Luke 24:1-12; I Corinthians 15:50-55
The Rev. Tom Herbek
April 16, 2017
It was early dawn, still dark, with just a hint of light in the eastern sky. The women were up. Even in their grief, there was work to be done. Somehow, they were able to go to the dark place, the tomb. Mary Magdalene and the other women went that morning, in the darkness of the early morning, in the darkness of their grief, to the darkness of the tomb itself.
They were puzzled. The stone over the entrance had been moved away. Most of us would have stayed outside, afraid to go into the darkness inside the tomb. But they went into the darkness. They followed their grief into the darkness without knowing that it would lead to anything else, to anything at all.
Somehow the women knew that, in life, the way through the darkness is to go farther in. It was only when they went into the darkness of the tomb that they were startled by the two men in the dazzling white. It was the only way they could find out what had really happened, the only way out of their grief.
For most of us, it is only in the darkness that we become dazzled. The good news of Easter is that drawing close to death, to pain, to suffering, to what we fear, can be the key to hope and to new life. The way through is to go farther in. Going deeper into the darkness of grief becomes a guide to hope.
Sometimes we learn things in the darkness. Sometimes we are surprised in the dark.
As Anne Lamott once wrote: “I love Wendell Berry’s lines that ‘it may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work, and that when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey.’ I have a lot of faith and a lot of fear a lot of the time.”
When we are afraid, suffering, confused, grieving, feeling very alone, the question that is most important is not “How can I numb this pain and get away from it?”, but is instead, “How can I face this pain and learn to see the possibilities that it alone can show me?”.
Easter is a reminder to all of us that it is often in the darkest places in our life that God is known to us, because that may be the only time that we might allow it to happen. Sometimes we receive surprising good news in the darkest moments of our life and our only possible response to the surprise is to laugh.
The surprise of Easter is on us. It comes in the dark. There is a custom in the Orthodox tradition. Believers gather on Easter Monday to trade jokes. Since the most extravagant ‘joke’ of all took place on Easter Sunday — the victory, against all odds, of Jesus over death — the community of faith enters into the spirit of the season by sharing stories with unexpected endings, surprise flourishes and a sense of humor.
After the sorrow of loss of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and the awfulness of that Saturday, the women were surprised by a possibility they had never considered. And I imagine there were tears of joy, and tears of laughter after they began to realize what it meant.
Perhaps we should spend a few moments each Easter laughing at the surprise from God, laughing together about the surprising goodness of God in our life and in our world, laughing at the unexpected possibilities in life. I like the following story:
A burglar broke into a house one night. He shined his flashlight around, looking for valuables, and when he picked up an MP3 player to place in his sack, a strange, disembodied voice echoed from the dark, saying, “Jesus is watching you.”
He nearly jumped out of his skin, clicked his flashlight off and froze. When he heard nothing more, after a bit he shook his head, promised himself a vacation after the next big score, then clicked the light back on and began searching for more valuables. Just as he grabbed the laptop, clear as a bell he heard, “Jesus is watching you.”
Freaked out, he shined his light around frantically, looking for the source of the voice. Finally, in the corner of the room, his flashlight beam came to rest on a parrot. “Did you say that?” he hissed at the parrot.
”Yep”, the parrot confessed, then squawked, “I am just trying to warn you.”
The burglar relaxed. “Warn me, huh? Who the heck are you?”
”Moses”, replied the bird.
”Moses?” the burglar laughed. “What kind of stupid people would name a parrot Moses?”
The bird promptly answered, “Probably the same kind of people that would name a Rottweiler Jesus.”
Part of our response to Easter is to laugh joyfully. The resurrection surprise changes everything! And yet, the resurrection is not easy, not all smiles and laughter. As Nietzsche once said: “Only where graves are is there resurrection.”
And we know that transformation is hard. It requires a death of the old in order for the new to be born. Most of us don’t make such changes easily.
As Barbara Brown Taylor, once said: “God is not in the business of granting wishes. God is in the business of raising the dead, not all of whom are willing.”
To be resurrected to new life, we must be willing to enter into the darkness of our life. We must face those things which we have kept compartmentalized for years: the painful memories, the griefs, the failures, the tears, that keep us from moving on.
Sometimes it is our stumbling attempt to help another that becomes the genesis of healing, of transformation, for another- and also for us. Sometimes our own insufficiency is what God finds the most useful about us.
