Monday, 25 April 2011 00:00

"The First Day", April 24, 2011, Easter

“The First Day”
John 20:1-18
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
Easter Sunday
April 24, 2011
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

The story of Mary

I don’t know what to feel.  Happy, sad, scared, confused.

I saw Jesus killed in that awful way.  Hanging on the cross, derided by everyone, like every other insurrectionist.  He knew it would end that way.  I didn’t like hearing it any more than anyone else.  So they took his body and placed it in this tomb.  Everyone else was in hiding.  The cowards. But we women went to the tomb after the Sabbath was over. It was in a garden.  Funny place to put a graveyard. We found the tomb open, the stone rolled away.  No body inside.  I wept.  I had been weeping a lot over the weekend.  But this was the final insult.

A man, who I thought was the gardener asked why I was weeping.  I told him that they had taken him away.  Him.  What was the word I should have used for him?  teacher, rabbi, companion, lover, friend, master?  What I meant was they had cut out a piece of me and put it on that cross.  Now his body was gone and it was adding insult to injury.

And then that voice.  “Mary,” he said.  I couldn’t believe my ears nor my eyes.  The one I had seen die was talking to me.  I didn’t know how to feel, happy, sad, scared confused.   I should have felt happy, right?  Well it was good to see him.  But everything had changed.  He was a ghost, a shell of his former self.  He was real and not real.  He wasn’t going to stick around like that.

I know I should have felt happy, but I was still sad.  I now had him, but I would lose him all over again.  And now I didn’t just have him.  He was going to need to divide his time with me and the rest of the world.  

And the sadness morphed into fear.  How are we going to continue on?  Who will we follow?  Are people supposed to follow me?  The disciples won’t even listen to me.  When I told them what I saw in the garden, they didn’t believe me.  If I can’t convince them, how am I supposed to start a movement?   Jesus said that the movement was already started and it started way before Jesus and it will continue long after we are forgotten.  “Just live by the truth,” he said.  “It will set you free.”  Okay, I hear that, but I’m still scared.  Scared and confused.


So what’s my posture supposed to be? Can I show them my confusion?  Can I show them my sadness, my fear?  Or do I have to be all happy all the time?  I know, I know “live by the truth, it will set you free.”

Here’s one thing I do know.  I no longer have to carry this burden alone.  Others will tell the story.  Others will remember—if I tell it to them.  Others will get caught up in the wonderful imagination of the narrative.  We’ll see it and we’ll see the bigger picture.  Sure, it will be okay to be sad, confused, even scared.  That undergirds our happiness.  Maybe what is supposed to ultimately rise is not Jesus, but his community.  The people encouraged by the story.  The people enlivened by the audacity of possibility.  That makes me happy.

Happy.  I know one thing.  I’ll never look at a garden again without thinking about the story. And how he changed my life.  I hope others are changed by it.  It’s time to get to work.

The Sermon

It was the first day, that Sunday morning.  It started out a bit scary.  Mary and the others in grief about what had transpired on Thursday and Friday.  Mary going to the tomb with the other women to pay homage to the body of their dear one Jesus.  They hardly noticed the flowers.  When you are in grief, nothing looks beautiful.  Everything looks dead or hopeless.  We need people to remind us that life goes on, because it sometimes feels like life can’t go on.

Easter’s a joyful day for our family.  We don our best clothes, see what the Easter Bunny has left for us, make preparations for a sumptuous after-church feast an enjoy the beautiful drama of the return of spring at church.  It’s also a melancholy day for my family and my mother in particular.  It was on Easter Sunday many years ago that her mother succumbed to the illness that had been ravaging her body and her mind for years, leaving her as a shell of her former self.  And so on Easter, as we enjoy eggs and marshmallow peeps and jellybeans and people in their finery, we also remember those who have gone before.  And we ponder how they look at our lives.  And as we sing those triumphant hymns and see all of our friends and family, and take our flowers home, we make a renewed commitment to live our lives in memory of her.

Funny, that’s what they said about Mary Magdalene, too.  When she rubbed costly nard onto Jesus’ feet, taking on a servant’s role, Jesus told everyone that this is what the Gospel is all about.  And in fact, wherever the Gospel, the Good News, is preached it will be done in memory of her.

But on Easter Sunday morning, Mary was not triumphant.  She was melancholy as best, and a total wreck at worst.

And to add insult to injury he wasn’t there.  Someone, it appeared, had stolen his body.  That was the only reasonable explanation. I mean people don’t just rise from the dead, well except for Lazarus, but that was different.  Someone must have stolen his body.  Rubbing it in that they are to be completely shunned.  The cross wasn’t enough. The whippings weren’t enough.  The threats weren’t enough.

