Giving Up: Death

John 20: 1-18   Early in the morning of the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. She ran to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they’ve put him.” Peter and the other disciple left to go to the tomb. They were running together, but the other disciple ran faster than Peter and was the first to arrive at the tomb. Bending down to take a look, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he didn’t go in. 

Following him, Simon Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen cloths lying there. He also saw the face cloth that had been on Jesus’ head. It wasn’t with the other clothes but was folded up in its own place. Then the other disciple, the one who arrived at the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed.

 They didn’t yet understand the scripture that Jesus must rise from the dead.10 Then the disciples returned to the place where they were staying. 11 Mary stood outside near the tomb, crying. As she cried, she bent down to look into the tomb. 

12 She saw two angels dressed in white, seated where the body of Jesus had been, one at the head and one at the foot. 13 The angels asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” She replied, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.” 

14 As soon as she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she didn’t know it was Jesus.  15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for?”  Thinking he was the gardener, she replied, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him and I will get him.”16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”

She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabbouni” (which means Teacher).  17 Jesus said to her, “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, ‘I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene left and announced to the disciples, “I’ve seen the Lord.” Then she told them what he said to her.

If any of you have ever been to St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, then you might remember the huge cross that is in their sanctuary by the organ and their screen.  It’s hard to miss. The bottom of it almost touches the ground, so you can walk up to it and touch it or hold onto it.  I always enjoy going back to St. Luke’s, because it is my home church and I have a lot of fond memories there from when I was on staff with the young ministries.  I also had a lot of sacred time there, especially in that sanctuary with that cross.

When I was there for a clergy conference a few months ago, we were all asked to spend a chunk of time in silent reflection.  We had the option to walk around the sanctuary to a variety of stations that were set up, we could pray with a friend, or simply sit where we were.  I choose to stay in my seat and have that time for myself.  After awhile, I began to look around and observe my colleagues in their sacred moments.  That’s when I noticed him.  A friend and colleague of mine was up at the front of the sanctuary standing at that cross.  He wasn’t just standing in front of it, but he had his eyes closed and was holding onto it- holding onto it for dear life.  I could tell it was a holy and sacred moment for him.  It also became a holy and sacred moment for me as I watched him cling to the cross.  It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever witnessed.

A few weeks later, this same colleague and I were at another meeting together, and I shared with him the impact his moment at the cross had on me.  He then proceeded to tell me that as he stood clinging to the cross, he was celebrating his continued journey to recovery from an addiction, and praying for the courage to share his story with others, including his congregation, which he did over the next few weeks.  Clinging to the cross gave him strength and humility, but it also gave him the courage to walk away from the things that lead to death, and to instead choose the things that lead to life.

This got me thinking about how sometimes it’s easier to stay clinging to the cross- clinging to the things that lead to death- rather than finding the courage to walk away and choose the things that lead to life.  I look around our world today and find that people find that death is a really hard thing to give up.  So how do we walk away and give it up?  How do we cling to life instead?

During this Lenten season, we have been on a journey together as we’ve heard the challenge to give some things up for Lent.  We didn’t talk about giving up chocolate or our reality TV shows or our favorite foods.  We talked about giving up the things in our lives that get in the way of our relationships with God and with other people.  We’ve heard the challenge to give up control, superiority, enemies, and popularity.  And on this Easter Sunday, we are given the ultimate challenge: giving up death.  On Good Friday we cling to the cross.  We cling to that which leads to death, but stand in awe of the beautiful paradox of the cross: that it leads to death, yes, but that it ultimately leads to life.

On Easter Sunday we find ourselves standing with Mary in the garden as she sees the risen Lord and wants to cling to him, but he tells her not to.  She must find the courage within to let go and trust what is in front of her.  She must find the courage to give up the thought of death and to choose life and the possibilities of it instead.  I don’t know about you, but I think that we are all a lot like Mary.  We want to cling to the cross.  We want to cling to the Risen Christ, to feel him, to touch his hands and feet like Thomas needed to, to know and see the remnants of death.  Sometimes it’s so much easier because we know that death is a certain thing and seems so final.  This week alone I have looked around and have seen the signs and pains of death in many places.  Our world seems to be wanting to cling to death at every turn.  This past week, 147 innocent college students were gunned down at Garissa University College in Kenya by a terrorist group.  ISIS continued its terror around the world.  The Germanwings flight that crashed in the French Alps, killing 150 people, was found to be a pre-meditated plot for suicide and murder by the distressed pilot.

Even here in Indiana, gun violence continues to threaten our streets, and this week we have seen our fair share of political unrest with the controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the pain, hurt, and mess that it has left in its wake.  I have said prayers for a ministry colleague who is caring for at least two sets of parents who are grieving still born children.  Even here in Morgantown on the way home earlier this week, I sat for several minutes in my car as the funeral home led people to the cemetery for the burial and final goodbyes of a person and the life that they led here among us.  Every day it seems we hear of another person ending their own life, feeling that there was no other way out.  Tragically, death seemed to be the only option for them.

