John 20:1-18, preached on April 12, 2020
Easter is different this year. The basket of Easter bells that we hand out to children with the instructions to ring them every time they hear the word “alleluia!” said or sung sits untouched and silent on a shelf in my office, but every evening at twilight clanging pots,car horns, whoops, claps and even some bells fill the air with grateful praise for all the essential workers rising up in the face of death. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
And then there is this: because every kind of joy is essential for our children and this child has captured her world’s strange moment so creatively with the Easter Bunny in their carrot-decorated mask. She tells us that nestled among the eggs in the basket is some blue paw sanitizer. Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Because Easter sermons don’t just pop up out of the ground like potted lilies on Easter morning, I had work to do for my sermon on Friday, but honestly, I was just too sad. I told myself, you are the pastor and you should be upbeat and joyful on Easter because you believe the promise of Easter, you can’t be sad and tearful but beloved church, I was sad and tearful. Of course, there are countless reasons for that these days, but what hit me particularly hard on Friday was the call that told me Peter Adrian, our dear elderly former organist had tested positive for the coronavirus in his nursing home where it is running rampant. Peter has no family and appointed me as his health care proxy and in what now seems like another world, I promised him I would not leave him alone. But now, I cannot visit him and he has no phone and there is only one staff member who will take her phone to Facetime with Peter, but she was away. And like countless others in similar and worse circumstances I felt helpless and sad. More Good Friday than Easter.
Of course it was Good Firday, but thenI turned to the beginning of the Easter gospel, an easter story that begins with Good Friday feelings. Early on the first day of the week, before sunrise, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb. The sun has not yet risen. It is too early to see anything clearly, but she did see that the stone was removed from Jesus’ tomb and that his body was missing. 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. The first words of Mary Magdalene on Easter morning, the words that break the silence of Easter dawn are a mournful cry: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Helpless words of sorrow, confusion and loss even anger. If you bring any of those feelings to this Easter day, you are not alone. Those were the very feelings of on that very first Easter. Not only has Mary Magdalene’s friend and teacher been murdered, she can’t even have the comfort of giving him a proper burial because someone has moved the body, or stolen it and taken it where she does not know.
This is happening today in New York with more cases of the coronavirus than any country in the world and most of them are here in our city. Funeral homes don’t have the capacity to cope with the mounting numbers of bodies that need tending and burial. And many of these bodies are Black and Brown, most in fact, come from low-income families who cannot quickly come up with the cost of burial, even cremation. Where are they taking all the bodies? We have learned that they are being buried in mass graves on in Hart Island off the Bronx, a place where the unnamed and unclaimed dead of our city have been buried for years, a job that used to be foisted on prisoners from Rikers- but now, perhaps fearing lawsuits, other workers have been hired, essential workers doing a job nobody would wish to do. And most of these bodies are not unnamed. Most of them belong to loved ones who know their names but in these days they are being taken away and buried by strangers. I imagine that many of their families are hoping to claim them one day and bury them properly and they will be asking the question Mary asked. They have taken our loved one away and we do not know where they have laid him. Will the bodies be identified and found and returned? In a nation and city where children detained by ICE are sometimes lost to the system, along with many others lost without homes in a city where luxury empty apartments abound, can those who have lost the living be trusted to find the dead? But even if found, will their loved ones find the money to bury them?
They have taken my Lord away. And I don’t know where they have put him. Mary’s cry in echos in our own hearts. Not just for the dead. So much is being and has been taken away from us. Stolen from us. Each of us could make our own list of what has been lost or stolen, what we long for that may or may not come back.
After Mary Magdalene runs to tell the disciples about Jesus’ disappearance from the tomb, they come racing to see for themselves. What they see is what Mary saw, the tomb is empty, not a source of Easter joy but of confusion, a beloved body put somewhere unknown, for (as John tells us) as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead and so the disciples returned to their homes. Whatever they thought about what happened, they just went home to a Good Friday world where nothing much had changed.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. She can’t bring herself to leave. Confused and defeated, the disciples have gone back home but Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. Pilate has washed his hands of responsibility for Jesus’ death and is glad to have it all behind him now, but Mary Magdalene remains at the tomb and weeps. The leaders of the religious establishment have cracked open cases of champagne for a victory celebration, Happy Good Friday they toasted– at last they are rid of that busybody who called out their hypocrisy and corruption, but Mary Magdalene remains at the tomb and weeps. She feels her true feelings and nobody interrupts to tell her to feel differently. How long does she stand there weeping we do not know. How long O Lord? How long will wait at this tomb? How long before new life emerges for ourselves, our families, our city, our nation, our world? How long, O Lord? We do not know.
