Friday, April 29, 2011

Lighting the Cave

This is my adapted final sermon from my introductory preaching course with Dr. Gary Simpson. We had to write an Easter or Resurrection sermon. I still am working out the beginning of the sermon, but here it is as a little resurrection for the week after Easter. And away we go...

Scripture: John 20:1-18 1

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him."

Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus' head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?" She said to them, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."

When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?"

Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rabbouni!" (which means Teacher).

Jesus said to her, "Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers [and sisters] and say to them, 'I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"

Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord"; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Sermon: Lighting the Cave

This text presents us with the picture of Mary Magdalene, eyesight blurred by tears, stooping down to look into the tomb, bent over to look into that empty place that is supposed to hold Jesus' body. This image of Mary bending over to look into the tomb, which was essentially a cave, was one that spoke to me when I first read this passage. I don't know how many of you have been in caves, but picturing the tomb as this carved out cave really captured my attention.

My family went on vacations across the USA when I was a kid, and we would go to different caves opened as parks to the public--- we weren't like spelunkers or anything--- and without fail in the middle of the tour, the guide would shut off all the lights and tell us that in the world you can only experience absolute darkness in two places, the bottom of the ocean and in a cave. And the guides would then always say that a person cannot survive in absolute darkness very long. They told of cavers whose candles or later flashlights would go out, leaving them stranded underground. They would go blind, eyes constantly searching for some sort of brightness that just did not exist inside the cave, and slowly they would be mentally consumed as well, minds craving sunlight as the body did. This kept running through my head as I bent down with Mary to look in the tomb.

And so, will you pray with me:
God-With-Us, this Holy Week we read of a time of confusion and fear,
culminating in this Easter morning moment. As we explore this text together,
might we remain open to the workings of the Spirit,
actively listening for the ways in which you are leading us.
In the name of the Living One. Amen.

In the Gospel of John, which we read today, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb alone. She has lived in fear the last few days, wondering as so many of us did at the quick turn around from Palm Sunday to the terror of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. She has lived through the abandonment of the disciples named the Twelve in the gospels2--- those who are supposed to be Jesus' closest friends and companions. She has stood watching with her own eyes the crucifixion of her teacher. And then there was Saturday. She must not have been able to wait any longer. She slipped out of the house where she must have been staying with other followers of Jesus, making a pilgrimage by herself to see the body. At this point, it was all she had. Jesus' crucifixion was someone blowing out the candle in the cave, and she has been searching for a little light. Finding the lifeless body there would not be that light, but she did not know what else to do.

So when she approaches the tomb in that early morning and she sees the stone had been removed from the tomb, I imagine her heart stopping, sinking into the pit of her stomach, and her lips mouthing no. The way you feel when you feel like the world has done its worst to you but then it throws out one thing more. Mary is robbed of even the shell of a memory. Even that has been taken from her. At this moment, the fear is just too much, and she can't stay in that place. So she runs to Simon Peter and the other disciple, seeking someone to stand with her in her grief and confusion. But she is left alone again weeping at the mouth of the tomb, unwilling to go in, just crouching down, tears filling her eyes. And her tears do not slow even when she sees down into the darkness two figures seated where the body should be.

"Woman, why are you weeping?"

"They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him."

She needs to see the body, to touch the body again, but it is gone and she does not know where it is. She is so preoccupied with finding this body again, preoccupied with finding this object of her grief that she does not respond to the fact that these are angels in the tomb. These angels could be those spots of brightness in the absolute darkness of the cave, but they aren't for Mary. Not even angels can pierce through her grief.

So she turns away from the tomb. Perhaps it is too difficult for her to sob in that crouched position, looking down into the darkness. But in turning away, she faces yet another who asks her, "Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?" She thinks it is the gardener. Who else would be out here at this time of the day when everyone else had abandoned her. She ignores the gardeners questions, instead, head down, wringing her hands asks slowly so as not to belie the fear and confusion she feels through her voice. "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." She will not ask questions, all she wants, all her bereaved mind can think of now is fulfilling the purpose for which she came here on this morning.

But Jesus reaches through that grief, that confusion, and calls her by name. "Mary!" And it is the sound of his voice, the sound of that familiar voice she has heard day after day teaching her, loving her, this voice she hasn't heard since Friday when it came from him in great gasping breaths as his life left him--- left her, standing there watching. This is the moment where her eyes stop straining for light even when she closes them because it is there in front of her. This is the moment when her eyes begin to drink in the light after her days in the absolute darkness of the cave.

The text, while not describing in detail her response, leads us to believe it was a physical one, her reaching out to hold onto that body she has so longed to see, to touch, to invoke her memories of what these not only past few days but past few years of her life with Jesus, to figure out what that has meant. Because all morning, she was left to think that it meant nothing. Even Peter and the other disciple had left her alone, sobbing outside the empty tomb of her teacher. But then she hears his voice, and she hears his voice saying her name, calling her out of her grief, calling her to discover that he is still with her, though she feels so alone.

Her response is one that I think is so common with those of us who are pulled out of suffering by good test results or speedy recovery--- we want to hold onto that which is calling us out of suffering. We want to stare unblinking into the light after being alone in the darkness of the cave. But Jesus says, "Do not hold on to me..." And I think it would have been so easy for Mary to reach out and attach herself to Jesus and never let him out of her sight, let everything else go just to create this little world of the two of them, a safe world, one in which he will never get taken away from her again. But Jesus says, "I have not yet ascended to the Father." Not yet. See, his time with her now is to break through that fog of grief, to help her to move on with the work he has called her to do, reminding her that his presence will always be with her. He is the light within her that will not go out.

So Mary's joy at feeling Jesus' presence is redirected outward. She cannot sit still in the cave, transfixed by the light her eyes have so longed for. No, she must use that light to find a way out, towards living that kindom vision that Jesus her Rabbouni, her teacher, had taught her. And so, after Jesus urges Mary to go out to her brothers and sisters, to remember that his presence is not for her alone, she becomes the first witness to Easter morning. She is not the only one grieving, though so often in our grief we feel as though we are the only ones. Rather, hearing Jesus call us out of our suffering, feeling Jesus' presence again after this great loss beckons us to continue to work for the living.

Jesus is reaching into our grief and our confusion, calling us by name.
How will we respond?


1 John 20:1-18, The Harper Collins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version (San Francisco: Harper Collins Publishers, 2006).

2 The one John refers to as the beloved disciple is at the cross, but he too is not generally believed to be one of the Twelve.


I always research and read a myriad of biblical translations, theology books, sermon/liturgy blogs, and commentaries before writing. Sometimes these readings just round out my exegesis, sometimes they provide me with a new insight, answer a question, or take me in an entirely different direction. This week, I was inspired by scholar and activist Robert E. Gross' chapter, "The Beloved Disciple: A Queer Bereavement Narrative in a Time of AIDS," in Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible. I don't know how much of that inspiration came out in this sermon, but I wanted to be sure to cite its influence on me.

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