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The Rev. Mary Jane Cornell The Rev. Mary Jane Cornell

The Rev. Mary Jane Cornell is a minister in the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. She was pastor of Druid Hills Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, GA, for ten years. She is the winner of the 2005 Day1 Sermon of the Year Award.

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Presbytery of Greater Atlanta


Set Free

John 20:1-18

Easter - Year B

April 16, 2006

This sermon was chosen as Day 1's Sermon of the Year in November 2005 on the occasion of its 60th anniversary.

When I was a child, our favorite playground was the cemetery. Our house was beside a church with graveyards next door and across the road. We spent hours playing hide and seek, walking the rock wall bordering the perimeter, making hideouts in the boxwoods. We did not intend any disrespect. As children we had not yet learned the hard rules of life and death, but through the years I've learned. This week is the 16th anniversary of the day I stood weeping in a cemetery as my mother was buried. Playing was the last thing on my mind.

Sooner or later, for all of us, it happens. Confronted with the dark realities of death, cemeteries seem more similar to prisons than playgrounds, holding our hopes captive, locking away our dreams, slamming shut the door on the future. Visits to the graveyard are accompanied by cries of anguish rather than shouts of joy.

Ask Mary Magdalene. After surviving the unthinkable horror of that Friday, on the first day of the week in the early morning darkness, she was dealt the crowning blow, one more unfathomable event in the long string of atrocities. The stone was rolled away; the tomb was empty; the body was gone.

She ran back with the news: They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have laid him. The helplessness opened the floodgate of tears. There was nothing she could do. They have taken him away, and I don't know where. It was more than she could bear.

They-whoever they were-had won. The powers of evil were too great. Mary felt helpless, hopeless.

"Why are you weeping?" the angel asked. Mary might well have asked the angel, "Why not? If you're not weeping, you haven't been paying attention." Don't you read the papers, listen to the radio, watch the evening news? Haven't you noticed? The principalities and powers of evil are running rampant. Sometimes the only choice seems to be to play the world's game.

When all hope appears to be lost, what can one do but weep?
When you're held captive to technological tyranny, crass consumerism,
nationalistic militarism…
When you are suffocating in the tombs of corporate advancement, personal
achievement, self-gratification…
There seems to be no choice left but to join in the world's game-and weep.

Only a short time ago Mary and the other disciples had been playing follow-the-leader with Jesus, running through the graveyards, thumbing their noses at death. Remember Lazarus? He had been rotting in the grave for four days, yet walked right out when Jesus called, "Ollie, Ollie, in free!"

Back then, Jesus had dared them to imagine a different world, a world where masters wash servants' feet; and the winner is the one who comes in last, a world where the myth of scarcity was proven false by a 5,000-plate banquet served from the contents of a little boy's lunchbox with more leftovers than the Tupperware could contain. A world where, instead of survival of the fittest, wolves and lambs were sitting side-by-side at the table, and homelessness was unheard of.

Then they had been like children playing in the cemetery. But now, now, they've taken away my Lord…

It appeared the game was over; their team had lost. The graveyard was but a stark reminder of the captivity, the bondage to the powers of death, defeat, despair. There was nothing Mary could do, but that did not mean the game was over. As she sat weeping in the cemetery, the one she had mistaken for the gardener called her name. Peering through the tears, Mary recognized Jesus. God was still in the game. It was too good not to be true. The powers of death had not won! Now all the rules were changed.

Mary realized she was not helpless. There was something she could do. She moved from weeping to witnessing. I have seen the Lord! Mary discovered new purpose, new possibility. Disciples don't have to play by the old rules. In raising Jesus from the dead, God broke the bondage of evil. And so we are set free for life! Set free to imagine the world in a whole new way.

Sixteen years ago I stood in a graveyard and wept at my mother's grave. A few days later we returned to the cemetery. This time we took our children. They hadn't been there earlier. They were too young for funerals. As we drove to the cemetery, I tried to explain why we were going. I told them grandmother was with Jesus. I wasn't sure what they had heard. When we got there, the boys didn't linger long beside the grave. They were soon running around, as children will, playing in the cemetery, exclaiming over the variety of old tombstones. Suddenly, our three-year old pointed at an especially large sepulcher that looked almost like a house.

"Look!" he exclaimed with a broad smile, "That must be where Jesus lives!"

The wonderful logic of a child. If this is grandmother's grave and she is with Jesus, then…why not?

We had thought the children were too young to understand, but perhaps they caught a glimpse of the truth that through our tears it was hard for us older folks to see.

The hope of the resurrection is that this world is not just where Jesus died-this world is where Jesus lives! And because Jesus lives, because God has broken the power of sin and death, we have been set free to live as well. Sometimes that is hard to believe. The principalities and powers of evil often appear to be in control. Some days it is hard to see with eyes of faith. That is why we need the church, so that in those times when our sight is blinded by tears, we can hold on to another's faith. That is why we need the meal we call The Lord's Supper. The sacraments might seem like child's play to the world. Eating bits of bread, drinking sips of juice-to a casual observer it would appear a harmless tea party. But when we look with eyes of faith, when we listen with ears of hope, in this bread broken, this cup poured, we discover anew Mary's gospel: I have seen the Lord! When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we dare to imagine a different world, a world not imprisoned by the powers of sin and death, but set free, set free for love, justice, peace.

This is a day to celebrate, to share the victory feast of our God! We have been set free! So even though the tears may be streaming down our cheeks at the atrocities of this world, we can get up from the table and follow our leader, running through the cemeteries and the streets, the Pentagon and the Capitol, the board room and the back alleys, thumbing our noses at death. For Christ is risen. Alleluia! So may it be. Amen.

Will you join me in prayer?

Gracious God, on this day of resurrection, we give you thanks. We thank you for the promise of life, life after death and life before death through Jesus Christ our risen Lord. Amen.


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