Standing on the Outside, Looking In

SERMON:  “Standing on the Outside, Looking In” 

Text: John 20:1-18

Jake Young,
Pastor, North Anderson Community Church, Presbyterian, Anderson, SC. 

Delivered April 2, 2005, at the Covenant Network Southeast Regional Conference, Davidson, NC

In the summer of 2000, I was a Theological Student Advisory Delegate – a TSAD – to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church.  It was held in Long Beach, CA, that year.  I remember because all week long I kept hankering to go body surfing at the beach.  It was so close, yet, thanks to non-stop business meetings, so far away.  Finally, on Tuesday afternoon, our committee finished business a little early and a Presbyterian pastor from Stockton, CA, and I popped down to Huntington Beach.  The tide was high, but we caught some waves anyway, some of them breaking right up on the sand.  He was pretty good.  I drank several quarts of cool Pacific saltwater. 

I also remember this General Assembly well because of what happened on Sunday morning.  At every GA, the host presbytery and the national office put together an elaborate, wonderful worship service attended by literally thousands of people.  Try to imagine that:  more than five thousand Presbyterians gathered in an auditorium for worship!  Not easy to picture, is it?

But that’s not the most remarkable thing that happened that morning.  The most remarkable thing was not going on inside, but outside.  As we approached the civic center auditorium that morning, the first thing I saw was a handful of people about a block away from the entrance, on the corner, holding signs and shouting.  As I got closer, I realized it was one old man in a suit and the rest were young people.  Some of them looked to be only about 13 years old.  They had come all the way from Kansas to harangue us this Sunday morning and persuade us to vote NO on the several pieces of legislation before the Assembly that would make our church more open and affirming of the gifts for ministry of LGBT persons – Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender persons.   The old man was shouting hate slogans and those children were holding signs that proclaimed, “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for AIDS.”

I was dumbfounded – stupefied, really, by this display.  But I continued on, up the gentle incline toward the entryway.  And then, just outside the doors, gathered around the flagpole, I saw another group of people.  This group was much larger, more than 100 people.  And it consisted of a variety of people, all different ages, different races, and, apparently, straight, gay, and otherwise.  They carried signs that said things like, “Stop Spiritual Violence” and “Let Us Serve.”  And they stood in silence, in solidarity with all those who have been and continue to be silenced by our beloved church.               

Now, as a seminary student, I remembered the efforts of our preaching and worship professor to teach us the importance of elements in juxtaposition.  I realized I had just witnessed a very effective, living sermon.  The juxtaposition of these two protest groups was astonishingly instructive.  Fred, my professor, would have been proud that I was finally starting to get it.   

The larger group was gathered outside the official worship space, looking in.  With love, and a little silent, righteous anger, they were asking to be included. 

The Apostle John and Mary Magdalene can relate.  They gathered nearly two thousand years ago on a Sunday morning.  They too were outside looking in, looking into an empty tomb.  You’ll remember that Peter did not remain outside the tomb long.  He went plunging in to discover what was really going on.  It was not his style to wait idly by for explanations that might not ever come.  If he had been with that group in Long Beach, he would have been the first of the 81 who were arrested that day for symbolically blocking an entry to a public meeting space.  I’m proud to report that four members from North Anderson were among that number.   

But I want to focus on John and, in turn, Mary. . . and in turn, on you and me.  John proudly reports that he could run faster than Peter and, therefore, was the first man to reach the tomb.  For the record, Mary had been there already and brought the report that made John and Peter start their macho footrace in the first place.  One gets the feeling that John is trying to settle some dispute in the early church about which disciple reached the empty tomb first.  Sure he didn’t go in like Peter, but he was the first – that is, if you exclude women, which is precisely what he and much of the church that came after him do. 

Anyway, he arrives before Peter, but then stops near the rolled back stone to peer in.  What he sees are the linen wrappings that should have been around Jesus’ corpse, but no corpse is there!  Then Peter comes barreling past John, charging into the tomb.  Breathing heavy from chasing John and sweating more than a little, he declares that the cloth from Jesus’ head is also lying in there, rolled up and set aside. 

