— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ Easter Sunday ~~~
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 toward 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 around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” 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 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.
For this sermon to work – and not to simply be a self-indulgence on my part – I’d like to suggest that you take some time either now or after the sermon to think back on your life and identify a time when you were confused, lost or facing some situation that weighed you down. This sermon is about finding hope in the midst of confounding times. This sermon is an invitation to see signs of God at work in the world even in the midst of hardships and threatening illnesses. The example I will share from my own life is hardly the stuff of Good Friday or of facing death by way of an unseen virus. I do hope, however, that the sermon will open your eyes to ways that God has worked in your life in ages past and maybe offer in the remembrances some comfort in the situation in which we all find ourselves now.
In most Main-line (Old-line) denominations, if you plan to be a Minister of Word and Sacrament you have to attend Divinity School. I went to Vanderbilt Divinity School and after my first year and half, I dropped out. I was not at all sure what I wanted to do. I had enjoyed studying theology (which is why I went in the first place), but I was not sure I wanted to be a pastor; so, I did the prudent thing, I dropped out. I went to work at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville (a wonderful bookstore that no longer exists), and I took the Law School Admissions Test.
For six months I read novels, worked shelving and pricing books, spent most of my take home pay on books I could now buy at 40% off list price, and generally ignored making any decisions about my future. The Law School Admissions Test was just to have something to say to my folks and to anyone who might ask what I was doing.
I did have some interest in law, and I later decided to enroll at University of Alabama Law School. Three weeks before Law School was to begin I went home to bide my time. My parents put me to work painting the gutters of their home. A strange thing happened, one day I went up the ladder a guy on the way to becoming a lawyer but came down the ladder with a heart set on finishing Divinity School and becoming a pastor…at least for a while.
It was not a mystical experience, but something happened in my spirit that sent me down the road I have now traveled for nearly 34 years. It was a struggle for me, and in many ways has always been a struggle. Vocational clarity has never been one of my gifts; yet, in my struggles way back then, a little light shone and showed me the next step. A flower of hope that I could be of some use bloomed and lured me into this ministry.
Now, I don’t raise my own struggles above anybody else’s struggles with what to do with his or her life and at any point in life. Someone trying to decide to go to work for the bank, school system, factory, hospital, someone trying to decide whether or not to retire or what to do in retirement … whatever … can have just as difficult a time as I did, and those struggles are just as important as a call to ordained ministry. I believe most every form of work can be a calling; so, what I am getting at by talking about my own lack of clarity is not a way of saying – as many other ministers seem to have experienced – that I was hounded by God and because of my sinful ways I resisted until God finally won out and I surrendered. That is not the way I look at my own call into the ministry. For me it was and is much more subtle. I have never had the sense that being a pastor was the only thing I could do and be faithful to God. God’s holy church, I am convinced, can exist and flourish without me as a pastor. I did and do, however, have a persistent tug in the direction of pastoral ministry, and so here I am. That period of my life, however, was filled with struggles and fears about the future.
One thing I did during this time of confusion to help clarify and solidify my call to ministry was to enroll the summer after my second year in a Clinical Pastoral Education Program at Carraway Methodist Medical Center in Birmingham, Alabama. I was a chaplain for 11 weeks walking the floors of the hospital visiting the sick, being on call in the Emergency Room, and meeting with supervisors every day. Those supervisors, by the way, seemed dead set on wearing me out and making my emotions raw enough such that I would break down and cry at our meetings. This, I think they thought, would help a person really understand himself. Well, it was a hard summer, and I was raw when I got there. I still was not sure I wanted to be a pastor – still filled with questions about calling, and, on top of that, I had just broken off a very important relationship. I was living alone in a big house on the campus of Birmingham Southern College – I was house sitting for professors on summer leave. I was lonely, scared, confused and generally a wreck. I hope I didn’t do too much damage with the patients I visited in the hospital. It was a dark and confusing time for me. I was not sure what was next and whether or not I would be up to it.
Mary came to the grave while it was still dark. When she arrived things got darker and more confusing before they got lighter. Jesus was gone. Someone had stolen his body. This was too much. That he was tortured, crucified with criminals, that he was gone – that was more than enough tragedy for Mary to handle. This one who meant so much to Mary, who helped her see her worth before God, that he was dead was enough of a blow to her, but when she arrived at the tomb there was yet another indignity – his body had been taken from its resting place. Her ability to mourn, to grieve, to honor Jesus’ body were taken away. It was a dark and confusing time for Mary. What would she do with her life now that he was gone and she could not hear his voice so clearly.
