Early in the morning, while it is still dark, gunshots ring out at a university in Kenya. Somali militants went on a rampage Thursday morning executing 147 students, many of them Christians, while their fellow students huddle under beds, in closets, waiting, so afraid.
Early in the morning, while it is still dark, Iraqi forces continue the work of retaking the city of Tikrit from ISIS. They walk block by block, house by house, looking for booby-traps and improvised explosive devices, deadly threats left behind.
Early in the morning, while it is still dark, a woman rises, alone. This is one of last mornings she will own her home. After decades of children and grandchildren, of laughter and struggle, it’s too much to take care of. Even though it is time, this morning there isn’t much but the sadness.
Early in the morning, while it is still dark, a couple heads to the hospital. They walk from the parking deck, across the street, up the elevators. At 6:30am, the nurse takes them back. Forms are signed, the doctors walks them through the procedure one more time: "Once we get in there, we’ll have a clearer since of where the cancer is, and how we can best treat it."
"Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb." She was exhausted by the memories of the previous days, of how much He had suffered. It weighed on her so much as she walked, feet as lead. But early that morning, in an instant the grief became confusion. The stone had been removed, something was very wrong. Mary doesn’t go inside, she sprints 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, without a word, rush back. John records the footrace, making sure we know who gets there first, chest heaving, to the edge of the tomb. The linen wrappings were there, Simon saw them, others rolled up separately. The other disciple went in, John says, and saw, and believed.
Then disciples return to their homes. But Mary stays. She leans in, tears dripping down her chin, and two angels sit. They ask why she weeps, and she sputters back more frustration: They have taken him. He is gone. I don’t know where he is. But JUST as she wonders if she can feel any MORE overwrought, 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. If you have taken him, just tell me. I will go get his broken body. I will bring him back. THIS, not the walk moments earlier, was the bottom. This was the worst moment. I wonder if you’ve been there. Back against the wall as the bills pile up, the strain on the marriage mounts, as the treatment takes its toll, as you watch his body weaken.
Jesus calls to her: "Mary," and she calls back – rabbi, teacher – and they embrace for what had to seem like forever. He clasps her hands, sending her back out. 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 the world, sleeping under bridges, 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."
I have preached this story a number of times now and, as you likely know, it always ends the same way, thanks be to God! We can proclaim, as we do every year, that through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ we can KNOW that death is not the end, that God’s power is stronger than ANYTHING we can encounter in this life, even the worst of it. God’s love is REAL, and TRUE, and holds us. Alleluia!
But no matter how many times you read these beautiful texts you notice something new each time. Maybe it’s how full these days are, maybe it’s the discipleship joys and challenges in churches full of busy people like this one. Maybe it’s the sadness of a teenager – a girl from Jordan High School, likely murdered by her ex-boyfriend another Jordan student, right around the corner. A noose found on Duke’s campus on Wednesday. I was particularly struck this week by the disciples’ response to the resurrection. It’s there in verse 10: "Then the disciples returned to their homes." They had been with him for three years, wandering, praying, confounded by miracles. They had left their homes to rejoice in what God was doing in him, God’s kingdom breaking in. And this painful Holy Week, full of fear and conflict, as they gathered around a table, saw him arrested. The trial, beatings, His death. And early this morning Mary bursts in and they RUN to the tomb and he is GONE and John tells us that at least one disciple SAW and BELIEVED that he was alive, that what he had said to them was true.
After all of this they turn around and walk back to home. Back to their families, their fishing nets and schoolwork and cubicles and carpools. John doesn’t tell us why – maybe they were tired of the way Jesus was doing things, tired of hanging out with poor people, the sick, those the world leaves behind. Maybe it was a relief it was over. I must confess I have those concerns about us sometimes. While all of us have our share of suffering, most of us don’t worry about the gnawing hunger or religious violence that pervades much of the world. Our problem, as a society, it feels to me, is much more about APATHY. It’s not that we don’t believe. We do, earnestly. But then we come to church on Easter morning – whether we are fired up to be here or are humoring someone in your family who really wants you to come – and the music is amazing, and we feel good about things, and then we go home and have a nice lunch.
But my deepest fear is that the good news ends there. We mean it when we are here, we really do, but then we leave and are mad about something by the time we get to the car, resentful of something else by the time we get home and someone doesn’t pitch in or says something rude. We are right back into the same conflicts, dealing with the same wounds. The same things that are truly hard before, and the same things that are petty and small and we spend too much time worrying about before. That we forget that the reason we make a big deal out of this whole Easter thing is that because it is the event at the center of human history that changes EVERYTHING! That while you all know, I am sure of it, that suffering does not end. Everyone we love doesn’t get healed the way we want. But that we can live in joy, and with hope, knowing that through the resurrection of Jesus Christ the rules are different. Death may have its own say, but will not have the final word. The final word always belongs to God. And that we are called to live into that grace, freed to clear up our ridiculous schedules that don’t HAVE to be that way, freed to greet others with compassion. Freed to be a community that works to take care of the kids nearby so they don’t grow up and beat up, or kill, someone they are in a relationship with. Free to proclaim that the hate of the world isn’t the way the church is going to be. Freed to take some extra time, give an extra gift, say a prayer, welcome that love into your heart, greet that love in ALL the world, even the most broken and desperate of places.
But somewhere, after those disciples go back home, Jesus keeps showing up. He’ll show up next week on the lakeshore, the following week on the road to Emmaus. And he keeps bugging them, to read the text again, sign up to take a meal to the shelter. There is an announcement in your bulletin about a collaborative community workday we are doing with at least 5 other area churches on May 2 so we can serve, together. But even beyond all of that stuff, you have to let that story settle into your heart, into your gut. Into that place where you wake up, early in the morning, afraid. Unsure of how it’s all going to work. If you listen carefully you might hear him call to you, "Mary, Amy, Andy, John…"
It is that Good News that propelled Mary out into the world with a passion and joy that wouldn’t quit. And it is that Good News that comes to us, as it did to her, that even death cannot hold him. That the last word always, always, belongs to God.
Christ is Risen! Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia. Amen.