Minister's Sermon - Easter Sunday 21st April 2019
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenSunday 21st April 2019

1 Corinthians 15.19-26

John 20.1-18

Mary’s is the first Easter sermon. And it’s a very short one! “I have seen the Lord!” Yet, it says everything, the other disciples needed to know. Jesus was not in the tomb, he was alive, he’d risen from the dead as he said he would. I suspect I won’t get away with quite so short a sermon today. But it does sum up the two things I want to say today. First that “resurrection is… a first-person testimony…” (1) It’s about what I, what you, what we, have seen in our own lives and in the life of the world. We are called to witness to the resurrection we have seen in words. And second - and it’s where I’m going to begin - is that saying “I have seen the Lord” is about pointing out resurrection in the midst of ruin. New life when all that seems visible is death. And love, kindness and unity when hate is the only thing attracting followers.(1)

For Mary, it all began, “early in the morning when it was dark.” In John’s Gospel, she comes alone, before daybreak. The sun hasn’t started to rise. It’s not yet light. For the people John was writing for, darkness was more than a lack of light, it was a metaphor for deathly things. For the mental anguish of grief, despair, hopelessness. Of being at rock-bottom in death’s darkest reaches. Of physical suffering. Illness. Torture. Or the suffering caused by being in a particular place. A prison, a refugee camp, a shop doorway, a squalid flat, or somewhere that offers no protection from conflict. And for some, unbelief or scepticism, is also an experience of darkness. So, darkness is multi-dimensional. It’s not just the absence of light. It’s everything I’ve said and more. And it’s not hard to imagine how Mary experienced this darkness. Jesus, her beloved friend, the one who’d welcomed her when she was rejected, who’d included her in when everyone else spurned her, was dead. She had no idea what the future would look like. Whether she’d ever be loved again. Whether his followers would ever be safe. Everything seemed dark. In her darkness, she went to the tomb, ’though unlike the other Gospel writers John doesn’t tell us why. So, I suspect she just wanted to be close to Jesus.

When Mary arrived in the garden where Jesus’ tomb was, she saw that the stone at the entrance to the tomb, was rolled away. She’s confused, bewildered. So, she runs to find the disciples, and tells them “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb…” Simon Peter and the disciple Jesus loved, ran to it, and John tells us that they saw the linen cloths Jesus was wrapped just lying there. And the cloth which had been around his head, rolled up, by itself.  Simon Peter sees. The other disciple sees and believes. But neither does anything. And they return to their homes.

Mary is alone again. John doesn’t say, but I think it must have been light by now, ‘though she’s still in darkness. She goes into the tomb and sees two angels dressed in white. They ask her why she’s weeping. And she repeats the same thing she told the disciples. “They have taken my Lord away, and I do not know where they have put him!” She’s so wrapped up in herself, that she doesn’t wait for their reply, and when she turns around, and someone she assumes is the gardener asks who she’s looking for, she asks another version him the same question. “If you took him away, sir, tell me where you have put him, and I will go and get him.” Her grief is so all encompassing, that all she can think about is, where Jesus’ body is. So, she can be with him in death, as she was in life. To wait with him. To stay close to him. To remain in the dark. And, just in case you think I’m suggesting there’s something wrong with that, I’m not. There are times when people in dark, deathly places, need people to be with them, to accompany them, to wait, to stay. To say, through presence rather than words, “you’re not alone.” To rescue them when they’re in danger. Or support them until they can do something for themselves.

But this was not the moment for Mary to remain in darkness. That time had passed. As daylight grew brighter all around her, she heard her name being called, “Mary!” And as she heard her name, her mind was opened and her heart melted, as light overcame darkness. She knew it was him, because like sheep who respond to the shepherd’s call, she knew his voice. And she recognises him immediately. “Rabboni!” One commentator says, that with this, Mary claims her place as Jesus’ rabbinical student.(2) It’s her moments of resurrection, but for now, his concern is to tell her not to “hold onto” him but to “go… and tell...” That “do not hold onto me,” is the same as “let go,” let go of everything that gets in the way of life. Every idea, every belief, every feeling. Even our “creeds and confessions, our denominations and doctrines.”(2) The things that comfort us. The things we know we should let go of because they are harming us and the wider world. Every must or ought or should. Everything, anything, that gets in the way of resurrection. But because it’s can be difficult to know what that looks like, let me tell you where “I have seen the Lord,” in these last days.

