Transcribed from the sermon preached April 20, 2014
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Ps 139:1-12 , Rom 8: 31-35, 37-39, John 20:1-18
Went St. John’s group was in Israel, we stopped at the Mount of Olives, overlooking the old city of Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives is a huge graveyard, a very popular and expensive graveyard for Jews who believe when the messiah comes, that group buried there will be the first to be resurrected. They had a few ancient tombs and tombstones for observations. I had always pictured the tomb and stone to be big, an American, New Orleans style tomb with a big giant stone. I guess since we here that Peter goes into the tomb, I pictured him just walking right in. Apparently there were some larger tombs for families, but most were quite small, not much bigger than the size that would fit a body. And John says as Mary was bent over weeping, she looked inside. The stones are cut thin, kind of like a big stepping stone you might see in a garden. An average strong guy could roll the stone away.
Mary came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been moved away. As you might imagine, she didn’t feel like looking into the dark tomb by herself, so she ran back and told the disciples. Peter, says John, and the other disciple, the one who Jesus loved, ran to the tomb. There is a bit of tortus and the hair here, as the beloved disciple runs faster and beats Peter to the tomb. He bends down to look in and sees the clothes are inside. But when Peter gets there he crawls inside for a closer look.
This unnamed disciple is an interesting literary device for John. We find ourselves asking, who is this guy? Also, it is easier for us to think it is us, to imagine ourselves in that role. As important as positive role models are for specific categories of people, I don’t know about you, but I tend to identify with characters, regardless of what they look like. I love Westerns so I had to see Django Unchained. An African American friend said that the German character gave white people someone to identify with. I liked the German character, and the actor did an amazing job, and I did identify with him, but I also identified with Django, or at least wanted to. I am not sure I would have that much love, courage or skill, but I want to, and I would hope that someone would. I identify with Cinderella, as does every man who likes college basketball, and with Thema and Luise, and Dorothy of the Wizard of OZ, though I also identify with the scarecrow. My top real life heroes are Jesus, a Mediteranean Jew, Martin Luther king Jr. Gandhi, and Indian, Sojourner Truth, Romero, and Mother Teresa; none of them are white men. I also like and identify with Abe Lincoln, George Washington, and My father. My brother Doug and my other Texas cowboy family members have been my role models too. You won’t see these guys in psychotherapy, you won’t hear them whine or make excuses. They are cowboys and farmers who have that tough man, put in an honest, hard days work, use your brain, be a gentleman to the ladies, let your yes be yes and your no be no, enjoy simple pleasures of life… the American man personality.
Most of these folks are above me, and while I might aspire to be like them, I know myself well enough to know not quite. But knowing myself, knowing I am a sinner, prone to doubt, likely to lash out in anger or run away or give up when the going gets tough, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I am not Jesus. There are times I would like to think I am like Jesus, the powerful sacrificial lamb that is sad for everybody, but that is probably due more often to my sinful desire to be great than to be God’s servant, full of joy and peace. So in this story we get to identify with Peter, or Mary, or the beloved disciple. The beloved unnamed without a face or story, allows us to identify with him, to place ourselves in his shoes, out sprinting Peter to the tomb.
Sometimes it is enough to be with someone. We don’t have to be them, but they rub off on us nonetheless. Sometimes highly gifted people are too self absorbed, or arrogant, or they are concerned about making a name for themselves, concerned with rubbing elbows with the kind of people who will help them get even more famous or successful. Some are good enough people, but they are not just people persons. They do great work and make a great contribution to society, but they just don’t have much time for others. A lot of academics and doctors are this way; they make their contributions to research, they treat your symptom or disease well enough, and we are grateful. You may be changed by their work, but not by their person, not by their relationship with you, not by how they sound when they call your name. There are certain people who are good to be around because of their position, of how they may enable us to advance in our career. There is nothing necessarily wrong with that. If you want to grow up and be a fireman, it is probably a good idea to find a fireman to befriend.
