Sunday, April 8, 2012

Whom Are You Looking For? Sermon on John 20:1-18

April 8, 2012 Round Top Park, Endicott, NY

Whom are you looking for?

This is the question at the heart of this morning’s gospel passage, a passage that recounts the central mystery at the heart of Christian faith. We have already proclaimed it in song: “Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Alleluia!” We have already proclaimed it by the action of making a rugged wooden cross bloom with flowers. We proclaim it by what we’re wearing, even what we’ll eat later on. Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia! For us, the outcome is known, it’s a given. But for the people whose stories we will follow for what may amount to no more than an hour in a day almost two thousand years ago, it is an event veiled in mystery.   A man, whom Mary Magdalene supposes to be the gardener, asks the weeping woman, “Whom are you looking for?”

But really, the more appropriate question for Mary might have been, “What are you looking for?” because, in truth, she is looking, not for a person, or even for her Lord. She is looking for a body. She is looking for a tomb.

It is the third day since Jesus was crucified, executed in an act so horrible that a fairly mild description of it caused a young girl to cry in this sanctuary last Sunday. Jesus died a painful death, hated and feared by both the religious and political authorities of his day. We can look through the gospels and wonder why he was so feared and so hated. The gospel of John tells us that Jesus performed signs that revealed that God was at work in him: he changed water into wine. He healed a man born blind. He fed more than five thousand hungry people with just five barley loaves and two fish. He raised his beloved friend Lazarus from the dead. The gospel also tells us that Jesus broke through barriers that were considered unbreakable: he spoke to women and foreigners as though they were equals. He healed on the Sabbath, when such actions were considered work, and therefore forbidden. Because he described his relationship with God with such intimacy, he broke the ultimate religious taboos. And because he broke down cultural and social barriers, he broke the ultimate political taboos. And so he was killed.

Then his body was prepared in the customary way for burial, and was placed in a borrowed tomb. A stone roughly the weight of a mid-sized car was placed in front of it. At sundown Sabbath began, and so the tomb lay quietly undisturbed because the Sabbath prohibited unnecessary travel and work. And that, as they say, was that. Or, was supposed to be.

But we know that “that” was not “that.” We read the whole story through the lens of resurrection, and so we’re ready for what happens next. Early on the first day of the week, Sunday morning, Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb. There are lots of Marys in the stories of Jesus’ life, so it’s good to do a little clarification as to who this particular Mary is. She is not Jesus’ mother, and she is not a prostitute. She is not the woman “taken in adultery.” She is not one of the women who anointed Jesus with perfume. She is, however, one of the women who stood near the cross, along with Jesus’ mother and yet another Mary. And she is here, at the tomb, early Sunday morning, the first day of the week. Now, we are not given any particular reason for Mary to be at the tomb. Jesus’ body has already been properly prepared for burial, so that’s not it. We can only wonder, we can only guess. Here is my guess: Mary wants to be near him. She is mourning.

Whom are you looking for? What are you looking for? Mary Magdalene comes, looking for a tomb, behind whose impossibly large entrance-blocking stone lies the dead body of Jesus.

But Mary, to her shock, finds that the stone has been removed, and the tomb is open. And her reaction is to run away. She runs to find two of Jesus’ disciples, which is another word for “learners.” Mary seeks the other disciples because all she can do in the face of not finding what she expected to find is to run.

These other disciples are Peter and the unnamed “one whom Jesus loved.” The gospels describe Peter to us as someone who was sort of a slow starter when it came to learning but who eventually made up for that by becoming one of the most important leaders of the early church. He gets it, and he doesn’t get it. The beloved disciple, the beloved learner, is much more of a mystery. His identity has been the subject of intense speculation, pretty much since the evangelist put down his reed-pen and rolled up his papyrus. The classic theory is that he is John, for whom the gospel is named. Others have more recently proposed that Mary Magdalene is, herself, the beloved disciple, which doesn’t make a lot of sense, since this chapter portrays her as running to get that person. Still others believe it may have been Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead—Lazarus, about whom a disciple says to Jesus, “The one whom you love is ill.”

Who is the beloved disciple? Whom are you looking for?

Once they hear Mary’s summary of the situation—“They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him”—they run to the tomb. And it is quite a footrace. Those of you who come to our Monday 5 PM bible study: I got this one wrong, didn’t I? It is not Peter, the man of action who wins the race, but the beloved disciple. Of course. It makes perfect sense, in the highly symbolic world of John’s gospel: his speed is a measure of his devotion.

What follows is an indictment of the old saw, “Seeing is believing.” Mary sees that the stone is rolled away from the tomb; she believes that Jesus’ body has been stolen. The beloved disciple and Peter both see the grave clothes lying inside the tomb; Peter believes it’s time to go back home, while the beloved one simply “believes.” We don’t know exactly what, but we are told that they don’t yet understand what is really going on.

