Sunday, April 5, 2015

Sermon: The Promise of Resurrection

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
Laguna Beach United Methodist Church
Easter Sunday
April 5, 2015

The Promise of Resurrection: “For whom are you looking?”

John 20:1-18, NRSV

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.

            Sisters and Brothers: It is Easter Sunday! It is the great day of celebration for Christians as we rise, early in the morning on the first day of the week, and gather in the cold to make a radical and ridiculous claim: Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen, indeed!
            There is nothing new under the sun to add to this simple, mysterious message. It is the core of who we are as worshipping Christians, as people who believe in a God so powerful that even Death could be defeated. And yet, we gather every Spring, in the midst of the world’s own proclamation of new life to shout our hope and faith.
            Why is it that we gather, at the strangest times, to share in the story that’s been told for us for thousands of years? Why do we believe it’s important to tell this story, preach this story, hear this story?
            It’s because this is a story unlike any other. Yes, we tell it and hear it as if it is a favorite family anecdote. But this is not just a story. The gift of the Resurrection is that it is our opportunity to encounter, not just the story, but the Word. 
            The author of John’s Gospel tells our story this morning with great care. If you remember, we approach each Christmas with an ear to the opening lines of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John’s Gospel, the Good News of how deeply God loves us, is centered around the idea of God’s intention to be in the world with us. At Christmas, when we gather in the lateness of the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we repeat the words, “Emmanuel! God with us!” This is the promise of the Incarnation – that God so loved the world that God became one, with us, in this very world, in this very body. At Christmas, we look to the fragile, precious infant in the manger and whisper, “Emmanuel! God is with us,” and we absorb the beauty and mystery of birth. We inhale the sweet scent of the season, as pure as the head of a tiny baby, and give thanks for God’s willingness to be in the world with us.
            But, on this morning, we look back on the story we’ve been hearing since that Silent Night. We have heard of a child, chased into Egypt for refuge, a boy who teaches the rabbis in the temple, the man who is baptized by his prophetic and strange cousin. We have listened to the stories of Jesus calling his Disciples, traveling through the passages between Jerusalem and Nazareth, healing, restoring, exorcising. We have watched as his authority grew, as the crowds gathered, as loaves and fishes fed thousands. We have listened as the Pharisees have questioned him, we have paused while he rebuked them, we have applauded when he overturned their tables. We have followed this story until this point, when the child that was born in a humble manger finally succumbs to the gruesome death that has chased him from the very beginning.
            As we gather on this morning, there is nothing new to add to the story. We know how it ends. We know how it began. But, we gather to hear how to live this story. How do we even begin to live out the hope that we are supposed to have when we hear that the tomb is empty, and that the Gardener isn’t the gardener after all.
            If you’re anything like me, you bring with you to this service more than just a hope for the Easter promise of resurrection. You bring a healthy skepticism as to how this could be possible. You bring your doubt, your worry, your uncertainty. You bring your best intentions and your sights set to the future. You want to hear, in the re-telling of this ancient story, how to live, because death is certain. You want to know how to cast aside your grief, your pain, your disappointment, your guilt and live as though the promise of the resurrection is real.
            And, what the author of John’s Gospel gives us is nothing more than a simple story. There’s no theological insight in this telling. There’s no grand mystery of the universe revealed. There is only the empty tomb and a very confused Mary Magdalene. There is only Simon Peter, the rock upon which the church is built, entering the tomb to discover both an unkempt pile of linen wrappings and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, neatly rolled into a place by itself. They saw. And believed. No fanfare. No fireworks. No reunion. Just a peace that passes understanding and the urge to return to their homes.
            It is Mary Magdalene who waits by the tomb, weeping. Her grief of Friday returns, manifest in the loss of her beloved once more, this time with no way to tend to his body, no way to enact the rituals of grieving.
