Sermon for Sunday, April 12, 2020 || Easter Day A || John 20:1-18
Today is Easter Sunday, the feast of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Last Sunday, I invited you into the spiritual posture of lamentation, and now here we are on this most celebratory day of the church year. If you’re feeling a sense of emotional or spiritual whiplash because of this abrupt turn from lamentation to celebration, I completely understand, and I feel it too. That’s why I want to spend this sermon speaking not simply about the celebration of the resurrection, but about the complex emotion that results when lamentation and celebration coexist. In this time of global and personal crisis, we cannot leap from sadness to joy and leave sadness completely behind. And the good news is that we don’t need to. In a few minutes, I’m going to reference that great catalogue of modern day meaning making that is the movies of Pixar Studios. But first, let’s turn to the Gospel reading and the character of Mary Magdalene.
After seeing the empty tomb, Peter and the other disciple head back to the places they are staying. They go back to the upper room and quarantine themselves with the other disciples, all save Thomas. We’ll hear that part of the story next Sunday. Mary Magdalene watches them go, wondering how they could see the empty tomb and not be afire with curiosity about where Jesus’ body went. She stands there alone in the garden, unwilling to leave the spot she knows for certain is the last place Jesus was laid. She stands there alone in the garden, and she begins to weep.
We don’t know much about Mary Magdalene. Besides a reference in the Gospel of Luke to demons being driven from her, every other reference in all four accounts of the Gospel takes place at Jesus’ crucifixion and the subsequent events. She appears in the story at its climax, the first witness to the miracle of miracles, and the first evangelist of the good news of the resurrection. Anything else you think you know about Mary Magdalene is the stuff of legends, not to be found in the actual text of the Gospel.
Mary enters the story of the Gospel at its most dire moment. Jesus is dying on the cross, and she stands with the other women, watching from a distance. According to Luke, she has been following Jesus for some time. According to Andrew Lloyd Webber, she’s in love with Jesus, and she gets some of the best songs in Jesus Christ Superstar. We sense this love in her unwillingness to leave the empty tomb and in her tears that spring sudden and hot to her eyes. And she thought she had no more tears left after watching Jesus die.
As she weeps, her unwavering curiosity flares anew, and she bends down to look in the tomb. Unlike the two disciples she has not yet peered inside. Earlier when she saw the stone rolled away, she left immediately to tell them about it. But now she looks through her tears and sees two angels within. They ask her why she is weeping. A moment later, Jesus asks Mary the same question: “Why are you weeping?” I love this question today. I’ve read this Gospel passage a thousand times and this question has never jumped out at me until now. Why are you weeping?
The angels could have said, “Don’t cry. Jesus is risen!” Jesus could have said, “Don’t cry. I’m here.” But neither the angels nor Jesus tell Mary to stop her tears. They don’t say, “Quit crying, it’s celebration time!” They simply ask her why. They have good news to share, but they do not overrun Mary’s grief in order to share it. They ask her about it first. They check in.
I hear the angels and Jesus asking me – asking us – this same question on this Easter Sunday morning. Why are we weeping? What is the source, or more likely, the sources of our sadness, our pain, our grief this day? And more to the point, have we actually confronted why we are sorrowing right now, or are we just pushing away the pain through distractions or mounting to-do lists or frenetic news consumption? I know that in the first week of the pandemic, I jumped into absolutely everything I possibly could do to keep this church functioning. But that was a defense mechanism that kept me from noticing the grief growing inside me. Ever since, I have been peeling away pieces of that initial surge of well-intentioned, but perhaps misguided energy. And with God’s help, I’m working to identify the most life-giving ways I can respond to the crisis. And part of that response is attending to my own grief, even during (or especially during) a time when we are supposed to be celebrating. I’d be willing to bet many of you find yourselves in a similar place today.
It’s actually the same place we visit during many funerals. The Book of Common Prayer reminds us that funerals are Easter liturgies – services that proclaim the wondrous reality of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet a note at the end of the liturgy states that the joy of the resurrection “does not make human grief unchristian. The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death.” So we find ourselves in many funerals living in that place where lamentation and celebration intersect.
I think that’s where Mary Magdalene finds herself today, as well. She laments at the empty tomb as tears stream down her face. Then she celebrates when Jesus says her name and flings herself into his embrace. Then another jolt of lamentation hits her when he tells her he can’t stay, at least not in this close, physical proximity. Mary’s journey on that first Easter morning is a very real, and very relatable combination of sadness and joy.
And that, naturally, brings me to the incredible Pixar film, Inside Out, in which we meet 11-year-old Riley, who moves across the country at the start of the movie. The story is told by her five primary emotions, and the two main characters are Joy and Sadness. For most of the film, Joy (voiced by the irrepressible Amy Poehler) does everything in her power to steer Riley’s emotions and keep Sadness from touching the command console in Riley’s mind. Joy has always been Riley’s primary emotion, but Joy finds it harder and harder to help Riley, who misses her old home terribly.
At the end of the movie, Sadness finally gets a turn, and Riley, who has been putting on a brave face for her parents’ sakes, breaks down crying in their arms. Joy understands that sometimes embracing Sadness is the only way to confront the changes and chances of our lives. But the movie doesn’t end there. Next Joy and Sadness both put their hands on the console, and they produce Riley’s first mixed emotion, which rolls down the conveyor belt, a swirl of yellow and blue. There is sadness in Riley’s longing for her old home and joy in the comfort of her parents’ embrace. In that moment, Riley matures in her emotional awareness. She laments and celebrates at the same time, just like Mary Magdalene. And just like us on this strange, yet still sacred, Easter Sunday.
Today, we proclaim that Christ is Risen. We proclaim that God’s love, mercy, justice, and grace are always working to bring all of creation back into right relationship with God. We proclaim that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. And if we proclaim these things through our tears, that’s okay.
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