Scripture: John 20:1-18
I have dozens of voicemails from my mom who died last November saved on my cell phone. They go back almost a decade. In every one of them, she begins, “Hi sweetie pie…” In the early ones, her voice is so filled with life. She is often confirming plans with me, telling me about an upcoming PBS documentary or making sure I know about weather news or highway construction. Mom stuff. In the later ones, her voice has a familiar frailty. The content is almost always medical. But still she begins, “Hi sweetie pie…” From the last six months or so of her life with Parkinson’s, I don’t have any voicemails. She was in and out of reality, in and out of being physically and emotionally paralyzed. Each morning when I would come downstairs in the house our family shared with her, I would brace myself for what I might find. Would she be stuck in a panic, frozen in a tangle of sheets and memories and fear? Or would she be up in her chair, a smile at my entry into the room, looking at me and saying, “Hi sweetie pie!”
In some strange way, those last 6 months of her life were like a perpetual cycle of Holy Week. But we never knew where we were in the week or which day was next. Was it a last meal together? Was this a metaphorical Good Friday, as torturous as it was going to get physically and emotionally for her, for all of us? But each “Hi sweetie pie!” felt like being called in like the grief-striken Mary on Easter morning, death’s circling presence lifting for a moment. “Mary!” said Jesus. And she recognized him, her beloved teacher of all those years, also present through his absence.
As I’ve been making my way through Holy Week this year, it is a relief to enter the more linear story of death and resurrection of the church year. Not just because of the horrors of non-linear end-stage Parkinson’s my family endured recently. But because the world is so full of the twists and turns of Holy Week on both repeat and shuffle all at the same time, it seems.
Is this the beginning of World War III or is it the so-called Cold War again or something else entirely that maybe, maybe could end more quickly? Is this the end of the pandemic or the beginning of endemic COVID or a reprieve before the next surge that will prove us all wrong about everything again? Are we resurrecting abolition from the era of slavery via the Movement for Black Lives or are we arming our police as a new confederate army ready to crucify the next generation? Has the pandemic tipped the institutional church into irrecoverable decline or revealed new possible life in some as of yet unrecognizable Reformation? If you live in Minnesota this past week, is it spring or fall or winter? The answer to all these questions and so many others like it is simply, “yes.” Which is perhaps why it’s not easy to be, as we call it, Easter people. Death and Life are not so easily separated and the path from Maundy Thursday to Easter morning hardly ever proceed on a linear timeline beyond the pages of the Bible.
And yet, through our haze of ruined expectation and grief, through all the twists and turns, there comes a “Hi sweetie pie…”; there is the call, “Mary!”. We are turned towards the call of being known, of belonging, and of God’s love right there present in our pain, persistent through death’s presence. That is Easter miracle enough.
But God doesn’t stop there. Like Mary, we might want to hold onto that moment, that feeling of being held in Love when we thought it was gone. What would you give for one more conversation with a person you never thought you would be able to talk to again? But like Mary, we too are told by Jesus, “Do not hold onto me.” God is up to something bigger than an encore. God is not resuscitating Jesus, but resurrecting him… and all of us.
The resurrection is not a resuscitation of a dead body. It is the birth of a new kind of body. Jesus instructs Mary Magdalene to let go of the body she’s grasping to keep with her because that body is gone. The revelation of God in the flesh of Jesus has come to an end, but God becomes further enfleshed beyond Jesus’ body… [in his community].
In other words, Jesus has died. But the Good News of the of Easter is that the Body of Christ is now alive in ALL of us who heard the story from Mary and her descendants. That is resurrection.
If only our lives were as efficient as scripture stories, but they are not. The distance between death and resurrection is not a day, but the distance of grief – messy, non-linear, painful. This year as I grieve my mom’s death, I am struck that what Jesus is actually telling Mary and me and all of us in this last scene is how to grieve our way into resurrection. “Mary stood weeping outside the tomb,” says the scripture. It is in her keening that Jesus meets her and calls her by name and then sends her on. Do not hold onto me. Do not hold onto what you think was supposed to happen or could have been. Do not try to go backwards. Instead, bear witness to the truths of death as awful as they may be and then go to where your people are. Call THEM by name so that they too might know they are beloved. Go continue our community that bears on-going witness the Belovedness you have known. And in doing so, you will become the Body of Christ, the Body of our Ancestors, the Body of God, alive here and now.
And she did. Or we wouldn’t be here today. We tell the story of the birth of the church with different scripture stories usually, with Pentecost. But I’m struck this year that what we know now as church began as a community of grievers on this early morning. The same day Mary went to tell them Jesus was resurrected, the disciples gathered for communion to tell the sacred stories of his life, to imbibe and embody his wisdom. And so the church began.
What does that mean for us as the Body of Christ and as church today at Lyndale? As much as many of us have longed for an Easter morning back in the sanctuary, this morning does not look like what Easter looked like in 2019. We cannot go “back.” We too must not hold on.
“Reality of old is dead and gone. Jesus calls us to let go and go forth in search of something new,” continues that same commentary. I would add, Jesus calls to grieve so THAT we might go forth to search for something new. Grieve the sound of a full sanctuary singing now that so many of us find online worship more accessible. Grieve – at least for now – the look of a full face smiling that we cannot see beneath the mask despite the smiling eyes. Grieve the generational shifts. Grieve whatever is your loss and longing to grieve. But do so together because in community and beyond all our assumptions is where we, like Mary, will keep finding and becoming the Body of Christ, the Body of our Ancestors, the Body of God alive.
The commentary closes: “Jesus’ instruction to not hold onto him is a call for creativity…We now seek to touch the risen Christ through each other, through nature, and through life itself. The incarnation continues to expand moment by moment.”
I can listen to the voicemails from my mom any time I want. “Hi sweetie pie…” But I rarely do. They are as painful as they are glorious. On this side of her death, they are a momentary resuscitation. Most days, I try to look instead for that glimmer of life and love in my babies that carry her name or her genetics, in the sunshine even when it is cold, and in the meandering pathway of grief’s ups and downs. And slowly, slowly resurrection is growing in me.
Lyndale, let us not hold on to what has passed away either. Let us grieve. And let us go to each other because that is where Christ lives today. Together, we too will rise anew. So began the church of Mary, and our church too – anew. Resurrecting, always.