John 20: 14 – 20
14 When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
You’ve probably heard it said that you shouldn’t go to the grocery store when you’re hungry.
Well, it’s probably also true that you shouldn’t preach when you’re mad.
But just like I break the grocery store rule all the time, I’m about to break the preaching rule too. Because I am mad today. And broken hearted. And really, if we’re NOT preaching mad and broken-hearted a good deal of the time these days, we just aren’t paying attention. And we sure aren’t following Jesus.
How is it possible – HOW is it POSSIBLE – that I’m standing in this pulpit again, after another mass shooting? I’ve preached the Sunday after Sandy Hook. And the Sunday after Charleston. I’ve stood at the communion table, or led you in prayer, the Sunday after the Pulse nightclub shooting, the Sunday after the Tree of Life Synagogue murders, the Sunday after the shooting at the mosque in Christchurch, last week after the bombing of the Easter services in Sri Lanka, and now after the synagogue in San Diego.
I am mad, and I am broken-hearted, because here we are again.
I was already writing this sermon a little bit mad, and a little bit broken hearted because I want more for us that to forget already that it wasn’t just Easter last Sunday … it is still Easter. But we heard the choir sing, and maybe remember something the preacher said, but that was all the way back on Sunday and we have moved on. And that’s a little heart-breaking.
And I was already a little bit broken hearted because as I read and selected a scripture for this morning, this first Sunday after Easter, I noticed again that – again – a woman had a story to tell and no one listened to her. And we can show the cartoon again from last week:
‘So ladies, thanks for being the first to witness and report the resurrection, and we’ll take it from here.’
And we remember that it got a big laugh last week. And I can tell you that as that cartoon made its way around social media in the week leading up to Easter, my male colleagues of all stripes shared it with a ‘Hey, y’all, this might be us.’ lightness … and my female colleagues shared it with much heavier hearts, for all of the times it’s ever been true. Which is – still – almost all the time. Which is a story we keep trying to tell, and we wonder if anyone is listening.
And as I look at the text today, and heard it just now, amid the echoes of the white supremacist gunshots that rang out less than 24 hours ago in a synagogue community gathered at Passover, my heart breaks over five words in this scripture: “for fear of the Jews”. The doors to the place where the disciples had gathered was locked for fear of the Jews.
This is where my Bible 101 scholars will recall that translation is tricky … and troublesome. Our English translations have often used ‘the Jews’ right here, when what we mean is the very small and select group of religious and political, temple and government, authorities of the day, who were terrified of and therefore threatened by the work and the very presence of Jesus in the world. But we have said ‘the Jews’ were out to get the followers of Jesus. And we forget that the disciples were – that Jesus was – Jewish in the first place. And we have let that fear remain our translation, in big ways.
We have let our fear cloud our faith. And we HAVE to say that out loud. We have let our fear cloud our faith. We have let our fear hold us back. We have let our fear lead our leaders. We have let our fear shape our children. We have let our fear govern our policymaking. We have let our fear cloud our faith, and have its way, and here we are again.
We have to call a thing what it is – we have to name the fear, we have to name the sin of hatred, the sin of racism, the sin of anti-Semitism, the sin of white supremacy. We have to name the fear that is clouding our faith, so that we can reclaim our faith’s power, and put that power – and our trust – in the right place.
* * * * *
And so here we are, stepping into Eastertide … the cross is still draped in white and gold, in this season that moves us from the empty tomb at Easter all the way to the Spirit’s fire at Pentecost … here we are taking the time to hear a bit about the resurrection again. That IS the idea of the Lord’s Day after all – each Sunday is to be a mini-Easter, a small repeat and re-enactment of the story, the wonder, the meaning of a Savior’s power over death. Each Sunday, we are to remember that Christ is not on the cross, Christ is not in the tomb, Christ is Risen. Risen indeed!
Here is Mary Magdalene, in the garden, discovering and proclaiming that very thing. While it was still dark, arriving at the tomb, finding it empty, Mary is convinced that the body of her Lord, this one she loves, has been stolen. What other answer could there be?
