Celebrating the Unfurling

A sermon based on John 20:1-18
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on April 16 , 2017
by Rev. Scott Elliott

Until I moved to Ohio three and half years ago I did not fully appreciate the phenomenon of the changing of the seasons.
Since my first spring here I have taken to thinking of the weeks we are in at this time of year as “the unfurling” as all the plants come back to life and the animals, particularly the birds start showing up and chattering away. See my first two winters here were pretty harsh, dark and cold and icy, relative to Florida where I had been living. It actually was a bit like I imagine Narnia to be.

Then sometime after February some days the rays of sun were warm. Crocus poked their beautiful selves out of the snow. Pretty soon happy looking daffodils popped up . . . and, well, you know the rest, this amazing unfurling of greenery and flowers and blossoms dazzled me with splendor – and frankly relief. And maybe I imagine it each spring, but the birds and the squirrels I watch during my early morning prayer and meditation on our deck seem to also be relieved.

If we stop and listen in the spring here in Ohio there is an amazing cacophony of joyful sounds– in our own backyards!
Easter of course is always in the spring, and it’s full of eggs and bunnies and bright colors because spring’s promise of winter’s cold darkness ending has become a reality as this lovely season of green and new life unfurls amidst the music our indigenous critters. We tend to take for granted the miracle that the earth’s angle in space and its revolution around a marvelously perfect sun has brought the world spring every year for millions of years. While we may take for granted and not give much thought to the astronomic physics in play, we do rejoice at the very tangible results on earth– more light and warmth and the sight and smell and feel of the annual biological responses of blooms and blossoms and greenness and warmth and re-new-ed-ness of it all.

All of that buoyant budding and hope in nature, of course, is a great symbol for the amazing promise of humankind’s cold dark way of being, to one day end, giving way to the hope of Light and love and peace on earth good will to all first promised when Jesus arose from the grave one spring Sunday morning two thousand years ago during Passover. On that Sunday which we now call Easter Jesus’ horrible death at the hands of Rome was overcome and humankind began its journey out of darkness a journey that continues. We never want to take for granted the miracle of that resurrection from the cruel crucifixion Jesus endured in pursuit of peace and love and justice in the world. So every year Christians gather to have a special Easter Service to rejoice and uplift the amazing re-new-ed-ness that that resurrection offers to the world.

I had a different sermon all ready for this morning, but this spring thing kept calling to me this past week and the story of Mary Magdalene in a garden at sunrise in the spring encountering Jesus after the darkness of his arrest and death spoke to me over and above the text in Mark that I was originally going to talk about.

Mary is distraught over what we now know is good news. The tomb is empty. But as first she assumes what we’d assume were we her– that Jesus’ body has been taken, stolen maybe by Rome or the Temple elite. The darkness of Jesus horrifying arrest and death already cast a long shadow over Mary’s pre-sunrise spring garden mournful moments and then she discovers body is gone. She’s alone. No remnant of Jesus appears to be left. It’s too much. She’s weeping. Angels ask her why?

We know why. We’d be weeping too. Even now the image of her alone with that great loss is sad and sorrowful, it can make us weep when we give it our attention. Even knowing what she later discovers, we can empathize and understand the deep sorrow that grips us humans with the death of a great and good person we love. Add to that the awfulness of the brutal way Jesus was treated and tried and executed, and that his grave appears desecrated with the body stolen, we can imagine how very forlorn and sad Mary was right then and there. Which makes the angels’ question all the more jarring when they very respectfully address her as “Woman” and ask “why are you weeping?” We can hear her sobbing out the answer “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” Poor Mary. Really my heart goes out to her.

Her anguished answer is followed by the ethereal angels’ question being repeated by a man whom Mary thinks is the gardener, but we are told is Jesus. “Woman, why are you weeping? “ Jesus asks. She sadly inquires about the body and then this amazing joyful moment is triggered when Jesus calls her name. He simply says . . . “Mary!” And she turns and she knows it’s him. Mary’s the first to experience the risen Christ. She experiences the risen Christ in a garden, in the spring, in the image of Jesus made known to her by someone she did not recognize until she heard her name. And the lesson tells us he said it with an exclamation point, “Mary!”

At sunrise Mary is the very first to learn a whole different kind of cosmic Son-rise has occurred. God’s Son has risen. He is risen indeed. And it is out of humankind’s coldest darkest way of crucifixion that he rises. Unfurling a new life that ends that death’s grip, giving way to the hope of Light and love and peace on earth good will to all promised in the Christmas narratives.

That promise becomes an eternal-can’t-be-extinguished reality when Jesus was first experienced as risen from the grave one spring Sunday two thousand years ago during Passover in a garden by a woman who heard the risen Son profoundly utter her name. On that Sunday, which we now call Easter, Jesus’ horrible death at the hands of Rome is overcome.

