April 12, 2020
“Looking for Resurrection” – Easter Sunday Worship
Sermon for Easter Day, April 12, 2020
You know, I think we’d be forgiven if today doesn’t feel much like Easter. Here at St. Andrew’s, there are no kids with Easter baskets running through the churchyard. There are just the four of us here in the room this morning, appropriately distanced. You know, just in case you were wondering, seeing the pews empty on Easter morning is right up there on the top-10 list of a priest’s recurring nightmares.
It’s hard to see new life when you feel afraid and alone. So far in this Holy Week, we’ve traveled with Jesus to betrayal, arrest, torture, crucifixion, and burial. And at the same time, as cosmic timing would have it, we’ve watched coronavirus cases perhaps reach their peak – so far, about 20,000 deaths in our nation. Last Sunday, the surgeon general described this as our generation’s “Pearl Harbor moment, our 9/11 moment,” and so it feels.1 As morbidity and mortality reach their peak, and as those of us here in Kansas City begin our 20th day under stay-at-home orders, and as we don masks just to enter the grocery store – we know more about fear and isolation than we’ve ever known before.
In that fear and isolation, we are not alone. Try to imagine how the disciples felt after that first Holy Week. We know the story’s Easter ending even as we walk the way of the cross, but they didn’t. For Mary Magdalene and Peter and James and John and Andrew and the rest, Sunday was just day 3 since all hell broke loose. They’d been locking themselves away, deeply fearful of what might happen if they stepped out into the world around them. Maybe the plot was bigger than Judas. They didn’t know whom to trust; the same authorities who killed their Lord were probably looking for them, too. Anyone shopping in the market could be a threat. So, they were staying put – hiding out, hunkered down, isolated, and afraid.
That is, except for Mary Magdalene, the disciple on the front lines. She can’t stay inside, in relative safety, because she has essential work to do. Now that the sabbath day is past, Mary gets up early on Sunday morning; and under the cover of darkness, she goes to finish preparing Jesus’ body for burial. She figures she’ll do her work as quickly as she can and then get back to hiding out.
But as soon as she gets to the tomb, she sees events have gone from bad to worse. They only thing more awful than having to bury someone you love is seeing that his body’s been stolen – and God only knows what’s been done to it. “Really?” Mary is thinking. “It’s not enough to kill him and lock us all away?”
So, Mary goes back to get Peter and John. They run through the dark streets, avoiding the people in the market setting up for the day’s work; and they see what Mary saw. But Peter and John are paralyzed with fear. And figuring they can’t do anything about this now, they creep back to their hideout in the half-light of dawn.
So, Mary is left there, weeping. Unable to solve the problem, she sticks her head into the cave tomb – and there she sees the last thing she expects to see: “two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying” (John 20:12). The angels ask her why she’s weeping, and she chokes back tears to tell the awful story.
Then Mary turns around in the half-light, and she sees someone standing behind her. She hears him asking what’s wrong; but in her fear and grief, she doesn’t really hear him. She thinks it’s the gardener, and she’s hoping against hope he knows something – maybe he moved the body from this new, clean tomb to some common pauper’s tomb, someplace fitting for a murdered political prisoner. She just wants to finish her work and get back into hiding before something else awful happens. But – as she stumbles through her explanation and tries to find out what the heck’s going on – the man interrupts her.
And in Mary’s world, everything changes. It’s not the gardener, it’s Jesus – himself, but not exactly like himself. She tries to hold him, but now’s not the time, he says. Instead, she’s got new work to do – not scuttling through dark streets and hiding out, but the work of witnessing. Mary finds her voice, and she goes back to the hideout to say the only words that could have made dawn break for Jesus’ friends that day. She tells them, “I have seen the Lord!” (20:18). Her message of resurrection boils down to the one thing the disciples most needed to hear: that they are not alone.
We might wonder why Mary didn’t recognize Jesus as soon as he appeared. Part of it has to do with the new life of resurrection itself. There’s a difference between resuscitation and resurrection. Earlier in the Gospel story, the dead man Lazarus had been resuscitated – absolutely a miracle, but Lazarus’ earthly body eventually would die again. Resurrection is different. The resurrected Jesus is completely himself, but he’s also different than the man his friends had known. The resurrected Jesus can pass through locked doors yet still enjoy a good fish dinner. The resurrected Jesus can be in Jerusalem, appearing to the disciples, but also on the road to Emmaus, appearing to some of the story’s minor characters. In resurrected life, we are ourselves, but different.
