Alive and Ablaze

EASTER DAY 2022 JOHN 20:1-18

Fifty years ago today. Fifty years. Anyone here remember April 17th 1972? In some ways it was a pretty boring day. For example, nothing much happened in politics or business. Remember the good old days when politics and business were dull and nothing happened? The most interesting thing I could find about commerce was The Ford Motor Company recalled all of its Torinos and Montegos to correct a defect in the rear axles. There was a famous birth that day, however – Jennifer Garner. Who I hope doesn’t mind me revealing her age.

In popular culture, Roberta Flack was number one in the Billboard charts with ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ (you are going to be singing that in your head for the rest of the day), and in the UK the number one record was a truly awful version of Amazing Grace performed by the Pipes & Drums Band of The Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. I don’t know what is more shocking – that the British people should have the excellent taste as to put a hymn at the top of the charts, or that the British people should have such terrible taste as to put bagpipes at the top of the charts. Seriously, as an Englishman I have a hate-hate relationship with bagpipes. By the way, you know why bagpipers walk up and down while they play don’t you? Because it’s harder to hit a moving target.

But there is one wonderful and groundbreaking event that took place on this day 50 years ago; an achievement so beautiful and bold that it easily qualifies as a story worthy of starting the Easter Day sermon with. And this story belongs to Nina Kuscsik, who on April 17th 1972 did something no one had ever done before. She won the women’s race in the Boston Marathon. Because on this day 50 years ago, women were allowed to compete for the first time. The race only had room for men for the first 75 years of its life. Six years earlier, in 1966, an athlete named Roberta Gibb did actually run the Boston Marathon, but she did it by hiding in bushes near the start line and then jumping out into the race as it began. Then, a year later, Kathrine Switzer registered to compete simply as ‘K. Switzer’, not identifying herself as a woman. When the race began, she had to dodge officials who tried to tackle her and remove her, but she still finished in four hours and 20 minutes.

So today is a great day for runners and a great days for women. But don’t take my word for it, take John’s, because he writes about running and women in his Easter Gospel story.

The reading opens with Mary Magdalene running to Peter and to John to tell them the stone covering Jesus’ tomb has been rolled away. And it also ends with her running. This time though, it is not the run of agony and despair that she endures at the beginning; this time it is a run of glory. A run of victory. A run with the urgent, vital, grave-shattering news that Jesus is alive, and she has met him. Like Roberta Gibb, leaping out of the bushes of Boston and making her historic, rule-defying run, so Mary runs with freedom and joy, with the news of another rule that has been shattered. The law of death has been smashed and freedom is Mary’s song. She’s got to gush the great news to everyone she meets.

The law of death. Sometimes death shocks us. We have no idea it is even close. It watches, it stalks someone unseen. It hides in dark corners and when people are making plans or dreaming of the future, it pounces without warning. At other times it announces itself months, even years, in advance. It walks with us week after week, taunting, mocking, from doctor’s office to treatment center, from operating theater to hospice. It plays with us like a cat with a mouse, prodding us as if to fool us into thinking we can escape. Then its sick mind gets bored, and it performs the coup de grace. But whether it stuns us like a thief in the night or saps our life-force after years of exhausting tussle, the law of death is unbreakable and certain. Or so it wants us to believe. Its Good Friday victim was no stranger to breaking laws, but only those that dehumanized, and there was one final law he had to shred. The law of death ruled that this Good Friday victim was just another pitiful wretch, the latest in a line of billions overpowered by the sting of the grave, the swagger of the tomb. But not this one. Not him. Not that day. The Lord of Life, the crucified God had other plans for the weekend. He appeared to Mary – and she had to run and gush the great news.

Actually, let me fess up. I’m using preacher’s license. John ends the reading by saying Mary merely “went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord””. But I can’t believe she just went, like someone who went to work, or went to Trader Joe’s. Come on John, you can describe her journey to gush the great news a bit more creatively than ‘went’. You’ve got to believe she ran … and skipped and bounced and cartwheeled to gush the great news.

