I spent one night on the road between Chicago and Dallas. And almost immediately I got to work.
When I was new here in the Fall I scheduled as many visits as I could with church members. And Mac and Kathy Hargrove invited me to their home for my talk with them. I had meant for these visits to be 30 minutes. But I stayed at Mac and Kathy’s for over two hours. At church they were, as you know, unfailingly kind and friendly. But in that conversation I got to learn so much more than I expected about their history, their family, their careers, and their lives together.
Then, a few months after we arrived, I was driving down Northwest Highway. And I went by Mac and Kathy Hargrove’s building and thought of that conversation. Suddenly it occurred to me that if I stayed here as long as I hoped and expected to, I would probably have to do Mac’s funeral. That thought made me just want to cry. And it made me realize that Dallas had become home.
Then, late last month, Mac died. He was in Pennsylvania. I couldn’t be there. His family couldn’t be with him.
Grief points us toward home. We grieve where a part of us has come to stay. This is perhaps why it is so hard to be apart from each other when we are grieving, and so hard to be separated from our loved ones at the ends of their lives. The psalmist says of God, “you take pity even on the dust” of Jerusalem.
This is what humans do. We take pity on our dead. We bury them. We visit them. We decorate their resting place. For years at Easter I would go to the grave of my friend Michael who died when he was 19. He was buried out in a cemetery on Roosevelt Road in the Chicago suburbs. Eight years after his death I happened to move practically across the street from that cemetery. There were always candles and flowers and pots of incense on his grave.
Grief leads us home. Mary Magdalene comes early in the morning to the tomb of Jesus. She knows exactly what to expect: the dead body of her Lord. She knows that it is a risky errand. But she goes because her grief leads her there. Not to the town of Magdala, from which she gets her name, but to the body of Jesus. There is no home for her in this world except that tomb. She will clean and tend that beloved body. She will come back year after year to decorate it. She will sing the praises of the great Teacher who was cut down so cruelly and so soon. She will inhabit this grief and make a house, a temple, a mountain, a continent out of it. She will walk on sacred ground whenever she returns to it. Jesus will never die in her words, her thoughts, or her prayers. Other teachers will come and go, and they will be celebrated and admired. But Mary will tell the people “You should have known Jesus from Nazareth.” And she will tell the whole story from the day he cast out seven demons from her to the day of his death.
Grief leads Mary home to the tomb. And there she finds something completely unexpected. She finds nothing. She goes and tells the men, who did not come to the tomb, and they run to see the same nothing. When Mary returns, she weeps. Even his body is gone. Someone has taken him and she cannot clean his wounds or decorate his grave. Suddenly angels appear to hear and ask why she is weeping. But her grief is domineering. Her grief is insistent. They have taken my Lord.
Her grief is so insistent that she cannot recognize Jesus. “If you know where they’ve taken his body, tell me,” she asks. Then Jesus says her name: Mary. And she sees clearly. Jesus is not dead. Jesus is alive. Her home is not a temple to grief. Her home is in front of her, living and speaking.
Don’t touch me, he says. But he gives her an instruction: Go to my disciples and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and yours, to my God and yours. So she goes and becomes the first to say “I have seen the Lord.”
This moment between Mary Magdalene and Jesus is so precious. It is the only time the risen Christ appears to a single disciple. He will appear to pairs and to groups but today he appears to one. And that one is the first to learn that her home lies not in her grief, but that it lies ahead of her. Her home is not a memory. It is a hope. Her home is not in what she has lost. Her home is in what she has still to gain.
From this moment her story of the great teacher does not end with the crucifixion and burial. It continues with his word: Mary. He was ascending to my father and his father. To my God and his God. Where he goes I will go, where he is I will be. From now on her Word for the whole world is not “My Lord died and I mourn him.” It is “I have seen the Lord.”
Home is ahead of us. Home is calling us forward. Home is calling us out. I grieve that the last time I saw Mac I did not shake his hand because we were already taking precautions. I grieve that I did not get to say goodbye to him. I grieve that for now we can’t even gather in his memory.
But Easter tells us this: Mac is already ahead of us. Mary Magdalene is already ahead of us. Peter and John and all the disciples, all the saints and martyrs who defied death and pressed ahead to the victory and the home that no one leaves behind them. The great glorious company from every language and nation that knew, from Mary’s Word, that the Lord is risen has gone ahead of us. Jesus has gone ahead of us, always. In grief, in sorrow, in resurrection and in triumph he has gone ahead of us.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Amen. Amen. Amen.