Psalm 118:1-2, 14-25
Tagged with Easter
It’s the third Sunday of Easter. Maybe it feels like we should be farther along in the story by now. Maybe it feels like everyone should have already adjusted to the news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But on this third Sunday of Easter, we receive a story from the Gospel of Luke in which it’s only hours since the empty tomb was discovered. We’re still in the very first day of Easter.
Two of Jesus’ followers are walking seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus. We don’t know why they go. While they walk, they discuss the troubling events of holy week. And then, miraculously, Jesus comes to join them.
For some reason, these apostles can’t recognize Jesus. And when this stranger asks what they are discussing, they hesitate: standing still, looking sad. But like most of us, they are grateful to find someone who is honestly curious, someone who will wait for an answer, someone who will really listen. So they tell this stranger how Jesus, a prophet mighty in deed and word, was handed over and crucified. “But we had hoped,” they say, “that he was the one to redeem Israel.”
But we had hoped! All of us know this feeling; the strange sense of disjointed surprise or disbelief that comes upon us after accident, illness, tragedy, pandemic. We had hoped, perhaps, for a miracle; or we had planned for a special event; or we had simply expected that life would go on as usual. But we had hoped, the apostles say, that he was the one to redeem Israel.
It’s painful to realize that you’re on an entirely different journey than the one you had hoped for, or planned for, or expected. Still, as one of my colleagues wrote this week, we have to travel the road we’re on, and not the one we wish we were on. We have to travel the road in front of us, not that other imagined, anticipated journey.
What would you tell Jesus – or anyone else who asked, and waited, and listened,– about the road you’re on today? If you had seven miles of slow travel, field and open sky around you, space and time and a compassionate ear? What would you say?
Some images of this story make me laugh. They may be beautiful, as this one certainly is. But it seems unbelievable that Cleopas and his companion do not recognize Jesus. The artists can’t help themselves; they make Jesus obvious to us. So it seems strange that the folks in the picture don’t get it. I want to say, Hey! He’s right there! Look at the halo! Check out the distinctive white robe!
But although many artists make Jesus beautifully obvious to us, I think many of us miss the holy encounters that we are a part of, at least in the moment when they are happening. Out of grief, or self-involvement, or practicality, we miss that there’s holy presence RIGHT THERE, beside us, in our most difficult moments, or in our everyday.
The two disciples do eventually recognize Jesus. It happens after that long walk, when he listens to them. It happens after he interprets the prophets and the scriptures for them, explaining the larger story that they’re living in. It happens when he blesses and breaks the bread at dinner that night; they know him in the breaking of the bread. Maybe there’s a reason that flour and yeast are hard to come by right now: something to touch, to taste; something that is real, and nourishing, like the presence of Christ.
Please pray with me: God, thank you for travelling with us, when things are not going as we had hoped, planned or expected; when we find ourselves on strange new roads. Thank you for listening to us, for as long as it takes, when our hearts are full of grief. Thank you for feeding us, with prophecy and presence, with bread and blessings. Amen.
The women come to the tomb, early in the morning, with their grief and their spices, to anoint the body of their beloved Rabbi, Jesus.
But nothing is as they expect. Nothing is what they have prepared for. At the tomb, the heavy stone is already moved away. In the tomb, there is no dead body. Instead, they find an unfamiliar young man. He says:
“Do not be alarmed: you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here… but go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
All around the world, this Easter morning is different than we expected it would be. So many traditions cannot be carried out. So many gatherings cannot be held. And the churches are empty. Hundreds of thousands of sanctuaries, full of memories, full of prayers, full of beauty, are still empty in the absence of their congregations. They are silent, without the glad greetings of friends and strangers, the singing and ringing and organ playing, the solemn pronouncement of scripture, the patter of small feet.
These empty sanctuaries are signs of loss: the loss of our rituals of celebration, and more tragically, great loss of human life. And yet, like the tomb, our sanctuaries’ emptiness holds the promise of life. In this case, life conserved; life protected; life cherished.
Nothing is as the women expect it to be on that first Easter morning. And Mary Magdalene, and Mary the Mother of James, and Salome are given a task perhaps even harder than embalming the body of their teacher. They are asked, instead, to trust the fantastic news that Jesus has been raised. To trust this news, and to share it.
