The New Day

Passage: John 20:1-18
Date: April 16, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

We’re so glad you’re worshipping with us today on Easter, the brightest day of the Christian year. It’s a good Sunday to be here, what with flowers galore and the smell of hardboiled eggs and the choir all spruced up and ready to pass out copies of the Hallelujah Chorus. We do apologize if you had trouble finding a parking place, but that’s Portland for you. If we were serving brunch, it would have been worse! We are glad you’re here.

I must confess that on Easter I’m always conflicted about whether to lean toward solemnity or hilarity in the sermon. The Easter occasion brings out both, as does this telling of the story from the point of view of the gospel writer John.

Perhaps we should lean toward solemnity. It is not our custom to be frivolous at a tomb, especially when someone beloved to us has recently died. We take flowers to the cemetery; we weep at the mausoleum; we stare blankly at the sea or the mountain meadow where the ashes we scattered. Death calls for us to be serious; we cannot help but be sad.

But one could say that resurrection also calls for us to be serious in the face of such mystery. Resurrection is the culmination of God’s power and love – conquering the ultimatum of death by creating life after the heart had stopped beating and the lungs had stopped expanding and the soul had left the body. In the face of such power – the power to create life – and in the face of such love – to give us back this Jesus – how can we not be solemn, awed, respectful, grateful?

We can read this story in all seriousness, paint it in tones of ochre and gold, in the warm browns of Rembrandt, and the chiaroscuro of Caravaggio. The linen clothes were so neatly folded as if the rising Jesus wanted to leave no mess; the angels are imposing and otherworldly; Mary is so earnest in her grief and her bewilderment that Jesus’ body has disappeared; and Jesus, with his “do not hold on to me” – he is too holy for anything but our solemnity.

Then again, it’s been said that Easter is God’s joke on the devil, so the whole thing could be viewed through Groucho Marx glasses.

Just when the devil thought he had won, just when the devil thought the powers of hell had really truly destroyed Jesus once and for all, God pulls a fast one, and the lilies squirt old Satan in the face.

One could say that resurrection calls for the deepest kind of hilarity from us. If the powers of hell turn out to be nothing more than rubber swords and Roadrunner cartoons, how can we stay serious? We are children of God bathed in love and light.

We can read this Easter story in all hilarity, paint it in primary colors, have Dr. Seuss set it to rhyme and have Maurice Sendak illustrate it. The footrace between Peter and the other guy could be set to theme of “Chariots of Fire.” The angels could perch impertinently on the edge of the tomb. The biggest gag is Mary thinking Jesus was the gardener – the gardener as opposed to the savior of the world.

I suspect that depending on what’s going on in our lives or the world, we might tend to read the story one way or the other. There are occasions that call for utter seriousness. The world has known many of them lately. The deaths of innocents in Syria, the arrest of gay men in Chechnya, dropping the Mother of All Bombs – these things call for solemnity and seriousness and a hard look at ourselves.

But the world occasionally throws a pie in our face too, or we slip on the cosmic banana peel. I don’t know about you but there’s a blooper reel of my life out there which usually involves episodes of my utter earnestness turning into literal and figurative pratfalls. Hilarity relies on the absurd and we needn’t look far for that these days.

Still – this Easter story calls for something more than just seriousness or play, so let me propose something. I’m still working this out, but I think that maybe what we get in this Easter story, what we get when solemnity meets hilarity, is joy. Because that’s what I really think this story is about: joy.

Joy is neither solemn nor hilarious, and at the same time, it is both those things, or maybe it’s that the sum of joy is greater than its two parts of solemnity and hilarity. Joy is hard to pin down; I know it when I see it, and maybe you do too. We cannot live without joy. And as one of the great mystics once said, joy is the surest sign of the presence of God. (Teilhard de Chardin)

I think in this particular telling of the Easter story, John gives us the simplest and most intimate moment of joy when Jesus says to the weeping woman, “Mary.”

This is a story about the joy of reunion after the separation not by years but by death. Mary had thought, when she came to the tomb that morning, that she would see Jesus’ lifeless body, not the living Jesus. But she does see him, and he calls her by name in a way that still gives me the chills a little. Can you even imagine all the things that went through her head and heart when she heard her name as morning was breaking?

This is a story about the joy of loving and being loved in return. Think about whom you love most in the world, and who loves you the most. That may be the same person; it may not. But think about what the person means to you, how you rely on them, how they nestle into your heart. You may see them every day; you may see them once a decade. But their love for you, and yours for them, carries you. It gets you over the bumps and through the valleys. That love causes bumps and valleys, too, and calls on you to be better than you think you can be. There is a joy in that kind of love. I believe that is the way Jesus loves us – he loves us in joy, and calls us out of all the little deaths that stop us, and calls us into a life of generosity.

But ultimately speaking, this a story about the joy of hope. For Mary, the hope was fulfilled; Jesus really did rise. She saw him. She spoke to him. God did what Jesus said God would do: God overcame death. For us, the hope that God will do the same for us remains yet unfulfilled. That doesn’t lessen the hope. The hope we might have that all of this is real and true, that life awaits us after death – well, it’s like a young wine. The grapes have fermented, and you can drink it, but it’s not ready yet. It needs to age. We need to die in order to live.

Still, we carry that hope so that when one of our beloveds dies, however peacefully or horribly, however expected or not, we hope that we will see them again, somehow, because of God’s love and power. We hope for a reunion after death, and there is joy in that. We will call each other by name, in the presence of God. It will be solemn. And it will be hilarious. The wild rumpus of life after death will begin.

“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning” said the psalmist, not knowing what would unfold centuries later.

On a morning
In a garden
Without warning
Like a pardon

As the morning broke
As the world awoke
Amid the olive trees
On the whisper of a breeze

One name said
Dispelling all dread
He said her name
And nothing was the same:

Mary.
Joy.

Joy is the jitterbug meeting the waltz, and Rembrandt and Dr. Seuss comparing notes, and hope disguised as a gardener. And you? And I? What is our joy?

Joy is when the rains cease
Joy is when the baby squeals
Joy is the angels
Joy is the old friend who shows up
Joy is the peace accord
Joy is the casserole
Joy is the grave cloths neatly folded away
Joy is the mountain decked in so much snow
Joy is the full table with everyone there
Joy is the story told again and again
Joy is the joke with life as the punchline
Joy is the fern unfurling
Joy is the empty tomb
Joy is the daphne and lilac and lavender
Joy is the gift that will not be taken back
Joy is life, and more life, and life after that.