But then there are other people who we want to be around not so much because they will advance our career, but because they are great people, and they have the ability to not only make us feel welcome, but to give us faith in ourselves, in humanity, and they challenge us to be who God created us to be. Jesus is this guy. And it doesn’t matter who we are, he is so centered in his own being, that whether we are a doctor or unemployed, a king or a peasant he is not threatened or overwhelmed, he is not derailed from his path, from who he is. He is so tapped into the Spirit of God that he and the Spirit are one, he and God are one. We feel better about ourselves in his presence. He doesn’t threaten us or judge us, but simply by being who he is are around us he raises our self-esteem, raise our will to drop those thoughts and behaviors that may drag us and others down, and lifts us up to help others and make the world a better place.
I remember after Mother Teresa died I watched a TV special on her life. At one point they had a sequence where they showed all the famous people who had met her. It was very interesting to watch the facial expressions of these famous people, presidents, kings, queens, movie stars and the pope all knew there was something truly special about this little lady, and you could see it on their faces. In one scene, the Pope reached out his hand to bless her. He lifted his hand from her slightly, and then I could see a look on his face change, as if to say, I am in the presence of someone who embodies the Spirit of God, and he reached out to touch her again, as if the blessing was going the other direction, from her to him. With no position of power, Teresa had a power they knew wasn’t assigned by men. Just by being in her presence, they would be challenged to be better people, better leaders. To me, this was testimony to the living Christ.
Jesus increases our desire to live and live life abundantly. So we just want to hang around him. In his presence we feel beloved…Whether we are more or less beloved than others doesn’t matter, just that we know we are his beloved disciple, we are included in his story. And through the story this resurrection morning, we can identify with Peter or Mary, or the beloved disciple, and we get to peer over Mary and Peter’s shoulders to witness the event. And as the reader, having already heard about Mary’s experience, we indeed bolt ahead of Peter, and get to the tomb, back to where Mary left off.
Tradition paints Mary as a sinner, a prostitute, but that is because the unnamed woman of the city who washes Jesus feet in Luke’s Gospel is called a sinner by a Pharisee, and tradition ties this foot washing story in with those where Mary is mentioned in this role. From the Gospels Mary is mentioned twelve times, more than most of the disciples. Luke says Mary was possessed by seven demons. Perhaps it was multiple personality disorder, maybe early childhood trauma that caused her to dissociate or split off. It is possible that as she struggled with this mental illness, she was taken advantage of, had a bad relationship with a man or two. Whatever her status then, whatever her diagnosis would be today in our culture, Jesus changed that. Now her diagnosis was saved, disciple, beloved woman of God. So Mary follows Jesus from down around the sea of Galilee all the way to Jerusalem. Despite her questionable beginning, She is painted as courageous, devoted, helpful, brave enough to stand by Jesus in his hours of suffering, death and beyond. While others with better beginnings and better names betrayed, ran, hid, or denied him, Mary came on strong at the end. What is well testified in the Gospels is that she was there at the crucifixion, and now she is back to find an empty tomb. She is the first one to the tomb on Resurrection Sunday, arriving before sunrise. She is not the first to look in the tomb, but she is the first in all four Gospel accounts, to see Jesus risen. Mary has eyes to see.
Then there is Peter. Clearly a leader among the disciples, he is a fisherman who became a fisher of men. I imagine him as one of those cowboy, famer, fisherman, construction worker manly dudes, the Mark Walberg character in the Perfect Storm. Indeed in the perfect storm on the sea of Galilee, he walks with Jesus a bit, then loses faith and falls. When the guards come to arrest Jesus, he whips out his sword for battle, and cuts off the ear of the high priests slave. But the last we heard from him, he was swearing that he didn’t know Jesus. He loves Jesus, but he would just assume stay out of trouble. He has faith and is tough, but in the perfect storm he doubts and shows fear. That is a tough self-realization for a guy like this. So he is a little angry too. He is disappointed that it had to come to this. He envisioned a nice seat in a new kingdom where gets to help administer power, in a good way for once. He is up for a fight, but Trial, flogging and crucifixion, he would rather not. Peter disagrees with God’s plan. Sometimes he wants to quit the whole thing, just go back to being a fisher of fish. But despite himself he is back, running back. The stone is rolled away, he doesn’t hesitate, but goes in and takes a close look.
