The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on John 20:1-18.
Mary turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?”
In that moment, standing outside an empty tomb in the first light of a new morning, Mary’s entire life changed. In that moment her grief was answered, her sorrow was healed, her life became opened to a larger life.
But Mary didn’t know that yet. Jesus was risen and all life was changed, but Mary didn’t recognize him yet, Mary didn’t know it was Jesus, Mary couldn’t see who it was that was asking her not to weep.
What was it that prevented Mary from recognizing Jesus, Jesus standing there, Jesus standing there alive beyond the grave?
I think the first reason Mary couldn’t see him was because she was weeping, her eyes were full of tears, and those tears literally blurred her vision, they clouded what she could see, so that she couldn’t make out the face of the one talking to her. Mary’s perception was so altered by her grief that she literally could not see the Risen One who was right in front of her eyes.
But I think Mary’s inability to recognize Jesus was not just physiological: I think it was psychological as well. Mary couldn’t recognize Jesus because she knew it couldn’t possibly be Jesus talking to her. She knew Jesus was dead, she knew Jesus was gone, she knew the body had been taken – and all these things she thought she knew kept her from seeing the truth that was really there. The truth was that Jesus was risen, the truth was that the power of death had been broken, the truth was that there was more to life beyond the life she knew – but she could not recognize that truth as long as her old expectations still limited what she would allow herself to know. Mary was prevented from recognizing Jesus speaking to her because there was no place in her psyche for that new, unexpected, astonishing truth to connect.
In a moment, Mary’s entire life changed; and yet, for a moment, she did not recognize the reality the Risen One was offering her.
And I wonder how often we are like Mary in that moment. How often are we prevented from recognizing the presence of Jesus with us, how often do we not know the new life the Risen One is offering to us? How often do we let old tears, old griefs, old hurts, old expectations, alter our perceptions and get in the way of knowing the living Jesus inviting us not to weep?
Several years ago I knew someone who had grown up with a really difficult childhood church experience. “Toxic church,” he called it. He said that experience taught him that churches were fundamentalist, and judgmental, and narrow-minded, and generally more interested in condemning other people’s sins than in growing themselves in God’s love. Toxic. So, he said, as soon as he was old enough, he got out of that church, he got out of all church, he got out of the entire God game. But after that, he said, he always felt that something was missing. He craved some kind of higher purpose, some sort of spiritual presence in his life. And though we went looking for it in several places, he never seemed to find the quality of love and justice that he felt he needed. Until he found his way into an Episcopal church. He said he liked what he saw in the service; and he liked what he heard in the sermons; and he liked what he read of the theology. But he had been so hurt by church before: could he trust himself to this new experience? He was looking through the eyes of his old pain, and he wasn’t sure he could see the real presence of God here.
I know a church in Minnesota – actually, St George’s, the church I served before I came here – that was looking for a way to engage its neighborhood. A lot of the parishioners drove in to church on Sundays, and didn’t live right there; so they didn’t really know many of their neighbors. They’d tried various ways to engage the neighborhood, usually some variation of showing up somewhere and saying “We’re from the church, we’re here to help.” But they found a lot of the neighbors didn’t really want church help, they didn’t really trust church stuff, they were afraid church people would try to convert them or take over their lives, and not appreciate them for who they were. So most of their outreach projects failed. So the church folks ended up kind of looking out at the neighborhood, wanting to connect, but seeing only the shadows of their past failures, expecting only that they would fail again.
And how often are we prevented from seeing the presence of Jesus with us? How often do we let old tears, old griefs, old hurts, old expectations, alter our perceptions and get in the way of our knowing the living Jesus inviting us not to weep?
Of course, in the story Mary is not left in her unrecognition for very long. For a moment she fails to see that it is Jesus speaking to her. But then Jesus calls her by name – and in that moment of personal contact, personal connection, personal communion, then she knows him, then she knows that it is Jesus, then she knows that the tomb is empty not because the body has been stolen, but because Jesus has broken the power of death, Jesus has overcome the terror of the grave, Jesus has passed through pain and suffering and sorrow and loss and has taken them up into a life that is larger than they are, a life that is so full of the love of God that nothing, nothing, not even death, can hold that life down. And recognizing Jesus as the Risen One, Mary knows that her life, too, is raised; her life, too, is caught up into a life that is larger than herself; her life, too, is brimming over with new possibilities for living in the power of God’s love.
And I think we can be like Mary in that way, too. We know the reality of resurrection when it touches us in a personal way, when it engages us in a personal communion. Resurrection is just a Bible story, resurrection is just a church doctrine – until it calls us by name, until we have the experience of recognizing the living Christ present in our lives, looking at us through the eyes of another, sharing his eternal love with us.
The man who was looking for a spiritual home got to know some people at his Episcopal church – not just the Sunday mornings and sermons and theology, but the people – and in their friendship he found the opening to the Spirit he’d been looking for. The personal connection made the love of Jesus not just an abstraction, not something held back by a toxic church experience, but something he could feel and share and return himself.
The parish looking to connect with its neighborhood found a way to get out of their “project” mentality, to partner with a community organization and the police department to start a series of “grill nights,” where they would play basketball with the youth at the housing complex, and join with them to cook out a supper meal, and get to know each other on a friendly, neighborly basis. And the more they got to know each other, the more they overcame institutional mistrust and the fear of past failure, and the more they saw the Good News of Jesus living itself out in each other’s lives.
And how does that personal connection with resurrection touch you? How does the Risen One stand beside you in your life, and call you by name right now? Where in your life does grief find itself beginning to give way to joy? Where in you does fear begin to get caught up into courage? Where does confusion become decision? Where do things you already “know” open up into truths that are larger than you had imagined? Where does despair open up into hope? Where do you find yourself brimming with new possibilities for living your life in the power of God’s love? That, for you, is recognizing resurrection.
Mary stood outside the tomb, weeping, her vision blurred by tears – until the Risen Jesus called her by name and helped her see through her tears and touched her with new life. Here, today, in this Easter celebration, Jesus calls you by name, Jesus wipes away your tears, Jesus touches you with new life. Let it be our Easter prayer that we may rejoice in this new life always. Amen. Alleluia!