By Rev. Amy Butler
I begin this morning’s Easter meditation with the immortal words of . . . Calvin and Hobbes.
Calvin: Why do you think we’re here?
Hobbes: ‘Cause we walked here.
Calvin: No, I mean, here on earth.
Hobbes: ‘Cause earth can support life.
Calvin: No, I mean, why do we exist?
Hobbes: ‘Cause we were born.
Calvin: Forget it.
In our Gospel story this morning we see that Mary was facing the same conundrum as Calvin: an eternal, life-altering question for which she could not discern any answer at all. The events of the last few days were unbelievable, and they had flung her life into utter chaos. She was living grief beyond belief, questions far beyond any answers she could see . . . and that morning, all the questions were looming, with no answers anywhere close by.
It all started in the dark.
John tells us it was the first day of the week and it was still dark outside, no hint of dawn at all.
It was a darkness that covered everything—not just a physical darkness, but also an inability to see and understand the Jesus they followed, hidden by the dark, dark events of the last few days.
What could Mary do but return, if only to pick up the pieces of her life and try, squinting through the darkness, to make some sense out of what was left?
She wanted to start there, in the last place she’d seen Jesus, ground zero of whatever life she was going to have to rebuild, all the while desperately wishing for everything just to go back to the way it had been before.
I don’t really blame Mary for returning to the scene, do you?
After an exhausting week and the utter dreadfulness of what had happened, perhaps she’d finally collapsed out of exhaustion and then, a few hours later, while it was still dark, her mind started the questions all over again.
Stretching her aching body and prying open her red, raw eyes, all she could think of was the memory of Friday—the horror of the cross and the urgent rush to prepare Jesus’ body before Sabbath began.
She had to go back.
Not an unreasonable wish. Just a few chapters ago Jesus was a respected teacher whose reputation as a man of wisdom was growing rapidly. The possibilities of everything that could happen for the Jewish people under his leadership were staggering. They were on the brink of revolution—Mary knew it—and she had given up everything to follow. There had to be a way to go back.
She had to go back just in case . . . just in case there was any way to salvage what was, to put things to rights, to just get things back to normal. Stunned and exhausted, Mary went back to the familiar, back to the Savior she’d loved and followed.
What would the future hold? She didn’t know and she wouldn’t even consider it. If only things could return to the way they were.
And so she went to the tomb, early that morning in the dark. Once she got there, though, she could see clearly that the foggy recollection of days just past were real memories, and that, in fact, the nightmare had just gotten worse.
All the care and love the women had put into entombing Jesus’ body had been upset, the stone moved, the seal of the tomb broken, the grave clothes piled there and no body to be found at all. John tells us Mary runs to tell the disciples—this was a serious turn of events, the looting of the grave—and Mary, John tells us, couldn’t stop crying.
She came back and stood at the open tomb, weeping and all alone, grieving the loss of a Savior and, even worse, the loss of everything she knew to be true about her life.
Until two days ago she’d finally known who she was: Mary Magdalene, disciple of Jesus. Now, in the darkness, she didn’t recognize that Mary, the one she’d become since she met Jesus . . . and she couldn’t see through the darkness to know who on earth she was supposed to be now.
And as she stood there, weeping, she met a stranger in the garden. This man must be the gardener, she was certain. He looked at her with compassion—she was obviously distraught—and asked her why she was crying, how he could help her, if there was someone she had lost.
“Yes!” she sobbed. “If you have moved his body for some reason, please, please tell me where you have laid him and I will take his body and care for it. Please help me.”
“Mary.” Her name. That was all he said, but . . . then she knew. She knew. His voice pierced the foggy, befuddled chaos of her brain and she looked up in sudden recognition and said, “My teacher.”
In the moment when Jesus called her name her whole world shifted and she knew in an instant: nothing would ever be the same again.
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In case you don’t know this important truth of the universe, I will tell you: telling strangers that you are a pastor can be a socially devastating move. Especially when you’re at a party.
For some reason, people have preconceived ideas about ministers—I can’t imagine why.
That’s a downside to this profession. But one of the many up-sides is the opportunity I get to hear people’s stories. And, sometimes that happens when they find out what I do for a living. Sometimes at parties, in fact.
I was at my Dad’s 60th birthday party, when I ran into a friend of my sister’s from high school. I knew her back then, you know, but it was only with the helpful introduction of my sister that I really had any clue who she was. “You know,” my sister said in introduction, “Amy is a pastor.”
“Oh, Amy!,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for years to tell you the story of the moment that changed my life!”
