Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Sermon for Easter April 9, 2023: Who Are You Looking For? based upon John 20:1-18
The Resurrection of Jesus
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene
But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
When we lived in Illinois, I learned that Good Friday is when you’re supposed to plant potatoes. It was either one of my colleagues in hospice or one of the farmer families we served who told me. Apparently, the Old Timers said you had to get the potatoes in that day and, especially years ago when the farms were still mostly smaller family farms instead of large industrial operations, this was a rule they’d follow most years. I’d never heard of this practice, though it’s apparently common folk wisdom in lots of places. While preparing this sermon, I found articles about planting potatoes in regions as disparate as Northern California, Detroit, Michigan, and Scotland.
I talked with my friend Kristy, back home in Tennessee, and she was getting ready to put out most of her garden on Good Friday, not just potatoes. While this was a practice she learned from the elders in her family, she wasn’t sure where the practice came from. None of the articles I read were either, though they shared some theories, which ranged in plausibility to me. Kristy offered these thoughts about planting. Humans have been putting a lot of energy and care into how we plant for a very long time. And yet, even with modern technology and all our best practices based on years of experience, we can’t control everything. She said, “It’s a gamble no matter when you plant.” With weather patterns the way they are where we grew up, it was simply a safer bet to wait until Good Friday to try. There will always be risk. But, generations of experience has shown us that this time is right more often than not.
When I lived in Illinois, I put my potatoes in the ground on Good Friday. I didn’t want to waste the wisdom shared with me by the people who had been planting for their whole lives. It seemed to me like a meaningful counterbalance to the deep sadness of Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, crucifixion, and death. On that day, with those stories on my heart, I wanted my hands to be in the soil. I wanted to be gambling on new life. Because I knew that, in the fullness of time, that which I needed for nourishment could grow, a product of both my effort and, also forces well beyond my control. I couldn’t think of a better way to begin the path to resurrection than by betting that something new could live, and knowing that I must prepare and watch for it.
In our Lenten devotional, the Rev. Sarah Speed shared a poem called “Lost and Found.”
With all of my thinking about gardening, it seemed appropriate to share her words.
Standing in the garden,
Soft dirt under her feet,
Sun still tucked away,
Sleeping under the horizon.
The other disciples left,
but Mary stayed.
tears running down her face.
She said, they have taken my Lord away,
and I don’t know where they put him.
But here’s what Easter taught me:
if you think you’ve lost God,
if it feels like heaven has slipped through the cracks,
if you feel like night will never end,
then know, there is no hide-and-seek with the divine
that doesn’t end in you being found.
God is closer than you think.
You might have noticed, especially if it is your first Easter with us, that the sanctuary looked a little bare when you came in. Those of you who are attending online can’t really see everything, but there were no flowers out or banners up when people arrived today. It wasn’t until we heard alongside Mary, “woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?” and realized with her that it was Jesus who was asking her questions and calling out her name. It wasn’t until then that the signs remembering her joy and showing our celebration would be brought out in full.
I don’t ask the deacons and some other volunteers to help make Easter erupt this way just because I like the drama (though, to be fair, I do like the drama). It is because, as Dr. Wil Gafney reminds us in her commentary on this text, the Easter story starts in sorrow, in the dirt, standing next to the stone cover that has been removed to reveal an empty tomb. Mary Magdalene, who had already watched her friend be killed now was afraid that his remains had been taken as well. She was surprised in the most awful way and didn’t know what to do about it.
When we have heard this story a thousand times, like many people in this room have, it is helpful to reintroduce something surprising when we read it again, so that we can remember that this was a shocking and sorrowful morning. It was a morning that Mary Magdalene and the rest of her friends had assumed that their gamble on love... their gamble on Jesus might have been a bad bet. They had put in so much effort right alongside him, had planted so many seeds of love and justice, had allowed the Spirit to grow in their hearts, and yet, forces beyond their control had taken Jesus from them. It was always going to be a gamble to teach and heal alongside him. She was sure that all was lost.
She has gone looking for Jesus to be just the same way that she last saw him. But, these days in dark have changed him, or at least changed her expectation of what she will find when she goes looking. She doesn’t even recognize him at first. He has to say her name, remind her of their relationship, for her to see clearly that the one she has been searching for is there, alive in a brand new way. I know she wants to stay with him. Jesus does, too. But, he gives her a commission, sending her to tell others what she has seen. And, she, like the woman at the well and the man who had been born blind but was healed, goes on to tell what she has seen.
It was a gamble to follow Christ. It still is. Not because Christians are being particularly persecuted at this moment, because we aren’t. The gamble comes from what Danielle Shroyer talks about in her commentary on this text. We may think we know Jesus and see him one way. But, if we really commit to putting our hands in the dirt alongside him, sowing love that we hope to harvest as justice, we might find that he is not where we expect him. I pray that he will find us as he found Mary and show us that there is a kind of new life that we didn’t know was possible. Mary preached so we could hear and follow. May we do the same, passing along her message, “I have seen the Lord,” and plant in our time the next crop of Christ’s love.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Wil Gafney, "Easter Day- Principal Service," Women's Lectionary Year A
Daniell Shroyer's commentary on John 20:1-18 in Seeking: Honest Questions for a Deeper Faith (from Sanctified Art) and her commentary on the First Week of Lent
Sara Speed’s poem, “Lost and Found,” also found in Seeking: Honest Questions for a Deeper Faith from Sanctified Art
This article is an interesting overview of practices around planting on Good Friday: https://www.farmersalmanac.com/good-friday-gardening-folklore-27185
The different articles I found from different regions:
Northern California: https://homeguides.sfgate.com/plant-potatoes-good-friday-55043.html
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.