Meg Peery McLaughlin
April 9, 2023
John 20: 1-18
Prayer of Illumination
Speak, we’ll try to listen.
Teach, we’ll attempt to learn.
Love, even when we don’t think it’s ours to receive,
we’ll crack the door.
And if all else fails, Lord, just be.
Be here with us, and with all we’ve brought with us into this room.
We are here. So are you.
Let’s go. Amen.
John 20: 1-18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”3 Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb.4 The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7 and the cloth that had been on Jesus’s head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed, 9 for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.10 Then the disciples returned to their homes.
11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look[a] into the tomb, 12 and she saw two angels in white sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir,[b] if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew,© “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not touch me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and she told them that he had said these things to her.
It’s been suggested that each week, and especially this week,
we offer a preface to the scripture reading in worship,
starting it all with the words, “I know this sounds crazy, but. . .
It’s a wise suggestion, if you ask me.
Anyone who has read
the story of
the creator being cradled by a poor Palestinian mother
the story of
a rabbi whose lessons on love rocked not just religion but the whole system of empire
Anyone who has heard these stories knows they are . . . odd.
Yes, anyone who has heard the good news of
the oppressed, freed;
the hurt, healed
the ignorant, awakened;
the proud, humbled;
the guilty, forgiven;
the hungry, filled;
the lowly, lifted
Anyone who has heard that news——has wondered if it is too good to be true.
Because if you’re paying attention at all, that’s not generally the pattern in this world.
Perhaps no story is harder to swallow than this one.
Easter. Death’s destructive power pummeled. Resurrected life.
Today we say that the Almighty God risked incarnation,
not for the sake of some experiment or to make a point,
but came down in the flesh to us in Jesus, for the sake of relationship
—relationship with us.
And Easter is God’s refusal to let that relationship go.
God will not allow death to end it. Not ever.
That first Easter morning, when Mary shows up at the tomb,
she could never have imagined that.
And indeed, this morning, all these years later,
when our expectations may not be all that different from hers,
it seems someone should acknowledge the utter madness of this story.
Because this is not something we can take in all at once.
This good news,
this relationship with God
—this ongoing, world-changing, life-giving relationship with the divine-
is a lot to let in.
For God, it’s done.
But for us. . . . . for us, Easter takes time.
Problem is, I am the kind of person who prefers for things to happen …. swiftly.
When I was learning to drive, I was living right outside the Montreat gate,
Some of you know that gate…wouldn’t it be fair to say that it’s very…narrow?
The prudent, practical way to pass through –
especially for a beginning driver is to do so slowly—
but me being me, I would just floor it, to get it over with as quickly as possible.
And as adult, even once my frontal lobe was fully formed,
if you put me in a car on a cold day,
knowing all-too-well that the engine needs to warm before any comfort can be had,
Well, I will crank the heat to full blast.
Patience isn’t a virtue God gave to me in generous quantities.
When frustrated by the state of the world,
despairing over all that is not as it should be,
my dad will often quote MLK, Jr. to me:
“the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
But, here’s the thing,
I want the bend to be a hairpin turn,
and I want to take it at 60 miles an hour. Too much is at stake. Too too much.
I know I should listen to my friends in recovery, they know—
know a journey is made one day at a time—bit by bit.
Anyone doing any kind of transformation in their body, mind, or spirit
can testify that it is not something we can rush.
Easter takes time.
Which is why it’s funny to me that part of this story is filled with disciples rushing,
literally running to the tomb. It’s such an odd detail.
John starts the Easter story in the dark,
where nothing is clear;
where we’re forced to slow down to find our footing–
eyes adjusting to shadows.
Mary comes to the tomb in the dark and doesn’t know it’s already Easter.
All she knows at first is that the stone is gone.
Openings to tombs were only about three feet high ,
and Mary would have had to stoop and crawl in to really see,
at first, she just notices the stone.
Then come the guys–running–
The Beloved Disciple arrives on the scene before Peter,
and bends down enough to see the linen wrappings lying there,
but he does not go into the tomb.
John’s gospel keeps dragging this out.
Peter finally does go all the way in.
He sees the cloth that was on Jesus’ head, rolled up to the side.
