What's Tony Thinking

While It Was Still Dark, An Easter Sermon


Here’s my Easter sermon from earlier today. The text was John 20: 1 – 18.

Here’s the church’s You Tube of the service. The sermon probably starts at about 15 minutes in. Or you read it in text attached below. A blessed Easter to you you!

While It Was Still Dark
John 20: 1 – 18
March 31, 2024

A blessed and a joyous Easter to each and every one of you, dear friends. May this day be a day of grace and peace for you, for your family, for our church and for the world God has made and loves.

When I spoke about Palm Sunday, last week, I noted that the tenor, the feeling tone, of that day is a little hard to peg. Is it a day of triumph and joy as Jesus enters Jerusalem amid shouts of acclamation? Or is it day of sorrows, or at least foreboding, as Jesus enters Jerusalem to die? The crowds that hailed him as their king turned, soon enough, to shout “Crucify him.”

Of this day — Easter — there is no such confusion or ambiguity. Easter is pull-out-all-the-stops, unfurl every banner, proclaim good news from the mountaintop.

It is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir — how many is that — 300? 500?, 1000? massed and mighty. It is the “Hallelujah Chorus,” asserting defiantly, boldly, joyfully, “King of Kings, Lord of Lords!”

And yet . . . when we turn to the actual Easter story, and this is especially true in the Gospel of John where we have lingered throughout Lent, it is different. We do not find such all-stops-out grandeur, or bold certainty. It feels more as if we are members of a tiny congregation, scurrying through the still dark at say 5:30, only a slightest grey in the eastern sky, on our way to the Easter Sunrise service in the park, or at the beach. We can’t see clearly who that is up ahead. Wisps of fog gather in the hollows. Are those shapes we see trees or people or something else? It is still dark.

So says John of that first Easter morning. “While it was still dark,” when a solitary figure made her way to the tomb. Of course, for John such words as, “while it was still dark” never mean only one thing. Yes, they describe a time of day. But more. Darkness for John, is a state of the soul, a state of faith. Really, of faith gone, dead. We mean something like that when we say, “I was in the dark.” “I didn’t know what was going on.” Or maybe it’s got a harder edge to it? “Faith?” “My faith seems to have gone missing.

We are “In the dark.”

I have a preacher friend who says that her operative assumption when she gets up to preach every Sunday morning is that most everyone there has, in the course of the week, lost their faith. Maybe that sounds extreme . . . or maybe it sounds about right? The week’s challenges — and assaults on our sense of right and wrong — collide with the worries of work, family, marriage — add in the headlines or the nights we were awake at 3:00 a.m. Amid the pressures of the week, our faith is a bruised reed or a dimly burning wick.

John gives us story an Easter story for those whose faith may have gone missing since last we met.

Here’s another thing about the Easter story now before us: there’s no one cookie-cutter Easter experience. Different people have different encounters with the Easter reality. In this Easter story from John, different people have different ways of encountering the risen Jesus, of coming to faith.

Is there a message there, in this focus on different people and their different ways of coming to faith? As if to say, there’s no single, normative or “right” way of coming to faith. No single path or experience. No one-size-fits-all to the Easter faith in a Risen Jesus.

My experience of the Risen Christ may not be yours. Yours may not be mine. Jesus comes to each of us, or so it seems here, in the way that we need, where we are — in the way midst of the particular mess that is our life, the darkness or the need that is our own.

“While it was still dark” Mary went to the tomb, not to anoint the body — that had been done by none other than Nicodemus (remember him?) at the time of burial. No, Mary went to sit with her dear, dead friend and teacher, to grieve. But doing so she found the tomb empty. She did not say, “Aha! Resurrection!” No, she assumed that someone had stolen the body. However strange that may seem to us, that was not then an uncommon crime. It was common enough, in fact, that an imperial edict had been issued against tomb robbing.

