Pastor Lisa Horst Clark
April 1, 2018
John 20: 1 – 18
Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?” “They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”). Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
Children at times have nightmares where in the dark, staring in the corners of the room, they may cry at things unseen: dark corners of worry made real before them. And I know from my own nightmares how real they can seem. What an urgency a dream’s demands can hold: I am there in the halls trying to find a class that has an exam and that somehow I haven’t known I’ve been signed up for and in all of my incessant knocking no one seems to know the answer to where I’m supposed to be. I’m fleeing from a figure, unknown and unseen but present and foreboding, the boogieman of my dreams right behind me. Or perhaps I, in the midst of sleep, picture a loss that is so visceral and real that even asleep my heart is breaking and all is lost. Within my heart and my chest it is a relief to hear a voice calling my name, “Lisa, Lisa, wake up,” in the middle of the night being called from the terrors of slumber into a place of presence and of safety and so, wiping the sleep from my eyes, calls my name, “Lisa, Lisa, wake up.”
And I can’t help but see in Mary’s frantic search for the body that wasn’t where it was supposed to be the frantic search that is answered only by her name, “Mary.” And suddenly the world she has known has changed around her; she has been called by name into a world where her terrors have fled. And so, this Easter let us sit in the place where the nightmares of your life may gather and listen to the words that call us by name and proclaim that the tomb is empty.
Our names are used in many ways. Given to us at birth or taken later in life, they are how someone knows who you are and perhaps how you know how you, yourself, are. We know as well that there are ways a name can be used in ways that are hurtful and cruel. When my spouse, Josh, and I were talking through potential names for our child, along with choosing the ones that we liked or didn’t one of the things we considered was how a name could be used in cruelty, as a taunt. And the answer is, of course, that no name on earth is immune. Kids are creative in their cruelty. Every name can be twisted into something that hurts.
Mary Magdalene was there to see Jesus’ name hung above him on the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” It’s a bit unclear how big the sign is; massive, I suppose, because according to the Gospel of John it is written in three languages: in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek, a multi-lingual sign, inclusive in its oppression, wanting to be sure that you are able to see the name of the one who has been brutally murdered by the state, the title that doubled as his charge, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” written in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek. It was under this name that he breathed his last. It was under this name that his side was pierced to prove his death and it was under this name that his body was removed to lie in the tomb. And I wonder if, after all the journeys had been on following Jesus along this path, if the disciples felt that it was their names as well that were emblazoned on that wall in shame. For was there room on that placard also for “Mary Magdalene, coward and fool” or as the generations would invent for her, a viler name? Mary Magdalene, fool to believe in something, pathetic devotee, pitiable wretched laughing stock to have followed this man so far, to have loved him, to have believed. “Mary Magdalene, fool,” written in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek. She had thought he was the one, the truth, the Messiah. She had thought he was the one to face all of the nameless fears of this world, its cruelty and its fear, its hatred and its indifference, the Messiah to bring a new world of peace. And instead, there his name was in its sneering victory, like a tombstone chiseled, cementing its cynicism that hope will die, that cruelty will reign, that the only currency is power and violence its only truth, written in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek.
They took Jesus’ body from the cross and they put it in the tomb where it lay through the night and the day and a long night through. You know, it’s one of the tricks of grief: for some people when their heart is broken they sleep for a long time, unable to bring themselves from bed in order to face what they know is just going to be a day of pain ahead. For others in grief, it makes their sleep fitful as emotions break through even into the times of rest, replaying scenes in the night and bringing them to the next day far before dawn. Mary Magdalene was up far before the morning broke, while it was still dark, and she went to the only place she knew to go: to the tomb. And yet, when she arrives she finds that the stone has been rolled away. And so for Mary, what she is left with is this question that she would ask again and again that no one would answer for her: “They have taken my Lord out of the tomb and I do not know where they have laid him.” I have this nightmare, and I know it well, where I alone am faced with urgent and terrible news and no one will reply to me. Banging on my subconscious on the windows and doors, trying to dream these dream-filled people with the urgency of the terribleness around me; they never seem to answer.
I’ve been reading Kate Bowler’s memoir who, as a professor at Duke Divinity School, was diagnosed at the age of 35 with Stage 4 Colon Cancer. She is theologically trained on questions of goodness and evil and yet she writes in those first moments and days and months and beyond she had just one mantra: “But I have a son; how can I have this terrible diagnosis? I have a baby boy.” A question she asked again and again and that no one seemed to answer.