So, that’s one reason Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus, but I think there’s more to it than that. It’s also about Mary. Remember, in that moment, Mary is a case study in what happens to us in isolation and fear. She’s figuring the authorities will come after her, too. Since Friday afternoon, she and the other disciples probably haven’t set foot outside. Now, when she has to go out, she finds her leader’s body is missing. She’s frustrated and angry … and even more alone than she already felt. Not only is he dead, but he’s gone. So, I’m thinking part of the reason Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus is that she feels too afraid and too alone even to conceive of new life being possible.
That is, she doesn’t recognize Jesus until he speaks to her. This is a stunning part of the story of new life: In his triumph, having defeated the cosmic powers of sin and death, Jesus doesn’t go to the crowd and perform a miracle. He doesn’t drive the chief priests and scribes out of the Temple. He doesn’t take over Pilate’s royal palace. He shows up in the last way Mary would have expected – as someone like her, someone who gets up early and goes to work, a nobody, a gardener. Jesus defies everything Mary knew to be true that morning: her isolation, her fear, her own place in God’s heart. He upends her reality; and, simply by speaking to her, he tells the truth she most needed to hear: Do not fear, for you’re not alone.
Do not fear, for you’re not alone. That goes for us, too. That goes for you, too.
If we listen, we can hear the risen Christ speaking to us through nothing more special than the stuff of daily life. That’s because, typically, God doesn’t come to us in thunderous proclamations as much as in a word from the gardener, some unlikely herald of God’s power and presence when we feel weak and alone. But the thing is, like Mary Magdalene, we have to set aside our fear and loneliness long enough to see and hear God breaking in with life made new.
Like an artist who excels at every medium, God reaches each of us in the forms we can best appreciate. I see divine life in the beauty and majesty of creation – God’s best work all around us now in spring, the reawakening of earth. I see divine life in the daily commitment of the young woman across the street from me who drives off in her scrubs each morning to serve others at her own risk. I hear divine life in the phone calls people don’t have to make but make anyway, just to check and see how someone’s doing. I see divine life in safely distanced driveway lunches or happy hours with friends on Zoom – moments that remind you how much you love those faces you’ve missed seeing up close.
For me, in the past two weeks, I’ve also seen divine life in the gift of sidewalk art from kids down the street. I told you last Sunday about the beautiful work I came across walking my dog, concrete squares bearing panels of what looked like stained glass, with this divine imperative: “You are loved; don’t give up,” a stunning proclamation of hope in the darkness of isolation. Well, soon after these panels appeared, the rains came – no surprise in a Midwest springtime. And honestly, that took some wind out of my sails. Through a few dark days, those chalk panels had felt like God’s Word, reminders that what we see in any moment is not all there is. And then, the rain washed them away.
But this divine artist was not to be denied. A few days ago, on that same patch of sidewalk, I found a new message, like flowers tenaciously growing out of rock. Here it is: “April distance brings May existence.” At the top of this image, proclaiming life from a dead concrete slab, there’s a cross against a sunrise.
And you know, if I hadn’t been looking, I’d have walked right over it.
That’s how God brings us resurrection – in the places and the moments we’d least expect. In normal people’s normal lives. In health-care workers, and delivery drivers, and custodians … and gardeners. In flowers that rise up from ground you’d swear was dead. In gratitude that wells up from deep within us when we see that life and love go on, no matter what.
We have to open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to find him, but he’s there. Look and listen in the most unlikely places, and you’ll meet the risen Lord. That’s true even in days like these. That’s true even when we feel entombed. Do not fear, Jesus says, for you are not alone. And with him, you will rise.
- Cummings, William. “‘This is going to be our Pearl Harbor’: Surgeon general warns USA faces worst week of coronavirus outbreak.” USA Today, April 5, 2020. Available at: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/04/05/surgeon-general-jerome-adams-coronavirus-rivals-pearl-harbor-9-11/2950230001/. Accessed April 10, 2020.