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Empty Tomb, Full Life


Passage: John 20:1-18

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Michael L. Gregg

About a week ago, our Children’s Minister, Laura Keller, and the Chair of our Missions Committee, Charlotte Sewell put together fifty-three Easter baskets for homeless children and youth. And these baskets filled with toys, games, candy, and Easter fun were put together and wrapped up while Laura and Charlotte kept the proper social distance from one another in one of our Sunday School classrooms. They then piled all of the baskets into Charlotte’s SUV in order to take them to Hope Supply, a local ministry that meets the needs of homeless children in Dallas. These baskets were not empty, they were full, full of the love of Royal Lane and all of you who gave items to be placed inside. These baskets brought fullness to the lives of children in Dallas.

The children who received the baskets have lost so much in their lives – their families, their possessions, their homes. But each and every one of you helped this church to make Easter a little better, a littler fuller than it would have been without the baskets. It was important that Easter wasn’t cancelled for those kids. Because, you see, even though we are homebound and isolated, Easter is still here. Easter has not been postponed. Easter has not been cancelled. Hope isn’t cancelled. Love isn’t cancelled. Compassion isn’t cancelled. We are people of the Resurrection, right here and right now. And we are called forth from the graves of our lives to deliver hope amid heartache, faith amid fear, delight amid despair, and love amid loss. This is who we are on this Easter day. And because of the Christ we follow, we are, each and every day, resurrection people.

We, as followers of the resurrected Christ, are able to give so much compassion to others because we have done the hard work this Lenten season to experience and embrace the emptiness that comes with letting go of the heavy baggage we carry. And it seems, in this pandemic, all we have is emptiness as I stand here in a practically empty Sanctuary on Easter Sunday. Surely this is not the kind of emptiness God had in mind? Dr. Bill Brown at Columbia Theological Seminary said, “Emptiness, in this case, is life-giving. By abandoning our sacred gathering places, we are not abandoning the gospel. Far from it. We are testifying to what the white-robed messenger announced at the tomb, ‘He is not here.’ Perhaps these are the words we should proudly display on our church marquee signs during Holy Week: ‘He is not here.’” 

Because Jesus isn’t here. Jesus is out there among us. Jesus is in your homes and moving in your lives. And by emptying ourselves, we open our hands and our hearts to all that Jesus is doing in the world. And that’s why the empty tomb is so important. We need to know that the tomb is empty and that Jesus is out and about, being a gardener, sowing love, and planting hope. Today we are reminded that the empty tomb indeed brings a fuller life.

But I know today might not feel like a day full of joy and hope. I know it doesn’t feel like Easter, does it? It doesn’t feel like a day of resurrection because many of us are experiencing the grave. We feel we are enclosed in our homes, in our bodies, in our fears, in our longings, in our grief. The stone doesn’t feel rolled away. We feel confined, wrapped in grave clothes, and alone. To be honest, we have taken on a lot of uncertainty and anxiety recently. And that’s ok. Because the hard work we have done over Lent, even in the midst of crisis and pandemic, I hope has helped us feel a little lighter. I hope we have released a lot of excess baggage, baggage that was hindering us from seeing and following Jesus.

Mary Magdalene, in our Gospel text for today, had to do the hard work of moving into a new and different life and of letting go of the baggage of grief and loneliness. Mary, after seeing the empty tomb felt emptiness in her soul. And so, she lingered. She lingered in her grief and her pain and her emptiness. And in that emptiness, she saw a man tending the garden. She didn’t know who he was, but this Gardener called her by name, Mary, and in the fullness of recognition and relationship, she saw Jesus.

She had been made empty without Jesus since his death and after seeing him, now she was full of emotion, full of hope, full of joy, and full of dedication. So much so that she grabbed on to Jesus’ feet and she held on to him for dear life. She wanted to hold on to Jesus. She wanted to keep everything the same and not let him get away again. And we are often like this needy, post-resurrection Mary, sometimes we hold on to things that are in the past, things that we think will get us through. I wonder if what Mary needed to do was to let go. I wonder if she needed to let go of her old path and her old views of Jesus and all the old baggage she thought she needed in order to experience a fuller and richer life.

And because Mary waited around, she experienced the fullness of the empty tomb. While the disciples raced against each other, pushing at each other, trying to see which follower would be first, Mary remained still, remained present. She waited. She waited to experience the fullness of joy and the fullness of God’s presence rather than the fear of absence. We all want to race out of our homes and tell the story, the story that is about the fullness of joy and the fullness of hope. We want to cling to that feeling! We cling because we know that when this worship service is over, we will have to return to our dark, stuffy tombs. We will have to go back to our bills and our debts, our spouses and our families, our jobs and our colleagues, our aches and our pains, our struggles and our mistakes, the crucifying moments that seem to always be there. But Jesus says to let go.

