A sermon preached on Easter Sunday, April 24, 2011 based upon John 20:1 – 18
In the story we just hear from Easter morning, there are two different
paths described to a trust in the resurrection. The beloved disciple
comes by way of his head. He takes a look inside the empty tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid, sees the cloth in which his body had been wrapped neatly set aside in one place, and the cloth that had been draped over his head in another. Mary had assumed that grave robbers have stolen Jesus’ body, but from the evidence at the scene of the “crime” the beloved disciple discerns that this isn’t what grave robbers would do. He concludes that a more logical explanation is that Jesus himself got up, and set the cloths neat aside.
This might not be persuasive evidence for us. But there is information that those of us who lead with our heads in life do well to grapple with when we ponder what actually happened way back at that tomb, and it is this: Religious movements were a dime a dozen in those days. Would-be messiahs came and went routinely. Jesus came from a podunk town with a handful of none too impressive followers. His ministry lasted all of two years, ending when he got himself crucified in Jerusalem. His disciples fled, filled with fear, guilt, grief and despair. The movement should have ended then and there, like so many others. The disciples should have gone back to fishing, which is what John suggests they tried to do.
Instead, the movement took off like wild fire. The disciples were transformed: they became courageous in ways they had never been before.
They were consumed with a love and joy that they hadn’t possessed before. Their lives were pretty compelling evidence that something very dramatic had happened.
The disciples themselves were unanimous in saying that what had happened was that they encountered the living presence of Jesus after his death and that without this, they would have been lost.
What exactly that means, I haven’t a clue. But we are left with the
intellectual task of explaining what could account for such a transformation in a whole group of people? Some kind of shared conspiracy promoting the deception of the resurrection of the defeated leader just doesn’t account for this change.
This doesn’t prove a thing, of course, but it can bring a person who leads with their head to the point of saying it is not unreasonable to believe that something extraordinary happened back there to set this all in motion. That indeed, they truly did encounter his living presence after his death.
But that’s not what I really want to talk about today.
I’d rather look at the transformation that Mary expresses in the story, the one coming at life from her heart. In Mary we see what resurrection living looks like. There are two things that I see in Mary I want to comment on: She comes to see the world through new eyes. And she is willing to be surprised, and to trust that the one who is ultimately behind the trusts has the best of intentions.
A story I read twenty-five years ago has stayed with me. William Willimon, now a Methodist bishop, describes in one of his books an actual experience he once had as a young pastor serving a church off a busy highway in Myrtle Beach. It was a balmy summer evening. He had put in a long day of work, and now he was walking across the church lawn to go to his office for several more hours of desk work. Across the way he saw a young man walking from the highway, carrying a canvas bag.
When he realized the young man was walking towards him, he thought wearily to himself, “Great. An already long day finished off now with a hitchhiker seeking money, a meal, a motel room.”
With a church near such a busy highway, he was accustomed to a steady stream of people coming off the highway – each looking for a handout — each with their own tale of woe. Sometimes they could be aggressively demanding.
He decided to head him off at the front steps of the church, find out what he wanted, give it to him, and quickly send him on his way.
“Hello!” the young man called out cheerfully. “You’re the pastor, right? That’s your name on the sign out front.”
“Yes,” William answered wearily, slightly aggravated. He didn’t appreciate the guy’s cheeriness, his cute familiarity. He wanted the man to adopt an appropriately humble tone, make his request, and get on with it. “What can I do for you?”
“What can you do? Nothing. That is, no more than you’re already doing,” he replied, still smiling cheerfully.
This annoyed William. He wasn’t going stand around waiting all evening waiting for the guy to take his sweet time getting around to his tale of woe. If he was looking to get ten bucks out of him, he’d better get on with it.
“Look, what do you want? I’m rather busy now and need to…”
“I don’t need anything. I just wanted to drop by and say, ‘Hello,’ to tell you how much I appreciate what you do,” he said.
