You Just Don’t Make This Stuff Up
for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. —John 20:9
When you think of past Easter mornings, what do you remember? I always got a new pair of patent leather Mary Janes and my mom would sew a new dress.
Did your family gather with a ham or lamb roast as the centerpiece? Was there typically an Easter egg hunt with chocolate bunnies in baskets? Those were true in all my Easter memories, but the years blur together. Nothing stands out.
Psychiatrists report we don’t remember the routine or the expected. When you drive to work, sometimes you lose track of where you are, almost hypnotized by monotony. Only when something fantastic, ironic, silly, or tragic happens, will any day or particularly a holiday stand out. We don’t remember the traditional as much as the extraordinary.
Here is the story of my most memorable Easter.
In 2001, I visited my parents at their orchard in central California. Their farm was bounded on either side by long properties with diverse production. The neighbors to the south were beekeepers and there is a story for another sermon since my colleague Katie Lancaster has launched into beekeeping. The neighbor to the north, a man called Tonto, who pastured a few horses and cattle. I am not kidding. He was introduced to me as “Tonto.”
I did not know about the cattle until I was on my knees, working in the trees on Saturday, and felt the ground tremble. At first I thought it was a pending earthquake, until half dozen longhorns stopped short of the fence. The horns on a longhorn average five-feet. Five terrifying feet. I’d almost preferred an earthquake to snorting cows staring at me.
My dad just laughed and assured this city chick, “Oh honey, they are just curious. Once they get used to you, they won’t charge the fence, and I don’t think the bull will jump this one.”
In my mind’s eye, the notion of a longhorn bull, the size of a Honda CRV, able to jump any fence is as fantastic an image as the nursery rhyme in which the “cow jumps over the moon.” It would not happen.
Easter Sunday, we went to church, but that is when tradition crashed. Driving home, as we turned onto our street, racing towards us was a longhorn bull. Full gallop. In hot pursuit was Tonto neighbor, on horseback with lasso in the air.
Dad swerved to stop. The bull and horse raced off through front yards, somehow Tonto captured his target and all ended safely. You may not want to believe me: longhorn bull and Tonto.
It really happened. While preparing for this sermon, I called my mom and dad, remembering what we all saw. You just don’t make this stuff up.
The first Easter morning is also a fantastic story, and it too was not just made up.
John’s gospel begins in elegance, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God” and “grace and truth came into being,” introducing Jesus to us. The story hangs in the ether, continuing to challenge clarity with “I am” statements: “I am the bread of heaven. I am the vine. I am the light of the world” that when added together portray Jesus as divine and someone we, or at least I, struggle to comprehend.
But, John’s story turns methodically from a universal, transcendent being to a person who is invested in life. When Jesus walks toward Jerusalem and the cross, Jesus is brought closer to earth. The “I am’s” are no longer spoken, they are enacted. Jesus washes feet, showing what it means to care for others.
Before his death, Jesus shares a meal with those he loves, dipping bread into a cup and serving them. Without fear of his imminent death, Jesus tells of a house in heaven with many rooms – something we can imagine – and makes a promise to take us with him to heaven, to dwell in eternity with those we love, without fear.
Jesus promises us in the most earthly manner possible that life exists beyond the horizon of death.
Jesus is then captured, tried, and convicted for his radical teachings of love and equality. His side is pierced. He bleeds. He dies. His corpse confuses no one. Jesus was as human as you and I are today.
This is really a simple, transparent story. We don’t need to hang doctrines or systematic theologies around it.
In the dark of morning dawn, Mary tells the two disciples the stone has been rolled away and, Jesus’ dead body is gone. They race to see; finding only an empty tomb with neatly gathered grave clothes.
Although no one saw the resurrection, they saw the evidence that what Jesus promised is now true. All the signs of death are overcome. The men left believing.
Mary stays. Mary does not understand. First grief, now fear – what happened? No wonder she weeps.
Belief does not happen without honestly naming fears and doubts and what does not make sense. For her and for many of us, belief does not come so easily.
When Mary hears Jesus call her name, her disbelief dissolves.
Their encounter is visceral, emotional and deeply personal. She leaves, so convinced; she is the first to announce, “I have seen the Lord.”
So how does this happen? I don’t mean the resurrection. How did Peter and the beloved disciple and Mary come to believe? How did they set aside their fear of Jesus’ death to believe in his resurrection?
To state the obvious, we cannot have a resurrection without death. Reading of the death of Jesus or to mourn the death of a loved one heightens our awareness of our own mortality. The distance between life and death is measured by a breath and we struggle to know what is on the other side. Today is a day for us to believe the distance between death and eternal life is equally as thin.
In the long arc of John’s Gospel, the stories, the “I am’s,” the healings and feedings…these are all earthly ways to know God’s love for us from the beginning of time to each person, each day. “For God so loved the world” God took on human flesh to be our model for life and reveal eternal life.
Those early to the tomb remembered Jesus’ promise, to trust the power of God’s love is stronger than any human destruction. In a letter, John reminds us “perfect love casts out all fear.” The opposite of love is not always hate. Often the opposite of love is fear and in remembering Jesus’ love, they set aside fear to believe.
Today is a day to remember and celebrate all the love we have experienced; even with those loved ones who we have lost. We know death does not diminish or negate any of this love.
We did not make up the story of the resurrection – so unbelievable no one would fathom doing so. We could not be so bold as to conceive of God loving us so much. But, God did.
This isn’t just a story; it is the reality God created which includes us.
This is not just a story about the end of our lives; it is how we are to live our lives today. We author each day into a story of courage and compassion, of risk and determination to not let fear of this world drag us down.
By the way we write our story; we can with Mary proclaim “I have seen the risen Lord.”