone who might listen. She was charged to tell them what she could now see because of the presence and power of her living God who was on the loose, still at work in this world, here and now, healing, restoring, making whole. She was charged to help them see how transformation and possibility were breaking out all around them too, so they might also stop only viewing their lives and their world through the Good Friday perspective of death and destruction. Because of the cross and the empty tomb, that perspective no longer got to pretend to win. That perspective of gloom and violence had lost its power and claim over us forever. Mary’s calling was to live, to proclaim, and to trust that Easter transformation promise with everything she had. She was to be one of God’s midwives of hope.
Siblings in Christ, you know that is our calling too, right? Like Mary, we are called, charged, to first let God clear our own eyes so that we also stop only seeing our world and ourselves from the perspective of death and destruction and the deep dark of Good Friday. We, like Mary, are called, charged, to actively turn from that perspective, that way of being in our world, even on those days when we have to do it every thirty minutes. Because of what God has done in Jesus, we, like Mary, have also been given this gift of transformed perspective, of Easter vision. We, like Mary, have been given this gift of being able to decide hope. To act tough, resilient, Easter hope. To live tough, resilient hope.
Not because we are in denial of the ongoing struggles in our world. Not because we think somehow we, by ourselves, are going to make all things new. No, only because we trust that Easter has dawned and that our risen Lord is still on the loose in this world, working out God’s transformation and mercy and justice alongside us, even using us. Still calling our names—usually these days through the voices of each other—and still hoping we might recognize him and then summon the courage Mary summoned to go and to tell and to live. Because the truth of Easter is that it is not just about what happened with Jesus that day in the garden, and it’s not just about what happens when our own tombs are sealed. Easter is what is happening right here, right now, all the time.
Make no mistake about it—it is hard to proclaim Easter in a Good Friday world. But here’s the catch—it’s no longer a Good Friday world! Our testimony is that it is an Easter world. A world being made new. A world that belongs only to God and that God will never abandon. A world God is determined to love into complete transformation for all God’s people, for all God’s creation. A world pulsing with hope. For it’s not just that the Lord has risen. Rather, the Lord is risen. He is risen indeed!
Sermon © Fourth Presbyterian Church