He is risen! Happy Easter, and all that. I don’t usually post my sermons in the blog. For one thing, I don’t always write them out in manuscript form; and for another, a good sermon loses something in translation from the pulpit to the screen. Also, I tend to write in a conversational style (think incomplete sentences), so even my manuscripts don’t really read like polished term papers.
That said–this is a timely message that the Church in general–and some folks in particular–need to hear right about now. And, let’s face it…I’m beat. I’m probably not going to write much else this week.
And, lest we forget…It’s still Easter.
A woman walked into a trendy, A-list, Hollywood restaurant. It was Saturday night, so there was a line. A long, long line, with a 2-hour wait. Annoyed, she jostled and nudged her way to the front. As she went along, people recognized her, turned to watch. A rippling murmur went through the crowd. “Is that really her?” some said. “Think she’d give us an autograph?” wondered others. At last, she reached the hostess stand. “Table for 8 please,” she said, loud enough for the whole room to hear. The hostess, perplexed, looked at her and said “Can I get your name please?” And sensing that she might, perhaps, have to wait, just like everyone else, the woman drew herself up and said… Don’t you know who I am?
A man wove his way from the hotel ballroom to the valet stand. The attendant raised an eyebrow…but it was not really his job to intervene—especially at an event like tonight’s, full of Washington’s elite—so he handed over the keys, accepted the stingy tip, and walked away. Meanwhile, the man pulled out into traffic. It had been a long night of politicking, hand-shaking, fake smiles and promises soon to be broken. Perhaps he’d taken a few too many ‘shots of courage’ to take the edge off. But he just wanted to go home. Before long, he saw the flashing blue lights in his rearview. He pulled over, rolled down the window, and put on his best ‘I’m Somebody’ face. The officer approached and said, “sir, I need you to step out of the vehicle and take a walk down this yellow line with me.” To which the man replied, Don’t you know who I am?
(side note: I would never have used this next section in a KY pulpit. Too soon, too soon…But in AZ, it is not such a gaping wound…)
The reigning kings of college basketball ran onto the court. They were greeted by shouts, chants, singing; cheerleaders, flipping and flying impossibly high into the air; a frenzied sea of bright blue waving, jumping up and down in loud, frenzied, joyful expectation. Perhaps it had not been their best year. But they had only to beat this one little team, this nothing, barely ranked team…then, it would be tournament time, and their history, their fan base, and sheer good luck would carry them back to their rightful place at the top. But then—with a big, blue, bang—the season ended, the tournament began, and they weren’t even in it. They weren’t even in the game. And in great disbelief, they looked around—the players, the coaches, the fans, the University machine—they looked around and said, Don’t you know who we are??
Read John 20:1-18…
So much depth, so many layers, and lively images in this story…and for all the power of this moment in the biblical narrative, inquiring minds still want to know…”Who is this unnamed disciple?” Why did Jesus love him, especially? Wait…was it even a ‘him?’ There are no gender-specific pronouns in play here…Who was this beloved disciple, and why, in this critical gospel moment (and at 4 other times in John’s gospel), is there no identifying quality to reveal his—or her—face?
Scholars and preachers have speculated for years. Some say it is John the Evangelist—who may or may not also be the author of this gospel. Some say it is Lazarus, or perhaps Mary Magdalene. Others, from a more creative or philosophical perspective, have said that perhaps this unnamed, beloved disciple is meant to be…well, us. We who would read this story, a few thousand years later, and arrive breathless at the tomb, on this very morning.
I don’t know who this guy is, or why Jesus loved him enough for John to mention it no less than 5 times. But on this particular morning, what I’m really wondering about—more than the name or the face—what I’m really wondering is, what made him run?
Scripture reveals that this mystery disciple got out ahead of Peter, and beat him to the tomb. This person whose name we do not even know was the first to arrive at the mouth of the cave, and find it opened…and empty. What made him run? Did he perhaps have better shoes than Peter? Nike lace-up gladiator sandals? Was he younger, more fit? Had he heard an urgency in Mary’s report that urged him ahead?
Perhaps even more compelling than his speed, is the fact that he reached the tomb first, but did not go in. You can almost picture this disciple, rushing up to the mouth of the cave and then stopping abruptly. He sees the impossibly heavy stone, rolled away; the wrappings on the floor; senses the emptiness within; and pulls up short. Meanwhile, Peter races past and enters the near darkness.
What made him run, and what made him stop? We can’t speak with academic certainty on either point—any more than we can identify the long sought-after disciple. But we can wonder, and we can imagine. We can even guess, based on our own experience of seeking Jesus in the darkness. And here is what I know to be true: The unnamed, the ‘other,’ the outsiders and the otherwise unloved…they seek salvation with a far greater urgency than those who are ‘inside,’ comfortable, and all around acceptable.
