The Transformed Life
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; 12:7
(From Ecclesiastes Annotated and Explained by Rabbi Rami Shapiro)
Easter March 27, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
Chilmark Community Church
Why are we here? Why do we celebrate? Why do we sing more energetically on this Sunday than on any other Sunday with the possible exception of Christmas? Well – – It is Resurrection Day! Of course! We celebrate that Christ is risen indeed! We are a people of the resurrection. When all the Christmas carols have been sung, and the stories have been told and crèches have been safely packed away for another year, when we have listened to and studied the life and teachings of Jesus, when we have walked the Lenten path of self-examination and repentance, when we have stood at the foot of the cross – – or even if we have turned our back on it – – when all is said and done, through the grace of the Holy One, we are invited to become resurrection people.
Resurrection people – – people who witness and experience the worst that life has to offer and come out on the other side of it transformed – ready to move on. On today of all days, and especially following the news of the terrorist attack in Brussels earlier this week, we affirm to ourselves and to one another and to the world that we are a people who celebrate life in the midst of death. We celebrate that in the story of the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus we are somehow transformed. Each year, and this year is not different than any in the past, we are confronted again by the challenge to live into an uncertain future with all its fears and anxieties – – all the while celebrating that we share in the resurrection with Jesus who is always doing something new. Somehow the notion of resurrection gets to be incorporated into the very core of our being – into the most internal part of our identity, both as individuals and as a community. The idea of resurrection – of a new and transformed life following the inevitable changes that come with uncertainty and death and great loss – resurrection – becomes a key element in how we identify and understand ourselves – – a key element in how we live our lives in an unruly, chaotic and difficult world.
As the ancient story is told, in the dark dampness just before sunrise, a lone woman makes her way to the burial place. Taken all by itself, this is an act of great courage and devotion, given the political dangers surrounding the crucifixion. When she arrives she finds that the tomb has been disturbed. The heavy protective stone at its entrance has been moved. She peers into the tomb and even in the half-light of the early morning she can see that the tomb is empty. The first meaning she gives to what she sees – -and does not see – – is that the body of her beloved friend has been stolen or removed to another place. With this additional layer of traumatic grief, she runs to tell her friends. “They have taken his body! I don’t know where he is.”
Mary’s grief mirrors our own. We have all known the profound grief that comes with the death of someone we love. We have known the shock and disbelief that comes with the news of a friend who has died suddenly. We are thrown off balance in the absence of any sure details. Something in us wants to cry with Mary in disbelief. Why?….How can this happen?….How can one more grief be piled on top of the sadness and suffering we are already enduring? Our souls cry out for answers with Mary – – “They have taken him away and I don’t know where he is – – I don’t know where they have laid him!” We all know something of the profound grief of Mary.
Peter and another disciple hear Mary’s disturbing discovery and they literally race each other to the tomb. The unidentified disciple takes a quick look inside and draws back, seeing that Mary has spoken accurately. Peter actually enters the tomb. “…he saw and he believed even though they did not yet understand.” Peter and the other disciple have an experience of faith. One look at the empty tomb seems to be all they need in order to know that something beyond their understanding has happened and they return to their homes.
For some of us, faith comes just that quickly. We require no further evidence. The tomb is empty – – we believe – – even though we do not understand.
But Mary’s experience is different. She stays outside the tomb. She mourns. She weeps. She is extremely distressed in her profound loss. She is rather more like us, I think, when we are in the grip of loss and mourning. In her sadness, she bends over and takes another peek inside the tomb – – just to be sure. But this time the tomb is not empty. There are two figures in white sitting in the place where Jesus’ body had lain. A brief dialogue happens: “Why are you weeping?” “They have taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they have laid him.” The drama takes a profound twist as Mary turns around and sees yet another figure standing there. “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” “Sir, if YOU have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”
And then she hears the word that jars her into recognition: “Mary!” And in that instant, resurrection becomes part of Mary’s identity. Jesus calls her by name – and she recognizes him – – alive! The scene embodies the hope of everyone who has ever lost someone they love – – the beloved appears again – – alive! In the normal course of events, this does not happen in our lives. With the exception of rare resuscitations, when our beloved family members and friends pass from our midst, they do not return. Our lives are irrevocably changed. We feel the terrible pain of loss. We go through a time of disorientation when it all seems unreal. We mourn. We grieve. We eventually come to terms with their absence. We take hold of life in a new way.