Yes, it certainly seems at times that death is all around us, whether literal, spiritual, or metaphorical.  We live in a time and culture where it seems that people choose those things that lead to death instead of the things that lead to life.  Death seems so hard to give up.  But this Easter, let’s give up death.  Let’s not be tempted cling to the Risen Christ but believe that if we let him go, he will lead us to life beyond what we can even begin to imagine.  When we are willing to give up death, may we find the courage to walk away from the cross and step out into the world and choose life…and choose love.

When Jesus rises on Easter morning, it is more than a showy miracle to shock and amaze both his attackers and followers.  When Jesus rose, he had a purpose in mind: to turn the entire order of the world on its head.  The Risen Christ shows us that death does not have the last word.  He shows us that God has the last word, and that word is life.  That final word is love.  Suffering and death will end, but God’s love and God’s kingdom lasts forever.  But in order to fully believe and celebrate this, we must be willing to give up those things in our lives that lead to death.

I have a good friend in my life who is addicted to drugs.  Her life is not her own.  She has made a mess of many relationships, jobs, and other parts of her life because of her addiction.  She has been in and out of rehab programs, and even in and out of the hospital several times, barely escaping with her life.  For her friends and family, it’s like watching someone bang their head repeatedly on a wall and there’s nothing else they can really do to help her.  It doesn’t matter how many times we send her to rehab or go with her to a 12 step meeting if she is not the one who ultimately makes the choice to save her own life.  Right now, I fear for her life.  Right now, I fear that she is choosing not to give up death and she is clinging to the cross that is drug abuse and addiction.  My prayer for her every day is that she will make the choice for life instead.

Pastor and writer Nadia Bolz Weber talks about a song by a band called The Hold Steady that has lyrics that describe a girl who crashes into an Easter Mass with her hair done up in broken glass and tells the priest, “Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”  Sometimes, that’s what this Jesus thing is all about.  That is what this Easter thing is all about.  We celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, but we also celebrate the resurrections of ourselves in whatever form they might take.  Sometimes they are easy and beautiful.  Other times they are messy and involve picking up the broken pieces of glass that we’ve left behind.

As our words of reflection from Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber said this morning, “Easter is not a story about new dresses and flowers and spiffiness.  Really, it’s a story about flesh and dirt and bodies and confusion, and it’s about the way God never seems to adhere to our expectations of what a proper God would do (as to not get himself killed in a totally avoidable way).”  Resurrection really is about flesh and dirt and bodies and confusion.  But it is also about the beautiful thing that happened to Christ’s body, and Christ’s body that is each one of us.  It is also about the beautiful things that happen to our bodies and our lives when we make the choice to choose life and resurrection.  It’s about the beautiful things that happen when we choose to follow a Savior who defeated death and gave birth to new life so that we may live life and live it abundantly.

In this we also remember that this morning we worship and celebrate a God who first chose death so that we might choose life.  We have a God who knows our pains, sufferings, and burdens, and who chose to feel the weight of the world to give us the ultimate example of love.  In the resurrection story of John’s Gospel, we meet a Mary Magdalene who thinks that the resurrected Christ is the gardener.  Why?  Maybe it’s because Jesus still had the dirt from his own tomb under his nails.  That’s not a Jesus we usually think of on Easter Sunday, is it?  We usually make the Easter Jesus pure and clean and white, like an angel.  Perhaps we like to clean him up for Easter visitors so that no one will be offended by the truth: that resurrection is messy.  It’s never about being made clean and perfect and nice.  It’s about God making all things new.  It’s about God making me and you…new.

So perhaps it’s true that the God of Easter is a God with dirt under his fingernails (Weber, (Pastrix 173).  And this God knows what resurrection and choosing life really is like: it’s hard, messy, and confusing.  This God knows that this giving up death thing is easier said than done.  It takes courage, strength, perseverance, and a lot of faith.  It takes believing that miracles can happen.  It takes rejoicing in the fact that on Easter morning, death does not have the final word, and that love wins.  Let’s take a look at these parents who believed in the power of love and had the courage to believe in life over death:

Friends, may we find the strength this Easter morning to give up the things in our lives that lead to death: our negativity, bitterness, wallowing in sorrow.  Our anger, resentment, judgmental attitudes, pride, fear, and sin.  Our addictions, burdens, and worries.  And may we not continue to cling to the cross, but cling to our faith in the risen Lord who brings us into new life, who even with dirt under his fingernails, even with the messiness of death and signs of crucifixion on his body, shows us the ultimate power and example of love.  May we be Easter people who give up on death and choose life, and choose to live it abundantly.  And may we never forget the power of love and the God who overcame death in order to show us how it’s done.  He is Risen!  (He is Risen indeed!)  Alleluia!  Amen.

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