The weight of this awesome task is most obvious in the version of this story we receive in the Gospel of Mark. The last verse of the whole gospel reads: “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
If you find that you have no Alleluias ready today, or not much holiday cheer: take heart. We are keeping Easter in a more biblical fashion than usual. This Easter Sunday, the tragedy of Good Friday is so close, that the idea of love triumphing over death may be too amazing, or even too terrifying, to believe.
This past Lenten season, I had planned for a caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly theme. I was hoping we would get live caterpillars, too, to accompany the ones on clothespins in the hallway. We would watch them grow, and then release them on Easter.
But, as it happened, I spent most of the past few weeks learning new technologies, and dealing with the flu, and homeschooling. I did not get any caterpillars.
So, we’re going to have Easter season caterpillars instead. Let me tell you, when they arrived on Monday the caterpillars were not very impressive: tiny, unattractive, and entirely still: appearing almost certainly dead. But within a day or two, they started moving. Now they are almost three times as large, eating and shedding their skins at an alarming rate. I’m starting to think that they really might make something of themselves, with time.
Easter is strange and surprising this year, hard to accept. But really, it’s always been that way. The church season of Eastertide is 50 days long because it took Jesus’ disciples 50 days to come out of hiding. It took the folks closest to Jesus 50 days to mourn and pray together, locked behind closed doors, before they could then trust in and act on the good news they had received.
So let’s take it slow, this year. We’ll have butterflies a little later in the Easter season. At our house, I’m planning to do Easter crafts for weeks. Meanwhile Spring is coming to New England; the tulips will be here, soon, and the peach tree outside the church just started to show some pink buds. Instead of finding Easter in our beloved church buildings, we’ll need to seek it out in the world. News of great generosity and surprising hope and amazing collaboration emerges every day, even in the midst of a pandemic. All of us will need to be paying close attention to the signs of Easter we can find: and sharing them with one another, for encouragement.
Here is some good news: we can’t do Easter wrong. That’s because Easter is not something that we do. It’s not dependent on us. Easter is something that God does, and God is still doing it. God took a tragic death and turned it into an opportunity: going down to dwell with the dead, breaking the gates of hell, bringing hope to the people, birthing the church, and rising all the way up into heaven. We’re just the witnesses, scared and awe-struck. Even the most faithful among us may feel the urge to run away.
Please pray with me. O God, your love, stronger than death is hard for us to fathom; terrifying in its beauty and power. Stay with us, as we try each day to put our trust in you; as we witness you, each day, bewilderingly alive, all around us. Amen.
Thanks to everyone who came together to make our Easter Celebration possible! Alleluia! Christ is Risen!
The women get up before dawn on that Sunday morning to carry spices to the tomb. Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James. Their eyes are swollen. Their step sare slow. Their hearts are heavy. For Jesus, their friend, so full of holy grace, was tragically killed. But they get up anyway. His body must be tended to.
The women get up before dawn to carry on, but their grief is interrupted. When they arrive at the tomb, they see that the stone is rolled away. When they go into the tomb, they find it empty. Then two strange, dazzling figures appear, asking: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? Jesus is not here, but has risen.”
What does this mean: Jesus has risen? All kinds of wise people have wondered about this. Did Jesus’ body really rise? If so, was he some kind of zombie? Was it simply Jesus’ spirit that rose? If so, was he some kind of ghost? Is Jesus’ rising a metaphor, or a miracle? Or is it, possibly, a terrible hoax?
If you have questions about the rising of Jesus: fantastic. Wondering over our sacred stories and interrogating God herself is good and holy work. Asking and doubting will only bring us deeper, and God can take it. I hope you have lots of questions about the rising of Jesus, and let me suggest one in particular: what does it mean? What does this rising that is at the center of our Christian story tell us about God?
It’s a big question. Maybe it will help if we shift for a moment away from Jesus, and talk about plants instead. We’ve been talking a lot about plants this season. We’ve been nurturing our spirits as if they were thirsty seedlings. We’ve been rooting actual plant cuttings in water. On Thursday some among us planted our cuttings in soil, and helped to make the flower gardens of paper and fabric that are all around us.
