Easter Sermon 2017   Rev. June Fothergill

One Easter I had the great idea of having helium balloons that we would all release inside during the Easter service.  Then I had the additional “ great idea” of attaching paper butterflies to the bottom of each balloon’s string.  I could just picture all the butterflies soaring over our heads. So in the smallest of the two churches, Canyonville, I grabbed the strings of the balloons and proceeded to hand them out as we proclaimed over and over Christ is Risen.  Only trouble was, I couldn’t do it at all.  The butterflies and strings were all tangled up!  The congregation was patient as we finally untangled all the balloons.  What a mess.

Balloons, butterflies, brass, music, flowers- Easter invites us to celebrate.  My favorite is the sunrise service, I don’t think I have missed one in over 30 years.  If my church didn’t have one I either started one or found a local ecumenical one.  I figured if those women could get up early on Easter morning , so could I.  I especially love it when the service starts in the darkness and  we experience the light slowly dawning.  I admit it, I rarely see a sunrise, but on Easter I cherish them.  All these rituals and symbols have meaning for me=- perhaps for you too.  Good symbols and stories do not carry just one meaning- which is why they last. Yet, sometimes it is good to look more closely at that the stories tell us and what the symbols can mean.

For example, in more than 30 years of preaching Easter sermons, I have never really seriously considered the question of the cloths left in the tomb that John talks about in this passage in John 20.  This year those cloths have intrigued me, partly because of a prose poem written by Anne Copeland.   In it she tells the story of a lace collar given to her by her mother as they made the transition from a home to a smaller assisted living situation.   Anne reflects upon the importance of cloth and clothing to her mother and wonders about its importance as a symbol.  She wonders whether Peter took with him one of the Linen cloths from the tomb and who it was who won the gamble for Jesus seamless garment at the cross.  She asks “ to whom did those fibers speak? What , if anything did they say?”  ( p. 45  “ Lace Collar”  in Willow Springs January 1998)

John gives us much detail about these cloths:  they were linen, the ones for the head were rolled up in a place by themselves.  Both Peter and the other disciple saw them.  What is so important about these linen wrappings?    We know from  John 19 that that Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus took the body of Jesus and wrapped it in  these linen wrappings with lots of spices after the custom of the people.  So in John’s story these two men have already attended to the body.  When Mary comes first thing in the morning she did not have spices with her. Presumably she came as was the custom also, to grieve at the tomb. The others gospels tell of the women coming to prepare the body.  But in John’s, story Mary would have assumed the body to be wrapped up tight and safely in the tomb.

So it was a shock to find the body gone!  So much so that she ran to the disciples to give them the confusing news.  When Peter and the other disciple went there to check out her story they found the tomb didn’t have the body of Jesus but did have the linen wrappings.  What is the big deal about these cloths?  I wondered.

Then I remembered that when Jesus called Lazarus back to life, he came out of his tomb with the linen wrappings still on him.   The original body that had laid wrapped up in the tomb came back to life again. But for John, in the case of Jesus, the wrappings were still there but the body was gone.  Could it be that John wants us to note that something different is happening here than what happened to Lazarus?  That Jesus resurrection is not just a body being re animated, but something unique and more glorious.  Jesus didn’t come back to life only to die again- rather his resurrection over came death itself.

There is a mystery about all this for the first believers.  And of course there still is for us.  One of our earliest Christian writers, Paul used the analogy of the seed.

In 1 Corinthians 15. Vs.35f he writes  “ But someone will ask How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?  Fool! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And as for what we sow, you do not sow the body that is to be but a bare seed, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain.  But God gives it a body as he has chosen and to each kind of seed its own body… vs. 42  So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory.  It is sown in weakness it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body it is raised a spiritual body.”     .

I like the analogy of the butterfly even more. The caterpillar has no idea what it is like to be a butterfly, let after the process in the cocoon,  A caterpillar’s old existence is gone and a new reality emerges.   Paul affirms that our human bodies will die but we will be resurrected like Jesus into a new- heavenly body.  For Paul and John and all the first followers of Jesus, his death and resurrection not only transformed their lives but the world.  Death is done! It no longer had any claim on their lives.   As Paul exclaims in Romans 8  “  Nothing in all creation ( not even death) can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Whew- all this over some linen wrappings in an empty tomb!   Yet, it means that you and I have an assurance in  faith that as believers in Jesus we will live with God after we die.     When the seed and the caterpillar transform they don’t realize the potential they have inside of them.   The difference for us  is that because of Easter we  have an inkling.  Because of Christ’s death and resurrection, we  can trust that we too will have a resurrected, heavenly body.

