Windsor Community United Methodist Church
Thursday, June 20, 2013
Mike Turgeon “How can this be?” April 4, 2010
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord, and we do not know where they have laid him."
Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and got there first. He bent down to look in, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.
They said to her, "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." When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher).
Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. John 20:1-17a
Three years ago, when I preached from this passage, my father had just died and it was a blessing. Wracked with dementia, he ended his days at Pleasant Care Convalescent in Petaluma. Three days after his death, I went down to the facility to say thank you to the staff for all the care they extended to him in the five months he lived there.
As was my habit, I went down to his room and there I encountered his empty bed. This sight is always jarring to me. I’ve had it happen any number of times as a chaplain and as a pastor. Usually, I’m left trying to decipher the message of the empty bed. Did the person get better? Did they go to a different floor, maybe they made it back home? Perhaps they got worse and ended up in acute care. All the empty bed really tells you is that the person you were looking for is not here.
This time I knew in the deepest possible way what had happened.
The empty bed. Where once life existed, it is no more. What once represented layer upon layer of complexity, now exists as memory only. What I’m looking at now are new sheets and the blankets tightly tucked, pillowcase clean and fresh, the pillow fluffed and ready for a new occupant. What I’m imagining is a lifetime.
My Dad’s roommate was lying on his bed when I came in and he, too, was battling dementia, so I had learned to expect no intricate conversations with him. He asked me if I was looking for someone and when I told him my Dad had died, he expressed his sorrow and sympathy, and then he said “You know, he’s not here.”
I chuckled inside at the irony. The words from the 24th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, “He’s not here…but he has risen.”
I found a plastic bag on the night stand with the remainder of my Dad’s clothing in it. More irony. From John’s Gospel today we hear this about Simon Peter’s experience when he enters the tomb:
“He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself.”
There is a book by Sigmund Brouwer called “The Carpenter’s Cloth” and it says this about the folded cloth found in the tomb. "During Jesus' time, there was a certain way a carpenter let the contractor know that a job was finished. A signature, so to speak.
Imagine a hot afternoon in Galilee. Jesus has completed the final pieces of a carpenter’s job he has worked on for several days. The hair on his forearms is matted with sawdust and sweat. His face is shiny with heat. He takes a final drink of cool water from a leather bag. Then, standing to the side of his work, he pours water over his face and chest, splashing it over his arms to clean himself before his journey home. With a nearby towel, he pats his face and arms dry. Finally, Jesus folds the towel neatly in half, and then folds it in half again. He sets it on the finished work project and walks away.
Later, whoever arrives to inspect the work will see the towel and understand its simple message. The work is finished.” Christ's disciples, of course, knew this carpenter's tradition. They see the cloth inside the tomb and they know the work is finished. I can imagine how Simon Peter must have felt. It’s an empty bed. The clothes are on the night stand. It’s over.
But it is the other disciple who starts putting the pieces of Jesus’ life and teaching together. It’s the disciple not named, the one racing to the tomb with Simon Peter. It is this one who “saw and believed.”
Who is this guy? He is referred to as the one whom Jesus loved, the ‘beloved disciple.’ We don’t really know for sure who he was. Some say it’s the writer of the Gospel of John himself; some say there is not enough evidence to offer a name of any kind; some even say it was Mary Magdalene, that’s a famous theory nowadays. Whoever it is, who this person was is not as crucial as what this person did.
What did he believe? Did he believe this wasn’t a case of grave robbing? An empty tomb with no burial clothes left behind might lead you to think grave robbers had come. Grave robbers would not be interested in taking a body without its wrappings. Remember Lazarus, the friend of Jesus that he brought back to life? When Lazarus stepped out of his tomb, they had to unbind him from the burial clothing. This is not like that. This was something different altogether.
The burial clothes are all there, lying in an ordered formation, sending a message to those who would receive it.
These details speak to those left behind.
Those of you who have lost loved ones know what the days and weeks are like after their death. There is a tendency to find meaning in every little action, every little memory. In my Dad’s case, I was debating whether or not to stop in to see him the day before he died. It was my designated day among my siblings to go see him, but I was headed to the Bay Area to have dinner with my daughter. Because I had an extra 20 minutes or so before traffic time, I went by. From the moment I walked into his room, I could see a drastic change had occurred, so we gathered the family together. Details.
I’ve learned that after a person’s death, the first thing a loved one wants to do is to recount every detail in the sequence leading to the discovery of the death. You want to tell someone, it helps make it more real somehow. The reality of death, even though we know it is coming, overwhelms us at a certain level. Mary Magdalene had to go immediately to tell her friends.
