“Looking in the Wrong Places” Isaiah 25:6-9
Lyonsville Congregational UCC, Indian Head Park IL John 20:1-18
Rev. Sean Weston
In 1995, hundreds of Snow Geese landed on a pond in Butte, Montana. The snow geese are just typical snow geese on their southern migration in late fall. But the pond isn’t just any pond. This pond is a superfund site, a highly acidic toxic pond, filled with heavy metals from a copper mine – once the booming engine of the local economy, now a gaping hole in the landscape, a reminder of prosperity that came and went. The pond is threatening the town’s water supply. If the pond ever spills its banks or soaks too far into the soil, it will poison the aquifer.
The town folk try to scare the snow geese away, but the geese are too tired and the pond is rather large. The snow geese head out into the middle and drink and bathe in the water. Then the painful deaths start occurring. The honking was deafening. The water ate through the throats of the geese and they all died after a few hours. Now the towns people had to clean up 342 snow geese in a toxic pond with the horrible smell of death and destruction hanging in the air. 
I imagine that there was a similar stench 2,000 years ago when Mary Magdalene was walking back to Jesus’ tomb, early in the morning when it was still dark. Jesus had been crucified just days earlier. I imagine Mary couldn’t sleep, wracked with grief at Jesus’ death. But she found something she didn’t expect: the stone rolled away from Jesus’ tomb. She did not know what we know. She did not know that thousands of years later millions across the globe would spend this day celebrating that Jesus – her Lord, her Teacher, her Friend who had been brutally executed by the government – rose from death to life. All she knew was that the one thing she had found some comfort in – the ability to go to the tomb and weep near Jesus’ body – was gone. The stone was rolled away.
At first she is in shock. Reality hasn’t quite sunk in. She runs and finds two more of the disciples and stops, telling between gasps for air what has happened: “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then the three of them run back to the tomb. The gospel writer could have simply said that they found the tomb empty, but instead, we are walked through each detail. We are invited to stand ourselves in that tomb: to see the linen wrappings lying flat, to see the cloth on Jesus’ head not with the wrappings but elsewhere, to imagine the beating hearts rising into our throats as we gasp for air.
Everybody responds to surprise differently, and everybody responds to grief differently. We are told little more about the two men in this story. We aren’t told what Simon Peter thought. The other, called the disciple Jesus loved, believed. Believed what, though? We’re told he didn’t yet understand that Jesus must rise from the dead. We only know that they then returned home.
After they leave the story continues. “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.” And of course she would weep at the cruelty at it all. She didn’t know how the story ended.
Just over a year ago, vandals destroyed a number of gravestones at the Chesed Shel Emeth Society cemetery in the Saint Louis area – a historic Jewish cemetery. The horrific event spread shockwaves through the region and the Jewish community in general. The grief of death itself is heart wrenching enough; to have the dead so callously disrespected seems to me enough to bring on even more waves of grief.
Of course Mary would weep. What else would she do?
When two angels came by – and we don’t know if she knew they were angels – they asked her why she wept. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” These were not words spoken calmly, from a distance. These are words gasped out, heavy-laden with grief and fear and confusion and anger. She turned around and saw another man, thinking he was the gardener. “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?
She responds, again gasping for air: “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Then the man said to her: “Mary!” It was then and only then that she realized: this was Jesus standing before her, alive once more. Can you even begin to imagine the reunion? The questions, the confusion, the utter joy? How many of us, grappling with the utter finality of death, bowed down with the knowledge that we will never again see a loved one – at least not in this life – how many of us haven’t thought “what I would give for one more conversation with mom” or “if only Jerry was here to give me advice.” Of course, when those thoughts rise up, we remind ourselves that death does not allow such things. Can you imagine being Mary, seeing Jesus alive? Hugging him, smelling the familiar scent, hearing the familiar voice?
This is not the sermon I had planned for today. I was going to talk about how Mary and the two disciples were looking in the wrong place for Jesus when they went to find him at the tomb. I was going to explore the many ways that we look for God in the wrong places, how we often expect that God is distant and unreachable, or that God’s work in the world is largely something of the past, when God is actually right here in and among us today. That’s a fine sermon, maybe for next year.
