Saturday, April 11, 2009

Terror and Amazement: A Sermon for Easter Sunday

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 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.” So 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. ~Mark 16:1-8

It is Easter morning, and we are bathed in fragrance and majesty, from the cross which stands festooned with flowers before us, to the lilies, gorgeous, defiant signs of spring and life; from the bone-rattling sounds of the pipe organ and the brightness of the brass and the sweet singing of the choir to the voices of the children, laughing and excited. This is our high holy day, the single most important day of the year for us, the day on which our faith rests—why call ourselves Christians, if we do not affirm that Christ is risen? And so here in this beautiful sanctuary, made more beautiful still by the flowers and the music and your presence, we are proclaiming the good news in fitting style: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

And yet…for all of us in this community who have lived through the past ten days, the world still has more than a hint of Good Friday about it, the world is still a place where violent death can take our breath away, and sometimes, even, our hope. The larger community is still reeling from the shooting deaths ten days ago of 14 people who were brought together, in life, by their desire to help others and to help themselves by participation in a community of learning. And they were brought together in death by the disordered thought, the desperate brokenness and the towering anger of one of that very same community. The funerals are reported on the news each day, two one day, three the next. What can we say? Christ is risen, and yet we stand this morning very much in the midst of a Good Friday world, a world filled with terror and amazement.

And so this gives us a tiny clue as to how those three women were feeling, as they set out early that Sunday morning to go to the tomb of one they loved who had been brutally murdered. The story begins as many stories began this week. Those who loved the dead roused themselves to do what needed to be done. They attended to the necessary details. They bought spices. They spoke with the authorities. They went to the church or the mosque or the synagogue, into the sorrowing embrace of their faith communities. They made travel plans. They gathered with loved ones. They stood vigil. After a violent death people who have no experience dealing with such matters learn quickly what must be done, and they do it. And they do much of it with a lingering sense of terror and amazement that such a thing could happen, to anyone, to them, to the one they loved.

Three women approach the tomb, laden down with spices to anoint Jesus’ body for a proper burial; he had been hastily entombed before the Sabbath. And they wonder how they will possibly roll away the stone that has sealed the tomb shut. Their anxiety on this point is reasonable: those stones ordinarily weighed between one and two tons. When they reach the tomb, they find it open, and they go inside. A young man greets them. His appearance speaks of otherworldliness: he is all in white, by which we are to understand, he is not an ordinary man. And he gives them an utterly unexpected and otherworldly message: Don’t be alarmed. The one you love, the one who was so brutally killed, is not here: he has been raised! And he has gone ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you.

Don’t be alarmed; don’t be afraid. Well. Easy for otherworldly-white-robed men to say. Throughout scripture, messengers from God appear to folks going about their daily tasks, and every single time their opening words are the same: don’t be afraid. But these women have been bathed in fear for at least four days, probably much longer. If they’ve been attending to the things Jesus has been saying for weeks before his death, they are well acquainted with fear. Jesus knew—he knew for a long time the kind of end he faced. He knew, just as Mahatma Gandhi knew, just as Martin Luther King knew, just as Harvey Milk knew. People who become known by standing up for the oppressed and downtrodden, people who attract the attention of those who are filled with hate or who have reasons to want the oppressed to remain oppressed… they know their odds for reaching a ripe old age are poor. Jesus knew he would be killed, and soon. He knew. And when he shared his knowledge with his friends and followers, they didn’t want to hear it. It frightened them. It terrified them. These women have been living in fear for a while. “Don’t be afraid” is a hard thing to ask of them.

And the rest of the young man’s message… how can they possibly understand that? Jesus has been raised. And not only has he been raised, he has gone ahead of you, back to Galilee. Now the white-robed man is asking something altogether different of the women. He is asking them to abandon rational thought. He is asking them to suspend disbelief, to accept that the one who was dead, can now be alive. That the one who was broken has now been mended. That what they witnessed with their own eyes—the brutality, the death, the burial—has all been undone. And yet… there is reason for these women to open their hearts to the possibility that this just might be true. They know Jesus. They have been with him throughout his travels, and they have been paying attention. And he had told them this, just as he had told them he would be killed. He had told them that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected… and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). He had told them this: that he would be raised. And everything else he had told them had come true. A spark, a tiny spark of hope. Could this be true?