The details of a person’s death are as important as the details of their life. We believe this because we believe that death is a part of life, not some disease that needs to be cured.
Because death is a part of life, each moment of life is a sacred one. In the church we call this the holiness of life. A person’s life has meaning simply because they exist. Life is holy and sacred even though we humans tend to trivialize it through our greed, demean it with our wars and violence, and belittle it with our unholy choices.
If you doubt that life is sacred and holy, think of it in terms of water. If you don’t think water is holy, try doing without it for three days. That first sip will tell you everything you need to know about holy water. And the holiness life.
We’ve all heard it said that God is in the details and that was certainly true of Jesus’ life. When the other, beloved disciple confronts the empty tomb, he sees and believes that life will not be the same ever again. Jesus had tried to tell this to his friends, incomprehensible as it must have seemed.
“In a little while, the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.” John 14:19
Jesus existed in two worlds. In the world where Jesus walked, the work is finished; in the world beyond the empty tomb, new birth had just begun.
But it was all too much for Simon and the other disciple.
“Then the disciples returned to their homes.”
They left too soon.
We do look for meaning, don’t we? Something told me not to leave my Dad too soon on that fateful day. However, were you and I disciples of Jesus back in the day, we probably would have left him too soon. Just about everybody did, afraid of what the Romans might do to them. True understanding is still a ways off for Simon Peter and his friend. But not everyone left too soon.
What happens next in John’s resurrection account is a cornerstone for our faith. This Mary Magdalene, another beloved disciple, beloved to Jesus at least, if not by anyone else, is about to meet Jesus in a new form. You see, by the standards of the day, Mary did not count. Her gender rendered her insignificant. But Jesus was operating by a whole new set of standards.
Jesus took the world’s standards and turned them inside out. Under the standards of Jesus Christ, no longer is it permissible to exclude the outsider in God’s name; to pummel the oppressed because we suppose that God has to be on our side, just because we want it so badly. God does not have to do anything, especially anything we want.
No, it is the outsider, the no-count, the excluded one who receives Jesus’ tender mercy and it is to her that Jesus delivers his first call to justification.
Justification is a fancy theological term that means you’re ok.
The Pharisees, the lawyers of Jesus’ time, taught something far different than you’re ok. They had the Law on their side, and that is a tricky place to be. With the Law on your side, one must be even more vigilant on behalf of the least. But that is not how the Pharisees saw it. The ruling class of the religious community of Jesus’ day parsed down the Law into bits and pieces, the better to keep the rabble in check.
Well, Jesus seized the Law and transformed it with a love so great, not even the grave could contain it. And by this conversation with Mary Magdalene, arguably the lowest of the lowly in the pecking order, the message of the empty tomb is simple: no one will be excluded from the grace of Jesus Christ. We call this the Good News, and it has the power to change us when we test it out by how we live our lives.
As an 18 year-old, I went toe to toe with my Dad with God and religion at stake, or so I thought. By the age of 18 I had come to the conclusion that the Catholic Church was not the place for me. I was determined to go in a different direction, any direction other than where I was being steered.
Most of my battles early in life were with my mother. From about the age of 15, these battles were practically a daily occurrence. At that tender age, I didn’t know that I should choose my battles, I just fought them all. Not an effective long-term strategy.
What I did know was that if I really wanted to make a statement, challenge my Dad. He did not engage in battle lightly. I told him I was no longer going to be part of the Catholic Church. By leaving his religion, I believed I was asserting a ‘truth’ that only I held. This is known as the arrogance of youth.
My Dad flinched that day in the face of an ‘angry teen,’ but he did not leave me too soon. His tolerant response gave me hope that my own life would not be defined for me, I would get to choose.
Over the years, what I got in return from my Dad for my harshness is the same thing that we see in the tender moment between Mary and Jesus. Mary! Teacher! Tender mercy, true compassion, and hope where there had been none.
By letting me go, my Dad allowed me a path to return. My father taught his children to go ahead and have their stands, his only requirement was that we not hold on to him too tightly, so that we might stand on our own at the right time.
The empty tomb. The empty bed. Powerful symbols of lives once confined and now transformed.
Jesus came that we might change direction. He came to release us from the notion that death is a final act. When we are released from our fear of death, we let go of our fear of life. By testing the empty tomb every day, love replaces fear.
Love is alive through what Jesus has done. When we let that get all the way through our armor, it changes us. Live forcefully in this love, not fearfully in your grief and mourning. It is Easter. Our priorities are re-ordered and a broken world cries out for the healing you can bring.
One way or another, all of us ultimately will leave an empty bed for someone else to find. What tale will your empty bed tell?