This sermon was preached by Rev. Jill Sander-Chali on April 20, 2014, at University United Methodist Church.
O God, in the stillness, come meet us. Amen.
We all know that experience of losing something that we just had.
We picked up our keys, but now we can’t find them. We just had the report in our hands, but we laid it down and can’t remember where it is. We are sure that we put our shoes by the front door, but they aren’t there when we are ready to wear them.
We know what it’s like when we can’t find something we just had.
Many of us may also know what it’s like to struggle to find someone we just held close.
That’s the feeling in our Easter story.
You see, the past few days have been like a nightmare for the disciples, the small group of friends who followed Jesus and are striving to live by his teachings.
The week started out so good—with the glorious entry into Jerusalem. All the crowds were excited, shouting and waving palm branches! The city was in a tizzy looking for Jesus and they were delighted to find him entering the city on a donkey.
But, things went downhill pretty fast from Sunday.
The next thing you know, Jesus is in the temple causing a big scene—throwing over tables, telling the money changers to get out, and trying to redeem God’s house as a place of prayer. Jesus’ followers and the religious leaders know exactly where Jesus is and what he’s up to.
Then, on the day of the feast of the Passover, Jesus gathers with the disciples to share a sacred meal and remember how God has saved them over and over. During the meal, Jesus institutes a new ritual by humbling himself to wash the disciple’s feet and by inviting the disciples to use the bread and the cup to remember him.
I wonder if a few of them are starting to get suspicious at that point. Why do we have to remember you, Jesus? You are already right here in front of us.
But, that very night, Jesus is arrested in the garden while the disciples fall asleep praying. The disciples are separated from Jesus probably for the first time since they started following him. They aren’t with him physically, but they know where he is and they follow his torture and trial from afar, every time Pilate and Caiaphas put him in the public eye.
The day ends in a horrific tragedy with Jesus hanging on the cross and people looking on waiting for him to die. Yet, even in the midst of this terrible tragedy, I imagine that the disciples must have found some comfort in knowing where Jesus was—where his body was at least.
Because Jesus dies after sunset on the Sabbath, the disciples are supposed to wait to prepare his body for burial or to do any of the funeral rituals. So, Jesus’ body is placed in a big tomb.
The day after must have been a day of emptiness, a day when food tastes like cardboard, a day when it is all you can do to wake up and get out of bed. In a small way, I think that Mary and Peter and the beloved disciple must have been relieved when the next morning came and they could go to the tomb, see the body of Jesus and get to work getting things ready.
Instead, what they find is an empty tomb. This isn’t exciting. It is terrifying. The assumptions must have run rampant—Are we in the wrong place? Did someone steal Jesus’ body? Are they still torturing him even after death? How will we mourn without a body? How will we bury him? Will it feel like we never knew what happened to him?
The way that it happens is that Mary gets there first and she’s the one who finds the empty tomb. She runs to tell Peter and the beloved disciple, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have laid him.” The men run to the tomb and go inside to see for themselves. But when they see the tomb is empty, they believe what she has told them and they go back home. If Mary had not stayed, would they ever have known the rest of the story?
You see, Mary cannot leave; she stays outside the tomb crying and looking for Jesus’ body.
Mary is looking for someone, something familiar. In some ways, though she doesn’t realize it at the time, she is looking for the wrong thing. She is looking for Jesus’ body, the one that had lost life and crumpled under the weight of the cross. She is distraught that she can’t find his body, that she can’t find Jesus in the form that she is expecting.
So, she begins to have a conversation with the person she believes to be the gardener, pressing him to give her any information that he has about Jesus’ body. But when the gardener speaks her name, she realizes that she has found Jesus. In fact, he has been there all along, but she didn’t recognize his presence.
I wonder: What do we do when we can’t find Jesus? How do we feel when we can’t recognize the one we are looking for?
Are we more like Peter and the beloved disciples, seeing, believing and going home? Or are we more like Mary, unable to move on and stop looking?
Sometimes we feel like we can’t find Jesus in some of the hardest moments of life. Sure, it may be easy to be filled with glorious thoughts of resurrection on a beautiful morning like today.
But what about when someone we love dies? What about when we lose a job and can’t find another one? What about when a child is diagnosed with a debilitating disease? What about when we feel lonely and afraid? What about when we are unsatisfied with the day to day grind of life? What about when we realize we hate going to work every day? What about when our house gets foreclosed on? What about when we wonder if God really exists? What about when we wonder whether God cares?
I think these are the moments, the seasons in life, when we can’t find Jesus. These are the moments in life when we also go looking and find an empty tomb that feels more like a defeat than a victory. Mary and the disciples were there, too.
The challenge that Mary demonstrates for us is to stay long enough and to keep searching long enough until we find Jesus, until Jesus is revealed. He may be in a different form that we expect. He may look differently than he has before. He may come to us in a new way, but the glorious promise of Easter is that Jesus is already there, already here, even if we don’t recognize him.
In fact, Jesus has been there all along. Jesus is with us all the time, in the high moments, in the low moments, in the in-between moments.
When you can’t find Jesus, keep looking.
Because the promise of today is this: Christ is risen! Christ is risen! Christ is risen, indeed!!
Copyright 2014 by Rev. Jill Sander-Chali