And that’s what we did, Royal Lane, in this season of Lent, as we approached this beautiful resurrection day. We sought to empty ourselves of all of the heavy baggage that was weighing us down. We got rid of guilt and want and contempt and busyness and certainty and power. And as we got rid of each of these bags that many of us have carried with us since childhood, it has been my hope that we have become lighter and our hands have become emptier. So, when we do go back to our post-Easter lives, that we can be a resurrection people who have stripped away all of the things that would hold us back from worshipping God and serving our community and become lighter in the process. We have become lighter so we can share Christ’s light with all who we meet.

You see, I think, we spent Lent becoming like the empty tomb. We spent Lent emptying the tough and tight places in our lives. We spent Lent calling ourselves out of our old ways and into new ways of simplicity and freedom. We spent Lent learning how to empty ourselves. And as we gather together online, here today, we are all empty tombs, ready to open the blockades in our lives and shine the fullness of God and the love of Christ. Today, we soak in the resurrection and redemption and rejuvenation and resolution of the Christ, of the Word that didn’t return to God empty. No, Jesus returned to God filled with the overflowing love of the divine and left us with the legacy of being the Beloved Community together.

To be a better and beloved community, we chose to do the hard work of letting things go, letting things go so we could be open to the new life of Christ this day. And we are all recipients of that new life. We are the beloved of God who travel light through the world so we can bring God’s light to all. We are overflowing today, overflowing with sights and sensations and the spirit of new beginnings and renewed hopes. We are the gardens of God’s love.

And since we are the gardens of God’s love, it’s my hope, like Mary, that you see the Gardener planting the seeds of joy in your life. It’s my hope that you see the Gardener cultivating flourishing faith in your life. It’s my hope that you see the Gardener filling up the tilled rows of your heart with goodness and grace. It’s my hope that you see the Gardener speaking your name, telling you through your tears to let go of the past and run into your good future. It is my hope that you see the Gardener.

But, after you see the Gardener, don’t hang on. Don’t hang on! Soon, it will be time to let go and run out into the world to share with others that the emptiness of the tomb means that we have full lives. I think we can learn from Mary Magdalene. Even though she stood dwelling on the emptiness of the tomb and the loneliness she felt, Jesus still called her out. Jesus called her to more, to not cling to her old life, the old struggles, the heavy baggage that she was carrying around. She was now empty, just like the tomb, and able to see the world in a different way. And I think Easter asks us to see the post-resurrection world through Mary’s eyes.

Gretchen E. Ziegenhals, a professor and managing director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School said, “I am struck that not only is Mary the first to see the risen Christ, but she enables us to see the resurrection through her eyes – the eyes of a woman who is powerless and, to some, a prostitute. From the powerless in that society, we see an intimate and powerful scene of resurrection love. Finding that love in others is our only recourse, our only clue to the beauty of Christ’s embodied love. His shadowy [and ghostly appearance] points us to the world and to one another, especially the marginalized. ‘Don’t look at me,’ he seems to suggest. ‘Look at them!’”

“In our world, and especially in our nation, this image is a call to where we might see the love of the risen Christ this Easter. I wonder whose face we must study. The face of a baby? Of someone with dementia? Of a homeless person? An undocumented worker? Someone who will vote differently from us? Someone wearing an N95 face mask?” This Easter we are being called to not only see Jesus, the Gardener, who is standing right in front of us, but we are also being called to see Jesus in the faces of all of God’s creation.

I wonder if this story of Mary Magdalene is showing us that we would be better to not stare at the emptiness of the tomb, but out into the eyes of others, into the faces of the world. And it is that which will make our lives full. We have worked this entire Lent to let go of all of the baggage that might keep us from following Jesus and taking his love out of the graveyard. The tomb that has been holding us all of this time is now open and we are released into the garden. We have gone from the grave to the garden and Jesus is waiting to show us that our lives are full of hope, that there is work to do still, that we shouldn’t cling to this moment that we are in, and we are to race out into the world to share this good news and see Jesus in others.

And we will indeed race away from the grave, telling the world about Jesus and seeing the Gardener in the faces of others. We will do that, in a little while. But now, we continue to practice being freer, traveling lighter, so we might have the energy and the stamina to run and tell the world who the Gardener is, the one planting hope in our lives. Don’t hang on, you people of the resurrection. Don’t hang on… go and see the fullness of Easter in the faces of others. Don’t hang on! Jesus isn’t here! Jesus is out there! There’s no reason to linger anymore where there was only an empty tomb, because now we have full lives.