Then the Beloved Disciple goes in, and John tells us that he believes. He believes.
And, strangely, those two just go home.
John says, the disciples returned to their homes.
Now, I love a good Sunday nap as much as the rest of us,
in fact, I have one planned just a few hours from now,
but just going home,
seems an odd response to the news of Easter.
But the story goes on.
Mary stays there weeping,
She finally bends down to look in the tomb herself,
and there the angels greet her.
It is not until the risen Christ calls her by name
that she wrap Jesus in a tight hug of joyful recognition,
going from that garden with the news of this day on her lips:
I have seen the Lord!
It’s a plodding story as John tells it.
A slow reveal.
Each disciple having a different response.
It seems that for John’s telling of this story, it’s not all cut and dry that
either you have faith or no faith. Cold or fully cranked heat.
These earliest disciples give us all a place to stand,
each a place to stand–
disbelief, partial faith, confidence, evangelism, or some mix of it all.
Some of you have been watching Ted Lasso with me,
so you know that big yellow poster in the locker room
that reads BELIEVE in big blue letters.
My hunch is that we think of Easter Sunday
as a big cheerful jump smack to a believe poster;
as a full-palmed assent to the Christian life;
where we scream JESUS IS LIFE !
And maybe that’s your enthusiasm today, if so, awesome! Sing loud.
But maybe that’s not you.
Maybe churches you’ve been to have made it seem as if your hand can’t smack that poster, you don’t get the relationship. That somehow the love is conditional. !!!
Or maybe life, life as you’ve lived it, has had too many crosses in it,
so much so that you don’t want a relationship with a God who also knows suffering, pain.
I suppose what I want to say is there is room for you at Easter.
You don’t have to have this all figured out.
John tells us that the Beloved Disciple went into the empty tomb and believed,
and in John’s very next sentence, oh, gosh it cracks me up, verse 9,
his very next sentence is that the disciples don’t understand.
As of yet they did not understand the gospel.
Yes, for us, Easter takes time.
I learned something about our church this week that I didn’t know before.
Back in 2016, before we came to be your pastors here,
our Session, our church’s governing body,
wrote a letter to then Governor McCrory urging him on moral grounds
to expand Medicaid.
Two weeks ago, Governor Cooper signed it into law.
This week I went to see Dr. Bob Greenwood.
Bob who was an elder at that time, who helped draft that letter.
I wanted to ask him what it felt like to finally, finally have it done.
He was one, among many here, who since 2016, kept at this–
kept working it: voting, advocating, praying.
So I expected some jubilation.
But instead, Bob launched into telling me about more work that is needed—
moving from procedure-based health care to outcome-based, for example.
I felt like I’d dropped into that Haitian proverb:
Beyond the mountains, more mountains.
I asked Bob what kept him pushing forward over the course of so much time–
I wondered if I might get a story about an early patient,
something heartwarming to share on Easter–
but he just said “because it’s the right thing to do.”
And, with a small twinkle in his eye, added, “and… I think Jesus keeps asking us to.”
Yes, indeed, this is the relationship we get entangled with today,
this ongoing Jesus relationship keeps the church in long-haul kind of work—
climate justice, racial justice, sensible gun laws women’s health, human rights.
And friends, none of this work is swift. In fact, it’s frustratingly slow.
Yes, for us, Easter takes time.
I don’t know if I told you, but Bob Greenwood is a child neurologist.
And to hear him talk about the brain is . . . well something.
He told me that all our brains are protected–
completely surrounded by membrane that keeps it set apart from the rest of the body. Even the cells are insulated. Things that want to enter the brain literally need permission to enter. They have to be actively transported.
I have to confess I got a bit lost as he told me about mRNA and glial cells.
I left and came back to this story.
To the stone rolled away,
the linen wrappings lying there.
Signals that the world is no longer the same.
Angel messengers who acknowledge tears, and gently ask about grief.
And finally, Jesus who calls us by name .
Knocking on the doors of our brains and hearts,
awaiting permission to enter.
But we need not rush it.
Church, we don’t have to have this all figured out,
Easter takes time.
He is Risen. Love lives.
This good news is for all people,
for all time.
For all time.