Monday, April 6, 2015

Easter Sermon: Something More

The Rev. Leah D. Schade
You can see the video of this sermon here:

“Were you there?”  That’s the first line of the hymn we sang last week and during Holy Week as we recounted the story of Jesus’ Passion, his crucifixion.  “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”  The most obvious answer is, no, of course we weren’t there.  That was nearly 2000 years ago.  And yet we try to recreate being there.  We read these Bible verses year after year, reenact them, give our children coloring books and sticker sheets so that they can know the story. 

Even in our culture, there is a great deal of effort made to recreate the story through movies, television specials, documentaries, and Youtube videos.  In these last few weeks we’ve been seeing these powerful religious images displayed not just in our churches, but on our television screens, movie screens, and computer screens.

And yet, even with all this religious imagery in our culture right now, it is still difficult to wrap our minds around the resurrection. Because despite how much we long for God, no matter how much we wish we could have been there, we sometimes we worry.  We wonder how this story of the resurrection could possibly be true.  We look at the world around us and think, maybe it’s not true.  Maybe it’s just made up to make people feel better.  Maybe this is as good as it gets.  Maybe there really is nothing more.

Having those kinds of doubts is perfectly understandable.  Even Mary Magdalene – who was there – and who was probably closer to Jesus than anyone, could not immediately wrap her mind around when she was seeing. 

Just for a moment, put yourself there.  Be there with Mary.  You can imagine what it must have been like for her, approaching the tomb of the person she loved most in this world, and feeling consumed with deep grief.  She is overwhelmed with weariness, knowing that after she anoints his body with the fragrances she has brought, there will be nothing more she can do.  She has been through so much, watched so much mindless hatred, so much focused rage.  And it has all come to this – a tomb of death.  Nothing more.

But when she gets to the tomb she sees that the stone has been rolled away and she is confused – who could have done that already this morning?  And then she watches as two of the disciples emerge from the tomb.  It’s like they don’t even see her.  They just wander off wordlessly, in a daze.  But Mary stays.  She is crying, her grief welling up inside of her and spilling over.

She bends down to look into the tomb.  She expects to smell the odor of death.  Strange – all  she detects is the cool dampness of the cave clinging to her skin. 

Her eyes have to adjust a few seconds as she peers into the darkness.  Then she makes out two figures sitting where the body had been, one at the head and the other at the feet.  Out of the corner of her eye, she notices the grave clothes that she had helped to wrap him in three days ago.  They are folded neatly to the side.  And the cloth that surrounded his head is rolled up a few feet away.  She startles when one of the figures speaks to her: “Why are you weeping?”

Her voice chokes, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”

Suddenly she senses another presence behind her and she turns.  She stands up and her eyes are blinded by the morning sun.  She sees the silhouette of a man standing there.  He asks the same question, “Why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?”

Her eyes try to bring him into focus.  She confused and her mind races, trying to place this man.  It’s early in the morning in the garden.  It must be the man who tends the trees and plants and looks after the tombs.  He must know what’s going on. 

And now she is feeling a surge of anger along with her grief.  His body is gone!  The body that suffered so much - beaten and ripped open and hung to suffocate on that deadly cross.  That poor body that she just wanted to gently touch this morning and anoint with fragrances.  The body that she could not help in life, she at least wanted to honor in death. 

And now his body is gone.  Like a cruel joke mocking her in her grief.  She watched him endure so much.  They couldn’t even let his body rest in peace?

With weariness and anger and tears in her eyes, she accuses to the gardener, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”

There is a moment of silence as she bows her head, realizing what a foolish thing she had just said.  How could she, a lone woman, carry a man’s body by herself?  She feels embarrassed and angry and sad all at the same time. 

And then . . . he says her name.  She gasps – she knows that voice.  A sob rises up in her throat - but not a sob of grief.  A cry of impossible joy.  That man has spoken her name.  It’s him! 

And she says his name, the name she has always called him:  “Teacher.”

She is overcome with an urge to take him into her arms and never let him go.  She wants to hold onto him, to embrace him like a lost child come home.  But very gently he says to her, “Do not hold onto 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.’”

Now she knows – this was not the end.  There is something more!  The next thing she knows she is running.  Running so fast her heart pounds and her lungs burn in her chest.  She’s running to find the disciples.  She is running to do what Jesus has told her to do.  Gasping from running so fast, she bursts into the room and says, “I have seen the Lord!” 

Were you there?  As you listened to this, some of you may have had a very powerful sense of being there, immediately being able to visualize the scene.  For others, you simply heard my voice with very few images.  And for some of you, your mind may have wandered as you listened. Or you were thinking, “Why am I sitting through this?”

