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Stand Again

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Mar 31

Easter Sunday
Text: John 20: 1-18

Do you all see this beautifully designed banner behind me? It stands tall each year on Easter and often throughout the Easter season. It was designed by one of our long-time members, Perry Neubauer. In case you are unable to see what I’m talking about, it’s a tall white silk banner, emblazoned with a golden rectangle in which stands a cross draped in fabric. Underneath, in large, capital letters it reads "ANASTASIS.” If that sounds like Greek to you, that’s because it is! It’s the ancient Greek word for Resurrection, a word the church has used for centuries to capture what we celebrate on this Easter morning. Translated literally, it means to stand again – “ana” for again and “stasis” for stand or rise.

Each Easter, this banner stands again and we stand again with it and with Christians the world over to celebrate and to sing of the profound mystery and joy that dawns again on Easter Day. Some of us may well stand firm in our belief that the resurrection really happened! Jesus is risen! Risen as he said! Some stand firm in our belief that it’s a powerful story and meaningful metaphor. Jesus is in some way Risen, sure. Risen as he said, kinda. Others stand firm in their disbelief and or at least in an agnostic wonder. Jesus is risen? Oh yeah…who says? You know who you are! Whether you are a questioner or a believer or questioning believer, rest easy and be at home! As we sometimes sing, there’s room for us all in this household of God! Besides, I’ve come to wonder…. if standing firm in our belief or disbelief misses the point, if there is a deeper kind of standing again to which Easter call us.

As the theologian Diana Butler Bass puts it: “The question is not ‘what do you believe about the resurrection.’ The [real] question is simpler and more profound: “Do you trust in the resurrection?” She goes on to say that anyone can believe that a resurrection happened. Anyone of us can give intellectual assent to the creeds and doctrines of our faith. Many people have and continue to do so. Trust, though, is a harder thing, not to mention more interesting. Trust moves us beyond reason and intellect. Trust moves us into the realm of our present day experience. Do you trust in the resurrection? Can you let yourself fall into it and know that it will catch you? Can you stand on top of it and will it hold you up? Can you count on good news that God’s love is ongoing, stronger than our death, our loneliness, and our fears?

At one level, we wouldn’t have the Easter story. We wouldn’t even have the church, were it not for a basic sense of trust in the eye-witness accounts of those first disciples. Our connection to the resurrection rests entirely on trust – two millennia of it. Year after year, century after century, particularly since the Enlightenment, thoughtful Christians have asked, do we trust the gospel writers, especially when they can never seem to agree on the details? Do we trust a first century Jewish woman named Mary Magdalene, a Palestinian fisherman named Peter? What’s ironic about this is that most of the witnesses that first Easter morning could barely believe it themselves, at least not at first. We read in our scripture for today that Mary assumes there’s been a grave robbing. And yet, and yet, there is a deeper kind of trust at work in this story, and Mary exhibits it beautifully. For Mary at least, and I’d bet for us as well, before we can begin to trust the resurrection, whatever that may mean, we need to start with an even more visceral trust, a trust that the pain and suffering in this life is real, that the darkness before the dawn is the real. For those who may feel a spiritual whiplash between the trembling anguish of Holy Week and Good Friday, and the earth shattering surprise of Sunday, then John’s gospel account is for you. Indeed, joy dawns again on Easter Day, but our lesson this morning begins before the dawn. It begins “early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark”! Let’s take a closer look
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While the men in the story are running, busy with their coming and going, Mary Magdalene settles in for a time and stands there. She embodies that great inversion – “Don’t just do something, stand there!” She stands there and weeps. She is so deeply and bodily in touch with her grief, so present to the trauma and violence she and her friends and Jesus had just experienced, that she barely recognizes those who are asking her those cut-straight-the-heart questions. The angels come first. “Woman, why are you weeping?” She answers them matter of fact-ly. “They have taken away my Lord.” Note the poetic double meaning of her response. She’s referring to his body, but she’s also referring to his life. They have taken him away. Next, the risen Jesus comes though she mistakes him for a gardener. Same question. Woman, why are you weeping? The word weeping appears three times in this passage. Clearly, we are meant to take this pain and grief seriously. Why are you weeping? What a question for Easter Sunday.

I’m reminded of a poem called Talking to Grief by Denise Levertov…

Ah, grief, I should not treat you
like a homeless dog
who comes to the back door
for a crust, for a meatless bone.
I should trust you.
I should coax you
into the house and give you
your own corner,
a worn mat to lie on,
your own water dish.
You think I don't know you've been living
under my porch.
You long for your real place to be readied
before winter comes. You need
your name, your collar and a tag.

I think Jesus meets Mary here just as she’s talking to her grief, just as she’s tending to that precious dog. Mary knows that she’s got to trust her grief first, before she can trust anything else to make sense. Jesus isn’t about to take any of this away from her!

Woman, why are you weeping? The question alone carries a twin approach of caring compassion and tender challenge. Before she even recognizes that it’s him. God’s love made flesh, standing again before her, this love comes to her and meets her right where she is. His love understands her, and stands under her, gentle and wondering. By virtue of his questions, she is drawn far enough into what she knows to be true. She is so held and even taught by his presence that she starts to trust what is beyond her.

