Two Disciples and a Mary Walk Into a Graveyard . . .

April 01, 2018
Isaiah 25:6-9; John 20:1-18

Christ is risen! [Christ is risen, indeed] Alleluia!

What a day, eh?! I mean Easter is always a cause for joy and celebration but, as a celebration that moves around on the calendar, it isn’t every year that it coincides with April Fools Day. And what a glorious pairing the two make: both are full of the unexpected and depend on unsuspecting participants, both are shrouded in mystery [from what I can glean we don’t fully know the origins of April Fools Day & the story of Jesus’ resurrection has plenty of theological conundrums to linger in], and both celebrations also provide opportunities for connection and deep joy.

Yet the story we hear on this day from scripture doesn’t begin with connection and joy. Instead we find ourselves thrown into the aftermath of death. It is in a state of grief and trauma that Mary comes to the tomb on the first day of the week. As she make her way to Jesus’ tomb she is coming prepared and expecting to perform ritual anointing for her beloved friend and teacher who has just died. Yet when she arrives at the place he was entombed, what she finds isn’t as she expects. Instead of a closed tomb of peace she finds a scene of violation. The stone has been rolled away and the body of her beloved Jesus is missing.

She runs to tell Simon Peter and the other disciples that Jesus’ body has been stolen:

“The Rabbi has been taken from the tomb! We don’t know where they have put Jesus!”

The disciples come running – to see for themselves. And as they arrive at the tomb they find it just as Mary has said. Jesus’ body is not to be found. There on the ground inside the tomb are the wrappings from his body and the covering for his head rolled up and set aside in a place by itself. They see that his body is missing, and on some level it appears they assume they have grasped the situation. It may have felt like a bad joke to them; the possibility that the controversy of Jesus’ life would carry over into his death. That the powers and politics of the day would have the final word by stealing and disgracing even the shell of their beloved leader. They see, and believe, but what do they believe? Simply that his body was stolen?

They don’t linger to experience any more. [And if they did somehow grasp the reality of resurrection they certainly don’t shout out with joy] Instead, they head home.

Mary lingers – weeping.

It is then, past the moment of shock, yet still in the heart of grief, that Mary begins to take action. She stoops to peer into the tomb and sees two dazzling figures sitting in the place where Jesus’ body had lain.

And it is in her choice to act, to look – that she starts the journey towards revelation – if we don’t choose to seek the holy in our lives – we have less opportunity to find and experience the holy. One of the things the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection exposes for us is that there is holiness to be found all around.

One of my favorite verses in scripture happens at the moment of Jesus’ death:

[As Jesus utters a loud cry and breathes his last] And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.

The curtain this verse is referring to is the curtain in the temple that partitioned off the Holy of Holies. The Holy of Holies being a sacred space within the temple where God’s presence would reside. It was a space that only the High Priest could enter – and it was only entered once a year on the Day of Atonement. The curtain acted as a buffer between God and God’s people. God was present and in the midst of God’s people, yet there was separation with direct access to God only available to a select few individuals and only after they had spent time in preparation for such an encounter.

What I imagine when I hear that the curtain of the temple was torn in two at the moment of Jesus’ death – is God loosed upon the world – no longer will God be contained in the Holy of Holies – no longer will God only be encountered by a select few – God declares all people, at all times, prepared for encounter with God’s presence and God’s presence issues into the world – to be found all around.

This rings similar to the covenant that God speaks of in the Jeremiah text that has been our theme verse during the season of Lent here at Hyattsville.

Jeremiah 31:33-34:

This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says God: I will put my Law in their minds and on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they need to teach one another or remind one another to listen to God. All of them, high and low alike, will know me first hand, says God. 

God desires relationship with God’s people. God seeks and offers relationship – not with guidelines and expectations written in stone – instead God offers a living covenant, written on the heart of God’s people as it is discovered and lived out in relationship. A relationship through which each of us is given the grace and ability to know and recognize God in moments of revelation and connection.

Back in the garden, Mary is imminently close to a moment of revelation and connection.

As she turns from the vision of the dazzling figures in the tomb she sees Jesus standing outside the tomb – only she doesn’t immediately recognize him. Even when the holy is loosed all around, we do not always easily recognize it. Mary thinks Jesus is a gardener, but she, being a strong woman, persists; asking him: if you took his body – tell me where you put it and I will go take care of it.

