Sunday, April 12, 2020
Easter Sunday Year A
In the Garden
Resurrecting God, you conquered death and opened the gates of life everlasting. In the power of the Holy Spirit, raise us with Christ that we, too, may proclaim healing and peace to the nations. Amen.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'" Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
All readings for the week:
Acts 10:34-43 or Jeremiah 31:1-6
Psalm 118: 1-2, 14-24
Colossians 3:1-4 or Acts 10:34-43
John 20:1-18 or Matthew 28:1-10
1. Why do you think Mary Magdalene, rather than, say, Peter, was chosen to be the witness to the resurrection?
2. What do you dare hope for?
3. When have you been caught off guard by "unbelievably" good news and unforeseen joy, something "too good to be true"?
4. Were you hesitant, or eager, to share what you experienced?
5. What evidence did you need in order to trust in the good news? What did you need to "see" in order to "go tell"?
by Kate Matthews
This isn't the first time we've heard about someone released from the grave. Earlier in this very Gospel (11:1-45), John tells the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and in doing so, sealing his own fate with the religious authorities who were driven to distraction by his power.
O. Wesley Allen writes that resurrection is an important theme in John's Gospel, in fact, the lesson of Lazarus being raised isn't proof of Jesus' power so much as it demonstrates who he is: "Jesus is the Resurrection." You could see the truth of that claim in the lives of his followers in the days that followed, right down, we hope, to our own time.
What were you expecting to find, Mary?
Poor Mary Magdalene. One might think that she has it worst on this first day of the week, her hopes once high, now crushed. In John's Gospel, she comes to the grave alone (she was here in all four Gospel accounts); if she hasn't come to tend the body, then perhaps she just will feel closer to Jesus by keeping vigil at his tomb.
In John's account, Allen says, there are significant differences from the other Gospels: Here, "Jesus was buried with care (10:38-42), so Mary Magdalene comes not to complete his burial, but simply to mourn and honor Jesus...."
A sleepless night
Since "it was still dark," maybe she had spent the night tossing and turning, sleepless from sorrow and grief. We wonder what she's thinking, and what she expects to find. It seems certain that she does not expect, of all things, an empty tomb.
In Barbara Brown Taylor's sermon on this text, she describes the finality of death ("the only place springtime happens in a cemetery is on the graves, not in them") and likens Mary to the "abandoned pup" who still waits for her master to return. Still, Mary Magdalene's thoughts and feelings seem less mysterious than those of the two disciples, Peter and "the one Jesus loved" (we traditionally think of him as John).
As Philip Culbertson notes, when Mary runs to the disciples with the alarming report that "they" have taken Jesus' body (and we don't know where they took it, or even who "they" are), she's "fearful," but the male disciples are "excited"--a not insignificant difference.
Why bother to run if there's no hope?
Perhaps, when they rush to the grave, Peter and "the other disciple" (John, perhaps?) are trying to make up for their earlier failures. The worst has now happened, and maybe they hope to prove themselves in the aftermath of the Teacher's death.
When they arrive at the grave, racing, it seems, against each other (John mentions three times that the other disciple got there before Peter), they see the grave cloths left behind by Jesus, who, unlike Lazarus, did not need to be unbound by others. This detailed description matters, for thieves would certainly not have taken the time or care to wrap up the head cloth and set it neatly aside.
Now what will you do?
Whether they considered such details or not, "the disciple whom Jesus loved," the texts says, "saw and believed" (what Mary had told them, having seen with his own eyes?). Then the two men went back home, a very different response from that of Mary, who felt compelled to share the news, and then to return to the tomb, and remain there (I often wonder why, and what she expected to see).
At this point, the text tells us, Peter and John didn't make the connection between what their eyes were seeing and what their ears had heard from Jesus on more than one occasion, about his suffering, dying, and rising again.
Who's the real witness?
This seeing-and-believing theme, like that of resurrection, runs throughout John's Gospel. Did Peter and the "other disciple" really get it? We know, from the end of today's passage, that Jesus still felt it necessary to commission Mary Magdalene to tell his disciples (and that means the community, really, not just the small band of "apostles") the good news.
One wonders about the confidence he has in the disciples' ability to carry through even after seeing the empty tomb.
Trusting the women
This is a good moment to consider the fact that, in all four Gospels, Jesus entrusted such marvelous news and responsibility to a woman, of all people. This charge is both remarkable and ironic, given the lamentable status of women in communities of faith then and ever since, despite Mary’s faithful abiding, and her witness to the rest.
And that's not the only marvel, for Jesus talks with Mary "in the garden," alone, one single man, and one single woman, a quietly intimate, heartfelt conversation. If we stop to think about it for a minute, not as 21st-century readers who have experienced a least a measure of progress for women, we realize that this intimate conversation, in a very secluded place, must have shocked John's earliest audience.
Telling the "least important" people the most important news
At this crucial moment in the Gospel story, in salvation history, a woman, Mary Magdalene, represents that bright thread of hope that runs through the Scriptures like a vein of indestructible gold: God's trust of the small ones, the ones on the margins, the ones without voice, the prophets whom God lifts up to shine like the sun.