What Mary saw on Easter was a miracle.  But what Mary began on that first day was a miracle that lasted and lasts to this very day.  We’re here because of what Mary saw on that first day and what she inspired in the remnant left behind.

The Bible portrays several appearances of Jesus after he had died.  The last chapters of all of the Gospels contain miraculous appearances.  Each time, they stop people in their tracks.  At first they don’t believe what they are seeing.  They can’t believe their own eyes and ears. But eventually they recognize what has happened.  The one whom they thought was dead was alive again.  He was mortally wounded but he rose from the dead.  Alleluia.

And so the Gospels end.  Jesus imparts very little wisdom after he had rose, except for the refrain of “I told you so.”  “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!  Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”(Luke 24:25,26)

John has Jesus say to feed his lambs.  There’s an enigmatic statement.  Matthew has Jesus say “go ye into all the world and preach my gospel to every creature.”

And Easter, that cataclysmic life-changing event was the first real day of the movement.  It was a day of choices.  Do we flee to the hills, worried that we might receive the same punishment for being so radical?  Do we live in constant fear?  Do we not want to step on anyone’s toes?  Or do we make the day the first day of something brilliant and glorious.  That’s the question and the challenge of Easter.

What kind of things have you been avoiding looking at?  What demons surround you?  Who makes you afraid?  What powers and principalities hold you down?  Is this the first day to address that?

The radical message of Easter is not so much that the person Jesus rose from the dead.  Rather, it is a resetting of power in the world.  The empire in collusion with religion used the weapons of warfare and torture to scare and intimidate and punish anyone who stepped out of line.  But on Easter, with that stone rolled away, and Jesus walking among us, we recognized there was a different power in charge.  The evil and violence will not be the final word.  Resurrection will be the first word on the first day.

Mary and the disciples had a decision to make.  Would they go along with their lives, all predictable and planned out, or would they take a leap of faith and do something radical?  Would they go along to get along, or would they take up their pallet and walk?

The resurrection didn’t happen on that first day.  Sure, Jesus came back and made a cameo appearance.  But he didn’t stick around.  It was up to his followers and those across the centuries that have had their imaginations set free by his story who are the real resurrection.  You are the resurrection.  We are the resurrection.

Every appearance of Jesus spurs people to join hand in hand and to live the resurrection together.  His appearances are for community.  They are for gathering sustenance for the journey ahead.

Char gave a wonderful story about how share the care got going here.  It was and is resurrection work.  Spurred on by the commitment made on that first day, this ministry team cares for people.  They provide food and support and prayers and shawls.  Like the people who held Moses’ arms when they got too tired, this group of people helps folks experience resurrection.  And I know from talking with people on the receiving end.  It feels like Easter.  And that story is woven into all the stories we share: the triumphant, the painful, the enigmatic, the hopeful, they are all a part of our tapestry of faith.

Anne Lamott put it this way:  “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.  You wait and watch and you don’t give up.”

Easter is the first day.  We symbolize that here by having colors for the first time in our sanctuary since Lent began while we still had two feet of snow on the ground.  We symbolize it with these flowers.  We breathe in the fragrance of new life and hopefulness.  We’ll have a sanctuary filled with flowers again next Saturday as we celebrate the life of our dear Adele Fadden.

Easter is the first day that the ownership of the ministry transfers from Jesus to the community gathered.  It is when the ministry takes both roots and wings.  And with each step toward hopefulness and beauty and community and joy, we live the magic of the resurrection.  Only it’s not Jesus who rises.  It’s the people who rise.  

Mary Magdalene needed to make a decision on that first day.  It ws to find her voice and tell it like it is.  Mary knew Jesus perhaps better than any other disciple.  It made her insightful and maybe even a bit dangerous.  But she unleashed her power that first day.  And she set in motion the notion that we as a people don’t need to stay in despair.  Death is not the final word.  Evil and torture and meanness are not the final actions.  But love and justice and mercy and compassion and blessed peace is what it’s all about.

And none of it happens unless we take a step on that first day. None of it happens unless we experience the joy that is born out of recognizing that we are with a community of people that get it—that say and proclaim and claim that we shall overcome some day.  We will not let death have the final word.  We will not let fear get the best of us.  But instead, we will surround ourselves with blessed community who seek the best for our community and all of the communities of the world.  We seek the reign of God here on earth.

Mary Magdalene reminds me of Maya Angelou in her poem “Still I Rise” and I can’t think of a better way to close this Easter sermon.  See if you can see yourself in this poem and like Mary, like Maya, like the scared disciples huddled in the upper room, might you find yourself ready to take on a new blessing.

"Still I Rise"
© 1978 by Maya Angelou

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

May you rise as Jesus did.  May we rise and set the world right once again, knowing who is really in charge.
Christ is Risen.
Christ is Risen, indeed.


©April 24, 2011

Minneapolis, MN