Sermon for Easter

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It's Easter, and Mary goes to the tomb. And I wonder why.

Why, Mary? Why did you go? What did you plan to do? What did you think you would see? Or did you go out as we all go to such places simply to remember and to cry? You go, knowing there's nothing to do. Nothing can be done. You have buried your fondest hopes. All you can do is mourn all that has been lost.

Yet, knowing this, you go to the sealed tomb to weep for your friend, lost and dead. You go to mourn and to remember--to remember when he was still alive and the shining dream of all you wanted from him, all you hoped he would be and do, still lived in your heart. You go hoping to experience again the days when Jesus still seemed something special, where it still seemed that he might be more than just one more human life on this tiny planet spinning in the dark immensity of space. You go to remember when it was possible to still believe that he was a gift of God, of grace, of mercy, and the hope of the future.

You go to remember the way his hand reached out to touch the heads of children and bless them. You go to recall his pleased smile when he saw people sitting before him eager to soak up anything, any word that he might say that would lift their hearts to touch and to be touched by something holy, something wondrous, something that would lift them beyond the burden of their daily drudgeries. You go to remember the tear in his eyes and the catch in his throat on that day when the man fell at his feet and begged him to come and heal his dying child. You go, Mary, to remember the fire in his eyes, his anger at senseless suffering and closed hearts. You go for that precious moment to recall the day he stood outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus and wept.

Mary goes to look at the cold stone tomb and to imagine him lying there, still. It's a private time to let tears flow and to mourn her loss. But, Mary, if that's why you go, I understand that. Yet what I don't understand is what you actually find, for you get more than a time to remember, more than a private place to recall precious memories. You get something beyond my comprehension, yet powerfully alive and real and wonderful.

And what does Mary get? She goes to the tomb on Easter looking for a dead friend, only to find that she lives in a world more holy and blessed and wondrous than she could possibly imagine. She discovers that everything, no matter how mundane, how painful, how disappointing, is yet mysteriously infused with the glory of God shining in the face of a living Jesus. And she hears Jesus call her by name and he lifts her face from the dust.

When I think of Mary going to the tomb, weeping yet surprised by joy, I remember another woman who, with me, met the living Jesus who called us both by name. Several years ago, I traveled the dirt roads of southern Sudan. It was a time of crushing hunger and chaos. Southern Sudan is still perhaps the hungriest place on earth. I was several days ahead of a convoy bringing food to starving refugees. I bumped and rattled along roads that were just rutted dirt tracks through the bush. But along those dusty trails walked tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the army. The troops came and wiped out whole villages through forced starvation. They would surround a village, fence it off, let nothing in or out until everyone inside was dead--starved. They smashed the heads of children against stones and threw their limp bodies into wells, spoiling the village water supply and ruining any faint hopes that might still live in the hearts of the people. The refugees knew this. They knew what happened when the soldiers came and they fled in droves. Two million of them were displaced in the southern part of the country alone--hiding, sleeping in the bush.

At one point I wandered into a place called Ame. It was the darkest place on earth. There were maybe 10,000 people camped in the area with no food, no medication, no relief workers. The United Nations and other relief agencies had pulled all their people out when some relief workers were shot and killed when a firefight, a battle, broke out between the troops. Now, thousands of refugees rested there, many simply waiting to die. They had been displaced four or five times. They had nothing to eat. All they owned they carried on their backs or they had dropped along the way because they simply had grown too tired. Some of them no longer looked like human beings. All bones and joints and angles--they looked more like giant insects than people, their ribs and pelvises shrink-wrapped as if some great brutal machine had sucked every ounce of moisture from their bodies. Men six and a half feet tall weighing 70 or 80 pounds.

I found the hospital at Ame, a small concrete bunker with a rude hole smashed through the side. It had a dirt floor--no beds, no medications, just 15 or 20 people lying in the dirt in various stages of dying, and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness I saw a scene I hope to never have to look upon again. They were lying there motionless, and I crawled from one to the other trying to make some sign with my hands, some motion to communicate, but what was there to say?

I found the back of the bunker and there was a young woman--no more than 20 or 21. She crouched in the dusk beside the motionless form of a little girl, maybe three, shrunken, lying beneath a dirty cloth. The mother sat there keeping watch over the extinction of her fondest hopes. This was a deathwatch. I sat with her, wanting to say something, to give some word of consolation, of hope, but what in heaven's name was there to say or to do? I said nothing, but sat and watched the scene played to its close. As I watched, I noticed the young woman finger a necklace--it was nothing more than a dirty string strung about her neck, and I followed the course of the string as it went around the curve of her neck and down in front of her where she was fingering something at the end of the string. I couldn't see what it was, but then, suddenly, I saw it. It was a cross. It was fashioned from a piece of twisted wire she probably found along the road. Seeing this, I knew immediately what to do. I touched her arm and then I made the sign of the cross, large across my body with my right hand and the young woman's eyes went wide, and she quickly pulled back the blanket and tugged at my hand, pulling me down to her little one so that I almost toppled over her.

But what could she want? It was an instant before I knew. She wanted me to bless her child for dying. She wanted me to commend her little one to the arms of a mercy that had been so badly denied her in this life. And I bent forward, kneeled in the dust, laid both hands on that little head, and commended her to the care of Jesus, hoping in the next life she would find a gentleness that she never knew here.

After the blessing, the young mother smiled slightly. Nothing was changed, yet somehow we both knew everything was different. Her little one would still die from hunger. So, too, all those others around us. There were still tears to shed, bodies to bury, hopes to surrender. The food convoys would not arrive in time for many at this lonely outpost on the frontier of humanity. Yet suddenly, this dark bunker contained more than the sorrow and frustration of helpless love. A power had been released in the bunker's darkness, and the tears we brushed from our eyes were not only of sorrow, but, strangely, of joy and hope and gratitude. We were transported beyond the dismal present to a future where everything was shaped, finally, by the mercy of God whose pleasure it is to wipe every tear from every eye. We entered a world where death no longer hunted her little one, because it had been swallowed up by the same love that transformed this bunker into a holy space where the living Jesus came and gave life and grace to a young woman, a dying child, and a visiting stranger.

No one needed to crawl into the bunker's darkness and say, "Jesus is risen!" for we knew that even there, he lives! He is not just triumphant over death but over this death and over the death in our hearts. In that moment in the bunker, the risen Jesus stepped into the darkness of our hopeless hearts and he asked, even as he asked Mary at the tomb, "Why are you weeping? Do you not know I am here?"

It's Easter, and Jesus comes to you and invites you to an Easter vision where you take a new look at your life and the life of the world and realize that there are no ordinary moments. For every moment, every experience, no matter how grand, petty, or painful, is mysteriously charged with the presence of the risen One who says to you, "Why are you weeping? I am here."

He wants you to know that you live in a divine milieu where he continues to struggle and suffer and sweat and labor to give hope to the hopeless, purpose to the despairing, joy to the sorrowing, and life to the dead. Today, whether you live in darkness as thick as that of a Sudanese bunker or you live in the bright light of life's joy and strength, Jesus comes. He comes and speaks your name even as he spoke to Mary outside the tomb, even as he spoke to the woman and to me in the darkness of another tomb in southern Sudan, and he says, "Why do you weep? I am here. You do not live in a world forsaken, but in a world where I work and hunger to give you life."

Dearest Jesus, precious friend, may we look for you in all the corners of our lives where you live. Let us see you in all. And seeing you in all, let us love you in all, for our hearts yearn truly for this above all. Amen.

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