This sermon was given at Beneficent Congregational Church, Providence, Rhode Island, 5 April 2015 by Reverend Nicole Grant Yonkman.
Happy Easter! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Early Sunday morning before the sun was even up, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to see Jesus. The Gospel of Luke and Mark both say the women brought spices, which was a way to honor him and take care of his body. Mary sees that the stone is rolled away and Jesus’ body is gone and she cries because she is afraid that Jesus’ body has been stolen, a further humiliation and dishonor of Jesus. Then Jesus appears to her and asks, “Why are you weeping?” Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus; her brain will not let her see his face and hear his voice and put to form the utterly unbelievable idea that a person who had died could be alive. After all, dead is dead. Finally when Jesus says her name “Mary” she recognizes him. Then Jesus says “Do not hold onto me.” The text does not say so, but Mary must have grabbed hold of Jesus. Not knowing how to believe the unbelievable, but touching Jesus, Mary somehow absorbs the reality of the moment. “Do not hold onto me!” Jesus says. “Give me some space.” How much time passes, we do not know. But eventually, Mary lets go of Jesus. She has a job to do. Jesus asks her to spread the word. So Mary goes and tells the disciples that Jesus is alive. A woman; the first preacher of the good news of Easter; that is how it all started.
That is the Easter story; the story of resurrection. The funny thing about resurrection is that there is nothing I can say or do to give you reasonable evidence that Jesus rising from the dead is true. God, the resurrected Jesus, the Holy Spirit, they are all a mystery rooted in faith, in belief. Mary was one person so moved by this experience, transformed even, that when she told her friends the disciples, they believed her. We do not have the benefit of hearing from Mary herself what she experienced. We have a story in an ancient book, but it’s not the same. Instead, as people of faith who have come many years after Jesus, we must rely on other evidence of the resurrection. And the main evidence for resurrection we have is Christian community. Mary turned her experience into a compelling testimony that in turn transformed the disciples who gathered into a larger and larger community. They grew and thrived against all odds of failure and persecution. Christian community is the billions of people worldwide who have heard the ancient stories and gathered together in common for these almost 2000 years. And Beneficent Church is one of the faith communities which traces its beginning to the resurrected Jesus and Mary and the fact that Mary did not keep it to herself, but she told the Good News. And that telling bound the people together in a special way that allowed the mystery of resurrection to take form in a living, breathing community.
For me, Easter compels me to think about where I trace my beginnings in the church. How did I get here? What is the connection between Jesus and Mary and me? Well for me, part of that story is my neighborhood when I was a kid. I lived in a neighborhood of 10 houses which was on a country road in Maine called Shaw Mill Road, named after an old mill that used to be on the creek. Most every house in my neighborhood had kids about the age of my brother and me. On a typical Saturday morning, we would get up early and watch the Saturday cartoons and then go outside to play. I would tag along with my big brother as he went from house to house getting the kids together to organize a game of ball. We would go to Kraig’s house, Peter and Kevin’s house, Willie and Angela’s house. We would play kickball or baseball or basketball. We had fights, we made up with each other, people moved out and others moved in. Our geography put us together and being a neighbor meant that you were connected. The grown-ups had coffee or drinks at each others’ houses, the kids played together, you could borrow a cup of sugar for a recipe or a tool for a home project, or get help on snow-blowing your driveway. And in the case of our next-door neighbors, the Hamiltons, they invited me to go to church. And I thought that would be cool because I knew Angela from the neighborhood. When I think of the neighborhood, I guess it’s kind of nostalgic for a time that is now gone. My kids have never really had that experience. I’m not in touch with anyone from the neighborhood. But the thing that I will always take with me is that is how I got connected with a church community. It was a small church with a small sanctuary and a part-time pastor. My Sunday School class was taught by Mr. Hamilton, Angela’s dad, in the kitchen in the basement. I was confirmed in that church and attended a few youth group meetings. That was basically it. But it was my first church community. It was my first experience of being with a group of people who cared for me who were not my family. And something connected for me. At that church I began to be in touch with a feeling that God had a special plan for my life. That special plan I came to understand as a call to ministry and that is what started me on the pathway that led me here to you today, about 35 years after my neighbor Angela invited me to church.
