Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Why are we here this morning? Well, I guess it’s pretty clear why I’m here. It’s my job. I’m a preacher, so I’m supposed to stand up in the pulpit on Easter Sunday morning and say something about why we’re all here. About why, having already eaten a delicious breakfast and been treated to an Easter egg hunt, we think there’s still something important left to be done today. About why we think that important something has something to do with sitting in this sanctuary. But this just begs the question: why are we all here?
I invite you to revisit the story with me and see if you can find yourself in the scene that unfolds on that first Easter morning. Particularly in the conversation between Jesus and Mary in the garden just outside the tomb – the rolled-away stone sitting off to one side, the linen cloths lying there, Mary so blinded by her grief that she’s completely nonplussed by the appearance of angels – something that usually sets folks in both testaments shakin’ in their shoes.
Put yourself in Mary’s shoes and listen again to Jesus’ words.
First, “why are you weeping?” Before Mary even knows who it is that speaks to her, Jesus meets her in her darkest hour. “Why are you weeping?” says the One who heals to the one in pain. Says the One who comforts to the one who grieves. Says Immanuel, God with us, to the one who is lonely and afraid. “Why are you weeping?” It’s a question for each of us. For some the pain may be raw and open. Loss of a loved one. Loss of a job, or a home. Physical illness. Other wounds are more hidden. Anxiety. Depression. Addiction. Strained relationships. We all have burdens to bear, for ourselves, for others. “Why are you weeping?” Do you see yourself in Mary?
And then, “who are you looking for?” Does Mary even know? It sounds more like she’s looking for a ‘what’— a corpse, so she can get on with the business of preparing a body for burial. She’s not even really looking for a ‘who’ – her own dear friend Jesus, alive and well. Or is she? Is there some level at which she wonders, hopes. . .but dares not believe it might actually be true? Of course her confusion and her doubts don’t prevent Jesus from revealing himself to her. He doesn’t require that she explain the theology of the cross and resurrection and its universal implications. She doesn’t even have to know exactly who or what it is she’s looking for. The touching irony of this scene is that while Mary’s busily looking for Jesus, it’s Jesus who finds her—and it takes a little while before she even knows she’s been found. “Who are you looking for?” Do you see yourself in Mary?
And how does she know she’s been found? According to John’s gospel it happens in a single word: “Mary.” He calls her by name, this friend who knows her so well. She didn’t know who it was when they began talking—perhaps tears still clouded her vision—but all of a sudden that voice sounded so familiar. And she knew. Great theological truths are nice and all, but there’s something to be said for being addressed by name. For standing face to face with Jesus and hearing him speak to you. How many of us wish we could have been there to see him after his resurrection as Mary did? How many of us wish we could hear the risen Lord calling out our name? Or have we? . . .
Have we, like Mary, heard it while standing in a garden early in the morning, the dew still on the grass and the sun just starting to peek over the horizon? Or on the beach at sunset. Or hiking out in the woods. Perhaps we think we heard it once while we were listening to a favorite piece of music. Or curled up on the sofa with a good book. Or at our desks studying the Good Book. Or maybe we think we heard something that sounded an awful lot like Jesus saying our name when we were sitting in deep conversation with a close friend. Or sitting in church that Sunday. Or maybe, just maybe, we’ve heard that voice while standing beside the grave of someone we loved. Heard the risen Lord calling us by name. And somehow, without quite understanding why, we’re able to believe that death—no matter how real, no matter how painful—is not the final word. Do you see yourself in Mary?
If we do see ourselves in Mary Magdalene; if we hear Jesus asking us why we weep; if we hear him asking us who or what it is that we’re looking for; if we hear him calling us by name, then we’re also invited to hear how that conversation continues in the garden on Easter morning. With a word of challenge. And a call to ministry.
No sooner has Mary turned and recognized Jesus – “Rabbouni!” – than he says to her, “do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Don’t hold onto me? Frances Gench reminds us “the words are not as harsh as they may at first sound. Jesus does not prohibit Mary from ‘touching’ him (he’ll invite Thomas to do just that later in John chapter 20), but from ‘holding on’ or ‘clinging’ to him, for after Jesus’ ascension to the heaven, his continued presence in the world will be by means of the Spirit. (John 14-16).” In other words, he “teaches Mary that he cannot and will not be held and controlled. [We can’t] hold Jesus to preconceived standards and expectations of who he should be, because to do so is to interfere with Jesus’ work and [to] limit what Jesus has to offer.” You see, we just can’t nail Jesus down. As Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “we tried once, but he got loose, and ever since . . . has been the walking, talking presence of God in our midst.”
Finally, we hear Mary’s call, her commission from Jesus to “go to my brothers and say to them. . .” Remember, “Mary Magdalene is the first Easter witness in both senses of the word ‘witness’. She is the first to see the risen Jesus, and she is the first to tell others what she has seen.” The message of the gospel is entrusted to Mary and she responds faithfully, going immediately to tell the disciples: “I have seen the Lord!”
If you think about it, the whole gospel story is telescoped into this quiet exchange between these two dear friends: God meeting us where we are, wounded creatures that we are. God calling us by name and giving us the gift of new life. God sending us out into ministry in the world.
And again, notice the setting. The resurrection of our Lord and Savior – an event entirely unparalleled in history, an event that would change history itself forever, a cosmic battle, too, between the forces of good and evil, life and death, with a decisive victory for LIFE! But instead of thunder and lightning to announce his return, and a golden chariot to ride back into town, in fact without any pomp and circumstance whatsoever, Jesus reenters the world of the living in this quiet, intimate scene with one individual person. I have to believe the choice of persons was intentional. Jesus could have appeared first to Pilate, for instance. To Herod. To the chief priests. But no. He came first to Mary. Because the resurrection, for all of its universal significance, was also somehow about Mary herself. Standing all alone. Weeping. Wondering. Wishing things could be other than they were. Looking for something or someone able to change her world decisively, for the better, for good. And the answer comes in the form of the risen Lord himself. Do you see yourself in Mary?
Why are you here this morning? What are you looking for?
It happens also to be the very first question Jesus asks in the whole gospel, according to John. “What are you looking for?” he asks two disciples of John the Baptist who start following him instead (John 1:38). And the question of invitation that frames the entire story is asked of every one of us as we read it. “What are you looking for?” “It is a question that asks us to discern and articulate our deepest longings—longings that, to John’s way of thinking, are addressed ultimately and fully only by encounter with God in Christ.”
Why are we here this morning? I suspect it’s because we’re an awful lot like Mary Magdalene. Like her in our weeping. Like her in our seeking. And wanting to be like her, too, in witnessing to the glorious good news of this Easter day. “May John’s portrait of [Mary’s] courage, devotion, and faith inspire us to live as joyful witnesses to the resurrection!”
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!
 Gench, 55.
 Gench 55.
 Gail O’Day, Women’s Bible Commentary, pp. 301-302.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1993), p. 106.
 O’Day, 302.
 Gench, 56.
 Gench, 55.
 Gench, 56.