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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Unholy Loss, Holy Surprise

2024-03-31 Easter

John 20:1-18

John 20 verse 1 begins the Easter story. It says:

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb 

One of the miraculous things about the Bible (and there are quite a few miraculous things about the Bible) is something I've learned again and again. 

Other people have reported the same thing. 

So I know I'm not alone. 

And it's this: 

That no matter how many times I read certain scriptures – 

like the one we read today, on Easter, it never fails that I find something new. 

Maybe I've getting older and wiser. 

Maybe I'm just slow. 

Either way, it feels miraculous. 

Do you do that? 

You re-read something special, 

maybe in the Bible, 

maybe a poem or favorite book, 

something you've read or heard many times before, 

but this time something totally new jumps out at you. you go, "Eureka!" 

You probably don't say, "Eureka." 

These days it's more like, 

Wow, Awesome, Gnarly, Rad, or Groovy.

Probably something more like, 

"Wow. I never saw that before." 

It feels like your brain grew a size bigger. 

Scripture will do that.

It feels like a miracle. 

You didn't expect it. 

It's a gift from beyond you.

I can easily imagine Mary Magdalene, or the Apostles, or anyone else who saw the empty tomb, saying something to the effect of, "Wow. I never saw that before." 

They'd be more enthusiastic. 

Less Presbyterian. 

More Pentecostal, shouting and singing and jumping up and down.

If there was ever something to shout and sing and dance around about, it ought to be Easter. 

For sure, Mary and anyone else who saw the empty tomb had never, ever, ever seen anything like that before. 

They would have been to graveyards lots of times. 

But this – this was something miraculous. 

Completely unexpected. 

Completely unpredicted. 

A gift, from beyond their wildest dreams.

A scary gift? A happy Easter gift? 

Let's say, a startling gift.

A surprising gift.

That's the thing about Easter. 

That's the thing about Jesus. 

That's the thing about the Holy Spirit. 

That's the thing about God. 

It's God's nature to catch us off guard. 

It's God's way of making a point. 

Time and again throughout the Bible and throughout our experience God can't help but surprise us. 

Because God's God. 

And we aren't. 

It only makes sense that God's miraculous works, 

God's miraculous presence, 

would surprise us.

"I never saw that before," can be the holiest words we ever speak. 

Because it's an admission to ourselves, a confession, 

that we've encountered something totally different, 

totally new, totally other. 

Something we know, 

something we feel, 

that's plain and simple: beyond us.

"I never saw that before." 

Well. Good. 

But now that you've seen it, 

What does it mean? 

And what are you gonna do with it?

A few weeks ago, this church was just driving me crazy. 

Not any of you.

But that's the thing about churches: 

They're people.

And people are people no matter how Presbyterian.

People are the best.

Until they're not.

Anyway, I just needed to decompress over something I can't remember now at all.

So I got in the car.

And drove as far away as I could and still be back for a meeting. 


I drove to Enterprise to worship at the Weevil. 

I discovered some things I'd never seen before.

Did you know there's a recreation place called, Boll Weevil Lanes?

Why didn't they call it Boll Bowl? 

Missed an opportunity.

There's a great coffee shop on the town square. 

It's a good place to go and hide. 

Much better than under my desk.

I sat there in the coffee shop, sipping a latte and watching TikTok, as one does. 

And my empty brain started thinking about Jesus, as preachers do. 

And I remembered all the times Jesus went off into the wilderness to get the heck away from all those people. 

In particular, I remembered Mark chapter one, after he's spent the day healing the mob. 

The Bible doesn't say this exactly, but in my translation, he puts his phone on Do Not Disturb. 

He turns on the email Vacation Reply. 

It says,

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. 

Simon and his companions went to look for him, and when they found him, they exclaimed: "Everyone is looking for you!"

"Behold, I stood at your door and knocked. Repeatedly."

The Bible says he "prayed." 

Sometimes prayer is getting on your knees and talking to God.

Sometimes prayer is just staring off into the distance and enjoying the quiet. 

It's why young mothers park in the driveway, with the windows up, singing very loudly to Adele.

That's prayer.

This past week, our Worship and Discipleship committees and our staff provided a Maundy Thursday and a Stations of the Cross service that let us do just that:

Be still and know that God is God.

So, I was thinking about Mary, and I was thinking about Easter morning, and it suddenly hit me. 

Mary when she went to the garden alone, Mary was pulling a Jesus. 

John 20 says,

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb 

Now, as I understand it, women of that day and time and faith, didn't just go wandering off by themselves, early in the morning, while it was still dark. 

At least, not unless they really, really wanted to sneak off by themselves. 

Mary Magdalene must have been a good student. 

Because she was doing exactly what her teacher, her friend, Jesus – had taught her how to do.

Sometimes, you just have to get the heck away. 

Maybe you drive to Enterprise. 

Maybe you go for a long walk alone. 

In a graveyard. 

To get away from all the noise. 

To visit your loved one.

To sit on bench, or a rock, or the ground.

To run your fingers across what's really real.

Not email or apps. Not someone else's anger.

Not to think about thinky things.

To just feel. 

To feel again.


But something I had never seen before was the connection between the start of Jesus's ministry, the end of Jesus's ministry, and the start of Mary Magdalene's ministry. 

