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Outside

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

April 12, 2020
John 20:1-18

A Reading from the Gospel of John

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 toward 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 around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” 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 the Father. 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 disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.


Like almost everything else we saw in Israel, the location of the tomb itself is the subject of disagreement, and there are at least two options on the table.

The first, and the most traditional, is that the tomb that stood empty on Easter morning is now incorporated in to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a huge nest of stone and incense hulking in the heart of the old city, surrounded by ancient roadways that go down for centuries. Inside the Church you will find both the traditional site of the crucifixion as well as the site of the tomb, itself covered in a stone chapel, the chapel also nested inside the huge open basilica, a building inside a building inside a building. You cannot enter the tomb, or really even come close to it, without being part of an authorized service of worship. All you can see is stone upon stone upon stone, and tourists, and pilgrims. In one corner, a Catholic priest might be saying a mass; in another, a Greek Orthodox service; in another, the Armenians; in another, the Ethiopians; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre  exists in this kind of chaotic limbo where nobody entirely knows who’s in charge. I kid you not, the keys are in the hands of a local Muslim family, the only ones entrusted by all sides to not try to lock any of their rivals out of the building. There may be something beautiful and holy about that limbo, but at least for this one visiting Presbyterian. It mostly felt uninviting and cold. Like stone.

The second option is a little more up my alley. In the late nineteenth century, some English archeologists found a spot just outside the old city gates, a spot with a rock formation that they thought looked just a bit like it had two eyes, and a nose, and a mouth. A spot somebody might have confused for a skull, like Golgotha, the place there the Gospel says they crucified him. And just underneath it, and to the side, they found a small cave, just large enough to be a tomb, next to a garden. They call it the garden tomb, and it is exactly what it sounds like: a lush, green oasis inside the urban stone, with pathways through the foliage, with flowers in bloom, with benches for quiet reflection and prayer. You can walk through the cave and see the spot where maybe he lay. You can look at the rock and spot the eyes and the mouth — the nose fell off in a storm some years back. It was in every way what I wanted the empty tomb to feel like. The only problem is that this lovely place is almost certainly not the place. There is basically no good historic evidence to suggest that this could possibly be the place. But, as one of our group members said. It just feels right. It feels like the spot where resurrection should happen. In the fresh air. In the garden. Outside.

Of course, part of the reason it feels right, outside, is that the first Easter morning happens in a garden. It’s an overdue change of pace. Until that moment, the events of Holy Week have been a particularly urban and crowded experience. Jesus processes into the city surrounded by throngs of people. He spends the ensuing days arguing in the temple and the ensuing nights surrounded by his disciples. He gets one moment to himself — in the garden, at Gethsemane, but of course that’s where the trouble really ratchets up. After his arrest, he’s taken to Caiaphas’s house, and then to Pilate’s headquarters, and then of course he is made to parade his cross through the narrow streets of the city. The thing runs at such a frantic, crowded, claustrophobic pace. And then Saturday happens. And then it’s Sunday. And the women come to the tomb. And in John’s Gospel Mary sees this man there by the tomb and supposes him to be the gardener, which is the best evidence we have of where John thinks this tomb could have been. In the fresh air. In the garden. Outside.

Of course, resurrection should feel like outside. It’s universal. Four weeks ago now, on the third Sunday of Lent and the first Sunday of Pandemic, the first Sunday that we met for worship in this new online space, four weeks ago Pastors John and Krystal invited us as part of our offering that week to go find signs of life in our communities and post pictures of them to the UPC Facebook Group. Later that afternoon, Sarah and Charlie and I went for a walk in our neighborhood, over to the park, over around the lake, and on that lake that day we saw a mama duck and a bunch of baby ducks swimming around, and we thought, what a perfect sign of life. So we took a few paparazzi photos of the ducks, and we got all set to post them to UPC Facebook Group. Except that when we got onto Facebook, we realized, to our delight and dismay, that those same exact ducks had already been posted as signs of life for at least two other members of the UPC family. In our neighborhood. We had all gone on the same walk. We had all seen the same ducks. We had all thought the same thought. This outside. This is signs of life. It’s the most common human impulse. That new life happens. Outside.