Having finished their historical work as the first men on the scene, Peter and John go home – perhaps for breakfast or a nap or to get ready to watch some spectator sport.  It is Sunday after all.  And March Madness is in full swing. 

Meanwhile, Mary stays!  She is sitting and weeping.  She is sitting outside the tomb.  As she sits there grieving, she leans over a little and gazes into the now empty tomb.  But it’s not empty!  There are two angels sitting there.  “Why are you weeping?” they ask.

“Because it’s not enough they killed Jesus, but now they have also stolen his body,” she says.  

But the angels are not heard from again because, just then, Jesus appears.  He too asks Mary why she’s weeping and who she’s looking for.  Not recognizing Jesus at first, she explains and asks if he knows where the body is. 

Then a wonderful thing happens.  Jesus calls her name.  It is an amazing thing when God calls our name.  When Jesus says, “Mary,” she immediately sees things as they really are, and responds by calling Jesus “Rabbouni,” a term of endearment for a beloved teacher. 

Then, as often happens when God calls our name, Mary is given an important task to do.  Jesus says, “Go to my brothers and sisters and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 

Notice, Mary is not supposed to say, “Jesus is risen,” but “Jesus is going to ascend.”  And, more importantly for us:  “Just as Jesus calls God, Father, so too are we to refer to God.  Just as Jesus is the son of God, so too are we daughters and sons of God.  God loves us and we are all God’s children, together.”  This is the Gospel, my friends!  And Mary Magdalene is charged with being the first person to proclaim it!  Mary!  Not just any woman, but the one the church later describes as a prostitute and sinner!  She’s the first evangelist, hand-picked by Jesus!  There is no evidence that she was a prostitute or any more of a sinner than the rest of us, but she was certainly an outsider.  And on that first Easter morning, she sat outside Jesus tomb, peered in, longing to be with Christ.  But he was not there, because he was already outside.  Jesus is not in the tomb, he’s alive!  And he’s right there, all along, with Mary!  Outside! Right there, all along, with you and me.  Outside and alive!  God is with us now, through the Holy Spirit who came as Jesus promised us she would after he ascended.

The Holy Spirit was there on that Sunday morning five years ago in Long Beach.  The Spirit of Christ empowered those witnesses to stand outside the official worship space and share the gospel of God’s love:  The message from Jesus on his resurrection day . . . The message that we are all children of God.  Further down the street another spirit was operating – an unholy spirit.  But there, around the flagpole, the Spirit of God’s love was palpable.  I know because I felt it.  It bore witness to me on that day and now I bring that message to you.  It is my calling, but not mine alone.  Just as he called Mary, Jesus is calling you to share the message of God’s radically inclusive grace!   

For too long, too much of the church has exiled itself to the Tomb – the tomb of exclusive grace.  But that’s a lie.  By definition, grace is not exclusive.

Those spirit-filled protesters held another sign I did not mention earlier.  It said, “The Spirit of Christ cannot remain where all God’s Children are Not Welcome.  Don’t make the Flame Go Out!”

They held that proclamation as they sat outside, looking in on the tomb.  Am I really comparing the Presbyterian Church to a tomb?  Is that fair?  Well, maybe not completely.  But I do know, since that Assembly in Long Beach just five years ago, our church has lost 300 congregations and 200,000 members.  It ain’t dead, but it’s certainly showing signs of dying.  Meanwhile, the movement to proclaim God’s love for all people is growing.  You are proof of that.     

The sign said, “The Spirit of Christ cannot remain where all God’s Children are not welcome.”  And the message of Easter is that the Sprit of Christ cannot remain in a tomb. 

You are not here this morning only because you care about the plight of LGBT persons – those who are systematically excluded by the Presbyterian Church – the outsiders.  You are also here because you are concerned for the well-being of the insiders: the church, our beloved Presbyterian Church – the body that is supposed to be the living witness of the risen Body of Christ in the world!  But, unfortunately, our official position is to not be the living, loving Body of Christ, but to remain in the tomb. 

Well, Jesus isn’t in the tomb.  He’s outside and alive.  Jesus is risen!  He is risen, indeed.  [And the congregation responds: “Alleluia!”] 

May we discover the Easter joy of coming out to meet him in new life.

Amen.

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