April 20, 2014 —Easter Sunday
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
John 20: 1-18
Unbound and Let Go
We know how it is. Friends, this is the day of loud and soaring expectation. See, one of the reasons we love Easter is that we know what happens. There is not a surprise twist in the scripture this year. It’s not like Mary arrives at the tomb. She figures out how to move the stone, she finds Jesus’ body dead and anointed, then she weeps and goes home. That would certainly confound our expectations, but that is not our story today.
This is the day we come to church expecting to hear glorious brass, to take in the beauty of the lilies, to sing Christ the Lord is Risen Today. We might also expect marshmallow peeps, and Easter Egg hunts, and dinner with the people we love.
In all of this, we rehearse the truth we have somehow always known. Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed. You’ll hear your own voice proclaiming Hallelujah! You might even find that you believe it. Death is conquered, not by more killing, but by Jesus getting up from the grave. Victory is won, not by the emperor or the general, but by the Messiah —who’s great with kids and who befriends the people who get left out. Today we rejoice! It is Easter, we have come to expect this and nothing less… But it is possible, there could be something more.
It is not bad to lift up our expectations, to hold onto traditions we have practiced for centuries in our faith and for generations in our families. It is not bad, and it is not all. And it could be that on this day of loud and soaring expectation, you find yourself getting interrupted by somebody asking you for help. You might find yourself summoned back from the dead and called to live. We don’t even realize how dead we’ve become until we come back to life. This might happen to you today; this might be worth expecting.
Now our story comes to us from the Gospel of John, and it begins in the dark. We remember that Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb expecting to find Jesus’ body, but what she finds there is so much worse. Not only has Jesus been tortured, and shamed, and killed on a cross. Now thieves have stolen his body… so it seems to her. Here she comes in grief that wraps around her like a cloak, now even that has been taken from her. She’s feeling not only loss but violation. And in this place where things couldn’t get any worse, our Lord is missing.
Mary goes and gets Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple. “Look, they have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have laid him.” Without saying a single word to Mary, both men start running to the tomb. But why run when you can race? Now the Beloved Disciple beats Simon Peter to the tomb, but Peter goes in first. They see the linen grave clothes, and the disciple believes, then they both go home.
They go right past Mary who is standing outside the tomb, weeping. They don’t say a single word to her or to each other. There is no comforting touch, no consoling eye contact, just a chill in the air, and everybody is all alone.
This seems like the end, and this is not the end.
What happens is that Mary moves, even while she’s crying. She goes and looks into the tomb and through her tears, she sees the angels. They ask her why she’s weeping, and she tells them, then she turns around and another man asks her the same question. This time she tells him, “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” She is ready to carry his body by herself!
If you ask me, the very next thing that happens is a moment as miraculous as a man rising from the dead. Jesus calls her by name. He says “Mary” and she turns around again and says “Rabbouni.” And I’m pretty sure she looks him in the eye. She reaches out to him, her hands wet with tears. He tells her, “Do not hold onto me…” And you have to wonder if her heart gets broken again.
It makes me wonder if this is why we love the song In the Garden. What happened to “He walks with me and he talks with me and he tells me I am his own. The joy we share as we tarry there none other has ever known.” Oh I sure wish this is how it happened, right? I wish we could make this better for her! It almost seems cruel. Here she is weeping and seeing Jesus through her tears, and he tells her, “Do not hold onto me.” The problem is he tells her the truth.
If you have ever had to let go of someone you love, then you understand this truth. It isn’t fair. And if you think about it for more than a minute, it doesn’t seem possible. The truth is, letting go might be the most courageous act of love a person can offer. It might be how we come back to life. Jesus’ instruction to Mary reminds me of a poem by American poet Merrit Malloy.
When I die
give what’s left of me away
and old men that wait to die.
And if you need to cry,
cry for your brother
walking the street beside you.
And when you need me,
put your arms
and give them
what you need to give to me….
Look for me
In the people I’ve known
And if you cannot give me away,
At least let me live on your eyes
And not on your mind.
You can love me most
Hands touch hands,
Bodies touch bodies,
And by letting go
That need to be free.
Love doesn’t die,
So, when all that’s left of me is love,
give me away.
Jesus tells Mary the truth. He is not hers nor ours to keep or cling to. Our Lord says, “Do not hold onto me…”
This might seem like the end, and this is not the end.
Christ is still speaking: “…I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go to my brothers, tell them I am ascending to my Father and to your Father to my God and your God.’” Jesus calls Mary by name, and she recognizes him. He looks her in the eye and says, “Don’t hold onto me. You’ll need your hands free. Look, I need your help with something…” (my imaginative re-telling). This is what happened to Mary. And the truth is, it could happen to you. Even when you’re the one weeping.
One of the moments that made me a pastor happened long before I got ordained or began serving a church. I was an hour and ten minutes into my first shift as a chaplain intern for the hospital, when I got a page to come be with a family in the NICU. Their baby had died.
Well, there was a big binder in the spiritual care office full of instructions describing what you do and don’t do in such situations. I quickly started flipping through its pages, and the nurse from the NICU called this time and said, “You really need to come right now.” I had never done a baptism, much less one under these circumstances. I needed help finding the NICU.
Once you get there, they buzz you in and make you take off your rings, and the nurse took me through in a flurry. A whole crowd had gathered in the curtain area around the mother and her baby, the father and an older brother. So I did what any of you would, and I prayed. I witnessed this family let go of their baby in love. Here I witnessed resurrection.
Later I replayed the scene over and over in my mind. I wondered whether I had said the right words, because I’m pretty sure that an actual chaplain or a real pastor would have done a much better job for that family. The thing is, there wasn’t a professional chaplain or an ordained minister in the room. Believe me, I would have gladly sent them in instead. On that summer Sunday morning, it was me who got called. And please understand, you don’t have to be doing a chaplaincy internship for this to happen to you. You can expect this is what will always happen to you.
Doesn’t matter if you’re too tired, or too old, too cynical, or too alone. Jesus can find you. Christ will come interrupt your grief, and call you by name, and say, “Look, I really need your help right now.” And that will be it.
Next thing you know, you find yourself participating in resurrection. You might even be able to let go for a minute, not because you feel ready, but because you need your hands free to help with the carrying. This is definitely not what you planned to have happen with your day. And it is exactly how you’re called back to life.
“Unbind him and let him go!” is what Jesus says to Lazarus when he calls him out of the tomb (John 11: 44). Here is Mary unbound and let go, sent back with a job to do and a savior to serve. Now we know how it is. We just don’t get to stay dead in our tombs, all safe in our expectations or warmly cloaked in our grief. This is the day we are unbound, and called, and set free to sing our Hallelujahs! Today our savior lives! And so do we. Amen.
 “In the Garden” is by C. Austin Miles. March, 1912.