Something happened to me, though, as I spent more time with the gospel story. I began to feel – not think about, not reflect on or consider, but to feel how very human this story is. How Mary wasn’t really looking in the wrong place, she was looking in the very place that she should have been looking for Jesus. The roller coaster of emotions she experienced. The two male disciples who just left her alone with her grief. My own experiences of grief came back to me, the times I have felt separated from God’s loving presence, the moments of utter loneliness. My own sadness at the deep cruelty of the world, the horrendous pain we inflict on one another, the senseless deaths of our own time: the wars and executions and shootings and lynchings, the willful abandonment of whole peoples and places, from south side neighborhoods to south Sudan, to our superfund sites poisoning God’s good creation.
The gospel of John is full of human emotion. It is laser-focused on the idea of the incarnation: that in Jesus Christ, God took on human flesh. That God wanted so much to be with us, to love us, to offer us new life, that God became like us. Mary didn’t know the end of the story. All she knew was that she had experienced God in this Jesus, and now he was dead, and even his lifeless body had been taken away.
After all, far too often, life takes place in the shadow of crosses and empty tombs, in moments when the only explanation seems to be either that God is not good or that God is no longer here. But God is always doing things we don’t expect, working in the worst of situations to bring new life. Today’s story ends with Mary returning to the other disciples, saying “I have seen the Lord.”
Back in Butte, Montana winter became spring and then summer. Someone noticed that growing on the pond was this black scum. People were concerned because nothing grew in the pond. They took the scum to some local scientists. Now efforts have been made by the EPA to clean up the water, but at best they could clean about 20% of the heavy metals from the water. This black scum was cleaning somewhere between 85% to 95% of the heavy metals. This scum was cleaning up the poison! The scientists were intrigued. It was a particular strain bacteria that was sponging up the heavy metals. They discovered that these bacteria can only be found in the gastrointestinal tract of snow geese.
God was there in that pit, a pit formed by human greed and human destruction, a pit that quite literally brought death to good and innocent creatures. God was bringing new life in the most unexpected of ways. God is in every pit, in the superfund sites and the ignored neighborhoods; in the holes in our hearts, in the senseless deaths. When we are mired in the pit of grief, God is there with us. When we are bent with hopelessness, fearing that all is lost – God is with us.
Since those geese died in 1995, the superfund site still threatens the life around it, even as it has become cleaner. But the story has changed: scientists are carefully studying the substances the geese left behind, still learning about them decades later. It may well be that they make a discovery in those substances that saves lives. A new story is being written.
I am a young pastor in the United Church of Christ. People say we are a dying church. They ask if I’m worried about making a living. Many of you have wondered if Lyonsville Church is a dying church. We’re a lot smaller than we used to be, we’re running a big deficit budget, we have way more Sunday school rooms than we need. The truth is: of course we are a dying church. Of course I am in a dying denomination. We are, each of us, dying people. And it is there, in the dying, that the Easter promise is made real. A new story is being written.
God did not fix all of Mary’s problems the day she encountered Jesus alive, or all the problems of the disciples or the problems of the world. The Easter moment – when we discover that God really is here in all the mess, and that God calls to us, to us – that moment is the beginning, not the end. I can’t explain resurrection. All I know is that like Mary we often miss God even when God is right before our very eyes. It doesn’t mean we’re doing anything wrong. Mary didn’t do anything wrong. She was responding to a horrible situation exactly how you’d expect her to.
But then something happens: Jesus calls her by name.
Jesus stands in the pain and loss and confusion and questions, looks us in the eye, and calls us by name.
I can’t give you proof that God is bringing new life from death, even when we don’t understand, even when we can’t see. I don’t know what is in store for any of us. I don’t know what is in store for this church, or this nation or this world.
All I can do is point to the story: a woman running back to say “I have seen the Lord.” Fearful disciples becoming brave apostles, spreading that simple message: “We thought death won, but we were wrong. Life won. Jesus lives. Jesus calls to you. He shows the way to a new life, and a new world.” All I know is that for thousands of years people have been seeing Jesus and telling others about it. For thousands of years God has been in the worst places, making the unbearable bearable, making the not okay somehow okay, making a way out of no way, bringing hope out of brokenness and despair.
Jesus is here today. Jesus is in every place in your life and around the world that gasps for life. Jesus calls us by name. Jesus calls you by name. Each of you. Jesus invites you to live an Easter life, to keep telling the story. I don’t understand it one bit but I know in my bones it is true: Our God is making all things new. Our God brings life from death.
Jesus lives here. Today. Thanks be to God.