1 April 2018
Warwick United Church of Christ
Newport News, Virginia
Based on St. John 20: 1 – 18
By the Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
And thus we rust Life’s iron chain
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But God’s eternal Laws are kind
And break the heart of stone.
And every human heart that breaks,
In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
Its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper’s house
With the scent of costliest nard.
Ah! happy day they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?
This excerpt from Oscar Wilde’s poem, the Ballad of Reading Gaol has touched me for many years. He wrote it in 1897, after being imprisoned, for of all things, loving another man. It is surprising to many that this writer of frothy parlor comedies, would write in such a raw and tender way, with such profound allusions to faith and scripture. Those words “How else but through a broken heart, May Lord Christ enter in?” have stayed with me ever since I first heard them.
Easter is a time of joy, of new life, and new hope. I love proclaiming “Christ is risen!” after a long Lent. I look forward to this day with great anticipation every year, and maybe some of you do as well – because it is such a day of joy and hope and gladness, it is a day that encapsulates why I am a Christian. For me, if there were no Resurrection, I doubt that I would give myself to God. But there is, and I try to. But what gets lost behind the eggs, bunnies, and flower crosses is that early on Easter morning the disciples were paralyzed by fear. Their rabbi, the one they believed to be the Messiah, was murdered, crucified. Jesus’ mother Mary, her sister, Mary Magdalene, and John all witnessed the crucifixion – as they saw their son, their brother, their friend, their savior die upon the cross. Now I don’t want to imply that we should be stuck in Good Friday thinking on Easter – but they were still mourning, still afraid what might happen next. Twice after Jesus is resurrected, he finds his disciples locked away out of fear. One commentator describes the Easter morning passage as being “awash in tears.” Here we find that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. She runs to Peter and John to tell them, and they in turn run to the tomb and see the linen cloths that Jesus’ dead body had been wrapped in, but no body. But they go back to their homes. Do they not understand what has happened? Mary stays at the tomb, and weeps. We’re told three times that she wept. Clearly she loved Jesus very much.
Perhaps this Easter, like the disciples you’re not ready. Maybe like Mary, the tears flow before the alleluias. The Easter of my last year of seminary I felt like this. And let me say, I would not entrust this story to every congregation – but I feel Warwick is a place safe to share some of life’s rawer moments. A few weeks before Easter, my then fiance, a wonderful woman who had come to find a spiritual home in the UCC, was undergoing a serious crisis of faith – questioning everything she believed, about God, Jesus, and the church. She, probably wisely, decided that could not be a pastor’s wife. I was absolutely, totally heartbroken. I had never felt such searing pain. I wept everyday for months, sometimes just soul piercing wailing. It was like a death. And for me it was, the death of all my hopes and dreams for us, for the marriage that wasn’t to be. The plans, the ideas of what our future would look like all came crashing down in an instant. I did not know – and this is not hyperbole – if I would live through it. When Easter came, I sat in an empty pew off to the left side of the sanctuary, and cried through the hymns. I love Easter, but I felt like I was in the tomb all alone. A few weeks later, still during Eastertide, I graduated from seminary. What should have been a joyous moment, the culmination of years of hard work, late nights and term papers, was bittersweet. I was done, but the woman who helped me through it was not there. We sang the hymn “O God Our Help in Ages Past” for the commencement at the National Cathedral. For some reason we ended the hymn on the fourth verse:
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
bears all its sons away;
they fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the op’ning day.
That was not what I needed to hear as I stepped out into the world a new, but lost seminary graduate – of dreams dying at opening day. I still don’t know why the planners chose to end on that verse, because when you end there it seems rather hopeless doesn’t it? What I needed to hear, and what so many hurting people need to hear is the last verse:
Our God, our Help in ages past,
our Hope for years to come,
be Thou our Guide while life shall last,
and our eternal Home!
