An Easter Message: Rev. Clarence, 4/21/2019

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Easter, 21 April 2019, St. James Episcopal Church, Somerville, MA

My sermon this morning has three parts: 1) a stating of the problem, 2) the resolution of the problem, and 3) its implication for us. However, first I give you my title for today’s Resurrection Story as told by John. “Mary Magdalene and the case of the Missing Body, or When Seeing is not Believing!”


Part I: A stating of the problem: The case of the missing body

If ever you have had the pleasure of reading a bedtime story to a child, and especially if said child asked you to read the same story again and again, if not on consecutive nights, then perhaps every other night, you will recall that that empty-tombchild knows the story “by heart,” as we said in my generation. A child does not brook change in the telling of the story, as he or she can anticipate every word. Omit so much as a sentence, and that child will correct you. I know, because it has happened to me.

You know the story. I just read it to you. But it is essential that I recount, just briefly, several details. Mary goes to the tomb to anoint a body, the body of Jesus whose feet she had just days before anointed with oil which cost two hundred denarii. Upon arrival at the tomb, it struck her that things were not as they should have been, in part because there was nothing to see, and with the tomb open, there should have been an odor, which is why she went to the tomb, in the first place, namely to make a final anointment.

Reinforced by experience in nature, Mary Magdalene’s intelligence had preconditioned her to see, or at least, expect to see certain things. But she saw nothing. What does one do when a body comes up missing?

Part II: The Resolution

Under a different set of circumstances, one might have assumed that she was drunk, (too early in the morning for that) or that so stricken with grief, she must have gone to the wrong grave site. None of these conditions applied to Mary Magdalene. In fact, a more level-headed, sober approach to reality could not be found. No fear, no shame, no false assumptions, but an acceptance of stark reality. Mary Magdalene was the poster woman for calmness, disappointed, yes, but not hysterical.jesus-gardener-smaller

And so, it should come as no surprise that Mary Magdalene turns to the first and only person whom she sees and addresses him with respect. John writes: “Supposing him (this person) to be the gardener, she (Mary Magdalene) said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away (after all, the one whom she sought had been laid in a tomb which had been carved out of a cave for another individual, namely for Joseph of Arimathea, who potentially, under the cloak of darkness, could have reclaimed the tomb for himself, after Jesus had been laid to rest and the followers had gone into hiding)—Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’” (Jn. 20:15b)

This all seems perfectly legitimate and clear and realistic to me, nothing otherworldly, nothing hysterical about Mary Magdalene’s approach to life and death, despite her strong feelings for Jesus. She grieved, but she could not be duped. Facts were facts, and nature could not be denied.

Indeed, the only totally unrealistic line in this portion of John’s mystery novel is the statement attributed to Mary Magdalene that, if the gardener knew whereto the body of Jesus had been taken, she would remove it from wherever it now lay, to a more appropriate place. My own male chauvinism shows through here, for being of slight build myself, I find it difficult to imagine a woman schlepping the heavy remains of her deceased teacher and friend. Maybe John, as author, was exercising poetic license, or maybe as he played out the narrative in his head, Mary would go to seek the assistance of other women in removing the dislocated body to another location.

Remember, Mary could not go to the men, because they were in hiding, afraid for their safety. However, let us not get distracted by this sidebar “Mary Magdalene and the Case of the Missing Body, or When Seeing is not Believing.” Things are not as they seem.

Living centuries later, even without the additional man or woman power, as conjured up in John’s head, we have, you and I, an advantage that Mary Magdalene did not have. We know already who the alleged gardener is and how the plot ends. Discovering how John gets us there determines our Easter faith.

Sight and sound are the two of the five senses which help us to navigate our environment. This is not to deny those of smell, taste, and touch. One of her senses, that of sight, had failed Mary. One would think that surely she should have recognized the person with whom she spoke, for he was the same person whose feet, just days before, she had washed with her tears and dried with her hair and then anointed with oil. Yet, she did not recognize him, maybe out of her grief, but I suggest less out of grief, than out of facts of life. Jesus had died and had been buried.

I cannot tell you the number of times that I have encountered someone whom I know, with whom I have sat in meetings. Yet, when I chance upon that same individual outside of the venue, where I would normally see her or him, or not attired as I might have expected, I have often been embarrassed by more than a moment of memory lapse.  I just cannot recall his or her name.