Remember the "other Mary," the Mother of Jesus, singing in the Magnificat about the lowly being lifted up and the mighty being brought down? How ironic, and how wonderful, that Jesus entrusts the primary proclamation of our faith to one of the "least," one of the "small ones"...and yet, how very biblical!
Who is the apostle?
Many scholars note that Mary Madgdalene meets the two Pauline criteria for being an apostle, having experienced the Resurrection and received the charge to preach the gospel. She was overlooked for centuries, a "silent" but powerful witness against the marginalization of women in the church.
As we know, that hasn't kept church leaders from distorting this text in order to accommodate patriarchal practice: I have read more than one church document claiming that Mary was simply a messenger to the "real" witnesses, the male apostles!
"Whom or what are you looking for?"
The way John tells the story, there's no conversation between the two male disciples and God's messengers (the angels), or with Jesus himself. That kind of encounter waits for Mary to return to the grave, still faithful, still weeping, too.
Why does she look in the tomb again? What does she expect to see--the body now returned? Evidence of where it was taken, or who took it? We don't know, nor do we know whether she perceives the angels to be more than ordinary people, for her grief focuses on where Jesus' body has been taken.
Even when Mary turns and faces Jesus himself, she doesn't recognize him. It's surely no accident that the question he asks of her is the same one asked twice before in John's Gospel, Mary Margaret Pazdan notes: first, of the inquisitive disciples-to-be ("What are you looking for?" 1:38), and later, of the mob who came to arrest Jesus ("Whom are you looking for?" 18:4.
Nothing will ever be the same
John doesn't concern himself with the technical details of "how" Jesus was raised. Instead, he emphasizes the profound change in the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and all of the disciples of Jesus right down to us, today.
From now on, Pazdan writes, the disciples of Jesus are even more than they were before: "Jesus' hour of glorification enables the disciples to be children of God and brothers and sisters of Jesus, ...[not] persons who are under parental care as dependents...[but] adult believers who belong to the household of God."
What happened in that garden
The story "in the garden," so lovely that it inspired a hymn by that name, is a deeply personal experience of the Resurrection. Maybe that's why some folks are uncomfortable with that hymn, dismissing it as "sentimental" and too "personal," that is, if they miss the third verse that tells Mary, and us, not to linger there, waiting for Jesus, but to go back into the world that is suffering.
We have been assured that that is where we will find him, in that suffering and that need. Our words and our actions--in response to the life-changing events of that Easter morning--can be hope for a world that is hurting.
Bringing the personal and the communal together
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan's book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach about Jesus' Last Days in Jerusalem, culminates in the Easter experience and its two-fold significance, both personal and communal. Crossan and Borg say that our joyful proclamation, along with Mary Magdalene, that "Jesus lives" is a claim about Jesus today, in our own life and time.
Like the earliest Christians, we follow "The Way," a way that leads to our transformation. Mary Magdalene's garden encounter with the risen Christ is familiar to us in different forms today, when we experience resurrection and new life, when we encounter the risen Christ in our own lives.
God at work in the world
But there is the other side, too, for the Resurrection is God's way of defeating and denying the powers that be that were responsible for his death, including empires both ancient and contemporary. We are reminded that Jesus is really in charge, not the petty powers that seem to rule the world in every age.
And that, Borg and Crossan write, tells us something about God and what God is about, for God is about repairing the damage that has been done, and is calling us to join in the work.
Dare to distribute justice
We may feel very close to Jesus when we imagine ourselves in the garden, walking and talking with our risen Lord. But following Jesus after that encounter means caring about Jesus' great passion, which is also the great passion of God--Borg and Crossan call it "the Dream of God," the well-known "Kingdom of God," when all of God's children will live in shalom, with enough for all, and healing, peace, justice, and mercy will reign. (They even dare to use the word "distributive," a word that sounds a lot like the controversial "redistribution" that has become a hot button in our political discourse.)
This beautiful world of God's Dream, Borg and Crossan write, calls us to be "grounded ever more deeply in the reality of God, whose heart is justice," which is, they claim, "the political meaning of Good Friday and Easter."
Has anything changed?
That sounds as if there is more for us to do than merely take good news back to the others: it's a call for our whole lives, a way to live them. The world should be able to see in our lives our own passion for the truth that Jesus is risen and that God has indeed begun the "Great Clean-up," the work that requires our participation.
If we go back to our lives tomorrow as if nothing has changed, what then have we really experienced? Do you think the world is ready to hear a "political" meaning in Easter?
How do we respond to the Resurrection?
John K. Stendahl's insightful commentary on this text contrasts the boyish racing between Peter and the other disciple with the depth of feeling in Mary Magdalene's response to the Resurrection. The difference between the two notes struck by this account--almost comical, and deeply tragic--is a font for reflection: not just one or the other meaning is worth our attention, Stendahl claims, but both, because different people respond differently to the Resurrection.
I remember what that was like in Bible study in the local church, with one church member who had a PhD viewing (and struggling with) the Resurrection story through a different lens than another person, who simply took the story at face value. Each, in his own mysterious way, grasped the truth of Easter Sunday and proclaimed together in worship, "Jesus is risen!"
