Easter Sunday – March 31, 2013
So winter has lasted longer than expected this year, huh? I’ve heard some say we have been trapped in it. On Maundy Thursday, members of the church were concerned about being too cold when we processed the cross outside. I was one with them. Who would have thought we’d begin Holy Week, spring break, with snow? On Monday we ended up making a snowman at our house with the kids. An apple for a nose, Oreos for the eyes, M&Ms for the mouth. Our two year olds really had fun eating the M&Ms so the mouth didn’t last as long as the snow. This is not the way Holy Week weather is supposed to be around here.
The First Council of Nicaea in 325a.d. established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the first full moon following the March equinox which more often than not puts Easter in April when it’s often warm where we live. Then in the eighth century, the church decided to start celebrating Jesus’ resurrection by adopting an ancient German springtime festival, “Eostre.” Eostre celebrated the rebirth of spring and reproduction. Its symbol was a rabbit. Over time “Eostre” became “Easter,” and its symbol, the rabbit, became the Easter Bunny.
Yet it can be difficult to focus on the birth symbols of eggs, chicks and bunnies when the snow just finished melting and many of the trees have yet to blossom. This week I noted that the buds on the cheery trees in our neighborhood were tightly closed, the azaleas and dogwoods around the church had yet to bloom and many of the animals are still in their holes. Most humans in our latitude have long past the time when we hibernated to ride winter out. Yet waiting for spring inside makes some people stir crazy. At very least we all have our moments of feeling captive by some forces, frustrations or fears of life and death.
Like the buds that are just starting to emerge this morning, we need to break free from that which holds us back. To consider what life could be like now if we lived as if we believed we were not captive by death. Fortunately, that is what Jesus came to do for us at Easter. Let us pray. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us. Open to us the meaning of your word that Christ has risen and the reality of your saving love for each of us. Amen.
What noun do you think appears most frequently in the resurrection narrative from John’s Gospel? It’s not Lord, it’s not God, it’s not disciples, it’s not even Jesus. The most frequently used noun in John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection is the word “Tomb.” What does that tell us? For one thing, it tells us that for John, the tomb was important. It was important that Jesus was in a tomb. On Good Friday we experienced how Jesus died on the cross. In our affirmation of faith this morning we affirm that Jesus was dead and buried. And as Jennifer sang a few moments ago, he was then laid in a tomb. At Easter we celebrate the story of how Mary Magdalene went to Jesus’ tomb early in the morning after the Sabbath. It was dark and difficult to see but the tomb was open. The stone that had been blocking its entrance had been moved away. Mary looked in. Jesus’ body was gone. Mary went to tell other followers what had happened. Peter and John came immediately. Thinking Jesus’ body to have been moved or stolen, Mary talked with disciples, angels, and what she thought was a gardener, about the location of her Lord. But she kept coming back to the tomb. And that focus on the tomb prevented her from seeing the miracle of life in front of her.
When Mary arrived at the tomb on Easter morning she noticed that the stone had been removed. But her gaze continued to be focused inside. When the disciples saw that the tomb was empty they returned home but Mary remained focused on it. In verse 16 even when she has been talking with what she thinks is the gardener, Mary is still looking at the tomb and so doesn’t recognize the man as Jesus. Only when Jesus speaks her name can she finally turn away from the tomb.
The tomb in our lives that most often holds our attention is our fear of our own tomb someday. Yet we affirm a life of resurrection this morning. We share in the Easter proclamation that death is not the end. Yet do we live as if we believe it? It’s not just Mary who was stuck and not only Jesus who found himself in a tomb. You and I sometimes find ourselves there. I get stuck when I keep going over past mistakes in my head rather than living life looking forwards. I find myself in a tomb when I settle for repeating activities without inspiration or meaning. Or I when I give up on dreaming. We find ourselves in tombs when we decide that because a relationship has not worked out before we don’t dare become involved again. Or when we think there is nothing we can do to change the circumstances of the world. That gun violence, the national debt, a lack of economic progress or poverty are difficult to confront so we give up working on them. Or when we feel like we are not doing as we’d like to do in school and we give up trying, then we find ourselves in a tomb.
The trouble is we can get used to being in the tomb and become comfortable with it. We may have been in so long that we consider the tomb our home and plan our future around it. That is where Jesus comes in. The tomb doesn’t hold Jesus and it doesn’t need to hold us either. You don’t need to spend any more time in your tomb. No matter how cold the weather has seemed for the azaleas this month, and how that may have delayed the rebirth of spring outside, it doesn’t need to stop the Easter rebirth that is waiting to happen for us inside. For on Easter we proclaim with Mary, Peter and John that Jesus is not in the tomb. He is within us and ahead of us, calling us to join him.
The mystery of Easter is that Jesus, the divine in humanity, carried the sins of the world with him onto the cross. The blood that flows in our veins, as the cup we drink during Communion reminds us, connects us with Christ’s blood that was shed for us. Parts of this mystery are beyond our comprehension. Yet on Easter Sunday we glimpse the great mystery of our faith that through Christ’s blood and resurrection, death is not the last word. And so we celebrate the Easter truth that miracles of love are still possible in our world.
There is a story told a few years ago of an insurgent in Iraq who tried to blow up a U.S. army base. The device he intended to use did not detonate properly so he was badly injured. A U.S. medical unit found that the terrorist had a rare blood type and they didn’t have enough blood for him. Most people on the base said, “Don’t worry about him, he’s just a terrorist, let him die.” But one American soldier who shared the same rare blood type said “No, let him live. I will help him.” And gave him his blood. When the insurgent was later told that not only had an American soldier been willing to give up his blood for him, but that his blood flowered through his vines, he reportedly began to cry.