On Thursday night the journalist Lyra McKee was tragically killed in Derry. On Friday, Good Friday, there were vigils in Belfast, Derry and Dublin. They were attended by people from across the political divide and by members of the LGBT community. And Arlene Foster made her first visit to the republican heartland of the Creggan estate. She said, “Why did I come? I came to stand in solidarity with all of the people who are here today… I want to say: your pain is my pain. It doesn’t matter whether you are Catholic or Protestant. Whether you identify as Irish or British.”(3) The vigils speak to me of resurrection. Of the letting go of old hatreds. Protestant, catholic, people of faith, members of the LGBT community, North and South. People from across divides embraced each other. They shared the grief of Lyra’s partner, Sara. They challenged those who want to go back to the old hatred of the troubles. They witnessed to life in the midst of death. To light in the dark.

Over the past few days, we’ve heard more about climate change, that for a while - in papers, on news channels, and social media - at last! Extinction Rebellion’s protest is controversial, especially targeting public transport, but I think a pink boat in the middle of Oxford Street is simply joyous – even ‘though it’s so serious! And I’ve appreciated the way the police have dealt gently with the protestors in comparison with the pepper spray being used in France. On Maundy Thursday, David Attenborough’s new programme, “Climate Change – the facts” was on the BBC. If you haven’t seen it please watch it. It’s hard-hitting, because it tells us what we need to let go of, to stop doing. But it’s not hopeless. It includes with the witness of 1.4 million young people who took part in last month’s school strikes. And it tells us that 30% of our energy now comes from renewable sources. So why not more! There are glimmers of light, of the possibility of resurrection, in the dark.

I wasn’t going to say anything about Notre Dame and the picture of the cross in the middle of the ruin of the roof timbers. But it’s a visual metaphor of resurrection. Of the cross arising out of the dark rubble. The picture came to mind when I watched the last episode of BBC 2’s latest pilgrimage. This one is to Rome. One of the pilgrims, was Stephen K Amos, the stand-up comedian. He’s gay and has never felt acceptable to any faith community. On Friday they reached Rome and heard they’d be meeting the Pope. He wasn’t sure he wanted to go, because he thought it’d be hypocritical to go, and remain quiet. But he was given an opportunity to say what he felt. The Pope listened, and said, “We are all human beings and have dignity. It does not matter who you are and how you live your life you do not lose your dignity.” Stephen was in tears. Later, he said, “that’s what I’ve been searching for - for a long time…” (4) I don’t know whether he’d call being accepted by a representative of a religious community, as resurrection, but it was what I saw. I’m also reminded of a friend who is currently in remission from cancer. She almost didn’t survive, every day was a struggle, and she lived from day to day. As time has gone on, ‘though, she’s used her illness to look again at her life. To wonder about what she was doing and whether she wants to carry on doing them. To see what the life she’s been given back is for. And to let go of her previous view that cancer is a “battle.” When I met her for lunch, I saw what I’d call, a new resolve. A decision to doing the things she discerns are most important. And letting go of the rest. That’s what resurrection, new life looks like.

In each of these situations, I can say, “I have seen the Lord.” You might wonder how. I can’t possibly have seen Jesus, can I?! Yet I have! Because just as I’ve seen him in those who are suffering - people affected by climate change now, in Lyra’s friends and family, wherever there are people living with mental or physical illnesses or with the despair of conflict or rejection – I’ve also seen Christ where life has broken in. Where there is light in the dark. Hope in the midst of despair. people are liberated from their darkness, where they experience hope or practice new life. This is what it means to see the Lord. To glimpse resurrection.

But there’s more than this. Because while it’s good to be able to point out the resurrection we see around us. God’s longing for all of us, is that we experience resurrection now, and not just after death. I learnt this first, from the Christian Aid poster which said, “We believe in life before death.” Then, I thought it was just - ‘though it’s a big just – life for people suffering from poverty and injustice, in other parts of the world. It was a while before I also realised that life before death is what God wants for us all. Jesus calls it “fullness of life” in John’s Gospel. But resurrection can be another word for it. And the question this invites us to ponder is, how does resurrection happen, to us? And I’d like to suggest three things.