Plants have a lot to teach us about dying and rising. At this time of year in New England, we can see new life poking up out of the ground everywhere. But the story I want to share today has to do, not with that kind of plant, but with trees.
At the University of British Columbia there is a Professor of Forest Ecology named Suzanne Simard. After growing up in a family of loggers, and going to forestry school, Dr. Simard became fascinated with what happens in forests, underground. So, she devised a series of experiments to try to find out if trees were somehow connected beneath our feet. Lots of people thought this idea was ridiculous.
But Dr. Simard did her research, and as it turns out, trees are connected. Not just parent trees and their children; not just trees of the same species; all kinds of different trees. All kinds of different trees are connected, and not just to one or two other trees. One tree might be connected underground to 47 other trees.
These underground tree connections aren’t composed of roots. Instead, they’re made of mycelium: fungal tubes that infiltrate the soil and the roots. The mycelium network allows trees to pass things to each other. Trees share water. Trees share minerals. Trees share hormones. Resources and information pass from tree to tree to tree to tree, back and forth, around and around.
Trees share with each other. They form communities and support each other. And each community is anchored by a few individuals who are particularly well connected. These are called “hub trees” or, more affectionately, “mother trees.”
And here’s the thing that completely blows my mind. When trees near the end of their life, they change the way that they share. But instead of becoming more isolated, separating themselves; or more dependent, relying on others; they become more generous. Sensing that they will not survive, these trees send their resources out to strengthen the trees around them. While they are dying, they give others life.
Imagine Jesus as a Mother Tree. In his 33 short years, he has become connected to so many people. His disciples, his followers, everyone who he heals, everyone who is changed by his words. Jesus is a Mother Tree, deeply and widely connected.
Jesus is a Mother Tree, and his life is about to end. And his reaction to this is to give of himself even more generously than he has before. Jesus passes on teachings: “love one another.” Jesus passes on practices: the sharing of bread and cup. Jesus passes on forgiveness, even to the people who condemn and torture him. Jesus passes on promises. Jesus shares so much that the tragedy of his death becomes more than simply a tragedy.
Jesus rises: his body, his spirit, and his love. Jesus rises within the lives of the people around him. They are so filled up with the love they receive from him that many of them become Mother Trees themselves: reaching out deep and wide. It starts with Mary Magdalene, and Joanna, and Mary the mother of James spreading the good news; and then Peter joins in; and then everyone else who eventually learns to trust the women. They spread the word about Jesus, who he is, what he teaches, and that he is still with us. Jesus is risen, they say, Jesus is rising. The good news passes on from person to person to person to person, across centuries and continents, until it reaches all the people who brought us here, this morning.
The women rise that morning in grief. We, too, have much to grieve. And we also have the good news of Jesus’ rising, and the electric connection of love that still tingles in the air, more than two thousand years later: a surge that swells in our hearts, a gift from the great network of givers of good news.
Through the grace and power of God, no life is simply extinguished, forgotten, discarded. No tragedy is left untouched by grace. Instead, there is life even in the midst of death; hope even in the midst of despair; love, stronger and more persistent than the grave. We are some of the very great many who have the privilege of receiving this good news, and we have the opportunity also to pass it on. I hope you will.
This morning’s Gospel story is jam packed with exciting drama, deep emotions, and rich theological insights. In reading and reﬂecting on it, there seem to be four or ﬁve different sermons I could preach today. As with other post-resurrection appearance stories, this one invites us to hear about Jesus’ encounter with his grieving disciples as we consider notions of “peace”, “forgiveness”, the “holy spirit” and “blessing” and wonder what our own place in this narrative might be.
For me the most compelling questions inspired by this text revolve around the intimate connection with the Holy, the experience of God’s presence, God’s love, and God’s grace. How do we encounter the Risen Christ?…What’s being offered? How do we recognize it and receive it? And how are we called to respond?
In Luke, just before the story that we heard this morning, Jesus appears to two men on the Road to Emmaus. The sequence of events that follow are very similar to the ones that happen when Jesus moves on to his disciples. The men, confused and frightened, fail to recognize him at ﬁrst, but then Jesus offers words of explanation, his body as evidence, and a suggestion that they eat together, all of which help them to realize that they are with the Risen Christ. In the Emmaus story this moment of enlightenment is referenced by “opening eyes” and “burning hearts” and in today’s account, Luke states that Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” and they at once realized who was in their midst.
