A Sermon preached on Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018
by Rev. Robin Bartlett
at First Church in Sterling, MA
Sermons are better heard.
I know what some of you are thinking. “Oh boy. It’s Easter Sunday and this well-meaning and extremely charming preacher is about to tell me a complete fabrication of unlikely events; an ancient fairy tale. She can’t possibly believe something that defies science and logic. Besides, I only came this morning because my mom made me come and I wanted an excuse to wear this beautiful pastel dress before I binge on Cadbury mini eggs and wine. No matter what this obviously wicked smart and humble preacher has to say, I know this is true: the dead don’t rise.”
Well, you’re right. I’m here to disabuse you of that notion. The dead do indeed rise.
And you, too, will rise again.
What if I told you that the Easter story is as much about Mary Magdalene’s rising as it is about Jesus’? Mary, whose dream for the world just died inside of her when her savior was crucified; Mary, whose darkest night ended with her getting up again?
Jesus’ disciples had spent the night before in the upper room hiding and grieving; the dream they had inside of them crushed. They mourned with the keening wails of a mother crying for her dead son at the foot of the cross: the wailing of a mother who watched her son suffer, and knows she cannot live in this cruel world without her baby boy in it. “I died the day she died,” someone said to me once about losing her child. The disciples died that day with Jesus.
They were also scared. That week they saw how Jesus’ ministry attracted attention. They saw how the power of love threatened those who love power. Jesus gave poor people reason to believe they had as much worth as everyone else. People who know their value aren’t easily controlled. People who see themselves as worthy of love and justice are a threat to “politics as usual.” People like that can unite to overthrow the reign of kings and tyrannical rich autocrats and congress and religious leaders.
The message the disciples heard loud and clear from the empire on Friday was: the Love of God is not as powerful as you think it is. They saw their savior mocked and laughed at and spit on and tortured and killed by those who wished to quell the insurrection that gave the hopeless reason to hope. They watched him beg for God’s mercy, cry out in thirst, forgive them, and breathe his last gasping breath. They watched the oppressors hide his radiance in the cold dark tomb. And with that, the empire managed to crush the spirits of his followers. Their hope was locked in the tomb with him.
And so their mourning the night before wasn’t just mourning for a friend. It was the deep mourning that occurs when faith, hope and love dies. It was the mourning of people who believe they will no longer be saved; the mourning of people who believe that our brokenness will never heal. He was supposed to wipe away all tears from their faces and swallow up death forever. Instead, he, died and left them alone.
Yet, the women knew that they had no choice but to rise again that morning anyway. After all, someone had to make the casserole to bring to the wake! The men certainly weren’t going to!
In the words of Orion Mountain Dreamer’s poem,
“It doesn't interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone and do what needs to be done to feed the children.”
Mary Magdalene got up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and did what needed to be done. She brought Mary the mother of James and Salome along with her to the tomb. Her heart was shattered, and yet she picked up the broken pieces and rose.
They didn’t go there to witness a miracle. Quite the opposite. They went to do the ordinary stuff we do when someone dies, even in the midst of impossible, breath-stealing grief. We gather the documents, we call the social security office, identify the body at the morgue, go to the funeral home to purchase a headstone, we figure out the tax information and the life insurance policy, pay bills. We rise and we do what needs to be done.
Likewise, these women traveled to their friend’s tomb to anoint the body with spices, so it wouldn’t smell. “Who will roll away the stone?” They sighed, because no one wants that job, and still someone would have to do it.
But when they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away.
And they peered inside, expecting to see a dead body. After all, the dead don’t rise! The dead just lie there, rotting from the inside: until the finality of death begins to fill up our noses with decay.
What they saw instead was an empty tomb.
“He is raised, he is not here,” a young man dressed in white sitting on the right side said to them. The women were “alarmed,” the text says. The women were “terrified” and “amazed.” Of course they were. The dead don’t rise.
But he wasn’t there. The body was gone, and the man said that he had risen.
God’s ultimate April Fool’s joke: Ha! Why are you looking for the living God among the dead? I have risen!
That wasn’t the punchline the women were expecting.
The women didn’t know when they got up that morning that even though they tried to bury him, his Love was a seed. He taunted his oppressors as his last act of defiance, by rising victorious from the grave, planting his Love in the disciples and watching it grow.
You see, this isn’t just the story of God’s rising. It is the story of our rising.
I’m going to be honest: our text from Mark isn’t my favorite story about the resurrection. It is the most anti-climactic of all of the Gospel accounts. It’s the shortest. It doesn’t have as much of a plot. There are two women, not three. Yes, the stone is rolled away, Jesus is not there, and some sort of angel talks to them.
But Jesus doesn’t appear to them, dirt under his fingernails, gardening like he does in the Gospel of John. And in this account, both women leave almost as soon as they get there, too scared to even tell anyone. They don’t run to tell the others, breathless; the first preachers of the good news. The women simply bear witness, get scared, and in their terror, don’t know what to do next.
Our rising is like that too, sometimes. It is not always ecstatic, dramatic and triumphant. Our rising is often confusing, anti-climactic, terrifying, and hidden.
Our rising may just look like getting out of bed despite a broken heart and doing what needs to be done for the children. It may just look like one more day of not drinking, or one more hour digging our nails into our palm to keep from losing it. It may look like shopping for a pretty head scarf to cover our bald head even though we are weak and tired from chemo. It may look like going on that first awkward OK Cupid date after the divorce papers are filed. It may look like continuing to take the anti-depressants, hoping some day they’ll kick in. It may look like showing up in public every once in awhile even though we don’t want to; even though we are still mourning all that we have lost. It may simply be stopping to notice that a broken heart can go on beating.
In the apocryphal gnostic gospel of Mary Magdalene, thought to be written in the fifth century, it says this:
His students grieved and mourned greatly saying:
How are we to go into the rest of the world proclaiming the Good News about the Son of Humanity’s Realm? If they did not spare him, how will they ever leave us alone?
Mary arose, then, embracing them all and began to address them as her brothers and sisters saying:
Do not weep and grieve nor let your hearts remain in doubt, for his grace will be with all of you, sustaining and protecting you. Rather, let us give praise to his greatness which has prepared us so that we might become fully human.
Mary arose. And do not let your hearts remain in doubt:
We too will rise again. We are the resurrection.
So beloved, get up out of your graves.
Get up out of the tomb of despair, anger, self-doubt, self-hate, illness, fear, addiction, death, mourning, sin, separation, loneliness and isolation, broken relationships, and depression…
Roll away the stone and rise again!
We are becoming fully human by his greatness, so rise again.
God still has more to do with us, so rise again.
Our current predicaments don’t exempt us from our purpose, so rise again.
A broken heart still beats, so rise again.
We’re not alone, so rise again.
This country is a HOT MESS right now so please rise again!
The people united in God’s love can never be defeated, so rise again.
We can do hard things, so rise again!
Hell is here on this earth, and every last person deserves to be pulled out of it, so reach out your hand and rise again!
Heaven is here on this earth too, so don’t just sit there waiting for it to manifest itself, rise again!
The power of Love will overcome the love of power, so rise again!
Healed people heal people, so rise again!
When hopeless people start hoping, empire is destroyed, so rise again!
There is no time but now, no people but us, and no way of changing the world without turning toward each other, so rise again!
Happy Easter, and amen.
Reverend Robin Bartlett is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, with dual standing in the United Church of Christ. She is the Senior Pastor at The First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts.