Sermon: “Why Are You Weeping” (April 5, 2015)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Why Are You Weeping?” (John 20:15)
Easter Sunday: April 5, 2015
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

What a joy to celebrate Easter with you all this morning!

In John’s account of the resurrection of Jesus he focuses on the experience of none other than Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene had previously been labeled as a woman of ill repute, but Jesus did not turn away from her. Instead, unlike everyone else, Jesus gave her grace and acceptance—and not only that, scripture tells us Jesus cast seven demons out of her (Luke 8:2).

Jesus had turned Mary Magdalene’s life around, and so she became one of his disciples—and unlike the other disciples, she followed Jesus to the cross (Mark 15:40), and watched the most important person in her life die a brutal and unspeakably painful death. But that was not how the story would end.

Since this is the time of year for March Madness, I thought I would weave in an illustration from the world of college basketball. In 1987 Jim Valvano, who famously coached the underdog North Carolina State Wolfpack to its 1983 NCAA championship, gave a speech about the most important person in his life:

My father was the single most important, most influential person in my life…When I got my first job I said to my pop, “I want to win the national championship.” He said, “I’ll be there.” It took me eight years to even make the tournament it was my dream to win, eight years.

On the day Jim Valvano found out his team had made the NCAA tournament for the first time he celebrated with his family at his parents’ home. He continues:

My father calls me upstairs…He’s got this suitcase. “What is that for?” I said. “I’m going to be there when you win the national championship. My bags are packed.” The year we won in 1983 I got a great picture of my father and me at center court in Albuquerque, New Mexico, hugging.

Years later his father died of a heart attack. Jim went on to say:

I lost my best friend in the whole world…The gift my father gave me…every day of my life was he believed in me. My father believed in me. He believed in me when I failed. He believed in me when I wasn’t as fine a son, friend, husband, father as I could be. He’s the one person who when I didn’t measure up to my standards or someone else’s standards, he’d look me in the eye and say, “You’re gonna make it. I know you are. My bags are packed. You’re gonna make it.”

In other words, Jim Valvano’s father gave him grace, no matter what.

And Jesus had given Mary Magdalene grace. Unlike so many others in her life, Jesus did not judge her or marginalize her or objectify her. Instead, Jesus spoke words that ministered encouragement and forgiveness and life to her. So it is little wonder that very early in the morning—“while it was still dark” (John 20:1)—Mary Magdalene went to the tomb of the most important person in her life.

She arrives at the tomb and discovers that the stone had been rolled away. She ran to tell Peter and John, and then followed them back to the empty tomb. After Peter and John left, Mary, just as she had remained at the cross, now remained at the empty tomb, weeping. She was convinced it could not possibly get any worse.

She peers through her tears into the empty tomb and sees two angels sitting there. The angels ask her, “Why are you weeping?” She is utterly distraught, “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.”

And in that darkest of dark moments Mary Magdalen turned around and saw the risen Jesus. She was so surprised she did not yet recognize him. He was the very last person she had expected to see.

Jesus asked her the same question the angels had, “Why are you weeping?” and adds a second question, “Who are you looking for?” And when Jesus smiled and called her by name, “Mary!” she finally realized she was indeed standing next to the most important person in her life. And she was overcome with joy. What a turnaround!

Similarly, near the end of the epic trilogy The Lord of the Rings Sam, who had been severely wounded and was convalescent for many days, awoke only to be overcome with joy by the one standing there. Tolkien writes:

Gandalf stood before him, robed in white, his beard now gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight. “Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?” he said.

But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

“A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment for days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known (The Return of the King, Ballantine Paperback edition, 282-283).

I bet Mary Magdalen was so overcome with joy that she too was laughing. It was true! Jesus proved to be indeed the Resurrection and the Life—and he had called her by name. She ran to the disciples and announced, “I have seen the Lord!”