Can you imagine how Jesus’ grieving followers must have felt in this moment? Confused and afraid, at ﬁrst, yes. But also relieved and overjoyed that this personwhom they had come to love and trust was with them once again. Last week in Bible Study, we were looking at one of the post-resurrection appearance stories in John and Ruth Sedlock, one the facilitators of the discussion, began by saying with passion and sheer joy: “All of these post-resurrection stories are just ﬁlled with so much excitement!” She’s right! So what is all the excitement about?
On the surface, just the mere fact that Jesus has come back to life to offer more time with his friends is reason alone to celebrate. And yet, what he offers them is so much more. He begins by saying: “Peace be with you.” – he says this once in today’s account and three times in the passage from John that we studied last week. “Peace” I give to you…not as the world gives but something more special. A peace that surpasses all human understanding. Have you ever felt that kind of “Peace”?
Jesus goes on to explain how his death and resurrection are related to God’s promise of forgiveness and liberation from sin – that which separates us from the Love and Life that God desires for us. Have you ever felt the power of such forgiveness?
“You are Witnesses to these things.” Jesus tells his disciples. But lest they think that they will be left alone to ﬁgure out what this all means, Jesus invites them to wait until they are “clothed with power from on high” – a reference to the Holy Spirit which Jesus has promised will be with them when he leaves. Can you remember a time when you felt the company of the Holy Spirit – the abiding presence of God comforting you and empowering you to do hard things?
And ﬁnally, Jesus offers his disciples a “blessing” – a reassurance that wherever they go, he will be with them, in Spirit if not in body, offering courage and guidance. In what ways have you received and offered blessings in your life?
Encountering the Risen Christ – experiencing a glimpse of Divine Grace – is sometimes very personal and can mean different things to different people. Last week, at Northeastern University where I work as a college chaplain, there was a celebration honoring my 20 years of campus ministry there. As part of the program, a video was shown in which various alums going back as far as 1997, shared how the ministry impacted their lives and how they experienced God’s love through the people and leaders of the group. Time and time again, the students spoke of a welcoming and inclusive community where worship was meaningful, questions were encouraged, joys and challenges were held with deep appreciation and concern, and a commitment to community outreach and social justice was a priority. I’ll admit that it was nice to hear that the ministry had made such a difference in people’s lives, but what was more poignant for me was the willingness of these alums to be “witnesses to these things” – to share how they encountered God while at college.
In our busy lives, we may not always recognize holiness in the world, in one another, or in ourselves. And unless we’re asked to talk about it, we we don’t often have the opportunity to share our experiences of encounter with God’s presence.
With this in mind, I decided to reach out to a few of the communities that I am most involved with here at the church – the Adult Bible Study, the Walden Pond Prayer Walkers, and the Youth Group. To each of these groups I asked some version of the questions: “How do you encounter the Risen Christ? When do you see or experience God’s Love? In what ways do you sense the company of the Spirit?”
Many of you responded with mentions of worship, expressing how you see Jesus in the Scripture readings, sermons, and communion, and ﬁnd God’s companionship in the songs, the prayers and in the community of fellow seekers. One person wrote: “Every person in that room is there, in love, forgiveness and encouragement, for every other person in the room.” Someone else expressed it this way: “It is a sense of unity with others who are also worshipping in that place at that time. My encounter is often singing hymns with the others or in the silence of praying with others. I would call it a feeling of joy.”
Some of you noted that you experience God in the Adult Enrichment programs offered by the church. Whether in Bible Study, or Sunday Morning Forums, on Retreats, in Book Group, or in prayer at Walden Pond, taking time out of your day to be in fellowship and reﬂection with other members of this congregation provides much solace and an assurance that Christ is truly in our midst.
Many people ﬁnd God in Nature and this too came through in the responses that I received. Sometimes God appears in the woods where we spot birds and deer, or on the beach as we watch gulls, crabs, and rolling waves, or in the majestic views on a mountain top. To quote one of you: “God shares the beauty of every unique creation: trees, ﬂowers, and rocks. God surprises and delights us with every fresh sight. A fresh crispness in the air, the smell of spring, the sparkle and splash of water ﬂowing in streams, waterfalls, crashing waves – all God’s caresses.”
