A sermon for Easter Day, April 16, 2017. The lectionary readings are Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, and John 20:1-18.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
On Easter morning, Mary goes to the tomb, looking for Jesus. She finds him there, though she doesn’t recognize him at the beginning. She looks through her tears and sees the risen Lord. The other disciples scatter, returning to families or work. But they, too find the Risen Christ, as he greets them on the beach and in a locked room. Thomas stands out for finally seeing and accepting the Risen Christ, but Thomas has to look honestly through his doubt, and then he sees. After the crucifixion, some return to their families, others go back to fishing, but after a time they come together in a locked room, and there they see Jesus. Thomas looks through his doubt and sees Jesus.
The Risen Christ meets us, but we might see him in very different places. Where do you look for him? In scripture? In music? In friends or family? In tradition? In prayer? In political action or process? In medicine or art? Where to you encounter Christ?
A friend who is a minister in Maryland, told a story about a woman who went looking for Christ deep within her own grief. Actually, I don’t know that she was even looking for Christ. She was looking for her husband, for some healing or hope around his death. And perhaps, she was also looking for herself, wondering who she was, now that he had died.
My former colleague, Terry, had served a parish for a few years in Ohio. And that part of Ohio was known for its long, cold, and wet winters.
Elizabeth was a long-time parishioner of his church. She and James had gotten married young, but the start of their marriage was rough. James suffered from PTSD from fighting in Vietnam, and it almost broke up their marriage. But they got help, and grew in their love for each other and their love of God. After about eighteen good years together, James came down with a sudden illness, and died.
It was too soon. Too much was unfinished. He was too young, and Elizabeth was devastated. He had died too young, and she was completely unprepared for life without him.
During the whole first year of James’s death, Elizabeth could not bring herself to visit the cemetery. She just couldn’t, even though she could walk to it, in their small town. It was the sort of town where everyone knew everyone, but no one knew how to help Elizabeth in her grief.
But finally, near the first year’s anniversary, Elizabeth came to her pastor, my friend Terry, and asked him if he would meet her at the cemetery on that anniversary morning, at 7:30. Terry agreed, but worried that it would be a pretty bleak visit. March was wet and cold, and the cemetery would be muddy. Nothing would be growing or blooming, and he worried the whole depressing scene would just be too much for her. But he agreed.
The night before the day they met at the cemetery, it had snowed. Because of the rain over the season, some of the graves had sunken in, so the snow made an impression and marked the graves. Elizabeth arrived a little early, so she walked up the muddy road and got to the place where her husband was buried. She remembered the funeral. She remembered her husband, and as she looked across the lonely landscape—trees without leaves, dirt and mud everywhere, and the sunken graves— she started to cry. She cried and cried, as though the finality and reality of her husband’s death was finally setting in. As she cried, she almost didn’t hear the backhoe, the tractor which belonged to her neighbor, George Smith, the cemetery caretaker. When she heard it, she was embarrassed to be caught in her grief and tears, so she didn’t even look up.
But she felt an arm around her. He said, “Why are you crying?” Elizabeth just nodded out toward the graves, and then cried some more. He said to her then, “To me, the snow looks like the white cloths those first women saw when they went to see Jesus. The ground that’s sunken on top of the graves looks that way because none of them is there. They are risen. Go home, Elizabeth, and live!”
She felt his arm withdraw and heard the tractor make its way down the hill.
The cemetery looked different to her. She was no longer afraid. The sun was warming her and she felt better.
When her pastor Terry arrived, Elizabeth met him at the gate of the cemetery, and she looked ten years younger. “Come on,” she said, “I’ll buy you breakfast.” Over coffee, Elizabeth explained to Terry what had happened, how she had gotten so upset, had frozen in her grief, and how George had come at just the right time and said just the right thing.
Terry listened, looked at Elizabeth, and said simply, “That’s fine, Elizabeth. But George Smith is at his daughter’s house in Columbus this week.”
Christ is risen. Christ rises still. Wherever there is pain or need or suffering, Christ still rises. In the midst of joy, and promise, and work well done, Christ still rises. In the midst of work, or play, or challenge, or relationships—good ones, bad ones, ones on the mend—Christ rises.
With Easter hearts that burn within us, let us see and know the Risen Christ, and let us be renewed to be his friends and disciples.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.