Easter Sunday, March 31, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
As with all major events, there are variances in the accounts. But one of the commonalities, in all the gospel accounts of that first Easter morning, is that it was the women who came to the tomb. They came because they were the ones who had stayed at the cross. They came because for three years they had followed, listened to, obeyed, supported, and loved this man. Probably it was they who had baked the bread, procured the wine, prepared the Passover meal. They came because it was their job to anoint the body with spices and oils. They came to the tomb, expecting to find a dead body. You have seen a dramatic depiction of that morning, based on the gospel of John. Now listen for the good news to you in this account from the gospel of Luke, chapter 24, verses 1 through 12.
But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they went in, they did not find the body. While they were perplexed about this, suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them. The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” Then they remembered his words, and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. Now it was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told this to the apostles. But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. But Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; then he went home, amazed at what had happened.
It is easy to overlook, on a glorious Easter morning, the deeply personal nature of this story of resurrection. What a profound and moving event it must have been for them, for Mary Magdalene, for Joanna, for the other Mary, for Simon Peter. These are not just cardboard cutouts, created to move the story along. These were Jesus’ personal friends and disciples, people who had traveled with him, eating, working, sleeping alongside him, talking with him – not just lofty discussions that made it into Scripture, but simple, everyday conversations about where they were going to get lunch or whether or not they had time to make the next town by sundown.
So imagine going to visit the grave, two days after the funeral of your dearest and most beloved friend, and finding it empty. I think I can say with some assurance that your first thought would not be “Oh, how wonderful, my friend has risen from the dead!”
That’s not what Mary Magdalene, or Mary, or Joanna or Peter thought, either. Their first thought was about what had happened to the body. And I’d wager their next thoughts were about their friend, their Jesus. And he was their friend, not a story or a picture, but a real, living, breathing, flesh and blood presence in their lives.
Mary of Magdala, the woman whom Jesus healed, was the first to see Jesus alive. She is mentioned fourteen times in the Gospels. Mary Magdalene, by the way, got a bad rap as a woman of ill repute, due to a mistake made by Pope Gregory in the year 591. Pope Gregory confused her with two other Marys. The Catholic church corrected that, in a kind of low-key way, back in 1969. Magdalene was most likely a woman of some means, possibly a patron and supporter of Jesus’ ministry. Since she was the first to see the resurrected Lord, Jesus alive, she is known as the first of the Apostles, or the Apostle to the Apostles. But I’m getting ahead of the story.
Because when Magadalene saw the tomb empty, she was crushed. We would be the same at a graveside, overcome by a flood of memories: recalling the time we laughed so hard our sides hurt, remembering weeping as one, whether from anger or sorrow, memories of meals together, and confidences shared. And some memories would be of ways in which we had failed, the times we had not shown up, the angry words we wish we could take back. But that moment passed for Magdalene, because the next thing that happened was confirmation: assurance beyond any doubt that Jesus was alive. She saw him for herself.
Imagine how we would experience such a rush of memories and sensations, such an overwhelming tide of emotion as we saw a beloved friend alive again. The scripture says there is a time to mourn, and a time to dance. Magdalene, at that tomb, discovered that the time for mourning and the time for dancing intersected in that moment. We can only imagine her confusion. We can only dream of her joy.
She immediately carried the good news to the others.
And they thought she was crazy.
Peter didn’t believe her, and he ran to the empty tomb, ran to see for himself. Can you imagine what he must have said to the other men, hiding back in Jerusalem in that empty room? What could he possibly have told them? He is risen! As he said! Alleluia!
This Easter is my fifth as pastor of First Presbyterian Church, and with each passing year it becomes more challenging to think of something new to say about Easter. I was joking with the folks who came out for the Maundy Thursday service that maybe I would just dust off an old sermon this year – they assured me that no one would be able to tell! I’m not sure if that’s because they’re not all that memorable, or what…
But frankly, those last four sermons aren’t all that different, because the story, the same amazing, joyful, compelling story, demands something more than a scholarly treatment of the gospel reading or a three points and a poem sermon. So, like preachers all over the world on Easter, I look for the spark that will inspire us, the flash of insight that will ignite our hearts, the moment of delight that will send us out to joyfully proclaim, as Mary of Magdala did: “I have seen the Lord!”
What I want is for us to dance out of church on Easter, to dance a happy dance, a jubilant jig, a fantastic fandango, a rapturous rumba! Have you seen the videos that go around the internet this time of year, the hundreds of brightly dressed dancers in Houston, or Sacramento, or Budapest or Paducah or Grand Rapids or Bern, Switzerland? They convey such ineffable joy! And they make you want to dance along with them!
The music they dance to is a song called “Rise Up” and the words are, in part:
“This is a celebration
We’re calling out to every nation to spread the word that Jesus is alive.
We’re people of His Kingdom
His resurrection is our Freedom for every heart, every tongue and every tribe.
We will dance with the One that shines brighter than the sun
We lift our eyes up and rise up. He will rise up!
He’s alive! He’s alive!” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8KX2-J6uS-o
They make you want to leap up in the air and shout, “I have seen the Lord!” Unfortunately, my dance skills are more like those of the little girl in another video who can’t seem to stay in first position. This requires putting your heels together to make your feet look like the letter V. The poor little girl tries so hard, but she just can’t do it. She loses her balance, she bends over and tries to force her feet back to a V. The teacher tries to be reassuring –
“Don’t worry,” she says. “It’s okay if your shoes aren’t doing it!” All the other little dancers are following the teacher, holding their imaginary umbrellas, pretending to reach out for a raindrop, but she is still struggling to make her feet stay in the right place. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tdylQeg5B9I
Do you ever have that feeling?
That you aren’t doing it right?
That Christians are supposed to be out there spreading the good news, and your shoes aren’t doing it?
Or that you need to be a better person before you can be a Christian, making better choices, being in the right position, and your shoes aren’t doing it?
Or that if you try to talk about your faith, it’s awkward and clumsy and you just feel gawky?
I want to say – it’s okay if your shoes aren’t doing it.
It’s okay if you are not out there shouting the Easter message to everyone, handing out Bibles and drumming up business for First Presbyterian Church. Maybe your shoes can do something else.
Maybe they already do.
Because the Easter dance is not always easy to identify, and it is impossible to choreograph it the same way for everyone. The Easter dance is the way you, yourself, individually and personally, live out the Easter joy of resurrection, of new life, of restoration. But here’s the thing – and this is from an old sermon: Resurrection is not a spectator sport. It happens within us and among us and around us, and by our participation in Christ’s resurrection we are reborn as people of Easter joy.
So here’s my Easter hope for you, for me, for everyone:
May the bright sun of Easter morning dawn in us.
May the light of love break forth within us and around us and among us.
May ecstatic alleluias break forth from us.
May the joy of the Resurrection shine in us.
May the flowers of new life bloom in us.
May our tables be abundant with the bread of life.
May our cups overflow with the wine of mercy.
May our ears be open to words of life.
May our voices sing of hope and healing.
May our shoes move in the steps of the Risen Savior.
And “when we get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope we dance.”
Oh, Lord, even when our shoes don’t want to do it, help us to dance!
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed!