Sermon: Letting Go

“Letting Go”
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
John 20:1-18
March 27, 2016 • Easter Sunday

Audio for this sermon is unavailable.

John begins the Easter story with the words “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark . . .” These words should not come as a surprise to those of us who have, during Lent, become acquainted with the darkness, what we called the Dark Wood, that place where all we seem to have is a past and we cannot see into the future. Nothing to look forward to, whether it concerns our health, our relationships, our family, our careers – all of a sudden there is a dead end, when all that had made life meaningful seems broken, broken beyond mending, and we are left with millions of memories and all kinds of pressures and anxieties, unable to see ahead.

Mary Magdalene had gone to the tomb of Jesus while it was still dark. He had been her friend and teacher. And now he was dead; crucified in a humiliating public execution, and now lying in a borrowed tomb. When he died on that Friday afternoon, more expired than just his body. The hope of hundreds of people had died with him, for they thought he was the Messiah. From the day he first appeared in Galilee, preaching the good news of the kingdom of God and doing acts of power, the word had spread that Israel’s long awaited deliverer had arrived and with it the hopes of the people began to rise. But then as swiftly as his fortunes had risen, the tide turned against him, and although he’d tried to prepare them for what would happen, before they could take it in, he’d been arrested, tried, convicted and put to death.

At the point where they had come to expect so much, suddenly it was all over. Their hope had been crucified, and the darkness was overwhelming.  Surely this story of the first Easter tells us that no one is ever ready to truly encounter Easter until he or she has spent some time in the darkness where hope cannot be seen, and where new life is the last thing one would expect.

As Mary made her way in the darkness to the tomb, perhaps she reflected on memories of happier times that now seemed so far away, almost like a dream.  Maybe she wanted a few moments alone simply to be as close as she could be to the one she had loved and followed, the way we have felt at one time or another when we’ve returned to the gravesite of a loved one after the funeral and graveside services are over – to let the reality sink in. It is the closest we can get to them now, and the relationship we had is in the past, not forgotten – never forgotten – but in the past, the subject of reminiscence, the time for saying things like, “do you remember when he said . . .,” or “I’ll thought I’d never stop laughing when she  . . .,” or “Nobody played the piano, or baked a cake, or told a joke like . . ..”

When Mary arrived at the tomb she was horrified to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. It did not occur to her that she was encountering something that God had done. She thought grave robbers had added even more pain to her already broken heart by stealing away Jesus’ body. And so she ran to tell Peter and John, who in turn ran to the tomb to see for themselves and they confirm her worst fears. Jesus is gone. The tomb is empty.

With nothing to see there, Peter and John return to the others, but Mary lingers, not knowing what to do next.  I really sympathize with her next move – you know how it is when you’ve lost something, and you know it just has to be there – so you go back again and again the last place you saw it, thinking maybe this time it will turn up.  So it is with Mary; she takes one more look inside the tomb just in case they all somehow missed something, but Jesus isn’t there.

Two angels have arrived, however. Unlike in the other gospels, they make no grand announcement that Jesus has risen and gone to Galilee. They simply ask her why she’s crying. And she tells them what is on her heart. “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him.” All she wants is his body back. All she wants is a shrine for her memories, a place where she can come to mourn her friend and the hopes that had died with him.

Now we get to the good part! As she turns away from the tomb, she sees a man standing there whom she supposes to be the gardener. He asks her the same question the angels had asked: “Why are you weeping?” and so she goes through the whole story yet again and asks him if he’s taken Jesus’ body away. Then the unexpected thing happens in the darkness of her life, the gardener calls her by name, “Mary.” And she experiences, not what she was looking for – the body of her dead friend – but what she never expected to find or see again – the living Jesus, the resurrected Lord.

It is almost more hope than she can handle, and she reaches out in her joy to embrace Jesus, but the risen Christ says “Do not hold on to me.” Now, if I’d been writing the gospel, there’d be a few extra verses that included the opportunity for a reunion hug, and then maybe Jesus would say something like, “Relax, I’m back. Let’s get the others, put our heads together and make a plan.” That’s what Mary wanted – to go back to the way things used to be before that horrible Friday three days ago that had changed everything, back to the old, familiar life where everything was normal and somewhat predictable, back to the safety of the known.

But one thing she learned that day, and we know it too – we can never go back – never back to the days before that fateful Friday, never back to the days before the doctor’s diagnosis, or the employer’s pink slip, or the or the day mama died.

What we miss and beg God to give back is gone. Easter does not change that. So we cannot cling to the hope that Jesus will take us back to the way it used to be. The only way out of the darkness is to move ahead. And the only one who can lead the way is the risen Christ, not the old teacher we once knew. We can’t hold on to him where we are, but we have to let go and allow him to take us where he is going. He calls us to follow him, not to hang on to him. And following Jesus is a never-ending process of discovery because he is always on the move, unable to be confined to the past, and waiting to be revealed in new ways to us in the future.

Easter is the first day of the new week – the new life – and we cannot understand the true joy and meaning of Easter until we realize that God has given us in the resurrection a new perspective on life. The God whom Paul described in Romans as “the One who can make things that are out of things that are not and the one who can make dead things come to life again” (Romans 4:17) is a factor to be reckoned with as we think about the future. We are not alone in our struggles in life; it is not simply our strength, our intelligence, our abilities, our determination or our willpower that are the only forces at work in our lives. God is in our lives too – out there ahead of us, taking what seems dead and beyond mending, and bringing it back to life again.

And if God’s undeniable presence is factored in as we contemplate the future, despair is undone and hopelessness disappears. We can no longer look on our brokenness and say we are beyond mending. We know that if God was not only able but willing to take the broken body of Jesus and raise him back to life, what can God not do? What lives, what families, what careers, what relationships can God not mend?

The effect of Easter on us is to change forever the way we use the words “possible” and “impossible.” Our God is alive and going before us into the future, and therefore our despair is inappropriate because it concludes something about the future that we finite human beings have no ability to conclude.

Because Easter has happened, we know that the God who leads us into the future, who had the power to raise Jesus from the dead, also had the mercy to send him back to the ones who had betrayed him. Even Judas, who had really made a terrible mess of his life, I believe would have received pardon and forgiveness from Jesus if he had not despaired of his future. What he did was not much worse than what Peter did. There would have been mercy enough for him if he’d stayed around to see what God could do with what he had done.  He didn’t understand that out there in the future there is a God powerful enough to make dead things come to life again and who is merciful enough to be willing to do it.

Out of the brokenness of our own lives, in times when we feel lost in the Dark Wood, God is there too. As we’ve said before, God does some of God’s best work in the dark. So in the darkness, before we know or are aware, God is shaping our tomorrows, bringing life out of death. And there is enough power and enough mercy in God to deal with whatever difficulties we may face. Jesus died on the first Good Friday, but despair died on Easter morning.

After the resurrection Mary was never the same again; nor is anyone else who has experienced the risen Christ. That is the good news. That is what the gospel proclaims. We do not have to worry about what lies ahead for us because we know that Christ has already gone on before us and waits for us there. Darkness is banished; despair is no more; our risen savior is on the move and he’s calling our names. Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Amen.