Easter Sermon 4/24/11

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“Whom are you Seeking?” a sermon preached by the Rev. Abigail Henderson on April 24, 2011 at First Congregational Church of Minnesota, UCC.

“Protestant Easter” by Anne Sexton

John 20:1-18

Last month, members of this church’s 20s/30s group gathered in a community room at Common Roots, a café in South Minneapolis.  We were engaged in a session of Theology on Tap, when you order some beer or wine or coffee and talk about matters theological and spiritual.   At one point, a young man opened the door and poked his head in, beer in hand.  He looked at us quizzically.

“Uh… is this the Skeptics Club?” he asked.

There was a distinct pause, after which we all burst out laughing.  Then we explained to him that we were, in fact, a church group.

He laughed too, and excused himself, because obviously he didn’t belong with a  group of credulous believers like us.  Right?

Maybe not.  Later, I looked up the Skeptics Club of Minneapolis on the Internet.  From what I could gather, they care about critical thinking.  They care about scientific inquiry and asking questions and challenging assumptions.  They care about resisting easy answers and blind faith in favor of nuance and complexity.

The members of the 20s/30s group share many of those same values.  And I’m willing to bet that you all do, too.

So here’s the question.  Why are we spending time in a church and not a skeptics club?

This question has special resonance on this day of all days.  The Easter celebration is at the heart of our faith.  The Good News. The triumph of life over death.

Everybody has his or her own answer to the question.  I suspect one thread connecting many of our answers might be this:  that we are here, at a church, because we are looking for something—something that is missing.

I recently spent time with a family who is missing something—someone.  Their daughter, their sister—a young woman in her twenties—had been senselessly and tragically killed.

When a human being is torn from this life, her absence is so acutely felt, it becomes a presence unto itself.  As this family graciously invited me into their space, I sensed the empty space she left behind, even amidst the hustle and bustle of grief—visitors, ringing phones, deliveries of food and flowers.  I’ve known that emptiness quite intimately in my own life.  To me, such acute grief is like a state of constant, irrational anticipation; body and spirit ready, waiting, poised for the return of the departed one—knowing that it won’t happen.

It is painful to think about such things, but I wonder if experiences of terrible heartbreak—and we all have them—help us to make a connection back in time, way, way back, long before the beloved Easter hymns were written, before Easter baskets and our Sunday best.  Maybe our experience of loss takes us all the way back to the very first Easter.

The very first Easter.  To be frank, we don’t know that much about what happened, and the skeptic in us is right to question the historical accuracy of the Gospels.   But let’s just imagine, based on the emotional arc of the narrative.

It was the first Easter.  Jesus’ followers were still learning, still figuring out who he was and what they were supposed to do about it.  Their faith was a fragile thing in development, and there were no rules about how to behave or feel on Easter—everybody just reacted to the unfolding of events.

In particular, let’s focus in on Mary Magdalene.  For her, Easter begins with the fright of her life.  The tomb is empty and the body of her Lord, her friend, has gone missing.  All she has is a desecrated grave.  Tragedy upon tragedy.  And when the other disciples returned home, Mary lingered in the garden, weeping outside the tomb.

Up until this point, the story is relentlessly true-to-life.  The scene we just replayed has been repeated over and over again throughout time, in hospital rooms and homes, in war zones and poverty-stricken streets.  At this very moment, as I speak, countless women and men are weeping in the face of unimaginable loss and cruelty.  For so many of them, their cries go unheard and unacknowledged.

Of course, here is where the resurrection narrative deviates from life as we know it.  Here is where it veers into the miraculous and the supernatural, with angels and the risen Christ appearing to Mary.  Here is where the story becomes indefensible from a scientific or historical point of view.  Maybe that’s part of the problem that we progressive-minded, postmodern churchgoers have—we assume the story needs defending in order to be true.

I was once asked, point-blank in front of an audience of people, whether I believed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  I said, “I don’t know; I don’t think it’s my job to know.”  A number of people were not satisfied with this answer; they figured it was in my job description, as a minister, to have a definitive answer to such things.  Sorry to disappoint—but I wouldn’t want anyone to predicate his or her belief in the risen Christ on mine.  Indeed, in my experiences of deepest faith, I identify less as some religious authority and more like Mary Magdalene in that garden—grief-stricken and confused.   For it is at such times—when the world is disordered and expectations confounded—that I am most open to radical leaps of faith.

