Named, known, and loved by the Risen Christ: A Sermon for Easter, 2018

   Vilas Memorial Window, Grace Episcopal Church

 

 I was fortunate as a college professor that I taught at small liberal arts college where the number of students in my courses never exceeded 30. This was back before the age of smart phones and our department had a camera that some of my colleagues used on the first day of class to take photos of their students so they could put faces to names more quickly.

In my own experience, I learned that if I called the roll for two weeks, by the end of that time, I would know the students’ names by heart. Of course, they made it easier for me because they always sat in the same seat in the room. It would often happen that I would encounter a student on the sidewalk or in the library two or three years after I’d had them in class. I could recall where they sat in the room, what their final grade was, but often their name would be a complete mystery. Usually, several nights later I would suddenly wake up and there it was, on my lips, the name of that student.

The same thing happens at church, of course. If you’ve visited a few times, it’s likely I’m going to remember your face—but unless I see your name written out, it will take quite some time for me to remember it. There are also some people who come regularly whose name I don’t know—often, it’s because they want to remain invisible, or unnoticed. And then there’s the phenomenon of me walking into a restaurant or grocery store out of uniform, and encountering someone from church or someone I know from some other official capacity. They’ll take a second look, a puzzled expression comes on their face, and finally, I will end the suspense. Without a collar, it’s as if I’m in disguise (well, to be honest, sometimes I am in disguise).

While there are some places, and some groups, where we want to remain anonymous, there are also times when, as the theme song to the 1980s sitcom Cheers, put it: “Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.”

That moment in John’s gospel where Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name is intimate, dramatic, and revelatory. It’s a moment captured in the image on today’s service bulletin, courtesy of a last-minute request I made to our Communications Coordinator, Peggy Frain, a photo of one of the panels from the Vilas Window which is to my right.

But let’s step back a moment and explore this wonderful story in greater detail. The Gospel of John is wonderful, perplexing, challenging, at times, infuriating. It provides us so much imagery, so many ideas, tantalizing nuggets of information that it’s easy to get caught up in the detail and over interpret, or read too much into relatively minor points. Still, there is so much here—first, unlike in the other gospels where Mary Magdalene is accompanied by other women, and they have a set purpose in mind, anointing Jesus’ body with burial spices, in John, Mary comes alone, and for no particular purpose (Nicodemus took care of the embalming earlier).

In the other gospels, the women come at the break of day, here Mary comes at night—which reminds us of other nights in the gospel, the night early on when Nicodemus came to Jesus; the night a few days earlier, when Judas left Jesus and the others on his mission of betrayal; the night or darkness, throughout the gospel that stands in contrast to the light of Christ. We might infer that Mary herself is coming in the night, because she doesn’t know the light…

Then there’s the footrace between Peter and the beloved disciple, a race one by the other disciple, but he waits, and lets Peter enter first. There is the careful detail describing how the linen grave clothes are arranged, and the observation that the beloved disciple sees and believes, though what precisely he believes isn’t clear.

But back to Mary. After Peter and the Beloved Disciple go home after their morning run, probably stopping for coffee along the way, Mary stays behind in the garden, overwhelmed by grief. Probably, she’s still struggling to understand what’s happened, not quite believing that the tomb is empty. For the first time, she decides to look inside for herself, perhaps wondering what the other disciples had seen when they entered. Instead of grave clothes, she sees two angels who ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”

Mary’s response is partly bewilderment, partly a declaration of faith. While she can’t make sense of the scene in front of her, by refering to Jesus as her Lord, she proclaims her belief that, all evidence to the contrary, Jesus is (or was) the Son of God.

In the middle of her encounter with the angels, Mary senses another presence behind her and turns. John puts it succinctly, and lets we the readers in on the secret before Mary figures it out: “…saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.” We know it’s Jesus, and John writes it in such a way that we want to know how or when Mary will figure it out.

Jesus calls her by name and the eyes of her soul are opened. She recognizes him and calls him, “Rabbouni” Teacher. It’s a poignant, powerful moment, and it’s not just about Mary finally figuring out who Jesus is. Rather, when he calls her by name, he tells her who she is, and their relationship is restored and deepened. Mary is known and loved by Jesus and when he calls her by name, she enters into that love and knowledge.

We live in a world in which our lives are played out for the world to see. We share intimate details and photos of ourselves on facebook or instagram; we are connected to people across the globe via twitter and engage in debate and controversy with people we’ve never met face to face. Our personal details are mined for our political and shopping preferences and our efforts to maintain personal privacy rarely succeed.