The way we care for one another in our congregation also came up. We listen to one another’s joys and concerns with attentive hearts. We work to make worship and programs accessible and relevant for all ages and abilities. And we engage with the world through service and advocacy work.
“Jesus is alive with every kindness and caring act that we do”, someone wrote, “In Sunday Fellowship I see Jesus in the caring and thoughtful way that the participants care for one another. When we sing together, pray, and share, I see faith growing. Jesus brings us a sense of quiet awe as he is in all of us to recognize at any age or time.”
The youth responses echoed many of those shared by the adults, especially those relating to caring for one another. Witnessing God’s love through how we reach out to those in need, was by far the most popular response from the teenagers. Whether in direct service, donating money to organizations that help the poor, or working for more justice and advocacy for refugees, immigrants, and other displaced people, it was clear to me that for these young people, the power and presence of the Risen Christ shines most brightly when we put our faith into action.
Finally, one person shared a very powerful and personal story about an encounter that she had with Jesus right here in this church. Years ago, when the church was discerning whether or not to ofﬁcially become an “Open and Afﬁrming Congregation”, she faithfully went to all of the study sessions and discussions in order to learn more and remain open to the Spirit. Having been raised in a more conservative Christian tradition, many of the thoughts and theologies in these conversations were new and perhaps challenging. But she told me that when it came time for the vote, she felt as if Jesus was literally sitting by her side whispering to her not only how he would vote, but also urging her to stand up and witness to the transformation in her own heart and understanding. It felt as if the Spirit was speaking in and through her to proclaim Jesus’ message of radical Love and hospitality.
We are blessed, here at WCUC, to encounter the living Christ in so many different ways. The love and comfort that the Spirit brings to us in all sorts of situations can be profound. For me, most recently I have experienced the closeness of God’s grace and peace in the midst of losing people I have loved. Over the past year and a half, three of my extended family members have passed away as well as a very close high school friend. And I’ve been all too aware of the extraordinary amount of recent deaths in my work, in our church, and in the Concord community this year. Two of the students who are in our campus ministry at Northeastern lost their fathers in very sudden and tragic situations. Many here in our congregation have lost spouses, parents, siblings, extended family members, and longtime friends. And in our community we have felt the pain of losing three teenagers and two mothers of young children, much too soon. The weight of this grief is heavy.
Oh, what we would give, to have our loved ones appear just one more time – even if only brieﬂy. What a gift it would be to see them again and to hear them say “Peace Be With You”, just as the disciples heard from their beloved Jesus all those years ago. Sadly, we don’t get to have this moment. But we do get to hang on to the blessings that our relationships have offered us and we do get to carry these blessings with us as we live out the rest of our time here on Earth.
Theologian, author, and artist Jan Richardson, who also happens to be one of my favorite spiritual teachers, writes beautifully about love and loss in the context of Easter and the Resurrection. Nearly ﬁve years ago, Jan lost her husband Gary, when he died from a sudden brain aneurism. Heartbroken by this, Jan found solace in the company of close friends and family, her faith in God’s abiding presence, and in her writing, both on-line and in published books. In her blog, The Painted Prayerbook (www.paintedprayerbook.com), Jan recently wrote a reﬂection piece on the appearance of Jesus to his disciples in which she connects the ideas of “loss” and “blessing” this way:
“When we experience horrendous, life-altering loss, it can seem that the blessing we had known has indeed disappeared. When a person who had embodied that blessing and borne that blessing in our lives is no longer physically present, it can become difﬁcult to believe that the blessing is still present, is still active, is still in force. Part of the invitation of grief is to keep our eyes and our hearts open to how the blessing persists, how it still wants to be known in our lives, and how it wants to help us live even when our lives have fallen apart.
A blessing does not end. This is part of the fundamental nature of a blessing: the energy and the grace of it cannot dissipate or disappear. The essence of a blessing endures. It lives in the community that mediated the blessing and continues to hold it in memory and celebration; it lives in the hope that persists; it lives most of all in the love that called forth the blessing in the ﬁrst place, the Love that is stronger than death.”*
In all of this, I hear the echo of Jesus’s voice: “You are Witnesses to these things.” We are witnesses to the blessings in our lives, called to recognize them, to give thanks for them, and to share them as often as we can. And we are witnesses to the never ending peace that comes from knowing a God of grace, hope, forgiveness, and companionship. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” as it is written in the 12th chapter of Hebrews, “let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
May our eyes be opened to see more fully the gifts being offered and may our “burning hearts” ignite in us the conviction and courage to be Christ’s hands in the world.
