Talking serpents, miracles, God incarnate, resurrection...how can a person believe this stuff? Is such belief necessary to truly have faith? Do we all have to agree on what these things really mean? During this Lenten season, we will explore ideas and stories from the Bible that can be intellectually challenging, to see how these things might be for us more than obstacles on our spiritual journey. What can be gleaned that is life-giving, hopeful, encouraging? How can we sharpen our own thinking about these tricky aspects of our faith tradition? Join us for this adventure and exploration as travel together toward Holy Week and Easter.
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli for Foundry UMC April 12, 2020, Easter Sunday.
Text: John 20:1-18
I don’t know what I expected. It was my first trip to the Holy Land and I’d seen pictures and heard others share some of what had been most powerful for them, but I didn’t really know what things would be like. Over the years, I’ve seen all sorts of artistic renditions of the holy places, the Jordan River, Jacob’s Well, the Mount of Olives, the garden of Gethsemane, the Sea of Galilee, Calvary, and Jesus’ tomb—so I had all sorts of ideas floating around in my interior image files.
But somehow it never occurred to me that most of these places are no longer really as they once were. Even though I surely knew better, I think some part of me still imagined that pilgrimage to the place where the first Easter happened would mean walking into an ancient Jewish cemetery to a traditional cave tomb in a garden space outside the walls of Jerusalem. But what you will find instead is that the stone slab where, according to archaeologists and historians, it is highly likely Jesus’ body was laid is now incased in several layers of marble, which is in the highly decorated original cave tomb over which is built an intricate shrine called an “Edicule,” which is encased in the ginormous Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is found within the walls of the expanded city of Jerusalem. Something that was so basic and simple and small is now something ornate and big and complicated.
I understand some of why this is so. Precious moments and places are important to return to, to remember, to celebrate, to adorn. We humans raise our Ebenezers, our monuments, and remembrance stones at all sorts of places that mark thin places in our experience, turning points, and spaces where we crossed over into new life. What we should know by now is how easy it is to make idols of our monuments, how easy it is to get to wrapped up with guarding the thing or the place or the memory as we picture it to the point that we believe we are in control of all of it, that we know how things should be and be done. Something that began as beautiful and life-giving can so easily sprout division and judgment and exclusion and hatred.
The place where Jesus laid in the tomb for three days, the place where Jesus and Mary had their Easter encounter, is now guarded by a certain brotherhood of Greek Orthodox priests and the church that surrounds it tenuously “controlled” by three major Christian denominations whose shared history has its high points but has been marked by conflict and division.
And what else would we expect to find? That is our history. That is our world. That is the way things are.
But can we not—should we not—expect something different? What would we want to find at the place where Easter happens? “Whom are you looking for?” Perhaps we yearn to find someone or something that will mend the torn fabric of human mutuality and cooperation in our world, release our hearts and communities from the bonds of fear and greed and prejudice, restore our capacity for trust and deep commitment to a common good instead of a good that always favors the privileged and wealthy. Perhaps we yearn to receive the capacity to believe that things in the world can really change, that the much-lauded arc of the moral universe will at some point really bend toward justice. Perhaps we yearn to discover at the place of Easter one who offers what we need to fill the empty places within our own souls and what we need to be able to dwell in the empty rooms we inhabit these days without sliding into unhealthy ways, that will give us courage to cling to hope right now when the challenges and bad news and suffering exponentially grow; someone who can assure and console, guide and renew, who will shine a light into this present moment of darkness. Perhaps we yearn for these things… but can we expect them? Do we really expect them?
Mary Magdalene certainly didn’t. “While it was still dark,” the scriptures say, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb grieving, having lost the one person who, according to tradition, had given her life back to her in more ways than one. She had journeyed with Jesus who embodied and offered a truly different way of life marked by love and liberation, compassion and justice. And then she had witnessed the powers of fear and jealousy and control and greed destroy him. If Jesus, so full of love and life and power and hope, Jesus, so wise and brave and strong, Jesus whose intimacy with God granted him extraordinary life-giving power couldn’t overcome the death-dealing ways of the world, then all hope is gone. Mary Magdalene comes to the garden with this expectation: The bullies will always win. Injustice will remain our daily bread. Death and fear of death will continue to paralyze and terrorize and devour. Mary comes expecting death, expecting to find the tomb firmly sealed, as it was when she’d left, because that’s the way things work.
