John 18:1-20 April 21, 2019
The earliest Easter artwork, in the 4th century of Christianity, shows two Roman soldiers keeping watch at the tomb, one is asleep and sees nothing, the other is awake and staring at the empty tomb. I love the mystery in this artistic portrayal. If you aren’t awake and aware, you aren’t going to notice anything. You have to be looking, be awake, seek, be fully present if you want to know anything about the Risen Christ. These early Christian icons do what great art is supposed to do, help us to see clearly, to keep our eyes open and be awake.
In our Gospel reading, Mary Magdalene is the one who is awake. She arose before sunrise, the world still dark. The disciples went to bed fearful and hiding. Were they contemplating how to move on with their lives after defeat and disappointment? Only Mary has gone to the tomb. When she saw the stone removed, she does not say, “Alleluia, He is risen!” She thinks, there is no dignity for the dead. It is a sacrilege that dishonors life itself. She is outraged and heartbroken. She rushes to tell Peter and the disciples.
Peter comes carrying grief, and the guilt of failure and cowardice. He is no hero at the tomb either. He sees the grave clothes neatly folded, but John doesn’t tell us what Peter makes of it all. Then Peter just goes home. He doesn’t look for the body, or comfort Mary, he just leaves her in the garden crying. I can imagine Mary thinking, “Why did I even bother to tell this jerk? He is absolutely no help-again!” She has to deal with this by herself. She investigates the tomb for clues, and now there are two angels there, who ask her, “Woman why are you weeping?” She is at a tomb! I love how she is totally unimpressed by the angels. She is single-minded in her quest for the body of her Jesus. She turns to the gardener, who also wants to know “Woman, why are you weeping?”
I have a hard time with all this crying. I may get teary-eyed at funerals and even when I’m preaching. But I’m the one who is supposed to hold it together. I’m not supposed to cry, there is no crying in baseball, as Tom Hanks would say. But some things can’t be held together. Sometimes hot tears need to flow down our cheeks, as our anger burns against the injustice of death, the killing of innocent people, against cruel and senseless violence. We need a good cry, the kind that soaks a box of tissues as we wipe away all the snot from our noses and we taste the salt on our lips. Sometimes we really should not be holding it together.
Falling apart and having a good cry can be grounding. Mary’s weeping is a sign of true discipleship. She is not the silly woman crying when she should be rejoicing at the resurrection. She is the one who has had the strength to be fully present for the full catastrophe of evil and injustice. She has borne witness, not flinching at any cruelty. Who else should be the first to see Jesus on the other side of death and share the news of Christ arisen? I believe John’s well-crafted Gospel is trying to tell us this truth. The weeping one has the clearest sight. The courage to allow our hearts to break is one of the ways we see the Risen Christ in our midst.
Holy Week began Monday with the burning of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. I watched news of people, weeping as the spire fell. People who are not particularly religious, were holding hands with strangers, singing “Ave Maria” in the streets.
There were few Catholics in the crowd, many wept for the loss of magnificent creativity, the flying buttress architecture and priceless carvings. Eight centuries of history going up in smoke. Notre Dame stood through the crusades, was desecrated during the French Revolution, the heads of the prophets chopped off after mistakenly identified as the past kings. Tears and grief are complicated, since Notre Dame represents opulence and awe rolled together.
The Cathedral is not the only thing burning in Paris. Plumes of smoke from the Yellow Vest protests have overshadowed Paris for months, as outrage boils of economic inequality. Already people are angry that the billionaires of France, who are getting extra tax breaks for their massive donations, while many struggle to make ends meet.
Ollivier Pourriol, a French philosopher and novelist, summed up the sentiment on Twitter:
“Victor Hugo thanks all the generous donors ready to save Notre Dame and proposes that they do the same thing with Les Misérables,” …referring to another one of Hugo’s famous novels, about the lives of the poor.
