April 21, 2019 Speaker: Matt Benton
Passage: John 1:1–1:18
On April 20, 1999, twenty years ago, I was 13 years old. Yeah, I know you’re all reevaluating me based on that knowledge, perhaps reevaluating yourself. Sorry. But on April 20, 1999, twenty years ago yesterday I was 13 years old. What is important about that fact is that I was in the 7thgrade and it was the very first time I rode the bus home after school and was in the house by myself for hours until my parents came home. Both my parents worked as teachers and so when I was in elementary school I went to SACC, School aged childcare, the FCPS after school care program until one of my parents picked me up after their day. SACC ended once you hit middle school so in the 1998-1999 school year my parents were forced to entrust their house to me in the couple hours after school each day.
I remember exactly what I did on April 20, 1999 when I came home from school. I turned on cable news. That wasn’t my normal routine; normally I’d watch TRL on MTV. But this day no one was watching TRL. No one was watching soap operas or syndicated re runs. No one was watching day baseball. Because in the afternoon of April 20, 1999 we were reeling from a tragedy unlike anything this country had ever seen before. Sadly, ever since we have come to see it again and again.
On April 20, 1999 two high school students, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris walked into their high school and proceeded to kill twelve of their fellow students, one teacher at the school, before turning their guns on themselves. It was the deadliest school shooting in our nation’s history. At least at the time. And as I came home from middle school on April 20, 1999 having heard the first reports of what happened while I was at school I came home and did what millions of Americans were doing at the very same time: I turned on the news. And watched live reports from Columbine High School. I watched the footage of students running from the school. I watched tear filled interviews with students and parents and teachers. And in the days that followed, even at 13, I learned about how Dylan and Eric were bullied. And how that bullying and the rejection from their peers had turned to planning. And I learned that even as 15 people died that day the number could have been much higher. Because of something I’d never heard of, a pipe bomb, that they’d rigged to go off but didn’t go off as they’d planned.
Today is Easter Sunday. Today is the central Christian holiday. It’s a day of celebration. A day of joy. A day of victory. Pastor Matt, why oh why are you talking about a horrific tragedy? Because in order to understand the joy of Easter you first have to understand the horrific tragedy that preceded it.
I’m so grateful to Diana and Mario for their song. Because even as we come to celebrate what this day is and what this day means we first have to put the events of Easter in context. Today we celebrate that Christ is risen, he is risen indeed. But risen from what? From the dead. Which means the context of Easter is the horrific tragedy that is God incarnate in Jesus Christ walked the Via de la Rosa to the cross, suffered horrifically for us and for our salvation, and was laid in a tomb.
I remember how shocked we all were twenty years ago. I remember how deeply unsettled we were twenty years ago. I remember how scared we all were twenty years ago. Fifteen people showed up to school one day and didn’t come home. And thousands of kids came home forever changed. Perhaps we all came home forever changed.
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance.
I wonder if the shock, the unsettling feelings, the fear we felt in late April 1999 is how Mary felt walking to the tomb. Walking to the place where her Messiah, her teacher, her friend was laid to rest. She’s going to anoint the body. She’s going because she can’t let go. To work through our feelings of shock and loss we tried to learn all we could about what happened. Never has there been so much written about shooters and victims. We wanted to understand. I wonder if Mary went to the tomb in search of understanding.
But she sees something surprising. She see’s something even more unsettling. The stone is rolled away and there is no body. She panics.
So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
Peter and John aren’t with Mary. They aren’t at the tomb. Something keeps them away. I remember going to school the next school day after the Columbine shooting. A number of my classmates were absent. Something kept them away. Fear. Worry. Not wanting to deal with it. The same things that kept Peter and John from the tomb.
So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
I gotta be honest this part of this story seems intentionally vague to me. Who wins the race outstanding, getting to the heart of it both disciples go in. John says he believed, but believed what? Because parenthetically it said they didn’t understand Jesus had to rise from the dead. So did Peter and John believe the body had been stolen? That was Mary’s worry. Someone had taken the body. Is that what they believed? Because they went back to where they were staying. They went back to the place fear kept them. They went back to the place of sadness, grief, and wallow.
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
Here it is. The Easter Gospel. The Easter message. The Easter story. Mary comes upon someone who asks her to explain her grief and sadness. They’ve taken my Lord away. That functions on so many levels doesn’t it? It talks about the nameless faceless people who literally took Jesus’ body from the tomb robbing Mary of the opportunity to anoint the body and ritually say goodbye. But it also talks about the Romans and the Temple elites who made Jesus an enemy, who arrested him, who convicted him, who killed him. It speaks to the forces of evil and wickedness that won on Good Friday, that won on the day Jesus died. Jesus is not just gone, he was taken. Taken from her. By people, but powers, by forces. And now she doesn’t know where he is.
