On Which Side of the Tomb are we? – Easter Sunday 2019
Sermon preached by Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
May the wonder of Christ’s rising be seen in every dawn, the love of God as wide as the skies, and the power of the Holy Spirit invite us into each moment. Amen.
It is always with great joy and the promise of radical welcome for all that the community of St. Paul’s on the Green gathers to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. At the center of our worship today is what stands at the very forefront of the Christian faith. We heard the Gospel account that relates the events of that first Easter morning—the story of how this woman Mary Magdalene went to the tomb of Jesus in the pre-dawn darkness.
She came expecting to complete the prescribed burial anointing that was hastily begun the day before. Expecting to be faced with the obstacle of a huge stone, she found instead an empty tomb. This Jesus, her teacher, friend and Lord was not there. No matter what our personal belief system or faith tradition may be or even our lack of belief, this is a compelling story.
There is a 1600-year-old tradition in the church that says every Easter should start with a joke because God played a joke on the devil by raising Jesus from the dead. It’s called the Risus Paschalis – the Easter laugh. So I will honor that very old tradition with a story about another Mary who had forgotten a few things she needed at the grocery store, hastily got in her car, and went back to purchase it. As she picked up them up from the shelf, she realized that she had left her purse at home. Confident that she could get away with it, she pocketed the items and left the store. To her chagrin, she was stopped in the parking lot the store manager who promptly had her arrested.
The judge, who was in a particularly rotten mood, passed sentence. “Madam,” you stole a can of tomatoes. You broke the law. You should spend six nights in jail—one for each tomato in that can.” She gasped loudly. Whereupon her husband, seeing the opportunity of a lifetime, jumped up and shouted, “Your Honor, she also stole a can of peas!”
And, to be fair: On another day, Mary was driving home from a business trip in Northern Arizona when she saw an elderly Navajo woman walking on the side of the road. She stopped the car and asked the Navajo woman if she would like a ride. With a silent nod of thanks, the woman got in. Resuming the journey, Mary tried in vain to make small talk with her. The old woman just sat silently, looking intently at everything she saw, studying every little detail, until she noticed a brown bag on the seat next to Mary. What’s in the bag?” asked the old woman.
Mary looked down at the brown bag and said, “It’s a bottle of wine. I got it for my husband.” The Navajo woman was silent for another moment or two. Then speaking with the quiet wisdom of an elder, she said, “Good trade.”
Yes, funny stories – a good Risus Paschalis but the story we hear on Easter is no joke. Jesus has been raised from the dead and by his resurrection conquered death forever. Today God tells us that we are loved so much that not even death has the final word; that life is stronger than death and that love is stronger than the grave and stronger by far than hate.
Can we imagine the fear and anxiety Mary Magdalene had when we set out to go the grave that first Easter? It had been a violent week in Jerusalem and she had seen what was done to Jesus. She was there to the bitter end. What might the authorities do to her, a single woman being there all alone? She lived in a sexist, misogynistic society. None of that mattered to her. Mary was determined. She went because of her deep affection for Jesus and for what he had done to raise her up. Now she had lost everything that mattered to her.
Living in an oppressed world with narcissistic leaders in power, she now was faced with the reality that her world would be as it had always been: the powerful win over the vulnerable and defenseless and death always has the last word.
Standing in the garden, she knew the pain of destruction and death but what she could never have imagined was that there was an alternative. At the tomb she wept with tears of grief until she heard a familiar voice.
When Mary Magdalene met Jesus there, he warned her not to cling to him. Why? Because in that moment she wants to return to the way things were. Jesus won’t let her because he is calling her forward to how things will be.
He knows that she cannot hold on to her dependency on the limited realities she has known. In this encounter with Jesus she is empowered to be an apostle and proclaim the first news of the resurrection.
Two thousand years later, weariness abounds in our world. Ideological smugness and pomposity is heaped high and heavy. There is a general malaise, discontent, and a pervasive culture of fear and anxiety. It’s palpable. People are tired. They desperately seek a hope that things will be better. Like Mary, they are faced with the reality of our world: the powerful win over the vulnerable and defenseless and death always has the last word.
We need to get out of that place of being so stuck in the way things were that we miss being called forward to how things will be.
I’m sure that the horrible destruction by fire at the iconic and glorious cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, happening at the beginning of Holy Week, is not lost on us. A symbol of faith, history, and architectural genius, it is being mourned around the world.
Easter, however, proclaims that death is not the last word for this magnificent edifice and it will rise from the ashes. Good Friday never has the last word. It won’t for this magnificent sacred house of prayer; nor will it for us.
God has woven resurrection into our daily lives. We will see that if we can pay attention to the way God brings energy and new life into our everyday existence where God’s signature of resurrection is right there in the signs around us. Don’t dwell on endings. Look for what is beginning.
Whatever “tomb” you may be in, whatever emptiness you may feel or whatever fear or confusion or doubt is in your heart; wherever you may have given up hope, God can raise you up—for the power that took Jesus through death and beyond has the capacity to triumph over everything that is keeping us in that tomb.
The question for us this Easter is where will we stand in all of this? On which side of the tomb are we going to stake our claim? Is the tomb open and empty—or is it sealed tight, made impassable by a giant boulder?
Even if we don’t have all the answers, can we trust the good news of this day to build our life on it? To find hope like Mary Magdalene did and be called forward in hope to how things will be?
May the celebration of resurrected life bring new hope to our being. May the victory over earthly death turn our eyes to the promises of heaven. May the empty tomb help us to leave our sorrows at the foot of the cross. So that God’s love, grace, and forgiveness reign in our life forever.