Still, in all of that, the intimacy we so often desire remains elusive. Our mobility, jobs that require our attention and focus far beyond forty hours a week, the temptations of social media, mean that our relationships are tentative, often shallow, temporary. We want to hide so much of ourselves from others, out of fear or shame.

“Mary,” Jesus said. And in that instant, the veil that separated the two of them in the garden fell away and Mary saw her Lord. He called her by name, and not only did she recognize him, she also came to understand and know herself, in relationship with Jesus, and known, and loved, by him.

The Risen Christ calls us by name, knows us by name. When we hear his voice, we begin to know ourselves and are invited into relationship with him, to become his.

The Risen Christ stands before us in the garden. The Risen Christ comes to us in bread and wine of the Eucharistic feast. The Risen Christ encounters us in the community gathered to hear the proclamation of the Word. The Risen Christ encounters us in the faces of the outcast, the homeless and hungry, the widow and orphan, in immigrants, prisoners, the LGBT community.

The Risen Christ calls us by name, inviting us into relationship with him. He invites us to bring all of our baggage, all of our wounds and scars, all of our sins and brokenness. When we hear his voice, and answer his call, we become whole and healed, loved and known by him. May the sound of his voice fill you with joy, heal your brokenness, dry your tears. May we all know the joy and love of the Risen Christ. Thanks Be to God!

 

 

Early on the first day of the week: A Sermon for Easter, 2017

 

On Sunday mornings, I usually leave the house by 6:15 am. I’ve come to appreciate the way the light changes at that time of day throughout the year. In December and January of course, it is fully dark at that time of the morning but if it’s a clear day, by late February, I can see the beginnings of the sunrise.

Sunday mornings are quiet times in downtown Madison. Most of the traffic lights are flashing. One sees the occasional student walking home after a night out, making what’s come to be known as “the walk of shame.” There are people on their way to work at the hospitals, delivery drivers with newspapers; and the like. I especially enjoy taking note of the traffic counter on the bike path at Monroe St and Regent. It’s usually still in the single digits at that time of the morning. As I drive, I’m usually thinking about the morning ahead, worrying about my sermon, whether I’ve worked myself into a dead-end and have time to write myself out of it before the 8:00 service. Continue reading

Being known and named by Christ: A Sermon for Easter, 2016

 

One of things I love about being a priest are the strange, sometimes unsetting, often grace-filled encounters I have with people. It can happen when I’m wearing my collar, running errands before or after work. As an example, my church in South Carolina was very close to the Home Depot, and I often stopped there after work to buy supplies for a home project. Once, I was stopped by an employee in the parking lot who asked me if I would pray for him. We stopped right there, and after inquiring about what was troubling him, we shared a prayer I anointed him, and offered a blessing.

It can happen when I’m out of uniform. Continue reading

Extravagant Discipleship: A Sermon for Lent 5, Year C

 

Over the years,  I’ve encouraged you to pay attention to the way the gospel writers tell their stories. Each gospel writer had his own understanding of who Jesus was and what important message the gospel needed to convey and he shaped his story to conform to those overarching concerns. In a way this attention to difference among the gospels goes against human nature. It’s not just that we want to create a consistent and coherent narrative, it’s also that we combine details from different stories. Thus our nativity scenes bring together shepherds and wise men, and there’s a tradition of the “Seven Last Words of Christ” that put together Jesus’ final words from all four gospels. Continue reading

Experiencing Resurrection: A Sermon for Easter 2015

Can you imagine what it must have been like for Jesus’ disciples as they grieved his death? They had come with him from Galilee. They thought he was the Messiah. It’s likely many, if not all of them, imagined that when they got to Jerusalem, Jesus would instigate a revolt that would lead to the Jewish people’s independence from Rome. Instead, here they were the day after he had been arrested and crucified in a public and horrific display of Rome’s power. If you read the gospels, it’s clear that the disciples themselves went in hiding. They were noticeable for their out-of-town accents and likely feared that if they were caught, they would end up like Jesus, crucified, crushed under Rome’s tyranny.

How deep was their grief and despair? Had they begun to consider what they were going to do with the rest of their lives, that is, if they safely escaped Jerusalem? Or would that come later, after the worst of the grieving was over, after they had made their way to safety, after they had begun to pick up the pieces of the lives they had left behind, months, or even years before?

I wonder if the feelings they had in those couple of days are anything like the feelings many of us have right now, as we despair over the state of our city, our state, our nation, even the world. The unrelenting barrage of negative news just keeps coming. Global Warming threatens life on our planet and we’re experiencing foretastes of it with longlasting drought in California. Violence in our world as we hear stories of the deaths of Christians in Kenya, in the Middle East, and Nigeria. War continues in so many places—Syria, Ukraine.