On April 20, 1999 fifteen lives were taken from this world but that wasn’t all that was taken from us was it? As someone who was a student at the time it felt like something was taken from me. Some innocence. Some sense of safety. Some sense that school was a neutral place. Now this place I had to go to seemed dangerous. And not just from a social standpoint. It now included an existential worry. I don’t know what it was like to be a parent of a student in the days and weeks following Columbine. You send your kids off to school to be nurtured, to be bettered. And now because of one day it’s in the back of your mind is your kid safe.
In the years since the world hasn’t gotten any safer. Whether or not Columbine affected you in a transformative way something in the past 20 years has. And as the tragedies have mounted over the past twenty years I find that we seek out less and less information. We try less and less to understand how and why something like this has happened and more and more just accept its part of our lives. Almost in hopeless resignation.
But to the fifteen who died twenty years ago yesterday, to the countless others that have died in shootings and tragedies since, what hope can we offer?
The same hope that Mary found in the garden that day.
Because the person Mary came upon wasn’t some rando. He wasn’t a gardener. He wasn’t someone. He was the one. He was her rabbi, her teacher. He was, he IS Jesus. He speaks her name and she knows. Jesus wasn’t taken away. Jesus wasn’t taken from her. He’s standing there right in front of her. He’s standing there fully present to her. Jesus isn’t dead and missing. He’s alive and found and he’s talking to her.
And then there’s this confusing bit about don’t hold on to me because I haven’t yet ascended. And the heart of this is simply this: story isn’t finished. There’s more to this than Jesus rising from the dead, awesome as that is. There’s greater meaning in this than simply a man coming back to live, awesome as that is. And what I see in this is that this story isn’t just about Mary finding what she was looking for, finding peace and hope and meaning. Mary is both main character and audience avatar.
If there’s more in this story, if there’s more action to follow it means that what happens here in this garden isn’t just for Mary. And isn’t just for Peter and John. It might in fact be for us too.
Twenty years ago yesterday fifteen people died in a tragedy we still remember. Yesterday was Holy Saturday; the day the church remembers the time Christ spent dead in the grave. It’s a day that acknowledges there are times in this life; there are times in our world when we are without hope. Or that we can only hope against hope. But it’s a day that reminds us that our God does His best work in a grave yard. Our God does his best work when it seems that we are without hope. Our God does his best work in our moments of deepest confusion and doubt, when it seems like nothing good can come. That’s precisely when God brings forth His best miracle.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! The sadness of Good Friday, the depression of Holy Saturday gives way to something deeper and greater. Joy and life and light bursts forth. The ultimate victory is won. Our God lives, our God reigns. But this isn’t just a story we remember and retell, this isn’t an event we look back on; what happened on Easter Sunday is happening for you and for us today and everyday.
Some of you are coming here today living Holy Saturday, living in confusion and doubt. There are days all of us will live Holy Saturday wondering from whence our hope and our help comes. There are days when we feel like we cannot see beyond our own hurts and struggles; where we aren’t sure where the next good thing is gonna come from. Your Easter Gospel is that Holy Saturday always gives way to Easter Sunday. For some it is only one sunrise that separates the two. For some it is much longer. But our God lives and our God reigns and one day your Easter sun will rise.
Some of you are coming here ready for Easter. Ready to hear the message of God’s victory in Jesus Christ and revel in the beautiful joy this message is. Ready to say with Paul where o death is your victory where o grave is your sting. You’re here for this. Because God’s victory, God’s blessings are present in your life. God’s actions in this world are real for you and you’re ready to celebrate.
No matter who you are, no matter where you are today this story is for you. This is your story. Because when God raised Jesus from the dead God defeated death, God defeated sin, God defeated evil. God showed us there is hope beyond that which we can see. God's story goes beyond our natural lives. Goes beyond human limitations.
And what that means is you can have a part of that hope whether your life today is full of joy like Easter Sunday or full of pain like Easter Saturday.
Wherever you are today, however you come to worship today, hear the good news: you are not stuck. The story continues because God is the pursuer of you. He wrote the story. God defines love as a pursuing force that is not dependent upon your response back. God is going to continue to pursue and love you anyway because he is love.
Jesus is. Death did not stop him. God is. Death cannot defeat him. And we who live day in day out, in days of prosperity and days of tragedy, know that our God lives and reigns and has power over anything that might seek to entrap or ensnare us. We have power. We have victory. We are free. Because Jesus lives. Because Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. And the Risen Christ will continue to pursue you, will continue to encounter you, until you come to see yourself as known and loved by our God. Happy Easter. Let us pray.