Alarmed Mary went to alert Peter and the un-named “Beloved Disciple” (What? Jesus had favorites?) The two of them have a footrace to the tomb. Twice we get the race results. The Beloved Disciple won the footrace. Why are we told this? Who knows?

But he, the beloved disciple stands aside, deferring to Peter, who enters the tomb first. Peter looks around, sees everything and sees nothing. He leaves. The empty tomb, the folded grave clothes, say nothing to Peter. I get it. I totally see myself in Peter, definitely a Type-A.

I mentioned a couple weeks ago that my wife tells me I tend to be somewhat literally-minded. Her kind way of saying “for a smart guy you are sometimes remarkably clueless.” So I get Peter. Sees everything, sees nothing. Some of us need things spelled out. Some of us need the metaphorical 2 x 4 upside the head.

Not so for the Beloved Disciple. Peter exits. He enters. Looks at the same thing. Empty tomb. Folded grave clothes. And, says John, “he believes.” He is apparently one of those intuitive types, sees with the inner eye and all that. He’s tuned in. “Hey, trust the process.” Great for him. Great for you — if that’s you. But, he too, now presumeably blissed out and walking on sunshine, leaves, heads home. Says not a word to Mary, who remains beside herself, still in the dark.

To Mary, we turn. To Mary who remains at the tomb. To Mary who sobs, who grieves, who is inconsolable. Of Mary, the wonderful, tatoo-ed Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber writes, she “remains present to what is real, to what is actually happening.” Women, can you relate? You don’t get to pick up and go when the going gets rough, do you? Someone has to do deal with the mess.

Even when Mary herself now looks into the tomb and see two angels — messengers — what’s what an angel is in the Bible, a messenger of God — it’s as if she sees two hospital orderlies making up the room after the body has been taken away. She remains in the dark . . . until . . . until . . . she hears her name spoken. “Mary.”

Peter, clueless. The Beloved Disciple, walking on sunshine. Mary, needs a word, not just any word. Her name. It’s as if someone who is drowning were thrown a life-line. “Mary.” She grabs hold, hearing, once again, the one who had earlier called her out of darkness, into the light of a new life, his grace wiping the slate clean — a slate on which had been written the brutality, of abuse, of being sexually used, prostituted . . .

It is Jesus. She cries out, “Rabboni,” which means “Teacher.” That was her name for him, “my teacher.” All you teachers, don’t ever think you aren’t important, that what you do doesn’t matter. “My teacher.”

Then — understandly, perfectly naturally — she stumbles toward him. She reaches to embrace him, to hold him as one who had been drowning reaches to embrace one who had pulled her from the engulfing, drowning, dark waters of grief and death.

Yet he says, “Do not hold me. Do not cling to me.” It sounds almost cruel. “May I give you a hug?” “No!” Perhaps it reminds us of another scene not so long ago. On the Mount of Transfiguration, a light-filled Jesus — radiant as the sun. When Peter asked to build shelters/ shrines — for Moses, Elijah and Jesus — to capture, to hold the moment, and the magic. Jesus said no. Do not hold me.

Why? Why does Jesus say this? Why does he resist Mary’s embrace? He explains: his own journey is not yet complete. “For I have not yet ascended to the Father.” Not only that, her journey too was not yet complete, not finished. She too had someplace else to be, something more to do. “Go to my brothers, tell them.” She’s the first witness to the resurrection. Peter? The beloved disciple? Sorry fellas. A job needs doing? Get a woman.

Several weeks ago, among our various guests and visitors on a Sunday morning, there were two in the way back. Maybe you recall? One was Warren Goldstein, the husband of a previous Minister-in-Residence, Donna Scaper. With Warren that day was a minister in my denomination, the UCC, Ron Buford. Ron, as Warren told us at the time, was the driving force behind what we in the United Church of Christ called “The Still-Speaking Initiative,” or “The God-Is-Still-Speaking Campaign.”

