Rev. Rebecca Heilman-Campbell and Dr. Steve Lindsley
(John 20: 11-18)
The reality we need to acknowledge: The future is bright, if we’re bold enough to live into it.
The poet, Ross Gay, pulls us into his small, joyful life vignettes in his new book, The Book of (More) Delights. In his second story, Gay outlines his thoughts as he strolls down a narrow road in Vermont, distracted by the wild berries and each car giving him a wide berth to protect him, while sharing a friendly wave.
Gay writes, “Though this is not the first berth of note, of delight,
for today is my beloved friend Walt’s fiftieth birthday.
No doubt some extra confetti for this party
because Walt was supposed to be a goner, from leukemia, over a decade ago,
not to mention that, like me,
he’s had an [occasional] troubled mind…
and yet here he is, here we are,
still together on this side,
our friendship nearly forty years old,
which some days makes me look at [our friendship] like it’s my child,
I guess it’s our child…”
Gay shares about their forty years of friendship. How they have grown up together, shared many meals together, created crude t-shirts together, asked hard truth questions together, held each other accountable and was there when the other fell apart.
He reflects about those years,
“All that becoming, all that floundering, all that stumbling, all that wonder…
Walt’s the one who never fled from my need…
which maybe explains why I will never put his phone number in my phone;
I keep it by (my) heart.”
Then he finishes with humor and a warm sentiment,
“Oh, one last thing;
sort of a first thing, truth be told.
For my seventeenth birthday,
when I still mainly read the sports page of the Bucks County Courier Times,
[the] dude gave me Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason
and Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil.
Which you might call, in addition to throwing your money down the drain,
setting a ridiculously high bar [for me].
Or you might call it belief, which though I never would have said this out loud,
I have actually needed people to have in me.
I have needed to be – we need to be – believed in.
Which, in a certain kind of way, is like being birthed…
Because when Walt was born, so too was I.”
Ross Gay’s small, delightful story about his friend, Walt, feels familiar, doesn’t it? Not only do we have a friend who believes in us, but if we look back,we notice how our friends give us life. Gay is right. It is true, we certainly need to be believed in as people in a challenging world, and our friends help with that, AND we also need something larger, something greater than our world to believe in, a sense of mystery and also a promise that is based in truth.
For us Christians, it’s the belief in the resurrection. For us Presbyterians, it’s the belief in what the resurrection means for us and for the world. How it transforms us into a new creation, new life, where we have no choice but to experience a radical change, hence the last theme of Transformation for our sermon series, Let’s Get Real. And a dramatic transformation is exactly what we see in our story today.
Jesus has been dead for three days. Lament is heavy in the air and deep in the hearts of his followers. Mary Magdalene, early in the morning, visited the tomb and noticed the stone entrance had been moved away. She retrieves Simon Peter and another disciple, but they don’t stay long after they notice the linen cloths, that had wrapped Jesus’s body. Peter and the disciple go back to where they are staying, leaving Mary there to weep. Mary finally looks into the tomb, where two angels, dressed in white are seated. They notice Mary and ask her about her tears and she replies, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they’ve put him.”
Some scholars think that because Mary called Jesus, Lord, affirming a belief in her God, that that is what caused Jesus to appear behind her. She thinks he’s a gardener and that image alone speaks to our theme today – how a seed in a garden springs forth into new creation with God as our caretaker as we flourish and grow. Jesus asks who she is looking for and when she responds, he calls her by name, the precise, intimate moment of Jesus’s recognition and realized resurrection.
Mary then simultaneously acknowledges Jesus who he is to her, “Rabbouni” she says, teacher, and as Karoline Lewis writes, “a confirmation of Mary’s own identity. She is a follower, a disciple, with Jesus as her teacher.”
Mary is the first person to whom Jesus appears to, she is the first person to embrace the truth of the resurrection and she is the first person, a woman no less, who preaches the first Easter sermon to the other disciples. She names again the belief of who Jesus is with five simple, yet powerful words, “I have seen the Lord.”
Five more words than Simon Peter and the other disciples could share.
Diana Butler Bass recognizes a pattern in John’s gospel
– recognition, embrace, witness and I would add, rebirth.
Jesus was not the only child of God who experienced a transformation early that Easter morning. With Mary’s five words, the church is born. She races back to the other disciples because something has changed about Jesus. He isn’t the same Jesus she saw before his resurrection. She goes back to be a witness to what she observed because something has changed the trajectory of life. What once was a time of lament over Jesus’s death is now a time of healing, celebration, and with all that, transformation.