Less than a week after joining hands and singing Ave Maria, now France argues over what happens now. Is it worth the price of rebuilding? Does it really represent a France where immigration is reshaping society? There are more Muslims and Buddhists than Catholics in France. For many it may feel like watching civilization as they know it die. We face the same pressures on our Southern border. What will we do as thousands more people, perhaps millions, seek to escape the flames of a violence; and a changing climate that burns up the crops and dries up the water supplies? We don’t want to inhumanely lock people up and separate children from parents, but we don’t have a plan to address the real issues. The future can’t be seen through the smoke. The uncertainty fuels more flames of fear.
Many writers ponder this week why we weep now over Notre Dame, over this fire where no one died, when our world is so full death from Syria to Yemen? Where are the tears for three black churches burned by arson in Louisiana? What of the burning of our forests? Where are the millions of dollars in donations for our planet? This morning’s news revealed bombs exploded in three churches in Sri Lanka. There is too much smoke in our world.
President Macron tried bravely to announce France would rebuild Notre Dame in five short years. He was desperately trying to create a moment of unity and common purpose, but as I listened, I wanted to say, “Stop! You must dry the tears before making plans. Wait and acknowledge the grief for what is gone. He sounds tone deaf to the real economic and cultural pressures people are feeling.
I tuned into the vigorous debate over rebuilding Notre Dame, reading some of the thousands of comments on the NY Times. Here is the most liked comment by hundreds of people:
I have lived below the poverty line my entire life. As a child, I often went without shoes. I grew up on the cheapest of carbohydrates, often government distributed. I’ve had cancer twice, and after my first diagnosis, before Obamacare…I had to beg for surgery. I will be donating to the fund to restore Notre Dame. Believe it or not, even poor people need beauty, soul, and tradition. Please don’t insult us by suggesting that we don’t understand that “more than bread, sometimes, poetry is necessary.”
Her words remind me that loving beauty, justice and human dignity can and must fit together. What is one without the other? We can relate, having endured two great fires in our congregation’s history, and ceiling collapse in 2007, for which we are still paying dearly. Some of you remember weeping after seeing this space filled with debris and dust. Some of you weep when you look at the repairs and maintenance budget.
So why do we do it? For beauty, for history, or something more? I lead a tour Thursday for a youth group from Connecticut, and they marveled for a few minutes, took a few pictures, a group selfie in front of Jonathan Edwards, and left quickly, perhaps more interested in lunch. They were impressed, but I’m not sure they learned anything.
I wanted to say, “Wait, we aren’t just about the “River of Life” Tiffany Window. We think real rivers should be clean and everyone should have pure drinking water. We love our history, but it isn’t all about Jonathan Edwards. Our Baptist side was founded by abolitionists. And Edwards wasn’t just about “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” He was also a man of science. He saw the beauty of all of creation. Sometimes he drew the circles around who was a true Christian much too tightly. We draw our circles wider, which is why we have a rainbow flag in our sanctuary, and pronoun buttons at the door. We believe all of God’s people reflect the beauty of our creator.
They were gone too fast and I missed my chance, but now I can tell you. I love coming in this sanctuary and looking at the light in our Rose Window. I make phone calls and think and pray right here. I go to hours of meetings about heating systems, and handicap accessibility; and I’ve walked through the bowels and attic of the church with plumbers, electricians, and carpenters. I enjoy the inspiration of the space, but it is more than beauty and history that motivate me.
As much as I love the architecture, it matters more that we are a community meeting house for recovery, for a food pantry and support. If we preserved the beauty but did not also help resettle refugees, or wrestle with our nation’s sin of racism, what value would it be to preserve the organ pipes? This space is sacred because of the seven years of holy moments. It is the place where we have mourned our dead and shed our tears, where I have done numerous marriages and baptized children. It is literally a place of death and resurrection. It is the place where we can face our fears in the midst of loss and injustice, and a place where we can see the light of new life breaking in.
Believers, questioners, questioning believers, Easter morning we dry our tears, take in the beauty around us, the imperfect and wondrous beauty of all of us gathered, and proclaim together, Christ is risen, not just in history, but in us, among us, and through us. Weeping may linger through the night, but joy comes in the morning.