Often we require the assistance of other individuals or, as in “the Case of Mary Magdalene and the Missing Body, or When Seeing is not Believing.” another of our senses.  The sense of sound brought Mary Magdalene literally to her senses.  It was the uniqueness of sound.

Psanky2As a boy, I spent summers on the farms of relatives.  Those farms were my summer camps.  From among the many animals, it was my job to fetch fresh eggs, having been cautioned to watch out for brooding hens.  And so I watched brooding hens and their chicks when hatched.  It fascinated me always that a hen could call out to her chicks which usually stayed close by, but often intermingled with chicks of other hens.  Yet, when the mother hen clucked, the chicks never made the mistake of running to the false mother, for there was something in the timbre of that clucking sound that set their mother apart.

On one occasion, when I was visiting my daughter in Hong Kong, I accompanied her and my son-in-law on an outing with several of their friends and their young families.  I sat off to the side, nursing jet lag.  The women gathered in a group, and the men bunched up and engaged in tales of their respective offices.  A child cried out.  The men all heard the child, but they continued their conversation, save one man who, like a detonated canon ball, raced off in direction of the call of distress.  That father had heard a sound that was uniquely owned by his offspring.  There is something unique in a voice that brings about a response that settles ambiguity.

Case solved: When Mary Magdalene recognizes Jesus, it is not by sight, nor by touch, but rather by sound.  Only when the gardener called her by name, with that unique timbre, did she know him.  It is a truth that echoes in John’s gospel: “my sheep know my voice.”

Part III: Implications for your and my Easter faith or the significance of voice recognition.

Easter Day begins with a sound: HEAR the Good News!  This had to be comforting to the early church—those who, by only one or two generations, had missed firsthand experience with Jesus.  How often they must have sat in homes or catacombs speculating: “If only I could just have seen him!  How tall was he?  What did he look like?  How did he defy nature?”  That early church, at the time of John’s narrative, must have wished for firsthand experiences of “having been with Jesus.”  But then John reminded his immediate audience, as does he us today, of another truth.

I suspect that we have all been guilty of seeing, but yet not really seeing, guilty of attributing certain attributes to individuals and groups based on imagined or experienced encounters with someone who looks like or dresses like the individual before us.  Assumptions, both negative and positive, can be detrimental to growth and realistic outcomes.  For that reason, if this Easter narrative teaches us nothing else, it teaches us to look beyond immediate appearances.  Things are not always as they seem.

We do not always have to see, to touch, to smell, in order to believe.  As we read this mystery novel this Easter Day, as we have so many times in the past, we discover that the lapse of time does not in and of itself make discipleship more difficult.  We are reminded that faith can be birthed and nurtured through the ear, as well as through the eye, through sound as well as through sight.  In the story, it is the word which brings faith that the resurrection is real.

And as we all know, hearing is not limited to the outer, visible organ.  We hear often with that inner organ, the heart.  We believer recognize a presence without sight.  Remember what we learned as babies when our parents played peek-a-boo with us, or we with our children and grandchildren?  The child learns that significant others are present and available, even though they are not always hovering over the crib.  The baby eventually gets the message, “go ahead and sleep.  If you need us, we’ll come.  We’re near, but you won’t always see us.”

Christ insisted that Mary not cling physically to him, perhaps encouraging her to learn that the word of God is enough.  The disciples learned to live off Christ’s words—former words, alive in their memories; new words, whispered by the Holy Spirit.  Like Mary at the tomb, they learned to listen to Christ calling their names: in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost part of the earth, including Somerville, Massachusetts.

scillaSpring2014The good news of Easter is that Christ is calling you by name.  In the here and now, because wherever Christ’s people are, that’s where Christ is: in the classroom, boardroom, or ICU waiting room.  In places of great joy and in places of great loss.  Remember what Jesus said to the sister of Lazarus?  Sure, Mary believed in the resurrection on the last day.  But Jesus corrected her theology.  He moved it from future tense, to present tense: “I am the resurrection and the life.”  Thus, wherever Christ is, there is resurrection power.  And like Mary, we are often aided by the very sense that reveals the presence of God to us, because, if we are calm, we will hear God’s voice, calling us by name.  The gardener of the universe stands just that near.  Always.  Whispering our name and saying, “It is Easter.”  I am with you, even into the end of the ages.

Allelulia! Christ is risen.