This is Mary, still in the throes of grief. Still focused on finding and tending to the body of Jesus, for whom she is grieving. Mary is standing in the presence of a resurrected Jesus and yet she still mourns. Even in the presence of the resurrection, of the holy, we are not magically swept away from the pain and suffering within and around us. And not only is grief present, it is honored. Jesus doesn’t swoop in on Mary and say – hey – it’s me! All is well because of…me! No, even in this moment of the paradigm shifting reality of the resurrection, there is first and foremost care for the distress that Mary is in. Jesus meets Mary in her grief, and he asks her about it:

“Why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?” 

It is only then, after the validation of the context that Mary is in, that Jesus’ identity is revealed. And it happens in an instant. Mary declares that she is looking for Jesus.

In return, Jesus speaks her name and there is revelation.

Naturally, Mary wants to grab hold of Jesus – to pull him close – to cling to what she thought she had been lost. But Jesus says to Mary – don’t hold on to me – instead – go – tell others that I am here.

This reality of trauma, inducing grief, which transforms into revelation and action is a common pattern in our current culture. How many times in the past few years has something traumatic happened, either to individuals or subset communities within our country that has been the cause of grief, revelation, and then action? I will name a few of the actions [and trust me, I know I am not getting them all here]. The Women’s March of 2017, a growing sanctuary movement in cities and churches across this country in response to changes to immigration policies, Black Lives Matter, The #MeToo movement, and a rash of mass and school shootings, including the incident in February at a high school in Parkland Florida which was the impetus for the official start of the Never Again movement and the March for Our Lives that took shape in many cities across the US just a little over one week ago.

All of these movements are resurrection in action. They are movements that are calling forth life in the presence of death. We see it in particular, right now, with the March for Our Lives. The youth that called for, showed up, and spoke at the march are kids who have literally experienced incidents of death in their lives. In response they are grieving, and they are also rising up and making new life out of those experiences and asking others to join in.

One of the speakers at the March for Our Lives gathering here in Washington was D’Angelo McDade, an 18 year old from Chicago’s west side. In his speech he said this:

“Dr King once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Which now leads me to say that violence cannot drive out violence; only peace can do that. Poverty cannot drive out poverty; only resources can do that. Death cannot drive out death; only proactive life can do that.”

There’s an Easter message if I have ever heard one: “Death cannot drive out death; only proactive life can do that.”

Proactive life is life that requires participation, it is resurrection living. It is a commitment to choose, seek, and engage life, even in the presence of death. In the midst of life we are surrounded by death. The presence of death is strong, it would have us lose hope and the desire to seek the holy in the midst of life. And many in our culture would have us believe that the answer to death is more death. As followers of Jesus we are called to resurrection living. To proactive life. To a life that chooses to seek the holy that is surrounding us and empowering us to thrive even when it seems, to us, like God isn’t there. If we let it, proactive life can change our perspective, making space for hope, opening us up to possibility and, in moments, revealing the presence of the holy.

As we choose and live into proactive life, we are also invited to proactively share life with others. For it is in relationship, in connection, with God and with each other that God has called us to live.

Mary Oliver eloquently puts it this way in her poem, Sometimes:

Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.

After encountering the risen Christ in the garden, Mary Magdala goes and tells others about her experience – proclaiming: I have seen the Teacher!

The rolled away stone also testifies to the encounter; it is an ebenezer – a marker of a place where God was encountered. We have worshiped in the presence of representational ebenezers during this season of Lent. As you can see on this Easter morning, our largest ebenezer has shifted. In its wake we see something new: a collage of paintings made by a whole host of people in this community from age 2 up. This too serves as an ebenezer, it is literally a reminder of a way we encountered God with each other as we connected around the table and painted together before church one morning. It is also, hopefully and less literally, a visual reminder of the vast diversity of ways in which the holy might be encountered, and a visual celebration of renewal, of resurrection.

Throughout the season of Lent, some of us have also carried small rocks in our pockets to remind us of places in our lives where we are intentionally seeking or struggling to encounter God. As I said earlier, ours is a God who has been loosed upon the world, who chooses to be willingly available for relationship and revelation. We are invited to seek and find, to connect with and reveal the holy as individuals and as a community. During the offering time you are invited to come and help build an ebenezer in this place, it will serve as a witness to the ways we encounter God with each other in this place and as a sign of hope and willingness to be people who choose proactive life as we go forth from this place. If you have a rock that you have carried with you throughout lent you may bring that forward and add it to the ebenezer. If you do not have a rock, or if you lost yours [like I did] or left it at home today [like I did with my replacement one] – there is a basket of rocks available for you to come and select from to add to the community pile.

In the emptiness of the tomb, is the fullness of the world – God is still here, ready, willing and able to connect and be revealed.

No joke.