The Garden of Resurrection: A Sermon for Easter Sunday, 2022

Easter

April 17, 2022

“Oh God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them, and take our hearts and set them on fire. Amen.”

In the summer, my wife and I spend most of our evenings on our screened-in back porch, enjoying our views of the garden we have created over the years. It has taken a lot of hard work, a lot of money but over those years, we have created a sanctuary of beauty for ourselves that offers us respite from our busy and stressful lives, and offers our cats an endless supply of squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, and birds to frustrate them. 

And there’s always more work to be done. A Norway maple on the border of our neighbor’s property came down during a storm last summer, so we are having to fill the vacated space with new plantings and an expanse of fence. As we’ve grown older, we have come to rely on others to do much of the heavy work that we once did, but we still spend time weeding and clearing and trying to keep the yard as beautiful as possible.

Gardens. Places of beauty and serenity in the midst of busy worlds, combining the beauty of nature and the work of human hands, human creativity and ingenuity alongside the beauty and endless diversity of God’s creation. Gardens are places of beauty and hard work, places of respite and toil.

Our gospel reading takes place in a garden. “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark”—For some of us, this mention of first day and darkness may take us back to the beginning, to the story of creation, of light coming into the darkness, and the first garden, the garden of Eden planted by God at creation and in which God placed the man and the woman to care for it, to husband it.

Here, too, there is a woman, and a man, or at least one mistaken as a man.

The tragedy of the first garden, disobedience, expulsion, an angel at the gate to prevent the first couple’s return to it.

The tragedy of the second garden: the death and burial of the one beloved by his followers and disciples. Two angels, not preventing entry but asking her a question, “Woman why are you weeping?”

It’s strange how John tells the story. The angels ask a question with an obvious answer but there’s another question unspoken, unanswered. Why had Mary Magdalene come to the tomb? It’s a question John doesn’t ask, nor does he answer. We’re only told that she came to the tomb. Not to embalm him; remember Jesus had been anointed for burial by the other Mary, Mary of Bethany, a week before. And Nicodemus had brought 100 pounds of burial spices to the tomb. So she didn’t come to do anything, except to grieve. 

She came to the garden, to grieve, to reflect, to process all that had happened. Her beloved teacher had died; the one she had believed to be the Messiah; the one on whom she and the other disciples had pinned all their hopes; the one they had seen offer abundant life to others, who healed, and taught, and transformed lives, including their own. 

She came to the garden and her grief was suddenly compounded with horror. The tomb where she expected to grieve and reflect had been desecrated, robbed. She didn’t even stoop down to look in. She ran back to tell the others and the three of them ran back. Peter and the other disciple, Jesus’ beloved disciple, raced to the tomb. They saw the linen wrappings; Peter, then the other one entered, and we are told that he “saw and believed.”

The two of them had seen enough. They went back to the house where they were staying while Mary stayed back. And where could she or should she go? She had come to the garden to grieve and whatever emotional turmoil that had brought her here was only intensified by the fact of the empty tomb.

But suddenly, her tears were interrupted. She saw the gardener, and then it wasn’t the gardener. He spoke her name, and in that moment, she knew her Lord. Sorrow turned to joy; mourning and grief were gone. Her world had changed.

Suddenly, the garden was no longer a place of respite and grief; and even as she sought to process all this, no doubt as she wanted to linger, to ask questions, to understand, she was sent outward and away to share the good news. Jesus told her, “Don’t hold on to me.” Her very human, all too human desire to understand, to rejoice with the risen one was overwhelmed by another desire, another task: to share the good news.

And so Mary Magdalene became the first to share the good news; the apostle to the apostles. It was she he told the others that Christ had risen from the dead; that he had conquered sin and evil, and changed their world; changed the world.