Those who must fight for a place at the table, run toward the grace and mercy of God as if compelled by an outside force. And upon finding it, they run with just as much urgency to share, to tell, to extend that grace and good news to others. While those who have always been on the ‘inside’ of faith and community—well, sometimes, we forget to run. We forget to rush, breathless, into the brightness of this morning; we fail to take in the magnitude of this new emptiness; a barren tomb and some forlorn strips of cloth, where before there was only death and darkness. What have we to seek, when all is light and trumpet fanfare and Easter bunnies? What’s to run for? Worship’s at 11, right? We’ve got time for a quick cup of coffee even…
The ones whose names and faces have blurred into the periphery—they will beat us to the miracle every single time. Compelled by need and longing, they make haste where we might take our time. They arrive, in breathless anticipation, whereas sometimes…sometimes we show up when it’s time for service to start, and take the place that we already know is ours.
I wonder if that is why the unnamed disciple came up short at the mouth of the cave…was Peter, perhaps, arriving behind him saying ‘wait, wait… Don’t you know who I am? Jesus said it was me… I am the rock. I am the foundation for what happens next. I should go first.’ And so, in a moment’s hesitation, that servant with no face or name held back…perhaps this moment, this gift of new life, was not for him after all.
Again, I’m just imagining here. But something—something held that really fast disciple back at the door. Maybe he was just afraid, or maybe he needed to catch his breath, or maybe his sandal strap broke. But something held him back. And as we show up here, in all the beauty and sunshine of this Easter moment today, we have to ask ourselves…who is hanging back at our doorway? And what can we do to usher them on in?
We are an open and affirming congregation. We welcome all people, regardless of where they’ve been, whom they love, what doubts they may have, or whatever nameless brokenness might plague them. But not all of our neighbors have heard that invitation, and even among those who hear…not all will trust it. For far too many, who have been hurt by a message of hate, exclusion, fear, judgment and shame…Well, this wide open table and the miracle of hospitality—it just seems a little too good to be true. If you’ve heard the gospel of death for long enough, you might just stop short at the open door. You might not believe this gift of life is really for you.
The sooner we learn to embrace our own nameless, faceless brokenness–in all hope and humility–the more we will rush to greet the wonder of the risen savior; the more ready we will be to let God do a new thing in us, in this desert springtime; and the greater our urgency will be in sending that good news of grace out into the world.
We have been invited to take part in this story; a live, and active part. We have witnessed the joy of the empty grave. This is not the day to get comfortable in the safety of our salvation. This is not the time to rest in the relative security of our growing congregation, in our beautiful sanctuary; to tell the glad story and then go home for a nap… Well, maybe a little one. I’m not going to lie, there is a nap in my (not too distant) future. But broadly speaking; in the Easter story, those who arrive first, those on the ‘inside’ of mercy, are compelled to move with a great urgency, to share the good news with a waiting world. In the name of the risen savior—who knows us, and calls us by name—we welcome the unidentified, longing souls who linger outside the door, just waiting for the right moment to enter the miracle.
It was Friday. Suffering hung in the air, alongside the black cloud cover rolling in from the west. The faithful few lingered at the foot of the cross, as their beloved friend and teacher uttered a few last words. They murmured prayers into the darkness, doubtful that any god would hear them. Without really seeing, they sensed Death approaching; an uninvited guest to their vigil. He moved in closer to the sacred head, as Jesus uttered these words: “Father, into thy hands, I commit my spirit.” And Death, breathing down heavy now, whispered in Jesus’ ear…”Don’t you know who I am?” And Jesus said, “Yes…but you won’t have me.”
And with that, everything turned upside down. And out of the darkness came a sudden flash of light. And where all had been death, there was life with new wings. And those who had been without a name, without a face, without an advocate or a savior, were ushered into the glory of God’s presence.
And those who had plenty, who had a seat at the table, those with names and faces and no cause to run—turned and opened the door for the waiting masses.
This week, the disciples at First Christian Church in Harrisonville, Missouri, let go their tradition of buying Easter lilies to honor the memory of their loved ones…and instead used the time and resources to make ‘new life bags’ for the women of a local domestic violence shelter. The bags are full of things like toiletries and cleaning supplies and fresh linens—and each woman to leave that shelter will receive one of these gift. It will be a sure sign of grace and hope as she moves out of the shadows of violence, and into new life.
This week, a franschise owner of Chic-fila—a company recently under fire for its intolerance of LGBT folks—gave free meals to some gay rights activists in his neighborhood, who were demonstrating for marriage equality near the restaurant.
This week, the new Pope gathered with the faithful on Holy Thursday for a foot-washing service. But unlike his predecessors, this new Pope washed the feet of a woman. Who was also a Muslim. Who was also a prisoner.
And the battered women/the Gay rights activists/ the Muslim prisoner—approached the miracle of grace together and said, Don’t you know who we are? And the Church said, “yes. You are the face, the hands, the feet of Christ.”
And meanwhile…Meanwhile, Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look inside. And the angels asked her why she was weeping, and she said—‘because I had no name. I had no face, no voice. And someone saw me, and called me by name, and asked me to follow him; and I was changed. And now he is dead. Not only dead…he is gone, and I don’t know where they’ve taken him.’
Then Mary turned from the tomb and saw a man standing behind her. And thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Have you done something with the broken body that we laid here to rest?” And the man reached out his hand, and called her by name, and said “Mary…Don’t you know who I am?”