April 20, 2014 John 20: 1-18
It was unfinished.
We stayed there, fixed, until the end,
women waiting for the body that we loved;
and then it was unfinished.
There was no time to cherish, cleanse, anoint;
no time to handle him with love,
Since then, my hands have waited,
aching to touch even his deadness,
smoothe oil into bruises that no longer hurt,
offer his silent flesh my finished act of love.
I came early, as the darkness lifted,
to find the grave ripped open and his body gone;
container of my grief smashed, looted,
leaving my hands still empty.
I turned on the man who came:
‘They have taken away my Lord - where is his corpse?
Where is the body that is mine to greet?
He is not gone
I am not ready yet, I am not finished -
I cannot let him go
I am not whole.’
And then he spoke, no corpse,
and offered me my name.
My hands rushed to grasp him;
to hold and hug and grip his body close;
to give myself again, to cling to him,
and lose my self in love.
‘Don’t touch me now.’
I stopped, and waited, my rejected passion
hovering between us like some dying thing.
I, Mary, stood and grieved, and then departed.
I have a gospel to proclaim.
-- “They have taken away my Lord” by Janet Morley
Grief, shock, confusion, fear, denial, anger, depression, pain and tears. Their emotions were raw. Some, like Mary, had stood as witnesses to the event. Others cowered in hiding. I doubt any had slept. Jesus’ disciples had suffered a catastrophic loss. Traumatized after the one they loved - the one they had blindly followed, leaving behind jobs, homes, loved ones - the one in whom they’d placed all their hopes - the one who painstakingly was leading them to an understanding of truth, into relationship with God -
that one - mocked, humiliated, finally crucified.
Now what? An empty tomb - What were they to think? to do?
We’re told Simon Peter and John returned to their homes - to do what? go back to bed? cower in fear? tell the others what they had found? What must they be thinking?
But Mary remained, glued to the spot, overcome by grief and fear. It’s natural to selectively filter out that which we don’t want to see, or acknowledge. We close our eyes to things that frighten us. With tears clouding her vision, Mary mistook Jesus for the gardener. Such a human reaction. Consumed by our own losses and grief, how often do we close ourselves off, missing the real presence of God in our lives? Mary’s life had been transformed by Jesus. Now, with his death, all she could think was; ‘It will never be the same again’.
How often have you faced a life altering change, and thought; “Life, as I know it, will never be the same again.” Part of living is learning to surrender to the inevitability of change. With each change in our lives, we loose something familiar. There is a hole in our being that waits to be filled. Our natural reaction is to grieve that loss.
This past year in Boston, a lot of grieving has taken place. Our news reports these past weeks have been filled with stories of survivors of the Marathon Bombing - stories of people whose lives will never be the same - who have experienced that cycle of loss, grief and in many cases, healing and steps toward transformation and a new life.
Many have been returning to the finish line, that place of their unthinkable nightmare - returning to reclaim it as a place of hope. Photographer Robert Fogarty invited a group of survivors back to the finish line. I found his photography project on the internet. He introduces it with the following:
“When we asked you to return to the finish line, a place that changed your lives, we knew it wouldn’t be easy. You told us some days are harder than others, but that it’s okay to have bad days. Mostly you told us about the goodness of others. Collegues who babysat. School kids who sent notes. Neighbors who cooked dinner. What happened that day was terror. Terror happens when love is absent. Boston is a city of love stories now… as you heal, know you inspire the rest of us to be better still.”
I’ve read a lot of stories this past week of the survivors, and others who experienced first hand the tragic event of that day - and throughout their accounts I kept hearing the language of the Easter message:
from Anton Spaans: “Everything that happened last year and this year is a testament that love conquers all. Hateful acts can’t defeat acts of kindness and selflessness.”
and from Kevin White: “This years Marathon means a time of rebirth and a new day for myself and my family. It also means a time of proving to myself, the city and the world that our family and myself are stronger than ever.”
Tomorrow I imagine we’ll be seeing more resurrection stories crossing that finish line.
Our lives are made up of a series of losses, some easier to adjust to than others. Losses of loved ones are the most difficult. You are letting go of a part of your very being. At the same time a part of that loved one remains with us - always. My favorite time of day is when the sun is setting, when it is the most radiant and beautiful. Once it has passed over the horizon, we can’t see it, but it is still there, shining in a different place. How many of you have felt the presence of your loved one, even after they have gone?