But at some point, still weeping, Mary moves. She cannot accept the empty hole of not knowing. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb… And there, because she remained weeping and looked into the shadowy depths of that tomb, seeking Jesus still, she sees two angels, one at the head and one at the feet of where Jesus body should have been. Woman, why are you weeping?” And she repeats what she said to the disciples: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
And then, Jesus appears. Jesus is there right in front of her, but Mary Magdalene can’t recognize him. Her tear-filled eyes cannot see properly and likely her grief-addled brain is not making full sense of things. There’s no question that stress and trauma contribute to addled brains as many are experiencing. I know that my brain has not been functioning at full strength.
So Mary does not recognize Jesus even when he is right there. What she sees is a gardener, and this is a cemetery so the gardener is likely one who tends the garden and the graves which is why she believes he has moved the body. Mary sees a gardener, a grave-tender, an essential worker. And then she hears his voice calling her name. Her name. “Mary!” “Raboni!” she cries out, “Teacher!” And indeed, Jesus had inwardly been teaching her to keep on searching, to stand in the tear-filled shadows, waiting for the dawn, refusing to accept what seemed to be the inevitable loss of all her hope. She did not return to what had been. She did not deny what she was feeling and now she sees that the very worst thing that could happen- is not the end.
The gardener, the grave-tender, this essential worker is the risen Christ who is here on this Easter to tend our bodies in their Good Friday places of loss and trauma, living or dead. Because that IS the essential work of Easter. I love the fact that this happened in a garden. Because back in the beginning of the Bible, we have another garden story. The Adam and Eve story of paradise lost. And now we are brought into a garden again. And isn’t the place of where things fall apart, the very place we most need Easter to happen because frankly, if it doesn’t happen there.. What good is it? Isn’t that were we need the essential work of Easter?
In the mass graves? With the traumatized medical teams facing death after death? With families struggling to keep up with work while caring for beloved children? Or children worried for their parents? With those who have no clue where their work has gone and if they will ever find it again? With those alone who have no one to share their feelings? With those in crowded conditions of poverty, incarceration, nursing homes? And those with no homes at all? With the frightened sick and dying in rooms where loved ones cannot enter. Yes, but they are not alone. Our essential worker is there. That IS where the essential work of Easter is going on.
After Mary hears Jesus calling her name, she runs to hold on to him. And then Jesus says these strange words that sound almost mean: Do not hold on to me! Why social distance now Jesus just when I’ve found you? Because Mary’s relationship with Jesus is going to be different now. And Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples I have seen the Lord!
Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene are his words to the church. Church, Don’t hold on to me. I am not your personal, private savior. Go and tell the others. Go and bear the news of Easter into the world. Don’t just go to church. BE the church. And in these days, we know well that the church is not the building, much as we may miss it. Much as I miss you as I stand here gazing out at a church full of empty pews and imagine you sitting in them today and imagine you sitting at home.
But just as Jesus didn’t stay shut away in the tomb, Jesus doesn’t stay shut away in church buildings where some like to keep him. Stay in church Jesus- and I’ll visit you from time to time. If we do that, then we are leaving others alone to cry They have taken the Lord away, and we do not know where they have laid him. Sometimes the church has hidden our Lord behind doctrinal purity, sometimes the church has put him behind judgmental legalism, sometimes the church has laid Jesus behind small-minded prejudices, cruelty and even outright hate. But such whitewashed tombs cannot hold Jesus back.
But the church has never been a building, the church is a community of essential workers commissioned on Easter to bring Christ’s hope and presence and love wherever it is needed. Jesus calls our name as Jesus called Mary’s name. Because you too are an essential worker in his reign.
On Friday, I asked a facebook clergy group I’m part of to pray for me and for Peter. One of the pastors wrote this: When I was visiting one of my church members in the hospital, at a time when I figured her life in this world was pretty limited, she asked me, “Can you see them?” I said, “What?” “The angels,” she replied. “No, I can’t.” She pointed them out to me. “There’s one there and one over there. One of them was sitting in the chair just before you came in and sat down. The nurses think I’m crazy. Do you think I’m crazy?” On the verge of tears, I replied, “No,I don’t think you’re crazy. I think they are a reminder that God is watching over you, no matter what happens next.” She died less than 24 hours later. Then this man, this stranger, who saw the 2 angels of Easter, said to me:Trust that Peter is not alone. Trust that God will make sure Peter knows he is not alone. I felt better. I knew I had been visited by one of Easter’s essential workers.
Easter IS different this year. The basket of Easter bells that we hand out to children to ring when they hear the word alleluia said or sung sits untouched and silent on a shelf in my office, but every evening at twilight clanging pots, car horns, whoops, claps and even some bells fill the air with grateful praise for all the essential workers rising up in the face of death.
For you too dear church. For you too.
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!