One of the many things I love about Grace Church is the Vilas window, to my right, with its depiction of this very scene in the garden, Mary encountering, and recognizing the Risen Christ. In the late afternoon on a sunny day, if the nave is dark, the deep reds of the window suffuse the entire church, bathing it in ethereal light. I have preached and ministered under that window for thirteen years, thirteen Easters and it still has the capacity to take my breath away. A detail from that window is reproduced on our Easter bulletins and while it can’t do justice to the refracted light of a stained glass window; it still captures something of the beauty of the image, and the beauty of that moment.

Churches are refuges: buildings like ours are places of beauty and serenity where time seems to stand still and we can sense God’s presence. We have felt the loss of this sacred place over the last two years and the opportunity to gather on Easter to worship, to hear the story, to sing the familiar hymns, to experience joy is an amazing gift.

Gardens are refuges; places of beauty and serenity that provide us with spiritual sustenance in difficult times. Gardens, for all their hard work, can be escapes from the challenges of our daily lives; from the constant pressures we feel; a balm to our emotions scarred and wounded by the world’s events. For us, sitting on our porch in the evening, nursing a drink, watching the antics of our cats frustrated by the screens that prevent them from chasing rabbits or squirrels, or birds or chipmunks, All of that discracts us from the pressures of our busy lives, brings smiles to our faces, and the occasional laugh.

Mary came to the garden to grieve and mourn, and she left, full of joy and the power of the gospel, ready to share the good news. Similarly, we have come here, many of us after long absences to be strengthened, for an infusion of hope, to hear the good news, for reassurance, to encounter the Risen Christ in word and sacrament. But like Mary, the Risen Christ who tells us, “Don’t hold on to me, don’t stay.” He sends us out like Mary, to share the good news to share Christ’s love, the promise of new life; the certainty of resurrection. May we go from this place into the world, our hearts on fire with new life in Christ; our hearts on fire with faith and love. 

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

Weeping at the foot of the cross: A Homily for Good Friday, 2022

April 15, 2022

I have a keen sense of the powerful emotions that are roiling through me today. Good Friday is always a day full of emotions—of grief and sadness, shame. As we listen to John’s passion gospel with its extreme anti-Judaism, we may be reminded of all the ways that text, and Christian devotion and theology surrounding the crucifixion, have fueled anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism in the church and in wider culture. The weight of that history always burdens me on this day, as I seek to lead a community of Christians into reflection on Christ’s suffering and death.

But this year there are other emotions—the reality that we gather in this place on this day for the first time since 2019. We carry with us the trauma of those years: pandemic leaving millions dead and millions more permanently affected; an insurrection that used and continues to use the imagery of Good Friday, the cross and Jesus Christ in the service of autocracy, white nationalism and white supremacy; and now a war in Ukraine that has killed thousands, forced millions from their homes. It too is perpetrated in part on behalf of so-called Christian values.

With all of these emotions and thoughts running through our heads, it is difficult to find the space, the silence to reflect on the meaning of this day. Perhaps that’s as it should be. Our pain, grief, fear, anger, and trauma have brought us to this place, to the foot of the cross, and to Christ’s arms, outstretched in love.

It may seem somewhat surprising that the gospels have little to say about the emotions of those who were closest to Jesus, as they watched the events of his last days unfold. There are hints of what they might have been feeling; certainly fear, perhaps bewilderment as they tried to make sense of what was happening, the dashing of their hopes for a restored Israel and divine intervention against the Roman Empire. Luke mentions the disciples’ grief on at least one occasion, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Luke writes that Peter, James, and John fell asleep “because of grief” while Jesus prayed.

There’s a passage that struck me this year during the reading of Luke’s passion narrative this past Sunday. Luke is describing Jesus’ walk to Calvary and in 23:27 writes that:

 A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. Then Jesus turned to them and said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.

It’s one of those details that may be familiar and well-known, it is one of the stations in the traditional stations of the cross, for example. But it’s a detail that can take on new significance or meaning in a different context.

Weeping women. I’ve also been reflecting on the traditional medieval hymn, the stabat mater. A baroque setting of that hymn by Pergolesi is featured in the concerts performed by Madison Bach Musicians this week, tonight, here at Grace. The Stabat Mater reflects on the emotions of Mary, Jesus’ mother as she witnesses the crucifixion of her son. 