It’s no better closer to home. How many of us are struggling with the threatened budget cuts—to UW, for example? What about the ongoing racial disparities in our community? And then there’s the despair and grief that only or our closest friends and family know—the deaths of loved ones, serious illness, broken relationship, unemployment. The euphoria created by a Badgers victory in the Final Four is only temporary. Too soon, today, tomorrow, Tuesday, we’ll be back to the reality of our lives and world.

Some of us may be asking questions very like the ones Jesus’ disciples were asking, “What now? How do we put our lives back together? How do we go on?”

We bring those questions with us today. We bring with us the struggles and pain of our lives and our world. We are like Mary Magdalene, who came to the tomb to mourn Jesus’ death. Her world was broken, as ours is. She was lost and grieving. We don’t even know why she came to the tomb that morning. Unlike the other gospels, John doesn’t say she came to anoint Jesus for burial (In fact, that had already taken place). She came in grief, to mourn her teacher.

When she came to the tomb and found it empty, she ran back to tell the disciples. Peter and the Beloved Disciple ran back with her, probably in disbelief. They wanted to see for themselves that the tomb was empty, that Jesus’ was gone. And when they arrived and their curiosity was satisfied, they returned to the place they had been staying.

But Mary Magdalene stayed behind, weeping, disconsolate. Peter and the Beloved Disciple had looked in the tomb; they saw the rolled up linen burial cloths. They had seen enough. Mary followed them. Only now did she peer inside the tomb, and she saw something very different. She saw two angels who asked her why she was weeping. She still couldn’t figure it out—she didn’t know who, or what, they were.

Then she turned and saw another figure, one who asked the same question of her that the angels had, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She’s still confused, she thinks it might be the gardener, so she replies to him as she had to the angels, asking where Jesus’ body had been taken. It’s only when he says her name that she recognizes him and calls him, “Rabbouni.”

The whole gospel has been building to this moment. This encounter has been foreshadowed repeatedly from the very first chapter. When Jesus called his first disciples, he bid them “Come and see.” When Nicodemus came to him by night, wanting to know more about this great teacher and worker of miracles, Jesus talked about the new life that he was offering those who followed him. In his last public appearance before his arrest and crucifixion, some Greeks came, they wished to see him. In each case, people came in search of something, wanting to see Jesus, but it’s not clear that they did; it’s not clear that they encountered him, understood his words. It’s not clear that experienced his life-giving words.

And now, in this encounter in the garden, Mary Magdalene, didn’t know who or what she saw until Jesus spoke to her, and called her by name. In that moment, with that simple word, her eyes were opened and she experienced resurrection.

Well, I suppose that settles it. Or perhaps not. The resurrection—the notion that Jesus emerged from the tomb after dying, that he lives now—lies outside of human experience. Even the gospel writers, even Paul, in the reading from I Corinthians, struggle to make sense of it, struggle to communicate what it was, what it means to their readers and to us. The stories in the gospels are confused and contradictory—was it a young man? One angel? Two? Who came to the tomb and why? And to whom did Jesus first appear?

There are actually only a few details on which the gospels agree—that women, among them Mary Magdalene, came to the tomb; that it was empty; that they received the news that Jesus had risen from the dead. And Paul, who’s writing a few decades before any of the gospels were written, doesn’t seem to know anything about the women or the empty tomb. He says the Risen Christ appeared first to Peter, then to the twelve. He goes on to list other appearances of the Risen Christ including one to himself, “and last of all as to one untimely born, he appeared to me.”

But to ask these sorts of questions, as interesting as they are, is to miss the point entirely. We are trained to be skeptics, even cynics. We want only to believe what we see with our eyes, what we can touch. We want to believe only what conforms to our worldviews, our expectations, the narrow confines of our minds. Think of our political and cultural discourse. We are full of what is called confirmation bias—fitting the evidence into our preconceived categories, expectations, and worldviews.

But the resurrection lies outside all of that. It is incomprehensible, incommensurate, inconceivable. To imagine what might have happened, to understand what Mary Magdalene might have experienced, we need to think differently, we need to have our eyes opened.

John begins his account of the last supper with the following sentence, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” In those chapters, indeed throughout the gospel, in Jesus’ encounters with others, he offers them new life, rich abundant life, life lived in him. That’s what he means by love. Love is not just an emotion, it is a way of knowing, a way of knowing the other fully and through that knowledge, coming to know oneself. That’s what happened to Mary when Jesus called her by name and her eyes were opened.

