First Congregational Church
March 27, 2015
Easter Resurrection Sunday
“Amazing Grace for the Grieving”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Scripture: John 20:1-18 Bob King
Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 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 out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, 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 went back to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one 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.” Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” 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 Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.
Through the whole season of Lent, we looked at God’s Amazing Grace; for the Faithful, the Tempted, the Healed, the Free, the Filled, the World, and the Thief. We would have looked at Amazing Grace for the Servant, but that was Maundy Thursday, and Mother Nature had a different thought about that. When you think about the individuals that fall into those categories and ourselves over all the various times of our lives, we get a much larger understanding of how great that grace is.
The original title of the sermon was “Amazing Grace for the Grieving.” As good as the notion is, I thought, “Really, addressing grief on a Sunday with one of the best attendance numbers of the year, and you’re going to drop a downer like that?”
Like I said, the premise is fair, because who among us cannot identify with Mary Magdalene? Regardless of the proximity of relationship, all of us have been touched by death, sometimes to the core of our being. But again, what minister in their right mind would focus on such a dreary point of view?
Besides, I’ve not met anyone who is “into” grieving all that much. Most folks I encounter would rather have root canals sans novocain, fingernails scraped on bulletin boards and/or mix stripes with plaids than deal with grief. As much “fun” as any of those alternatives are, avoiding grief is as short-sighted as avoiding joy.
Consciously or unconsciously, somehow we are taught to get over our grief, to suck it up and get on with life. Sometimes we even fall for the adage that it’s the American way to ignore and avoid what is really going on inside our hearts. We’re so uncomfortable with death and grief, people reject their own funeral or memorial service, thinking they are doing their family and friends a favor. Too often people don’t deem life important enough to allow the living to do that which can most help our pain. But like I said, what pastor in their right mind…?
Because today - we get to celebrate God’s amazing grace in that we are fully spiritual beings having a human experience. Like Mary, Peter and the other disciple, we may have trouble really grasping Jesus’ resurrection. Shock and disbelief - very human responses - can sometimes distract us from reality, which is that because the tomb was empty, we have the very real hope of re-joining those who have gone before us, in an eternity of wholeness, love, safety and beauty.
Those who believe that when we die, we fade away like mere grass, and that’s the end of it, those people grieve as those who have no hope. Broken hearts are broken hearts and that’s just the way it is. But if you believe that because Jesus lives, that all who die in faith will be raised to life as he was, then your grief is very different. It is grief with confidence in the resurrection of your loved one. It is certain that you will see your loved one again, and therefore grief no longer has the final hold on your life.
Funny thing, this world, that we are sometimes so tied to the earth, that we have trouble letting go of it. There is so much assurance in holding on - as Mary held on to the sleeve of Jesus’ tunic; the smell of a specific perfume or cologne, the feeling that that special someone brought just by knowing they were at the end of the phone.
Then Jesus calls our name, like he did with Mary. Whether it happens through a television commercial, a summer breeze, or a spectacular sermon, we are reminded that God has a bigger plan than any sorrow or temporal sadness. Maybe what we struggle with - is not so much death or grief, but the seeming lack of joy or insight that sent Mary running back to the disciples to tell them about Jesus’ Good News. Why is it that we can’t get that excited?
Some might be apt to say such behavior is rather optimistic, even fanciful. But then there’s “the other disciple’s” part of the story - the one most think is John and his evidence. There were Jesus’ words: the ones repeatedly uttered that he would be crucified and then rise from the dead. There were angels, who sat in the tomb - in very specific spots - who said Jesus had risen. And then there were the grave cloths Jesus had been wrapped in, most in a pile, but the head covering neatly folded and off to the side. Grave robbers aren’t going to fold things up. They’re going to steal the body or the valuables and get out of there fast. Why make mention of a detail that precise if it weren’t true? On the basis of all the evidence - John believed.
Truly, I didn’t plan for this big streak of grief in this morning’s message. But if you think about it, it’s such an important part of the whole Easter message. When we are at our lowest, Jesus’ resurrection reminds us that there is more to living than grief and sorrow - a lot more.
That’s true for guilt, too. Like so many individuals, I’m sure Peter did the “if only” list. If only I hadn’t denied Jesus. If only I’d not run away. If only I’d stuck up for Jesus. If only…. Such a huge piece of God’s Amazing Grace is that Jesus knew what Peter was doing, and yet Jesus didn’t get angry with Peter or berate him or embarrass him. Jesus just loved him. That’s what Jesus does with us - when we are less than we would like to be.
Slowly, from Easter Sunday and for the next while, that sense of guilt for Peter began to lift. The guilt was actually gone the day Jesus died, but the feeling of guilt stuck around.
Guilt, regret, sorrow, grief, reluctance and skepticism are all very human parts of life. So are things like relief, joy, excitement, anticipation, and receiving forgiveness. Like so many things, any one of these reactions is not better or worse than the others. They just are. Like us. None of us are greater than any other. We are all God’s children, created in God’s image.
One of the definitions of grace - the one that pertains to faith - is the free and unmerited favor of God. There is nothing we could have done, can do, ever will do, that would earn us God’s grace. There is no cost for it except for Christ’s life, which he gave willingly, that you - all of us - would be able to live life to the fullest. The whole of our lives - of which this earthly part is just a smidgeon. The amazing thing about this grace is that it’s not time constrained like a K-Mart blue light special. We simply walk into it, accept it, allowing that grace to permeate our being, that we live as a person of hope. So shall we pray.
Gracious, gracious God, we are truly grateful for the gift of your son, even if we struggle with some of the details about his life. We thank you for his gracious gift, of removing the walls between us and you, that we may live that fuller, larger life you intend for us. There are some among us, God, who are not so good with a life lived out of your amazing grace. And we know that is okay. But we do pray that you will hold those folks a little closer, to help them - and all of us - hear the healing beating of your heart. We thank you, too, for being the God of miracles and creation. In gratitude for all you have given us, for your grace, and most especially for your risen son, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.