When tragedy strikes, when disaster seems to fall out of the sky into our lives, life is abruptly divided into “before” and “after.” I know many of us have this feeling about September 11, 2001. I was looking at pictures of my children recently, and they were dated “August 2001,” and I thought: that’s before. Before we knew how our whole world was going to change. Before all those people were killed. Before the war began and all those people were killed. Before. And now, we live in “after.”

It sounds almost as if the women have been told that Jesus has gone back “before.” His being raised undoes his death, and his going to Galilee signals that Jesus has gone back to the beginning, to where it all started. He has gone home again, back where he came from. When we go through a terrible trauma, we long for things to be the way they were before, for a return to “life as usual,” a day or even a moment of normalcy. We long for “before.” The friends and followers of Jesus were no exception to that human rule. They undoubtedly scattered to their homes after Jesus was crucified… one story has them back in their fishing boats. That makes sense. What an understandable human impulse.

The thing is, we cannot go back to “before,” just as Jesus’ being raised from the dead cannot undo the death he died. We cannot go back to before, before the shootings, or before the illness, or before the break-up, or before the accident. We can only go forward. And Jesus’ going into Galilee is not a nostalgic trip backward, but, in fact, a path that has been blazed for us, a way to go forward.

How do the women go forward? How do we go forward? We go forward by knowing that Jesus is there. We go into our everyday lives, our Galilee days and nights, by knowing that Jesus is there—he’s gone on ahead of us. We go into the days of grieving and the nights of loneliness knowing that Jesus is there—he’s gone on ahead of us. He’s waiting there for us. We go into the next round of chemo or the next job interview or the next difficult conversation with a loved one knowing that Jesus is there—he’s gone on ahead of us. He’s waiting there for us. We will see him there.

I know that Jesus is risen because I saw him this week. In these last ten days of Good Friday, the Easter Jesus was already out and about in our community. I saw him, as people were gathered around a table, asking “How can we help?” I heard him in the encouraging words of someone who flew a thousand miles to be here, as a witness, not just to the generosity of Presbyterians, but to our crucified and risen Lord. I saw Jesus in the weeping faces of Muslim women and Buddhist children and Jews and Unitarians and Orthodox and Protestants, as thousands of us gathered to say no to violence, no to the hatred that guns down and crucifies. I know that Jesus is risen, because thousands of people across this community have opened their hearts and their homes and their buildings and their wallets to say “How can we help? What can we do? How shall we heal this dreadful wound together?”

He is risen. When you go back out into your everyday lives—your joys and sorrows and work and play: there you will see him, in every impulse to love and heal. When you go out into your places of devastation and loss: there you will see him in every hand that reaches out to help you and hold you. When you go out into your places of fear: there you will feel him in the small but growing sense that you are not alone, that you are never alone. When you go out into your places of amazement—at the first hyacinths that have emerged from the ground, at the enormous pale lemon moon as it rises: there you will feel him in a universe that still knows how to be beautiful, that can still astonish you with birdsong and morning light.

It is Easter morning, and we are bathed in fragrance and majesty, from the flowering cross to the gorgeous lilies; from the sounds of the pipe organ and the brass and the sweet singing of the choir to the voices of the children. This is our high holy day, the single most important day of the year for us. Why call ourselves Christians, if we do not affirm that Christ is risen? And so here in this beautiful sanctuary, made more beautiful still by the flowers and the music and your presence, I invite you to be bearers of the good news: Christ is risen! Christ is risen! Thanks be to God. Amen.


Jan said...

Wish I'd been there to hear you preach. Good sermon; good thoughts; good message.

Songbird said...

What a beautiful, beautiful message, Mags.

Jane R said...

Beautiful, Mags. I am sure this was healing as well as challenging for many in your congregation. Congratulations -- hope you get Easter Monday off to rest after this great effort! And thank you for sharing it with us. How well you connected the world of the women at the tomb and ours.