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“Choral” reading of John 20:1-18
“I have seen the Lord!” Mary Magdalene whispered, her voice shaking.
“No! Really!” she insisted.
“I have seen the Lord,” she said again, louder and stronger than before.
That is, despite being discounted because she was a woman, despite being greeted by 11 pairs of rolling eyes, Mary Magdalene persisted in saying the unbelievable and proclaiming the impossible.
It was one thing when she came running to tell the disciples the stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty. That much wasn’t so surprising. They had all but expected someone to steal Jesus’ body, and the emptiness of the tomb was easy enough to confirm.
But if the story had ended there, we would have no Easter. There would be no church. We would not even consider opening our world-weary hearts to the promise of new life, because we would not believe in such a thing.
Perhaps we, like the, um, male disciples, would be so shell-shocked by the evils of the world, so beaten down by the seemingly unbreakable power of empire, so despairing over the loss of all hope, so afraid of what would happen next, that we, too, would hunker down.
Without Easter, our lives, too, might consist of little more than hiding out, trying to survive, putting one foot in front of the other day after day after day, closing our hearts to any hope of justice, newness, and a whole different world.
But the story did not end there, thank God.
Easter joy flows not from the empty tomb itself, but from seeing, from encountering, from recognizing the Risen Christ in our midst. From hearing our name called, from being invited to shine while it is yet still dark. From experiencing the reality of new life and letting it change us.
And so it was that, after Mary told them Jesus’ tomb was empty, two of the disciples ran to the tomb and entered that place of death and defeat. Upon finding it empty, Peter and the other disciple were even more scared than before, and they got out of there as quickly as they could.
But Mary—good ole’ faithful, heart-broken-open Mary—stuck around. She stayed in that uncomfortable, empty, awful place long enough to let her panic subside. Long enough to allow herself to feel all the grief and pain that had been building for days. Long enough to allow herself to weep.
And that was when she began seeing things—or, perhaps, grace and life and hope began appearing.
First, it was a couple of angels who spoke to her with tenderness.
Then she spoke her pain and confusion out loud.
And then, as if she had been strengthened by naming her reality, she turned around.
And that was when she saw him—Christ, that is.
Of course, she didn’t recognize him. She didn’t know this humble-looking, normal-looking man was her executed Lord and friend raised to new life.
But he spoke to her with the same tenderness and the same question the angels had.
“Why are you weeping?”
And then: “Whom are you looking for?”
Again, Mary spoke her truth. Again, Mary spoke her fear and her pain. And, perhaps most important, she spoke her highest hope, she named her greatest need, she declared her strongest intention.
“If you have carried him away,” she said to the stranger, “tell me where he is and I will take him, I will take care of him.”
Instead of running away or hunkering down, she would engage the powers of death in the riskiest, most personal way.
It was then that Jesus spoke her name.
It was then that she saw the Risen Christ.
It was then, upon her seeing, upon her knowing and being known, that Easter joy was born.
And it was then that everything—ev-er-y-thing—changed. For Mary, for the world, for us.
And . . . that seeing is also, for us, what can make Easter joy so fleeting, so ethereal, so hard to trust, so difficult to explain.
Because, unlike Mary, we think we have not seen the Risen Christ. And, having not seen (or at least thinking we have not seen), we despair that nothing will ever change.
That is understandable. The problem comes when we stop looking. When we decide that because we cannot see God, because we cannot touch Jesus, because we can no longer see or touch our loved ones who have died, because we cannot take our faith to the bank, so to speak, perhaps none of it is real.
When we give up on new life, when we die to possibility.
Crucifixion, we can see. The seemingly invincible power of empire, we can see. Death, we can see. Evil, we can see.
Injustice and suffering, inequality and cruelty, disease and disappointment, violence and abuse, corruption and obstacles to change are everywhere we look: from the church house to the Capitol to the White House; from our southern border and migrant detention centers to prisons crowded with people of color; from mass shootings to rampant sexual harassment; from melting glaciers to drought-stricken farmlands to rising seas; from divisive politics to our own difficult relationships to our own loneliness.
Hope, however, is much harder to see. Community is more difficult to find. And a God more powerful than death? The triumph of love over, well, everything? Resurrection? New life? Really?
Go ahead: Let the eye-rolling commence.
All around us we can see things getting worse. But a way out? Not so much.
All around us we can see evil winning the day. But a victory for the poor? Policies that support refugees and their troubled homelands? The arc of history bending toward justice? Sometimes, despite our faith, despite our hard work and solidarity, these things seem as unlikely and outrageous as a vulnerable and crucified God rising from the dead.
I get that. I feel you.
And . . . just because we can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t real. Just because we can’t fathom something doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. Just because something has never happened before doesn’t mean that it won’t.
Jesus came to raise the dead.
This is not an exercise in positive thinking. Resurrection will not be reduced to bunnies and butterflies, spring flowers and dyed eggs. Jesus came to raise the dead, and Easter is nothing more and nothing less than rejoicing—not only in the reality of his resurrection, but also in our own. Not only that he was raised from the dead, but that all who are hopeless and struggling and stuck and headed for rock bottom and seemingly dead to the world might also be restored to the fullness of life, raised to the glory of new life.
Faith is about going to the tomb while it is yet still dark. It is about choosing to live in hope no matter the odds. Easter is about trusting, despite all the evidence, that truth will defeat deception, and justice overcome oppression. It is about living as if death does not get the last word. It is about devoting ourselves to looking for signs of life and new life; it is about opening our hearts to resurrection; it is about celebrating all the ways love wins.
And it can be about creating (or at least trying to create) ways to make the unseen seeable. To make the unspoken spoken. To make the dead alive again.
Here at First Church we have created a Lenten House of the Heart. It is a representation of our commitment to live from our hearts, and a metaphor for our one true and shared home: the heart of God. We have built this House of the Heart to make our prayers visible, to give some structure to our faith, and to provide a welcoming space for our fears and our doubts.
It is something we can see.
Amid so much madness and suffering in the world, a House of the Heart is a seemingly inconsequential thing. Amid so much pain and uncertainty in our lives, a House of the Heart can seem irrelevant, if not frivolous.
And yet the practice of creating it and making it ours has given rise to resurrection. It invites us to look everywhere for signs of God’s love, to recognize life abundant even now, and to celebrate God’s power for life and new life.
There are many ways we can miss the miracle that is new life come out of death. One is to dismiss it outright as impossible, something that could never happen. Another is to be so sure about it as to make it mundane and rob it of its power to heal and transform. Yet another is to leave it unseen and unspoken.
Life is far too short and way too hard to bypass the miracles in our midst. I could tell you about some of the resurrections and risings I have seen of late—many of them happening right here among you and in this building—but I would rather learn about when and how you have seen the Risen Christ or experienced resurrection. The world needs your stories of new and unexpected life rising from death and defeat.
We invite you this morning to write or draw your resurrection sightings on our House of the Heart. There are markers and papers and ribbons at the house, and you may go to the house during our closing hymn or after the end of the service. You can also write your tombs—the places where you experience death and hope for new life—on a prayer-request slip and hand it to a deacon. And, of course, you can tell your stories over Easter lunch or at any time.
The late poet Mary Oliver felt strongly about this. Her “instructions for living a life” are both simple and clear:
Tell about it.
Tell one another and tell the world:
Christ is Risen! We have seen the Lord! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!