It’s a bit curious that John gives a prominent role to Jesus’ mother at the crucifixion because she’s mentioned only one other time in the gospel, at the very first miracle of Jesus, the turning of water into wine at the Wedding at Cana. Surprisingly, Jesus addresses her in the same way both times, calling her “Woman.” In fact, nowhere in the gospel of John is she mentioned by name.

Only John writes that Mary and the Beloved Disciple were at the foot of the cross during the crucifixion. In the synoptic gospels, the disciples abandon Jesus after his arrest and we’re told by Mark that the women disciples who had followed Jesus from Galilee looked on the crucifixion from afar.

John’s version has become the dominant version in the Christian tradition. Countless visual images, paintings especially, show Mary and the Beloved Disciple at the foot of the cross. In medieval churches, carved statues of the crucified Christ flanked by Mary and John were often prominently displayed atop the rood screen. And the Stabat Mater, helped to focus devotional attention on Mary’s grief and suffering as she watched her son die and asks that we share in that grief and suffering:

O thou Mother! fount of love!
Touch my spirit from above,
Make my heart with thine accord:

Make me feel as thou hast felt;
Make my soul to glow and melt
With the love of Christ my Lord.

Such sentiments may seem somewhat alien to us in the twenty-first century, but it is the case that much of what we do on this day, our prayers and hymns try to connect Christ’s suffering with our own and are meant to elicit even deeper emotions from us than we might have been feeling otherwise.

But perhaps instead of intensifying our emotions it might be better for us simply to name them: to name our fear, grief, despair. As we do that, we might also name the emotions that Mary and Jesus’ other disciples were feeling, and the emotions that so many humans across the globe are feeling. We may be particularly affected by them on this day as we contemplate Christ’s suffering and death and we may find it difficult to acknowledge, to process all of them.

The scene of Christ crucified, his mother and the beloved disciple at his side, is not just about his suffering and ours. It is, above all, about love, the love that brought him among us, the love that brought him to this place of execution, the love that draws the whole world to himself. It is a love that was not just present then and there, but is present with us, among us, in our suffering, as he suffers beside us and with us.

It is also a love that binds us to him and to each other. From the cross, Jesus said to his Mother, “Woman, here is your son” and to the Beloved Disciple, he said, “Here is your mother.” At the cross, Jesus was creating new relationships, new community among his followers. Even as his body was being broken, he was knitting together a new body, the body of Christ.

That may be the most important and profound message for us on this Good Friday, when we have felt the pain of isolation and separation so intensely for so long, when we have struggled to gather as the body of Christ, the community of the faithful. We are bound together by Christ’s love. His outstretched arms embrace us and invite us to embrace each other. May the cross be a place where we experience Christ’s all-embracing love and may it empower us to embrace the world with that same love.

Anointing and Discipleship: A Sermon for Lent 5C, 2020

April 3, 2022

Picture the scene. Jesus and his disciples have come to Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem. It is six days before the Passover; to clarify, it is six days before Jesus’ crucifixion. The plot to arrest and have him killed is already underway; and Jesus and his disciples are coming back into the public sphere after a few days of hiding. As the Gospel of John tells the story, what precipitated the plot to kill Jesus was his raising of Lazarus.

So Jesus chooses to emerge from hiding for this event, what we may conclude was a celebratory dinner, welcoming Lazarus back into the land and community of the living; and to thank Jesus for bringing him back from the dead.

This celebration, this dinner party takes place against the backdrop of the intensifying opposition to Jesus. With Passover six days away, Jesus and his disciples are going to Jerusalem to be a part of that ritual celebration. It is a time of increased tension and possible violence. Passover recalls God’s deliverance of God’s chosen people from slavery and oppression and the parallels with the Jewish community of Palestine living in territory occupied by Rome was not lost on anyone. It’s a moment fraught with tension.