Peter, Mary and the beloved disciple are dumfounded and afraid. The two guys return home but Mary, being Mary, once again stays. She is doubled over in grief, weeping, and looked inside the tomb and saw two angels. Why are you weeping they asked. “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” She turns around, sees Jesus, but thinks he is the gardener. Barbara Brown Taylor notes, “Somewhere in this story there is a naked gardener.” Or perhaps Jesus snagged the gardeners change of clothes out of the tool shed. Anyway, however he is dressed, Mary says to him, sir, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.” But then Jesus calls her name. This is the voice that cast away demons and gave her new life. When she heard her name called she felt this new life once again. As she was once dead and now alive, so now the one who had given her new life was once again here before her. Jesus is still calling her name. Jesus is still calling our name, still giving new life. We might mistake him for the graveyard gardener at first, but the voice and presence, so full of love and hope, calling us up and out to be who God created us to be, to rise up above our own sin and the powers of this world to heal and bring peace. This voice is the voice of the Christ, the son of God. And Mary believes in the one she loves, in the one who loves her.
And if we are Peter or the beloved disciple, we know of the empty tomb, but we wait here in our house for the news. And now we hear Mary’s testimony; she has seen and heard, Jesus Christ is risen, He is risen indeed.
But not anymore than we could keep him from going to Jerusalem, from avoiding crucifixion, no more than the powers of the world could eliminate his power by killing him and sticking him in a tomb, we cannot hold him. While he calls our name, while he loves us, while we love him, we cannot capture and keep him to ourselves. We can’t build a church or a nation or an empire around him and trap him. No gender, race, religion or class can hold him. We can’t be sure what he will look like: he may look like the gardener, but we will recognize him in the hope and power we feel when he calls our name. Perhaps he will look like a cowboy or a fisherman, a skinny bald Hindu guy or a little nun in India, or a tall female freed slave sufferjet in America, or maybe he will call to us up from heaven.
Dauod Nassar is a Palestinian Farmer who has suffered attacks in so many ways from so many directions I couldn’t possibly name them all here. Yet I was amazed at his Spirit. I have never actually met Gandhi or King or Mother Teresa. I have known a lot of people who are kind, peaceful and hopeful, and people who work for peace and justice. But I have never known someone under this kind of real pressure display this kind of inner peace and love. I am certain he embodies the Spirit of the risen Christ.
Dauod said there are three usual responses to an oppressive situation like this. First, you can fight out of anger. This is a reasonable human response. There is much to make us angry, but I do not choose this response. Second, we can flee and run away. Or third, we can give up hope and accept the oppression.
But Dauod says, we don’t like those three options, so we create a fourth way. We refuse to hate, we refuse to let anyone make us hate. We refuse to sit down and cry forever, we refuse to be victims, and we are going to walk the talk, to live our faith, and we believe in justice. Justice will prevail. He gives this fourth way the title: “We refuse to be enemies.” He has painted this on a rock at the front of his property, so that when people come to damage or attack his land or person they will see it. As a side note, we ought not be surprised to hear that there are Jews and Israelis supporting his cause. “Our object” he says “is to Overcome evil with good, hatred with love, darkness with light. Easy to say and difficult to live,” but this, says Dauod, is God’s way, “the Christian way of non-violence.” Dauod says “Many people come over here as religious tourists, and they go from one tourist sight to the other looking at old stones, tombs and old buildings where Jesus lived and died, and they try to find him. But he says, “those are dead stones and they cannot hold Christ. The tomb is empty. The Spirit of God is alive. The Spirit of God is alive in you and me.” And yet we cannot keep and hold him to and for ourselves. Perhaps we have been moved to hate and to violence, to cut off the ear of the one who would harm our beloved. Perhaps we have fled in fear like Peter or lay down and wept like Mary. But we are forgiven, we are beloved disciples anyway, called to get up and go out, to spread the good news of God’s love and peace. The tomb is empty. Jesus Christ is risen. He cannot be held by us or a tomb. He is not held inside Judaism or even Christianity. He is not held in the male form or by a particular nation, but shows up in those who heal and love, bring hope and faith, call our name to get up and go out to spread the good news. Jesus Christ is risen, he is risen indeed.