Recently, a couple of months ago, I tracked down my childhood pastor, whose name is George Frobig, who is now retired and living in Plymouth, Massachusetts. I called him on the phone and ended up making a trip to visit him. So I could tell you that Rev. Frobig said that even as a young child he could tell I would be a minister. But the truth is, he didn’t remember me at all. We remembered a lot of things in common about the church, the people, the events, but me, Nikki Grant, nope. He didn’t remember me at all. And that was OK. It really was because that was not the point for me. I wanted to tell Rev. Frobig what that little church and that little community meant something to me, and the role he played to make sure that the church was there for me, made all the difference. However small that community, whatever small part each person had that touched my life, it was enough to kindle the flame that would start me on the path to ministry.
There is a lot of research that has been done about how the nature of community has changed in American culture. Some of you may have heard of the famous book Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam which brought to light something that really resonates with Americans as a whole: people don’t join bowling leagues, lodges like the Masons, and even churches, like they used to. There is something that has fundamentally changed about the way we interact with one another as a community. Most recently in 2014 Marc Dunkelman who works for a Brown University think tank on Public Policy published a book called The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community. And through a year-long program I am part of called Leadership Rhode Island, I had the opportunity to meet Marc and talk about this phenomenon of community today. In a nutshell he says: despite the technological advances including email, facebook, and skype, Americans are actually connecting with fewer people in community in deep and meaningful and face to face ways. So even though we are hyperconnected to a worldwide network, people are lonely, disconnected, and yearning for community like never before. And it just so happens that churches are one of the few organizations whose primary mission is connecting people in community.
So what is it that churches offer that is so valuable? What I value is the day-to-day relationships, working through issues, figuring things out together, and seeing us grow and change together. For me that is what community is about. Yes there are meetings, and yes they happen on weeknights sometimes, and yes sometimes we have “issues” that are complex and seemingly unsolveable. But week after week, year after year, people show up, the volunteers especially, to make sure that this community continues and to be Jesus’ hands and feet and heart and body for YOU! What builds community is not rocket science. It hasn’t changed with technology. What builds community is time on the ground. What builds community is showing up; it’s being there for one another, and perhaps especially for the people whom you do not know who happen to walk through the door. This is the place where you learn and grow, where you have Sacred Conversations, and where you learn to love people whom you would never have met if you had not been part of the church. And the reason we do this is our common mission to be like Mary Magdalene and share the Good News of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
You are here today, at least many of you, because you are seeking a community, you are looking for Mary Magdalene, a person transformed by the resurrection. At Beneficent, we are a very diverse place, and we do not ask that everyone believes exactly the same thing. Some of us are comfortable talking about God and Jesus and the resurrection. Some of us are doubters and seekers and questioners. But the point is that this community is all pointed in the same direction: and that direction is new life. That direction is forgiveness. That direction is hope. Because death is not the end; death does not have the last word. And as we are all pointed in that direction, somehow, amazingly, on good days, we manage to make a step together. That is community. That is resurrection community. It’s bigger than all of us. And through the miracle of the resurrection, I trust that I am making a difference in the world because I can see it in front of me everyday in you. In your lives.
This story of me coming to church as a child invited by my neighbor I think is kind of perfect for Easter. Because it’s nothing so flashy as Mary Magdalene having this face-to-face meeting with Jesus and running to tell the disciples. It was a regular group of people in a community in church in a small town who went about the business of church just because that is what the gospel called them to do. And that to me is the miracle of the resurrection. We go about our work of being the church, trusting that the time and effort we take to lovingly and carefully gather a community of believers and seekers and questioners. Sometimes we may be able to see the impact we have on individuals or on the community, but most of the time we do not. We cannot. Thousands of people come through our doors every year, and we do not know how important it was for an usher to smile and greet you after a tough week, or a song from the choir that touched your soul, or for your prayer to be shared in public, or the opportunity to teach the children in Sunday School, or grill the hotdogs for our community lunch. Or maybe a little girl who shows up with her friend for Sunday School one day. You do not know. And that is the mystery of the resurrection: the living breathing community of faith that is bigger than any of us, that is more than any of us can accomplish on our own, that changes people we do not know or even remember in remarkable and transforming ways.