Twice she stood there, alone.
The first didn’t last long. She was up, early, while it was still dark, to make the silent walk to the tomb. She took her time, body heavy with the grief. But something was amiss; it didn’t make any sense. The stone had been removed. They took him! And she runs back, bursting in: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Peter and John leap up, gathering their clothes and sandals, sprinting. John recorded the footrace, making sure we know who gets their first, chest heaving, to the edge of the tomb. And the linen wrappings, oddly, were there, Simon saw them, too, others rolled up separately. The other disciple, at that moment, John says, glimpsed something, and believed.
And then the strangest thing happened. They went home. John makes sure we know they get it, he saw and believed. Then, John says it plainly, “the disciples returned to their homes.” They went home. Back to their families. Back to their fishing nets and schoolwork and cubicles and carpools. John doesn’t tell us why – maybe life was hard enough, maybe they were tired of the way this Jesus was doing things, tired of hanging out with poor people, the sick, those the world leaves behind. Maybe, as much as they loved him, it was a relief it was over. It was time to go home.
And then it was Mary’s second time. Dear Mary, filled with hope, waited. Weeping, John says. She leans in, tears dripping off her chin, and two angels were there. They ask why she weeps, and she sputters back more frustration. They have taken him. He is gone. I don’t know where they took him. She didn’t have any idea who they were. It’s always their fault, anyway. Ask anybody. They led us into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression; they shoved us headlong into another war. It is their fault that we were misunderstood, that communication got wacky, that a cousin chooses not to speak to us anymore.1 They say that hope is futile in these days. And she was about to believe it, as desperate as she was. Another man is standing there, someone else she doesn’t recognize, who asks her AGAIN why she weeps. Supposing him to be the gardener and, I would imagine, about to take a swing if anyone else asks her why she is crying, she pleads with him. If you have taken him, just tell me. Please. I will go get his broken body. I will bring him back. It was the bottom. I wonder if you’ve been there. Back against the wall as the bills pile up, the strain on the marriage mounts, as the cancer treatment takes its toll. I wonder if you’ve been there, silent, in the darkness…
But it is there, in that moment, when God shows up. God was there before, of course, she just didn’t realize it. Jesus calls to Mary, she calls back to him, and they embrace for what must have seemed like forever. And then he slowly clasps her hands, sending her back into the world. Go back to them, he says. Go and tell. Go to those disciples who have given up, who have gone back to their nets, who think things can’t get any better than they are. Go there, tell them, tell the world, sleeping in our Sunday School rooms this week, or sitting up with sick kids, or wondering if their work matters, or if their life matters. Tell them, he says, and Mary does. “I have seen the Lord,” she says. As friends hold friends as they grieve, as we give generously, as we seek to be a church that embodies that grace in the power of our worship, in the depth of the conversations we have about faith, in the ways we serve, over and over and over again, reaching beyond ourselves, seeking that Risen One who might be right in front of us. In a world quick to blame them, quick to be cynical, Easter points us again to the ground of our hope. Because Jesus Christ is alive, sin and evil and death, though real and terrifying, do not have ultimate power over us. And hope sprouts anew. And the rules are different. And He calls to us to be transformed.
“Easter,” she called. “Easter. Christmas. Easter.” Betty and Paul Ransford and I had been in touch with colleagues in Raleigh and beyond this week, trying to see how they were, how their communities were, what they needed in the wake of last Saturday’s tornadoes. One put us on to a teacher at Powell Elementary School. The neighborhood surrounding is up north, off Rock Quarry Road. You didn’t see much for awhile, then a few branches down, a handful of trees with tops twisted off. Then we hit it – a boys’ and girls’ club with people lined up at a truck for food. Same thing a few blocks down. The debris piles on the side of the road began to rise. And we turned into the neighborhood and practically all the tops of the trees, in what I would imagine was a lush, green, neighborhood, were shredded. The roads were mostly passable, limbs and sawdust, trunks sawed through, stacked everywhere, blue tarps covering holes in roofs. And then every third or fourth you would see it – tree trunk down on the corner, crushing an SUV in the driveway. Tree still sitting in the middle of the roof. Or a blue sticker on a window, telling you the city had condemned the house, that it was no longer fit for people to live in.
We checked in at the school, saw the supplies beginning to stack up, and started walking around, introduced ourselves to some folks, asking if anyone knew anything. Most just shrugged their shoulders. I just came on out with my chainsaw, figured I could help. These are just neighbors, friends pitching in. A girl pointed us to another man, who said – Sure, come on; we have to get these boxes out of this house, let’s form a line. He moved towards what we soon learned was his mother’s house. It had one of those blue stickers, a huge hole in the living room on the right, shredded insulation over the piano and the couch, a tree through the carport and part of the kitchen, crushing the van. The whole yard was piled with limbs, sections of trunks. He picked up boxes, handed them to me at the door, then his nephew, then a friend, then Betty, then his niece, then some firefighters, salvaging what belongings they could. Part of what he was going through were closets that held dishes and their holiday belongs. Plates would come out, a few small kitchen appliances. A crushed Christmas wreath would go in the trash. Clothes. A life. And, strangely, the holiday stuff kept coming. Easter, and a box with baskets filled with that green plastic grass, Easter, and a few stuffed bunnies. Christmas, and a little light-up tree. Halloween. Fourth of July. The whole year. And the amazing thing was how it was happening. The niece, laughing, telling her uncle to hurry it up. Joking with the firefighters. Hearing them tell of things they had done in that house. And how they would pack it up, get it fixed, and do it again. As they helped their grandmother, slowly down the stairs. And they were there, so courageous, joking with each other as their life went out the door, into a pod, or into the trash, determined to do it together. And I wondered why? How? And then I was given my answer. Easter, he yelled, as he handed me a box, and it would echo down the line. Me, the nephew, the niece, the friend, Betty, the neighbor. Easter. Easter. Easter.
And so today we get to choose. We know Easter doesn’t mean everyone we love will be healed, every problem magically solved. And because of that, maybe we’ll end up like those disciples, heading back to work and school this week as if everything is the same. But if we have the courage to linger, looking, something happens. As we gather this Saturday for the Community Workday. As we get some teams headed over to that neighborhood in Raleigh tomorrow – which Betty will tell you more about in a minute, as we make that phone call to a friend, as we reach out to someone we might need to listen to. We might be able to say with Mary, that we have seen Him on the loose in the world. That Christ is alive. That Easter is calling out in the midst of the devastation, and we have work to do.
But you gotta watch out. They say that things can’t change. That the dead stay dead. That there is no reason to hope. They say that. But what do WE say? What about us?
All praise be to God. Amen.
- This idea comes from Mark Ramsey’s sermon, “Conversion,” in the Easter 2011 edition of the Journal for Preachers, pages 33-37.