The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of Easter Sunday
16 April 2017
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
Alleluia Christ is Risen! (The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!) Please be seated.
There is something particularly powerful about John’s telling of this morning’s earth-shatteringly good news. Each of our other gospel writers recounts to us a similar telling of the women coming to the tomb at dawn, but John has a slightly different account. In this morning’s account, John stands alone in telling us of a more primal reality. “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark,” John tells us, “Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” Echoing back through the ages, John reminds us of the first primordial darkness of chaos, before the self-same word of God who just three days ago was stricken dead and sealed in the tomb, spoke creation into being with the command “Let there be light.” Echoed now in a second darkness of chaos, we join Mary in what John recalls to us as a cosmic journey toward the 2nd dawn of creation.
It began at the third hour of Friday, as Matthew told us last Sunday, when, plunged into darkness, the earth shook violently with all the cosmic power of God’s fathomless and savage grief over Christ’s death, and it is mirrored again this morning as Mary, struggling to master her own chaos in the wake of losing the One for whom her people had been waiting for countless generations, the author of life, her personal savior, friend, and messiah, who had been massacred before her very eyes. There is no hope left for her as she risks traveling the barren road in the dark earliest hours of the new day to mourn at the tomb of Christ.
Mary’s darkness is echoed also in the words of last night’s Easter Vigil “This is the night!” This is the night of darkest chaos, this is the night of her soul’s despair.
All the magnificence of primordial chaos accompany Mary in each painful step – magnificent because of the imminent Word that will ignite the universe, bathing the darkness in the brilliance of light, and ordering all things to God’s will.
What Mary cannot yet know is that this is the night when darkness becomes light, when death becomes life, and everything changes. This is the night when the shackles of death are broken and the boundary between the physical and the spiritual world is Shattered for all time. This is the night when death, having accepted into itself the very author of life, finds itself impotent to hold him. This is the night when emptiness becomes the greatest gift that has ever been given, when our salvation is made complete and we are reconciled to God forever. This is the night when we finally learn the true nature of our inheritance, through Christ, and discover ourselves as children of God.
In this most pregnant and holy Chaos of darkness, the Light of the World, our Christ has passed over from death into life, this is the looming twilight of the ultimate thin place.
Celtic tradition talks about the thin places, where the boundary between the spirit world and the physical world are at their thinnest. These are the times each day at dawn and dusk when colors seem more vibrant and the air itself feels almost electric—vibrating with the energy of life. Celtic legend warns of these liminal spaces, where if one is in just the wrong place at just the wrong time, they might hear the ethereal music of the fairy folk breaking through that boundary. At such times, one can be assured that much mischief is about to ensue.
This morning, in our own tradition, we find that we are at just the right place at just the right time to find that not only is that boundary thin, but as Mary discovers, it has been shattered. For a moment in time, the spirit world has become the physical world, and our own triumphant savior has redrawn the breath of life, has stood up, and has walked out of the tomb that cradled his lifeless body since Good Friday afternoon.
John’s darkness, preceding the twilight of the 2nd dawn of creation, is the end of the night of nights—the night when Christ passes over from death to life, and, with him, hope, light, life, and love are resurrected, triumphant, and given for us, reconciled, and restored to God’s own heart as a shout of Alleluia ringing through the cosmos.
The readings from last night’s vigil tell us the story of salvation history as throughout time, God has reached out to us—walking with us in the Garden, speaking to us by name until we simply stopped hearing God’s voice. Changing God’s own self to meet our needs, God spoke to us through the prophets, drawing us up out of slavery and delivering us into a land of promise and hope where again God could be in direct relationship with us. Changing God’s own self to meet our needs again, God anointed kings to lead us in God’s stead, guiding them through the prophets and still offering us promises of love, forgiveness, and salvation—simply waiting for us to turn around and reopen our hearts. In our misdirection and failures, seeking our own way without God and finding ourselves filling a valley with the dry bones of our lost selves, God lifts us up again, clothing us with the flesh of God’s love and forgiveness and promising again to set us back on the path that leads us toward all that God has hoped for us.