So what is the story telling us? On a close reading, we find that all the emotions we humans go through as we respond to a great loss in our lives are encapsulated in Mary’s resurrection encounter. Shock, sorrow, disbelief, disorientation.
Like us, she yearns for the lost physical presence of her dearest friend – seeking – seeing – – but not recognizing what she sees. Grief does indeed blind the one who grieves. But Jesus, hardly missing a beat, begins the work of a new and transformed relationship with Mary. And he does it by entrusting her with his clear instructions to his first resurrection student as it were: “Do not hold on to me….., because I have not yet ascended to my father. Go to my brothers and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and to your Father, to my God and to your God.”
Then we see Mary’s experience of faith. She runs to announce to the other disciples that she has seen Jesus. While Peter and the other disciple only needed what their eyes had witnessed at the empty tomb, Mary needed her broken heart to be repaired and reassured – – she needed the personal encounter with the Risen One – – and then she ran with the good news and the story of the Risen One began its journey into the annals of time – – so that more than 2000 years later we can affirm on a bright Easter morning that life does not end at the tomb.
Jack Kornfield, in his book A Path With Heart , tells the story of one of his meditation students, Jean, a Massachusetts woman who lived with her family just outside of Amherst. One day, after a number of years, Jean returned to Jack as a meditation student. She was greatly disturbed because her husband, in a deep depression, had committed suicide. The couple had been involved in a variety of spiritual communities on their spiritual quest together. Following the husband’s death, each community lent its comfort and support to Jean as she mourned. A member of the Tibetan meditation group told her he had seen Jean’s husband in meditation and that he was fine –dwelling in the light of the western realm with the Buddha. Jean took comfort in this. A little later, a Christian friend said she, too, had seen the husband in her meditation, surrounded by white light in the company of a great cloud of witnesses. He was well and happy. Yet another friend, a Sufi meditation master assured her that her husband was already well on his way into his next incarnation and that he was fine.
By the time Jean got back to Jack Kornfield, she was thoroughly confused, trying to sort out what was true. He asked her to consider carefully what she actually knew for herself after she set aside all the other input she had had. Finally, out of her own inner silence she answered “I know that everything changes and not much more than that. Everything that is born dies, everything in life is in the process of change.” Kornfield then writes: “I then asked her if perhaps that wasn’t enough – – could she live her life from that simple truth fully and honestly – – not holding on to what must inevitably be let go.” Letting go. It is the first instruction Jesus gives to Mary. Do not hold on to me – I haven’t yet fully ascended.
Mary comes to faith through these few words from the Risen One – – and from then onward, it is by this word that she will be strengthened and sustained. She cannot resume her old relationship with her beloved teacher. The life and ministry of that historical flesh and blood Jesus is over. A new ministry is beginning. The Risen One needs Mary’s witness. Part of the power of this story is that the Risen Christ joyfully and willingly works with those who will meet him on the other side of the tomb – those who are willing to let go of what has been in favor of the new thing that is about to happen.
Indeed, if Mary and the rest of the disciples are to be of any use to the Risen One, they have to let go of the way things were. They cannot be with Jesus in the past. They have to be ready to be in a dynamic, lively – living process with him in a brand new way – – they have to be ready to join him in the resurrection.
We live constantly on the threshold of death and renewal every moment. Life is continually in flux. One moment ends and another begins. We make choices, life changes, we rejoice and we regret, we celebrate and we mourn. Events beyond our control come out of the blue – – and life as we knew it changes again. We get blown out of center – lose our balance – – sometimes we wring our hands and say “If only I could turn back the clock!” But even if we could do that, we might find only an empty tomb to greet us. The reality is that death and resurrection happen from moment to moment –every day of our lives. Resurrection is now. When we chose to follow the life and teachings of Jesus, we make the choice to be with him in his resurrection – – regardless of what our life circumstances are. We have made the choice to be here this morning.
We join Mary and the disciples in their confused excitement. We celebrate resurrection this morning. Whatever the painful and sorrowful and frightening events we have had to endure, this morning, the tomb is, indeed, empty.
Jesus’ lively and loving message is “Do not cling” to whatever limits the joy and exhilaration that awaits us in the next episode with him. Jesus commands Mary:
“Go and tell….”. Through the ages the Risen One has always offered a transformed life when we say “yes” to what he will create with us if we are willing to take the leap of faith with Mary and follow him on the road into the future. The tomb is empty – – there is only life in the resurrection ahead. May God grant that we find ways to live in the resurrection together. AMEN