“At the Tomb”
A sermon by Rev. Jane McBride
April 1, 2018 • Easter • John 20:1-18
First Congregational Church of MN, UCC
While it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.
While it was still dark, Resurrection began.
Last Saturday, Emma Gonzalez opened her speech at the March for Our Lives by naming the dead of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the seventeen who would never . . . With a strong voice, a voice breaking with outrage and love and grief, she recalled the small, intimate details that make our losses so terribly real. She would never again hear her friend Carmen complain about piano practice. Aaron would never call Kira “Miss Sunshine” and Gina would never wave to Liam at lunch. Emma Gonzalez brought our nation to the tomb. She led us into the heart of our pain, our despair and doubt. And then she stopped talking and she just stood there in a long silence that, together with her words, lasted for the rest of the six minutes and twenty seconds it took for the shooter to end the lives of her classmates. With tears flowing down her face, she gazed fiercely at the crowd. Trembling, she stood firm in her resistance to the narrative that says that gun violence is now an inevitable part of life in our schools. Uncomfortable, uncertain, and moved to show their support, the hundreds of thousands gathered before her clapped, cheered and chanted “never again.” And, then they, too, grew silent, joining her in taking a stand at the tomb.
In this morning’s resurrection story, it is Mary’s stillness that I notice. She stood weeping outside the tomb. The other disciples of Jesus were all motion. They came, running, racing each other. But Mary just stood there. Breathless, they rushed in to the tomb to investigate. But Mary stayed outside, rooted in the moment. They saw the linen wrapping that had held Jesus’ body. They saw the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. They saw and they believed, the narrator notes. But what did they believe? Whatever it was, it doesn’t seem like it made a real difference in their lives.
Because they rushed off again.
And it wasn’t to go and tell others. And it wasn’t to gather with the rest of Jesus followers. And it wasn’t to begin a resurrection life, a life forever changed. They went home.
They went home.
But Mary stood there, still unmoved, at the tomb.
She wept and she waited.
Delving into the tradition of contemplative prayer within Christianity is changing my understanding of prayer, of faith, even of resurrection. More and more, the concepts we have of God seem of secondary importance to me. God is an experience. God is a relationship. There is a death involved in letting go of the smaller self, the disconnected, separate self, and, there is a resurrection in feeling ourselves joined to all that is, joined in communion with God. In her book about Centering Prayer, Cynthia Bourgeault tells the story of a friend of hers who had lost her husband a few months earlier. She writes:
As [my friend] developed her strategy for managing her grief, she knew that early evening would be the hardest time of the day to get through, when she and her husband had been accustomed to sharing the events of the day with each other over a leisurely glass of wine. So she wisely scheduled a daily racket ball class for 5 p.m. to get her out of the house and physically active. It was a good idea. But late one February afternoon, a slashing ice storm came through, took out the power lines, and covered the roads with glare ice.
So there she was, alone in a dark house. But she was a staunch member of our spiritual journey group and decided that now would be as good a time as ever to work with the Welcoming Prayer. Sinking deeply into those places where the grief and pain lived within her, she slowly began saying, “Welcome grief… welcome grief… welcome grief…” “It was like day and night,” she told me afterward. “One moment I couldn’t stand it anymore; the next minute I could. If this grief were to go on forever I knew that I could be with it the whole way. Whatever joined me in that moment is what it’s really all about.” (p. 149, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening)
Believing that Jesus was physically raised from the dead used to be very important to me. In recent years, I’ve let go of that need to belief. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. I’ve realized that what’s always been underneath my passion for resurrection s the intuitive sense that it really happens. But, I’ve also recognized that if resurrection is some momentary and miraculous alteration to the laws of nature, it is in fact meaningless to me. To mean anything, resurrection has to be a way of talking about what’s most real, what’s at the very heart of things, what’s true in all times and places.
I believe that resurrection is a profound connection to God, to the wellspring of life, to all that is, that even death cannot destroy. We know this and we experience it in a very personal way; we see it and touch it first within our own hearts. This is the kind of resurrection story I hear in the Gospel of John, and particularly in Mary’s experience standing at the tomb. The events that ended Jesus’ life were so very public—his entrance into Jerusalem, his trial, torture and execution: all that took place before large crowds. But the encounter between Mary and Jesus is profoundly personal. It begins as though it were a meeting between strangers. They’ve each been through terrible trauma—they’ve each changed, irreconcilably. Is that why they don’t recognize each other? Jesus, at first calls her simply “woman.” He doesn’t seem to know her or to know why she would be upset or whom it is she’s missing. And she thinks he’s the gardener. But then he hears her voice, and realizes who she is. “Mary!” he exclaims. “Teacher!” she answers.
As Mary Magdalene and Emma Gonzalez show us, resurrection begins while it is still dark. Resurrection begins at the tomb. It emerges as, trembling and weeping, we stand firm in the terrible finality of our losses. It appears as we welcome the outrage, the love and the sadness that we feel bearing witness to the world’s unjust suffering. It arises through our resistance to the narrative of despair. There, at the tomb, we come to know what it means that the stone has been rolled away. Death cannot imprison us. There is a wellspring of life we can see and know and trust and touch.