The resurrection of Christ offers as an encounter with his love and it changes everything. When we open ourselves to Christ’s love, when we are opened by Christ’s love, we see the world in new ways; our old ways of thinking and being are shattered by the reality of the new creation and the hope.

Resurrection, the new life of Christ, new life in Christ, opens up to us a new world, a world in which we can imagine and help to bring about the reign of God proclaimed by Jesus Christ. The resurrection offers us a new way of seeing, a new way of being, where we are no longer constrained by the limits of our imagination, or by human sin and evil.

The resurrection offers us a new way of seeing ourselves—in spite of our shortcomings and struggles, in spite of our doubts and despair, when the risen Christ calls us by name we can see ourselves as he sees us—as new creatures, new beings, living in him.

The resurrection offers us a new way of seeing each other—no longer focused on the ways we’ve been hurt, the ways others have fallen short, we see them with the eyes that Jesus saw Mary, we can see each other as new beings alive in Christ.

Whatever struggles we have today, whatever our fears, doubts, whatever suffering and pain we might know—all of that might still be with us tomorrow, it probably will—but thanks to the resurrection, thanks to the Risen Christ, we know the possibility and reality of new creation. We know the world is being made new by the power of love; we know that Jesus Christ has triumphed and a new world, the reign of God is being born.

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A garden of grief and resurrection: A Homily for Easter, 2014

Yesterday morning, my wife and I came downtown at about 8:30 am. I was coming to participate in our brief and moving liturgy for Holy Saturday. Corrie was going to participate in one of Madison’s annual rituals: the first Dane County Farmer’s Market of the season. As we were driving, I remarked to Corrie as I was looking at the bare trees and the few signs of new life in people’s yards and gardens, that it was hard to believe it was April 19. After a long, hard winter, it’s still not quite clear that spring has arrived. Perhaps by tomorrow the bulbs will be begin to bloom. But who knows? It might snow, too. Continue reading

Do we see this woman? A homily for Proper 6, Year C, 2013

It’s a familiar story; versions of it in the other gospels. Full of drama, more than a little eroticism. Listening to it, we become spectators to a drama that is playing out. We are almost voyeurs, but also perhaps a little embarrassed by the woman’s actions which seem inappropriate and out of place at a dinner in the home of a respectable leader in the town and probably the synagogue. But its drama and intimacy pull us in as it has enticed Christians for nearly two thousand years. We want to know who this woman was, what sin she committed. We also want to know what happens next. And so in the history of interpretation and the history of Christianity, she becomes Mary Magdalene, the prostitute turned penitent, with the long flowing hair. Over the centuries, this wasn’t invented by Dan Brown, we speculate that there was some sort of special relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Continue reading

Nicodemus, 100 pounds of embalming spices, and the Resurrection of Christ: A Sermon for Easter, 2013

Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

What are we doing here? Is there anything more unbelievable, outlandish, absurd, than the idea that 2000 years ago, someone was raised from the dead? Let’s get real and be honest with each other. It’s flat out unbelievable. Continue reading

A Rolled-Up Ball of Linen: A Sermon For Easter, 2012

April 8, 2012

Peter and the beloved disciple ran to the tomb. They couldn’t believe the news? Who would take Jesus’ body? They ran. The beloved disciple got there first, but he waited, allowing Peter to enter. Only then did he go in and saw what Peter saw. An empty tomb. Mary Magdalene was right. But there was more. There were the linens. On one side, a pile, and off in a corner, by itself, neatly wrapped the piece of cloth that had covered Jesus’ face. The beloved disciple, it is said, saw and believed.

What did he believe? That Jesus was risen from the dead? But, no that can’t be it, because the very next sentence says they didn’t know the scriptures that he would be raised from the dead? So what did he see and believe? That Jesus’ body was gone? Certainly. That it had been taken by someone? Perhaps.

Throughout John’s gospel, there is something of a progression of faith. Come and see, Jesus said. He performs miracles, called signs, and many believe in his name. But it’s not clear they understand who he is or have true faith in him. They know he can work miracles, but is he the Son of God?

Here in the tomb is a wrapped up ball of linen. It signifies something, but what? Earlier, Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead. When he came out of the tomb, he was still bound in the burial garments, and Jesus told the bystanders to loose him. What does it all mean?

Peter and the Beloved Disciple had heard the news from Mary Magdalene who had come to the tomb by herself when it was still night. They were excited enough to run with her to the tomb to see if she was right. But there the investigations ended. An empty tomb, a rolled up ball of linen, and they went back home, their curiosity satisfied.