Then in what has to be one of the most tender exchanges in scripture, Jesus interrupts her talk with her grief once more, and this time, he speaks her name. He says, “Mary.” She says, “Rabounni!” At last she comes to her senses, a new light dawns on her! In that moment of mutual recognition, they are no more merely standing there. By virtue of his standing again before her, that sweet love in his voice, they are both standing again in a new reality, on new ground, on the deepest ground of being itself which is God’s abiding, enduring and all conquering love. Standing again, in the presence of God’s amazing grace, her every sin, every fear, every grief is relieved, at least for a time! Weeping may linger for the night. But joy, at last, joy comes with the morning!

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say -- Don’t even try to believe this story! I’m telling you what any Boston sportscaster says at least three times a game -- its unbelievable! This is not a story that invites or even needs our intellectual or rational assent. It is a story that invites, and maybe even commands, our trust. It’s a story that’s meant to ring true in hearts and in our bones such that we can trust it enough to stand, and even jump on it, when we feel like the usual ground beneath us has fallen out.

Now, if you will allow me a moment to testify. Like many if not all of you, I’ve known my share of grief. I’ve seen some of the costs of trauma, pain and violence on people’s bodies, psyches and souls. We’ve all got dogs under our porches. For me, its mostly loss of dear loved ones. Before I was 17, I had lost two dear grandparents, a close friend to car accident in my sophomore year, and then my dad to cancer, the day before my senior year of high school began. You might think I would have bombed out, crashed and burned, during that senior year. On the contrary, I kicked more butt that year than virtually any year since. Good grades, captain of 2 teams, leadership positions, a hot girlfriend, you name it. But for years, I was mostly numb to my grief and thinking back now, the pattern took hold early on. Fill the holes by keeping myself busy. More often than trusting my grief and talking to it, I’d place my trust elsewhere -- in working hard and in playing hard. Can anyone relate? Overachievers, perfectionists, workaholics, those in recovery, those in need of recovery -- who’s with me here? Who can relate to these scripts, the different ways we’ve gotten stuck, whether in our running or our silent weeping? Too much of the grief that makes for busyness or even depression, not enough of the “grief that makes for joy” to borrow a phrase! Ultimately, these patterns keep us from knowing the fullness of joy that God has in store for each of us.

Whatever the pattern or script is for you, Easter comes to us all as a profound disruption, a full blown tectonic shift in the ground on which we usually stand. Some gospel accounts even talk of there being an earthquake on that first day! Easter invites us to stand and to stand again in a strange and paradoxical trust! It calls us, in the words of Parker Palmer, to “stand in the tragic gap” between reality and possibility, between grief and joy, trauma and grace, mourning and wonder, striding our way between the old ground and the new. Even for Mary Magdalene, that first Easter came and went. She could not hold onto him, but she could move on, in trust, bringing her whole self, her whole story back to the community. The disruption of Easter, and this invitation to trust, is precisely what gives us a chance to look at our lives and our stories anew. God’s risen and undying and all forgiving love is here and is ready to understand and stand under us, asking each and every one of us --why are you weeping, or for that matter, running? What’s hiding under that porch? You’re all smiles on the outside but what’s really going on inside? Do you know this disconnect I’m talking about – this distance between your inner and outer worlds? The more we come to name and close this distance, the closer we are to hearing God’s naming us, the closer we are to naming the Risen Christ. Rabouni! My teacher. My rabbi.

Easter comes, love comes, stands again before us, he stands whole before us, still bearing his own wounds into which Thomas reaches. Christ stands again before Mary, before Thomas, and before us, offering new life, new hope, new possibility in order to convince us, as Paul says, that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ. I can’t explain it! It’s unbelievable! But I am so convinced! I do so trust! I’ve as much as seen it for myself!

At the end of the service, before we move on from this place, we all will stand again – Anastasis -- and sing Hallelujah! Hallelujah is from the Hebrew and it means praise God. Hallel for Praise – Jah or Yahweh – for God.  Hallelujah. Sisters and brothers, if some of this talk of resurrection still seems like a foreign language to you, I don’t blame you.  We’re all still learning it, and we need each other to practice it!  It’s why Jesus sends Mary and the others back to their community, to ask caring questions of each other and the world and to share the good news that violence, and grief, or death, in whatever language we may speak, will never again have the last word!  If you can’t make sense of it in your heads, trying hearing and trusting this story in your heart, in your own flesh and bones.  Taste it and see it here at table with friends, strangers and even those who would betray us.  Smell it in the air of new creation and of the spring now upon us!  Hear it and stand in it, in hymns of praise, and in all four parts of the Hallelujah Chorus!

Anastasis.  Hallelujah.  Stand again and Praise God whose love supreme reigns forever.  Praise God whose undying love first stood under and understood our every grief and pain.  Trust in and Praise God who stands again this day that we, and all of creation, can stand again in love and light and joy! Anastasis.  ANASTASIS! Hallelujah.  HALLELUJAH. Amen.  AMEN!

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