April 16, 2017 John 20: 1-18
Avery and Marsh wrote a catchy little tune that begins “Every morning is Easter morning from now on.” But is it? What does an Easter morning look like?
Growing up, Easter mornings meant going to church in a new dress and hat, maybe even a new pair of patent leather Mary Jane’s. I’m aging myself here. It meant the arrival of baby chicks or bunnies at our house - real live ones! - that sometimes escaped from their cages in the middle of the night and left little calling cards around the house - much to my father’s chagrin! It meant coloring eggs, Easter egg hunts - candy! and lots of good food shared with relatives and friends. Easter was a day we looked forward to. It was a special occasion, not something we celebrated every day. So how could every morning possibly be an Easter morning?
We have to go back nearly 2,000 years to that very first Easter morning to begin to understand how that might be possible - or why it should be. And believe me, that Easter looked nothing like ours today.
They didn’t call it Easter then. They weren’t sure what to call it - or what exactly had happened? - or who witnessed the event? - or who was the first one on the scene? - or what evidence was left there? - or who told who what? - or who saw Jesus? - and what did he look like and say? Lost in all the grief, confusion and excitement of the moment were the specifics.
The stories of that fateful morning were whispered in hushed tones behind closed doors, and later gossiped to neighbors. By the time four writers penned what they had heard, with their own take on it, the stories were not exactly carbon copies of each other.
But no matter. The message was not in the details. So we pick one account each Easter and see how it speaks to us that year. My favorite is from John, maybe it’s because I’m a woman, and he’s focused his story around the reaction of a woman, who came to the grave alone, in the darkness of predawn, struggling with her own dark night of the soul.
We hear it in John 20:1-18
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 towards 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 round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ 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.
So you see, their Easter morning didn’t look or sound anything like ours - no alleluias sung, or flowers decorating a sanctuary. Just an empty tomb, Jesus looking like a gardener, and a message to take back to the other disciples.
He was still around, but not for long, and nothing was ever going to be quite the same again. That morning changed the course of their lives, and the future of the world, only they didn’t realize it at the time - not really. That first Easter morning was only the beginning of many to follow.
Almost 2,000 Easter mornings have passed since then. We get all excited about the big day - and then it’s over and gone. The candy and eggs are eaten. The relatives have gone home. The bunnies outgrow their cage and are given to the local petting zoo (unless your bunny belongs to the Holt family and visits Eliot each Easter.) And life goes back to normal. When that happens, we’ve missed the whole meaning of Easter. We’re left with 365 days until it rolls around again. We forget that every morning has the potential to be an Easter morning.
Those of you who have planned your wedding know that after the big day is over, the real work of marriage begins. Prior to the Easter event, you might say Jesus and his disciples were in their courtship phase. That all came crashing down around them as he died a shameful death on a cross, his broken body encased in a tomb. That first Easter morning Jesus’ disciples were encased in their own tombs - buried in fear, grief, hopelessness - blinded by their circumstance - stopped dead in their tracks - not knowing what to do or say next.
In our own story this morning, Mary, through her tears, can’t even recognize Jesus standing right in front of her. How often have you been blinded by your own circumstances, wallowing in your emotions, unaware of God’s presence in your life? Like Mary, and the others, how do we emerge from the dark night of our souls into the light of Christ?
As I thought about my message this Easter, I was reminded of a story in Rachel Naomi Remen’s book, Kitchen Table Wisdom. It sheds some light on the disciples and our human dilemma.
It’s the story of a young man she counseled some years ago - a handsome college athlete, whose good life came to a crashing halt when his right leg had to be removed above the knee due to osteogenic sarcoma. He came to Remen filled with a sense of injustice and self-pity, hating everyone who was well. She gave him a drawing pad and asked him to draw a picture of his body. “He drew a crude sketch of a vase, just an outline. Running through the center of it he drew a deep crack. He went over and over the crack with a black crayon … the drawing was a powerful statement of his pain and the finality of his loss.”
