Sunday, March 23, 2008

Three at Dawn: A Sermon on John 20:1-18

A beautiful morning at church, with many smiling faces, much beautiful music (including our bell choir and a brass quintet, and our adult and youth choirs)... this is basically a day that takes care of itself in many ways. That said, I struggled with the sermon.

I seem to write dark Easter sermons. I have looked back on all mine, and I consistently start with death, darkness, despair. (This may have something to do with the life changes in the years since I was ordained.) A dear friend said, last Easter, "Just get out of the way of the texts," (Jane R, this was said by our mutual beloved acquaintance!).

I hope I have been able to do that.

Christ is risen! Or, as another friend says, "Hallelujah anyhow!"

“Three at Dawn”
John 20:1-18
Easter Sunday
March 23, 2008

She went to the tomb before dawn, while it was still dark. She hurried, head down, through the shadowy, deserted streets of the gleaming city. The Roman legions were still billeted in their garrisons for the night, whether sleeping soundly or sleeping off their drink. The Jews were quiet after the great Passover celebrations. Only she, Mary, stirred, hurrying, rushing to the tomb where Jesus lay, lifeless. She had to be there, to… to what? To mourn? As if she weren’t already mourning with every intake of breath, with every moment spent at some mundane task, or on her bed, or by the fire! Did she hurry to bring spices to anoint the body? It was true; she had a small bundle of them beneath her cloak, but she knew that Jesus’ shadowy followers, Nicodemus and Joseph—those who spent all their time with Jesus hidden, by dark of night—she knew they had done their part with myrrh and aloes… a vast quantity, rumor had it. At last, she admitted it to herself. Here was the truth. She simply wished to be near him. She wished to be as near to his body as possible at the moment when his soul finally abandoned it, and returned, she supposed, to his Father. According to their traditions, the soul did not leave the body at the moment of death, but hovered nearby for three days, in a state of confusion and grief. She imagined the lonely soul, at last winging its way free. She wanted to be nearby. She wanted to be a witness to the final flight of the one who had saved her life.

Sleepless in a house on the outskirts of the city was another follower of Jesus. On a bed, weeping, was the one Jesus loved… a young man, still traumatized by the sights and sounds of that cruel death. A man not too old to wish for his mother at such a moment, and then, to remember the strange way in which Jesus had anticipated even this, even in the throes of his own agony: here is your mother. It was an invitation to responsibility, perhaps, caring for this woman left without husband or son in her old age. It was an invitation to manhood to one who had wandered happily with Jesus and his followers as if on a great adventure, a holiday, and who abruptly was brought face to face with things no man under twenty believes deep down inside: that death is real and possible, that everything joyous and carefree can vanish in the span of a single heartbeat. The one called the beloved disciple pressed his face into a blanket and wept. He wanted things to be the way they were. He wanted to be back in the presence of the one who had all the answers, the one he trusted, the one he loved like an older brother… if your older brother’s eyes had looked into the very heart of God.

On another bed, in another house, his eyes open and staring into the darkness, was Simon Peter. Simon, of the relentless questions. Lord, to whom can we go? Lord, are you going to wash my feet? Lord, where are you going? Lord, why can’t I follow you? And then, the horrible, unbelievable answer to his own questions as he had cowered by the fire, denying, distancing, even doubting… best to admit it, at least to himself… doubting the whole enterprise, once it had all unraveled on the long, dread-filled night of the arrest. He stared into the darkness, and wondered how it was possible now to live, knowing himself as he now did. Knowing the cowardice, knowing the full extent of the Empire-sponsored brutality that was all too willing to seek out men such as he, knowing the full extent of the impulse to save his own worthless hide at all costs… at the cost of Jesus, the only one who had ever seemed worth following, the only one seemingly not annoyed by his endless questions, but amused. Jesus, the only one he had ever so completely failed. He wanted only to sleep. And sleep would not come.

Mary Magdalene wanted to be a witness. But now, she was a witness to something else entirely. She arrived at the place, her heart pounding with exertion or with anxiety, prepared to sit a while by the great stone that sealed the entrance, the enormous stone that could only be moved by the strength of several men, and men trained to it at that. The stone, that sealed in her beloved, her Lord, her Rabbi, dead, these three days. She came in the dark, before dawn, to sit by the stone that confirmed the finality of it, the terrible, unspeakable loss. And she found it had been removed, taken away. She found it, not as she had expected. And she ran from the place.

