A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on April 8, 2012.
Isaiah 25:6-9; John 20:1-18
The second installment of the Hillcrest Farmers Market, sponsored by the Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, will begin next month. We operate from seven in the morning to noon each Saturday. I encourage you to come around, if you dare.
I say, “if you dare,” because the stated purpose of the market is for us to meet our neighbors. So I must warn you, our neighbors don’t always look at things – life, church, faith – as you and I do. In fact, the only thing we might have in common is locally-grown, organic food. But it’s a start, isn’t it? It’s definitely a start.
Meeting our neighbors is one thing, however. Visiting with them, getting to know them, picking their brains, if you will... well, that’s something entirely different. It takes a little courage and a tough exterior because the response you get from them may not be what you want to hear.
You want me to tell you how I try to do it? It’s really quite simple, actually. When I meet someone, I ask, “Where do you go to church?” It’s a fairly safe question. After all, we live on the buckle of the Bible Belt. Chances are, either the person I am talking to will acknowledge no church relationship (whereupon I tell them about our congregation), or they will tell me they’re Episcopalian, Catholic, Methodist, you name it. Or, they will tell me that once in their lifetime the faith meant something important to them, but now, for whatever reason and because of whatever circumstance, they no longer are affiliated with a church of any kind. As one woman told me, “I’m a recovering Baptist.”
Sometimes, I know exactly how she feels.
If our Farmers Market were being held today (you’ll have to extend your imagination just a bit for that one, won’t you?), the question we might want to put to our neighbors is, what does the resurrection of Jesus Christ mean to you?
It’s not as if that question hasn’t been asked before. My friend George Mason, a pastor in Dallas, tells of the time he was on a trip, and since he was flying picked up a copy of USA Today and found an article on Easter. “The story featured several people mixed in age, gender, ethnicity, geography, and beliefs,” George says. “They were asked how Easter resonates in their everyday lives.” A young woman told about the mission trip she had taken to Nicaragua. She went there, she said, to bring something to them, but it was the other way around. She returned having been given to. In her words, “She saw the risen Christ in the simple joy of those who had nothing but a full heart toward God.”
“Another saw the living Christ in his fight to beat his deadening addiction to alcohol. Another sees how the resurrection motivates us to strive for just working conditions for the poor, since it tells us that the way things are is not the way things have to be.”
George’s favorite, he says, was the 97 year-old who was the first African-American to graduate from Brown University. He became a scientist, was the first black member of the Atomic Energy Commission, and later assumed the reigns of a university as president. “Easter faith doesn’t motivate him consciously,” we are told; “it’s just in him” (my emphasis).
At the time of the article, this man was helping young African-American biology students get advanced degrees, and he did it by conveying the message the angels gave to Mary at the tomb: Do not fear.
But, according to the article, there were others, those who had the shallowest understanding of Easter and those with the thinnest of hope. One young man said that Easter is a crutch to rely one when you can’t find it within yourself to rely on yourself. He had never yet met a challenge he couldn’t master, he said (he was a young man, remember). “Easter is hard to root in anything that makes any sense to me,” he said.
By the way, the writer of the article tells us that this young man is a former Baptist.1
If we had the time, I think it would be interesting to have a conversation, not with the people on the street, but with you. What brings you to church this morning?
Is it because you always go to church on Easter with your family and/or friends, even if you don’t go any other time of the year? Is it because you bought some new clothes and you had to wear them somewhere, right? Is it because you grew up in church, and you would feel guilty if you didn’t go to worship at least on this most important day of the year? Or is it because Easter is simply in you?
Interestingly enough, there is one single reason every one of us has come to church this morning, whether you fit into any of those categories I just mentioned or there is another purpose for your being here this morning. We are here because one spring Sunday morning, somewhere in the vicinity of two millennia ago and on the other side of the world, there stood, surprisingly, an empty tomb.
Before Mary Magdalene went to tell the disciples, before Simon Peter and the beloved disciple ran to the tomb, before angels appeared to tell Mary what had happened, the tomb was starkly and unexpectedly empty. And that is what has brought you and me to church this morning, isn’t it?
