A sermon preached at the Sunrise service on Easter morning at Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, CA
April 9, 2023
Introduction to Worship:
Good morning, and Easter blessings to you. Thank you for joining us for worship this day.
The story of Easter is ultimately a reminder that even when we think we know how a story is going to end, we’re sometimes wrong.
For Jesus’ friends and families, they’d seen his death, witnessed his burial. They knew the ending to this story because they had seen it before.
But then Mary arrives to find an empty tomb.
What are the stories in your life right now that you think you know the ending to?
Maybe you think the end of a relationship is the end of love. Are you willing to be wrong about that?
Maybe you think that because elected leaders have been dreadful in the past, they will always be dreadful and so why do we even care. Are you willing to be wrong about that?
Whatever story you think you can already see the ending for, Easter is a reminder to pause. To hope. To trust that the unknown future will turn out to be loving.
Are we willing to be wrong if it means we just might see new life? Are we willing to get past our fears to do what God is calling us to do?
Let us enter this day with intention. Set your worries down for the moment. You can grab them again later if you have missed them. Breathe in God’s grace. Breathe out God’s love for the world.
Jesus cares a lot about seeing and believing in John’s Gospel. All throughout the Gospel, characters are told to look around them, to pay attention to what they see, so that they may believe in Jesus. In the beginning of the gospel, as Jesus calls the first disciples, they are invited to “come and see” as they join him on the journey.
And once the people see things in John’s Gospel, then they believe.
— The guests at the wedding in Cana where Jesus performed the first of his signs,
—Nicodemus, who wondered how to be born again,
—the Samaritan Woman at the Well who wondered at this man who told her everything she’d ever done,
—the man who once was blind but now can see proclaims Jesus as Lord,
—and many of the people who see Jesus call Lazarus out of his tomb see and believe in Jesus.
But then we get to the horrible visions of Holy Week. Betrayal, arrest, unjust condemnation, death on a cross, and burial in a borrowed tomb. Who wants to see that?
What are we supposed to see in those events?
How are we supposed to believe in LIFE when we only see death?
Dead bodies bring about their own beliefs. When you see your teacher and leader’s broken body placed in a tomb, when you smell the 100 pounds of myrrh and aloe that Nicodemus brought to the tomb, and when you see the men struggling to roll the giant stone, and when you hear the giant stone clunk into place as it is rolled in front of the opening to the tomb, you come to see something clearly.
Jesus is dead.
And we understand that. We have seen, touched, and smelled death. And we have believed in it. It is the way of the world. We see it on TV. We read it in the papers.
So, when Mary shows up that morning to weep at the tomb, we get it.
We understand her confusion and bafflement when she sees the stone is no longer in front of the tomb. She runs to the disciples and tells them the news. “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him!”
So then Peter and the Beloved Disciple end up in a foot race to the tomb, to see for themselves. The rest of the text is about looking and seeing. The open tomb. The grave clothes left behind. The Beloved Disciple sees and believes, we’re told. Although just what he believes we aren’t quite sure because John tells us “for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that Jesus must rise from the dead.”
So the disciples head back home, mulling over what they have seen, letting it settle down in their souls perhaps, so that belief might well up as the mystery does its work.
But Mary sticks around.
She stands there at empty tomb, weeping in testimony to what her eyes have seen.
But weeping is not the end of the story. She bends over, looks in the tomb one more time, and sees two angels sitting where his body had been. “woman, why are you weeping?”
“They have taken my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him!” she tells them.
Mary can’t let go of Jesus. She isn’t ready to let go of what she thinks she knows about life and death. She isn’t ready to let go of control and live into unfathomable mystery. The world she lived in last week had problems, for sure, but they were familiar problems.
And then she sees Jesus standing there and hears him ask “woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
And even as she supposes him to be the gardener, you wonder if she begins to see and believe as she hears his voice.
Because she saw and heard Jesus call Lazarus out of the tomb.
Because she heard him talk about being the Resurrection and the Life.
Because she saw the signs of water into wine and the feeding of the crowd of thousands.
Because she heard him telling the disciples all about his being glorified and ascending to God the Father.
You wonder if all of those moments in the past are beginning to be seen with new eyes, even as she continues to cling to the past. “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”
It is hard to let go of our belief in Death.
But then Jesus calls her by name.
And that’s what it takes for Mary to turn around, away from an empty tomb, and away from seeing and believing in death, to seeing and believing in LIFE.
Being called by name.
We do not believe in an impersonal God, uninvolved in our lives. We believe in the God who calls us by name and claims us as God’s own.
She sees him in that moment and, finally, believes.
She wants to cling to the risen Lord, perhaps even more than she’d tried to cling to his dead body. But that isn’t what we’re called to do. We don’t see, believe, and then stand there. We have work to do. He tells her to let go of her need to control the situation and to let him finish his work.
She returns to the disciples and announces, “I have seen the Lord”.
We are called, like Mary, to testify to what we have seen.
We are here, 2,000 years later because this woman told people that she had seen the Lord.
It matters that you tell people when you have seen God, because all these years later, we’re still telling her story, even though in this text, at least, Mary’s best qualifications for the job of evangelist seems to be that she showed up that morning, and she recognized his voice when he called her name.
And so, like Mary, the church is called to bear witness to where we have seen God.
Just as Mary couldn’t hang on to the resurrected Jesus in the garden, we can’t leave it there either. Because the mystery of the Resurrection is still in process and there is a world out there that needs to hear a message of hope instead of the world’s message of fear and anxiety. We can’t just stop on Easter morning. We have Good News to share!
We are called to tell people that despite the things of this world that can convince us that Death is in charge, we have seen and we believe something different. We have seen an empty tomb. We have seen grave clothes abandoned as unnecessary accessories. We have seen the Lord and heard him call our names.
We are people who look at the violence, injustice, and oppression in the world and still claim that Death is not going to have the last word. We are people who claim there is a mystery at work, and so we have work to do so the world may better reflect God’s vision of love, justice, and peace.
We are people who have seen and believe in Life.
So, go from this place today, with refrains of alleluia still ringing in your ears, and share the Good News we’ve received. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!