As beautiful as spring can be, I have to admit that I’ve always been more of a fall guy. I never sat down and decided that fall was going to be my favorite season, but for some reason it’s the time of year that I enjoy the most. There’s something in the air then for me that makes breathing and walking and running a little more rich of an experience. I think trees are most beautiful when their leaves are changing colors and falling. I get more emotional in the fall, too. I feel things deeper, feel an extra sense of connection to things. I miss my family more in the fall. I’m a pretty big fan of all four seasons, but as far as I’m concerned there’s the other three, and then there’s fall.
So I was a little surprised this past spring, a year ago, when I started to get really excited about our tulips coming up and the trees starting to bud. This excitement and amazement may be something that some of you experience every spring, but for me it was something new. It had never really affected me the way it did last spring. Walking around the neighborhood and seeing things come to life gave this unexpected sense of relief that things were growing. Never one to simply let myself feel something without trying to analyze why I’m feeling it, I did a little reflecting of why this spring would be different than others for me. What I came up with was that there had been a lot of changes in the past year, and with the changes came a lot of new responsibilities. Abbie and I were relatively new parents, with Eve just a little over a year old, and we were then already expecting our second – fatherhood. We had moved out of the rental housing of the seminary and had bought our first home in a city we’d never lived in before – new homeowners. I had gone from being a student to being a full time pastor, still navigating my way through the first year. In short, we had crossed a threshold that landed us squarely in the world of responsibility. And so more than ever, our lives were made up of managing, and caring, and planning, and creating, and seeing that things that needed to happen, happened. These things weren’t overly burdensome, but they did involve constant thoughtful attention and care.
And then, when we’re right in the middle of this, spring happens. Without any planning or managing on our parts, things start growing and flowering and I didn’t have to do anything to make it happen. I didn’t have to write any emails or attend committee meetings, I didn’t have to get up in the middle of the night to make sure everything was OK with it. Things were just blooming and there wasn’t anything I could do except enjoy it and receive it. I think that’s why I got more excited than usual last spring.
There is a bumper sticker type phrase that I will appropriately slightly alter: Stuff Happens. Meaning Bad Stuff Happens. It’s inevitable, no matter how many precautions one takes, no matter how much one tries to avoid trouble or danger or that snag that catches and tears your favorite pair of pants or that parked car that somehow got in your way when you were pulling out of the lot, or that wrong click of the mouse that deletes a document you’d been working on for hours — manage life all you want — Stuff is going to happen. Quite true. Sad, but true.
Also true, wonderfully true, is that no matter how limited our ability to hold everything together and control outcomes and manage results and make things grow – that spring does happen. And so does resurrection.
“After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb” of Jesus. In all of the gospels, it is women who are the first to witness the resurrection. In church tradition Mary Magdelene is even known as the apostle to the apostles. Matthew tells us nothing of these women throughout his gospel until a few verses before Easter morning. Describing the scene at Jesus’ crucifixion, Matthew says in 27:55-56, “Many women were also there, looking on from a distance; they had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him. Among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of the James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.” “Following” Jesus, as we hear throughout Matthew, is a sign of discipleship. Luke gives women an overall more prominent role in his gospel and provides a few more details of who these women were. He notes in chapter 8 that Jesus “went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their own resources.” It turns out these women had been with Jesus all along. And not only as disciples, but also as financiers of the whole ministry. If you’ve ever wondered how Jesus and this band of wandering teachers ever made a go of it financially, here is a significant part of your answer. There are some wealthy women, some even having connections to Herod’s household, who are investing significant resources in this upstart Kingdom of God project. Their mention here with the twelve indicates that they were a part of the inner circle of Jesus’ band of followers.
They are with Jesus throughout his ministry, providing for him, they are at the cross when all the other followers have fled, and they are the first ones to visit the tomb after Jesus has been buried, bringing the ceremonial spices to anoint the corpse. These women who had lovingly helped care for and manage the accounts for and provide for Jesus during his life, plan to do the same in his death. They bore significant responsibility for making sure things ran smoothly while they were all out on the road, and now they’re doing what there is that’s left to do now that Jesus is dead.