            But it is Mary who looks in the tomb, and sees – not the linen wrappings – but two angels. Messengers. Harbingers. One at the head, near the neatly wrapped cloth. The other at the foot of where Jesus had laid. They ask her the most absurd question, “Woman, why are you weeping?” As if there could be a reason other than the one that brought them to the inside of this tomb. 
            She answers them in earnest, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
            This is the sum total of our grief, isn’t it? I have lost something, and I don’t know where to find it. Something precious to me is gone, and I fear I will never see it again. Whatever you bring to this service today – your worry, your sorrow, your disappointment, your hope – Mary speaks to the very thing that makes our hearts squeeze tightly in our chests. We have loved, and lost. And we fear we will never be happy again.
            But, something stirs behind her. A rustling, the softest of sounds, and she turns… her tears blurring her vision. Her grief clouding her thoughts. Mary cannot see because the darkness has become too pervasive. But, do you remember how John’s Gospel begins? “What came into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5) A voice repeats the question of the angels, asking more intently, “Woman, why are you weeping?”
            Her silence is her only response.
            So, the voice presses on, “For whom are you looking?” 
            If Mary’s answer to the angels is the sum total of our grief, then this question is one that resonates throughout all of time. “For whom are you looking?” You. Today. Now. Are you looking for one who was lost to you? Are you looking for something that was never yours?  Are you looking for something that used to be? Are you looking to hold on to what you have so tightly that nothing may ever change?
            “For whom are you looking,” he asks Mary. He asks this because there is nothing to be found. Her hope has been dashed, and there is only the stark emptiness of the tomb that mocks her grief. Now, she can no longer anoint the body or attend to the ritual. Even that privilege has been stripped of her. The emptiness of the tomb is the last thing her broken heart can bear.
            The voice asks this question, not for the first time. The voice has asked this question only three days prior – to the soldiers that Judas had led to the garden where he was praying with his disciples. They replied that they are seeking Jesus of Nazareth, and his answer to them was, simply, “I AM.” Jesus offers the soldiers, the disciples, the hearers of this reply the great Divine Revelation: I AM. Alpha and Omega. The First and the Last. The Beginning and End. And now, the man whom Mary supposes to be the gardener asks the question of the ages. But it is not in the asking that she recognizes him. It is in the quiet uttering of her name: Mary. 
            She responds, "Rabbouni," which means teacher. This is the quiet drama of resurrection. It is in the sharp intake of breath at the recognition of his face. It is in the flooding away of grief and the heart-swelling joy of restoration. These things are internal. They cannot be described. The author of John's Gospel isn't privy to the emotions that accompany Mary's moment of awareness. Her grief is gone. Her sorrow is healed. Her heart is mended. Her joy is complete. Everything she has ever hoped for has been given to her. 
            The true mystery of Easter is in the resurrection, the real, physical act of life conquering death. What this tells us is that God has the power, not only of life over death, but also to sanctify the emptiness. “The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb, and you can't depict or domesticate emptiness.”[1] You can only look to it and see, not what is absent, but what shall be restored. 
            To be empty implies that we are left with nothing, that there is no hope, no joy, no life. But, in being restored to life, Christ redeems not just life, but the absence of it! Christ lives, that we might live, because now… even emptiness has meaning. Even emptiness is redeemed. Even emptiness is holy and sacred. If Christ can redeem emptiness, then think what the hope of the resurrection means for us - today, now. 
            This story, told time and again, tells us all we need to know about God. This story is not just about God’s marvelous acts in Jesus Christ. This story is not just about our God’s willingness to become Incarnate – one with us – alive and real, fully human and fully divine. This story is about how we can approach that God with nothing and still be filled. God works to redeem the emptiness. God works to restore the lost. God loves to heal the brokenhearted. God lives, that we might live also.
            Where is thy victory, boasting grave?
            The tomb is empty, and yet it has been filled with hope and promise and new life.
Christ is risen!                           Χριστός ἀνέστη!
He is risen indeed!                    Ἀληθῶς ἀνέστη!

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