So when all seems hopeless, with no expectation for anything but death, Mary, alone, simply shows up in the garden with her love and faithfulness and care for Jesus. But things do not meet her expectations on this morning. On this morning, Jesus, alive, shows up with his love and faithfulness and care for her, calling her by name and commissioning her to go and share what has happened. It is just the two of them in this moment…a pretty quiet, simple, intimate encounter…a pretty unexpected Easter.
But simple, intimate, unexpected Easters can change everything.
Mary Magdalene had watched the Lord of Life humbly buckle, break and fall under the weight of the world’s brutality, humiliation, and injustice. And now sees the Lord Jesus rise, alive…scarred, but standing. What had been dashed hopes and shattered expectations for her life and for the life of the world are raised right along with Jesus. She now knows that even in the midst of the worst the world can do, God has the power to bring unexpected, unimaginable newness and life. Mary comes to the garden expecting to find the dull familiarity of death and is met by a whole new life, a whole new world, a world where Christ is alive.
Even now, even when we forget, can’t believe it, don’t expect it, we live in this world where the living Christ wanders through the grocery aisles and loading docks in the middle of the night checking on the stockers and delivery drivers breathing encouragement, where Jesus moves among the frantic field hospitals and overrun ICUs to touch nurses and doctors and anesthesiologists and all medics with grace, among all those on the front lines of public safety and public care infusing them with courage, into the alleys and entryways where unhoused folk sleep to cover them with presence and to shield their social workers with protection, to all the places where vulnerability and fear and exhaustion and the weight of responsibility cry out for God…at every bedside of those close to death, where a family member is not able in this time to dwell, the living Christ shows up, scarred and standing, to proclaim that we are never alone and not even death gets to have the last word.
Of course we know that powers and principalities continue to rage and roar. We know that empires and those seduced by the power of worldly idols regroup and reassert themselves with a vengeance at any sign of a loosening of their stranglehold of comfort and control. They use all the considerable resources at their disposal to lower our expectations, to convince us that we are powerless, that the best we can do is muddle through and put up with things as they are, to believe that infighting and manipulation and unnecessary violence and injustice are inevitable, and that Easter is a great excuse for a party but doesn’t matter in the big picture, that there is no evidence for hope, that expecting the worst is the wisest option. //
I’m choosing to side with Mary Magdalene on this one—gonna believe her— because all that other garbage is literally no way to live. Lord knows I struggle to really believe that things in this world will be different, I struggle to expect that we will allow this present moment of suffering and all the things it is revealing to motivate real change in our ways of living together. But, y’all, Jesus has gone through hell to show us the life that is possible—the life that is possible for us and the life that is possible for the world. And today Jesus meets us in all the simple spaces we are with love, faithfulness, and care, calls us by name, and promises that we, like him, can endure the pains of this world and emerge… scarred, but standing. Jesus meets us in all the places we are to raise our expectations for a world that is more gentle and just. And then commissions us to do our part to make it so.
By the power of God loving us to life in this present moment, we may, from the relative smallness of our spaces, be given a big new vision for how things can and should be. By the power of God loving us to life right now, the better angels of our nature can rise up and reassert our common humanity, the dignity, reciprocity, justice, mercy, and compassion our shared vulnerability requires to survive; can not only show us who and what are essential, but how to reorder values accordingly; can give us the courage to work with instead of against one another; can concretely show us the healing that happens when we walk more gently upon the planet. By the power of God loving us to life, we may learn just how strong we are—and how much stronger we are when we are together.
These Easter promises have been the same forever. Though it seems that for a very long time thousands upon thousands make their familiar, annual pilgrimages to the holy places to gather for the grand rites of Easter… and then go to their brunches and dinners with no expectation that anything is, can, or should be different in the world or in their lives. It’s almost like what began as a small, intimate, life-changing, purpose-giving, world-shaking, encounter with the living Christ has gotten overshadowed by the monuments we have built around it.
If that is at all the case, then this is the moment of all moments to shake ourselves loose of anything unessential, to clear away anything that keeps our feet from standing directly on the solid rock of the living Christ, the one through whom and in whom and by whom we are given strength to stand and serve, scarred, but shining, sent into the world to raise expectations and, by the power of God, to meet them.