"To look into the tomb"-A Sermon for Easter Sunday, John 20:1-18
So, following the University of Texas’ New Year’s Day Sugar Bowl victory over the University of Georgia…my sincere regrets to any Bulldog fans among us…kind of…several parishioners, who knew that I was one of the folk who took care of Bevo, UT’s longhorn mascot, when I was a student at UT…asked me if I saw the clip of the pre-game encounter between Bevo and Georgia’s mascot, the bulldog named Uga. Suffice it to say, it was not a pleasant or peaceful encounter. It was not a “wolf lying down with the lamb” biblical moment pointing to God’s coming reign of peace. If you haven’t seen the video clip, simply said…Bevo totally freaked out as the bulldog came near…and the bulldog and its handlers, wisely, turned tail and ran for dear life. A bulldog is a great and strong…and pretty lovable…mascot…with a proud tradition at the University of Georgia…but a bulldog has little hope of survival when faced by an aggravated 2000 lbs. steer with giant horns. I am sure they were all thinking that the two mascots together would make an impressive pre-game made for TV moment…but quite frankly…it was a terrible idea from the beginning…really a very frightening moment, in which, thankfully no one…human or animal…was badly hurt. I actually did see the exchange before the game began and will admit…that Bevo’s fighting spirit did give me a good feeling about the outcome of the game.
And, I actually had a similar scary experience, when I was handling Bevo. Back in 1995 at a Texas/Baylor football game in Austin, several of the Baylor mascot handlers marched their bear…which is an actual living bear…entirely unannounced…toward Bevo. And, when the bear came into his view, Bevo immediately entered into a fight or flight moment. Thankfully, we jumped into action and the Baylor folk noticed what was happening, helped along by our screams to “get it out of here”…so they quickly turned away before things got out of control. It was some time before my heart stopped pounding. If a bulldog and longhorn, meaning the animals not the fans, don’t always get along…perhaps it should go without saying that a bear and a longhorn is a bad combination.
And this is where I am going here…I promise I do, perhaps unbelievably with that intro, have an Easter message for you this morning. So, in one of those post Sugar Bowl conversations, when I was asked about the ill thought through encounter between Bevo and Uga, one of our parishioners, Scott Beachy, asked me what in the world do you do when this sort of thing happens. Again, we are talking about a 2000 lbs. steer with giant horns…that is not sedated…and can easily over power its handlers…so what do you do when it sees something that it finds threatening or unsettling. And the answer is exactly what Bevo’s handlers did. If you go back and watch the encounter before the Sugar Bowl, you see that his handlers grabbed the steer by the horns and turn it around with all of their might. Like the reins in the mouth of a horse…if you grab its horns and tug…its head and body typically follow. And somewhat amazingly…when the perceived threat is no longer in view…when the steer can no longer actually see that which is unsettling him…he begins to settle down…out of sight, out of mind…if you will. Simply said…you literally change his perspective.
And that my friends is what happens at Easter…Jesus’ resurrection from the dead…the power of love…the love that is the genesis of creation…the love that forms and sustains us and all that exists…God’s love that has the power to overcome even sin and death…is intended to utterly transform our perspective…our own perspective on living and dying and our perspective on where this world…that feels so full of sin and death…is heading. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead on the very first Easter is intended to utterly transform the way we see the world and live in it…the good, the bad, and the ugly…a transformation from hopelessness to hope…from a constant fight and flight mode that we often find ourselves in, caused by all the pain and confusion placed in our lap by a world that often feels and is unjust, violent and out of control…so that we might begin to see a world, and live a life, that is full of potential and promise…a life that sees death as more gate than grave...a life that sees great challenge as tremendous opportunity…that sees suffering as a chance to roll up our sleeves and serve those in need…that sees those who challenge our norms, those who look, live, love and believe differently than we do, not as a threat, but as a chance to make a new friend and expand our comfort zone…that sees uncertainty and volatility in the world as a chance to resurrect from the ashes of the old…a new way of being a human family that is altogether more lovely than what existed before…that sees loss, of a job or health or even a loved one, as a chance to empathize and walk with those who are experiencing a similar sort of grief. Jesus’ resurrection is intended to utterly transform our perspective…that we might see hope…not beyond suffering, not beyond real threats and challenges…but right in the midst of them…right in the midst of the present darkness.
I think of our own parishioner, the Rev. Kelly Koonce, who after wrestling with the loss of his own mother, has started a non-profit called “Life after Loss” that provides professionally facilitated grief support groups, at no charge, for those who could not otherwise access the sort of profoundly needed counseling and support that they desperately need and deserve to move through their own loss. This is a ministry that profoundly shifts perspectives from death to life…from hopelessness to hope. It is one of countless examples of Easter bursting into the present moment offering a powerful new vision of what can be…of what can be for the life we live and the world we live in when we begin to see resurrection light not beyond our suffering and loss…but right in the middle of it. Hope found…hope that we can really see…a resurrected life emerging from a lifeless tomb…like the flowering buds on a bare a leafless branch at winters end. Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is God’s way of grabbing us by the horns…to turn us entirely around…utterly changing our perspective…that we might see and hear the colorful song-birds singing a hopeful tune that light upon the tombstones in the very midst of the cemeteries that we often find ourselves walking around in.
You see, the mess the world often finds itself in will not quickly be unraveled and new unsettling and fear inducing threats will approach us and come into our view…all are touched in some way by the what I call the 4 D’s…death, disease, distance or divorce. We live in a world that is unjust, inequitable and violent…the most recent 24-hour news cycle is often profoundly unsettling. And when faced with this pain, confusion, and isolation, we are often like a 2000 lbs. steer caught in an instinctual fight or flight moment. And when like this, however much we actually weigh, we are an unruly ball of energy capable of doing great harm to ourselves and others, as we lash out with the choices we make and the ways we treat others in a desperate attempt to self-protect. But Easter promises that the darkness that drives us actually has no power over us…providing another and wonderful contrary perspective. Jesus’ resurrection makes certain that there is something else hopeful to see.
And it is in these very moments that we need to begin to sing ourselves amongst the tombstones. We need cry out, as we did three times at the beginning of this service, that Jesus is risen…not was or will be…but is risen…a present tense…right now experience. The risen Lord Jesus is here, and, if we are willing to look for him with the eyes of hearts, most especially when threats arise and fear wells up and we begin to be out of control, he will take us…not by the horns…for as great as Bevo is we are no steer…we are God’s own beloved…formed in God’s own loving image…so God takes us by the heart…and begins to turn us around…to change our perspective…that we might begin to see the breathtakingly beautiful, hope filled signs of resurrection that, indeed, exist not beyond our suffering, beyond our trials and struggles, but right in the midst of them…a songbird in a cemetery…that shifts fight or flight to deliberate holy habits…that shifts isolation to connection…that shifts unsurmountable obstacles to prime opportunities…that shifts despair to hope…that utterly and wonderfully disrupts our perspective.
If only we like Jesus’ friends, beginning with the women who go on that first Easter morning to care for his body, are courageous enough to look into the tomb, we too will see that it is empty. We will begin to catch a glimpse of the light that shines right in the midst of our darkness…casting our vision firmly on Jesus who is with us even now…risen in the great and forever proclamation: that love is stronger even than death…the great and forever proclamation that, in the fullness of time, love will be our only perspective. Amen.