While a seminarian, James Moore took a course in a hospital setting of clinical pastoral education. One afternoon early in the course the head nurse of his unit took him aside and told him that a patient was in need of pastoral help. She was facing serious brain surgery the next morning with the double liabilities of a poor physical condition and a sour, self-pitying attitude. Her chances of survival did not look good.
Overawed by the responsibility, this novice chaplain decided to let the patient do all the talking and serve as “an active listening sounding-board” for her fears and anxieties. Unfortunately, this plan was squelched when, at the last minute, the head nurse told him that the patient was not able to speak because of her condition.
In a panic, this young seminarian bumbled into the woman’s room, accidentally banging the door into the wall. He then lurched forward into the room and jarred the poor patient by kicking her bed. Mortified, he then launched into a stuttering, stammering series of platitudes and prayers, saying all the wrong things and feeling he had utterly failed. Horrified at his inadequacy, he left quickly.
A few days later, Moore was amazed to find the patient recovering nicely and in remarkably good spirits. Even more incredibly this patient praised him and credited him with practically saving her life. “But I don’t understand. I felt so terrible; I was so ashamed. I did everything wrong”, Moore moaned.
“That’s just it”, she replied. “I felt so sorry for you! It was the first time I had felt anything but self-pity for months. That little spark of compassion ignited in me the will to live!”
Transformations can begin by looking like failure. Resurrection begins by looking like death. It is often when we are at our lowest that the opportunities for transformation begin to appear.
Writer Marianne Williamson, who has struggled with depression for much of her life, has tried to understand and learn from her depression. She writes:
None of this is to romanticize suffering. Sleepless nights, obsessive thoughts, extreme mental and emotional pain are nothing to view lightly. But my journeys through deep sadness have ultimately shown me as much about light as they have about darkness- for in coming to understand my suffering, I’ve come to understand myself more deeply. On the other side of suffering, I’ve seen things that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I’ve seen ways I have contributed to my own disasters. I’ve seen that love isn’t a game and that it should be taken seriously. I’ve seen that other people’s feelings are as important as my own. I’ve seen that external things are not what matter. I’ve seen that life lived with any purpose but love is a life that will lead to sorrow. I’ve seen that love is more powerful than evil. I’ve seen that nothing but the love of God can be guaranteed. And I’ve seen that life does indeed go on.
-Tears to Triumph
And Rachel Naomi Remen, who has struggled with Crohn’s Disease since she was in college, says: “I was 35 years old before I understood that there is no ending without a beginning. That beginnings and endings are always right up against each other. Nothing ever ends without something else beginning or begins without something else ending. Perhaps it would be easier to remember if we had a word for it. Something like ‘endbegin,’ or ‘beginend.’”
What seems like the end is often a new beginning. What seems like deep darkness is often the beginning of light. And we don’t know at first what light will come out of the darkness in our lives.
Bea Salazar describes such a time in her life:
I had undergone back surgery and was on disability. I was depressed and just trying to get through each day. One afternoon, when I was putting out the trash, I saw a little boy digging in a dumpster for food.
I took him inside, made him a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, and sent him home. Fifteen minutes later, there was a knock at my door, and I opened it to find six more kids standing there. Is it true that you’re giving away peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches? one of them asked.
I couldn’t believe that there was no one caring for these kids. It was summer, and school was out. They told me that their parents had to work. The next day, more children showed up, and more arrived the day after that.
When school began again, kids came and asked for help with homework. Volunteers and supplies from local churches and schools poured in. My landlord donated an apartment, and soon I had 100 children coming to visit each day. Ten years later, five of the kids have begun community college.
I never thought that making one peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich would grow into something that would affect so many lives – especially mine. Those kids pulled me out of myself. There was a point when I stopped thinking about my own pain and started concentrating on somebody else’s. It’s true that when you help others, you help yourself.
You never know what it will take to get us moving through the darkness of our pain, our sorrow. Mary and the other women had to enter the darkness of their grief, the tomb, to find out that God had transformed the death of his son into resurrection.
And often, we too must enter the darkness to move into a resurrection of these events, into healing and wholeness. Life as we know it may have to change dramatically. We may have to go inside the darkness ourselves.
Yet, in the darkness, let us remember that our God is not just the God of Good Friday; our God is an Easter God! And that is enough to make us laugh! And in the transformation of Easter, we are able to soar out of the darkness into the light.
On this Easter, may the dazzling and surprising light of transformation enter the darkest places of our lives, for Christ is risen. He is risen, indeed!