Saturday, April 19, 2014

In Our End Is Our Beginning (Easter Sermon)

He’s alive!

He’s alive?  Is that possible?  He’s alive?

He is!

Have you ever believed – no, KNOWN, known for sure, that you have reached the end?  Something -- or maybe a series of somethings – has happened in your life that has finished you off.  You’ve lost your home or your job, you’ve received a devastating diagnosis from your doctor, or, worst of all, someone upon whom you’ve centered your entire life has died.  That’s it, you say.  I’m done.  I can’t go on.  I have nothing left, and I’m finished.

Mary Magdalene and the other disciples believe that they have come to the end.  Their friend, their teacher, their Lord – gone.  Brutally, publicly, humiliatingly executed on a cross.  His body removed and laid in a tomb.  Their hopes and dreams for a new life, a better world, a different future – extinguished. The journey that started with such promise back in Galilee – here in the holy city of Jerusalem, it’s over. 

In the darkness, Mary Magdalene is still mired in what she believes to have been the ending.  When she returns to the tomb, to the site she believes to be Jesus’s final resting place, she does so as we all do after someone has died.  It’s SO hard to get up in the morning after a most beloved person is gone.  You feel as if your chest is being crushed by the weight of grief, and as if your legs will crumble if you try to stand. We can easily imagine her in those moments before sunrise, can’t we? Blinking to see in the darkness, her body bent, literally weighed down by sorrow, wiping the tears from her face and yet, trying to get herself back to the tomb.  We, too, go to those places in which we can grieve, remember, and remain connected to what came before.  We, too, sink to our knees into what we understand to be the end, wailing our losses and our sorrow. And we, too, when we encounter others at such times, remain wrapped in our own grief, unwilling and even unable to peer into the future.

Mary Magdalene’s first attempts at conversation at the tomb reflect her unwavering attachment to the past.  She sees angels – angels! – but she seems not in the least to find their presence remarkable.  Remember the young Mary, the mother of Jesus, when the angel Gabriel appeared to her?  Curious, astonished, hopeful? This Mary, Mary Magdalene, is none of those things.  She is heartbroken and desperate, and not at all interested in the presence of angels.   She’s not surprised or astonished by their presence; she is grief-stricken and bewildered: Jesus has been taken from the tomb, and she has no idea where to look for him. 

Then she sees Jesus himself, and she presumes him to be the gardener.  She has no context for thinking otherwise.  Whom would you find in a cemetery in the wee hours of the morning, other than a caretaker?  Certainly not a person who has just died and been resurrected!  The living Jesus is the last person she expects to see. And so again, when she speaks, she persists in her original line of thinking: Where have you taken him?  Where is he?  I will handle this matter; just tell me where he is.  You have to admire her determination and resourcefulness. She is going to get this job done.

It’s only when Jesus calls her name that her transformation begins.  I always find that moment to be one of the most moving in the gospels: that gentle greeting on his part, that moment of naming, that moment on her part of being recognized with compassion and called into the future. 

“Mary,” he says.  And what does she do?  She turns.  And we all know what it is to turn: To change direction. To repent of the old brokenness and to move toward new healing.  It is, at bottom, what our whole Christian journey is about.

Back at the beginning of Lent, we reflected together on the words of the prophet Joel: “Turn to me with your whole heart.”  Your whole broken heart, we said. Turn to the living God.  And then we embarked upon a long journey, a journey through a dry and dark wilderness, a journey through thirst and blindness, in order to reach this morning of possibility.  Mary Magdalene has done the same.  She has journeyed over the past three days from the dark horror of the cross to the dawning light of morning, and now she turns at the sound of the voice calling her name.  In turning toward Jesus, she is turning toward an entirely new life.

In this moment of transition, caught for an instant between past and future, she responds with his name, with the name by which he is known to her:  Rabbi.  Teacher.  He sees it, sees that she is poised to go either way, hurling herself back into the arms of the teacher she loves, or running forward into the future to proclaim his resurrection.  And so he continues to teach her, telling her: Don’t hold onto me, but go and tell my brothers about me.

Don’t hold onto me.  Don’t cling to the past.  Don’t clutch at what once was.  You will not find life there.  You will not find me there.

Instead, you must go, and say.  Go and tell what you have seen. 

This is always the story with Jesus: He is alive!  He came to make all things new, and he is doing just that.  And this is always the story with us: to turn toward him, but not so that we can cling to the past.  To turn toward him so that our broken hearts can be mended.  To turn toward him so that we can walk into new life.  To turn toward him so that he can send us into the world.

Not as easy as it sounds, is it? Don’t we all want to hold onto the past?  Don’t we want to hold on to our homes, our neighborhoods, our churches, our traditions and, most of all, to our loved ones? How many times do we say, “I don’t like change” or “But we always used to . . .”?

Mary Magdalene – from what Jesus says to her, she must look like someone who just wants to go back to the way things used to be.  I imagine that the look on her face says it all: You’re here?  You’re alive?  Then let’s go back!  Let’s go back to Galilee, and take long walks and have long conversations over the evening campfires.  Let’s go back to teaching and healing.  Let’s go back to reclaim our lives in the world as we knew it.  It’s only been three days – how hard can it be?