We never want to take for granted the miracle of that resurrection from the cruel execution Jesus endured in pursuit of peace and love and justice in the world. So every year Christians gather to have a special Easter Service to rejoice and uplift the amazing re-new-ed-ness that that resurrection gives to the world.

It is right and good that we do so reflecting spring– this time of unfurling of life anew– with eggs and bunnies and bright colors that promise to now outshine the cold darkness of the past. But Easter represents more than symbols and images. Jesus was dead. Really dead. His love soaked theology and teachings led to Rome’s brutally taking his life. All that darkness was meant to bury Jesus and his theology and his teachings even his God. Our God. It was meant by Rome to be a very certain end to the Jesus story, but wasn’t. Whether one believes in a physical resurrection of the body of Jesus or not, one way or another in God’s loving empire Easter arrives and Jesus and His love-soaked Way survive Rome’s efforts to obliterate them.

To some of us Jesus literally lives on in his physical body, to others of us he lives on in spiritual ways– one way or another. He is experienced in concrete ways, in others’ actions, in our prayers, visions, understandings and in indescribable experiences of His being. But even to those who do not have a sense of Jesus really being first hand experienced in their lives as a beingness– Jesus lives. His teaching, life and death– his love soaked Way– goes on. He influences our world, and our nation and our community and our families and actually every individual with continuing effect. Influences that have moved the world. For example, many of the common place brutalities of Jesus’ time are today virtually non-existent (like crucifixions) or mostly illegal (like slavery) or diminishing (like many of the “isms” today considered improper oppression by millions). Moreover unlike the uncaring Western culture 2,000 years ago there is a pervasive ethos of care for others, following Jesus’ teachings humankind now cares far more for the poor, the sick, the stranger and the imprisoned. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection affect the world as whole– so he lives on even to those who do not believe they have other more personal experiences of his presence.

When Jesus lovingly called out Mary’s name in a spring garden, his risen status began to be unfurled to the world. Mary, of course, had a very personal experience. Soon many of the other disciples did too. And then remarkably even those who did not know him before Easter experienced him personally. More and more people found they could experience Jesus’ presence and found that it mediated the Sacred – which is poetic theological jargon for bringing them closer to God. Christianity today remains the largest religion in the world with 2.2 billion Christians. That’s some unfurling! And it began that first Easter with Mary in a garden in the spring. Ever since, for two thousand years, in the resurrected Jesus many have found they can reach through the veil between heaven and earth and sense God, know God, and bring God into their lives to better themselves, their community and the world. It’s awesome stuff.

Jesus on Easter is risen and God unfurls an indestructible portal where earth and heaven intersect, where spiritual and material meet. It’s remarkable. It’s the miracle of Easter. From Easter onward the great wonderful Light of Jesus is experienced in and through his stories, his spiritual presence, and his otherwise being experienced – in a garden, on a road, on the beach, in you and me and others, and across time in history’s positive changes toward love and justice with an aim toward achieving peace on earth good will to all. From. Easter. Onward. Jesus. Gloriously. Continues. To. Exist.

See whether we believe in a physical or spiritual resurrection of Jesus or not, Easter affects us. Jesus’ teaching, life, death and resurrection goes on. And it goes on in us, alone and together. We help facilitate the risen Jesus’ and His Way being further unfurled and experienced as an indestructible portal where earth and heaven intersect, where spiritual and material meet–where love and care pour into the world.

We can hear some of Easter’s portal’s affects in the Gospels. As a result Jesus is experienced in the breaking of bread and in other people, a gardener, a traveler, a fisherman. Jesus’ followers keep loving each other, and form communities to bring love to those in need through hospitality and care, through making and continuing to blaze the path of love by tending to those in need, by opposing oppression, by welcoming all– stranger or friend, rich or poor, Gentile or Jew, Male or Female, young or old. EVERYBODY MATTERS!

In the New Testament there are these wonderful post-Easter stories and teachings of extravagant welcome. An African Eunuch is among the first to be happily and equally brought into the church by Phillip. Peter teaches that God commands no one is to be called profane or unclean. Paul teaches that all are equal in Christ. The Book of Acts reports that amongst the Followers of Jesus there is a communal understanding of care and compassion for what others’ need.

The risen Christ leads Jesus’ followers then and now on a Way where everyone is meant to have well being – including each of us, our neighbors . . . and our worse enemies. We are led toward love. We are both attended to by God and are empowered as God’s agents. And this makes all the difference, even in our differences, personal, political . . . whatever . . . it makes us spirit-filled, teeming with Love, and it calls us and causes us – in those differences– to share love to be love in the World.

Easter unfurls an awesome love soaked Way. Beyond this Easter celebration of that unfurling, everyday may we find many ways to bring Christ’s presence through our caring actions to one another, to the community, to the world. May we further evidence that Christ is risen, risen indeed.