William began looking at the young man more closely. What was the deal here? Was the guy psychotic, or just weird? Could he be dangerous? There was, however, nothing about the man’s appearance that suggested William had reason to fear.
“Well that’s good of you,” William said. “But who are you? I didn’t get
“Jesus Christ,” the young man said.
William paused. “Look, are you trying to be funny?”
“No. Does that strike you as funny?” he asked, seeming amused that William should challenge him.
“I’m very busy,” William said. “I’ve had a long day. Get to the point. What do you want?”“I know you’ve had a long day,” he said, moving closer, while William moved back a step towards the church. “I know. All I wanted to do was to stop by and tell you, face to face, how much I appreciate what you’re doing here. I know it’s not easy.”
“Well, that’s kind of you,” William allowed, begrudgingly.
“Yes, this isn’t the easiest place to serve. But the church looks good” (he surveyed the yard as he talked), “and you’ve done a good job.”
William stood there, his mouth open, speechless.
“Say, do you read the Bible?” the man asked. William nodded.
“Good. Are there any questions you have about it? Anything you don’t understand?”
“Well, yes I read it. I mean as often as I can. I suppose everybody has
questions about it. I suppose that’s natural.” What am I doing? he thought.
Why am I saying this? Why am I talking to him?
“But do you enjoy the Bible,” he asked, moving his face close to mine,
squinting his eyes.
“Oh, yes, I like it, yes,” William said.
“Look, if you’re Jesus, where are you going?” I asked.
“You got to be kidding. Why Akron, Ohio?” William asked.
“Business. You know, usual stuff,” he said.
The young man put his hand on William’s shoulder. “I know you’re busy and I don’t want to keep you. I just wanted to drop by and say thanks.”
“And you don’t want anything? You don’t need something?” William asked.
“No. No thanks. Keep up the good work. Don’t be discouraged.”
With that the young man turned and walked back towards the highway, waving to William once before he was out of sight. William half raised his arm to return the wave. He stood there watching as the man faded from view. (adapted from On a Wild and Windy Mountain, by William Willimon, 1984.)
I love this enchanting little story. So what was the deal there? Was that really Jesus? Who knows? Maybe. Even if we assume it wasn’t actually Jesus – that it was some guy impersonating Jesus – well, we certainly have to admit he did a good job. And in simplest terms, isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing? He graced William, changing him. Like Mary, he had been surprised, and presumably would be even more open to gracious surprises afterwards. He would see things a bit differently from there on in.
Coming over to the church this past week, I was feeling weighed down by the pastor burden of writing holy week sermons. There were two Mexican laborers, working on the church’s lawn. I didn’t think much of it. But then I suddenly remembered: Mary mistook Jesus for a gardener. These guys are gardeners of a sort. Could they be Jesus?
I stopped and waved to them and said, “Hi.” They smiled and waved back.
Jesus often spoke about how when we encountered one of the least of his brothers and sisters in this world, we were, in fact, encountering him. He was talking about a new way of seeing in this world.
Rachel Naomi Remen is a medical doctor as well as a woman of great wisdom gleaned in part from her own struggle with serious illness. She is a counselor and author. In her wonderful book My Grandfather’s Blessings, Rachel describes working with a gifted cancer surgeon named Josh who came to see her because of depression. Disillusioned and cynical, he was thinking about early retirement.
“I can barely make myself get out of bed most mornings,” he told her. “I hear the same complaints day after day. I see the same diseases over and over again. I just don’t care anymore. I need a new life.”
Rachel quoted Proust as having said that the voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new vistas, but in having new eyes. She gave Josh an assignment of spending fifteen minutes at the end of each day in which he would ask three questions: What surprised me today? What moved me or touched me today? What inspired me today? He was jot down a few words in a journal in response. He didn’t need to write a great deal. The key was simply reliving the day form a new perspective. Reluctantly Josh agreed.
He called back a couple of days later, his voice sounding irritated on the phone. “Rachel,” he said, “I have done this for three days now and the answer is always the same: ‘Nothing. Nothing and nothing.’ I don’t like to fail at things is there a trick here?”