On Easter we celebrate the truth that Jesus Christ, the Son of God who died for our sins has indeed risen. Jesus brings all of us—regardless of how much like Mary Magdalene we are, regardless of our ill repute or personal demons—Jesus brings all of us across the bridge “out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life” (The Book of Common Prayer 368).

In his 2013 book Immortal Diamond Richard Rohr describes this:

None of us crosses over by our own merits, purity, or perfection. We are all carried across by an uncreated and unearned grace—from pope, to president, to princess, to peasant. Worthiness is never the ticket, only deep desire, and the ticket is given in the desiring. The tomb is always finally empty. There are no exceptions to death, and there are no exceptions to grace. And I believe, with good evidence, that there are no exceptions to resurrection (xxi-xxii).

The bad news is that you will not be exempt from death. You will not be able to avoid or outmaneuver death no matter how strong or well educated or clever or beautiful or determined you may be. No matter what, one day you will draw your final breath. Death comes to us all.

But the good news on this Easter morning is that something else also comes to us all…actually, Someone else comes to us all…the risen Lord Jesus Christ.

You have never been and never will be exempt from the grace of God in Jesus Christ, a grace that will carry you even from death to eternal life. Scripture assures us that “he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8:11).

What we declare during the funeral service in The Book of Common Prayer is true—“All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia” (BCP 499).

In his book The Furious Longing of God the late Brennan Manning recounts what happened during a visit to Carville, Louisiana, to what used to be the only leper colony in United States (it closed in 1999). There was a lady there named Yolanda. After her leprosy diagnosis her husband had divorced her and forbidden their two teenaged sons to visit her. Yolanda could not read (remember that…). Manning recounts the extraordinary event that happened during his visit with her:

A nurse came running toward me and said, “Brennan, can you come and pray with Yolanda? She’s dying, Brennan”…I went up to Yolanda’s room on the second floor and sat on the edge of the bed…Yolanda was dying an abandoned, forsaken woman.

I anointed Yolanda with oil and prayed with her. As I turned to put the top back on the bottle of oil, the room was filled with brilliant light…As I turned back at Yolanda her face was like a sunburst over the mountains, like one thousand sunbeams streaming out of her face literally so brilliant I had to shield my eyes.

I said, “Yolanda, you appear to be very happy.”

With her slight Mexican-American accent she said, “Oh Father, I am so happy.”

I then asked her, “Will you tell me why you’re so happy?”

She said, “Yes, the Abba of Jesus just told me that He would take me home today.”

(He continues) I vividly remember the hot tears that began rolling down my cheeks. After a lengthy pause, I asked just what the Abba of Jesus said.

Yolanda said: “Come now, my love. My lovely one, come. For you, the winter has passed, the snows are over and gone, the flowers appear in the land, the season of joyful songs has come…Come now, my love. My Yolanda, come. Let me see your face. And let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet and your face is beautiful. Come now, my love. My lovely one, come.”

Six hours later her little leprous body was swept up into the furious love of her Abba. Later that same day, I learned from the staff that Yolanda was illiterate. She had never read the Bible, or any book for that matter, in her entire life. I surely had never repeated those words to her in any of my visits. I was, as they say, a man undone (53-57).

What about you ? Why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?

In your heart, perhaps if you, like Mary Magdalene, just turn around, you may see that the Risen Jesus is right there. His words to you are words of life—“You’re gonna make it. I know you are. My bags are packed.”

Like Master Samwise, you and I live “between bewilderment and great joy.” We are bewildered by suffering and death—but because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are assured that great joy awaits us. Jesus is risen—and in the end everything sad will come untrue and the “great Shadow” of death will be swallowed up in victory.

And when you draw your final breath the same One who gently beckoned Yolanda will gently beckon you—“Come now, my love. My lovely one, come.”

And you will be swept up by the everlasting arms of your Creator, and you will join Yolanda and all your friends and loved ones who have died in the everlasting chorus—“Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!”