She ran to the houses where Jesus’ friends lay, sleepless, and she pounded on the doors. The men roused themselves, grateful to have something to do other than weep or stare blankly into the night. Peter, dry-eyed and haunted, and the one who Jesus loved, weeping but curious, stepped out into the darkness, and they ran. It was a curious kind of footrace. Who would win? The one of a thousand questions? Or the one who had always rested, assured, in Jesus’ answers? Youth usually wins a footrace, and so it was that day. The one Jesus loved arrived first, and leaned, panting outside the entrance to the tomb, terrified to go in. A few seconds later, full of questions, looking for evidence, Simon Peter swept by him, and took command of the space. The younger man followed. No Jesus. No body. Just linen wrappings, incomprehensible, but the beginning of a hint, somewhere at the edges of their consciousness, that something had happened. Something they could not name, something to fear, perhaps, or perhaps to rejoice in. Perhaps. But something had happened. They looked at one another and they knew.

Arriving at the place for the second time, Mary watched as the men ran back to convey the partial, incomplete news to the other sleepy disciples. The dawn began to edge its way into the sky, hinting at first with purple clouds followed by an expanse of grey. With the dawn came her tears, at last. She struggled to compose herself, dimly aware of a gardener poking around in the shadows. But she wept. She had failed to witness the flight of Jesus’ soul, and now he was gone… only God knew where. Gone into the hands of grave robbers, perhaps. Gone at the bidding of Pilate, more likely… he was despicable enough to loot the tomb of their beloved Jesus. She stood weeping for a moment, and then stooped to peer inside, into the place of death.

There she saw two men, sitting, nonchalant, as if this were the normal and expected place for them to be. They were clothed in an unnatural shade of white, a color that took on a glow impossible in the gloom. She wondered, later, at her own lack of concern or curiosity about them, about how she simply interrogated them, found them unhelpful, and stood again. Turning her back to the tomb, she found the gardener now standing just in front of her, composed, his hands still full of the rich soil. And just a moment… the length of a heartbeat… the sound of her own name, Mary, on his mouth. His voice. The voice of her beloved, her Lord, her Rabbi. Alive. Impossibly, alive.

And now the three who came to the tomb were no longer in the darkness, but dawn had come. Now, one had been called by name. One had been commissioned to run and take the good news back to the others, who still waited, wondering. Energy had been given for the task. And where there had been three, broken and broken-hearted people, there was a community once more. That is what resurrection does.

This is how resurrection happens. It begins in the darkness, when things can’t get any worse. When the one who saved us, who gave our life meaning, is gone. When the dreams and beliefs of childhood shatter and disappear, and we are left not knowing how to go on. When we know the absolute worst about ourselves, and can’t imagine living with that knowledge. It is in that darkness that resurrection occurs, the rising that is impossible when we rely on our own power and wit and wisdom and sense of self-worth. In that darkness comes the moment we feel ready, at last, to admit: we cannot do it ourselves. We cannot recover from this loss, or this betrayal, or this wound, or this death. We need help. We need God. We need a savior.

Resurrection came to Mary, who had followed as faithfully as she was able. And so it comes to us, those of us who follow faithfully, those of us who believe ourselves saved but long to be awakened to it again. We follow along on this Christian journey. We try to stay close to God, to Jesus. And on that journey, we are witnesses over and over to resurrection—in moments of forgiveness, in joyful celebrations, in the return to our midst of those we thought we had lost. We are witnesses to God’s power over death. Resurrection comes to us.

Resurrection came to the disciple whom Jesus loved, someone who had taken at face value all Jesus had ever said and done. Someone who had been loved by Jesus uncritically, unquestioningly, and who had returned that love eagerly. And it comes to those of us who are children of the church, who grow up in the Christian faith and never know any other way of life. Something happens to help us to deepen and grow, and we learn all over again what it is to be in the living, powerful presence of Jesus. Resurrection comes to us.

Resurrection came to Simon Peter, the questioner, the one who denied Jesus, and had given up all claims to righteousness. And resurrection comes to those of us who question, who aren’t sure, who go through our dry spells and our periods of resistance and the times when we just don’t want to show our faces. Resurrection comes to us as we take another chance on faith, as we honor our questions and realize that God gave us our inquisitive, scientific hearts and minds, and as we realize that it is on just such people as we that God built this church. Resurrection comes to us.

Resurrection comes. Jesus speaks our name. He gives us energy for the task at hand. He sends us out to tell others the good news… that there is life after all these deaths, losses and betrayals—new, full, abundant life, not just in some far-off heaven, but right here and right now. He gathers us into community—the community of the faithful, the loving, the questioning, the stumbling, the givers, the receivers, the men, women and children of all ages. Jesus gathers all of us into this resurrection community. It starts in the darkness. It ends with hands stretched across a table, reaching out for one another, listening to one another, breaking bread together, lifting our voices in glorious song, sending out his healing into the world. Resurrection comes. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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