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Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.
A Question of New Life:
“Whom Are You Looking For?”
Part of the Sermon Series “Questions Jesus Asked”
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 118:1–2, 14–24
Our Gospel reading for today is John’s account of the resurrection. I originally chose it because it was to feature the last question of sermon series, the question the risen Jesus asked Mary in the garden: Whom are you looking for? But as this series continued to evolve, as did our church life together, so did the focus of this sermon. On this Easter Sunday, we are not going to focus on the question as much as we are on what happens afterwards.
Mary was just doing the best she could. The best she could with what she had, given the circumstances at hand. She had never imagined it would end that way—Jesus, dead. All of her friends, the other disciples, locked away in rooms because they were too sad and too scared to do anything else. The whole movement Jesus had started—the movement focused on liberation for everyone, healing for everyone, good news and love and compassion for everyone—that movement, the Jesus movement, what they had come to call the Way—done. Over. When Jesus said, “It is finished,” Mary did not think he was only talking about his life. The movement embodied by him would be finished too.
It was almost too much for Mary. She didn’t know if or how she would keep putting one foot in front of the other. That Saturday morning, the morning after he breathed his last on that profane instrument of state execution called the cross, when her eyes fluttered open that Saturday morning Mary found herself growing angry with the sun for having the audacity to rise on a day that should have been full of nothing but deep darkness. The grief hung around her neck like a millstone, so heavy that she could barely lift her head. But she felt like she had to do something in order to cope with the grief.
We know that feeling, don’t we? Whenever we come face-to-face with our own deep grief or the grief of someone we know or love, we, too, often have this desire to do something. We are not sure what; we just know we have to take some kind of action. Often, for church people, this means we bring each other casseroles or pies. I cannot tell you how many times I have walked into the kitchen of a grieving church member to find dish after dish of lovingly prepared food, so much so, that the freezer is filling up and they are running out of storage containers. It is quite beautiful to witness, honestly.
Yet we see this same kind of coping behavior in other groups, too. For example, people all over the country right now are sewing cloth facemasks for each other—wonderful, tangible, protective gifts for health care workers and grocery store clerks, grandparents and small children, adults who have to go to the pharmacy and bus drivers who keep things moving. Our own church’s Benevolent Guild is doing this for those on the front lines in Chicago health care institutions.
Furthermore, some people are buying gift cards to small restaurants to try and keep them afloat. Every night in Chicago neighborhoods, strangers come out on the balconies of their apartment buildings to cheer on health care workers and public safety officers as they change shifts. Little children write messages of hope and joy in sidewalk chalk for their neighbors to see when they go on a walk. Our own church communications staff put up pictures of teddy bears in the windows of the church building so that families going on a “bear hunt” would find them and have an adventure. Some of our other church staff and Chicago Lights staff come to work every day to don masks and gloves in order to hand out clothes and food to those who literally have nowhere else to go for basic needs. Others are making phone call after phone call to our Social Service Center clients or to our Tutoring students or to our health care professionals and hospital chaplains or to our older adult church members just to make a connection with them and remind them they are not out there existing alone.
In these days, I dare say we are all in grief, maybe not as deep as Mary’s, but grief nevertheless, and many of us desperately want to do something. We desire to take some kind of action, to make some kind of difference not just us in our own lives, but in the lives of others, some friends, some strangers. It’s because we know that most of us are just doing the best we can. The best we can with what we have, given the circumstances.
On that very early Sunday morning, Mary decided that the best thing she could do for herself at that moment was to see Jesus’ tomb. She just needed to touch the stone that covered its entrance, to place flowers nearby as a testimony of her devotion. Perhaps she thought seeing it with her own eyes would force her to have to deal with the reality of the doneness of it all—the death of it all, not just Jesus. That desire for closure was why, when she arrived to find the stone rolled away, she completely lost her breath. She lost her breath not out of astonishment because Jesus had risen—she did not know that then. For Mary, for all of them, when someone died, they stayed dead. She had no other categories with which she was functioning. No, she lost her breath because she felt like the powers of evil and death had just kicked her in the stomach even though she was already down on her hands and knees in defeat.