But, “With time his anger began to change in subtle ways.” He began to bring in newspaper articles of other young people who had suffered from debilitating accidents or illness.” One day he asked if it would be possible to meet some other young people who had suffered injuries like his. She made arrangements and within weeks he was visiting young people on the surgical wards of the hospital. “He came back from these visits full of stories, delighted to find that he could reach young people….
On a hot midsummer day, wearing shorts, his artificial leg in full view” he visited a deeply depressed twenty-one year old woman who had just had a double mastectomy. He tried everything he know to reach her, to no avail. Finally he took off his artificial leg and flung it on the floor. “Startled, she opened her eyes and saw him for the first time. Encouraged, he began to hop around the room snapping his fingers in time to the music and laughing out loud. After a moment she burst out laughing too. ‘Fella’, she said, ‘if you can dance, maybe I can sing.’”
She “became his friend and began to visit people in the hospital with him… She encouraged him to return to school and study psychology and dream of carrying his work further. Eventually she became his wife.”
In their final meeting Remen opened his chart and found the picture he had drawn two years before. “He took it in his hands and looked at it for some time. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘it’s really not finished’…taking a yellow crayon, he began to draw lines radiating from the crack in the vase to the very edges of the paper. Thick yellow lines… He was smiling. Finally he put his finger on the crack … and said softly, ‘This is where the light comes through.’”
Remen ends that story telling us that “Suffering is intimately connected to wholeness. The power in suffering to promote integrity is not only a Christian belief, it has been a part of almost every religious tradition … Suffering shapes the life force, sometimes into anger, sometimes into blame and self-pity. Eventually it may show us the freedom of loving and serving life.”
That first Easter morning the light came through. It shone out of that empty tomb where Jesus’ broken body had once laid. It shone in the figure of Christ as he appeared to his disciples in the days to come. It took time to reach the disciples through the cracks in the tombs they had encased themselves in. It took time for them to recognize it in their lives, but their transformation was beginning.
Jesus was calling them back into the light - into God’s presence - into a new life, just as he was moving into a new life with God. Mary recognized him when he spoke her name. The light dawned on her and her darkness was dispelled. Jesus was alive. Even in the dark night of our souls, God is there calling us by name.
Paul reassures us in Romans: “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38)
Mary responded by addressing Jesus as “Rabboni” - the word for teacher in Hebrew, for he taught her, as he teaches us today, the way into the heart of God. On that first Easter morning and the Easter mornings that were to follow, Jesus disciples were transformed from followers to doers.
The Apostle’s Creed, that I knew by heart as a child, ends with the words “I believe in the resurrection of the body and life in the world to come.” When we recite those words, I believe we are saying that Jesus was raised in the lives of his followers. We - all of us - are the resurrection! We are now the body of Christ. Christ’s ministry is now our ministry.
I don’t know what religious affiliation, if any, the young man in Remen’s story had, but he got the message of Easter: dying to an old way of being, and being reborn into a new way. Through his pain and anger, God’s light shone through him, leading him to the freedom to once again love and serve others. Transformation, new birth doesn’t happen overnight. That’s why we need to make every morning an Easter morning.
It’s Easter morning when we wake up to the presence of God no matter where we are or what we are doing.
It’s Easter morning when we feel compassion for the suffering of someone and are moved to do something about it.
It’s Easter morning when we see God’s image in one who is not in our image.
It’s Easter morning when we have found a vocation that feeds our hearts and draws us closer to God and each other.
It’s Easter morning when we wake up inspired to go out and do the work that has to be done in Jesus’ name.
It’s Easter morning when we wake up and can forgive someone even if they don’t deserve it.
It’s Easter morning when we look for the holy in everything and everyone around us and then pronounce it good.
By waking up to an Easter morning the world will start to look different, and so will you. Go from this sanctuary today and fill yourselves with the awe of an Easter morning.