Sunday, April 08, 2012

We Will Dance Upon Our Graves: Easter Sunday Sermon, April 8, 2012

I was inspired by "Mary Magdalene's Story" by Heather Johnston, in Geoffrey Duncan, compiler, Let Justice Roll Down: A Worship Resource for Lent, Holy Week and Easter (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2003), pp. 231-233.

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Brothers and sisters, I want to call your attention to the good news that I preached to you, which you also received and in which you stand. You are being saved through it if you hold on to the message I preached to you, unless somehow you believed it for nothing.

I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures. He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve, and then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at once—most of them are still alive to this day, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me, as if I were born at the wrong time. I’m the least important of the apostles. I don’t deserve to be called an apostle, because I harassed God’s church. I am what I am by God’s grace, and God’s grace hasn’t been for nothing. In fact, I have worked harder than all the others—that is, it wasn’t me but the grace of God that is with me. So then, whether you heard the message from me or them, this is what we preach and this is what you have believed.
- 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Common English Bible

Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.”

Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying.

Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”

Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).

Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”

Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.
- John 20:1-18, Common English Bible

Mary Magdalene, Mary from the town of Magdala in Galilee. She rises very early on that Sunday morning, while it is still dark, and as she wakes the terrible memories come back and she knows that the last few days have not just been a bad dream. Jesus - the man who had healed her of a mental illness; the man she had looked to for compassion and understanding - is dead. She and the other women had watched in horror as he carried his cross outside the city, then they had wept for him as the Roman soldiers hung him on it and left him to his agony. The women had watched by themselves, because the male friends of Jesus had all deserted him and were in hiding. Then she seemed to move in a daze with the little group of his supporters who took his body to the tomb.

Now she gets up and carries a jar of ointment so that she can do some of the burial preparations neglected in the rush on Friday. There are faint light streaks in the sky as she heads out. She meets up with other women who had followed Jesus and watched him die. They ask each other how they can enter the tomb when there is a heavy stone sealing its entrance.

It is still quite dark in the garden where the tomb is located, but is getting just light enough to see that the stone has been rolled away to expose the entrance. The body of Jesus must be gone! They have been denied even this one last thing they were going to do for him. The shocked women back into the city, to the house where the followers of Jesus are holed up, and they whisper urgently through the locked door that it is them, let them in. Mary breathlessly tells them, “They’ve taken our Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.”

And then Mary is gasping for breath again as she runs behind two of the men, Peter and another friend of Jesus, as they race to the tomb. The other friend is the fastest, and arrives first. The sun is coming up now, so as he stoops down he can make out the linen burial cloths inside the tomb, but he hesitates to go further. Then Peter runs up, enters and sees that the cloths are folded neatly. His friend goes in after him, sees and believes, but what? How is the body gone? The two men look around, then head back into the city before someone comes along and reports that they have taken the corpse.

Mary Magdalene stays there, left alone near the tomb, trying to make sense of all of this, tears streaming down her face, probably out of breath from her run. She realizes that someone is standing behind her, a man who asks, “Why are you crying? Who are you looking for?” She still has her gaze set on the tomb, and without turning replies, “Are you the gardener? If you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”

And then the man speaks again. And her heart jumps as she recognizes the voice, the voice she thought she would never hear again. “Mary,” Jesus says.

She turns, hardly daring to believe what she is hearing. “Teacher,” she says, and reaches out her hands to him, but Jesus says, “Don’t hold on to me. I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them that you have seen me.” And when she wipes away her tears, he is gone. And she is off running again, into the city with the news, wondering if anyone will believe her when the words explode from her, “I have seen the Lord.”

What a story. Of all of the friends of Jesus, of all the people in the world, Mary Magdalene is the first witness to the resurrection, the only one who knows that Jesus is alive. And she is sent to tell everyone.

You know, these last few weeks have been tough for folks here - as hard for some people as the last days before Easter were for the friends of Jesus. I lost track of the number of funerals in Ingleside, Finch, and Morrisburg. At one point the funeral director and I realized that we had seen each other every day for four days straight. Some of us seemed constantly to be going to a funeral visitation or service.