Transformation – that something promising is happening and our belief will ring true over the sounds of our doubt. That’s the Easter message, the message of resurrection. Just five words – I have seen the Lord. And from her lips to our ears, God’s whole story of love and creation took shape where for two thousand years millions of witnesses have been transformed by the story of the resurrection. Right then church took hold of Christ’s teachings and embodied it, transforming a world where those who are hungry are fed by the church, where those who are unhoused are housed by the church, where those who are hurting are comforted by the church, where those who are enslaved are liberated and greatly honored by the church. Where community, authenticity, love and grace are the foundation of values and a core reminder to how to live a good life. The church took shape that Easter morning, transformed from the moment Mary heard her name and recognized the resurrected Lord, a promise for a forever changed world. A promise of transformation that we year-around-Easter-people cannot help but embrace, if we’re willing to live into it.
Three weeks ago, I shared that a colleague of mine observed how this sermon series we’ve embarked on the past four weeks is basically telling the Easter story. Lament, healing, celebration, transformation. Good Friday to Easter morning. The cross to the empty grave. Death to life.
Now celebration is great; it’s nice to have something to celebrate. I listened back to Rebecca’s wonderful sermon on celebration last week and read every one of the celebrations you wrote down and lifted up in prayer. Some about this church: our vibrant Weekday School, the upcoming Montreat retreat, the fact that our church is a welcoming church, a faith community that is willing to grow, and change. Others more personal: family and friends, watching a granddaughter be baptized, many happy and healthy years of life. And some more broad in their reach; one one-word celebration that simply read: hope.
Indeed, it is good to celebrate. But let’s get real, shall we? We are not meant to live in celebration indefinitely. No birthday party goes on forever. At some point after the cake has been eaten, the presents unwrapped, and the party hats removed, we have to leave the celebration behind and ask ourselves the most important question of them all:
What happens now?
I’m one year older now, sweet! – So what’s the next year of my life look like?
Jesus is risen, death is defeated: hallelujah, praise the Lord! – Now what do we do?
The church – our church – is, as Rebecca preached in her sermon last week, far from dead. That is good to hear! So now what do we do?
What happens now? This is the core question that our Easter story compels us to ask. And there’s a choice to be made in asking it: whether or not we are going to live into the transformation that comes out of the celebration. It is not automatic; it is something we choose to do or not to do. My aforementioned colleague put it best when he said: we have to decide if we are going to be Easter people.
Easter people – I love that. It’s something more than simply saying we believe in the resurrection of Jesus. Something more than simply showing up for the party. At some point we have to decide if we’re going to be Easter people.
It’s about letting ourselves be transformed, both inside and out, wherever that transformation might take us – as individuals and as the church. At some point, we have to decide if we’re going to be Easter people.
It’s about taking all that we’ve been through – all the lament, all the healing, all the celebration – and following it to its natural conclusion, to transformation. Because beloved, at some point, we have to decide if we are going to be who? (Easter people).
I want to lift up one way that I believe we, as a church, are being Easter people. There are many ways. Here’s one:
Nearly two years ago, your session appointed six of your fellow church members to serve on the Way Forward Task Force, commissioned with the task of coming up with “a new vision for a new Trinity.” Not a tweaked vision, not a revamped vision, but a new vision. And not a new vision for the same Trinity, the Trinity that has always been, but a new Trinity. The work that the task force has been engaged in, the work that eventually will be the work of all of us, is transformative work. It is literally the work of transformation. And it is absolutely necessary work, because the option of keeping things exactly as they have been, as we’ve discussed, is not an option. Our church cannot just “maintain” things and assume we’ll be around forever – no church has that luxury.
Now I’ve seen the nuts and bolts of the vision, and I know the task force is excited about sharing it with you, hopefully in the near future. Thanks for your patience. But friends, I’m telling you – as I look at this vision through the lens of being your pastor for ten-plus years, I am convinced of three things:
- One, this vision is faithful to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
- Two, this vision is true to who we’ve been and who we are as Trinity Presbyterian Church.
- And three, this vision will absolutely knock your socks off.
Hundreds of churches out there are doing innovative and wonderful things, but I can honestly tell you I’m not aware of any of them who are envisioning doing what our church is. It is trailblazing.
Which means, of course, that this vision is not about tweaking a few things here and there just to bring in some new members. That’s not transformation. This vision is not about simply trying to survive as a church; get by as a church – and that’s a good thing, because just surviving and getting by cannot be the name of the game for the body of Christ in the world today. The stakes are too high. This vision will put Trinity Presbyterian Church on a course to thrive, to build on the solid foundation laid during its first seventy years and be a strong and faithful witness to Christ for the next seventy years and beyond.