For those seeking an exact historical account of the events of Easter morning, the gospels are not overly satisfying. Aside from the consistent theme of Mary Magdalene always being present and the tomb being empty, each account varies in how it tells the story. There are different combinations of women who are at the tomb, different details about what sorts of angels were there, where they were, sitting or standing, how many there were, and what they said. The women respond differently to the unexpected news of Jesus having been raised and the disciples react in different ways upon hearing the women’s testimony of what they did and didn’t see. In this way I’m reminded of Keith’s sermon he preached a couple months back of how to tell a true war story, how to tell a true fish story – what details to include and what to leave out and what to tweek from a previous way of telling the story. Each of the gospel writers are doing their part for how to tell a true resurrection story.
In Matthew, resurrection is accompanied by an earthquake, a great shaking of the ground all around the women. And of course there was an earthquake. On their way to gaze at the place where Jesus was buried and care for his body, the two Marys find themselves a part of something much larger, much more powerful than themselves – an apocalyptic event of cosmic proportions they didn’t plan, arrange for, or anticipate. The earthquake then grows a mouth and speaks through the figure of the descending angel who roles back the tombstone as if it’s a little pebble and, for good measure, camps out on top of the stone to make his pronouncement. Jesus isn’t here, hasn’t been here for a little while now. Take a look for yourself. He’s been raised and he’s already out ahead of you, ready to meet you back home in Galilee when you get up there.
What they thought was winding down and coming to a close, was actually just beginning. The life of Christ that they feared might have been just a flash in the pan was actually an explosion of light across the cosmos. Despite their limited imaginations toward what was possible through the Spirit who is Master of the Universe, the women found themselves right in the middle of a startling reality: Resurrection happens, it blossoms up right in front of them. All the powers that conspired to put an end to the life of righteousness and justice and healing and love that Jesus embodied are shown to have actually little power. Even death cannot hold such a life captive. The way of Caesar is winding down and coming to a close. Christ is risen and is on the loose. And the women leave the tomb with “fear and amazement,” given the task of somehow communicating this to the other disciples.
To say “Resurrection happens” is to say something not just about a past event, but something about the way our world is. Resurrection is and always will be at the heart of God’s way of being present with us. Through the many deaths that we die resurrection is the gift that transforms those deaths into a life affirming reality. I would imagine that we each have resurrection stories in our lives and in the lives of our friends and family. These are important stories for us to tell each other. And I would imagine we each also have areas of our lives where we are awaiting resurrection — deaths that have not yet been transformed into a life affirming reality. These are also important stories to tell each other.
If resurrection happens, then we continue to be in a place that inspires fear and amazement. If resurrection happens, then you and I are right in the middle of something much bigger than our ability to manage and control and plan our way through. We are recipients of this gift that comes to us sometimes as an earthquake and sometimes as a gentle, slow awakening and rebirth. If we are God’s, then we are resurrection people. Christ is risen, and we are witnesses.
As a closing I want to read from an Easter Psalm that I discovered recently that I think communicates something fresh about resurrection happening. It borrows from the language of science, although it’s not setting out to prove or disprove any particular theory like we normally think of science doing. It does offers some honest reflection on our longing for resurrection hope and some creative metaphors for telling a resurrection story.
E = MC2 Easter
Brother Einstein’s Easter Law
delights my hopeful heart
which wishes to never die.
For that quantum equation maintains
that matter taken to the speed of light squared
is turned into pure energy again.
My body, so subject to sickness,
to aging and death’s cold bite,
is a companion human body of Christ
who encountered the kiss of death
upon Good Friday’s consecrated cross.
The lifeless matter of his once vibrant body
was carried away to the grave,
condemned to become a worm’s decaying dinner.
Yet, you who are Life could not stand to see
your beloved’s body decay,
so you carried out once again
your first and awesome act of creation.
You reanimated the matter of his body
and moved its molecules
at more than the speed of light,
and it was again transformed
into the Light of Lights,
into pure eternal energy.
In your infinite design
it only changes form,
until it finally and forever changes
into your form,
into the energy of the light of love divine.
Take hope, my heart,
be firm, my feeble faith,
for the matter of the flesh and bone I call me
will also become an Einstein Easter Event.
(Edward Hays, Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim: A Personal Manual for Prayer and Ritual, Forest of Peace Publishing, Inc., 1989)