The first is that we need let go of deathly things. Whether they’re possessions, ideas, practices. We need to do what Arlene Foster, my friend, the climate change protesters or the BBC 2 pilgrims to Rome, are doing. We need to allow the tomb to be opened. The stone to be rolled back. And that “allow” is important, because it’s not something we can do, or do alone. It’s about what God can do with people who are becoming open to God. And what God can do with people who are open to cooperating in God’s work of bringing light into darkness. When I finish speaking, after our prayers, I will invite you to come and collect one of the pieces hanging on the tree. They are resurrection practices. Things that can help to open our lives, our hearts and our minds, to God when we practice them regularly.

The second thing we can do is to look at our own lives. I’d be surprised if there was anyone here who doesn’t have a story of resurrection. Of how the darkness you’ve known has turned into light. It might not have happened suddenly. It might not yet – or ever - be complete because things can’t be as they were before. But in the midst of pain or suffering or despair or anguish or grief. You have glimpsed some light, known some joy, so have some hope. A few years ago, I began to wonder, if being a minister was becoming impossible for me. I felt my life was being overtaken by chronic fatigue and didn’t know what to do. All the GP suggested was work fewer hours. I knew that, but I also knew, I needed someone to help me to do it. To cut a long story short, two years after first being told I have chronic fatigue, I was referred to a programme that’s been cut now. I had 8 sessions with a physio and 8 with an occupational therapist. And I learnt how to manage the fatigue. I’d already accepted that I couldn’t do it alone. But I also had to let go of some other things that were getting in the way of me living well. The theology of self-sacrifice, and the ideas I had had about the future, were two. It wasn’t easy. Yet with it came a feeling of accepting what is, and with time, energy. The fatigue is back, and it means I sometimes have brain-fog and can’t remember your names, but this time I don’t have the feelings of despair.

The third thing I want to say, is that our stories may surprise us. It was only when I was invited to tell a resurrection story that I spoke about my experience of chronic fatigue. It was as if I didn’t know it was a story of resurrection until I opened my mouth. And that needing to speak was the catalyst for the stone being rolled back and light flooding in. I think that’s true of many of us. Because even ‘though resurrection stories are real, as life moves on, they can feel fleeting or too light, so we’re inclined to mistrust them. Yet, when we do trust them, resurrection begins to shape us. For Karoline Lewis saying “‘I have seen the Lord,’ witnesses to another way of being in the world. A way of being shaped by resurrection, that embodies anything and everything that is life-giving, a way of being that is so counter-cultural, so demonstrative of mercy, so exemplary of the truth of Easter that others will listen to you, watch you, wonder about you and say, “Wait a minute. Did I just see the Lord?” (3)

But there’s no short-cut to this place. And there isn’t a format to follow that works for everyone. We’ll see resurrection when we’ve begun to trust it in our own lives. And we’ll only trust it in our own lives when we’ve stayed with our own darkness - of grief or loss, struggles, traumas or disappointments and plumbed the most-deathly reaches of our lives. For as Wendell Berry says in the exaggerated manner of a poet, “to participate in resurrection, one must first be dead.” In other words, resurrection is only resurrection, when it emerges out of something deathly. And for that to happen, “requires the risk of hanging on to hope when all else fails.  The risk of sitting in the dark after everyone else runs away.  The risk of turning towards the one who calls our name… It’s only in retrospect, only as I look back at the ‘gravesides’ of” our lives that we see what has happened.(5) So, I pray that this Easter, that you as you look back on your life, you will see your own resurrection story. And if you don’t already know it you’ll begin to discern it. So that with Mary, and all who have followed her as witnesses to resurrection, you’ll be able to say, “I have seen the Lord.” Amen.

Sue Keegan von Allmen

References

(1) Adapted https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4571

(2) https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2807

(3) https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09w7lc0

(4) https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/apr/19/hope-amid-tragedy-lyra-mckee-death-gives-glimpse-of-another-northern-ireland

(5) https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=2172