All of those responses are okay.  Because what happened is that as we heard this story we each had a very personal, individual experience . . . and we had it together, as a community of faith.  You were there.

Now, like Mary and the disciples, you may feel confused.  They knew they had encountered something mystical that they could not explain.  Yet it had a profound effect on their life and the entire world.  They knew they had to share that story.  But they also knew how difficult a task it is to try to convey to people what they experienced. 
Some of us still have doubts.  Because no matter how hard we may try to imagine ourselves into the resurrection – to put ourselves there – it still just doesn’t seem possible.  And whatever fleeting moment of imagined joy we may have had, we fear it will all be cancelled out when we step outside this church.

Sometimes it is hard to believe in the resurrection when nothing in our world seems to have changed.  Let’s face it – crucifixions are still happening around us every day.  Think of the images of death that come at us daily from the news headlines, the 5:00 news, the Internet.  Faced with these powerful images of destruction and death, it is difficult to imagine that the resurrection could possibly be true.

Not only that, but, like Mary, we get weary, and you sometimes suspect that not only is the world cruel and that the universe does not care about you, but worse -- it’s mocking you.  It’s making fun of you.  And when this happens, you can just feel yourself shut down, the cynicism hardening your heart and mind.  All of your hope feels like it is just draining away, sucked out by this crazy world.

What do you do when you’re in that moment of despair and you’ve tried everything, and all you hit are dead ends?  You can feel your heart and mind curling up in a little ball and cowering in the corner.   And, like Mary, you find yourself standing alone at a tombstone, weeping because all of your hope is gone?  You feel that utter despair because your worse fear seems to be coming true – that there is nothing more.   What do you do when you’re in that place?

I’ll share with you a story someone shared with me a few years ago.  It is a true story a friend told me about a woman she knows whose mother was diagnosed with cancer.  The mother and daughter were very close and they were devastated by the news.  Early on in her mother’s treatment, the daughter said, “Let’s make a pact.  Whoever dies first, if they discover that there is something more, they’ll let the other one know.  They’ll send a sign that there is something more.”  Her mother kind of laughed, but she agreed.

Unfortunately, the mother did die from the cancer.  The grief the daughter felt was nearly unbearable.  And it went on for months and months.  She had watched her mother suffer a horrible, debilitating death.  And while people understood at first when she withdrew from the world for a time, they could not understand why it dragged on and on, why she was so devastated.  But for the daughter, it was not just that she missed her mother.  It was that she had not received a sign.  The pact they had made in life seemed to be null and void in death. 

She began doubting everything - herself, her mother, her God.  Her depression was like a cold hard stone in her heart that would not be rolled away. 

One cold winter day she was walking alone along a beach in Massachusetts.  She was in a terrible, dark place, thinking, “God is a joke.  The universe is a cruel joke.” She looked up at the sky and yelled out, “Mother, if there is something more, you need to tell me now.”

She looked down, realizing what a foolish thing she had said.  Her mother did not exist.  God did not exist.  There was nothing more. 

Then, through her tears she saw a piece of blue sea glass jutting out of the sand.   

She picked it up.  It was large, the size of a silver dollar, which is unusual.  Then she brushed away the sand, and saw a word inscribed on the surface of the glass.  The word was: “More.”  And suddenly her grief was transformed into impossible joy!

You know, it’s not something we talk a lot about in our culture, much less in the church.  But I’ll bet some of you in your own lives have had an encounter with something mystical that you could not explain.  Yet it had a profound effect on your life.  Have you shared your story?  Have you shared your experience? 

This woman couldn’t help but share her story.  Not only that, but she had the sea glass made into a necklace, and she began giving it to people whom she knew were in deep grief.  In fact, she gave the necklace to my friend some years ago while she was mourning the loss of her husband.  And that piece of sea glass became a symbol for her, a visual reminder that gave her just the little bit of hope she needed to start imagining that life could go on, that there was something more beyond the pain.  That God does love her and will never abandon her, and that something impossibly wonderful awaits her. 

Sometimes, like Mary, you simply have to be there, in that place of pain, surrendering yourself to that quiet moment of darkness. And in that place of your deepest despair and darkest pain, God will come to you in a way that will surprise you with impossible joy.  Whether you can only tentatively imagine it, or whether the experience of it calls out your name and sends you running to share it with the world . . . You’ll know for certain that there is something more.  Christ is risen.  He is risen indeed.  Alleluia!

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