There are those who no doubt would say, prove it. It isn’t natural, nobody else has done it, not in a provable way, anyhow. Why should we believe this story just because some uneducated peasants say it was so? They’re like those folks who go shopping for a used set of wheels. “Show me the Carfax.” Show me the Easterfax, prove to me the grave was empty, convince me beyond doubt that he who was dead is now alive. There is, after all, a bit of doubting Thomas in all of us.
I don’t think I’ll try to do that, prove the resurrection, and for good reason. I can’t. Not sure I’d try to do it if I thought I could. Easter isn’t for being proven, it is for being celebrated. And besides, we’re not here today looking for a used car, or a used faith either, for that matter. We’re here to say that we have been graced beyond all measure by the One who is in that grave no longer. It is not a belief that can be proven, nor borrowed from someone else, nor taken for a test drive before we think we’ll make a purchase. That kind of grace can only be accepted, and once accepted, celebrated.
But if there is a hitch in your step as you approach the empty tomb – in other words, there’s still some skepticism on your part as to whether this story can truly be believed – understand that this puts you in pretty good company. Mary Magdalene and the disciples were fairly slow in coming around. Simon Peter and the beloved disciple, the ones who were summoned by Mary when she found the grave to be empty, went back to the house where they were staying (hiding would be a better word, actually) with the other disciples.
We are not told what they talked about as they walked together. And probably for good reason. I doubt they said anything to each other, anything at all. Haven’t you ever had an experience of such awe, such mystery, that you were left speechless? Chances are, though, they were thinking the same thing as Mary... someone has come in the night and taken his body. Who? Why? What next?
Mary, as we know, is in such grief and shock that she mistakes Jesus to be the gardener, perhaps the very one who has invaded the tomb. “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
If you are slow to believe, then you qualify as being in the company of those who were there first, and that’s not bad company to be in... as long as you don’t stay there, you see, because they didn’t... and neither should you.
And that leads to another question: Have you ever had the kind of experience that made the hair on the back of your neck stick straight out? Goose bumps, anyone, anyone? After Peter and the beloved disciple are gone back home, Mary, for the first time, ventures inside. She wants to see for herself. What she finds is decidedly not an empty tomb. There are two angels inside, “sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her (in unison, perhaps?), “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.”
John, the writer of the fourth gospel, is very deliberate with his words.2 He tells us that when she had said this, “she turned around...” Picture it in your mind, if you will. She’s talking to two strangers (who knows right at that time if she perceives they are angels or thinks they are grave robbers?) and then she turns around... slowly, with the neck hairs sticking out and the goose bumps – the whole nine-yards of fear coursing through her veins – because she senses a presence, not in front of her but behind her. Strangers, dressed in white, are in front of her. They she can plainly see. Who knows who or what is behind her?
Think about it... we can deal with the unknown, perhaps, if it is in front of us. But when it sneaks up from behind, we are as helpless as we can be. It is the most vulnerable of places. So she turns... slowly... ever so slowly.
Who does she see? The gardener. At least that’s what she thinks until he calls her name, and then she knows, she knows. That’s her story, found in the twentieth chapter of John’s gospel, and Mary is planning on sticking to it. The question for us this morning is, will we?
You and I are here today because that tomb is empty. The one who is there no longer stands behind us but before us and calls each one of us by name. I would encourage you to turn, slowly and deliberately, to see the risen Christ before you. As you do so, consider one other thing...
The gospel of John is very, very clear about at least two things: that the God Jesus called Father made the world (that’s one) and loves it very much (that’s two).3 Enough so to go to the cross, enough so to show the grave is not the final word, enough so to call you by name, enough so to give you the promise of eternal life. And there is nothing empty about that.
Lord, we come to the empty tomb this morning. May the promise found in it fill our hearts to overflowing as we give you thanks for overcoming death. Through Christ our risen Lord we pray, Amen.
1George Mason, “Now You See Him, Now You Do,” unpublished sermon, April 15, 2001.
3Marilynne Robinson, “Living By the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary,” The Christian Century, April 4, 2012, p. 22.