While I was living alone in that big house by myself, if I had spare time I would buy a paper and sit on the porch and read. One day I noticed that Independent Presbyterian Church was having a Focus on Faith Week at their church. Interesting title, I thought snidely, what are they doing every other week. I was a United Methodist at the time and I also thought that if it were a Methodist Church or a Baptist Church it would have been simply called a “revival.” But it was a Presbyterian Church and therefore it was “Focus on Faith Week,” and the guest preacher was a man I had heard about and had read one or two of his books in my preaching classes. It was Dr. Fred Craddock. I liked his books and since I had never seen him or heard him preach before, I decided to go.
I got there on the last night. He was preaching during the week on the gift of the Holy Spirit in the life of the church. On the first night he preached about the Holy Spirit’s gift of bringing to remembrance all that Jesus taught. On the next night he talked about how the Spirit convicts the conscience. On the next he talked about how the Spirit empowers for ministry (I know all this because I bought the tapes!). But on the final night, the night that I was there, Fred Craddock, this little man who preached standing on a box because he was not tall enough to be seen over the pulpit, this little man who hardly looked like one of the most powerful preachers in the world, this little man who looked more like a gardener than a big name preacher, preached a sermon that hit me where I was living. He talked about the Holy Spirit bringing hope to the Church and to each of us. I didn’t know that was what I needed to hear, but it was exactly what I needed to hear. Hope.
You see I was caught up in what is a typical adolescent problem – though I should have been beyond it by the time I was twenty-five. I was so focused on myself and my worries that I lost – dare I say it – my focus on faith. I needed to hear that my future was in God’s hands. It was enough that I wanted to be of service in some way, God would unfold the future for me. I needed hope that God could bring light out of my dark time, and Dr. Craddock’s sermon reminded me of that hope. He reminded me that God can bring life out of death, joy out of confusion, peace out of turmoil. He reminded me that God can make my life useful even when I am not sure how it will happen. His sermon called me to hope in God.
Now, I recognize that my own wallowing in darkness was and remains pretty minor compared to other peoples struggles. Others really experience darkness in life – extreme failure, poverty, hunger, disease, war, oppression. There are lots of people living now with death and with the threat of infections. There is a lot of darkness in the world that is much more dangerous than my own confusion, but the point is the same. God will bring light to scatter the darkness – that is the Easter message. Confusion, guilty hearts, death, darkness, violence, Corona virus… these realities do not win! Though we bury Love in the ground, God will raise Love up again! Easter is about hope even in the darkest of times.
Dr. Craddock told a story in that sermon about a woman survivor of the Holocaust. The woman was being interviewed about her experience in the concentration camp. Most of the people she knew died. Every day she was marched out to work in a field with cardboard shoes on her feet and hope for only one bowl of thin soup at the end of the day. The interviewer wanted to know how she made it. The woman said – “As we walked to the field where we would have to work there was a little house along the road with a flower box in the window. There was a flower growing there. I said to myself, when we come back here tonight I’ll get to see that flower again.” “You mean to tell me,” the interviewer said, “that was it, that was all that got you through. A flower in a window box.” “That was it,” she said.
Easter is a flower in a window box.
The story of Jesus being raised from the tomb
is a flower in a window box.
The story of light overcoming darkness
is a flower in a window box.
I don’t know where you are in your life
maybe you are confused…
maybe you are trying to put something behind you,
some failure, some loss…
maybe you are grieving
so hard your not sure you can see your way through…
maybe you despair of finding your place…
maybe you ache with a sense of the futility
of working for a more truthful, more competent government,
maybe you need to know you are forgiven,
you are loved, you are cherished…
I don’t know where you are in your life,
but this day, Easter Day, every Lord’s Day,
is a flower in the window box.
God remains at work in the world!
Love will be forever rising,
blooming like a flower in a window box.
Jesus is alive. Alleluia! Amen.
Give us eyes, O God, to see who we are and
who we are called to be,
and the truth of Your resurrection power!