Those linen cloths lying there in an empty tomb signal to us, that something special is happening.  But the characters in the story don’t yet know what.  In fact Peter and the other disciple simply go home.  They have verified Mary’s story and they go back to the other disciples in the fearful locked room.   But Mary decides to stay.   Full of grief, she  weeps, frantic to find Jesus body. Everything is all strange and confusing!

We understand Mary.  Any of us who has lost someone we loved, who has grieved a great lost know this mixture of deep sadness and confusion. We know nothing will ever be the same but have no idea what that will mean!  I remember when my father was dying I was confused and distressed and had no idea what to pray!  All I could do most of the time was feel wretched in my heart.  How could my Daddy leave me at only 67 years old?   Yes, most of us understand Mary’s tears and confusion.

So when she turns toward Jesus we are not terribly surprised that she doesn’t recognize him.  We know how tears can cloud our vision. We know that most of us see only what we expect to see.  Our brains interpret  the meaning of the data from our eyes.   Yet, Jesus is patient with Mary.  Like the angel  I imagine the tenderness in his voice asking her- Why do you weep, whom do you seek?   He lets her tell her same confused story once more, “Sir , if you have carried him away tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”  Maybe this gardener knows where he is!

Indeed he does.  When Jesus says her name- Mary- she discovers who he is.  Her name renews their relationship-  Rabboni, Teacher!   Everything has changed!  Where she was focused on grief and dead bodies, now she  reaches to embrace her beloved teacher!  Alive!   Into her grief and confusion has come a new reality- The Risen Christ.

And what happens?   This Risen One doesn’t let Mary cling to him.  He lets her know that everything has changed.   Not only does he have a new life, but so does she.   Now she is to be a messenger. She may have been behind the scenes for most of this story of Jesus.  Yet, now, everything has changed.  She who was last, behind the scenes is first!   Her weeping has transformed to joyous assertion- I have seen the Lord!

Mary’s story reminds us that the reality of Jesus resurrection is not just about our heavenly bodies.   Not only death has been conquered but also sin!  The sin that keeps women only behind the scenes. The sin that keeps the community from accepting and loving one another. The sin that alienates us from God and one another.  In Jesus death and resurrection sin is done too!   In the stories of Jesus resurrection appearances in John,  Jesus meets his disciples in all their emotional states: grief, fear, doubt and brings them what they need. They are transformed by the experience.  The best evidence of the Resurrection of Jesus is  the effect it has on these folks. People who had been full of fear, doubt, grief become leaders and teachers and apostles to the world. They are inspired to continue the work of Jesus to bring God’s kingdom. They are able to witness to him even in the face of death.  They carry this word of life and hope to another generation.  They live and tell the stories so that we too can know Jesus our Risen Christ!  We too have been freed from  sin and death.  We too can know salvation.  And we too can join  Christ in the transformation of the world.

What does this look like for you?   Have you sensed the butterfly inside? Have you seen the potential in someone else? Have you heard the call of Christ to use your gifts for the sake of the world?  Have you discovered new possibilities for life even in the midst of loss?

What does it mean for us? We have seen that Christ makes our loaves and fishes be enough week after week.  We have seen that Christ keeps nudging us as a congregation to embrace new life and new people?  We have seen that no matter what our age or station Christ loves each one of us.   You see, like Mary, I can say with confidence- I have seen the Lord.   Because Christ is Risen- I can see Him in the lives of each one of you here today!

You see, it matters that we are here today.  We are the witness that Christ is Risen!  I close with a story  about the importance of this witness to a Risen Lord!   Christ is alive- alive in us!

In Latvia there was a Methodist church building that was shut down when the soviet troops took over the town. They deliberately engaged the youth of the community, some who had attended the church and forced them to destroy the sanctuary. The education building was left and was used in various ways over the years and finally left to rot.  After the collapse of Soviet rule, the Board of Global Ministries started to research and find where the Methodist churches had been. They discovered this site and found that the neighbors across the street knew the story. The mother of the family brought out a piece of rock. She said that this had been her mother’s . She had taken it away as a keepsake when they had been forced  to tear down the sanctuary. She said that her mother had prayed everyday for the church to return. And had asked her daughter to do the same., The woman gave the rock to the mission representatives with a smile, Now you are back.

Natalie Sleethe said it well,  “ In the bulb there is a flower, in the seed an apple tree ,in cocoons a hidden promise, butterflies will soon be free. In the cold and snow of winter, there’s as spring that waits to be. Unrevealed until its season something God alone can see.  “

 

Christ is Risen. Christ is risen indeed.

 

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