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Roll Call

John 20:1-18

(Sermon preached at Calvary Presbyterian Church, SF, on Easter 2019)


According to John, the discovery of the risen Christ began in darkness.  The first line of John’s account of Easter reads:  “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still DARK…”. As early as we are here for this morning’s Sunrise Service, we are already too late.  However we may think about the resurrection, John has it taking place under the cover of night.  Mary Magdalene went to the tomb because earlier in the week Jesus had been killed.  With his death, her hopes died.  After an overnight trip on the train from the Bay Area where I had gone to attend my brother’s wedding back home to Central Oregon where I was serving a church, I walked into the house early the next morning, when it was still dark, and the phone was ringing.  My brother was on the other end of the call and his first words were, “Dad just died.”  Earlier this week, someone heard the words, “I have never loved you.”  Earlier this week, someone received terrible news from a physician.  Earlier this week, someone’s hope was crucified.  And the darkness is overwhelming.  We are not ready to encounter Easter until we have spent time in the dark place where hope cannot be seen.  Easter is the last thing we are expecting.  And this is why it terrifies us.  

I. On that first Easter morning, Mary came to the cemetery in grief.  She came expecting to find Jesus’ body in order to give it a proper burial.  But she arrived to find the stone in front of the cave removed and the tomb empty.  It shocked her and threw her into fear and confusion.  Her mind went immediately to the logical conclusion that someone had taken the body.  What other possibility was there?  Dead bodies do not simply disappear.  Someone had to have moved it.  There was no doubt as to what Mary was thinking because in our story, Mary makes almost the exact same statement three times—first to the two disciples, next to the two angels, and finally to the gardener, who in fact was Jesus.  “They have taken my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.”  Mary wanted to find the body and to do the proper thing, to bring closure.  It is like the frantic searches that go on after an earthquake or a mudslide or fires and floods; the bodies of loved ones must be found!  So in the Gospel of John, most of the action in the light of Easter Day is made up of people literally running around trying to come to terms with what God has done in the night.  

II. But so often, expecting and doing the logical thing keeps us from seeing other possibilities.  Expecting the logical prevents us from accepting change.  Doing the logical keeps us from experiencing something new and different.  When Mary talked with Jesus at the tomb, she thought she was talking with the gardener.  Mary was so obsessed with doing the expected, the proper and logical thing, that she did not even recognize Jesus.  It’s being stuck in the past, like going to a class reunion.  After 45 years, we have gone through many joys and sorrows, accomplishments and disappointments, successes and failures, much pride and shame, and we are never the same person we once were when we go to our high school or college reunions.  And no matter how much we love our families, don’t our family gatherings feel sometimes like hollow obligations and not occasions of real intimacy and communion?  I can remember how terribly depressed I got when my daughter left home for college.  I’m still trying to say goodbye.  We are like Mary who cried out in fear and alarm, “Someone has taken the body away.”  Our cry is along the lines of “Someone has taken away our traditions, our familiar surroundings, our comfortable settings, our memories, our relationships.”  And like Mary who tried to blame the gardener, we attempt also to find someone to blame.  We might blame our parents, our children.  We might blame our ministers and our politicians.  We might blame institutions like the church for changing in ways we don’t approve of, for not staying the way we remembered.  We honor and learn from the past, of course, but we cannot be chained to it.  Someone once said, “If you want to live, you have to die.”  Life is living in suspension between a dying world and a world waiting to be born.  Jesus made reference to putting new wine in new containers rather than cramming into old, for if you did so, both wine and container would be destroyed and lost.  Kierkegaard said, “The unhappiest person is one who lives in a past that has never come or hopes for a future which has already past.”  And so Jesus said to Mary, “Don’t cling to me, for I am ascending to God…”

III. Following Jesus is a never-ending process of losing him the moment we have him captured only to discover him anew in an even more unmanageable form.  Every expectation of Jesus is only another futile effort to get him back in the tomb.  But Jesus just won’t stay there.  What we long for, what we miss and want God to give back, is dead.  Easter doesn’t change that.  We cannot cling to the hope that Jesus will take us back to the way it was.  The way out of darkness is only by moving ahead.  There is a resurrection that comes of grief.  The one who grieves is herself resurrected as someone new, with a new understanding of herself and of God.  Mary’s turning point comes when she tearfully describes how Jesus, her loved one, her hoped-for one, is not only dead but missing.  Then God calls her by name, revealing that the one she thought she lost was right in front of her.  She brings tears to the tomb and leaves celebrating new life.  Resurrection faith comes out of living and struggling BEFORE it comes from believing.  That is how I read the scriptures.  The author in Genesis could not write:  “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…” until he had pondered why there was life.  The Psalmist could not sing:  “The Lord is my shepherd…” until he had struggled with aimlessness and futility.  Job could not claim:  “I know that my Redeemer lives…” until he had agonized with the misery of his existence.  Paul could not affirm:  “We know that in everything God works for good…” until he had been pestered by that thorn in his flesh.  


I used to make the long trip on I-5, between Warm Springs, Oregon, and San Francisco, CA several times a year.  Often in a particularly long stretch through some hot, dry, terrain, I run into lots of bugs.  I remember in particular hitting a huge butterfly once, it was a monarch.  Rather than being mashed against the grill as I’d imagine, the butterfly was wedged into the gap along the edge of the hood.  When I stopped for gas, I needed to check the oil, and as I released the latch and lifted the hood, the butterfly beat its wings with a power of its own and rose up and flew away.  Maybe I should not have been surprised since Monarchs do make huge long seasonal migrations.  So even though I had smashed into that butterfly at 70 miles an hour, seeing it fly away serves as a testimony to life’s power and triumph.  Isn’t that what Easter is about?  It’s about people suffering with painful cancer, and yet continuing to live their lives to the fullest.  Their living, even as they are dying, give witness to the strength of the human spirit, a spirit that is empowered when it hears Jesus call its name.  Easter is about hearing your name called.  And if you’re wondering how you can hear your name called, it is learning to listen.  Your name is called at least once a week, every Sunday.  For every Sunday is Easter!  We gather to worship week in and week out to learn to listen to Jesus, who calls each of us, by name.  And when we are able to hear Jesus calling our names, we will then be like Mary, who was able to turn her fear and anguish into a confession of faith, saying:  I HAVE SEEN THE LORD!

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