I’ve never been a runner. It just hurts, doesn’t it? I mean it hurts all over. Legs, arms, shoulders, internal organs. But, before moving to Jersey I did quite a bit of road cycling, including a century, a 100-mile ride – the bike version of a marathon. I rode it for a charity on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, because the Eastern Shore of Maryland is dead flat. But even without hills, I can’t say it was fun; I definitely can’t say I enjoyed it. It was the last 95 miles that were the hardest. The last ten miles were torture – a mix of trying to keep the bike rubber-side down, while not being sick at the side of the road. There was one good moment. The end. The organizers had one of those big digital clocks hanging over the finish line, and there were spectators applauding. And for a moment I was winning the Tour de France; I forgot about the nausea and the fact that moments earlier I couldn’t breathe and couldn’t pedal one more stroke. For a moment I felt a surge. My chin wobbled with emotion, I felt strong; if the loop had not been 100 miles long, I may have even taken a lap of honor. I had good news to gush, and I found superhuman resources to do it.

It’s not just Mary running on that First Easter morning. Everyone’s at it. Judas runs to a noose, 30 pieces of silver in his hand, trying to outrun his self-loathing and remorse. Peter runs to the tomb, and so does John. It’s urgent. They have to see for themselves what Mary has told them. This is no time for walking. But, in Peter’s case, he’s not just running to something; he’s running from something too. He had also run just three nights earlier. In the Garden he ran from the soldiers who’d come to arrest Jesus. Then in the courtyard he ran from the truth of being Jesus’ friend. Fearful running – running from danger, funning from the truth; running from Jesus. But now because of the empty tomb, Peter could stop his running. There’s no need, Peter, to run from your past. Because Christ is risen your past is wiped out, your failures absolved, your fears dissolved.

And me – and you. We can stop our running. What are you running from? I run from voices – especially that one in my soul that tells me I must perform perfectly if God is going to love me. I don’t work hard enough, my heart is not committed enough, my results not stellar enough. I have disappointed God and I’ve let people down. And this voice knows exactly when to whisper – after a grueling day, when I’ve had a disappointment, when I’ve messed something up. But the grave-shattering, life-instilling truth of Easter Day is this – stop running. Just stand, turn around, and behold the empty tomb. So, what are you running from? Hear the Word of the Lord this fresh spring morning, this new day of deliverance, this hour of death-defying, law-breaking joy. Stop your running. Stand still, turn around, and behold the empty tomb. Because of it, you can face the conversation that scares you, that email that troubles you, that message on your phone that you must listen to, the visit that causes you distress, the meeting at work that’s making you anxious, the conflict, the failure, the uncertainty, the fear, your own weakness, impulses and addictions. And because of the empty tomb we can stop our running, turn around and look even into the face of death.

Because the triumphant alleluia is written in the murky corners of our lives – the cold, dark, nooks and crannies where we don’t take guests, where no friend has ever visited. The empty tomb is located in the tatters of dreams now shredded, the rubble of relationships now collapsed, the wreckage of careers disfigured and burned out. The cry of victory is proclaimed in our mess and our mistakes. It reverberates in our corridors of despair and decay, it echoes around the empty rooms that once housed our hopes and dreams, our love and laughter. Today God does what God has always done – walks into God-forsaken places – and performs resurrection. He takes us, these broken pieces of humanity and turns us into glorious expressions of new life. Don’t resist him, stop your running, receive the risen Christ. And don’t stay there either, privately enjoying the glory of the empty tomb. Take the baton and pass it on.

The San Francisco Episcopalian Sara Miles says that Mary Magdalene teaches us three things this morning. First to be truly healed of the things that blight us, we need to go right up to the scariest, ugliest, saddest place in the world, before the sun has risen, and look without flinching into every dark corner, even when it makes you weep.

Second, talk to the gardener. Trust the stranger who comes to you when you’re alone and weeping over the murder of your friend. Receive good news from strangers. Listen for the word of resurrection in the most unlikely places.

And then, go for a run. Run and gush the story.

About Theresa Wright