Sunday, April 21, 2019
REV. ELIZABETH CUNNINGHAM
Easter Sunday – Isaiah 65, Psalm 118 and John 20
A friend who is studying to be a minster told me how in one of her recent classes, the teacher talked about the necessity of giving ‘trigger warnings’ before you preached, in the event that something you said in your sermon might trigger painful memories.
A trigger warning is something that is different from a content warning, which we are regularly see at the beginning of most evening television programs: “This program contains scenes of a violent nature, strong language and mature themes. Parental guidance is recommended.” Triggers are about something that stirs a memory of a painful time in your life and takes you back there. You relive the experience. Triggers can deeply affect us.
Here is a local example. The fire that destroyed parts of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, last week would have been a trigger for our nearby Aurora United Church congregation whose historic church burned down 5 years ago this month in a raging fire that took everything they treasured. Yes, triggers are real.
Do I need a trigger warning for the scriptures of Good Friday and into Easter Sunday? Will the abandonment and terrible death experienced by Jesus, and the deep despair of the women who come to the tomb three days after, trigger despair in us?
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” Mary came in her sorrow, in her pain. She sees the tomb is open, that the stone has been rolled away from its entrance. She does not know as of yet what is inside the tomb. We then read how Peter and the other disciple have a running race to get to the tomb first, and soon everyone knows that the body is gone, that the burial clothes are folded neatly and put to one side. And then everyone but Mary, runs back home to tell the others.
“But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb.” Through her tears, she looks into the tomb, fearing its emptiness.
We’ve been there. To a place of emptiness. That’s where our trigger responses take us – to a moment when we have looked into emptiness. It triggers in us a memory of a time of paralysis, a time of hopelessness, a time of such loss that we hardly knew how to move forward, let alone breath. But during Mary’s tears of such deep sorrow, God is working it out.
I saw a recent Facebook post that said – “Rest. God is working your situation out.” And yes, Mary, during your deep sorrow, God has been working things out. Through her tears Mary sees what appears to be two angels where before there had been only emptiness. Into her emptiness, God brings a searing vision of angels dressed in white. And they speak to her. She is still numb in her loss, and mutters, “I do not know where they have taken him.” Her emptiness still engulfs her. She backs out of the tomb and practically bumps into a person standing outside. And her tears, her sorrow, prevent her from knowing Jesus. The emptiness still envelops her until he calls her by name. And the tears that blurred her vision, the sorrow that wrapped her heart, disappear. And just like that, she can breathe again, for here before her is the one she loves and follows and believes. Here is hope. “Easter is the reversal of everything we expected.”
As Jesus suffered through the horrible brutality of crucifixion, left alone on the cross, abandoned by God, he cries out from the cross, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” After his death, he was buried in the tomb, a huge stone rolled in front of its entrance. And when Mary went to the tomb on that early morning, the sense of abandonment heavy in the air – the body was supposed to be still there, wrapped in its burial cloths. But during the stillness of creation, God was working it out.
In the moments when we feel we are dying from grief, from loss, from shame, from guilt, from oppression, when we feel overwhelmed by these things, even then, God is working it out.
Easter is the day when we say as Christians, “This is the day that God has made.” For this is the day when Jesus broke the bonds of death and from death rose to new life. This is the day that in the words of the psalmist from Psalm 118, we learn: “I shall not die, but I shall live.” (Psalm 118:17) This is the day that in the words of the prophet Isaiah, we learn, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.” (Isaiah 65:17)
Today is what defines us as Christians, in Christ’s dying on the cross for our sins. And in his death and resurrection, he opens the gate to eternal life. This is the day that God has made – a day of new beginnings. As a commentator wrote, “This is the day, the church breathes out and basks in the good news that I shall not die but live!”
While we celebrate this morning with trumpets and music and glad shouts of Alleluia, there was none of that in any of the Gospel accounts of this morning. As Tony Robinson writes, “It is true of all four of the Easter stories that not a one looks like unmitigated, sound-the-trumpets triumph. There’s more silence, more mystery, surprise and consternation in these narratives then we may imagine.” This continues to be a part of Christianity. In the days after this moment at the tomb, the followers of Jesus fled into secrecy, fearing reprisals from the government, and Christianity would take refuge in the shadows.
Pliny the Younger was born in the year 61 A.D. He was appointed by Emperor Trajan as governor of the province of Bithynia and Pontus, in northwestern Asia Minor, along the south coast of the Black Sea, in the year 110. In a letter to the Emperor, dated in the year 112, Pliny writes, “I was never present at any trials of Christians; therefore I do not know what are the customary penalties or investigations, and what limits are observed. Meanwhile, this is the course that I have adopted in the case of those brought before me as Christians. I ask them if they are Christians. If they admit it I repeat the question a second and a third time, threatening capital punishment; if they persist I sentence them to death … All who denied that they were or had been Christians I considered should be discharged, because they called upon the gods at my dictation and did reverence, with incense and wine to your image which I had ordered to be brought forward for this purpose, together with the statues of the deities; and especially because they cursed Christ, a thing which, it is said, genuine Christians cannot be induced to do.”
Being a Christian was heroic in those times; and depending on where you live in the world today, being a Christian is heroic. And it’s not just Christianity. It’s for Muslims, Jews, and other world faiths. Because of your faith, you may be turned away from a border, imprisoned, or even killed. We remember today the Coptic Christian congregation in Stouffville, whose members have suffered terrible persecution in Libya and Egypt. And we pray for the Christians in Sri Lanka, who were attacked by explosions during Easter services killing over 200, wounding 400.We pray for the victims of this attack, Christians as they worshipped on Easter Sunday, foreigners in the hotels. Senseless violence against worshipping Christians, on this Easter Sunday.
When we go back to our trigger moments, we know that life came out of those small deaths we experienced.
When Mary goes with her tears and breaking heart to the tomb, she was greeted not with death, but with life.
God will always work it out, to bring hope to what is lost; to bring joy to what is sorrow, to bring life to what is dead.
This is the Day that God has made. Christ is alive! Alleluia.
 FOTW, Homiletical Perspective, Psalm 118, p. 363.
 FOTW, Homiletical Perspective, Psalm 118, p. 361.
 FB post on United Church of Canada fb page
 Church and Society in Document, 100-600 A.D., Edited by Alan L. Hayes, 1995, p. 1.
 Ibid., 3-4.