John 20: 1-18
We all do a dance with mortality. It’s a Pas de Deux with our creator. Our dance with mortality goes something like this: first we turn our backs and then we come round right with a graceful bow towards the eternal. There we genuflect and hold grief and hope in harmony. Sometimes the movements look fearful and heavy laden, when really they are courageous and tender. We have all done the dance. We move in fear, weep at gravesides, and lift our our eyes towards the heavens for signs. There are signs all around us, drawing us to make resurrection part of our dance.
This past year Rita Burgner, a faithful friend, died. Her grandbaby Henry arrived 2 days before her funeral. Elizabeth, Henry’s mom, literally came from the hospital to her funeral at this sanctuary. Elizabeth described the struggle to hold the sting of death and the wonder of birth at the same time as all the pews filled with people coming to celebrate and mourn Rita’s life. As she sat there crying in the service, she realized the greatest honor for her was to have been able to be with Rita as she took her last breath and to have been with Henry as he took his first. Then she realized looking at Henry that Rita’s spirit would always be with her. “Henry,” she said, “unlike either of his brown-eyed parents, has striking, sea-blue eyes, just like his grandmother.” Our mortality and the mortality of everyone we love is hard to fathom. There is a powerful fear that grief will be our undoing. Kissing someone we love goodbye and kissing a new life is almost too much for a heart to bear in real time. But, Henry’s eyes call us to move in the wake of death, and believe that life continues on in ways we cannot even imagine. We feel it in our bones; death is not the end of our dance.
No one does the dance with more grace than Mary Magdalene. Our Easter story in John begins with her full of grief and setting out while it is still dark to anoint Jesus’ body. We can hear the quiet as she enters the garden with spices and oils. She is filled with grief as the scene of the Crucifixion is still fresh in her memory and in close proximity. She feels she is alone and ready to face death. It is when she sees the stone rolled away that the resurrection dance begins. First she runs from the tomb for help, then Peter and John race towards the tomb and move in and out trying to understand what they are witnessing. Peter and John then turn back, and then Mary Magdalene, weeping, turns towards the empty tomb and bow gracefully to look closer into the tomb. She sees the angels and realizes she isn’t alone, and asks for her Lord. Finally, turning again she hears the voice of her Lord who has who has lingered at the tomb for her, “Mary!” For a moment she dances with eternity We, like Mary, have been called by name and are God’s own forever. We like Mary, can weep and call like timeless poets, "Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart" and move with our risen Lord in a dance that takes us by surprise.
Sometimes we dance close to mortality. This past Ash Wednesday in Ecuador during the drought, I preached about tasting the dust of the land in my mouth. It was as clear to me as it had ever been how we are truly close to dust, and that is why there is no difference—male or female, Ecuadorean or American, rich or poor; we are dust, and to dust we shall return. There was no bitterness in the taste for me. It was just laden with gratitude. Gratitude that we found this small place in God’s vineyard, gratitude that is has helped form the faith of this community, and gratitude for all the love shared between our communities. We finished the service and walked outside the small church where eight-foot speakers had been set up while we were marking our heads with ashes. Those speakers started bellowing out dance music as the teachers and students of the school changed into an array of dancing costumes. Three hundred people gathered around the basketball court outside and were clapping and dancing. The kindergarten teacher dressed in a clown outfit of rags with fresh ashes still adorning her forehead came out with all the children to wild applause. Through teary eyes and laughter I witnessed one of the mist beautiful dances I have ever seen. She was like Mary herself, fearlessly bending into the empty tomb, and then turning round and round because life and hope are stronger. I want us to keep moving in hope while the ashes are fresh on our foreheads. Easter preaches, " dance; love is more powerful than fear, stronger than the grave, and older than grief."
I walked by a trout lily this spring. Trout lilies are beautiful wild lilies that begin the morning with their blossoms bowed and then reach towards the sun in late afternoon. They are easily missed as they are close to the ground and bloom just a couple of days a year. They are some of the most fragile blossoms our Tennessee hills hold. It seems impossible that after the devastating flood last spring that changed the landscape of our woods and brought down huge trees that the millimeter bulbs of any wildflower could survive. Yet this year, at the base of the largest birch tree in the park that fell, a trout lily was blooming. It was a sign of new life in mangled earth. Love always finds a way to bloom and make our hearts dance---In spinning circles on Ash Wednesday, in the eyes of a new baby, in the survival of an ephemeral flower. When I looked past that stunning trout lily, I saw a thousand blooming on the hillside like a chorus ready to sing by our gravesides “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia."