April 9, 2023 Sermon: Going For The High Note
Dorothy Churn LaPenta
First and Franklin Presbyterian Church
April 9, 2023
A few weeks when we were out of town, I worshipped at a Presbyterian Church, in many ways similar to First and Franklin, an urban setting with a focus on mission, an inspiring music ministry and an historic and lovely campus.
When I entered the church through a side door, I ran into the children’s choir whose director was giving them some last-minute instruction prior to their entry into the sanctuary. I would guess their ages ranged from seven to ten, fully clad in robes, with starched collars, giving their director undivided attention. Any observer would think that these children had never disobeyed a parent or defied a teacher.
The director said to them, “All right young saints, we are going to be worship leaders this morning. We’ve practiced. You know this music. Be sure to watch me, and when we get to the end, anyone who wants to can go for the high note.”
When it was time for them to sing in the service, their eyes were fixed on their director. She was right. They knew their music, stood confidently, articulated their words in beautiful children’s voices. As they came to the coda, the director’s motions became fuller and wider moving them towards permission to give it their all and go for the high note.
And they did!
Some of them were perfectly within the final chord…….. and many of them were………….. I don’t know where……… somewhere up there in the outer reaches of pitch, hitting whatever high note they could get to, mouths wide open, eyes gleaming, faces smiling. And the congregation rose to their feet and applauded.
And I must point out that this is a congregation that never stands unless there is an asterisk in the bulletin instructing them to do so. The standing applause was not because the children were cute (they were) and not because the congregation had been entertained, but because these children had brought a high moment of worshipful joy.
This is Easter!!! It’s the high note of our faith. In the resurrection, God has given us all permission to go for the high note!
Gustav Mahler, inspired by a poem by Fredrich Klopstock, brings the final movement of his Resurrection Symphony to a high note:
Rise again, rise again my dust after a brief rest.
You were sown to bloom again,
Nothing will be
lost to you,
Yours is all you longed for, loved for, fought for,
Cease from trembling.
Prepare to live!
Following the crucifixion of Jesus and the burial on the day of preparation for the Jewish sabbath, scripture doesn’t give us a lot of information about that Sabbath, what we call Holy Saturday.
After hearing the readings and the music of the stark reality of Good Friday, and the death of Jesus, we can only imagine what that day between the death and resurrection must have been like for Jesus’ loved ones.
Matthew doesn’t even mention these loved ones, but tells that Roman officials who were not celebrating the Sabbath had heard Jesus, whom they called the imposter speak on more than one occasion, “After three days, I will rise again.” These officials were convinced that Jesus’ followers would steal the body and then falsely claim that he had been raised. So, Pilate ordered them to go and make the tomb as secure as possible with the heaviest stone they could find.
In just one verse Mark writes says that at sundown following the sabbath, the women prepared spices to anoint Jesus’ body. Luke says that prior to the Sabbath, the women prepared spices and ointments and on the Sabbath, all rested according to the commandment. The Gospel of John writes of a garden where they had to quickly bury the body because the Sabbath was soon to begin, and the Jewish law is that nothing, but rest and prayer happens on the Sabbath.
But on this particular Sabbath, what were these loved ones of Jesus thinking and feeling? The scriptures give little insight into the emotions on a day when, as of yet, there was no Easter morning. Life with Jesus was over.
It’s the Gospel of John that gives us a hint as to the emotion. Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb early on the first day of the week and discovers that the stone has been rolled away. She’s the one who gives this information to the disciples. Peter and the beloved disciple run to the tomb and discover that there is no body, only linen wrappings. They return home, confused and frightened. Despite Jesus’ words to them on several occasions, dead is dead! Jesus is dead!
Mary doesn’t leave, she stays, weeping and weeping. Her grief is noticed by those at the tomb, and by one she thinks is the gardener. Both ask her why she is weeping, and she tells them, desperately, franticly, wanting to know where they have put the body.
“Sir, if you have carried this body away, please tell me where so that I can take it.”
At that moment, she is called by name, and she know that she is in the presence of Jesus. He is different, but he is Jesus, standing in front of her. Alive!
We tend to think that Jesus instructs Mary not to touch him, but he doesn’t prohibit her from touching. What he says is “Do not hold onto me. Do not cling.” The Greek word for “hold” or “cling” ‘hapto” specifically connotes containing, managing, controlling. Jesus says, “Do not hold onto me.” We can only imagine that she wants to. She wants her Jesus back, back to the friend she’s known, back to the way things were, back to the times they shared. We, human beings are like that. We like to cling to our ideas, our ways of doing things, our routines, our expectations, what we know, what feels comfortable.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams writes, “There’s a clinging in humans that shows itself as a longing to be utterly sure of our rightness. We hold and we cling to our positions, our ways of doing things and we see it everywhere, at home, in the work place, in religious conflicts, moral debates and political discourse. We would rather stand and be assured that we are right all the time than move faithfully with Jesus along a new path whose twists and turns and surprises we cannot always predict or know in advance.”
Jesus’ presence is no longer to be a physical, earthly existence. It will be of the Spirit. We only come to know Jesus when we stop holding so tightly, so rigidly on who we want him to be.
There were no witnesses to the moment of resurrection. It was not an empirical event. We can only have faith that it was an intimate moment between Jesus and God.
But the moments following the resurrection were very much about Jesus and those who had followed him. And according to John those first moments were between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. From the Gospel of John’s perspective, Mary Magdalen is the official Easter witness and the personification of what it means to believe and follow Jesus.
DEVOTION: She’s the first one to go that gravesite as soon as that sun rises, as soon as she could get there carrying openly her grief and anguish. The stone is rolled away. She doesn’t go home.
COURAGE: “Tell me…. now… where he is so that I can take him away?
FAITHFULNESS: “I have seen the Lord.”
Mary Magdalene is anointed to be the announcer and deliverer of the foundational message of our Christian faith. She takes that high note, as unbelievable as it might be, and delivers this news.
“He was dead! But he’s not! I have seen him.”
The grave did not have the final say.
There’s a chaplain in a local retirement home who tells the story of officiating at a graveside service of a woman who died after a good and long life in her nineties. The family, children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, nieces, nephews and friends all gathered at the graveside on an unseasonably warm winter day.
The deceased was buried in a site next to her husband, and following the service, people stayed to talk and visit. The children ran around. It was garden-like, with trees and wide spaces for running and using gravestones as hiding places for a game of hide and seek.
The parents keeping track of their children realized they couldn’t find the youngest child. She was four years old, and she wasn’t with the other children.
“Where is she?”
It was Chaplain Margaret who spotted the child. The casket had been lowered into the ground and the dirt that had been dug up was surrounding this opening, and there this four-year old was laying in that dirt in her frilly dress and white tights that were no longer white on her stomach, looking down into the grave.
Of course, it was the grandmother who bolted to get over to the child and pick her up. But Chaplain Margaret stopped her and said, “Hey, hang back! Don’t worry! She’s fine. Let her alone. She’s not afraid. She’s staring down that grave….. and I think she’s just given me my Easter sermon for this year.”
Those earliest friends, followers, loved ones had Easter after all. And so do we, every day!
The story of our faith makes no claim that death is not real. It is. Our story makes no promises that life’s path will not take us to sorrow, hardship, and great challenge. The story of our faith clearly teaches that there will be powers of darkness competing mightily for our hearts and minds, powers that seek relentlessly to wipe out justice, grace and love.
But like Mary Magdalene, who was the first, we too, are anointed to be announcers and deliverers that the grave did not have the last word. God’s “Yes!” to life gives us the high note of resurrection hope, and we can go for it. We do that in the very way we choose to live our lives, with the ever-present Spirit of the living Lord leading us, guiding us, loving us.
Happy Easter First and Franklin!
Happy Easter World!
I conclude this joyful morning with a poem based on the writings of Father Edward Hays.
Easter, the feast of feasts,
The festival of hope, the mother of all Sundays,
Luminous in the full moon of spring.
Radiant in the rising of the sun,
Easter dances upon our rooftops and plays like a newborn child in the cradle of our hearts.
We rejoice like all of creation sailing on springtime’s seed-bearing breezes, and like the lily’s trumpet,
We open wide our throats and our hearts to join with all of heaven and on earth in singing out the symphony of joy that is Easter.
We take hope in Christ’s victory over death,
We, also, will have our Easter morning, freed from any decaying dusty tombs, freed from any narrow and stony spirit.
Promise of resurrection,
Every day, right now into fullness of living and loving,
Life beyond all time and space,
Always one with you, our God.
Christ is risen! Alleluia!
We will too!
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!
Brown Taylor, Barbara. Escape From the Tomb in Religion On Line.Org, March 20, 2008
Gench, Francis Taylor. Studies In The Gospel of John: Encounters With Jesus. Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville: 2007, pp. 128-141
Matson, Mark A. Interpretation Bible Studies: John. Westminster John Knox, Louisville: 2002, pp. 116-120.
O’ Day, Gail R. The New Interpreter’s Bible: Gospel of John, Abingdon, Nashville: 1995, pp. 838-845
Williams, Rowan. “Do Not Cling To Me” Sojourners Magazine # 32, 2003.