But as the sun rises and warms Mary Magdalene’s face, as she glances back to confirm that the tomb is really empty, as she gazes into the eyes of love, she hears that there will be no going back.  She hears that those three days have changed the world – have changed the universe, have changed all of creation. And she hears herself commissioned to carry this great good news into the world.

Proclaim resurrection!  That’s what Mary Magdalene, and each one of us, is called to do. Proclaim the inauguration of the new heaven and the new earth!

What about you? How are you being called to new life?  How are you being called to resurrection life? How are you being called to proclaim the risen Christ?

Let me share three stories of resurrection life with you:

The first is the new story of my dear friend Rosa.  Rosa has served for four years as the founding priest to a fledgling Latino church, a companion church to a long-established Episcopal church in her Florida community.  The juxtaposition of the two congregations has been both joyous and tense.  The new congregation has been a haven for opportunity, especially for children, for opportunity centered in a growing immigrant community.  The older congregation, much wealthier and more traditional, has been challenged and stretched by the needs and the new approaches to ministry fostered by its young partner.  In the past several weeks, it has become apparent that my friend’s ministry could not be sustained there, and that she is called to move on.

At the same time, Rosa’s husband is retiring, and they have decided to create a new life for themselves in his home state of Alabama. Rosa herself has been invited to continue to work with her denomination on a national level, developing new models of being church.   Her new call will require a great deal of travel but, from an office standpoint, she be located anywhere.  Her husband has long desired to return to his quite literal roots, to the earth of the Alabama countryside, and so they have bought a small farm, a piece of earth on which they can grow food and care for a donkey and some goats. A completely new life. 

Mourning the old and anticipating the new, Rosa writes that “I am in an in between place,” in which, as the poet T.S. Eliot says, “in my beginning is my end and in my end is my beginning.”

Endings and beginnings.  Good Fridays and Easter Sundays. Deaths and Resurrections.  They fill our lives, if we but look for them and name them. 

Another story: Last week I caught a bit of Dancing with the Stars as I was flipping channels, and discovered that one of the contestants this season is a young woman who lost both of her legs below the knees after a massive illness.  She learned to compete in snowboarding AFTER she lost her legs, and last week she appeared in a pink Cinderella ballgown, gliding across the stage to Disney music.  She has said that her father began dancing with her as part of her recovery, as part of her process of learning to walk again.  Now there is a resurrection story!  Did she and her father, both of them, see in her life journey a terrible ending?  I’m sure they had moments when that’s all they saw.  But they also saw beginning, saw new possibilities for creation.  They saw the hope of resurrection.

And a third story, which I needn’t belabor, because it is all over the news: Tomorrow the Boston Marathon will be run, one year after the bombings which took lives, mangled bodies, and disrupted a city.  If you’ve heard any of the reports or interviews, you know that the phrase “Boston Strong” describes a resurrection city.  A city whose photographs from last year show what look like endings: violent, bloody endings.  And today? A city in which God is making all things new. 

Three stories from contemporary life, plus the original story, in which Mary Magdalene is the first, according to the Gospel of John, to encounter the risen Lord, and the first to be sent into the world to proclaim resurrection.  The story that tells us that when the Lenten journey ends, the Easter journey begins.

And then, of course . . .  there’s one more story.  Your story, and our story.  How are you, how are we, called to proclaim resurrection?  How are we called to turn toward Jesus?  How are we called to walk into new lives? 

There are as many ways of living resurrection lives as there are people to live them.  There are churches to recreate and farms to plant.  There are bodies to heal and cities to rebuild.  There are words to proclaim and people to serve. There is music to sing and prayer to offer.  Resurrection is about thinking that we have come to the end of the journey and discovering that we are just embarking upon a new one.

There is an entire world, an entire universe, to which we are called to attend because Jesus Christ, alive and among us, has inaugurated the new creation of which the prophet Isaiah spoke:  I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.  We are not by any means finished!  We are not at the end!  We are invited to the beginning!

As the theologian N.T. Wright reminds us, "The message of Easter is that God's new world has been unveiled in Jesus Christ and that [we’re] now invited to belong to it.

This morning, this glorious Easter morning: Accept the invitation to become an Easter people.  A people of the resurrection.  A people who see new beginnings in the ending of the old.  A people embarking upon a new road, a new journey, to a new future – an Easter future into which we are called as God’s beloved community. Because:

He is risen!  And he calls your name!


  1. "Don't cling to me" is a challenging, yet very good, word of hope for the future. Your sermon is so authentic -- very real, just like the story of Easter.

    Thank you for this, Robin. God bless you, your family, and your congregation.

  2. Loved the "turn" section. Mary turned. What might have happened if she had not turned. And I had forgotten the Joel to me with your hearts...perhaps John and Joel were saying the same thing.


  3. Robin, what a great message of hope and challenge you delivered to your people. They are so blessed that you are their pastor. God bless you and your family during this Easter season.

  4. Absolutely love this, Robin. very much appreciated.