And so for Mary, here she is, in the middle of a footrace, before the empty tomb, looking upon the burial shrouds, facing angels and a stranger with a familiar look, and in each face she is overwhelmed by this one thought, this one question, this one concern that takes on all the urgency of grief: “They have taken my Lord and I do now know where they have laid him.” And I believe this is true as I have questions that echo in my heart that no one seems to be able to answer about how can there be children that go hungry in the midst of a world with more than enough? How can violence continue unabated? How can racism continue its cruel inheritance? How can black folks be shot? How can Trans kids be dying? How many #metoos until there are too many? How much greed will be rewarded? How much kindness will be mocked? And how can you face terrible news when there are good folks and you don’t know what to say? And sometimes I look at this country and this world and I say, “How can this be the land I call my home?” I ask these questions and no one seems to answer. And so, sometimes I find myself focused instead on something equally impossible like, does social media have any suggestions for holiday-themed cupcakes? That seems like a question with an answer, substituting perhaps a question that is small in order to dull the brunt of the burdens of this world to distract from the ones that echo without a reply.
In the midst of the questions that Mary asks, “They have taken my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him,” that no one will answer, which seems that no one will care, she repeats again and again to a cruel and heartless world that seeks to make her heartless in their image, she hears instead, her name, “Mary,” and she turns and her eyes are opened and she sees. This is not the name of judgment in the placard above; this is her true name where she is known and named and loved. This is the name as it sounds when spoken with love and rousing to a new world. She hears her name and she turns; she hears her name and sees Jesus risen before her; she hears her name and she wakes up.
It’s a terrible trope of television that someone wakes up to realize that all that came before was just a dream, that maybe it didn’t matter; the stakes weren’t as high as they seemed or it didn’t matter. But this waking up isn’t to negate what was, but to expand it. It’s not that Jesus didn’t die or that he was resuscitated or reanimated; no, it’s that he was resurrected, that in the midst of all of the terrible of the world the worst that we are, the worst that we can do to each other, that God’s love is greater than the worse that can be. She isn’t awoken to a world where there is not crucifixion and cruelty but a world where the power of God is greater. She is awoken to a world where acts of violence lead to shows of love that are bigger and broader and wider. She is awoken to a world where people can change, awoken to a world where addicts can recover, where hatchets of hatred can be buried, where love triumphs over hate. She is awoken to a world that whatever the falsehoods the truth can shine through. Whatever the fears that love proves stronger; whatever the evil it is overcome by the goodness of God. And so she is awoken to a world where death is not the end but the beginning of what God imagined. If what Mary has been asking were questions on how or where: where is this body and how can she find it? The answer she receives is a “who”: God, the holy one, who is already here. Jesus who is risen and who names her as a teacher. To all of the “what” and “how” and “why” we are given a great “who”; we are given a God who is bigger and broader than we can imagine. We are given a God who meets us here in hospital rooms, in the places where we never thought we would be. We are given a God who is here with us and names us as our own. The authorship of our life is not left to the brutalities of our world but to the hands of God that the worst is not the end for God and our name is not best known for its cruel condemnations of the plaque raised. We are best known through the word of God who names us and invites us to turn and share good news.
Being called by your full name can put you in a spotlight in a way that is not always comfortable, as anyone who has had a parent who has used their full name can attest. But we use these names: at birth, to celebrate as we honor the uniqueness and hope that is born in you, at graduations along the way, to mark the transition that you are sent for in a new way. At death we use the full name to say, “This is a soul known and claimed by God and welcomed into life eternal.” At baptism we each are named and known and claimed by God.
And so, as Jesus calls James from his boat, as Jesus called Martha from her worries, as Jesus called Matthew from his complicity and Zacchaeus from his tree, as Jesus called the little girl from her slumber and Lazarus from the tomb, so we hear Jesus calling us each by name to wake up from our fears to our new hope in God and to even further to call one another, to call one another by name into the hope of a new world. For behold, it is Mary who went to the disciples, to Peter, to James, to John, to say, “I have seen the Lord.” Mary, who is named as evangelist comes with a proclamation that will circle the globe, that will circle the world, to proclaim that Christ has risen, that hope lives, that God’s love is greater than the powers of this world in Hebrew and in Latin and in Greek.
And so, I invite you today, whatever the nightmares that are haunting your dreams, to hear your name and God calling you to wake up to the hope that is already in the world. And so, we are invited this Easter to join in an Easter affirmation:
What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through the one who loves us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And let the people say: Amen.
© Copyright. Lisa Horst Clark. 2018. All rights reserved.