Sermon delivered at St Paul's Cathedral on Easter Sunday, March 27, 2005
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Bishop Michael Garrison
March 27, 2005
.Visiting the site of the grave of a loved one is often an important
part of closure
In February, Archdeacon Bruce and I had the awesome privilege of standing at the shrine that marks the place where the body of Jesus was buried. Both the purported site of Calvary and the garden tomb are now enclosed within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Twenty centuries have changed those places. Now instead of being places outside the city walls where malefactors were executed and a nearby garden cemetery was located, they are sites where pilgrims come to stop, to touch, to pray, to seek to remember the Holy One whose resurrection we affirm today. Together today we raise our voices in praise of the Father who raised his Son to new life and all of us who are baptized into Jesus' death and resurrection.
The Gospel accounts are unanimous that the first to discover that the tomb was empty were the women who came to finish the task of preparing Jesus' body for burial. That task had been interrupted by the arrival of the Sabbath some thirty-six hours beforehand. How wonderful it was that as the women go to visit Jesus' tomb they find not the realization of separation that death brings, but a mystery of communion-a communion not of death but a communion of life. And so Jesus' grave is like no other grave known to humankind. They expect to continue their ministration of doing the last possible good deed that one could do for a person: cleanse his or her body and prepare it reverently for burial.
The emptiness in the tomb that they discover strikes them even deeper than death. They knew how to respond to death: wailing, weeping, and the practical necessities of burying a body. But the emptiness of the tomb throws them. In Saint John's account, which we have heard today, we hear of Mary of Magdala's experience. Mary experienced that emptiness, if only for a while. For her the empty tomb represented the absolute and utter loss of the One who had been the center her life, the center of her love and affection, the center who had given meaning to her life. With even Jesus' dead body now gone, her life no longer had that center. A dead body can be dealt with, but not an empty tomb.
Mary sees the empty tomb and presumes that grave robbers have struck. She runs for Peter and John and brings them to see the empty tomb. These two run back to the tomb. John arrives first and stoops down to look inside. Yes, it is empty.
Peter, whom the youngster has outrun, now finally arrives. He goes inside to examine the tomb and grave wrappings followed by John, who sees and believes, even though he does not understand.
Then it is Mary's turn. She returns to the tomb and stands outside weeping. Still believing that grave robbers are responsible for the empty tomb, she finally stoops down and peers inside. Now the tomb is not empty! Two angels are there inside the tomb and ask: "Woman, why are you weeping?"
She responds with her grave robber theory and then she turns and sees another figure beside her outside tomb. This one she presumes is the gardener and or the grave robber and she says to him
"Sir, if you have carried him away,
Tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away."
Jesus then simply utters Mary's name and she recognizes that this One
is no gardener or grave robber but it is Jesus himself. Can you not
imagine the flip flop of emotions Mary experienced? She quickly moved
from resignation and doing the practical things needed to bury the dead
to new hope and new life and unbounded joy.
No wonder she wants to grab Jesus and hug him to death! She would just like to stay there in his embrace forever but there is work to be done. She wants to cling to Jesus but Jesus sends her on a mission: "Go to my brothers and say to them, 'I am ascending to my father and your father, to my God and your God." And so off she goes and finds the other disciples. I can imagine her whopping it up even more than John Dean with her: "I have seen the Lord"
Her role from the Gospel is clear. No matter what The DaVinci Code might hypothesize, Mary's call is to be the first witness to the Lord's Resurrection. Mary's own feeling of emptiness was transformed by the presence of God's wholeness in and through her Risen Savior. Yes, the center of her life seemed to be emptied out but not into a void. In fact the emptiness led her to the fullness of God. She would still have to cope with the physical loss of her friend and teacher. There would still be times that must be stumbled through in the days and months and years ahead . There were times when she just wanted to be able to walk with him, talk with him, and laugh with him. In the experience of Jesus simply speaking her name, she discovered a wellspring for life.
Another one who discovered in Jesus a wellspring for life was my predecessor glorious memory the Fourth Bishop of Western New York, Charles Henry Brent. Today is the 76th anniversary of his heavenly birthday. Born in 1862 in Canada and educated at Trinity College, Toronto, Bishop Brent came to this diocese soon after ordination served for a time at Saint Andrew's, Buffalo. He left the diocese for Cambridge, Massachusetts when he got into a little tiff with the bishop over placing candles on the altar during the Holy Communion. In Cambridge he worked with the Cowley Fathers before being chosen as the first missionary bishop of the Episcopal Church for the Philippines. While there he became one of first crusaders against drug trafficking. He did this by stirring up the social conscience of Christians and by helping organize governments to fight its evil.
During the Great War, World War I, he served as Senior Chaplain for the American Expeditionary Forces. In 1918 he was elected Bishop of Western New York but waited to complete his service before coming to Buffalo to assume that office. Affectionately known as the bishop "from Western New York" Bishop Brent traveled extensively in the cause of Christian unity, becoming one of the founders of what would later become the World Council of Churches.
Today I invoke the names of Mary of Magdala and Charles Henry Brent of Western New York to invite you to witness to the transforming power of Jesus' resurrected life in a specific area of our American life. Commentators from all spectrums of political persuasion agree that our health care system is more troubled now than it has ever been and major changes are needed. Many call health care the most important domestic issues we face in the United States. Three of the problems that are identified are these: First, rapidly rising costs; second, the rapidly rising number of the uninsured; and, third, the epidemic of substandard care. I am urging all of us as witnesses of our risen savior, first of all, to become knowledgeable about the problems and issues that our health care system faces, and, second, to lend our assistance and influence in finding solutions to the problems.
One organization working in this area is The National Coalition on Health Care. It's website can be accessed at www.nchc.org and had great information and advice for advocacy. NCHC's five major goals include: universal coverage, more efficient cost management, major improvements in quality and safety, more equitable financing, and simplified administration. NCHC is a broad based bi-partisan effort to shed some light on these issues and mobilize our society to deal effectively with them.
I see this as just one specific way that each of us is able to proclaim authentically that Christ is rise. He is risen indeed. Illness and injuries strike human beings every day; but we as a society can develop the will and energy so that fewer will be harmed and fewer lives will be lost because our health care system is not serving us well. It is both in our own self-interest and from our Christian duty that we can strive to make a difference in health care.
So, let us be as bold as Mary in witnessing that "we have seen the Lord." Let us revel in the embrace of the one who died and is risen!
Bishop Brent penned many prayers during his life. One has been included in our current Prayer Book as a prayer for mission to be used at morning prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard
wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your
saving embrace: so clothe us with your spirit that we, reaching forth
our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge
and love of you; for the honor of your name. Amen.
�2005 St. Paul's Cathedral, Buffalo New York