*From Jan Richardson’s Website: Using Jan’s words For worship services and related settings, you are welcome to use Jan’s blessings or other words from this blog without requesting permission. All that’s needed is to acknowledge the source. Please include this info in a credit line: “© Jan Richardson. janrichardson.com.”
Books by Jan Richardson: The Cure for Sorrow: A Book of Blessings for Times of Grief Circle of Grace: A Book of Blessings for the Seasons In the Sanctuary of Women: A Companion for Reﬂection and Prayer
Our Easter story from the Gospel of Mark is a story of surprises. When the Jewish day of Sabbath is over, and the Sunday morning sun is rising, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bring spices to anoint the body of Jesus. Who knows if they have slept, or if they are thinking clearly. These women are grieving; only two days ago they witnessed Jesus’ death first hand. But, tired, grieving, they still know what needs to be done. So they get up early, and gather what they need, and go to the tomb.
The first surprise is that the stone is already rolled away from the entrance of the tomb. Why would the tomb be open? Then, going into the tomb, the women see – not the body of Jesus, but a very alive young man. The story only gets stranger from here. It seems that this young man is serving as a kind of administrative assistant for Jesus. Apparently Jesus has things to do, people to see, and so this man has taken on the job of delivering Jesus’ away message to whoever shows up at the grave. He says to the women: “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here … But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
This is a story of surprises. And Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome do not respond to these surprises calmly. On the contrary, the gospel tells us they are overtaken by alarm and terror; they are startled and awestruck; they tremble with fear and with ecstasy. In fact, they are so overcome that they run away from this man and his news, and say nothing to anyone about what they have seen.
It’s a strange end to the story of Jesus. Later Christians objected to this earliest gospel ending so much that they could not leave it alone. In most bibles, you can read one or two other possible endings for the gospel of Mark. The editors tell us: Don’t worry! This story has a happy ending. This is the kind of story that you can feel good about on Easter, or any other day of the year.
I love the first ending of the gospel of Mark. It feels so honest. Honest, about what hearing this news of resurrection must have been like for those three women. Honest, about what it is like for us, all these years later.
Of course, the news of Jesus’ resurrection is not really a surprise to us. I can’t imagine you’re shocked to hear that Jesus Christ is Risen Today. We all knew there would be flowers, and festive music this morning at church.
But really putting our trust in the news of the resurrection is another thing entirely. I don’t mean the science of it, the logistics of a broken body rising, that is the least difficult part as far as I am concerned. Trusting that Jesus rose from the dead means trusting that love triumphs over hate; that forgiveness is greater than sin; that the story that we’re living in right now in our world today is a story that ultimately has a joyful ending. Trusting in all of that can be struggle for any of us. In fact, in moments of grief, hearing that we are destined for love, forgiveness, and joy through the perplexing power of God may be enough to make us tremble with fear and run away with our hearts broken open.
Luckily, like the women at the tomb, we have more than one opportunity to decide what to do about this resurrection news. More than one chance.
The women, of course, eventually told someone. We know because we have heard the news about Jesus, more than two thousand years later. At some point, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome trusted enough in the news that Jesus is risen to share it with others. We, too, have a new opportunity each day to consider whether we can put our trust in this story, and whether we are brave enough to share it with others.
Today, as you know, is April Fool’s Day. There are creative pastors out there today telling fantastic jokes, and pulling amazing pranks. Bless them. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I’m sorry, and you’re welcome, depending on how you would have felt about that.
The closest I am getting to April Fool’s Day today is to be foolish enough to invite a room mostly composed of white New Englanders to dance. Some of you may know the hymn Lord of the Dance. I grew up singing it, in the Episcopal church. This hymn is based on a much older hymn, perhaps medieval, which our choir sang recently: Tomorrow shall be my dancing day. Both songs propose that Jesus is a dancer; that he defies every power that tries to keep him down; that he invites us into the dance as well.