When going through a life altering loss, our natural inclination is to want to hold on to what we had. We want life to be the way it used to be. We don’t want to let go. Mary was no different. When she heard Jesus speak her name, she came out of herself - out of her all consuming grief - and recognized him. She reached out, desperately trying to hold on to him. He was her life line. She wasn’t ready to let go. I doubt we ever are.
But he wouldn’t let her. “Don’t hold on to me. Don’t pin me down in the past.” He was in transition, moving into another life, one filled with the spirit of God - a life that she too would one day be welcomed into, but not now.
Jesus had transformed her life while he walked beside her and the other disciples on this earth.
He was about to transform their lives again, with a little help from the Holy Spirit. Jesus doesn’t invite Mary to come along. No, he sends her to spread the good news to the other disciples. They have more work to do, a gospel to preach. But that would take time. They had a greiving process to go through, and some fear to overcome.
The butterflies that decorate our sanctuary today are such a fitting symbol for Easter. Jesus was no longer earthbound like the caterpillar. New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan describes Jesus as ‘God in sandals’. After the Easter event, the sandals are missing. Jesus doesn’t need them anymore. He has wings to fly. We’re still in that caterpillar stage, or maybe some of us are in the chrysalis stage (confined in that little, clear bag, with our wings on but not yet released.)
What the disciples were yet to understand, was that by letting Jesus go, he would be with them forever. Once we leave our bodies, we are no longer confined by space and time. No wonder Mary didn’t recognize him. It wasn’t just her tears clouding her vision. Jesus had taken on a new life. And she began to be awakened from her grief. Joy was on the horizon.
While reading John Welshons’ beautiful and insightful book, Awakening from Grief, I realized that this is what Easter is all about - awakening from grief and finding our way back to joy and hope. It’s about rebirth and transformation. How fitting that Patriot’s Day and the Boston Marathon follow Easter this year.
We are all on a spiritual journey towards wholeness - a continuing cycle of change, loss, grief and awakening. And the awakening happens in our hearts. Welshons, who works with those who are dying and in grief, tells us;
“The healing of grief begins when we allow our hearts to be open and vulnerable, when we allow ourselves into them, and allow our wounds and sorrows to be healed by them. While our cultural conditioning has been to close our hearts at times of sadness and fear, the true healing takes place when we open them to absorb the darkness, and swallow it into the infinite light they contain.”
Carlos Arrendondo, another survivor of the marathon bombing, speaks for many others when he recounts: “It’s been a year of grieving, and of moving on with life, healing through the support of others. It’s been a year of overwhelming kindness. Oh my goodness, the overwhelming kindness.”
That light Welshons talks about is our spirit or soul, that part of God that is within us. Welshons says “The miracle is that our very own hearts offer us the opportunity for growth, for completeness, for forgiveness, for nurturing and for the realization of infinite opportunities...When our hearts are broken, they are also wide open. Our task is to fill the openness with love, awareness, and compassion for others, not with bitterness and self-pity.”
That same spirit that is within Jesus is within each of us. Each time we open our hearts, we are filled with the spirit and move closer into the heart of God. That is our life’s work.
One of the bombing survivors wrote across her body when she revisited the finish line, “Love is stronger than terror.” That is what the disciples were about to discover that Easter morning.
There are times when, in order to open our hearts, we first have to roll away the stone that is blocking our way to the light, holding us in our self-made tombs. We find ourselves stumbling through a field of rocks on our spiritual pilgrimage to God. They may be rocks of grief and loss, or rocks of compulsive behaviors, fear, insecurities, unbelief. Like Mary, transformation requires letting go. Faith is trusting that God is with us on our journey.
As you came in this morning, you picked up a rock, which I ask you now to hold. Take a look at it, at it’s color, texture, size, shape. What does this rock symbolize for you? What grief - burden are you carrying today. It could be the loss of someone close to you, the loss of a job, health, or just an annoying habit you’d like to get rid of. What do you need to let go of in order to experience the resurrection power of Christ - to move a little closer into the light - into the heart of God?
As you picked up those rocks, you uncovered a picture of a butterfly, which now has a clear glass bowl with water sitting on top of it. As you leave today I invite you to place your stone in that bowl, which symbolizes the heart of God. Lighten your load, just a little.
Please be with me in prayer:
May the God whose power breaks through the stone,
break into your life and free you from all that binds you;
May the Risen Christ whose love is stronger than death
speak your name and bring you new life and joy;
May the Spirit who walks the road with you
give you wisdom to understand and courage to share
God’s new life for the whole world. Amen