That, beloved, is the work of transformation in God’s church; and thanks be to God, it is soon to be our work here. But it all comes back to what we said earlier: that at some point, we have to decide if we are going to be Easter people. What do you think?
The church was transformed early that Easter morning. Suddenly the story of Christ didn’t end with death, it began with life, hope, a promise. And while we’ve talked a lot about the church these past three to four weeks, and we’re wondering how the church can collectively be Easter people, we must also think about ourselves and if we individually, want to be Easter people. Mary Magdalene had a choice that day. Thankfully, she chose to take the good news back to her friends, but she could have held that story close to her heart.
Mary was personally transformed. She went through all the emotions and steps we’ve talked about for the past few weeks. She lamented over the loss of her friend, of her Lord. The Greek word for “weep” is used four times in the passage and it reflects back to Jesus weeping over the death of Lazarus. She also experienced a sense of healing when Jesus called her name, acknowledging and confirming her identity as a disciple of Christ. And then she celebrated, physically taking hold of him.
Finally, she was transformed by the miracle and good news that comes with the resurrection and that empowered her to share it with the world. She chose to be transformed by Christ.
Mary experienced the stages of emotions that we have shared each week in the prayers that are woven into this piece of art behind me. And it’s a piece of art, not because of the colors or fabric, but because you have been willing to be vulnerable and intentional in sharing your thoughts and feelings, which is as sacred as the story of the Easter morning by the tomb.
Steve and I have read each of your prayers and we have held them close to us these past few weeks and they are not just about Trinity and the church. Many of them are about your family, your friends, your home life, the day to day schedule that either sucks life right of you or gives your energy to face what is to come. Some of them are heartbreaking and a lot of them are promising, filled with thanksgiving and joy.
And our prayer for you is that you might take these steps and recognize them as steps towards resurrection, hope and promise in your life. For you are being transformed. Because there is always an Easter morning. For whatever reason, after lament, there is always an Easter morning. It’s almost unexplainable. But that’s the resurrection. That’s the hope that comes with a mystery of faith. There’s always a glimmer of good news and whisper of our name,as Mary taught us, if we are willing to listen, be shaped by it and embrace the transformation of new life and hope.
When Rebecca and I first started working on this sermon series, we decided to conclude with “transformation.” As Rebecca just said, there is always an Easter morning – and because of that, we are never truly “finished” on the journey; we are very much still works in progress. But let’s get real about the fact that transformation involves change. There is no way around it. We are not the same people we once were. Our faith makes that crystal clear.
I think of the apostle Paul, who experienced what can only be described as transformation on the road to Damascus. I think of how he spent the rest of his life telling anyone who would listen – and sometimes even those who didn’t – that transformation is at the very heart of what it means to follow Jesus. In his second letter to the church in Corinth he writes: So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away – see, everything is new!
It would help to know that Paul is not writing this to just any church; he’s writing to a church in flux, a church trying to figure out how to be the body of Christ and discern what comes next. And throughout his letter Paul makes very clear that things must change, are always changing. But the thing is, he’s not just talking about the church – he’s also talking about the people; and the fact that in order for the church to change, those in it must first change themselves.
We are new creations, Paul tells us. Every day, we are new creations. We are fundamentally different from who we were the day before. Our bodies are different. Our minds are different. Whatever has transpired in the previous 24 hours has changed who we are now, for better or worse. And so we are always transforming.
All of which brings us to the reality we need to acknowledge in order to move forward. You recall that, for each of these sermons, Rebecca and I have lifted up a reality we need to acknowledge in order for our church to live into the vision God has in store:
We’ve acknowledged that there is no going back to the way things used to be,
That healing brings wholeness,
That the church is far from dead.
And today, on this transformation Sunday, the reality we need to acknowledge, both as the church and especially as individuals in it, is this: the future is bright, if we’re bold enough to live into it. The future is bright, if we’re bold enough to live into it.
So I ask you: are you bold enough? Are you ready to be Easter People; transformed in body, mind, and spirit, for the good of God’s kingdom on earth? What we said at the conclusion of our first sermon still applies today: talk to us. Tell us what you think, what you feel. We want to hear from you. We love you. We are in this together.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Ross Gay, The Book of (More) Delights (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2023), 6-7.
 Ibid, 8.
 Gay, Delights, 8.
 Karoline M Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014) 241, Kindle Edition.
 Diana Butler Bass, The Cottage: Easter Sunday Musings, April 8 2023 https://dianabutlerbass.substack.com/p/easter-sunday-musing.