Perhaps it is best not to worry too much about whether we are prepared to believe in the surprising news of the resurrection today. How ready we are to trust in the ultimate power of love, forgiveness, and joy. Instead, we could simply consider whether we want to join in the dance; whether we want to allow ourselves to be swayed by God’s irrepressible Spirit. Who knows what could happen, after that.
So in a moment we’re going to sing together. Any children and anyone else who is particularly inspired is invited to come up and dance with Melissa. As for the rest of us, I invite you to move where you are, as the Spirit guides you. Whether you are really ready to let loose or a whether a gentle sway is going too far for you in church, everyone is welcome, just as we are. Let us welcome the eternally surprising news of the resurrection, and join in the dance with Jesus.
Christ is Risen! We celebrated with festive worship featuring our combined choirs, lots of joyful music, and even dancing! Take a look.
How did she come to believe?
We don’t know much about Mary Magdalene. You may have heard stories; most of them aren’t true. Mary Magdalene gets mixed up with all the other Marys in the New Testament, as well as several unnamed women. We don’t know much about Mary Magdalene, but we know a few very important things. She was a follower of Jesus. She suffered from seven demons, which Jesus cast out. She was there when Jesus died, and when the empty tomb was discovered. She was the first preachers of the resurrection and a central leader in the early church.
In this morning’s text, we learn something else: even for her, it was hard to believe.
Mary comes back to the tomb early on the first day of the week, while it is still dark. Her teacher has died, and she wants to be with him. She goes to sit by his grave, but when she arrives, she sees that the stone has been removed from the tomb. Mary does not rejoice. She does not guess what has happened. She cannot even bring herself to investigate. Mary runs to Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved, and says, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Simon Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved go into the tomb, and look. They see that the body is gone. They see the linen wrappings. The disciple whom Jesus loved believes something – we don’t know what. Both of them return home.
Mary does not rejoice. She does not even ask the other disciples what they have seen, or what they believe. She stays by the tomb, and weeps. Maybe it’s the first time that she has been able to cry. Maybe she has been encased in grief ever since she saw her friend on the cross. But now the tomb is open, and so is she.
Finally, Mary looks into the tomb herself. She discovers two angels in white, sitting where Jesus’ body had been. The angels ask, “Woman, why are you weeping?” But Mary does not rejoice at the sight of angels. She does not even express fear or wonder. She just says, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
Then Mary turns, and sees a figure in the garden. It is Jesus, risen from the dead. He says, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” But Mary does not rejoice. She does not even recognize him. Thinking he must be the gardener, she says: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
It’s not until Jesus says, “Mary!” that she finally wakes up. It’s not until Mary hears Jesus’ story from his own lips that she begins to believe. Only then does Mary leave the tomb behind, and go to tell the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.”
Some of you may have heard another remarkable story, the story of Matthew Sanford. Matthew was only 13 when his family was in a car accident that left his legs paralyzed. What kept him alive at first, Matthew says, is how much his family needed him to survive. But for years that survival was limited. Matthew decided that in order to cope, he had to separate himself from his past. One life was over: the life that included his childhood, and the use of his legs. Now, he had a new and very different life.
In his new life, Matthew was guided by doctors and therapists who undertook important repairs to his body. He went through operations and rehabilitations, necessary but extremely painful adjustments. He learned that his arms must serve as both arms and legs. He was encouraged to ignore his legs altogether.
Then, about ten years later, something changed. Searching for pain relief, Matthew started to practice yoga. Through his yoga practice, he began to be aware of some sensation in the lower part of his body. It wasn’t that his spinal column had regenerated. His body could not go back. Still, he could feel … something. It was as if, he said, he was making his way across a room in the dark. It wasn’t the same as travelling in the light. He couldn’t see clearly or directly. But he became more and more aware of the texture of the darkness.
Yoga changed everything for Matthew. He realized that the earlier decisions he had made to separate from his past were no longer serving him. He realized that the advice he received to ignore his legs was ultimately misguided. He found a way to reconnect with his childhood memories. He found a way to reconnect with memories of his trauma. He found a way to reconnect with his paralyzed body. The conversation between his mind and his body had been disrupted, he says, but not completely cut off. Now, his body has a new voice. Now it whispers. He has to really listen to hear it; but it’s there.