As the United Methodist theologian and pastor William H. Willimon observes, “The very first believer in the resurrection, the first to believe in the triumph of God, came there by the same path that you and I take—by not seeing the risen Christ.”  And let’s be clear—we’re talking about more than the disappearance of Jesus’ body from the tomb.  Mary fails to see Jesus moments later when he is standing right in front of her.    She mistakes the one she has lost—the one whom she so deeply grieves—for the gardener.

We might ask, “How on earth does she not recognize him?”  But there is such a truth here.  Mary lives in a world where the worst possible thing has come to pass.  How could she see anything but the cruel reality of death?

Now, Jesus doesn’t say to her, “Mary—do not be grieved!  It is I, Jesus!  I am alive!”  If this were a simple story, that’s probably what would happen.  But it doesn’t.   Instead he asks, “Woman, why are you weeping?  For whom are you looking?”   To us, the answers to those questions seem so painfully obvious—but remember, this is the first Easter.   With his question, Jesus goes straight to the heart of the matter—that Mary is suffering and lost.  This is her truth.  He sees it, he acknowledges it, for this is the hard truth of all human life—that we will lose those we love, and we will grieve.  The story of Christ’s resurrection never claims it will be another way. Remember, Jesus doesn’t let Mary touch him; nor does his precious body linger on earth.

For me, the miracle of the resurrection actually occurs in the following exchange. Mary does not see Jesus because he tells her his name.   Instead, she finally recognizes him because he calls out hers.  He calls her by name, and suddenly she gets it!  This, friends, is revelation—it is not simply that we see, but that we receive the great blessing of being seen.  In the words of Colossians, “When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”

It’s a scary thought actually—can you imagine being truly seen and loved and glorified?  For all that you are, all that you were, and all that you will be?  Perhaps the resurrection is less about what may or may not have happened on that cross and in that tomb, but more about the mysterious nature of Mary’s encounter with Jesus. That story gives flesh to something that many of us suspect, even if it can never be proven: that there is a thin membrane between life and death, and that intimacy with God is possible—no matter how distant and mysterious that God may seem.  As Anne Sexton wrote in the poem that opened our service, “Well, it doesn’t matter how Jesus got there.  It matters where he was going.”

Indeed, the significance of the resurrection is seen most profoundly in its aftermath—the extraordinary events that transformed a small, Jewish messianic movement into a complex, powerful, and sometimes tragic world religion.  Likewise, we feel the resurrection not only in our dying, but also in our living—particularly the ways we choose to be in relationship with one another.  The letter to the Colossians is concerned with this very point.  It insists—rather audaciously—that the resurrection calls us to live together without anger and lies and abuse.  At my most cynical, I honestly find such a claim more incredulous than the resurrection of the dead.

Maybe that’s why the passage from Colossians uses such physical language of taking off and putting on a new self.  The images are drawn from the rite of baptism, of course, but they speak to me about the importance of intentionality around Easter time.  We dress ourselves each Easter day not merely in Anne Sexton’s important white gloves, but in attitudes and expectations about the world.  What does it mean to dress yourself in resurrection garb?  To prepare yourself, daily, for the great risk of being transformed by life?

It goes back, I think, to Jesus’ fundamental question.  “For whom are you looking?”  What are you missing?  What do you need?  Who is standing right in front of you that you don’t recognize?  What in this life makes you feel the most recognized, the best known, the most fully yourself?   Maybe God resides in those things.  Maybe God is longing for you to understand something new.

Fortunately, we don’t need to figure it all out right now.  We have time—in this life, and, I trust, in the next.  In the meantime, let us live with the questions, even when they vex us.  Let us celebrate our holy skepticism.  Let us be people who sing even when we aren’t quite sure.

Christ the Lord is risen today!  Alleluia!

Amen.

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One Response to “Easter Sermon 4/24/11”

  1. Doris M. Strong Says:

    I am really enjoying these sermons, thank you so much for putting them on the Blog

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