That Glorious Overcoming


A sermon delivered by Keith D. Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on April 8, 2012.

Easter Sunday

John 20:1-18

It is a day, golden with promise for all people of faith. It’s a day we can only blink our eyes at the beauty and the majesty of it and lift our gratitude heavenly to God for making such a remarkable day. In the past weeks, while we’re ahead of schedule for warm weather and buds and blooms, we’ve seen an explosion of color and we hear the splendor of birds singing the new day. Spring is the season when God and nature conspire to help us believe!

Easter is God’s yes. Not yes & no. Not Yes, if.  Not yes, but. Not yes, maybe. Yes! In the season of spring, the whole creation shouts “Yes!”  The poet e.e. cummings penned an Easter song about all this affirmation from creation:

i thank You God for most this amazing

day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything

which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(now the ears of my ears awake and

now the eyes of my eyes are opened)[1]

Easter, God’s divine Yes! begins in all four gospels with an empty tomb. The Easter message of the Bible is told in subtle and quiet terms before it is shouted from the rooftops. In all the gospels, it’s Mary Magdalene who finds the disciples and stirs them awake asking them to help her solve the mystery of the missing body of Jesus. She finds the empty tomb and jumps to the only logical assumption that any of us in the same circumstances would think of:  Someone has stolen His body!

In truth, it’s Mary’s story before it’s the story of the disciples. But for just a moment, when Peter and John arrive they steal the spotlight from Mary. They rush into the tomb and discover the burial clothes neatly folded and lying where Jesus’ body had lain. But they blow out of there just as quickly they arrived, returning to their homes, and it becomes Mary’s story once again.

I

It’s hard to remember that in the first few hours, even the first few days the disciples told the story in understated terms. They are honest about their confusion over the missing body. They are unusually honest about their doubts over the news that Jesus has risen from the dead.

But in John’s gospel, Mary was alone when she went to the garden before dawn.  John says it began early, in the half-light of dawn with Mary Magdalene going to the tomb. We can only speculate about why she rose early that morning. I think we can safely assume that she was there carrying with her an overwhelming load of grief. She was there because the awful truth of Jesus’ death was more than she could handle and she was there because it was the only thing that made any sense to her. She was there because she needed to be there. Perhaps she had a plan for why she was there. More than likely, she was simply there to express what she was feeling in every pore of her body.

Edgar Jackson, who has studied grief and bereavement, says that one of the most important moments in the grief process is viewing the body. It’s a moment of uncertain truth when the bereaved look into the coffin and see for sure that their loved one is no longer alive. It’s not hard to imagine that Mary had come to sit with the body of Jesus so she could express her deep grief over his death. Mary stood outside the tomb weeping. Standing before the grave of Jesus, there was nothing but the silence of a garden dedicated to death.

II

What happened on Easter morning? Paul Tillich suggests it was the slow and growing courage of the followers that we see. He called it the most essential form of courage:  The Courage to Be. It was the courage to accept the gift of existence and the courage to live fully in one’s gift of being. There are three great threats, he described, to our being, to our personhood. They are inside our heads and inside our hearts but they are as real and lethal as bullets or bombs or disease. They are the anxiety of guilt, the anxiety of meaninglessness, and the anxiety of death. The Risen Christ came to his disciples on Easter day and the days that followed to set them free to be by releasing them from these three anxieties. Christ came forth from the empty tomb to set us free from these disabling killers.

Take the anxiety of guilt, for example. You’ve done something wrong; perhaps you’ve harmed another. You’ve betrayed someone close; you’ve betrayed your own best, truest self. And guilt clings like clothing on fire. You’ve heard of God’s forgiveness, but it has not made its way from your head to your heart.  Molly Peacock wrote in a poem about forgiveness these thoughts:

Forgiveness is not an abstraction

for it needs a body to feel its relief.

Knees, shoulders, spine are required

to adore the lightness of a burden removed …

Forgiveness is contact with the belief

that your only life must now be lived …

Now the shortfall that crippled your posture

finds sudden peace

in the muscular, physical brightness of a day alive[2]

Stephen Shoemaker says he believes in bodily resurrection because he believes we need bodily forgiveness. Sometimes guilt is the false Self condemning you as you believe something others have told you is wrong with you … something wrong in you, some defect in your essential being. If that’s so, here’s the word from God for you:  God loves you exactly as God made you. Nothing will ever change that.

Tillich went on to suggest that many suffer from the anxiety of meaninglessness. In that state, one might give up on notions of truth or beauty, justice, love or peace. Life can rip your heart out through the death of a spouse or a child, through the death of a relationship or a dream. Jesus said in essence, “What we’ve begun is not over. It’s only begun.” God’s dream of a just society, of a reconciled humanity, of a whole person, of a beloved community:  It’s only begun and God is still at work to nurture them until they bloom like flowers in the desert.

Finally, there is the anxiety we feel death itself. We ask, “What happens when I die? Where will I be? Will there be any me to be anywhere?” We worry we’ll be a burden in our dying. We worry whether we’ll be alone or whether we’ll be surrounded by those waiting for us to die. The fear we feel may be tied up in all those things left undone or unsaid. Jesus came back to tell us that death is a door, the door to the final healing and to the final mercy. To this, the Bible reaches for words and poetry to say, “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor has entered into our human imaginations what God has prepared for those who love him.”

III

Easter is more than our fears, more than our deaths. It’s about life and about living. In Anne Lamott’s novel, Crooked Little Heart, Elizabeth is trying to rebuild her life after the tragic accidental death of her first husband Andrew. She’s now remarried and raising her teen-aged daughter Rosie, but she didn’t finish dealing with her grief and hasn’t been able to invest herself in her new marriage or to reinvest in life itself. Instead depression and alcohol have been her daily obsessions.

Near the end of the book, she shows signs of coming back to life, able to say good-byes to the past so she can live in the present. Her best friend is a woman named Rae who has recently become a believer. Rae gives Elizabeth some advice:

“I keep trying to do what Wendell Berry said,” she tells her.

“What did Wendell Berry say, Rae?”

“Practice resurrection.”

Wendell Berry is a farmer with prolific tendencies toward the written word. He writes about farming, and about small town life, and about faith. But in his “mad farmer” poems, he takes on the persona of another famous farmer, Amos, prophet of the 8th century. Berry’s words are our benediction for they give us a way to live beyond our fears, beyond our anxieties.

So, friends, every day do something

that won’t compute. Love the Lord.

Love the world. Work for nothing.

Take all that you have and be poor.

Love someone who does not deserve it …

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias …

Expect the end of the world. Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts.

Go with your love to the fields …

As soon as the generals and the politicos

Can predict the motions of your mind, lose it …

Practice resurrection.

Amen.

[1] e.e. cummings, “i thank you God for most this amazing,” E.E. Cummings: Complete Poems 1904-1962, by e. e. cummings, George James Firmage, editor, New York:  W.W Norton and Company, 1994; this introduction is adapted from Stephen Shoemaker, “God Promises; We Sing”

[2] Molly Peacock, “Forgiveness,” Cornucopia, New York: W.W. Norton, 2002, 227

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Tags: Ann Lamott, e.e. cummings, Easter, Edgar Jackson, Keith Herron, Paul Tillich, Resurrection, Sermons, Wendell Berry