Journey to Wholeness – Easter

“It is Finished?” Susan Ryder

We’ve considered several different aspects of our Lenten journey to wholeness, beginning with the importance of spiritual preparation and grounding; then finding friends to travel with us; being true to our authentic selves; learning humility; accepting our humanity; and living with integrity. This morning we turn out attention to resurrection experiences as part of our pursuit of wholeness, using the Easter story as our jumping off point. I invite you to listen with new ears and open hearts to the reading from Mark’s gospel.

Mark 16:1-8
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Scotty McLennan:“We need to be open to resurrection — looking up, not down; listening, not stopping up our ears; feeling deeply rather than numbing ourselves with the daily routine.”

Bishop John Spong:“To literalize Easter has become the defining heresy of traditional Protestant and Catholic Christianity. That transforming mystery has given way to propositional truths.”

Our first Easter with you was over 20 years ago, in 1998. For those first few years I insisted Bob take the Easter Reflections because I wasn’t sure what to say about it to a group of Progressive Christians. Palm Sunday I could handle, and Pentecost, my favorite holy day; Christmas was fine too. I was comfortable with those stories as metaphor, as truth as opposed to fact. But Easter vexed me; resurrection was tough, because for so many it was the foundation of their faith, and I wasn’t sure how it could be redeemed to have any sort of relevance after I rejected the whole notion of a literal resurrection with a physical resuscitation. So I just sort of went on an Easter strike for several years.

Then my father died in 2002, and that was the beginning of my evolution of understanding resurrection in new ways, and eventually I started to take my turn up here on Easter Sundays. Ten years after my father died, I lost my mother, and my grasp of the Easter experience deepened even more. The impact of my parents on my life was profound, and so in many ways they continue to live on – not only in my memories of them, but also through me. There are acts of generosity and compassion I offer to others because of my father’s example; there are moments of gratitude and kindness I offer to others because of my mother. I was lucky to have been blessed with them as parents and am honored to continue their legacy in as many ways as I can – much like Jesus’ disciples were compelled to do after he died. And that, in a nutshell, has become my understanding of Easter for these past many years – which is much more powerful for me than when the focus was on a dead body coming back to life to save me from sin.

As part of my preparation for this morning, I took some time to read over a few years of Easter Reflections I offered from this podium. Last year, Easter 2018, I used the Mark story as my reading, and talked about the resurrection that occurred among the students and parents and family and friends who survived the shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. I concluded with these words, “Emma Gonzalez and her friends are rising up, and it is just the beginning.” Looking back a year later that is certainly still true, as their activism continues in memory of all they lost – it’s even weightier this weekend as we observed the 20thanniversary of the shooting at Columbine. In 2017 I also read Mark’s unfinished story of the resurrection, highlighting his writing technique of having the women run away without telling anyone what they’d seen and heard as an invitation for us to become part of the story, and also to become tellers of it, from our perspective of having found the empty tomb along with the women. Because ultimately, we ARE the ones who create and tell the end of the story. “We are the ending of the story.” I said. “Our work has just begun.”

In 2016 I also read Mark, and used inspiration from the movie, “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” for the basis of my message. I quoted Maggie Smith’s character, who said in a goodbye note she left behind, “There is no such thing as an ending, just a place where you leave the story. And it’s your story now.” Four years ago in 2015 I used Mark again as the Easter reading, and pre-invited a few folks to talk about a resurrection experience from their own lives. Along with Bruce, Donnie, Devon, and Cheryl, I shared that when someone we love dies it is WE, the survivors, who are the resurrected ones. After death, life goes on. I concluded, “From our losses, our lives continue as we reinvent ourselves and learn to live in new ways, rising from the ashes.”

Five years ago in 2014, I shook things up and read from the Luke Easter Story. Normal West graduate and ISU senior Michael Collins had been killed by a drunk driver a few weeks before. You may recall that in his memory, his friends began a movement of “paying it forward” in his honor. It turned into a world-wide movement that compelled people to do random acts of kindness for strangers in Michael’s name. By Easter that year, many “pay it forward” stories had popped up on social media from all over the world – beautiful stories that broke and burst my heart open. I didn’t know Michael Collins; I never met him, never even heard of him until after he died. But the legacy of kindness and generosity that lived on in his name, inspired by the man he was even though his young life was cut short in such a meaningless way – because of that, I found out about Michael Collins and his life. In a similar way I found out about Jesus and his life. If that’s not what Easter and resurrection are about, I, said, I don’t know what is.

There are two things I realized from my walk down memory lane this past week.

  1. Clearly my favorite Easter story comes from Mark – the original ending had no post- resurrection appearances, and thus leaves it up to us to finish the story.
  2. Bob hasn’t preached on Easter since 2013 – so Bob, fair warning – you’re up next!

