A homily on John 20:1-18 preached at Bellingrath Gardens and Home‘s ecumenical Easter sunrise service; Mobile, AL, March 2016.

One of my favorite questions to ask when getting to know a piece of Scripture is “what surprises you about this text?” Easter might seem a kind of odd time to ask it — we have about 2000 years of spoiler alerts under our belts and we know, so to speak, how the story ends. We rejoice in proclaiming that “Christ is risen!,” and find comfort as familiar words remind us that there is light even in darkness, that we are loved, and that we are forgiven. Christ is risen indeed! These familiar, eternal words chase the sun over the horizon of this special day, but new possibility awaits even in their familiarity. So what surprises you about this story?

For one thing, it has surprised me, over the last few years, how much emotional depth there is to the Easter story — sure, Jesus’s followers will end up rejoicing when they come to understand his resurrection, but the uncertainty and heartache they have had to endure to get there is striking to say the least. On Maundy Thursday we remembered that Jesus shared his last supper with his closest friends — washed their feet and gave them nourishment for their bodies and their spirits — even though he knew one of them would betray him. Good Friday reminded us that Jesus’s loved ones had to stand by as he was crucified — a process that would have been lengthy and brutal. Recently though I’ve been thinking even more about Saturday. I think about the grief that must have settled on the shoulders of Jesus’s loved ones as they woke the morning after his death. I imagine them opening their eyes and slowly remembering the day before, realizing that it wasn’t just a nightmare. That their beloved Jesus really was gone. I imagine them rising again on this day, Easter morning, eyes red and faces swollen from the tears of their mourning. I can image Mary Magdalene’s heart sinking to the ground as she approached the empty tomb, devastated by the idea that grave robbers had stolen Jesus’s body. After everything they’d been through — now this. That’s where the verses we heard this morning begin. Mary rushes back to the disciples, even more despair settling into her bones. Peter and the beloved disciple take off, as soon as they hear, sprinting to the tomb, maybe fearfully scanning the shadows in case the suspected grave robbers have lingered. After finding that the tomb is indeed empty, the male disciples return home and Mary Magdalene is again left alone with her grief, left to plead with with the strangers in white who appear at the tomb.

These incredibly human emotions don’t fit neatly into our celebrations of Easter — they don’t seem to fit with our spring-colored clothes and our cheerful gatherings with loved ones. I’m an optimist at heart, so my own habit also tends to be to hurrying toward positive things. But talking about Easter without the days leading up to it feels a little like skipping an entire novel — skipping the the depth of the characters and the richness of the plot — just to read the last page. Christ’s resurrection is even richer when we have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. That valley looks different for each one of us, but I’d venture a guess that we’ve all been there. The joyous celebration of Christ’s resurrection is at the heart of who we are as Christians. Author Barbara Johnson once said that “we are Easter people living in a Good Friday world.” There are times, though, when the Good Fridays of life seem overwhelming — when the shadows seem too close and too dark and hope seems impossible. Just in the last two weeks terror has gripped Belgium, Turkey, and Nigeria, and with each passing month the language of our own politics seems more and more hostile. We’ve got the Good Friday part covered. So how do we go about being Easter people? When I was in seminary, my school’s president was diagnosed with cancer. President Hayner and his wife were open about their journey through his treatments, writing and sharing with us along the way. He didn’t deny the severity of his diagnosis, but he also maintained this seemingly unceasing spirit of joy — to the point where most of his written correspondences ended with “joyfully,” where others might have settled for a sufficient “sincerely.” I can’t tell you exactly how long it was, but the time came when it seemed his time on earth was coming to a end. He had been a dear friend and colleague to many of our faculty, and an encouraging presence to many students. So, during that last week we gathered for a vigil in the chapel, and faculty, staff, and students offered prayers, hymns, and Scripture as they felt led. It was raw, honest, and vulnerable. As the hour came to a close, one faculty member got up and through tears said, simply: “This is what we do.” Somehow even in that sadness, there was peace. This is what we do. We are Easter people when we lean on each other and on God. When we lean toward joy and when we cling to the idea that there is more than fear and hatred and division. The joy of Easter isn’t always obvious — Jesus’ disciples didn’t even understand at first. But it’s there and it’s waiting for us.

Another surprising thing I find in this Easter story that this one, world-changing resurrection can be simultaneously so universal and so personal. It’s only after Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name that she recognizes him and that her sorrow evaporates into relief. I think we all want to feel known, and in this moment Mary is reminded that she is. If ever there was a time for Jesus to gather all of his followers and deliver an impassioned sermon to the masses, this would probably be the time. But instead Jesus speaks directly to the only follower who still waits by his tomb. Mary. And only in that moment does she finally recognize him. Even on such a momentous occasion as the morning Jesus is resurrected, God meets Mary right where she is. I’m reminded of a current website called PostSecret. For those of you unfamiliar with this community art project of sorts, any person can mail in a secret. The only rules are that it has to be on a 4 by 6 card, that it is true, that you haven’t told anyone else. I should probably mention that although the word “secret” often has a negative connotation, it’s not so, here. So these postcards are collected and stored, then some are shared anonymously online. Many of them are works of art, as much visual explorations as verbal ones. Contributions run the gambit of topics, from crumbling relationships to blossoming ones, from the self-doubting to the self-assured. One past secret simply read “I made it. So will you.” Each one is an intimate glimpse into to life of its sender, and yet its anonymous sharing makes it accessible to anyone on the internet. Some readers have written to PostSecret, describing profound impacts the others secrets had had in their own lives. These secrets feel simultaneously universal and personal. Jesus quietly meets Mary where she is, patiently leading her toward understanding. And through that small act he also begins to share his good news the world.

These surprises nudge us to a new question — what now? Having made it through uncertain grief-filled days and having finally recognized the resurrected Jesus, what now? Just moments after Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus she is told not to hang on to him. He can’t stay. But Mary has an important job to do, as Jesus charges her with announcing his resurrection, telling her “go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” I wonder if this was Jesus’ way of sharing that one secret: “I made it. So will you.” We are Easter people. Hope is who we are. In some ways this day the culmination of what we believe, but in other ways it’s only the beginning. The sacrificial love poured out by Jesus is an awe-inspiring gift that reminds us of the work we have left to do. God has shown us this unconditional grace, and I don’t think it’s the type of gift that’s meant to sit on a shelf collecting dust. About five years ago I was spending a year as a Presbyterian volunteer in Nashville,TN and found myself serving as a small group leader for a week-long high school youth conference. During my small group’s last meeting together, we ended our week by writing affirmations on a piece of paper for each member of the group. Not too long after that, our group disbanded and went our separate ways, and it wasn’t until later that I got around to reading my piece of paper. But when I did, I found four simple words from one of the youth. “God pours through you.” I also met a woman once who, as we poured water and tea, said “you know, this is what we can do for others. We’re pouring ourselves out, pouring God’s love out. We’re so full.” Having been filled with and strengthened by Christ’s love, we are sent, to pour out hope. Even when hope seems impossible, we’re sent to proclaim, just as Mary did, that we have seen the Lord. I have seen the Lord in tears shed for a broken world. I have seen the Lord in cups of coffee with friends and trays of food with strangers. I have seen the Lord in the quiet glow of an ember, waiting to be kindled into flames. We have seen the Lord, and he is risen indeed! Amen.

Not too shabby for a rain location, hm?