Posted by: Philip Rushton | March 28, 2016

Easter in a Graveyard

(The following post is the manuscript from a sermon I gave yesterday at a community Easter sunrise service that was held at a local cemetery.  It is based on John 20:11-18.)

A couple of years ago, in the middle of singing triumphant hymns about Christ’s resurrection at an Easter service, one of our ushers handed me a stack of prayer cards. As I read through these prayer requests with “Christ the Lord is Risen Today,” in the background, I experienced a troubling dissonance in my heart.

“Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Alleluia!” “Please pray for an 18-month-old girl who is struggling to gain weight and breathe properly because of Cystic Fibrosis.”

“Earth and heaven in chorus say, Alleluia!” “Please pray for my nephew who is back in rehab for alcohol abuse.”

“Raise your joys and triumphs high, Alleluia!” “Pray for my husband who is out of work and is struggling with a deep depression.”

“Where, O death, is now thy sting? Alleluia!” “The Melcher family requests prayer for the Pearson family, who lost their 2-year-old in a tragic accident last Monday.”

It was this card that broke me. Tears began to well up in my eyes. The pain of life interrupted the hope of Easter. The contrast between the triumph of resurrection and the reality of brokenness in our world was hard to reconcile.

Easter can be a hard day for those who are in a season of grief. A friend of mine told me that she hasn’t been able to attend Easter Sunday since her husband passed away a couple of years ago. It is too hard. The celebration of resurrection seems premature when you are walking through the shadow of death.

Perhaps some of you can relate. This Easter Sunday we stand in a graveyard.  It is a place where some of our loved ones are buried. It is a place that reminds us of the pain of loss.

Yet, it is precisely in this kind of place where the first Easter happens. Easter does not take place in a large cathedral. Easter is not accompanied with a brass section belting out triumphant tunes. Easter does not happen around a bountiful dinner table full of family and food. No, Easter takes place in a graveyard next to a grieving woman named Mary.

Mary is not unlike my friend who finds it hard to go to church on Easter. Mary is so clouded by grief that she is unable to see the signs of resurrection that are right in front of her. The trauma of Jesus’ death on the cross and the pain of losing her beloved friend and teacher have cast a shadow of despair that is so dark that she initially mistakes Jesus for a gardener.

I wonder if that might describe us as well. Perhaps the pain we have witnessed has made it hard for us to see any signs of God. Perhaps tears have clouded our vision. Perhaps disappointment has made us reluctant to hope. Perhaps doubt prevents us from even trying to look for God anymore.

If you find yourself in this place you are not alone. This is the exact context where the first Easter happens. This is where Mary finds herself on that first Easter Sunday.

Flower Cross 2014Yet, Mary does not remain in despair. As the story unfolds something changes. This grieving woman ends up leaving the graveyard with a renewed hope and a renewed purpose in life. Easter intersects with her grief and leaves her transformed.  So what happened?  What brought about the change?

Part of the change is the result of Mary’s receptivity.  I think it is helpful to notice that Mary does not prematurely leave the graveyard. While the other disciples return to their homes after seeing the empty tomb, Mary stays behind and weeps.  Then, when asked what she is searching for, Mary says, “they have taken my Lord.”  Despite witnessing the crucifixion, she is still referring to Jesus as her Lord.   This suggests that she has not completely given up hope.

Mary is also given space by Jesus to work through her grief and name her reality. She is asked, “Why are you weeping? What are you looking for?” These questions are not to be understood as a rebuke. No, these questions are rooted in compassion. Mary is given space to name her grief and come to terms with her reality.

Chris Rice writes, “To the extent that our lament is shallow, our hope will be shallow.” Before Mary can encounter hope she needs to first acknowledge her pain.   By staying with her grief and wrestling through her confusion she has placed herself in a position of receptivity. She is actively seeking God and trying to make sense of her circumstances.

This is part of her the process of healing, but it is not the main part of it. Receptivity isn’t helpful if there is nothing to receive.  No, the transformation that takes part in Mary’s life is not solely about what she does but what God does.

With great grace and great love, Jesus has come in search of Mary.   The grace of Easter Sunday is that Jesus has come in search of the very people who earlier in the week had abandoned him in his time of need.  Jesus has come for his disciples.  He has come for Mary. The breakthrough that happens in her life is when she hears him call her name. As she hears Jesus’ tender voice of love she sees the risen Christ.

Thomas Long tells the story of a woman he knows named Mary Ann Bird (1). Mary Ann had a rough childhood. She was born with a cleft palate and had lopsided feet. As such, she was often the target of ridicule from kids at school.

One year she had a school teacher named Miss Leonard. At the beginning of the year, teachers were required to administer a hearing test. Kids would come forward and the teacher would whisper something into their ear. It was often a simple phrase – perhaps a comment about the weather, or an observation about something in the classroom.

Mary Ann had some hearing problems and she was understandably anxious about this test. However, when it was her turn, Miss Leonard whispered in her ear, “I wish you were my little girl, Mary Ann.”

This was one of those life-changing moments for Mary Ann. A word of compassion cut through her despair and grief. Her teacher had called her by name and spoke a word of love to her.

If we have eyes to see and ears to hear we will encounter the signs of beauty, truth, and grace that are around us. We see signposts to God’s love and power in the kindness of people like Miss Leonard. We also see signposts to God’s grace and power in creation.

A few weeks back I was talking with a friend who is close to death. We were wrestling with the mystery of what lies beyond the grave. When death is imminent the question about eternity becomes more than a theological exercise. Doubt about the possibility of resurrection is common. In the midst of that doubt we reflected on this observation from Frederick Buechner:

“Once before out of the abyss of the unborn, the uncreated, the not-yet, you and I who from all eternity had been nothing became something. Out of non-being we emerged into being. And what Jesus promises is resurrection, which means that once again this miracle will happen, and out of death will come another realm of life. Not because by our nature there is part of us that does not die, but because by God’s nature he will not let even death separate us from him finally.

Because he loves us. In love he made us and in love he will mend us. In love he will have us his true children before he is through, and in order to do that, one life is not enough, God knows.” – Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark

Buechner suggests that the miracle of this life is ample proof of the possibility of resurrection. When we doubt the possibility of miracles we ought to consider the miracle we are already experiencing.  Perhaps creation is in itself a signpost to the hope of resurrection.

This text invites us to remain open and receptive to the signs of hope that surround us. Perhaps one practice you might consider this Easter season is to end your day by taking note of the signs of beauty, truth, and goodness you have encountered throughout the day.  Jesuit priest James Martin writes that when he started to incorporate this practice into his life he began to realize how “beautiful his yesterdays were.” When he takes time to look and listen for signs of God’s presence and goodness he realizes how many signs of resurrection are around him.

I believe that God continues to meet us in the graveyards of life. Just as he came in search of Mary he comes in search of us.  In a world full of pain and heartbreak it is easy for us to miss the signs of hope in our midst. The Easter story invites us to not leave the graveyard prematurely. We are invited to wait, look, and listen for the signs of resurrection.  We are invited to listen to the still small voice of God that calls each of us by name.

(1) I came across this story from Scott Hozee at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: