This is the message I gave on Easter morning.
This morning we celebrate and remember Jesus raising from the dead. It is not uncommon on Easter Sunday for those in the church to focus in on the fact of the Resurrection. For some, this is the perfect Sunday to bring friends to hear an apologetics style presentation and where their non-believing friends can once and for all be convinced of the fact behind the resurrection.
In an article I read this week called: God’s Resuscitations by Kari Jo Verhulst
Several years ago, just in time for Easter, Time magazine ran a cover story called “Fact vs. Faith: A Reporter Investigates the Hot Debate Over Jesus.” Among the points investigated was the factuality of Jesus’ resurrection. In response, many pastors saw fit to use their Easter homilies to redress the article, emphasizing the “literal fact of the resurrection.” But in doing so, they accepted that “factuality” is a suitable category for resurrection faith, thus reducing the “truth” of the resurrection to historically verifiable fact.
And this should concern us as Friends. Theres nothing wrong with bring your friends to worship on Sunday morning, but the real Fact of that matter here is that for Quakers, Easter Sunday happens every Sunday or not at all. The Quaker church, if there ever was one, is an Easter church. We proclaim that Christ Jesus himself is present with us, leading us and guiding us. Therefore we should be less caught up in whether or not the resurrection is a historical fact that happened almost 2000 years ago and be more concerned with whether or not the resurrection is a reality in our lives, and in our world today. Because the fact of the resurrection is a matter of faith that can only be accessed first not through reasoning and impressive philosophical argumentation, but by the real presence of Christ who is with us.
Kari Jo goes on to say:
John’s community believed in the resurrection because they experienced the reconciling spirit of Jesus forging out of previously disparate parties a new community of love. That God can transform hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, when you consider your own capacity to resist loving, is far more amazing than the idea that God can resuscitate a body (why not? God is God).
In other words the reality and experience verify the truth, not the other way around. And this is what is so amazing about what the Gospel of John has to say to us today.
I think there are two versions of seeking or finding truth represented in John 20. One version is captured in the first seen with the awkward back and forth between Peter and the BD. They were out to verify a factual claim, They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.
Mary went and saw that the tomb stone was moved and said Look somebody has tampered with the body.
This is why upon arriving at the tomb Peter and the BD see and believe, all the while the next line in the passage says they didnt yet understand or get it that Jesus was actually going to be raised from the dead.
They saw and believed the facts. They verified Marys initial story that Jesus body had been stolen.
We might say that this first scene addresses the first of our two Lenten queries: Who is Christ?
Then theres a second seen. Like a documentary that starts out further in the community and slowly works its way into the central character the Gospel of John turns the camera to focus upon Mary, and Marys experience. It begins with a woman who weeps with a deep longing and despair. Not only had her friend, her master and teacher, been wrongfully executed by the Roman empire, but some grave-digger stole his body (or so she thought). And then through a serious of events, first mistaking God for a Gardener (or it is really mistaking him at all?), she is witness to resurrection. In other words, the camera turns its focus and zooms in on Mary, who lingers at the tomb and focuses in on her experience. Her experience of Jesus, The Risen One.
So at a very rudimentary level then these two scenes contrast each other. One is rooted in an eye-witness account, albeit a false one, about what happened to Jesus body, which ultimately tells us that they still misunderstood who Jesus was and said he would be. The men were out to get the facts, to verify the truth about Jesus body, and the story they came back with was misleading and based only in what they could rationally explain.
If youre your looking for the wrong thing, youre bound to go home empty-handed.
This is juxtaposed to Marys account, her experience of Jesus, the Risen One. You dont need explanations and facts when you experience the Risen Christ calling your name. When you witness resurrection you dont need someone to explain to you the details of that experience you need someone to help attend to the truth of the experience.
In other words, it is looking at What Canst Thou Say?
But lest we fault the first group, lets look take a look from their perspective for a moment.