And with his first words to her, Jesus repeats the words he had actually used in calling the first disciples (earlier in this same gospel; cf 1:38): Who are you looking for? For the writer of this gospel, a primary task of discipleship is simply looking for Jesus. Who are you looking for? Come and see, he says to the first followers. Mary, it’s me, he says to her in the garden.
That’s all it takes. She is lost, crying, afraid … and then this man she has mistaken for the gardener calls her by name. Mary. And that is when she knows it’s him. That’s all it takes. As in an earlier chapter of John, the shepherd knows the sheep, and the sheep know the shepherd’s voice: Being known by her Lord, Mary is fully known. Period.
When we call something what it is … when we name it, we reclaim it. Jesus names Mary, and she is his again. Through her tears, her grief, her fear … he calls her name, and she is his. As the late Dr Gail O’Day pointed out:
All four Gospels agree on one vital detail about Easter morning: in the early morning hours, when it was still dark, women went to Jesus’ tomb. The specifics of that early morning visit vary from Gospel to Gospel [how many women were at the tomb, who greeted them at the tomb, how they responded to what they saw and heard], but the presence of the women is a constant. As with the women’s vigil at Jesus’ crucifixion, the tradition does not speculate about this further display of faithfulness by the women. It simply accepts it as an essential part of the story of the resurrection.
When we call something what it is, we claim its power and that power can change the world.
Mary discovers the Risen Christ, and following his instruction, goes to tell the disciples. This very first preacher, Mary, says ‘I have seen the Lord!’ An entire sermon in five words. ‘I have seen the Lord!’ She takes her place in the story – I have seen – and she calls him who he is, and acknowledges the power he has shown – I have seen the Lord.
And then? Nothing. There is no recorded response from the disciples. Huh.
They need Jesus to actually show up – this mysterious thing where Jesus came and stood among them. And they see his hands and his side. And THEN they rejoiced when they saw the Lord.
Dr Karoline Lewis jumps past today’s passage and points to the end of this gospel to show how important this personal aspect is in the gospel of John:
“But these are written so that you may believe…”
[These words in the final verses] are a summary of the purpose of scripture, the purpose of preaching, the purpose of Easter preaching. Not written for your information, not written for your understanding, not written to affirm or build up your theological house of cards. No — so that you may believe….
Belief in John is never a noun, but always a verb, and believing in Jesus is to be in relationship with Jesus. …
the believing is not creedal but relational.
Resurrection preaching is this kind of preaching; preaching that doesn’t have as its goal the guarantee of life after death; preaching that doesn’t try to convince people to confess that which is, if we are honest, rather un-confessable; preaching that doesn’t insist on some “done deal” by God; but preaching that promises a relationship with God that not even death can bring to an end.
Our lives exist in, are known through, and defined by broken relationships.
So when we are where we are … when we have let our fear cloud our faith … when we are sitting mad and broken-hearted … Jesus asks Who are you looking for? Jesus calls us by name. Jesus comes and stands among us.
At Good Friday, we sing ‘Were You There?’ –
when they crucified my Lord, when they nailed him to the tree,
when they pierced him in the side, when they heard his mother’s cry,
when they laid him in the tomb,
were you there.
And here we are a week after Easter, a week after music and preaching and overflow crowds, and we already have to ask WERE you there? WERE you? And if you were … would anyone else know?
We have to call a thing what it is.
We have to pay attention to who’s where.
We have to put the power in the right place.
We have to name and reclaim what fear wants to take away from us.
If we were there at Easter, can anyone really tell?
Are we more willing to listen – to others, to our neighbors, to women, to people of color, to those of other faiths – when they say ‘This is what happened to me.’ If we were there at Easter, are we more willing to listen because of it?
Are we more able to care – for the one we don’t understand, the one we don’t agree with, the one who can’t give us anything in return. If we were there at Easter, are we more able to care because of it?