Rachel laughed. “Perhaps you’re still looking at your life in old ways… Try looking at the people around you as if you were a novelist, a journalist, or maybe a poet. Look for stories.”
There was a brief silence, “Right,” he said.
Rachel saw Josh regularly over the next couple of weeks, but during that time he did not mention the journal. Over time, though, his outlook seemed to improve.
After six weeks he brought a little bound book and told her what he thought was really helping him. He said he had trouble with the journal at the beginning and had wondered how he could be so busy and living such an empty life. But slowly he had begun to find some answers to the three questions. He opened the journal and began to read some of them to Rachel.
At first the most surprising thing in a day was that a cancer had grown or shrunk two or three millimeters, and the most inspiring thing was that a new or experimental drug had begun to work. But gradually he had begun to see more deeply. Eventually he saw people who had found their way through great pain and darkness by following a thread of love, people who had sacrificed parts of their bodies to affirm the value of being alive, people who had found ways to triumph over pain, suffering, and even death.
In the beginning, he said, he would only notice the things that surprised him, moved him, or inspired him several hours after they happened, in the evening in the privacy of his home. “It was like one of those fairy tales,” he said. “Like being under a spell. I could only see my life by looking backwards over my shoulder.”
But gradually this lag time became shorter and shorter. “I was building a capacity I had never used. But I got better at it,” he told me. “Once I began to see things at the time they actually happened, a lot changed for me.”
Rachel was puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“Well,” he said. “At the beginning I couldn’t talk about it and I just
wrote everything down. But I think when I began to see things differently, my attitude started to change. Maybe that showed in my tone of voice or in some other way. People seemed to pick up on it because their attitude seemed changed, too. And after a while, I just began talking to people about more than their cancer and its treatment. I began talking about what I could see.”
The first patient he spoke to in this way was a 38 year old woman with ovarian cancer who had undergone major abdominal surgery followed by a very debilitating chemotherapy. In the midst of a routine follow-up visit one morning he suddenly saw her as if for the first time, her 4 year old on her lap and her six year old leaning against her chair.
Both little girls were obviously well loved, well cared for. Aware of the profound suffering caused by her sort of chemotherapy, he was deeply moved by the depth of her commitment to mother her children, and for the first time he connected it to the strength of her will to live. After they spoke of her symptoms, he had commented on this. “You are such a great mother to your kids,” he told her. “Even after all you have been through, there is something very strong in you. I think that power could maybe heal you someday.” She smiled
at him, and he realized with a shock that he had never seen her smile before.
“Thank you,” she told him warmly. “That means a lot to me.”
He was very surprised at this, but he had believed her. It had never occurred to him that people would value what he had to say beyond his expertise in cancer and its treatment.
Encouraged, he began to ask other people one or two questions had not been taught to him in medical school. “What has sustained you in dealing with this illness? or “Where do you find your strength?” and found that people with the same disease had very different things to say. Things he really wanted to hear about. In some way what they said was true for him, too, as he struggled to deal with the difficulties of his own life. “I knew cancer very well, but I did not know people before.”
People began to give him gifts — to show their appreciation to him in a
way never before. He brought out a beautiful stethoscope engraved with his name on it. A patient had given it to him, it had moved him. And what do you do with that?
“I listen to hearts, Rachel. I listen to hearts.”
What would it mean for you to live the resurrection? Can you be open
to God’s surprises? Can you begin to see the world through the eyes of
Each Sunday, I began worship here by welcoming people and declaring that we believe that newcomers in our midst are Jesus in disguise. Can we see Jesus underneath the disguises? Can we recognize someone with a hidden capacity for a great love? Can we trust that we, too, are Jesus in disguise?
Jesus told Mary not to cling to him. It takes a light touch to live
the resurrection. Slow down. Take in the sights and sounds – all the senses. Go forth into this world expecting surprises, and that the surprises will ultimately be very good.