We are told that it is dark on the first morning. Mary runs back, were not sure to who or to where, but she runs back after seeing that what they had feared had seemingly happened. Someone stole Jesus body. Two men go running, Peter and the BD. There are no other disciples in this scene, no one else on stage except for Mary, Peter and the BD. Now, it seems to me there were a few other folks following Jesus? Why was it that Peter and the BD were the only ones there? Even though they go and they verify the wrong account, isnt it the case that their searching and seeking is a profound sign of love and intention to Jesus? (Esp. when compared with those who are not in the story).
The other thing that happens is this highly choreographed, if someone awkward, stage directions about running, arriving at the tomb, seeing, going in, going in, seeing, and believing. There is a progression that takes place.
The BD arrives first, hes the faster one, has a pair of Nikes. Peter is a little older and out of breath he arrives second. They both ran because they both were deeply concerned. The BD sees, leans over into the tomb but hes a little sketchy on the whole going inside thing. When Peter finally gets there, he goes right into the tomb. He looks around at the wrappings and isnt sure what to make of it. Then after all this the BD goes in as well and it says he saw and believed.
Wow, that was kind of awkward. It reminds me of a few JR High dances Ive been to. And in this kind of awkward way, Peter and the BD are actually rather helpful for us when we think about what it means to seek God out.
Our own seeking, our own groping for God is often awkward, done in the dark and despairing times in our lives, and can often be misguided. And while we can grope and search in the dark for God, what matters most is that they are actually seeking, they are looking. Mary, Peter and the BD are all there. Thats what matters. It doesnt matter that they dont get it right the first time around. It doesnt matter that they misunderstand the whole thing. The message still gets to them, they still find something!
And so this is important for us to remember. This is why we dont have to be ashamed to not have all the answers, or to have any answers, this is why its okay to have a mixed up history of trying to find God, this is why its okay that some of you keep coming back to our group here and saying youve learned something new about God. We are all groping in the dark. But what matters most is that we keep showing up, we keep seeking, and we put intention behind it.
(A lot of us need to hear this.)
Then our camera crew cuts to the next scene in our documentary. The men went home. They are a not very much like me when I go to look for something. When I lose something, just ask Emily, I keep looking for it until it is found. I am serious, I get ridiculously obsessed about it too. Everything else stops. I am kind of like that though. I get fixed on something and cant stop until its done, until its found.
Mary was like this. The men went home, but Mary lingered. And she wept.
If Jesus wept is meant to grab our attention so is Mary stood weeping. I mean what would you do in this situation. I imagine Mary leaning against with her back against the tomb, head in hands, and sobbing. Mary was filled with despair and loss. Not only was Jesus committed to die a wrongful death, but it would have been embarrassing to have a religious teacher, who taught love, to be convicted of and given the capital punishment reserved for insurrectionists, and then to top that off, to add insult to injury, all the promises he made seem to have collapsed before their very eyes, and then someone made off with the body.
This is a bleak ending to a rather provocative life.
The tears rolling down from her eyes signify to me something rather profound. As she sat there and wept, she died to that old story, the expectations of who she thought Jesus was, who she wanted him to be, she died to her own beliefs and faith. The tears symbolize her the mud on her eyes washing away her blindness (John 9).
In the same way that the men were looking for the wrong thing and so therefore went home empty handed, Mary lingered and wept, and because she wept, her blindness was washed away. She had to first let go of what it was she thought she believed, in order to make room for something new to occur.
Before Mary turns, before she can have her eyes opened to see Jesus, the Risen One, she must first weep.
Richard Rohr says:
Weeping, which stands for a solidarity with the pain of loss and despair and broken-heartedness in our world, is essential to our own ability to experience God.
