Our Easter Sunday services were filled good spirit and amazing members of the Calvary community — as well as guests.
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 towards 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 round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ 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.
It was a Sunday and there was excitement in the air. People filed into the pews, the organist played, and the pastor was ready to speak about the how Jesus loves us know matter what and calls us to love one another. On this particular Sunday, the senior pastor and church elders gathered in a room beside the sanctuary, praying before the service. A young and enthusiastic associate pastor suddenly burst in with what he thought was exciting news—a group of leather clad, Harley Davidson riding, tattooed bikers had come to visit and filled the entire second pew. This happened to be the pew directly behind the Elders who would be serving Communion. The rookie pastor suggested that the Elders break from their normal routine of facing forward in silence to turn around right away to shake the hands of the bikers.
The seasoned pastor stood up extra straight, puffed out his chest and turned to the group: “There will be none of that. This is a solemn occasion.” I know two people who were actually there that day and witnessed their church leaders prioritize a ritual over loving neighbor, even though those neighbors didn’t look like Presbyterians. They are no longer at that church.
What if Jesus rode up to 2515 Fillmore Street on a Harley with a rugged leather jacket? Would we welcome him with open arms, or . . .
However you arrived here today, whether on foot or by bus or Harley or unicycle or horse and buggy, you are welcome at Calvary. Whether you are wearing a leather jacket and jeans or a dress or a suit, you are welcome in this place. (If you are mesh muscle shirt collector as I am, just be mindful that there are children present.)
Sometimes we feel out of place in church for less obvious reasons. Maybe we dealing with addiction or depression or ethical dilemmas or just generally don’t feel like we have it together. It can be easy to convince ourselves that the people around us in life and church do have it together and feel even more discouraged by their projection of perfection.
Whether you’re brand new at Calvary or have been around for many years, I have a secret for you—none of us has it all together. We all have messy parts of our lives that require patience and grace and don’t look like a perfect church stained glass window.
Jesus didn’t look and act and talk like people expected.
Sometimes people—even close friends–had a hard time recognizing him.
In the Scripture reading we heard from the Gospel of John on the very first Easter, chaos and confusion reigned. Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb to mourn, only to discover that the stone was moved and the tomb was empty. She ran to tell Peter and another disciple, who end up having a foot race back to the tomb and confirm that it is indeed, empty. The men leave, but Mary stayed and continued to weep. Even after some angels appeared, Mary is inconsolable. She sees some man who she thinks is not only a gardener, but also wonders whether he was a body snatcher who stole the body of Jesus.
“Supposing him to be the gardener,” (John 20:15) Mary Magdalene failed to see Jesus. Finally, she recognizes him when Jesus calls her name. “Mary!”
How often do we fail to see the hope and love of Jesus when he is within our reach?
How often do we allow our preconceived notions to prevent us from connecting with our source of ultimate hope?
The darkness and pain of the world can make us forget the light of Easter before we finish brunch. I am guilty of getting pessimistic all too often and acting as a Jesus blocker.
On one of those occasions, I walked into the pediatric ICU at the hospital to find a weeping mother, father, and older sister of a 12-year-old girl whose little body was fighting for life with the assistance of a breathing machine. Isabel and her family came to the Bay Area from Guatemala seeking treatment for MPS, a rare enzyme disorder that very few people survive beyond the age of 20. The doctor pulled me aside and recommended that I counsel the family toward accepting the end of Isabel’s life. She then came over and said the words that no one wants to hear: “Prepare yourself. Isabel’s kidneys seem to be shutting down, and she probably only has hours left.”
I gathered Isabel’s mom and dad and sister around her, and we offered a sort of last rites — prayers for peace and light and comfort for her family.
They were then faced with the decision of whether to keep life support going. Some of you have been in these gut wrenching bioethics conversations. Regardless of the age of your loved one, they are among the most difficult decisions one will ever make. I’m not here to judge the decisions you have made. Sometimes, letting one go in peace is the greatest gift you can give.
In this case, Isabel’s father asked me to step into the hall with him. “I know what the doctor says and what the odds are,” he said. “But I just know it isn’t time.”
I will admit that in that moment, I thought the father was practicing wishful thinking. I was thinking condescending thoughts. The doctors’ rationale was sound, but the father insisted that they continue to fight and pray.
I wish I could say that a spirit of optimism then overcame me, but I joined the skeptics in ruling out the miracle. I said my goodbyes to Isabel and her family and began to mentally prepare for a memorial service for a beautiful young girl named Isabel.
People can technically survive for long periods of time on life support, and this was the case for Isabel. A couple of days passed until I saw her mom’s number appear in my caller ID.
I pushed the answer button with dread . . .
“Pastor Weems,” said her mother, then there was a few seconds of silence.
I feared the worst. Then another voice came on the line:
“Hello, it’s Isabel,” she said, followed by one of the sweetest giggles I have ever heard.
Hope had shown up when logic said it shouldn’t.
Hope continued to show up as Isabel celebrated her Quinceañara, or 15th birthday celebration at which I had the honor of attending and seeing Isabel glow in her princess dress. Hope continued as Isabel graduated from high school last June and even today as she is now in college.
Life hasn’t ever been easy, as Isabel’s incredible family has had to deal with work and immigration and financial stress beyond most of our ability to comprehend, but they kept looking for Jesus, even when people said he wouldn’t show up. Though Isabel has lost the ability to physically walk and dance, hope continues to show up in her wheelchair as she giggles and cares for other little children with her same condition.
Hope shows up when we least expect him.
Sometimes hope shows up on a Harley at church.
Sometimes hope shows up with a casserole when we got the call that our loved one didn’t make it.
Sometimes it shows up in the form of a friend who makes us laugh when that jerk had the audacity to break up with us or fire us.
As we head into a time of reflection, I invite you to consider the things in the world that seem so bleak that we can fail to see a way to redemption.
The drought. The Middle East. Our political system. Private matters in your life.
The song you are about to hear, “Safe and Sound” was co-written by Ryan Merchant who grew up right here in San Francisco.
“It seems like every generation feels like it’s living in the worst of times . . .,” said Merchant. “In some ways ‘Safe and Sound’ is an antidote to the human tendency to think in apocalyptic terms . . .”
Easter is a reminder that we can always have hope, and his name is Jesus.