April 17th, 2022
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
Happy Easter! Amid all the flowers and the streamers and our shouts of Alleluia, I think we sometimes bypass what that first Easter was like. So this morning, with your indulgence, we are going to feel our way into Easter. Let’s read again the first part of John’s Resurrection Story—and I want you to chime in every time we get to the word Tomb—ready?
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the TOMB and saw that the stone had been removed from the TOMB. 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.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the TOMB. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the TOMB first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the TOMB. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the TOMB first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the TOMB. As she wept, she bent over to look into the TOMB;
9 times in 11 verses, we hear the tolling of that word, TOMB. It seems like the writer of the gospel of John wants us to feel what the disciples were feeling. Everywhere they turned, TOMB faced them. After all they had done, all the signs that this was the one of God, all the highs and lows of life with Jesus, it had ended on that Passover night, laying his body in a TOMB. Jesus, dead. Jesus, wrapped and buried. Jesus, the Christ, their Lord, in a TOMB. And with him, all their hopes and dreams. All the future they had shared and believed in. Gone. All they could see, all they could hear, was TOMB.
And then, Mary, who had stayed behind; Mary, who was at that dreaded TOMB for the second time, looked in, and everything shifted. In all the years I have been reading this Easter morning story from the gospel of John, I missed this Easter shift. In years past, I remember preaching on the frantic pace—of Mary running back to get Peter and the other disciple, and the 2 men running to the place where they had laid Jesus (with Mary trailing behind).
I have preached on the encounter in the garden—Mary and the one she supposed was the gardener. And her eyes were opened when he called her name. And the entreaty—don’t hold on to me, don’t stay here in the garden. Go, Mary. Go and tell, Go and be the voice, the sent one, an apostle, to tell what has happened.
But this year that TOMB would not let me go. As we approach a million deaths from Covid in two years, tomb seems the right word. As we watch in real time bombings in Ukraine (and other parts of the world), and are confronted by dead people left on the street, and see images of families fleeing to anyplace but their home, tomb seems the right word. As we try to negotiate what is normal now, in our work life, in our church life, in our school life, in our personal life—everything is different, everything feels somehow strange, tomb seems the right word.
Death and change is so hard. It leaves holes, no, craters, behind. It shakes our firm beliefs. It unsettles us. Here in the US, where we had first crack at getting vaccinated, and boosted, where we didn’t overtop all our hospitals at once (allowing us to move people and resources when there were surges), where we are still proportionally richer and better off than most places in our globe, we are seeing the cracks everywhere. Overdose deaths are up. Violence, particularly gun violence is up. Teen-age suicide attempts are up. Road rage, and rage in airplanes is up. Everywhere I turn, every time I turn on the TV, every time I read a newspaper, I see people caught in the TOMB.
We understand how Mary, and Peter, and the beloved disciple and all the rest were feeling. Like there was nothing but TOMB. TOMB-- life focused on death, life molded by death, life blown to pieces, life wondering where God is. The Easter shift pulls us into a different reality. Stop looking at the tomb, says Easter. Something has happened. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” The Easter shift says stop looking at absence—and start looking at presence.
Have you noticed that in our imagery for resurrection—we often put an empty tomb. The tomb open and the stone rolled away. The tomb empty and the folded grave clothes. The tomb with morning dawn breaking, sunshine dispelling the darkness. And I wonder if we continue to put the tomb into our Easter pictures because we have trouble finding an image more compelling. I mean, how does one imagine the resurrection?
Long ago, when I was very young, I remember I painted (maybe even finger-painted) something I titled Resurrection—and it was fireworks, great splashes of color bursting all over the paper. Maybe it symbolized joy for me (I love fireworks).
Maybe it symbolized the surprise of Jesus dead—NO alive! Maybe it symbolized the exploding of everything that we thought we knew. (At least that is what my adult self now imagines my young self intuitively knew).
How does one imagine the resurrection? How does one describe Easter? Certainly we could talk about the empty tomb. Certainly we could define it as death being vanquished, as God triumphing over evil, as Jesus being alive again, and forever more. This year, I add another description, another image to our stockpile—that of the Easter shift.