Syrian Fathers Rpharim and Simeon had a theology that was much more localized in the body rather than the head like the Greek Fathers. Saint Ephraim goes so far as to say until you have cried you dont know God! (Rohr 133-34)
As we continue to look for who is Jesus and what we can say about him, we must recognize that there is something in us that needs to be broken. Early Quakers talked about the soil of our hearts being tilled up (thats my paraphrase). The work for us, through Lent and into the rest of this year is to enter into this kind of solidarity with the pain of loss and despair and broken-heartendness, the absence of God, that Mary feels as she leans back, curled up against the empty tomb. Otherwise, how will we ever turn around to recognize Christ and become something new.
This is the problem with facts, with getting into arguments about who God is, about waiting to be right, it has so little to do with us dying to ourselves, and a lot more to do with our own self-protection. This mode of existence keeps God at arms length. We never become vulnerable to the Risen One or truly open ourselves up to turning.
Some of you are in this place of weeping and despair. Some of you are having the ground soil of your hearts tilled up. Will you allow Christ who loves us, who is in fact truly a Gardner, to plant new seeds, or with the soil lie become settled again?
George Fox wrote in his Journal Thou, Lord, makest a fruitful field a barren wilderness, and a barren wilderness a fruitful field; thou bringest down and settest up… (10)
Turning and naming
This second scene starts with a weeping woman. She thinks all is lost. She is surrounded by darkness and death. She may think this is in fact the end. Maybe shes even afraid for her own life?
And then something happens. A major shift in the story takes place. The text says twice that she turns around. Thats odd. Because typically you can only turn around once to face someone, if you turn around again well, youre facing the other direction again.
But this turning around is key.
First, she mistakes Jesus for a gardener. How often do we fail to recognize God when hes right in front of us? And were not told why she doesnt know who it is, but we are told that she doesnt realize it is Jesus until he speaks and says her name, Mary.
In John chapter 10 Jesus, talking about the good shepherd said, He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.
Leads them out of what? Out of death into new life. Into the reality, the experience of resurrection. The Good Shepherd, Jesus, calls this weeping woman by name and says Mary Let me lead you out of death, out of this old story, into a new reality. In a word he says, Let me give you new life, let me renew you.
And here is the crux for me this Easter. The resurrection is less about keeping facts, and more about a new reality. Either Jesus, the Risen one is truly raised and is therefore present now, where two or more have gathered or not. Resurrection is about groping, weeping, and turning and then hearing our names called.
Resurrection is about making all things new.
Resurrection is about taking those who are stuck in death and despair, those who are deeply suffering, those who have lost their way, and in solidarity with them, leading them out.
Resurrection is about renewal.
It is about believing that death never has the final say.
And that God is not done with us yet.
Jesus said to her, Mary!
In 1652 there was another seeker. Another person who in his own awkward groping, and through much agony and weeping, George Fox, one of early founders of the Quaker church, when he was only 23 had his blindness, like Mary, washed away:
And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition”; and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.
And then Jesus said to him, George Fox!
Christ Jesus, the Risen One, can speak to our condition. And we know this through experience, we know this because we have heard our names called out.
Thus the resurrection is about calling each of our names, calling us and leading us out of death and into life.
It is Gods way of saying I am not done with you yet. For some of us, God may barely have just begun! Resurrection is Gods way of saying, do not give up, do not lose hope, I can make the barren wilderness fruitful, I am making all things new.
This is why I love resurrection. Because I love to see and hear how God is making things new in each of your lives. I like seeing how and in what ways God is not finished with us. How God re-purposes us and renews us.
Because there is resurrection Camas Friends, God is not done with you yet.
And this is true for each and everyone of you in this room.
Whether you find yourself groping in the darkness, whether youve returned home and lost hope, whether you are leaning against an empty tomb weeping, feeling your own loss and despair, or in solidarity with the loss and despair of the world, and even if you are like Mary and still do not recognize Jesus standing in front of you, may you hear that your name is being called. That Jesus, the Risen One, wishes to renew all things, and is not done with you.
May you experience the reality of resurrection and may you participate in resurrection all around you. May you find renewal and be led out.