And when we simply couldn’t find our way, regardless of God’s prophets, regardless of God’s teachings of laws that would help us on our journey to find that relationship that God has desired with us from the moment of our creation, it was finally time for God to stand amongst us as one of us. Even knowing full well what we would ultimately do to God’s truth and love sent to be with us, God so wanted to be in relationship with us, that the ultimate suffering in human form was nothing in comparison to suffering an eternity without us. So all of it—his birth into the world, his life, his teachings, his love, his miracles, his willingness to face death in order to love us unconditionally and completely—All of it has been for us. And what was started with the promise of Christ’s birth is finally fulfilled in the empty tomb toward which Mary walks in the darkness of this morning, in the darkness of her despair, in the darkness of the chaos that has sent her reeling.
And so on this most holy of mornings, we journey with Mary, who loved Jesus to the very end, drawing near to the tomb as the first hints of dawn foreshadow the earth-shattering reality she is about to encounter—colors vivifying, air electric with the promise of life even as she came expecting to find nothing more than the death she had left behind just before the start of the Sabbath day.
Thursday’s Sunset had started the first day, the day on which Jesus ate with his friends, was handed over to the authorities, was crucified, died, and was laid in the tomb. Friday’s Sunset had started the Sabbath day, when Mary and all of Christ’s closest friends pined for their fallen Lord, and disbanded in despair and utter chaos—their lives and their hopes shattered and crucified along with their dearest and beloved messiah. And Sunset last night, marking the end of Sabbath day, started Christ’s third day in the tomb, where in the fullest and most pregnant darkness Mary crept silently with nothing but the shattered remains of her hollow heart to weep in honor of her fallen Lord. One might have heard the ethereal music of the Angles singing out in triumph—if the grief of the occasion hadn’t stopped up her ears. Finding the stone rolled away, she quite simply fled—still blinded by her own darkness, Mary Magdalene runs in abject horror to tell the only people she can tell that even the body of their Christ has been taken from them.
As Peter and beloved disciple sprint through the new dawn of the second First day, to the tomb, the latter is stopped at the sight of the linen wrappings in which Christ’s carefully prepared body had been laid in the tomb, and Peter, second in the race, is first to enter the barren tomb from which death itself had been banished for all time, stepping through that shattered boundary that once separated the living from the dead. The beloved disciple is first to allow hope to be kindled – John’s gospel tells us, he saw and believed.
But it is again Mary, the one who has known once already the dark chaos of living death from which Christ released her when he banished her demons, that remains at the tomb alone, unaware of the light that is already surrounding her as she struggles against the darkness of chaos pressing in on her. Perplexed and terrified, she pleads with the One, veiled from her perception by the darkness that has once again overtaken her, “please tell me where you have taken him.”
And then, the unthinkable happens as God’s own self calls her by name, “Mary!”
In a word, the universe explodes, darkness becomes light, and the impossible becomes perplexingly, terrifyingly, and amazingly real.
This is the moment. Each of us is called with Mary by name. With Mary we have journeyed in darkness beyond hope only to find that God hasn’t just changed God’s self to reach out to us this time, but has changed all of the rules of life, death, and the whole cosmic order in order to finally and ultimately find a way back into our hearts.
The boundary is shattered. This is the moment when we stand astride heaven and earth. Will we ultimately flee back into the darkness, terrified to discover that there is no boundary separating us from God; that the divine is so startlingly close that if we but dared we could feel God’s very breath on our own necks? Or will we run with Mary in amazement, elation, and terrifying joy in the dawn of this new day to shout the Good News to everyone we know?
Here… today… This is our moment. The decision is now ours to make.
And so this Easter Morning, let us be reminded anew that God doesn’t look at our lives in judgment of our perceived inadequacies. All God sees in each and every one of us is the perfect creation that God made us to be. God longs for our healing, and for us to simply accept the forgiveness and love that will allow us to raise up with Christ and pass through the boundary we have set up between ourselves and God, and which Christ, this day, has shattered for all time.
This morning, may we finally discover what God has been waiting for us to realize since the day we stopped listening to God’s voice speaking to us by name—that God has never left us, that God loves us, and that even if it takes changing all the rules of heaven and earth, God will stop at nothing to get to know us.
Alleluia, Christ is Risen! (…)