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Acts 10:34-43;Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; John 20:1-18
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
April 1, 2018 – read by Nanci Bain
We all come to the garden alone. Sooner or later, we have to walk into the middle of the harshest reality and find out what is waiting for us there.
This is not a part of ministry that made the decision easier. I had not thought much about it, and I suspect that we all avoid thinking about the last things as long as we can and what it means to finish well.
We are too busy right now. We will get around to it as soon as we take care of the job we are doing. We would rather let the dead bury the dead, making the most of the days we have been given.
But then it is a loved one or a close friend and we know we need to get together to affirm life in the midst of death. Sooner or later we all come to the garden and we think we are there alone.
Mary must have thought that. The tomb was empty and Peter and the other disciple had returned to the house where they had all been hiding since the night Jesus was arrested. She is alone. The disciples hope they will be left alone.
We think we go on alone from the hour and place of our death. We take no one with us. We leave the world behind. No one comes back from there to tell us what it is like.
But this is not a story about what happens. It is a mystery that awaits us all. And it is a source of hope to all who stoop to look in the tomb and see that it is empty.
We come to our scripture lesson this morning hoping to find a clear, concrete answer that will satisfy everyone…even ourselves. But there is no easy button anywhere in sight.
I was trained in my first profession to be skeptical of everything…even my client. If I just took their statement of the facts to court with me and it turned out to be true, then the day was ours.
But if there was a wrinkle in the narrative that they had overlooked, if there was something of great importance that they did not think was important at all, it could all be undone and we would come home with a sense that justice was not served.
So I had to be skeptical. I had to push them to defend the way they saw the case. I had to be sure they were telling the truth, or we were all in trouble before we started.
I brought that hard-worn skepticism into my faith life and it seems to me that somebody is trying to make a believer out of me.
First, who am I…someone who has been run over by a pickup and hit by a car and am here to tell the story …who am I to doubt there is a God who watches over us with love and mercy?
We are alive and celebrating the promise of Christ together on another Easter morning. Who are any of us to gainsay God, living in a greatly blessed corner of Creation as citizens of the greatest nation in the history of the world?
Are we too blessed to be humble? Are we too lucky to be able to see how lucky we are?
But there are so many other ways that we have seen the truth and know that a greater joy awaits us one day.
I have told you before about my mother forbidding me to close the door on her room at the hospice house because “A man is coming and that door needs to be open!”
When I asked a friend who is a chaplain at a big hospital in the Midwest about it, he said it happens all the time.
If we look at all the gospel accounts of the resurrection, there are men in dazzling clothes that appear at the tomb. It is as if someone comes to lead us on. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I made that connection.
Within a few months of gaining that new understanding an old Marine who was a member of my faith community at Huntley passed away.
It took him a long time and I think that was because he was so tough and he had worked so hard all his life and I say that to make the point that he did not believe in fairy tales and he didn’t need any sugar-coating on what to hope for as his hour approached.
But there Rudy Cummins was at St. Vincent Hospital in Billings late one Saturday night, surrounded by his family. He woke up and saw everyone. He thanked them for being there…and he knew why they were there.
Then he looked up and said, “Huh? I’ve never seen one of those before.” And he rolled over onto his side and let out his last breath and he was gone.
Everyone wanted to ask him what he had seen up there above him, but he wasn’t talking any more…and they thought they had a good idea what it was.
Stories like that keep happening around me and it seems to me that people pull back the curtain in their last hours. They can see over a horizon that is too far from us for us to see, but they tell us what they see. They do not speak with fear but with hope and joy.
One of my friends told me one of the most beautiful stories about a friend he was sitting with. He just opened his eyes and said, “Wow!”
I would be glad for that to be my last word, too, but we will see what happens when that hour comes for me. It is a mystery, and I look forward to finding out what the meaning of this life is and what awaits.
We know that Jesus rode into Jerusalem knowing that trouble was lurking at every turn, but he knew that he was doing God’s will and he found peace in that.
It seems like almost every year as I am contemplating the message for Easter I get one more affirmation to share…and this year is no different.
We read about Mary standing outside the tomb weeping when someone she thinks is the gardener asks her why she is sad. She does not recognize this man as the risen Christ, the man she has been following, literally, ever since he cured her of a dire malady.
It is incredible, you might say, but she did not expect to see him and it is possible, I guess.
Well, last week I got away for a trip to Billings to get a few things done and to bring Ollie back home from Spring Break. On the way down I stopped in Great Falls at a vintage store I have shopped in many times.
It seems like they always have what I have been looking for. I even bought a stacking washer and dryer there once and they delivered it all the way to Billings, just for the gas money.
It is a woman and two of her grown children that run the store and have for 51 years now. I told the son who was watching the store I was looking for a small dresser to put into a closet in a small bedroom in the parsonage at Bigfork.
He took me back to the right place in the store and there was the perfect item, at the right price, but one of the drawers was out of it.
He explained that a lady had come in and was interested in it but she wanted to be sure it was all wood so he had taken the drawer out. Then as he got it out she told him to quit talking to her because she was in a lot of pain…and she had left a few minutes before I arrived.
You just can’t tell about people he said. They can look so good and act so nice and the next thing you know they are shouting at you and walking out of the store.
It had bothered him, I could see, and he was processing it, wondering what it meant, and he continued his story.
On the other hand, he said, he had sold a washer and dryer years ago to an attorney from Billings and he had delivered it to him. You would expect a lawyer to hire someone to help him unload it, he said, but this was the nicest guy and he help me himself.
I had my black lab with me and he even let my dog have a run in his back yard because he knew the dog had been cooped up for a long drive.
He looked at me and said, “And that was an attorney! You just can’t tell what people are going to be like when you first meet them. That’s one thing I’ve learned working in this store.”
I said it must be nice to meet an attorney who is a nice guy every now and then…that it kind of renews your faith in people.
“That’s what I told my mother when I got back that night,” he said.
I told him I thought that was a very nice story, and he pushed back hard on me, “It’s the truth. I swear that happened.”
I told him I believed him. He repeated that it had happened and I repeated that I believed him. I paid for the dresser and he helped me load it in the car.
I never told him that I was the lawyer from Billings he was talking about. I didn’t want to embarrass him.
Then, too, I had already told him I was a preacher from Bigfork. So now I’m going to tell him I am a lawyer from Billings, too?
I mean, you can only stretch things so far before they become completely unbelievable and I thought it was best to just let things stand where they were. I’d hate for him to get the idea that preachers might tell a little lie every now and then, just for the fun of it.
So a mystery awaits us all and it is a joyous moment for most people. In fact, as I was having lunch in Billings with one of my co-workers at the City about this, she told me that she was sitting with her mother when she passed away of cancer. She said her mother suddenly threw the covers off of her and crossed her arms over her chest nodding at someone who she seemed to see.
Sharon said she put her hand on her mother’s leg to comfort her but she brushed it away and nodded at the other person in the room…the one Sharon could not see…and she was gone.
We do not go into oblivion, we read, for Christ has gone on before us to make a place for us. The tomb was empty and it fell to the gardener to comfort Jesus’ faithful friend and try to explain to her that this is what he had been trying to explain to everyone.
And she is filled with joy and rushes back to tell the others all she had seen and what Jesus had said to her. Not everyone believed her, we know, but Jesus would tell them all that those who believed without having seen him would be blessed in many ways.
It is our hope. It is the promise of Christ. It is our most important lesson from the Great Teacher, Rabboni! Amen.