Putting on my pastor hat I sat down as she recalled her first semester of high school, when she had been caught cheating on a test and the principal was considering whether or not she should be suspended. Her parents had been called and she was in big trouble. She told me, looking back it wasn’t that big of a deal, but right then it felt like her whole world was falling apart. She said she was seriously thinking about committing suicide, she was so upset.
“Then,” she said, “you saved my life.”
I had no idea what she was talking about, and she was a little surprised. “Don’t you remember?” she asked.
I thought to myself—surely I would remember if I had saved someone’s life?
Seeing my confusion, she told me the rest of the story. “We were standing in line at the water fountain at school. You were behind me in line. When I got to the front and was taking a drink of water, you leaned over to me and said: ‘Come on, you’ve gotta keep on going.’
My sister’s friend looked up at me and then suddenly hugged me, thanking me for saving her life. “That experience, when you came up to tell me to keep going, was a moment that changed my life.”
I could barely remember this person, and I certainly did not remember her cheating on a test or anything vaguely approximating that situation. What I do know is that, when I am standing in a line and I am impatient, I am not above encouraging the person in front of me to hurry up . . . .
Experts say the average human being can cite five experiences over the course of a life that are life-altering. Most of us would list things like falling in love or the birth of a baby. For my sister’s friend it was that moment standing in line at the water fountain.
And I think for Mary Magdalene, this moment in the garden would have to rank up there on the top of her list.
One moment she was in the throes of grief, surrounded by the darkness; the next moment she recognized Jesus, and the light began to dawn.
It’s a strange interaction, if you think about it. I know Mary was tired and emotionally drained, but don’t you think she would have recognized Jesus? I don’t know. But I do know the writer of John is introducing a powerful theological idea by telling us this story.
When Jesus calls Mary by her name, it’s right then that she is able to see . . . and that moment, when she encounters the risen Christ for the first time, changes everything.
Her hopes suddenly rise—he’s here! He’s alive! Everything can get back to the way it used to be! Only to plummet when Jesus says nope, it’s time to let go, Mary. Now that I’ve called you by name and you have witnessed the power of God, everything changes. Now, this is YOUR story to tell.
In that moment Jesus asked her to change everything. Which . . . is nothing new, if you think about it.
There’s not one person whom Jesus encounters in the entire Gospel narrative who is not asked to change, and change big. Lay down your nets; do you want to be healed?; repay those you’ve stolen from; get up and walk . . . and for Mary it’s nothing different. When living God calls your name, everything changes.
Oh, if only everything could stay the same: everything we believe about God and everything we know about ourselves.
But resurrection is definitely NOT about staying the same.
When we’re confronted with resurrection, I mean really, personally confronted, when the resurrected Christ calls our names, well, then . . . everything changes.
For Mary, that meant going and telling, and she is known now by us, 2000 years later, as the first witness to the resurrection, the one who had the courage to recognize God and work and to share the good news.
Yes, the good news of resurrection is that Jesus called Mary by her name and offered her the opportunity to follow the living God, out of the dark despair of that morning into new and life-giving light.
God called her name . . . and God calls our names.
But . . . telling a 2000 year old story once a year as a tradition isn’t likely to change anything, and remember, resurrection changes everything.
We cannot leave this place today to put the miracle of new life and the promise of resurrection back on the shelf until next year.
Because God is calling our names . . . every single one of us, just like Mary, we’re offered a personal invitation to go and tell, to live our lives with the conviction that the good news of Easter, the overthrow of sin and death, is not a dry and dead ceremony we celebrate once a year.
No, this time it’s personal.
Jesus is calling our names . . . you, and you and you and me . . . calling us to live as if the Gospel matters, calling us to practice resurrection every single day of our lives.
This Easter season, over the next six weeks in worship, we’re going to look closely at what it will take for you and for me answer the Christ who has called us by name and to live resurrection—not like a 2000 year old fairy tale, but like a story that really matters.
Jesus wouldn’t let Mary leave that day without being changed, and Jesus won’t let you or me encounter resurrection and leave unchanged, either. If Easter means anything at all, we’re going to walk out of here determined to practice resurrection.
It was the poet/writer Wendell Berry who coined the phrase “practice resurrection.” He wrote:
“…friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Friends, Jesus has called you by name and offered you the opportunity to practice resurrection. Can you hear the resurrected Savior calling you by name? Today, the day of resurrection, is certainly the day to answer that call.
Go and tell, Jesus admonishes us as he told Mary that day. Take this resurrection hope out of this building and into the world. This is your task this Easter . . . know it . . . because God has called you . . . by name.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2008, Amy Butler. Used by permission.