Staying at the Tomb

“Staying at the Tomb”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
April 17, 2022 – Easter
Selections from Psalm 119

This is the day that the Lord has made;
   let us rejoice and be glad in it!

The Lord is God,
   the One who has given us light. 

We thank you, God, that you have answered us
   and have become our salvation.

The stone that the builders rejected
   has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
   it is marvelous in our eyes!

John 20:1-18
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.

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 God. 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 other disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

– – –
Sometimes resurrection finds us where we least expect it.

Mary Magdalene had found the open, empty tomb and brought two of the other disciples to see it: Peter and “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” traditionally thought to be John; they have popped their heads into the empty tomb, believed Mary’s tale, and went, disconsolate, back to join the other disciples, who were hiding from the religious authorities, worried that what would happen to their beloved teacher and friend would also happen to them, trying to figure out what to do next now that he was gone.

But Mary? Mary stayed at the tomb, at the place where her grief and her pain were fresh and deep, not ready yet to move on to – whatever came next.

Our culture so often pushes us through our grief, doesn’t it, insisting we paper over our pain and “move on.” So many of us, dealing with losses of all kinds have been told to “get over it” – either because our loss didn’t seem significant to others or because the grief process was taking longer than they deemed normal. The message we get is that shutting ourselves down or shutting off our ability to feel pain is better than the messiness of living through our grief, of feeling the consequences of having loved or having hoped – that skipping all of that is better than, well, being human.

But maybe grappling with our losses and disappointments instead of shoving them down is exactly the kind of real we need to be in order for resurrection – real, true, rich life, especially real true rich life after loss – to find us, for the Gardener to call our name and for us to recognize that beloved voice and all the promise it holds for us.

The movie The Starling tells the story of a couple grieving the loss of their baby to SIDS. Jack, the husband, is avoiding doing much in therapy while staying in a mental health rehab facility, while Lilly, the wife, played by Melissa McCarthy, has done her best to go back to her “normal” routine – pressured by her boss at the grocery store who says people have noticed she isn’t acting like her usual self and that she hasn’t been able to “focus” – you think? – but mostly driven by her own idea that to give into her grief would be “quitting.” Neither parent is truly dealing with their grief, and neither grief counselors nor well-meaning church ladies can breach the barriers they’ve set up.

One day as part of this “return to normal,” Lilly decides to start sprucing up their long-neglected yard, but a starling, who has claimed the yard as its territory, attacks her. Unsure what to do about the bird, Lilly visits Larry Fine, a local therapist-turned-vet, played by Kevin Kline. As Larry offers advice for dealing with homicidal starlings, he and Lilly develop a bond, and he slips into their conversations small ways to help her process her grief. 

At first, Lilly is resistant to digging any deeper into her pain, believing that giving away her daughter’s things and getting Jack back home so they can return to “normal” is the way forward. As Larry and Lilly verbally spar, he asks, “Are you familiar with stage three of the grieving process?”  Larry asks at one point. “It’s anger.” “What comes after that?” Lilly wants to know. “Depression,” he answers. Lilly deadpans: “Great, I can’t wait.”

But eventually, Lilly realizes that she can’t expect Jack to get well enough to come home if she doesn’t deal with her own loss, too. And when she calls Larry out on his refusal to just give her the answers, he has to confront his own feelings about a failed career.

I won’t give away exactly how they move through it all – I encourage you to see it for yourself. But let’s just say that the last scene is of Lilly and Jack, home on their front porch, football helmets on heads, about to run as fast as they can to pick some of their new garden’s yield before they’re attacked by the starlings – now a pair.  “Carrots, tomatoes, and a head of lettuce,” Lilly instructs. “If you can get to the cucumbers, grab two.” “Okay,” Jack responds. “On three!” They grab hands, and go.

– – – 

Sometimes we need to seek out Resurrection in our lives and in the world – to go to therapy for the wounds we want to heal, to reconcile a relationship that’s been broken, to work to repair injustice, to revive a community that has lost its purpose, to re-imagine a dream we’d consigned to the trash heap, to reclaim a person who’s been consigned to the trash heap. 

But sometimes, the seeds of resurrection find us before we even know to seek it out, right in the middle of our darkest moments, or, as we said on Good Friday, right in the middle of our most tender and terrible places – simply because we have the wisdom, or maybe it’s the grace, to acknowledge that that’s where we are.

Though she wasn’t expecting Jesus to be alive, I think Mary Magdalene somehow knew this truth – that it was not in bypassing her sorrow that she would get to joy, but rather by going through her sorrow, by staying in it as long as she needed, that she would find joy. She intuited what our friend Marcus Borg calls Jesus’ subversive wisdom: that although there is so much sorrow and suffering in our world it often becomes tempting to shut it out or shut ourselves down to deal with it, it’s by staying open to the pain that we find new life, or that new life finds us.

And if resurrection can find us in our deepest places of pain – then it can find us, however little we expect it, at the bedside where we hold onto our dying mother’s hand. It can find us in the heart-bearing conversation we have with a loved one who has started drinking again. It can find us in the marriage that is falling apart, and in the diagnosis that sucked the wind out of our chests, and in the life of our young adult child who seems headed for disaster, and in war and climate crisis and police brutality and in so many other gardens of agony and despair. 

I don’t think resurrection means that we’ll be magically lifted out of our grief. After all, even though Jesus was resurrected and appeared to Mary Magdalene in a glorious burst of hope reborn, she must have still had the images of Jesus dying on the cross burned onto the insides of her eyelids, and she still had a lifetime to live without Jesus physically present with her. No, I think resurrection means that if we are able to be honest about what our love, or our hope, has cost us – if we are honest with ourselves about our grief – if we are able to stay at the tomb instead of running away – that’s when the ground can be turned over and the seeds of something new and beautiful can begin to sprout, and grow. The Gardener, after all, came to Mary while she was weeping, in the garden.

Thanks be to God for the resurrection that surprises us in the midst of our pain, when our eyes are yet so blurred with tears that we don’t recognize it at first – that we don’t recognize him at first, until he calls us, wonderfully, by name, and begins to grow something new within us.

Just watch out for starlings.