That’s the only way I can describe what happens between verse 11 and verse 12 in John’s story. We have that TOMB, TOMB, TOMB, bonging in our heads, filling all the spaces, not letting us go. And then, Mary, who was first to Jesus’ resting place; Mary, who when confronted with horror (an empty tomb) went to get reinforcements; Mary, who even after having her worst fears validated (they have taken his body to God knows where), sticks around. Mary, weeping, sobbing, goes again to the TOMB, and now it isn’t empty, there are angels asking why she is weeping. And then she comes face to face with Jesus.
The change occurs with no fanfare. If anything there is confusion on Mary’s part. She doesn’t seem fazed to see angels where there were none before. It takes her some time to recognize Jesus when he is standing right in front of her. But the word tomb has disappeared. (If I read carefully enough, it does not appear again in John’s gospel from this moment forward). The Easter shift has happened.
How would I picture this? Good question. How do you capture turning from death to life? How do you show a change in your mindset, your focus, your path? And how do you explain it? How do you bottle it (as we so often try to do), so that we can pull it out of our pocket (when needed)?
Because we desperately want that Easter shift in our lives. We desperately need that Easter shift in our world. I’m not sure I can answer those questions, but I do notice some things.
I notice that Mary was present. She didn’t have to be the brightest and the best. She didn’t even have to be the last and the least. She just was there. On the ground. In the space. Wanting to be close to Jesus even when she thought Jesus was dead.
I notice that God sends angels, messengers, to gently shake us when we are in the tomb. Messengers who seem to ask stupid questions, like “Why are you weeping?” Messengers who appear and disappear like a dream in the night.
I notice that Jesus shows up when we least expect it, and not always in the guise we remember. I notice that the Easter shift is completed when we are called by name, when we allow the tomb mentality to lift from our eyes and our minds, and see Jesus, see Resurrection, see God’s reality, right in front of our faces. I notice that we don’t get to stay in that nice, cocoon existence of “me and Jesus” but are sent out to a wider world to share what has happened.
I notice that the Easter shift isn’t just for Mary, but for all of us. That’s what we see in the Resurrection stories. Jesus comes to all of them—whether you have the heart and the courage to stick around, or whether you fled the scene, whether you are in hiding behind locked doors, or whether you missed the whole event all together. Jesus comes to us all. The Easter shift has occurred. Resurrection is God’s final say.
The Easter shift means that we are called to turn from the tomb to a life with Jesus, a life with God, a life that is lived full out, unafraid. The Easter shift means that we are to leave off obsessing with absence and throw ourselves into a life of presence. The Easter shift might be visualized as the change between narrowing our sights, collapsing into a single pinprick—TOMB--to thinking/living in terms of expanding out in ever widening circles of presence.
Isn’t this what we hear about in the Bible? Jesus in the garden. Jesus on the Emmaus Rd. Jesus appearing and eating with the disciples, and letting them touch him. Jesus making breakfast by the sea. And then, the church, the body of Christ, empowered by the Spirit, teaching and preaching and ministering and spreading the word everywhere, for the Easter shift has occurred.
I want to leave you with the words of a poet/writer named Susan McCaslin from a book called “Arousing the Spirit—Provocative Writings.”
Presence of Possibilities
Presence of Possibilities, let the hinges of our hearts swing open to things we can’t explain –
the unexpected remission of a stubborn cancer
birth of a child when conception is deemed “impossible,”
release from a longstanding addiction,
a moment of reunion with a loved one long deceased.
Let’s not demand or expect mystical graces, or cling to the hope of them, or be disappointed if they don’t happen. Let’s acknowledge there are mysteries beyond our knowing, unaccountable magic in the neurons and cells.
Help us experience daily the astonishing in the apparently ordinary – laugh of a crow pirouetting in space,
a peach gladiola blooming beyond its term,
a slug who travels six inches in two hours to its longed for haven in the grass until the kingdom of heaven is spread out before us,
and the glory flames forth in our unrepeatable uniqueness.
Arousing the Spirit – Provocative Writings by Susan McCaslin. © Copyright 2011 Susan McCaslin, CopperHouse, an imprint of Wood Lake Publishing Inc. Used by permission
May we all live into God’s Easter shift this day and every day.