But not Mary Magdalene. When the other two went back, she stayed behind. She lingered in the garden, and someone she thought to be the gardener asked her, “Who are you looking for?” It is a question that comes up repeatedly in John’s gospel, beginning in the first chapter. When he sees two men following him, Philip and Andrew, he asks them, “What are you looking for.” When they answer that they want to know where he was staying, he says, “Come and see.”

Nicodemus came to Jesus. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to go chapter by chapter through the Gospel of John, however much I would like to). Like Mary Magdalene, he came in the darkness. He came to ask questions, and left, his questions unanswered. The Samaritan woman comes to the well to fetch water. How many times had she come before? Every day, for years? She had come for water to do her daily chores of washing and cleaning. Instead of water, she encountered Christ, She left the well to tell everyone about who she had met, and she left her empty water jar behind. The Greeks come to Philip and tell him, “we want to see Jesus;” but we don’t know if they actually did. The Gospel doesn’t tell us.

Like those others in the gospel before her, Mary Magdalene has come. She has come to the tomb, in search of what? Solace, hope? And when Peter and the Beloved Disciple, came, saw, and went back home, she stayed behind, not satisfied, still waiting. For what? Did she know? Could she say? She stayed in the garden and she met someone who she thought was the gardener. Perhaps he could answer her questions. Perhaps he could tell her who had taken Jesus’ body, and where they had taken it.

But she was asking the wrong questions, looking for the wrong thing, seeing something she couldn’t understand. The angels told her she was looking in the wrong place, looking for the wrong thing, but their words didn’t make sense. She looked around saw a gardener, and asked him.

And then, the unimaginable, the unthinkable happened. He knew her. He called her by name, and her world, her sight, her understanding were transformed.

“Mary,” he said; and she replied, “Teacher.”

After that joyous encounter, she returned to the other disciples and told them the really good news, “I have seen the Lord!”

What are you looking for? What, who, do you hope to see? There is so much that clouds our visions—our worries for the future and for ourselves; concerns about jobs, the economy, our health, our families. But many of those are things over which we have little control. What about our hopes and fears—and all that we do to hide our deep needs from ourselves: our addictions, and not just to unhealthy habits, but our participation in a consumer lifestyle that deludes us into thinking if we only had a nicer house, or car, or an ipad 3, then things would be great, we would be satisfied. We would be happy.

What are we looking for? What, who do we hope to see? We come to church in something of the same mindset, hoping that the right word, the right experience will set everything right, make it all OK, satisfy the spiritual longings we have, longings that we often can’t articulate and express, longings for meaning and connection that we try to quench in all sorts of ways, except the way that will finally satisfy.

What are we looking for, whom do we seek? We have come to hear again the good and joyous news of resurrection, to celebrate the new life in Christ. We have come, some of us, to get a spiritual high, and some of us, in hope that what we get here today will suffice for another year.

We come, and see a rolled up ball of linen, or someone we think is a gardener, and we wonder and hope. We see what’s in front of our faces, and don’t understand the meaning, or misinterpret it. A rolled up ball of linen. What could it signify? A gardener—might he tell me what I want to know?

“Mary,” Jesus said and in that instant, her world changed. He knew her, and in that instant, she knew him. We come to this place, we come to God, with all sorts of expectations, requests, demands. We come wanting answers and help and solace. We come on our own terms. We want to encounter God on our terms, not God’s.

Mary was like us. We are Mary. She came to the tomb. She encountered a gardener. When Jesus called her by name, she replied, “Teacher.” But Jesus was much more than a teacher, and in the brief exchange that follows, Mary comes to realize what it all means, what everything means. She comes to know and believe what Jesus has been telling her, his other disciples, and us, throughout the gospel. She comes to know and understand who he is, what the crucifixion and this experience, resurrection mean. When she returns to the other disciples to tell them what happened, she makes it all clear, “I have seen the Lord.”

Here we are, all of us. We have come with our hopes and desires, with our cynicism and doubts, with our faith and with our uncertainty. We have come to this place to hear again the good news of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. We have come to experience the joy of that good news. We want it tied up in a neat package, like a rolled up ball of linen. We want it on our terms, in our categories, we want it to fill our needs.

But Jesus Christ comes to us in unexpected ways. Jesus Christ comes to us in ways we can’t imagine, in encounters we can’t control. The risen Christ comes to us in bread and wine, in the community of the faithful, and in ways we can’t express. The risen Christ comes to us, to shatter our expectations, break down the barriers that prevent us from seeing and experiencing him. The risen Christ comes to us, to remake us, to fashion us in his image and likeness. The risen Christ comes to us. Dare we say, with Mary, “We have seen the Lord?”