Mary saw that stone rolled away, and she assumed Jesus’ opponents had not been satisfied with merely killing him. No, they had to completely stomp out every single thing that proved he had once existed, that marked he had once lived. They had to take his body, desecrate his tomb, remove anything and everything that his followers could have used to remember him by. Paul Simpson Duke has written that Mary shows up to find “his tomb is gutted . . . [which, to Mary at that moment, is] evidence . . . that the claims and promises of Jesus were, like his tomb, empty” (Paul Simpson Duke, “Preaching the Text” from John 20:1–18, Feasting on the Gospels, p. 315).
Again, it was not just the death of Jesus that Mary was mourning. Perhaps even more than that, as much as she loved him, she was also mourning the death of all he had promised, all he had said, all she had once trusted as true. She was mourning the death of what was supposed to be different because of him. That’s why, when she saw that stone rolled away, it just about completely undid her.
Somehow, though, she found the focus to go and tell Simon Peter and that other disciple what she had found. And the two of them went to see it for themselves. She followed behind. And sure enough, after they arrived, they both eventually went into the empty tomb and believed what she had said was true. The body was gone. It really was over, dead, gone, finished. But whereas Mary’s response to such grief was to try and do something, their response of grief was to go home, to bury themselves under the covers and try to just wait it out. As much as I identify with Mary’s response for action, I understand their reaction too. Just go home. Try and distract yourself or take yet another nap and maybe when you wake up this time, it will be different.
Mary, though, stayed. This time, instead of running away from the emptiness of the tomb, she decided to fully enter into it. Yet she was still so completely disoriented by her grief that when she saw who John tells us were two angels, she did not recognize them as such. When you are so completely overtaken by grief and when death is the only reality you can recognize, then even angels look like graverobbers, like threats. But then, when they had the nerve to ask her why she was weeping, I even wonder if she could hear them through the roar of injustice and anger in her ears.
Why am I weeping? she must have thought. What a question. It is kind of like asking a nurse as he or she leaves their eighteen-hour shift in which they had to hold the hands of strangers as they died so they would not be alone, it is like asking that nurse “How are you today?” How am I? that nurse might think. “I have no idea. I am still standing.” Mary did have a response: “They have taken the body of my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Such grief and pain are laid bare in that one sentence. Her response shows us that in that moment the violence and the meanness of the world simply overwhelmed her.
Despondent, exhausted, still trying to do the best she could with what she had, given the circumstances, Mary turned to leave. And as she did so, she saw another figure there in the garden with her. But she did not recognize him for who he really was, because we humans tend to see only what we are already looking for. And she was only looking for a body, because her hope had seemingly been in vain, her dreams for the world proven pointless, her faith too risky and no longer worth holding.
Yet that stranger asked her the same question the angels did: “Woman, why are you weeping?” Stepping back from Mary’s perspective for a moment, do you find it interesting that the first question the risen Jesus asks centers on how Mary feels? The very first thing he pays attention to is her tears, her pain, her grief. Even after everything he had been through, the very first thing the risen Christ is concerned about is that Mary is weeping. Whether she could hear that concern in his voice or not, we aren’t sure. Probably not. Not yet. She was still living in a world of disappointment and total devastation. With those things clouding her vision, she assumed he must be the gardener, so she figured maybe he knew where they had stashed the body and asked him about it.
And it is at this moment when everything changed for her, again. After paying attention to her tears, the risen Jesus calls her by name. “Mary. Mary.” And it is the calling of her name that shakes her out of her grief-filled stupor. Even more than that, here in the Gospel of John it is the calling of her name that is the Easter announcement itself. In John’s Gospel, there are no angel messengers saying, “The Lord is risen.” There is no bolt of lightning or guards who fall out from fear.