But of course, now outside feels different. The streets are a lot emptier. The parks are a lot quieter. We still go for walks, exercise walks, but the walks have changed. Four weeks later, the walks take strategy. Wash your hands before you go. Take your mask, your clean one. And stay together. I don’t want us to walk too close to anybody else. I want to make sure we cross the street before we get into somebody’s personal space. Is there enough room between that stroller and that parked car to keep six feet of social distance, no, probably not, let’s just walk in the street, it’s not like there’s traffic. Oh look, we know those people. Our good friends. How great to see them. But let’s not get too close. We don’t want to go anywhere too crowded. We don’t want to go anywhere where anybody else would be. And finally, we can get home. And wash our hands. And wash our masks. And disinfect the doorknob. And retreat into the hopefully virus-free world we have maintained for ourselves. Inside. I miss when outside felt uncomplicated. I miss when it could just be flowers and birdsong and baby ducks. I miss what outside used to be.

And of course, I am aware of how lucky I am even to have an outside to go to. Not everybody gets to shelter in a place where they can still choose to go see the wind rustle through the leaves or hear the birds sing. Nor does everybody even have an inside to go to; it turns out that there is nothing like a pandemic for exposing once and for all the toxic rifts of privilege that run through every corner of our society. At the same time, there is no door that will keep this thing out forever. You can’t buy your way to a vaccine that doesn’t exist. You can’t inherit your way to immunity. Just because you can see the trees and hear the birds doesn’t mean you’re not inside this thing one way or another. Because of course the real inside we are in is not the one between our front door and our back door. The real inside we are in is a world that knows no escape from the totality of death. 20,000 dead Americans, 100,000 worldwide, and if it’s not someone you know, by all accounts it will be very soon. And of course, the virus isn’t the only news. We all grieve for so many endings. We have all grieved for so much loss. We have all carried the names of so many long gone. We have all been trapped inside this tomb, together. We have all been trapped here so long we have forgotten that there is anything outside at all.

But not today.

Today is Easter. And on Easter, outside has a way of showing up.

In John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb to anoint his body. When she cannot find it, she assumes, of course, that somebody has moved the body, that the last twist of the knife is the cruelest, that the authorities have denied her even the most ritualistic act of preparing his body for its next stage. She runs to tell the disciples, and together, even though they have heard him predict his own resurrection, none of them can imagine this reality, none of them can imagine this inbreaking, none of them can imagine anything outside the rhythm of death and decay that governs everything they’ve ever known. The disciples leave, but Mary stays, weeping. Angels come, but she cannot recognize them. Jesus comes, but she cannot recognize him. She thinks he is the gardener! So insistent is the logic of the inside that Mary cannot even recognize her very good friend whose body she came to find; it is so inconceivable to her and to all of us that anything but death could possibly be. And then he calls her by name. And finally, she sees him as he fully is. Finally, she sees God’s creation as it fully is. Finally, and for the first time, she sees the outside as it fully is: full of light. Full grace. Full of promise.

This is the Gospel for Easter Sunday: that there is something more outside. That there is something more outside these walls. That there is something outside all the petty headlines that run the day. That there is something outside all the arrogant children who run the land. That there is something outside all the selfish impulses that run our hearts. That there is something outside all the decay and all the despair that runs rampant through every corner of this tomb. That there is something more outside this tomb. That there is something more outside this death. That God has come into this world and died into this world and stood astride the threshold of this world and declared in no uncertain terms and in no uncertain voice that there is something outside the death of this world that cannot die. That death has met its enemy. That Jesus Christ has gone through Hell and back and reigns now over all things. That God has rolled away the stone between this world and the next. That the light of grace and truth and promise has come streaming in, and with it, the choir of angels proclaiming the most important thing that has ever been known. That Jesus Christ is risen. He is Risen Indeed.

Even if you wanted to, you could not today go to visit either of the supposed sites of the resurrection in Jerusalem; both the Garden Tomb and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre have closed their doors, marking the first time since the Medieval plague that public worship has not been held on Easter Sunday in that ancient chapel. This morning, a handful of priests gathered there for the miracle, behind locked doors, just as you this morning have gathered behind locked doors for the miracle, just as I this morning have gathered behind locked doors for the miracle, inside a building, inside a building, inside a building, inside a tomb. And yet even there. And yet even now. And yet even especially there. And yet even especially now. And yet even especially for you. And yet even especially today. And yet even especially where you are, no matter where you are, no matter how far inside you are. God is rolling away the stone. The light is breaking forth like the dawn. And if you listen carefully. You can just hear the choir singing. Just outside. Alleluia. Amen.


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