Easter Sunday 2016

Gospel: John 20:1-18

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; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
When I first came to Bentonville it was my good fortune to live across the street from the cemetery. Living in such close proximity with the dead had a way of keeping me, well.., grounded. A walk through the midst of all those tombs, reminded me of my own mortality. It gave me a sense of how tenuous my feeble hold on life was, reminded me that whatever tasks I had pressing on me that day, would all seem rather inconsequential if I were called to take a place among those silent strangers who stories are inscribed briefly on tombstones. Most mornings, taking my dog Tyke for a walk, I passed a particular headstone, only slightly larger than most, that reminded me of the folly of amassing great fortunes on earth, it says simply: “Samuel Moore Walton, …

Another inscription on one of the granite headstone I typically walked past is one attributed to a lesser known figure who in her 50 or so years on earth had apparently heard all the blond jokes she ever wanted to hear. The epitaph she had engraved on her tombstone offered me humility by posing this question, “Why are blond jokes so short?…Because that makes it easier for men to remember them.

But the dead could hold my fascination for only so long. It is the living, even in a graveyard, that usually attracted my attention on those morning strolls. And it is the gardeners, who are the living creatures active in graveyards in the early morning – the gardeners who tend the grounds and dig the graves. Dressed in khaki work clothes, cigarettes hanging from their lips, they carry on the most casual and ordinary conversations, while they go about the business of providing a resting place for the newly dead. Ordinary working class guys. Not the kind of people you might immediately confuse with Jesus. But Mary Magdeline did, seeking Christ among the tombs, she mistook him for a gardener.

How different would our days be if we confused Jesus with the gardener? Or with the mechanic who repairs your car or with the young mother who assembles your Big Mac. Where are we to look for the resurrected Christ? As Simon Peter found, as Mary Magdalene discovered, the risen Christ is not to be found lying in the tomb – but living and breathing among us.

One of my favorite writers, Jim Harrison, wrote a poem called “Easter Morning”.

On Easter morning all over America
the peasants are frying potatoes in bacon grease.
We’re not supposed to have “peasants”
but there are tens of millions of them
frying potatoes on Easter morning,
cheap and delicious with catsup.
If Jesus were here this morning he might
be eating fried potatoes with my friend
who has a ‘51 Dodge and a ‘72 Pontiac.
When his kids ask why they don’t have
a new car he says, “these cars were new once
and now they are experienced.”
He can fix anything and when rich folks
call to get a toilet repaired he pauses
extra hours so that they can further
learn what we’re made of.
I told him that in Mexico the poor say
that when there’s lightning the rich
think that God is taking their picture.
He laughed.
Like peasants everywhere in the history
of the world ours can’t figure out why
they’re getting poorer. Their sons join
the army to get work being shot at.
Your ideals are invisible clouds
 so try not to suffocate the poor,
the peasants, with your sympathies.
They know that you’re staring at them.

What would a perfect Easter morning look like for the peasants among us? The prophet Isaiah provided a glimpse of the resurrection in the Old Testament reading we heard a few minutes ago: They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat. It a vision of justice. A vision of the future, that the poor of the world need now. A longing for their rightful share in the wealth that they help create.

We run the risk of saying too much about the resurrection. That, apparently, was a private affair – something that took place between heaven and earth. There weren’t any witnesses – just a rolled away stone and a few rags lying in the corner. And then people, disciples, trying to make sense of what had happened. What did this mean? How were they to explain it? They had followed this man Jesus, then seen him executed, and now – this empty tomb. And then Mary Magdelene comes across a man she first mistakes for a gardener that turns out to be the risen Lord. “Don’t hold on to me” he tells her, don’t cling to old ways of thinking of me.”

Mary was weeping at the tomb because, as she said, “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.” How many times over the past few years have I had conversations with people, perhaps with you, in which the same sentiments were expressed. They have taken away my Lord. The faith of my childhood has been high jacked. The love of Christ that I once experienced has been lost. I need a community that will accept me as I am. I need a new way to conceive of divine love that doesn’t require that I discard my education, my experience of the way the world works, my ability to reason – I need a new Christ, a new Church, a risen Lord.

With great gladness I say to you: Welcome to Easter morning!
Mary was not only the first to see the risen Lord, but she was the first to be given instructions to proclaim to all that they worship a risen Christ. Jesus tells Mary, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” We are included. We too are sons and daughters of God and we are brothers and sisters in Christ – united in one faith, one hope, one baptism.

M. Scott Peck, author of the classic best-seller, The Road Less Traveled, introduces a later book with a story called the “Rabbi’s Gift.” It seems that there was a monastery that had fallen on hard times. It had once been a magnificent institution, but indifference and neglect had gradually reduced the stature of the monastery until it housed only four aging monks.

It was the habit of a rabbi who lived in a nearby village to occasionally seek retreat in a hermitage near the monastery. The monks could always sense when the rabbi was visiting the hermitage, and they would say to themselves, “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods.”

Realizing that his order would soon die off if nothing was done, the abbot went to visit the rabbi in his hermitage to ask if he might have some useful advice. The rabbi listened to his story, but he could only commiserate. He said that it was the same in his town. No one came to the synagogue anymore. People just didn’t care about matters of the spirit.

The abbot and the rabbi had a fine visit, but the rabbi seemed to have no wisdom that might help save the monastery. Feeling desperate the abbot asked, “Isn’t there something that you might suggest that we could? The rabbi answered, “No, I’m afraid not. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”

Upon the abbot’s return he found that his fellow monks were anxiously awaiting the news. “What did he say, they asked?”

“He didn’t have any advice. He has the same problems we do. The only thing that he did say, as I was leaving, was that the Messiah was one of us.”

The monks pondered this cryptic message – wondering who among them might be the Messiah. Surely if he is one of us, they thought, he must be the Abbot. He has led us for generations, it must be him. Or perhaps it is Brother Thomas. Thomas is a holy man. The kind of man who could be a Messiah. But surely he wouldn’t mean Bro. Elred. Elred is a crotchety old monk. But then again Bro. Elred is frequently right -sometimes profoundly so. Of course it couldn’t be Bro. Phillip. Phillip is so quiet and unassuming that you hardly even notice him. That is, unless, you really need him and then he has a way of mysteriously appearing. And what of me, each monk asked himself, what if I am the Messiah? Oh, no, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?

And as the monks began to imagine the various possibilities, a change moved through them. They began to treat each other with an unusual degree of love and respect, on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And each monk began to respect himself more because of the chance that he might be the One they awaited.

Occasional visitors to the monastery, people who came to pray and walk in the woods, sensed something different. The way the monks regarded one another spilled over to the visitors and more people were attracted to the spirit of the place. Eventually a young man inquired about joining the order, and then another, and another. And the monastery prospered and grew and thanks to the rabbi’s gift became the vital, spiritual center of the community.

We have the same opportunity here at All Saints’ – a chance to regard our neighbor as the risen Christ. We only need open our eyes to the Christs that make their home among us. It is Easter, the time to move out of the graveyards of hopelessness and despair, and look for Christ among the living. The Lord is Risen, The Lord is Risen, indeed.

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