There is a delicate and deep interplay between faith and life experience, even life stages and cultural conditioning. The people in our pews, members and visitors alike on this Easter Sunday, are each in a place and time in their lives when they need to hear a word of hope and new life, even if each one hears it differently.
Moving forward into God's future
If Taylor calls resurrection "unnatural," so is the truth that it reveals this "happy morning," the new life within us, planted by God, new life that "cannot be killed, and if we can remember that then there is nothing we cannot do: move mountains, banish fear, love our enemies, change the world. The only thing we cannot do is hold on to him...." Instead, we must "let him take us where he is going," to be with the God who draws us forward into new life.
What do we expect from life? In our relationships and ministries, in our families, our neighborhoods, our communities, the nation and the world, in our own congregations and in the United Church of Christ, there are so many opportunities for new life, new possibilities, new wonders, if we dare to hope for them, to open our hearts and minds to what God can do.
"The possibility of possibility"
The wonderful writer, Mary Gordon, has written, "For me the meaning of the Resurrection is the possibility of possibility. The great perhaps. Perhaps: the open-endedness that gives the lie to death. That opens up the story." What possibilities lie before you, on this most unusual Easter Sunday, despite, or perhaps because of, the pandemic we are experiencing across the globe? How might God "open up the story" of your church?
How is our present situation of quarantine and self-isolation during this Easter season a challenge and an invitation to reflection on the Resurrection itself, and on this "possibility of possibility"?
Have you ever done everything as you planned, and then witnessed something, experienced something that you never thought would happen? When have you been surprised, caught "off guard" by good news and unforeseen joy that affirm and express God's great "Yes!" to the world, to creation, to new life? Have you ever received news so good that it required a re-appraisal of your worldview?
A different experience of Easter this year
The children's book author, Mark Andrew Poe, has written in one of his books, "Even without church walls, or doors or sconces, Easter had come. Even without altars or crosses, Easter had come." How do these words strike you in our own context of self-isolation and social distancing, with no in-person congregational gatherings?
How will you hear the Good News "from a distance" this year? Do we have anything in common in this regard with Christians in other places and times? How are our religious imaginations fired by these circumstances?
A moment that changed the world
Easter Sunday was the moment that changed the world, and, hopefully, our expectations, even today, two thousand years later. Where do you stand in a world made new by the events of that morning so long ago?
Where does your church stand in such a world? What, then, will you do?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles a sermon reflection on Matthew 21:1-11) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
George Eliot, 19th century
"It seems to me we can never give up longing and wishing while we are thoroughly alive. There are certain things we feel to be beautiful and good, and we must hunger after them."
Pope Francis, The Church of Mercy, 21st century
"How often does Love have to tell us, 'Why do you look for the living among the dead?' Our daily problems and worries can wrap us up in ourselves, in sadness and bitterness...and that is where death is. That is not the place to look for the One who is alive!"
Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, 20th century
"There is a fragrance in the air, a certain passage of a song, an old photograph falling out from the pages of a book, the sound of somebody's voice in the hall that makes your heart leap and fills your eyes with tears. Who can say when or how it will be that something easters up out of the dimness to remind us of a time before we were born and after we will die?"
Mother Teresa, 20th century
"Never let anything so fill you with sorrow as to make you forget the joy of Christ risen."
Frederick Buechner, 20th century
"It has always struck me as remarkable that when the writers of the four Gospels come to the most important part of the story they have to tell, they tell it in whispers. The part I mean, of course, is the part about the resurrection."
Emily Dickinson. 19th century
"To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else."
Jan Karon, Home to Holly Springs, 21st century
"Easter is never deserved."
John O'Donohue, Walking in Wonder: Eternal Wisdom for a Modern World, 21st century
"We ask that streams of Easter light might flow into the intimacy and privacy of our hearts this morning, to heal us and encourage us and enable us to make again a new beginning."
Kate McGahan, 21st century
"The very first Easter taught us this: that life never ends and love never dies."
Joan D. Chittister, 21st century
We trust in the future we cannot see and do only know because we have celebrated the death and resurrection of Jesus year after year. In His life we rest our own."
Carolyn Heilbrun, 20th century
"Power consists in deciding which story shall be told."
Pope John Paul II, quoting Augustine, 4th century
"Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song."
N.T. Wright, 21st century
"Jesus's resurrection is the beginning of God's new project not to snatch people away from earth to heaven but to colonize earth with the life of heaven. That, after all, is what the Lord's Prayer is about."
David Housholder, The Blackberry Bush, 21st century
"If anyone or anything tries to curse or kill the Goodness at the Center of all things, it will just keep coming back to life. Forever Easter."
Frederick Buechner, The Magnificent Defeat, 20th century
"Remember Jesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet out of the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God."
Arundhati Roy, 21st century
"Not only is another world possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."
Martin Luther, 16th century
"Be thou comforted, little dog, Thou too in Resurrection shall have a little golden tail."
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In the Garden
Sunday, April 12, 2020