John 20:1-18 (NRSVUE)
On September 20, 2004, four U.S. Forest Service ecologists and their pilot took off in a small, single-engine plane from Kalispell, Montana. They never imagined that their excursion to a remote search camp in the northern Rocky Mountains would end in both tragedy and triumph.
Apparently, trouble began 15 minutes after lifting off from the Kalispell airport. Flathead County Sheriff, Jim Dupont, concluded that veteran pilot Jim Long was trying to avoid a cloud-shrouded ridge when the Cessna swiped an outcropping of rock and broke into pieces. By the time it came to rest upside down, it had burst into flames—with all five people inside.
One day later, on September 21st, the family of Matthew Ramige, 29 years old, received the tragic news: All five people aboard the plane had died, perishing in what Sheriff Dupont called a “total cremation.” “One hundred miles an hour to zero in 40 feet, and then a fireball,” Dupont reflected. “The odds of survival—you don’t want to go there.”
Newspapers carried the story: In the “Daily Inter Lake,” Jim Mann wrote, “Four U.S. Forest Service employees and a Kalispell pilot were found dead after searchers located their missing plane 6 miles northwest of Essex on Tuesday afternoon. Mann then quoted Sheriff Dupont as saying, “It appears the occupants died on impact. It does not look like a survivable crash.”
Grief-stricken members of Matt Ramige’s family traveled to Montana to plan his funeral. Matt’s mother, Wendy, and his uncle, John, sat in an Internet Café in Kalispell, e-mailing friends and preparing the obituary.
The end of the story? Hardly!
Matt’s uncle said, “Wendy asked me to read the obituary. Then this woman from the Forest Service walked in and whispered something to her. I saw Wendy’s expression change. It was a look of disbelief and I thought to myself, ‘What could this woman possibly have said that could be worse than the news of her son’s death?’”
What the Forest Service employee whispered in Wendy’s ear was this: “Matthew is alive. Your son walked off the mountain. He’s alive.”
Wendy said, “The blood drained from my face and my heart stopped beating. I couldn’t understand how this could be true.”
Indeed, the news was true.
In an amazing and miraculous turn of events, two of the plane’s passengers survived the horrific crash—Matt Ramidge and his 23-year old colleague, Jodee Hogg. Matt had broken his back and suffered burns, while Jodee suffered back and ankle damage and burns covering 20% of her body. Even so, somehow, Hogg and Ramige had managed to hike 3-1/2 miles, descending 2,000 feet, through rugged, heavily timbered country from the crash site in the Great Bear Wilderness just south of Glacier National Park, surviving two nights on the mountain in 20-degree temperatures before finding help.
Matt and Jodee’s survival is an inspiring reminder that some stories are not over when we think they are over!
The story of Matt’s family coming to grips with the good news is a compelling reminder for us this Easter morning.
Like the Ramiges, anyone who has had a sudden death in the family knows what it is like to wait for the nightmare to end, for the phone call to come saying it was all a mistake. You know what that feels like, don’t you? Rarely does that phone call come, or the bad dream end. And it seems we are left with no hope.
On Friday, Mary Magdelene experienced the mind-numbing trauma of death as she watched Jesus slowly die on a cross. She knew that Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had taken Jesus’ lifeless body, anointed it with myrrh, wrapped it in a linen cloth and buried it in a nearby tomb.
I suspect Mary spent the next days in an emotional fog—praying for someone, anyone, to tell her it was all a mistake. But no one came. He wasn’t just “presumed dead” like the 5 people on the plane in Montana; this time there was no question Jesus was dead.
Even so, the gospel of John tells us that early on the first day of the week, Mary went to the tomb. This gospel doesn’t say she came with spices to anoint Jesus’ body—it just says she came to the tomb three days later.
Something drew her there. In her soul, in her grief, she knew there was no other place she could be.
Then, like the U.S. Forest Service worker whispering in Matt Ramige’s mother’s ear, the darkness of grief surrounding Mary began to lift—slowly at first, because we know it takes a long time for our brains to catch up with what our hearts already know. The story was not over!
Mary saw the stone was rolled away. After running to tell the disciples that something had happened—something she couldn’t yet understand—she returned to the tomb, and wept. As her tears flowed, she looked inside the empty tomb and saw two angels. “Why are you weeping?” they wanted to know.
Mary couldn’t find the words to convey her sorrow, or even to explain the tingle of expectation that was beginning in her spine, so she just asked a man she assumed was a gardener to tell her where she could find Jesus’ body.
The man spoke one word to her. He spoke her name out loud. “Mary!”
Then I imagine the blood drained from her face, her expression changed, and her mind began to race, trying desperately to catch up with her heart, trying desperately to make sense of what was happening.
Could this be Jesus? She reached out to touch him, because that’s what any of us would do. When Jodee Hogg’s twin sister, Kyna, learned her sister had survived the plane crash after being presumed dead, she said, “I had to have my hands on her. I had to kiss her, and just make sure…just keep my hands on her for a little while.”
That was Mary’s instinct, too. She just needed to touch Jesus. Because the reality was so astounding—Jesus had been dead for three days, and now he was alive!
How do you get your head wrapped around that??
It sure isn’t easy, but we’re here today because we want to understand the resurrection. We want to touch Jesus, the Risen Christ. We desperately want our brains to catch up with what our hearts already know: that in the midst of the grief we know on Good Friday, God interrupts our mourning with a bolt of hope!
Matt Ramige’s uncle said, “When we received the news that Matt was alive, we ran to the car, hugging, kissing and crying. It was like waking from a terrible nightmare.”
People of God, Jesus is alive! The story isn’t over…Jesus is alive! Let your brain believe what your heart already knows. By the power and by the grace of God, Jesus is alive! Amen!
Rev. Lisa Drysdale,
April 9, 2023