On one level this was a marketing campaign with the pluses of minuses of those things. But it was also something more profound. If I remember the story correctly Ron had actually been, two decades earlier, on another vacation in Mexico when, in a gift shop, he spotted a greeting card. On it a quote from the inimitable Gracie Allen. Remember Gracie, one part of the vaudeville duo, of Gracie Allen and George Burns? Remember when George Burns played God in the movie “O God!” A great movie.

On the card Ron saw a quote from Gracie Allen, “Never put a period, where God has put a comma.” Light-bulb moment. Ron had been trying to figure out a way to capture another historic line dear to those in the UCC and to make it relevant in the 21st century.

That line goes, “God hath yet more truth and light to break forth from his Holy Word.” It had been spoken, in the 17th century, to a small band of pilgrims who had taken shelter in Holland to escape persecution in England. Their pastor in Holland was John Robinson. When the pilgrim band set sail for a new world, at least new to them, in America, Robinson blessed them and sent them on their way with those words, “God hath yet more truth and light to break forth from God’s Holy Word.”

Ron looked at Gracie Allen’s words and thought, “That’s it!” “Never put a period where God has placed a comma.” A way of saying, there’s more. God’s is not done with us, God is not done with you yet. Easter is less a happy ending than it is a new beginning.

At a low point in my life, when I was a seriously lost sheep, I sat with my pastor. She listened to my confession and said, “God is so not done with you yet.” Really? Because, golly, I thought, I felt, God was definitely done with me, and moreover had ever right to be.

In the meeting of Jesus with Mary on that Easter morning, there is that message, whichever variation of the idea you chose. “There is yet more truth and light to break forth from God’s holy word.” “Do not cling to me, but go . . .” “God is so not done with you yet . . .”

My only quibble with the “God is still speaking” campaign was that I wished we had been more forthright about what the still-speaking God is saying. As forward looking as was the campaign and as much as it resonates with the Easter message of a new beginning, I wished we had said more, more about what God was saying. Sometimes people quip that UCC stands not for “United Church of Christ,” but for “Unitarians Considering Christ,” which points to what I thought missing.

Back to the Easter story. Think about it. To whom is Mary, the first witness to the resurrection, sent? To Peter who had emphatically denied Jesus three times. To the “brothers,” all of whom at the crucial juncture, and after professing their great faith and loyalty, had faltered and failed. Each and every one either betrayed, denied or deserted him. So the message is not only that Jesus is alive. It is “He forgives you.”

Ernest Hemingway wrote a short story for Esquire magazine in 1936 entitled, “The Horns of the Bull.” Set during the Spanish Civil War, the story features a young waiter named Paco, a common Spanish name. Paco aspires one day to be a matador like the men he serves at his restaurant.

Paco, the reader learns, ran away from home after a bitter falling out with his father. Paco’s father, however, is determined to find his lost but loved child and to bring him back home. After combing the streets and shops of Madrid to no avail, Paco’s father grows desperate. He spares no expense, taking out a full-page advertisement in the newspaper.

The ad is as plain and clear as a street sign, a billboard.


When Paco’s father arrives at the hotel plaza at noon on Tuesday, he cannot believe his eyes. A squadron of police officers has been dispatched there to control a crowd of nearly a thousand young men, all named Paco, all of them looking to reconcile with their father.

All of them needed to hear, longed desperately to hear, “ALL IS FORGIVEN.”

Our world is like that Madrid street. Throngs dying for want of grace, of mercy. Longing to hear good news. YOUR FATHER IS NOT MAD AT YOU— HE’S BEEN SEARCHING FOR YOU. YOU’RE SAFE TO COME HOME. ALL IS FORGIVEN.

God has raised Jesus from the dead. In Jesus Christ the Risen Lord, the twin ruling powers of Death and Sin, are utterly defeated.

He’s searching for you. Come home. All is forgiven. Grace reigns. It’s a new day. Happy Easter, dear ones. Enjoy your forgiveness!

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