But it’s also a time of celebration. Lazarus has been raised from the dead and his family treats their dear friend Jesus and his disciples to a dinner party. We might imagine that in addition to the family and the presence of Jesus and his disciples, there are others in attendance, townspeople who may be curious to see this man who was raised from the dead.

And suddenly, in the midst of the conversation and dining; something unexpected happens. Mary takes a pound of costly nard, drops to her knees, anoints Jesus’ feet with the perfume, and wipes his feet with her hair. It is an extravagant gesture in so many ways. First, we’re told that it costs 300 denarii; that’s roughly equivalent to a year’s wages for a day laborer. Again, to put it in terms we might understand—a year’s income at the minimum wage is currently around $15000. As we know all too well, that’s not enough to live on, not a living wage, but an awful lot of money for a jar of perfume.

Then there’s the fact that she did this in public and wiped his feet with her hair. It’s an extravagant, inappropriate, intimate gesture that crosses boundaries of host and guest, male and female. But there’s something else. The gospel writer describes her actions using the exact same language he will use in the next chapter when he describes Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples. This points us forward to the Last Supper and all that will come and underscores the connection between her act and Jesus’ death and burial that he himself mentioned.

There’s another detail in the story that directs us elsewhere in the gospel. John tells us that the perfume filled the whole house. That’s quite a difference from the smells that are mentioned in chapter 11, at Lazarus’ tomb. When Jesus told them to roll the stone away from his tomb, Martha says, “Lord already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.” The scent of the perfume overwhelms whatever lingering odors there might be in the house.

This extravagant gesture, and then the reaction. In Mark’s version of the story; the response comes from some of those in attendance at the meal. In Matthew’s version, it’s the disciples. Here, John puts the criticism in the mouth of Judas alone, and attributes it, not to any sincerity on Judas’ part, but blames it on his greed and thievery. 

Jesus’ response is a defense of Mary’s actions—she purchased the perfume for his burial. And then the sentence made familiar by the endless debates around our concern and care for the poor: “You always have the poor with you; you do not always have me.” 

In spite of this story being very closely tied to the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, in spite of the fact that John has very carefully woven it into the intricate tapestry of his gospel, there’s a certain timelessness to the themes and the conflict that is depicted here. What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? What constitutes a faithful response to God’s call to us? 

On one level, Mary’s response stands in for all of those over the centuries who have sought to be faithful to God through worship and beauty: the splendor of church architecture; the beautiful vestments, the music that lifts our souls heavenward.

On the other hand, there is the call to serve the poor; the cry for justice, the desire to help those in need. In a time when there are limited resources, the question of how best to allocate those resources is an important one. We began Lent on Ash Wednesday hearing these words from the Prophet Isaiah: 

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;

when you see the naked, to cover them,

All of which seems to be a clear repudiation of religious acts like fasting in favor of works of mercy and justice. Jesus’ words, as ambiguous as they might seem, are not necessarily a repudiation of such efforts. He may be saying in effect, “Look, you will have plenty of opportunity to serve the poor, they’re not going anywhere; but I’m here for only a few more days.”

I would like to offer yet another way of thinking about this act. I mentioned earlier that John uses the exact same verb to describe Mary’s actions of wiping Jesus’ feet as he will use in the next chapter to describe Jesus’ washing the feet of the disciples. There, as he offers an explanation of his actions to the disciples, he says:

“ if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Mary is foreshadowing Jesus’ own actions. She is also modeling discipleship, what it means to follow Jesus. As followers of Jesus, we are certainly called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and the like. We are also called to serve each other, and to serve Christ. Our worship, our prayers, our music, our beautiful space bring us into God’s presence even as we experience that presence in word and sacrament. To linger in Christ’s presence, to spiritually anoint and dry his feet helps us deepen the intimacy of our experience of Christ, to express our love, and to be touched by his love.

As we approach Holy Week, as we come closer to Golgotha, to the cross and the tomb, may we find ways of experiencing and deepening Christ’s presence in our hearts and our lives. As our relationship deepens, as our experience of Christ expands, may it strengthen our resolve and inspire us to work for justice and to care for those in need.