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.
Carlos was a two-year-old in his mothers’ arms when he was brought to the US from El Salvador. He grew up in the projects in L.A., got into a gang, which meant trouble, and time in prison. At 25 he was deported to a country he had never known, leaving behind his whole family, including his lady and his three-year-old daughter. Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, has spent the last 30 years working to transform the lives of gang members in L.A. His are resurrection stories, ones of transformation from despair and fear to new birth. He tells Carlos’ story in one of my favorite books “Barking to the Choir.”
Many, many months had passed, he writes, and I hadn’t heard from Carlos… until one day he called to tell that he was back in Los Angeles and needed to see me. I had known him as a chubby kid … The man in front of me now was gaunt. He had been on a most perilous odyssey …His saga was months long, filled with harrowing starts and stops. He’d get so far in his trek home, then would get turned back by robbers or crooked authorities, nearly starving or freezing to death. There were terrifying accounts of leaping out of moving trains and rolling down embankments, sometimes enduring great injury. …
He made it as far as somewhere in Mexico, where a gang of robbers didn’t just relieve him of what little money and valuables he had but stripped him and left him alone. Somehow he managed to tiptoe his way into a tiny Mexican village, darting behind trees. … His torso was covered in gang tattoos. When people began to notice him, he explained that he had been robbed. Villager after villager began to hand him pieces of clothing. After some time, there he stood, fully clothed in other people’s kindness.
He was so overwhelmed by the fact that no one denied him or turned him away. “I made a promise like a vow. I would be kind from now on because of these people’s kindness to me.” And so he did, and it marked every interaction with any other human being as he made his way home.
He encountered a young mother with a daughter, whom he adopted in his kindness vow, watching over them. He schooled them on riding the rails and hustled up food, often going without so that they could eat. He protected them from those who might want to cause them harm.
One day, as they were riding on top of a train, they passed slowly through a town before picking up speed again. They spotted a small evangelical church with a sign out in front. It was the kind of sign you’d see announcing the theme of Sundays’ sermon. The message in Spanish, unbelievably, said: “Carlos, I Am With You.” Carlos knew that it wasn’t just a sign, but an actual ‘sign’ — a confirmation of the purity of his vow and the truth of his goodness and promise. Tears streamed down his face as the train left the small town. The tenderness that was always and already there, found …. he knew that he was going home, that it would happen. What goes around comes around.
“Carlos, I am with you.” That’s an Easter message, if ever there was one. Christ is with us, in times of fear and despair, loss and grief, when we’ve lost our way, and when we’ve found it, if only we open our hearts to let him in. Carlos opened his heart.
The disciples had opened their hearts to Jesus, placing all their hopes in him and his message. They had blindly followed, leaving behind jobs, homes and loved ones. Now the one they loved had been mocked, humiliated, and finally crucified. Their emotions were raw that morning: grief, shock, confusion, fear, denial, anger, depression, pain and tears.
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 have been 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 lose something familiar. There is a hole in our being that waits to be filled.
Our lives are made up of a series of changes and loses, some easier to adjust to than others. But with each loss, comes a new beginning. We are transformed in some way. That is resurrection, coming back to life, new life. Carlos had to let go, of old patterns in his life, actions that led him to prison and deportation. By making that vow of kindness, he was transformed and began a new life.
Are there things you have to let go of in your life in order to make room for a new life? new ideas? new ways of doing things? Those of you at Eliot will be asking yourselves these questions as you look to the future and new life with new pastors.
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 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.
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 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 - the good news that there is life after all the little or big deaths we encounter throughout our lifetimes. They are not the end, only the beginning of something new.
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, metaphorically speaking. What the disciples are 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.
He couldn’t be confined by that tomb. His message, his teachings, even his very presence, albeit in a different form, remains with us, loves us, supports us, guides us, if we open our hearts to it. This makes Jesus a figure of the present, not merely the past, grounded in the experience of Christ throughout the centuries.
The Catholic mystic, Thomas Merton, speaks of these encounters, “A true encounter with Christ liberates something in us, a power we did not know we had, a hope, a capacity to live, a resilience, an ability to bounce back when we thought we were completely defeated, a capacity to grow and change, a power of creative transformation.”
This is what happened to Carlos on his harrowing journey back home to his family. Christ had worked through those Mexican villagers, showing him kindness; and then that sign reminding him “Carlos I am with you.” Like Paul on the road to Damascus, and those unnamed disciples on the road to Emmaus he was on a road to transformation.
While on retreat this month I attended a lecture and discussion about prayer led by one of the monks at Glastonbury Abbey. We shared times when we recognized the presence of God or Jesus in our lives. They seemed to come unexpectedly, in so many different ways.
I remembered a time when I was questioning my careers as an actress and artist. I was attending an annual meeting of our conference, finding myself a bit jealous of women I met that were now in seminary. As I sat down under a giant oak tree to meditate, I inexplicably burst into tears, sobbing for some unknown reason.
And a voice came to me telling me not to worry, continue with my careers and my work at the church, and in time, it would be made known to me, where the next journey was leading, but it would take at least 7 years. That time frame was not what I wanted to hear, but a feeling of peace came over me, and a confidence that the Spirit would lead.
In those ensuing years that message was clarified in so many ways: through dreams, meditation, books people gave me to read, family and friends, out of the blue, asking me if I had thought about going into ministry, and even my mother’s illness and death led me to my call.
Ministry has transformed me and my life in more ways than I can count. And when I retire this summer I trust the Spirit will lead me on new paths and new transformations. Christ keeps appearing, showing us the way. We spend our lives learning what the reality of resurrection looks like, feels like, because it keeps happening in new ways every day of our lives.
In 2017 I ended my sermon with these words. This being my last Easter sermon, I thought they bare repeating:
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 at 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.
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. I opened a book last week to the following prayer. I have no idea who wrote it, but it spoke to me of an Easter morning.
“Days pass and the years vanish and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing. Let there be moments when your Presence, like lightning, illuminates the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns, unconsumed. And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness and exclaim in wonder, “How filled with awe is this place and we did not know it,” (found in My Grandfather’s Blessings by Remen). Go from this sanctuary today and fill yourselves with the awe of an Easter morning.