Matthew has continued to practice yoga. And he has begun to teach. He teaches abled bodied people. He teaches those who need physical modifications. And most recently, he has begun teaching disabled army vets how to move and breathe with greater ease in the bodies they have now.
The message of Easter is hard to understand and to trust. It is often misrepresented. The good news of this morning does not erase the tragedy that came before it. The betrayal of the disciples who denied Jesus, the cowardice of the religious leaders who arrested him, the bloodthirstiness of the crowd that called for his crucifixion, the ultimate immorality of the state that executed him – all of that cannot be undone. Mary and all of Jesus’ followers will always be marked by what they experienced. And Jesus – even Jesus, the great exception, risen from the dead – even Jesus is not the same as he was before. “Do not hold onto me,” he tells Mary. He has left regular human existence behind for something entirely different.
The good news of Easter is not that all past wrongs are erased, but rather that tragedy can occur in our hearts and in our bodies, and yet, through the power of God, we can still rise.
All of us experience at least a little death. The death of loved ones. The death of hopes or dreams for ourselves, or for others. The death of a relationship. The slow or sudden death of our physical abilities. At the time of loss, we may need to make a clean break: before and after. Whole and broken. But resurrection requires connection. Resurrection requires discovering the both/and. Resurrection requires both brutal honesty and an openness to the possibility of joy.
For Mary, it did not happen all at once. She had to go out and find her way while it was still dark. She had to see the open tomb, talk with her friends, cry, speak with angels unaware. Then, finally, she spoke with Jesus himself. He said, “Mary.” He spoke her name in that familiar, beloved voice. And through his gentle presence, and his loving persistence, Mary came to believe that Jesus really was with her in a new way. In time, she would discover that losing him, and finding him again, had changed her so profoundly that she would dedicate the rest of her life to sharing that good news over and over and over again to whoever would listen.
What deaths are you grieving now? Our gospels tell us that death is not the end of the story. Instead, we are invited forward in the dimness of our grief, onwards towards awareness and, ultimately, surrender. If we stop pushing, and start feeling; if we breathe in and out; then, perhaps – when we are ready – we will recognize the voice of Jesus, calling our name, inviting us to believe in new life. Thanks be to God.
Why are we listening to this text this morning?
The angel Gabriel is sent by God with a message for a young woman in the town of Nazareth. The woman’s name is Mary. Gabriel arrives and says to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you…Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High… He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Why are we listening to this text this morning? Why are we listening to this story, which is often called the “annunciation”, the great announcement that Jesus is on the way? Doesn’t the pastor remember that Jesus has already been born this year? He has already been born, and in fact, he has grown up to teach and preach and heal. He has lived, and died, and then risen again (just two Sundays ago). Why are we back at the beginning?
This past week, on April 4th, the feast of the Annunciation was celebrated in Catholic churches. In Orthodox tradition, this feast is always celebrated on the 25th of March. But in Catholic tradition, this date is moved if March 25th falls during a Sunday of Lent, during Holy Week, or during the first week of Easter. So, it fell this week instead.
The reason for the date that we remember the annunciation is simple if you think about it. The date of Jesus’ birth is fixed in our yearly calendars at December 25th. March 25th is 9 months earlier, the length of a pregnancy. March 25th is, therefore, is a good time for Mary to conceive, so that she can carry her bouncing baby boy to term by the next December 25th.
But the significance of this pregnancy calendar doesn’t stop there. Both Christmas and the date of the Annunciation are also significant in our natural world. December 25th is near to the winter solstice, the longest night of the year; while March 25th is the spring equinox. And there is at least one more layer of meaning, too. Traditionally, Jesus dies on March 25th as well; that’s the day that Good Friday fell this year. So his date of death, and his date of conception are the same.
I promise you I’m not making all this up. And this has nothing to do with the Da Vinci Code or any other Christian conspiracy theory. These traditions around the conception and birth and death of Jesus date back to at least the 3rd and 4th centuries. The great theologian and bishop Augustine wrote: “For [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since.”
I’m not making this up. So the big question is: Why? Why did the early church map out the life of Jesus onto the calendar in this way? What does it matter? What does it mean, for them, and for us? (more…)