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Look Into The Tomb

John 20:11-18

· Easter

John 20:11-18 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12 and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “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.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.


Easter is so bright and full. Today we pull down the deep purple of Lent and find ourselves surrounded by the bright colors of the Easter season. We wear bright clothes and we’ll keep them on for all the of the parties and meals that we’ll share with family and friends this afternoon. Today is a day for celebration, for joy, for remembering that God gives life even where it seems like that is not possible, that because God has raised Jesus from the grave, we can hope that when we die a death like his, we too might rise to walk in newness of life, now and for eternity.

But I want to acknowledge that while it is good to celebrate, to set time aside for celebration, our lives are more complicated than that. If you are struggling in any way, those struggles don’t just go away because the calendar turned to April 1st. Maybe you feel a little out of step with the season. That’s OK, too. We celebrate Easter because of the Resurrection, but the disciples experience of the Resurrection was more complicated than our pastel brightness might lead us to believe. In fact, when Sunday started, it was just as dark and empty as Friday and Saturday. The good news of Resurrection doesn’t papier mache over the darkness, but meets us in the midst of it.

Easter Sunday begins for Mary Magdalene in a dark emptiness. She is traumatized. I imagine her waking up that morning, maybe taking a moment to remember what had happened. She’s just groggy and has a vague feeling of uneasiness, like she’s woken from a nightmare she’s already forgotten. But as she comes to, she remembers: her teacher, her friend who wanted her in his inner circle for the coming revolution, had been executed on a cross, a death that the Romans reserved for slaves and failed revolutionaries, as a way of mocking them. And now, with that loss still raw, the tears not even dry, Mary goes to the tomb to mourn, and she finds that someone has taken his body.

She goes to tell everyone and then Mary walked back to the tomb behind two of the others. When they left, she lingered. She stayed in that place of grief and despair. Mary wept and looked into the empty tomb. I don’t know that there was ever a more courageous act, staring into that emptiness. Not only had Jesus died a shameful death, a death on a cross, but now they’d taken his body, too. Even the memory of hope had just been fed to the dogs. All that was left was emptiness, nothingness. And yet Mary stayed, and looked. How could she stand it? What if that empty tomb was the truth of the world, the formless and void undoing creation, the place where everything we love ends up for good?

Jesus’ enemies had wagered that this is how the world really works. The Empire worked because of its ability to put people in tombs by methods like crucifixion. Jesus had represented a different kind of politics, something new and life giving, and so brought hope to people whose lives were oppressed and exploited. That he was crucified anyway seemed like a repudiation of all of it, hope and justice and the Kingdom of God. Rome won. Herod won. The people with the money and the guns won, again. The tomb had won. Jesus’ life had represented salvation in such tangible terms—Jubilee to the debtor and freedom to the captive—and his execution now represented the failure of salvation. It meant the world would keep working as it always works. His promises were empty.

And for Mary, this was personal. They say he had cast seven demons from her. She had known voices of accusation and hatred, voices of despair and negation, whispering to her in the dark her own lack, her fundamental unworthiness, as a person, as a poor Magdelene, as a woman. But somehow when she’d met him, those voices were no longer quite so dominant, and she heard another voice saying, “You are very good, you are beloved, of course a woman should sit on the leadership council of a revolutionary movement.” I wonder if when she looked into that emptiness she heard those accusations rising up to haunt her again: “It was all a lie. The only truth is the emptiness of the empty tomb. You were naive to think anything else was possible.”

That was what Mary risked finding when she looked into the tomb. Those were the stakes, that she’d discover once and for all that that emptiness really covered the whole world and her own soul. The emptiness of the empty tomb represented a future devoid of possibilities, of blessing, of hope. But Mary looked anyway.

These are the stakes for us, too, and it takes similar courage to look into those empty places that haunt our lives. What in your life, what grief, what trauma, what sadness, what debt, empties you? Makes you think a better world is not possible? What crosses have disciplined your imagination?

Those things, which exist in our world and in our hearts, are hard to face. In fact, we’re taught to ignore them. When we come up against the emptiness of our world, we feel the need to fill it with small talk or a joke or a TV on in the background. When we sense it, we distract ourselves so that no one will accuse us of “wallowing.” We’re taught to buck up, put on a brave face, make sure when people talk about you they say, “She’s doing OK.” Be a cool customer. Put a nice curtain over that dreary tomb. Let all your crosses be decorative. Because this is just how the world works, you might as well laugh to keep from crying. Avoid any emptiness you cannot fill on Amazon. Whatever deep sorrow you have about the world’s deep hurts, keep that stuff to yourself.

In The Cancer Diaries, poet and activist Audre Lorde writes about how after she had her mastectomy, she went to her first doctor’s appointment without wearing a prosthesis. She was getting to know her new body, and she liked the thought of herself looking like an Amazon warrior, who were said to give themselves mastectomies because they thought it helped their archery. She felt pretty good about herself, that she wasn’t just a passive survivor but that she had overcome and her scars showed it. But at the doctor’s office, a nurse pulled her aside and told her she needed to wear a prosthesis next time because it was “bad for the morale of the other women to see her without one.”