It was interesting to see both the similarity AND progression of my interpretations of the Easter message. My words were a reflection of where I was spiritually in my life at the time, and where our world was. And even though the inspiration for each message was different, the fundamental conclusions were the same. The first conclusion is that that like Jesus, our life journeys do not end with our death, and that we live on, for good or for bad, after we die. How we live our lives and what we leave behind as our legacy is important. The second is that resurrection is about how we revive ourselves after a great loss. It is what we do next after a death. It is how we came back to the world after we face our grief. Which means that after his death it was his disciples, not Jesus, who were the resurrected ones. They reconstituted their community and began to focus on how Jesus lived on in each of them. They tried to emulate their teacher. They dedicated their lives to feeding the poor, healing the sick, caring for the most vulnerable. They passed on Jesus’s teachings, as best they understood them. They were transformed by Jesus because of how he lived his life and what he taught them and in turn, they transformed the world by how they lived their lives and what they taught others. It becomes a cycle. It’s both / and, not either / or. We are transformed, we transform the world.

The title of my Reflection for this morning comes from the scene in John’s Gospel where, nearing the end of the crucifixion, “Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19: 30) I added a question mark at the end, for as we conclude the Journey to Wholeness theme we have been traveling throughout this Lenten Season I would suggest that after he died, Jesus’ journey was not finished any more than ours is, which for me is the whole point of Easter. It’s not about sin or atonement or being washed in the blood of an innocent lamb; it’s that after his death on the cross, Jesus’ story was not finished – it was just beginning, and is still ongoing, just like our own spiritual journeying, our own stories. The cycle, the transformation, continues.

There is a magnolia bush in our backyard that started blooming this past week – along with everything else in Bloomington. There are no leaves yet – those will come later – instead its branches are adorned with beautiful pink blossoms. Much too soon they will fall off or blow away and be replaced by clusters of tiny green leaves poking out of the ends of branches that seem to open in the blink of an eye. Each year this magnolia bush serves as my living reminder of Easter: a somewhat unattractive presence throughout winter with its sparse, dark limbs, until suddenly one day in early spring it explodes into brilliant beauty. Each year, even though I know it’s coming, it takes my breath away when it blooms again. I can’t tear myself away from the window as I stare in awe. And then before I know it, they are gone again, for another year.

This is the impulse this season stirs in us: the capacity to be amazed and awe-struck by the beauty of resurgent life. Even though we know it’s coming, there is something mind-blowing about how the world around us awakens every Spring, and it sometimes inspires us to wonder what else is possible. What other amazing things might the world be capable of, or might WE be capable of, if the earth can go from death to life, year in and year out? The story of Jesus’ death and resurrection embodies that kind of wondering. What if what follows death is not an ending, but a beginning? And what might it take for us to live as if that were so? What is most interesting about the Easter story is not some supernatural occurrence at an empty grave, but what it suggests about what ultimately endures among us. It’s something about how we are changed by it, and can ourselves become agents of transformation.

Because at the end of the day, the resurrection story is not just about new life arising from a death that happened 2000 years ago. It is about finding renewed life in each and every age from that which was or seemed dead or hopeless. Whenever we hear of one more horrible thing happening in the world, most recently the bombings this morning in Sri Lanka that took over 200 lives, many of them Easter worshippers, we wonder: “Why do things like this happen, and so often?” “How can people be filled with so much hate they are capable of destroying so many lives?” “How can we do better toward out fellow humanity, and the rest of creation?” “Why can’t there be more kindness, more compassion?”

My message today is not that we should, “always look on the bright side of life,” as the song in “Life of Brian goes.”  That is not the message of the resurrection. Rather, the message is that even in the face of death, our own or that of someone we love, there is the promise of life. The cycle of life, the transformation, continues, even and maybe especially after death. The promise of resurrection is that regardless of the challenges or disappointments we face, there is hope, there is always hope – because the work of love is never finished, and it’s our story now. We are the ending of the story, and our work has just begun. Amen.

Being the Resurrection – Victoria Weinstein

The stone has got to be rolled back from the tomb again and again every year.
Roll up your sleeves.

He is not coming back, you know.
He is not coming back unless it is we who rise for him
We who lay healing hands on the reviled and rejected like he did
on his behalf —
We who rage for righteousness in his insistent voice
We who love the sinner, even knowing that “the sinner” is no farther off than our own heartbeat

He will not be back to join us at the table
To share God’s extravagant banquet
God’s love feast, all are invited, come as you are
And so it is you and I who must feast for him
Must say the grace and break the bread and pass it to the left
and dish up the broiled fish (or pour the wine) and pass it to the right.
And treat each one so tenderly
as though just this morning she or he made the personal effort
to make it back from heaven, or from hell
but certainly from death
to be by our side.

Because if by some miracle (and why not a miracle?)
He did come back
Wouldn’t he want to see us like this?
Wouldn’t it be a miracle to live for just one day
So that if he did, by some amazing feat
come riding into town
He could take a look around and say
“This is what I meant!”

And we could say
it took us a long time…
but we finally figured it out.

Oh, let us live to make it so.

You are the resurrection and the life.