We all share a common humanity; we all are sinners on whom Christ could have turned his back. Instead Jesus saves us. He looks at us in this room; goes to us in our tombs and calls to us here as he did to Mary saying “Susan, Carol, Steven, David,” you are one for whom I died and rose. My blood flows through your veins. Have life. Come out from your tomb. It’s enough to make us cry.
Theologian Eugene Peterson once defined church as an appointed gathering of people who practice a life of resurrection in a world in which death gets the biggest headlines.”
I have officiated several memorial services in this sanctuary this past month. I have been struck by how many families in this church want to make the memorial services celebrations of the lives of the people who died. We celebrate not because we don’t grieve when someone dies, but because in the church we practice a life of resurrection. And so we celebrate that the person we miss has returned home to God. We cry for ourselves but not for them.
In our most recent church newsletter I quote from one early 20th century Ohio poet, let me quote from another this morning. Mary Frye was born in my hometown of Dayton and in 1932 she wrote, as could have been said of Jesus, “Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there I do not sleep.” As Charles Stanford writes and our choir just sang, Jesus “cries aloud through deaths domains to wake the imprisoned dead.” Death does not hold us any more than it held Jesus. That is why the first command of the risen Lord is “do not hold onto me. I am ascending to my father.” Jesus was not returning to his old life. Jesus was not going back into the tomb so Mary didn’t need to either. Because of Jesus, the place where we ultimately go is not the tomb. So we don’t need to make it our home now.
No matter who we are, life has enough challenges in it that we can get stuck at times. Sometimes we are just plain frustrated with life. But there is power in living life looking forward. Though sometimes there is no power. In a theologically appropriate way for Good Friday, we heard a boom around noon here last Friday and all the power went out at the church. Not what you want the Friday afternoon before Easter. It partially came on for our Good Friday service and it was ok that not all the lights worked because Good Friday is a dimmed lights service anyway. But the organ not working on Easter was going to be a problem. So we began the process of renting an organ to be delivered here yesterday evening. Then our wonderful facilities manager and I held our own Easter weekend vigil with the Pepco customer service hot line. And in meeting with them yesterday morning here we finally saw the power come back on fully. But in the midst of it all, I thought about what we are celebrating this weekend and thought, “I can’t let this get to me. I can’t allow this frustration impact my celebration of a gift that makes my challenge relatively insignificant. Mine pales in comparison to the magnitude of Jesus’ sacrifice.”
I also gained perspective in thinking about the last time the power went out here at a significant time. Last July, this church hosted the wedding of a member from a long involved family. The trouble was that as a result of the storms last summer the church’s power was out for the nine days preceding the wedding. And it wasn’t always as cold as it was this month; last July was the hottest time of the year. 104 degrees outside on the day of the wedding. Even hotter inside. On the wedding day our parking lot had eight Georgia Power trucks in it that had come up from the south to help. After our nine days in the dark, they were able to restore power just three hours before the wedding. After the ceremony the couple, in wedding dress and tux, took a picture standing on one of the trucks. It turns out the bridesmaid who took the picture was friends with the son of the CEO of Georgia Power and sent him the picture, so on the quarterly shareholders report from Georgia Power last fall I understand there was a picture of the bride and groom in tux and wedding dress standing on a Georgia Power truck in our parking lot after the lights come on in time for their wedding.
Yet three hours was not enough time to cool it down after nine days of 100+ degree heat. It was still really, really hot inside. What impressed me though was that the couple was so gracious during the whole experience, focusing on the future and not asking “what if” or lamenting the imperfections of the moment. The frustrations and challenges of the moment paled in comparison to the power of their love. Even when it looked like there would be no power, they never got stuck. The frustrations of this world cannot overshadow the power of love.
Jesus comes to us in the tombs of life. There we find Jesus standing with us saying, “I will be there in the future, so that whatever happens, I will be there for you. I will be there when life lacks inspiration or meaning. I will be there when you feel like giving up on dreams or on relationships or on school or on hope for the world. I will be there because I love you.”
I sat with a man last week who has lived a long life but is facing some difficult choices. There had been some hard days in his past that led to great concern for the future. But I was moved to see how he gained real peace through his prayers about letting go of the past and living life looking forward because of the inspiration of God’s love. That is what Easter life can mean.
I love how novelist Anne Lamott puts it, “Easter says that love is more powerful than death….So that within the mystery of it, Easter is not about proving anything. It’s about choosing to believe one thing, that love is bigger than anything life can throw at us.”
Our scripture lesson ends with Mary at last turning away from the tomb. She is a different person as a result of what happened at Easter. The first sentence from John 20 about Easter morning tells us that Mary sees a stone by a tomb. In the last line of the narrative Mary proclaims, “I have seen the Lord.” And she goes forward to tell others what she had seen. She is able to share the greatest news in the history of the world. Because of Jesus, Mary’s focus shifts from the tomb to the life blooming in front of her.
The tomb did not hold Jesus and it won’t hold you either. Jesus is with you, leading you out of the tomb. You may feel all turned around or perhaps can’t always see him through the tears, but he is there. So whatever problem is holding you back, leave it in the tomb, and look for the beauty ahead. Follow the risen Christ out of the tomb. Into the future God has in store for you. Alleluia. Amen.