Easter in the year of our risen Lord 2011. St. Paul’s Church
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our creator and from our risen Lord Jesus Christ. Amen, Hallelujah. Amen, Hallelujah.
“Sir, have you taken his body away?”
“Do not cling to me, because I have not yet ascended.”
What a conversation! What a moment of transformation from death to life, from despair to hope, from the darkness of Friday through the confusion of Saturday to the glory of Sunday.
We all have Friday moments – crucifixion moments — in our lives … You know your Friday moments (and I know mine). Jobs lost, friendships squandered, disasters damaging our lives, prejudices and bigotry, mistakes we’ve made that damage relationships with loved ones. You name it. Whatever it is, somebody here has done it to somebody else, or has had it done to them. And if you’re like me, you mostly don’t say much about those Friday moments. They’re private. We keep them in the dark and carefully tend them like so many mushrooms growing in the cellars of our souls.
So it was with Mary in our Gospel reading (John 20) this morning.
Let’s set the scene. It’s before dawn on the morning after the Sabbath on the highest of Jewish holy days. A couple of days earlier, the people in charge of the Temple and their Roman masters had conspired to execute Jesus. The conspirators had stirred up a bloodthirsty frenzy among the people in the street. Exploiting peoples’ fear was easy to do, especially when it’s fear of a Roman emperor and of God. The enraged people had called out “crucify him.” And so on that Friday Jesus had suffered on the cross, died in the sight of his friends and followers, and been buried.
The gospels don’t say much about the events of that Saturday. It was the Jewish Sabbath. Luke tells us “the disciples rested according to the commandment.” I’ll bet. Some rest that must have been: They were holed up someplace, in fear of the frenzied mob, for a night, followed by a day, followed by another night. I wonder how much sleep they got?
I wonder how many anxious thoughts circled around the cellars of their souls in those two dark nights? Did the words “this can’t be happening …” and “if only…” pass through their minds over and over again?
The traditional words of our baptismal creed say that Jesus died, was buried, and descended into hell. Did the same thing happen to his disciples? I believe it did, because I too have had those lost Saturdays. I have sometimes been mired in anger, pain, sadness and remorse for night after night. I daresay some of you have had similar experiences.
At any rate Mary Magdalene didn’t sleep very well (to put it mildly) that Saturday night. On Sunday morning she felt a restless call to DO something. Maybe she could care for the broken body of her lord and master? Maybe just keep watch? Who knows? Most of us have shared her experience of needing to DO something. And so, burdened by that need, Mary slipped out of the house and went to Jesus’s tomb.
And there, in the darkness before her dawn she came face to face with the surprise of her life – the surprise of our lives too. It turned out that while she was lying alone in the dark on her lost Saturday night with her regrets, and her memories of the Lord something changed.. The universe changed forever. She arrived at the tomb to find it burst open. She bent down and gazed into the tomb expecting to find death. But she found angels instead of a corpse. Death was not to be found there. While she was lying awake that night, death was swallowed up in victory. Hallelujah? HALLELUJAH! Amen.
But it wasn’t quite that easy for her. She sensed that something big had happened, but it was still dark. She was still pursuing her anxious need to do something. She was still looking for death. She asked a stranger standing there to tell her where the body was.
The stranger spoke her name – “Mary!” She answered “Rabbouni?!” [inflect questioning, turning to surprise, turning to certainty] While she was speaking that single word, the sun rose and shone into her darkness. In the moment she heard and recognized Jesus, she knew she would not find death that morning, but life. And when we hear her story, we know that we too will not find death, but life. Hallelujah? HALLELUJAH! Amen.
But it’s still not as easy as all that, neither for her or the rest of us. The Lord’s next words to her are mysterious and surprising … “Don’t cling to me … Go and tell my sisters and brothers I am ascending.” he said.
What’s that all about? “Don’t cling to me?” Why did he say that? In the past Jesus gave her great honor for clinging to him: for kneeling and wiping his feet with her hair. But no more. When he conquered death and burst open the tomb, everything changed. She has found him alive, but he doesn’t want her to hang on to him in her accustomed way. It’s a new heaven and a new earth. She knows she’s not going to find death, but she still needs to learn to live in God’s realm where death has no place. And so do you and I. It’s not easy.
A couple of cities up the river from here, in Lawrence, is a home for people living with AIDS. It’s called Corpus Christi House (that’s Latin for Body of Christ House). They’ve been up and running for almost two decades now. A recent letter from Bridget Shaheen, the director of Lazarus House, the organization that runs Corpus Christi House, reminded me how hard it was to get the house built when they started trying. Back in 1978, many people believed a hospice for AIDS victims was a tomb. The house’s neighbors were in a panic: they were sure if they bent down and gazed into such a place they would find death – their own death – gazing right back at them. So those neighbors fought fiercely to prevent the Corpus Christi house from being built, and succeeded for five years.
Now, let’s be careful. Most of those folks in that neighborhood were, and still are, faithful Christians. They’re celebrating Jesus’s empty tomb this morning just like we are. Let’s not get drawn into the trap of thinking ourselves somehow morally superior to them. We’re not. We live in the same culture. We breathe the same air, we drink from the same river, we’re baptized in the same water. We’re neighbors. Let’s be humbly reminded by this example that it is not easy to live in God’s realm where death has no place. Even when we know better, we cling to our idea of life. We cling to what we know. Death doesn’t stop making us afraid even when it is swallowed up in victory.
Ms. Shaheen’s letter recalled what it was like for the years they worked to get the Corpus Christi house built. She makes it sound like a five-year-long lost Saturday. She wrote,
It was tragic when our first attempt at building a … residence failed. For years we tried to continue the HIV/AIDS ministry by bringing patients to doctors visits, talking with them, or sometimes it was as simple as giving them a hug because so many hadn’t been touched by a bare hand in a very long time.
“As simple as giving them a hug!”
This invites us to hear Jesus’s resurrection words to Mary in a new way: “Don’t hang on to me. Instead, go and tell the whole human family that I have conquered death once and for all time.”
And Mary went. She went and gathered her friends together. Like her, they were bleary-eyed from their lonely and sleepless Saturday night. And she told them, just like she tells us through the Gospel, “I have seen the Lord!” Hallelujah? HALLELUJAH! Amen.
As the sun rose and overcame the darkness of that lost Saturday night, those disciples joyfully hugged one another. They clung to one another, and lifted each other up. They did the two things that aren’t easy: they offered each other the love of Christ, and they accepted the love of Christ from each other. The Corpus Christi house people did the same thing – living in a world where death has no place, they accepted love from strangers — sick strangers, no less — who yearned to give it.
It’s not easy to live in the realm of God, the new heaven and new earth where death has no place. It’s not easy, but it is simple. Hold one another in love, allow yourself to be held in love, and always remind one another.
Christ is risen. Hallelujah. He is risen indeed, Hallelujah Hallelujah. Amen.
These words I say to you in the name of the risen Lord, and in memory of her.