Are we more committed to the work of the gospel – the good news, for all people, without reservation, with full hope, with willing hands, with grateful hearts? If we were there at Easter, are we more committed to the work of the gospel, even once the flowers and choirs and overflows of Easter have passed?
Dr Lisa Davison, a frequent teacher and good friend of this congregation, offered this always-timely word again this year:
Jesus’ influence on the lives of his followers was so powerful that, even after his death, it continued to be palpable. Whenever they gathered together and remembered what he had taught them, it was as if Jesus was there with them. It was those experiences that confirmed for them that their lives had been changed and they could not return to where they were before meeting Jesus. This new understanding transformed those ordinary, cowardly, often bumbling first apostles into eloquent preachers, risking their lives, and doing extraordinary acts. They proclaimed boldly that there was hope in the tombs of despair. With their words and actions, they made it known that those who believed they had silenced Jesus’ radical message of inclusivity were wrong, that love was stronger than hatred, and that God’s “yes” to life was louder than humanity’s “no”.
The resurrection experiences of the early disciples caused them to say, “Jesus lives!” That is what is at the root of Christianity, not apparitions, empty tombs, or resuscitated bodies. In the days, weeks, and years after that first morning, the followers of Jesus struggled to find words to articulate what they were experiencing. They began to say that Jesus was alive again in the world, and in a very real way, he was. He was alive inside those who had experienced Jesus as a call into new life, even a new way of being. Mary Magdalene, Peter, Thomas, and that first core of believers walked into a life of empowering resurrection.
We are most like those first believers, when we realize that the power of the resurrection is more about life than the afterlife; when we gain the courage to act in ways that create the possibilities for resurrection in the lives of others and in our own. We keep Jesus alive in our words and actions as we live in ways that reveal to all the world the Gospel of God’s love.
You shouldn’t grocery shop hungry. And you shouldn’t preach mad.
But if we were there at Easter, then we believe – we know – we hear our names and we are in the very presence of the living Christ … if we were there at Easter, then we know that Jesus takes our mad, takes our broken-hearted, takes all of who we are, calls it by name, and reclaims it as his own, giving us the power that can only be found in relationship with him.
Rev Dr Emilie Townes, currently dean at Vanderbilt Divinity School, says that naming our sin, confronting what is wrong, and pursuing true faithfulness
… requires that we be willing to confront – to face together. To take the risk of learning about the weak spots and places we need to work on as well as the riches within us … to face our own lack of understanding, the stereotypes we have within us, our unwillingness to change, our comfort with the status quo. It also means that we draw on our faith, the ability we have to hope, our unwillingness to let go of loving, and our accepting responsibility to do justice. … We are the harvest, we are each other’s tomorrows, todays, and yesterdays.
If we were here at Easter, we know that in claiming the tradition of those who were first to see, to hear, and to proclaim: in each service last week, women were asked to read the gospel story – the good news of the resurrection.
If we were here today, we heard in this sermon only women scholars and preachers quoted for their insights and wisdom.
WERE you there, when we found the empty tomb?
Will it matter?
Mary of Magdala has said, ‘I have seen the Lord!’
The question remains: Have we?
 Gail O’Day, The Women’s Bible Commentary (Newsom & Ringe, eds.; Westminster/John Knox 1992), p300-301.
 Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, ‘Resurrection is Relationship’, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4576, March 27 2016.
 Lisa Davison, from a Facebook post 4-23-19, originally 4-23-17, referencing one of her own earlier sermons.
 Emilie R. Townes, originally in Violence against Women and Children: A Christian Theological Sourcebook, ‘Washed in the Grace of God,’ (Continuum, 1995), p61, cited in Religion Women Revolution (Alvaro & Messina, eds; publisher year), p5.
 In addition to the scholars and preachers quoted/cited, I am indebted for broader understanding and inspiration: Nyasha Junior (An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation); Alyce McKenzie (‘Locked In and Locked Out’, on patheos.com Progressive Christian page); and Amy-Jill Levine (The Jewish Annotated New Testament).