So we can know something of the emotions of that group following Jesus. Any of us who have experienced the death of a loved one know how grief overwhelms us and it feels as if we’re just going through the motions of life. We want to be like those friends of Jesus, in hiding and not coming out. Last Easter my mother died on the Saturday morning, and I felt as if I was one of those in Jerusalem on that long ago weekend, devastated by death, emotionally raw, and wondering what comes next.

This last month it’s been as if we’re surrounded by death. And we are. We have been coping with the deaths of people we know. And around us is a culture of death which celebrates death in video games and TV shows and movies, a Good Friday world in which nations kill to preserve peace and security, just as an empire killed Jesus to keep order.

And so we can understand, and relate to, the characters in the story: Peter - who sees but returns home; the unnamed other friend, who sees and believes, but isn't sure what; and Mary, who goes from grief to joy. You know, many of us have heard the Easter story our whole lives. Yet we still wonder about it. We still struggle with it. We’re still unsure what it means for us as we cope with death. We hear the story, and we want to believe it, but we’re still hesitant. Facing the death of loved ones and friends, we’re like Mary Magdalene, crying in sorrow.

We had another reading this morning, from the first letter to the Corinthians. Paul, who wrote this letter, joined the Jesus movement long after that first Easter, but he tells the Corinthian church about what he was told: Jesus died for us as the Scriptures said, he was buried, and he rose from the dead, again in line with the Scriptures. Then he appeared to his followers.

We stopped reading at that point. But this chapter was also read at my mother’s funeral, and it continues: "If Christ hasn’t been raised, then our faith is useless. If we have hope in Christ only in this life, then we deserve to be pitied more than anyone else." But, Paul says, "in fact Christ has been raised from the dead. He’s the first crop of the harvest of those who have died." Paul means here that Jesus being raised from death at Easter is the first of many resurrections to come, as all the dead will be raised. Paul says, "each event will happen in the right order: Christ, the first crop of the harvest, then those who belong to Christ at his coming, and then the end," when he brings every authority and power to an end, including death. And Paul concludes this chapter with stirring words: "we will all be changed, in an instant, at the blink of an eye, at the final trumpet. The trumpet will blast, and the dead will be raised with bodies that won’t decay, and we will all be changed. Death has been swallowed up by a victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"

Paul also writes to another group of believers, the Thessalonians, telling them, "brothers and sisters, we want you to know about people who have died so that you won’t grieve like others who don’t have any hope. Since we believe that Jesus died and rose, so we also believe that God will bring with him those who have died in Jesus."

Brothers and sisters, because of Easter, death may still be with us, but it has no sting. All of the dead will be raised.

I was in Nashville, Tennessee, last fall, and got into a lot of new country and gospel music there. I was listening to two women from Texas, who call themselves The Reliques, and they have a song called The Love of God. They sing, “I will dance upon my grave, when you’re calling out my name.”

It’s been difficult this last while to think about dancing on graves. But Jesus was raised to show that nothing, not even death, can separate us from God’s love. Jesus was raised to free us from death’s hold on us. Jesus was raised to break the power of all death: physical death, the death of relationships and dreams and hopes, the death inherent in human systems based on violence. Death will come to an end

Right now it’s hard to feel like this is an Easter world. It’s still a Good Friday world much of the time. But Easter is the first day of the week, the first day of a world changed forever, because of that moment when Mary Magdalene in her grief hears a familiar voice say her name. The Lord of heaven and earth, through whom and for whom everything was created, who did not exploit equality with the Creator but emptied himself to become human, to suffer with us, and go to death on a cross – Christ speaks her name with love. We may not recognize him through our tears, but he is there, speaking our names so that we will not grieve as people do who have no hope, speaking our names so that hope can set us free from sorrow to share the new life of Easter with others.

Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes with the dawn. We will dance upon our graves, when Christ is calling out our names. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

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