Because this time in the garden is the start of her Christian ministry.

After all, in just a few verses, Mary's going to get to preaching. 

She's going to become the first Christian preacher ever and preach the first Christian sermon ever. 

"I have seen the Lord." 

Only 5 words. 

She'll get better. 

To all the preacher boys, remember: a woman did it first. 

And Christians had never seen that before, either. 

God was at work. 

God was at work. 

And God's signature is always 


Back when Jesus was starting his ministry and had gone off by himself to pray, who was it that came looking for him with their hair on fire? 

Simon Peter and his companions. 

On the first Easter morning, when the tomb was empty and Mary had run to tell them the news, who was it who raced – literally had a race – to the tomb? 

Simon Peter and John. 

The same guys as at the start of his ministry. 

Bad news. 

Because either they weren't seeing it or maybe they were just slow, 

but they missed the prayer at the start of Jesus's ministry 

and they missed seeing the angels at the end of it. 

20:9-10 says: for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

I don't want to dump on the Y chromosome, but come on, fellas. 

No wonder we miss all the stuff we've never seen before.

The author, Neal Stephenson, wrote a story about men working at a computer company. 

He says, "Boys only want to know two things: Who's in charge and what are the rules." 

I don't know if that's always true, but it rings a bell.

On the other hand, in my experience of the workplace and the home, women only want to know one thing: What can I do?" 

Again, this isn't a scientific study, but it seems to ring true. 

Is this kinda accurate?

Because I think something similar's going on in this scripture. 

Simon Peter and John are racing toward the facts. 

Tomb? Empty. 

Grave wrappings? Folded. 

Head linen? In the corner. 

Check. Check. Check. 

Nothing to see here, folks. 

Return to your homes.

But Mary. 

Mary, who had come – Luke says with spices and perfumes to cover up the odor of death – but Matthew and John don't say why. 

John just says that she went. Why? Just went.

If my theory is correct, at the very least, Mary had come to pray. 

Mary, whether she was praying on her knees with her hands folded 

or just staring into the distance. 

Mary, through the lenses of her tears, sees angels. 

Mary, through the depth of her tears, 

sees someone who looks like the gardener, 

but you know how tears mess with your eyes. 

Mary, the one who stays, 

Mary, the one who prays, 

Mary, the one who will not leave – 

Mary is the one who sees Jesus.

And even though she must have seen him countless times before, 

she saw him this time, 

like she had never seen him before.


And with a surprise like that, it can only be the work of God.


Easter morning is glorious. 

But for pastors, it's the biggest, busiest, most potentially stressful day of the year. 

Like the other Mary's sister, Martha, we are worried and distracted by many things. 

It's the big day, when everybody shows up.


Pro tip: If you see someone and you're not sure, don't say, "Are you new to Dothan?"

Or worse, "I haven't seen you since Christmas." 

Or worse, "I thought you'd died."

Epic fails.

Just say, "Hi, I'm [insert name here]. It's great to see you."

You want Easter all to be absolutely perfect. 

You want the technology to work seamlessly. 

You want the choir hitting their cues and reaching their high notes. 

You want the ushers ushing like they've never ushed before. 

No mistakes in the bulletin. 

No kids knocking over plants. 

No forgetting anyone's name.

"Smiles, everyone. Smiles."

Easter's a lot. 

A few years ago, about 1.3 minutes  left on the clock, right before worship,

I was almost but not quite 

running down the church hall, 

my robe billowing behind me, 

on my way to pray with the choir and keep them on time (no easy feat). 

My dear, dear, friend, Lt. Col. Frank Pettway, US Air Force, Very Retired, 

stepped in front of me, planted his feet to take the charge, and said, 

"Christ is risen!"

Without thinking, and in my very best Han Solo, I replied, "I know."

Talk about a racing man missing the whole point. 

Peter and John got nothing on me.

That Easter, Col. Pettway was my Mary Magdalene.

And he was radiant.

If you – and if I – slow down this morning, early in the day, what could we possibly see this Easter that we've seen before but never, really, seen before? 

What does it mean? 

And what are we gonna do with it?

Race off to a dinner? 

Run out for pictures before the kids mess up their outfits? 

Go home and take a nap? 

Cheer for the Davidic Vols as they take on Goliath Edey and Purdue?

All are possible. 

But this day is a day when God promises to do something, 

something like we've never seen before. 

God promises that every day, 

but THIS day, especially,



is the day to pay attention. 

The day to read scripture a little deeper. 

To think a little harder. 

Or maybe just to stare off into the distance in silence a little longer.

Nobody understands the mechanics of the Resurrection. 

We're wasting our time trying. 

But what we CAN do is what Mary did. 

Tarry there.

Stay with it. 

Feel something you may not have felt before or for a long, long time. 

After all, that IS resurrection – 

the awakening of that which we thought was no more. 

A holy surprise. 

Even if you've seen days like this a million times before, 

there is no other day exactly like this.

God guarantees it.

Mary didn't get to see Jesus because she was so good. 

She wasn't picked because she was extra faithful. 

She was just there. 

Getting away from whatever else.

Mary just showed up.

And God came to meet her.

God came to her. 

I believe God comes to each of us when we stay in the moment just a little longer.

That's just the Jesus way. 

What in the world are we gonna do with that?