Rev. Dr. Martha Jacobs
Faith Beyond Belief
Psalm 46 and John 20:1-18
Easter, April 16, 2017
In the Jewish tradition, after a loved one has died, the family does not return to the cemetery until the first anniversary of the death, when they gather to unveil the headstone. After my mothers’ mother (and my grandmother) died, I remember my mother lamenting to me that she missed her so much and really wanted to go and visit her grave. “Then go,” I said. My mother looked at me as if I had told her to do something illegal. So I said, “Well, mom, if you miss her and really want to go where she is buried, then I can’t imagine that God would be upset with you.” She looked at me skeptically and so, I tried one more time to convince her: “Yes, it is tradition, but if it is something that will help you with your grief, let’s go.”
So the two of us got in the car and went to the cemetery. We stood by my grandmother’s grave and cried. Eventually, my mother started talking about growing up and how much her mother had meant to her. I learned a lot that day, not only about my grandmother, but about my mother and about myself.
When I read today’s Gospel reading this year in preparation for today, I remembered that time with my mother. I also realized that after my parents died, I too found comfort in visiting their graves. I knew in my head and heart that their spirits were not there, even though their physical bodies were. Their Spirits were with God. And yet, I wanted, perhaps needed, to go back to their graves. So, Mary’s staying at the place that she had last seen Jesus’ body made more sense to me this year.
As I worked on this sermon, I wondered, did Jesus wait to appear to Mary until after the male disciples had gone? After all, Mary stayed with him at the cross as he died while the male disciples had abandoned him. The women were witnesses to his actual death. So, doesn’t it make sense that one of the women who had witnessed his death should also be the first to witness his resurrection?
Do you know that all four Gospels agree that Jesus first appears to a woman? When I was in seminary and this really unusual agreement in all of the Gospels was pointed out to me, it became an important piece in my own affirmation that Jesus was actually raised from the dead. The reason: because had this not really happened, in at least one of the Gospels the story would have been about a male disciple being the first to see Jesus resurrected. Why is that? Because women had no standing in the community during that time. And yet, in all four Gospels – the empty tomb is discovered by a woman and a woman is the one to whom Jesus reveals himself.
If you think about it for a moment, revealing himself to a woman goes right along with how Jesus acted before being crucified – he cared for the ones on the margins, the ones without voice, like women. Jesus entrusted a woman to handle the responsibility of telling the disciples that he had risen. It is interesting that God trusts those that society doesn’t trust to bring the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and eventual ascension.
Now, Mary wanted to stay with Jesus, to hold onto him. But Jesus wants Mary to ensure that the disciples know that he has risen and will ascend to be with God. He doesn’t want her to wait. He tells her to go and tell them. I can understand Mary wanting to remain with Jesus. In the same way I can understand my mother wanting to be near my grandmother’s grave and my wanting to linger at my parents’ graves. The pull of that love can be so tantalizing, so safe-feeling, so comforting. But, friends, we cannot tarry in that garden – even though it might feel comfortable – even though it might be where we feel closest to God in that moment. God tells Mary not to hold onto him – but to go and tell the others that he has risen and therefore, we too now have new life within us!
Easter Sunday was the moment that changed the world. It changed the world because we who follow Jesus could no longer be bystanders. Our faith requires that we move beyond our faith. We too are commanded to go and tell others. Now, I am not suggesting that you need to stand on a street corner proselytizing. There are many ways that you can tell others, without people even knowing what you are doing. Being kind, being compassionate, being caring to everyone with whom you come into contact, whether at school, at work, in the grocery store, on a train, or a stranger on the street. We can show people by our actions almost more so than by our words that we serve an awesome loving God who has taught us to be like Jesus!
A few weeks ago, our Confirmation Class and their Mentors did just that when we were in Boston for CityReach, a program of Common Cathedral, for whom our Easter offering is designated. We showed God’s love and acceptance to those on the margins of society by providing them with food, clothing, talking with them, and listening to their stories of being homeless, of their being in a place in their life that was hard and difficult for them. We were witnesses to them and showed that we cared by our very presence with them. That is what it takes – being present with people, showing you care. When you move your faith beyond belief, you put into action what God expects us to do – to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God.
Jesus humbly walked this earth and does so today within each one of us. It would be easy to sit back and let others provide for those who are in need, for those who are marginalized, for those who have no voice. But, our faith calls us to action, to not just stay in the pews, but to put our feet on our faith and help the least of these. And, for each of us, that might mean something different. In this church, we try as best we can to help those who are in need, whether it be feeding and housing our homeless guests in the winter, or providing goods at reduced prices or free at our Barn Sale or Tag Sale, or helping a stranger who walks through our doors and has a need. No matter where you stand in terms of what is happening in the U.S. and in our world, we are called to stand up and speak out for what we believe in and what will help the least of these.
And, we can do this because God surrounds us and is within each one of us. God is sometimes closer than our very breath. God stays with us through whatever is going on in our lives, even though sometimes it sure doesn’t feel like it. But, through our broken places, the places where we have felt the most pain, is where our love to help others sometimes comes from. Out of our pain, as human beings, we don’t want to see others suffer, and so we do what we can to help them. And, that is also where our own healing comes from – reaching out through our pain, through our scars, to help someone else. We too are healed by helping them because our own faith deepens as well, as we have learned so profoundly here at FCC.
The final gathering that Jesus had with his disciples, before any of them knew what was about to happen, was in the Upper Room, where he broke the bread and shared the cup with them. We too did that at our Upper Room Meal on Thursday. Well, shortly after the meal Jesus shared with his disciples, most of the male disciples deserted or denied him.
But, then, in Matthew’s Gospel, the first gathering Jesus has with the disciples where they recognize him as their risen Savior, is in the breaking of the bread and sharing of the cup. So, what better way for us to recognize our Risen Savior, than by partaking in communion? And, here at FCC, our table is open to all. Jesus clearly forgave his disciples for deserting him through this act of communion with them. And on Easter morning, it is right for us to share at this table knowing that our mistakes, our sins, are also forgiven.
Jesus was with the disciples then, and is with us now. You know, some stories we need to hear again and again. So it is with the story of Easter. It is a story that reminds us that we belong to God and that Jesus, who understands what it feels like to be a human being, is out in front of us. He is calling us to move beyond our faith to reach out to those who are in need of being reminded that not only did Jesus love us so much that he was willing to die for us, but Jesus died for them, too. And, that is why we need to hear this story again and again, so that, like Mary, we too are moved to go and tell people that we have seen the risen Lord, especially because he is within each one of us.