No, in John’s Gospel the Easter announcement happens quietly in the garden, between the two of them. Jesus says “Mary” and she hears “The Lord is risen.” Simpson Duke again: “The Easter announcement is not made by [Jesus] telling [Mary] who he is, but by his appeal to who she is” (Paul Simpson Duke, Feasting on the Gospels, p. 315). When Jesus calls her name, “Mary,” she recognizes that Easter has dawned, because he reminds her who and whose she is. “Mary,” he says. “My teacher,” she responds, her grief overturned by the recognition that the risen Christ, the living Christ, is in her midst, for you see, early that morning, even before she had made her way to the garden, Easter had already happened, but until Mary heard her name, she could not see it.
Friends, those of you who are a part of this congregation know that I often call us an Easter people—a people who live and love and make decisions based on our trust that God really is as good as Jesus says; based on our conviction that we may be able to kill God’s love, but we cannot keep it dead and buried; based on our faith that proclaims God is still not done with us or with this world just yet and that Easter always rises. But Mary’s experience in the garden this day makes me wonder if I have been forgetting that a bit. In this season that I began to call the Lentiest Lent ever, I have been missing Easter announcements that have been taking place all over, some right in front of my face.
Remember what we just experienced—that the risen Jesus announces his presence, proclaims that death no longer has the last word, by simply reminding Mary who she is? And then remember all of those examples I listed in the very beginning of this sermon about how we are all being driven to action—action to care for each other by staying home or by making masks or by writing messages of hope on sidewalks for friends and strangers alike, action to embody love for our most vulnerable and forgotten neighbors, action to recognize the beauty and worth of each person, actions of generosity by sharing our resources? Well, after this encounter in the garden, I am no longer sure those are only grief-driven actions anymore.
As a matter of fact, after experiencing this encounter between Mary and the risen Jesus, I dare say while they might be driven a bit by grief, in the light of this day, they are also full-throated expressions of “The Lord is risen.” I dare say that when we have been doing those things for one another, even if we have not recognized it, we have actually been responding to this sense of who we truly are as children of God; we have actually been responding to the risen Jesus calling our names and reminding us of the goodness and the possibility that dwells in all of us. I actually think that even throughout the Lentiest Lent we’ve experienced, Easter has been springing up all over the place. In the midst of the fear, the honest struggle, and the death, Easter has been there all along.
Kate Bowler, an associate professor at Duke Divinity School, says it better than I can:
The second I see all these nurses and doctors going out there trying to save somebody else’s life, I realize it’s such a window into how gorgeous it is to be a human being. And the more we see fragility, sometimes the more we understand what an incredible miracle it is to have been created at all. So I think just having a higher and higher view of our gorgeous and terrible humanity [is one thing we are discovering].
We’re learning right now in isolation what interdependence feels like and what a gift it is. And the more we’re apart, the more we realize how much we need each other. (Kate Bowler interviewed by Elizabeth Dias in “How to Live in the Face of Fear: Lessons from a Cancer Survivor,” New York Times, 5 April 2020)
Even though Ms. Bowler doesn’t say it this way, all of it sounds like we are responding to our names being called. All of it sounds like Easter announcements to me.
“The Lord is risen” the homemade facemask proclaims. “The Lord is risen” the extra tip for the delivery person announces. “The Lord is risen” the new and past-due focus on COVID-19 testing for African Americans in Chicago declares. “The Lord is risen” the children’s sidewalk messages illustrate. “The Lord is risen” the sack lunch to go makes clear. “The Lord is risen” the empty sanctuary symbolizes. “The Lord is risen” your presence announces by joining in worship via livestream from your home. On this Easter morning, we see that Jesus announces his victory over the powers of evil and death by the act of calling our names and reminding us who we are, especially here, especially now.
And who is that? We are an Easter people. A people connected to each other. A people defined by resilient, biblical hope. A people with more beauty and possibility lodged within every single one of us that the risen Jesus hopes we will discover and take seriously. Because when we do, we will join him in his continued repairing and constant redeeming of this world. And we will be Easter announcements with our lives. We won’t be able to help it, because it is who we are. The Lord is risen. He is risen indeed! I see it in every single one of you. Amen.