Now, if you have been or are in that situation, it is no business of mine how you should feel or dress, but Lorde was enraged. Bad for morale? Why do billion dollar cosmetic and fashion industries get to determine what is good or bad for morale, what people should do with their bodies? Lorde thought maybe everyone in that waiting room needs to see a person living and thriving without going back to “normal” because it shows that new life and new forms of life are possible even after the darkest days. You can go through the worst and move again.

But there is an impulse in our world, trained into each of us, that the appropriate response to trouble, to loss, to grief, to imperfection is to cover it over with a prosthesis, act as though nothing is wrong, blend in with everyone else. Mary, stop looking into that tomb, you’re bumming everybody out.

I’m afraid often faith gets deployed as a prosthesis, so that being a Christian means you have to smile like a Stepford wife no matter what life brings. You’ve got to show how blessed you are by your optimism, and so faith comes to mean looking away from the emptiness toward the sunny side of things. When my best friend’s dad died, the preacher said, “You have heard that Coach died the other day. But I’m here to tell you that’s not true because Coach is with Jesus in heaven.” Don’t bother with the empty tomb. Don’t worry about that Cross. There’s nothing to grieve here. Your tears are bad for morale. That’s cheap grace, “grace” that refuses to meet us in our depths.

Friends, if you have ever had your grief, your sadness, your doubts policed in that way, instantly corrected rather than heard, I am so sorry. Because that is not the Gospel, that is not the Good News we confess today. You don’t have to be ashamed of the Cross or the empty tomb or your grief or your anger at God or your creeping suspicion that Christianity seems like kind of a sham sometimes or your frustration that the world just keeps rolling on in the same old boring, violent ways. Those feelings and questions and frustrations are part of being human and they’re worth looking into, even exploring, to see what’s really going on there. If the God we worship can take on flesh and cry “Take this cup from me” and “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” then we can, too. If being a Christian means being a follower of Christ then we are not Christians unless we’re willing to follow Jesus into that darkness, too (or maybe just admit that we’re not outside of God’s love just because we’re having dark days). To be a Christian is to look into the empty tomb, no matter what we find or don’t find. It’s only when Mary looks honestly into the emptiness with no promise of fulfillment, that her hope rises again.

The other disciples walked off but it’s when Mary weeps and looks with all the courage she has into that abyss of nothingness that she encounters the Risen Lord. She finds two messengers sitting where Jesus’ body had been, and all of the sudden she finds the emptiness is populated. It’s still empty, but she’s not alone there. And she turns around to find Jesus standing there already. Mary has been looking into the emptiness, not knowing that Jesus has been looking into her sadness and grief all along. As she looks for Jesus, Jesus is there, risen, looking for her. Mary doesn’t recognize him, but Jesus is still with her in that empty place, not in spite of her grief, not in spite of her weeping, not in spite of the mis-recognition but in the very midst of them.

This is why faith doesn’t have to be a prosthesis. Because the God we confess joins us in the emptiness. Jesus descended even to the dead, and then rose again. The tomb is dark and deep but it is not infinite. The world and the powers roll on in much the same way as they always have, but in the Resurrection new creation flashes in the dark to remind us that there is a life that death cannot kill, a light no darkness can snuff, a plenitude no emptiness can swallow. So we are free to look into the emptiness of our world, the pain and injustice and stupidity and cruelty without optimism or sentimentality but with honesty, because no matter how deep that pit goes it is not deeper than God’s love. Though I go down to the depths and make my bed in the grave, you are there.

And because of this, the Resurrection could actually move us, move us to seek out the empty places of our world, the places where people are hurting and grieving and sad. When Mary recognizes Jesus, he says to her Don’t cling to me, because I haven’t yet ascended. Instead go to the others and tell them what you’ve seen. The other disciples have heard that the body is gone, but only Mary has seen Jesus alive. Her hopes for a new world, for salvation, have been raised again, but the other disciples are still empty, they still think their hopes have been thrown to the dogs. And so having looked into her own emptiness and encountered Jesus there, Mary is not called to sit still and keep that to herself, but to go help the others face the darkness and let their eyes adjust to the light, too. If we believe in the Resurrection, we can stand at the entrance to the tomb and look in with our neighbors and say to them, “I’m so sorry you’ve been hurt by that person, that job, the church, come rest, come vent your anger, come express your doubts, come cry your tears, come get free however you can. It’s all welcome here. And until you see or I see or you’re ready, we’ll stare into your emptiness with you.”

That’s our calling, to let the Resurrection send us on the move, stumbling in the half light, but moving nonetheless as the Body of Christ, moving to tell those who are hurting and hungry and sad that no matter how dark things get, we are here with you. The Risen Lord is here with you. If this morning you are in a place where the emptiness of the tomb is pressing on you, if you find yourself in that empty space between Friday and Sunday, we’re with you. You don’t have to look away. You don’t have to distract yourself. You don’t have to be optimistic. You can look into the emptiness. You can weep. But you are not alone. And where two or more are gathered together in the dark, you just might find Jesus looking back at you, even if it takes awhile to recognize him. Amen. 

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