The hope that God will be our guide however long we run this earthly race and will welcome us home someday – I needed that, and I bet a lot of you do too. I clung hard to that hope and ultimately it is what got me through the most difficult year of my life, and it has gotten me through other times when I felt like I was in that tomb. When I was going through that time, I began telling myself “Every day another empty tomb, every day a little resurrection.” Meaning, if I could show a little hope, if I could take a little step toward my healing, someday it would be alright. It took a long time, but eventually it was. Without belief in God’s purposes, that in the words of Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well,” I do not believe I would have gotten through it. But here I am, several years later – and it was the most formative experience of my life and ministry. I learned so much from it, though I would have rather learned it just about any other way. Now, I share this not to solicit sympathy, or to draw attention to my own life’s troubles, or God forbid to distract from the gospel – but rather I share this with you, to say that for those of you who are hurting this Easter and maybe don’t feel ready for resurrection, that I as your co-pastor have been there, where you are in some way. I know what it’s like to say I love God and Jesus and the Easter message, but I just can’t grasp it right now. Hear this – Jesus took on human flesh for you. Jesus was born in Bethlehem for you. Jesus stunned the teachers in the temple for you. Jesus gathered disciples and taught us how to love, for you. Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is at hand for you. Jesus suffered and died on the cross for you. Jesus rose again on the third day for you. And Jesus ascended to heaven for you. So, ask Jesus to roll away the stone for you, to open that tomb so that you can take hold of that new life he has obtained for you.
God took the violence of the cross, a form of state-sponsored torture and murder, transformed it, and transformed the world. I believe that whatever pain and hurt exists in your life, God will transform it if you let God. Maybe not on our time or in the ways we expect – remember the disciples thought Jesus was going to show that he was the messiah in power and political upheaval. But Jesus shows himself through vulnerability and grace. And in God’s time, God will transform our hurts and pains. In God’s time, our scabs scar over, and from those bruises we can share God’s healing.
In the United Church of Christ, we often say “Never place a period where God places a comma, God is still speaking,” Resurrection is the ultimate comma. It is not darkness of cold earth that we face. We do face mortality in this frame, in this sphere – but if we have faith in the God of new life, of redemption and grace, we face a glorious Heaven with all the saints in light. The Good News is this: that God has sent Jesus Christ to us, first in the form of a humble, poor baby, then as a wandering teacher, who has taught to love ourselves, each other, and God. By Christ’s nativity, life, teaching, healing, suffering, crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension we are redeemed. He breaks the bonds of sin and death. Though the powers of the world tried to end his ministry that upended their world, those powers are gone and Christ still reigns. Herod is dead. Caiaphas is dead. Pilate is dead. But Jesus Christ is alive. Despite the worst of the cruel cross of Calvary, death could not destroy Christ. As God made flesh, Christ stormed the doors of evil and has conquered them. Violence could not kill him, and he was raised in three days. This is our inheritance as children of God. As the heirs of Christ, as members of Christ’s Body, so too will we be raised with Christ. In baptism, we are forever knit into the Body of Christ. When we die, we join all the witnesses of faith who have gone before us.
Mary weeps at the tomb fearing what has become of her Lord’s body. First two angels ask her why she weeps and she says, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Then she turns around to a man thinking he is the gardener, saying, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” But it is Jesus the Christ. Jesus says, “Mary!” And Jesus says “Sallye!” “Rudy!” “Shirley H/V/F!” He calls your name. The Risen One comes to you in your joy and struggle, in pain and loss, and happiness and gratitude. Jesus tells Mary, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” To my God and your God. Indeed Mary Magdalene, the only one who stayed at the tomb, the one who was faithful in the midst of her grief, found joy and told the other disciples “I have seen the Lord!” Mary has been known as the Apostle to the Apostles, because she was the first witness to the resurrection, the first to tell the disciples, and the first woman to preach of the Risen Christ. It has been said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church – but I would say that the tears of Mary have watered the life of the Church. Truly like Mary, may we be able to see Christ risen before our tear-filled eyes, to be able with God’s help to move from fear and sadness, to joy and exultation that Jesus is not dead, he is risen. He has broken the bonds of sin and death, and tramples them beneath his feet. He is alive, and he reigns in love and mercy, and his kingdom will have no end. He will turn our mourning into dancing, our tears into laughter.
Even if it is through tears this Easter, and perhaps especially if it is through tears, like Mary may we be able to proclaim “I have seen the Lord!” May that Lord, our Lord, our God and Savior, brother and friend transform tears of sadness and pain into ones of great joy, just as he has transformed death to life. With the hymn may we truly be able to sing
God sent his Son, they called him Jesus
He came to love, heal, and forgive
He lived and died to buy my pardon
An empty grave is there to prove my Savior lives.
Because he lives I can face tomorrow
Because he lives all fear is gone
Because I know he he holds the future
And life is worth the living
Just because he lives.
CHRIST IS RISEN! HE IS RISEN INDEED!