Easter Day, Year A, April 16, 2017

The Reverend Amelie Wilmer Minor
Sermon Text: 

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20:1-18)


A few weeks ago, I began my sermon with a little reflection on Epitaphs, and this was obviously a big hit.  Since then, many of you have been in touch with me to share photos of your own favorite epitaphs….one of the best was Rodney Dangerfield’s….”Well, there goes the neighborhood.”  And then a few days ago, Lee Hanchey gave me this one:  “I got the last word.”

I’m mentioning all this again, because our reading for Easter morning always begins at the mouth of an empty tomb.  And in every gospel account, the first to see the tomb empty are the women who were closest to Jesus, and for them this is very distressing.

Wouldn’t it be for you?  What if you went to visit the grave of a relative or a friend, and discovered that it had been robbed or moved or desecrated in any way….

Evidently, this has been the concern of the family members of James K. Polk, who was our fourth president.  I’m not sure if you’ve kept up with this news, but evidently, his grave has already been moved three times, and now they are planning on moving it again….from the state capitol in Tennessee, to a museum.  Here are a few of the headlines:

 “Plan to Dig Up Former President Polk Stirs Trouble” (The Columbian)

“Finding a Place for President Polk’s Body to Truly Rest in Peace” (Delaware Public Media)[1]

Our need to bury our dead in a safe resting place is as old as human civilization, and no matter where you go, you find cemeteries or burial grounds for communities to gather to remember and to grieve.   We leave markers behind so we can return to the right place. And we do this because the physical body is precious to us and it is in that physical form that we grew to know and love the one we’ve buried. It brings comfort to have an actual place to go for remembering.

So it stirs up something familiar, but unsettling, as we read this morning how Mary goes to Jesus’ tomb looking for comfort, and to honor the death of her beloved friend.  Expecting to pray and find peace, she quickly discovers that Jesus’ body is gone.  She’s shocked and tells the other disciples, who share her wonder, but not her tears.  Peter and the unnamed disciple race to the tomb and see it empty, but that is where their search for Jesus stops. They return home, maybe convinced of something… certainly, confused.

Mary, on the other hand, doesn’t return home.  She remains behind, bending down to examine the emptiness, making sure she hasn’t missed something, searching for a clue.

In the same way that it was for Mary, it is jarring for us, too, when we search for something valuable that we’ve lost and cannot find in its usual place, whether it is our car keys, our pet, or the trust of a beloved friend. 

But I’m going to talk about God right now, it is after all Easter, and I imagine that each one of you has had times then you seek the comfort and the experience of God in the usual place, and can’t find it.  You come to church, hear the bible read, and receive communion, and yet God doesn’t seem to be there; or your prayers go unanswered; even gathering with those you care about, or serving others, doesn’t leave you aware of God’s presence in your life. 

In times like these, perhaps we, like Mary, mourn; perhaps we too ask where to find Jesus and why he has been taken from us. When prayer or church or scripture feel empty, we are left stunned and wondering where to go next.  Like Mary, we mourn when our hope of finding God doesn’t match our reality.  For some, this loss can be brief and no more than an unsettling period.  For others, the emptiness can stretch for years or decades into what St. John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Soul: when the comfort we find in worship or prayer or fellowship disappears and we can no longer feel God’s presence.  [This is something that Mother Theresa wrote about.]

When Mary first gets to Jesus’ tomb, she becomes so fixated on where Jesus was that she doesn’t notice where he is.  She is operating on auto-pilot.  So that when she finally decides to leave the tomb, she bumps into someone she believes to be a gardener without really seeing him.  His only value to her is that he might solve her mystery, and she asks him, “Sir, if you’ve carried him away, tell me where you’ve laid him, and I will take him away.”

I’ve always wondered…what was Mary thinking?  Was she going to have the gardener lay Jesus’s body on her shoulders or pick it up all by herself? “Mary,” he says to her, and she turns to stare at him, suddenly realizing who he is. “Rabbouni!” she cries out!  My teacher. 

And then Jesus says this peculiar thing…”Do not hold on to me”  He cautions her, “Because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” 

This has always puzzled me…not only because it sounds very stand off-ish and un-Jesus like, but also because there is no evidence that Mary was holding on to him in any way.  Unless, perhaps it was what she called him “my teacher.”  The old name she used to call him.  Maybe Jesus could hear that in her voice, how she wanted him back the way he was so they could go back to the way they were, back to the old life where everything was familiar and not frightening, like it was now.  “Rabouni,” she called him, but that was his name three days ago, and here it was, Sunday, an entirely new day in an entirely new life.

Jesus was not on his way back to her or to the others, at least not as before.  He was on his way to a new life in God, and was taking the whole human family with him. 

Which may be why all the other gospel accounts of the resurrection tell us not to be afraid, because new life is frightening.  It is uncomfortable.  To expect a sealed tomb and find one filled with angels, to hunt the past and discover the future, to seek a corpse and find the risen Lord.  None of that is business as usual.  None of it is comfortable.

Mary’s experience of the empty tomb was a powerful signal to the disciples and to us that God is beyond our control and does not appear at our command even when we are hurting.  It proclaims that Jesus moves in the world and appears unexpectedly, as does God’s promise of new life, and relationship with us.  At times, we have to run to keep up and learn how to recognize him anew.

Following Christ is not synonymous with comfort and does not mean the constant reassurance of knowing where exactly Jesus can be found. Instead, it’s a constant rediscovery.  Sometimes this means finding new ways to worship, or pray or gather with others, sometime it means returning to the old ways, but with a new set of eyes, as Mary did with Jesus, with a new perspective and different expectations. 

As one writer put it:  “Following God is like painting a picture of a bird in flight.  By the time the brush touches the canvas the bird has moved on and the picture doesn’t represent it anymore.” Once we become convinced we know where God is found, God moves and we must follow.  We are constantly readjusting to God’s ever-changing work in the world.  

Like it or not, we have all learned to expect change and loss.  Death is natural.  Grief is normal.  But those stones have been rolled away this happy morning to reveal an unexpected truth.  By the light of day, God has planted a seed of life that changes, but cannot die, and if we remember that, there isn’t much we cannot do:  move mountains, banish fear, love our enemies, change the world.

The only thing we cannot do is hold on to him.  Jesus has asked that we please not do that.  Because he knows that we’d just as soon keep him with us where we are than let him take us where he is going.  Better we should let him hold on to us, perhaps.  Better we should let him take us into the light-filled presence of God, who is not behind us, but ahead of us, every step of the way.


[1] As referenced in Janet Hunt’s commentary, “Dancing with the Word” April 9, 2017, : http://dancingwiththeword.com/the-promise-of-easter-life-and-moving-pres...

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