And then Mary is left alone, and she is weeping. I know that this is not the first time in history, nor will it be the last, in which a woman who has endured the death of someone she loves at the hands of a brutal regime has been left without even a body. Mary is weeping over this final heartbreaking indignity, that not only is he dead, but she has lost her best hope to be near him, leaning on the far side of that enormous car-sized stone.

And maybe that is why, at last, she bends over to look inside the tomb. If she can’t have the body, or the closeness, at the very least, she would like her questions to be answered. And so she looks into the tomb, where she finds a pair of angels, sitting.

And we’re ready for this—we’re wearing our resurrection lenses, after all! They say to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” And mustering up all the dignity she can at dawn, looking into a burial vault at a couple of angels, she says, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” She sees angels, and still she believes that Jesus’ corpse has been stolen.

For some reason, she turns around.

Whom are you looking for?

Mary is still looking for a body. She sees, but she still does not believe or even recognize.

Whom are you looking for?

I have a hunch that, on Easter Sunday morning, when we come to church to experience the beauty and the pageantry, the flowers and the lilies and the bells ringing and the voices soaring, we are looking for someone, and something, very specific. I believe that we are looking for ourselves.

I believe we come to hear the resurrection proclamation in the hopes that, somewhere in the story, we will see someone who reminds us of ourselves. Because, if I can find myself in that story somewhere, if someone like me found their faith on an Easter day so long ago, maybe I can find a way of stepping into the stream of faith as well.

So, let’s take off our resurrection lenses for a moment, and look again at our story.

Whom are you looking for? Are you looking for Mary? The disciple whose tears lead her to an encounter with Jesus, the one whom he calls by name?

There is something powerful about hearing your name called. We are given names at birth, and from the very first hours of our lives we hear those names, over and over, in the voices of those, we hope, love us best. A preaching colleague told the story this week about how his mother started singing a song to his newborn daughter, “Katy! Beautiful Katy! You’re the only girl that I adore!”  And soon, any time she heard her song, Katy would turn toward the singer. It was her song. It was her name.

Jesus says just one word to the weeping woman. “Mary.” He calls her by name. And she turns, and in that turning, she finally recognizes Jesus. Have your tears led you to Jesus? Have you heard Jesus call your name? Are you looking for Mary?

Or are you looking for Peter, the one who tries, and tries hard, but doesn’t always get it. My mother confessed to me when she was at the end of her life that she longed for faith, but found it incredibly hard to believe. How I wish she had been able to read the memoirs of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whom the entire world looked up to for her brilliant witness to the gospel, for her devotion to God’s most vulnerable, poorest, most despised people. Mother Teresa, who inspired the world, described her own spiritual life as dry, dark, and lonely. She tried so hard, just like Peter. Do you find faith more an effort than a joy? Are you looking for Peter?

Or are you looking for the beloved disciple? The one whose devotion to Jesus carries him swiftly to the tomb? Is believing, for you, almost beside the point, because your heart carries you past believing into intimacy, relationship? The idea of “belief” has changed throughout the centuries. Ever since the enlightenment, the dawning of the scientific method, “belief” has come to mean adherence to propositions, almost a check-off list. For Christians, this list would include things like: Jesus is the Son of God, check. Jesus was born of a virgin, check. Jesus rose bodily from the dead, check, check and double-check! But in Jesus’ day, belief was more about relationship, and trust, and love. What mattered wasn’t belief about; what matter was belief in. The beloved disciple believed in Jesus because he loved and was loved by Jesus, and that love lifted him past the need for the check-offs.  Is relationship the foundation of your faith? Is love? Are you looking for the beloved disciple?

I believe we are all looking for ourselves in the Easter story, and once we locate ourselves there, we can at last begin to look for Jesus—not some shell of the man, but the real, living, breathing Jesus, the one who calls us each by name, the one who we may not entirely get or understand, the one who would far prefer our love to our intellectual assent.

Whom are you looking for? Let’s stop for a minute, before putting back on those resurrection lenses, and simply inhale the crisp air of the unexpected, the startled moment before the recognition. Resurrection comes when we are most and least filled with love, when we get it and we don’t get it, when we are stooped with sorrow and laughing our heads off. Resurrection comes, not at our bidding, but at God’s pleasure, not because we have earned it but because God wants it, not because we are perfect but because God loves us perfectly. Resurrection comes because Jesus’ project of healing and welcoming and loving us isn’t finished and will not be stopped. Christ is risen indeed. Thanks be to God. Amen. Alleluia!

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