Easter Sunday 2018 — Preaching Notes
LOVE LEADS THE WAY WORSHIP SERIES
One of the first times I ever had the pleasure of hearing Rev. Nadia Bolz Weber speak, she talked about the resurrection as a physical thing. I remember her saying that if resurrection wasn’t about a real, physical body rising from actual death to actual life, then she didn’t have an interest in being part of Christian faith. Or something like that. I don’t remember exactly. I just remember being struck by her absolute conviction that resurrection was about a physical body coming back to life.
Later I did some research and came across some sermons she has posted online where she explained more about her beliefs. For example, in her “Sermon on Earthly Things, Wombs, and the Resurrection,” she writes about her personal struggle with the part of the Apostles’ Creed where we confess our belief in the resurrection of the body. In her meditation on the story of Nicodemus, she tells about a pastor whose unswerving beliefs gave shape to her own theological conviction: that resurrection is not simply a metaphor, nor is faith simply an intellectual exercise. For Nadia, Christianity is material. It is physical. There is no separation between the realms of spirit and earth. For it is through the materials of this world that we experience the spiritual world. The core ritual practices of the faith require physical things: water, wine, bread, oil. In the language of the church, when we surround ordinary things with holy words, these ordinary things are made extraordinary. Wine and bread become the sacrament of Holy Communion. Water and oil become the means through which we baptize people into the faith.
As we’ve been talking about all week, Christianity is at its heart a physical practice. And nowhere is this central tenet of the faith made more clear than on Easter morning.
As I read the story of the first Easter according to the Gospel writer John with fresh eyes this year, having spent months writing about bodies and rehab and healing and recovery and hope, perhaps it should not be surprising that this year I was struck by the physicality of the empty tomb. Especially Mary’s response to it.
There is running. There is frantic screaming. There is bending and peering into the darkness. There are linen cloths. There are tears. There are conversations with ethereal beings. And then there is Jesus, standing there physically before her, speaking her name.
Mary’s encounter with the risen Lord is not an idea, or an allegory, or a metaphor. It is a physical experience. And it is life changing, not just for Mary, but for the other disciples, and for all who would come to follow Jesus, including you and me.
As I write these words I am sitting in my mother’s room at an in-patient rehabilitation facility in Fort Smith, Arkansas. I am writing while my mother is doing physical therapy nearby in the gym.
My mother came here yesterday, after she was released from a nine-day stay in the hospital, where she had been suffering from congestive heart failure. It’s ironic that on the heels of the last series that I wrote, our Lenten series entitled “Rehab,” and indeed, in this, the final series I will write in my position as Director of Preaching at Discipleship Ministries, for Easter, that I am now involved in my own experience of rehab.
Scholar Jane Kopas has written insightful work about Jesus’ encounters with women in the Gospel according to John, some of which pertains to today’s text about Mary Magdalene. Her goal is not to compare men’s experiences with women’s, or to promote the experiences of one gender over another, but rather to observe the patterns of Jesus’ experiences with women in order to extrapolate meaning. As she puts it, “The women-encounters are neither indictments of men as men nor glorifications of some kind of mystique of women. They are simply John's presentation of how he and the church viewed the God-human dialogue” (Jane Kopas, “Jesus and Women: John’s Gospel,” Theology Today 41  201-205).
Kopas characterizes Jesus’ encounters with women in terms of relationships and communication. The relationships are with Jesus, and the communication is between each woman and God. In her article, Kopas explores these meetings as models for redemptive encounter between God and human beings.
In the article, Kopas works her way through several stories about women from John’s Gospel. These include: the encounter between Jesus and Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the wedding in Cana; the meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well; the meeting with the adulterous woman; the death of Lazarus; the washing of Jesus’ feet at Passover; the women waiting at the foot of the cross; and the text for today concerning Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Lord on the first Easter morning.
While space does not allow for me to go through her comments in detail, the general observation Kopas makes is that each of these encounters between Jesus and a woman in John’s gospel follows a pattern of invitation and response that leads to transformation. For Kopas, the communication occurs not primarily as a result of content of the conversation, but rather, through the dynamics of relationship that rise to the surface in each encounter. She suggests that these encounters with women reveal communication from God to people that occur not through the spoken words or intellectual interpretation, but rather, through embodied experience. Kopas explores these communication events in terms of vulnerability, suffering, letting go of control, and commitment.
For example, Kopas suggests that because of the relatively low socio-economic status of women in the ancient world, it is a given that whenever Jesus has an encounter with a woman there is a power dynamic at work in which the woman is vulnerable. There is no judgment implied here. It is simply a fact of life that women were not considered equal to men in the world in which Jesus lived and taught. As such, the vulnerability of women is always a factor that is present in a one-on-one encounter between a woman and a man. Kopas sees this not as a negative thing, but as an opportunity for redemption because of this situation. She suggests that as a result of their social vulnerability, women were immediately more willing to take risks, and were therefore more open to the potential for healing than men. Kopas sees this dynamic as an opportunity for spiritual healing to take place. As she reflects on what this dynamic means for us today, she writes:
Vulnerability in a spiritual sense is not merely the capacity to be wounded, but the capacity to receive love and thus to be healed. Why does this capacity seem so slow in manifesting itself in many of the followers of Jesus? Perhaps one becomes so familiar with fear and the avoidance of threatening areas that it seems preferable to live with the pain one already bears than to risk intimacy with another whose love or condemnation may make the pain more unbearable. So one chooses the anesthesia of withdrawal from intimate relationship through the distractions of work or entertainment or superficial relationships. Only in the presence of another who gazes on my vulnerability with awe and gentleness instead of disdain do I experience the intimacy that heals. If I can let go of the instinct to protect myself from a closeness that seems more than I can absorb, I can come to realize that I do not lose myself but find myself in the acceptance of weakness. It is at those moments that I also experience the peculiar grace of realizing that the places I flee from the love of others are often the places I flee from the love of God (Kopas, 203).
I moved away from my parents when I was eighteen years old and I never returned home. Not even for summers. For most of my adult life I have lived hundreds of miles from where my parents live. Although I talk to them on the phone nearly every day, the times I have been physically present with them has been limited to a few weeks a year.
Being with my parents all day long, every day, as we go through this time of crisis, healing and transition, is changing our relationship. I am learning things about them that I never knew, and they are learning new things about me. Because my mother is sick with Alzheimer’s disease, much of what I am learning is coming not from the words she speaks, but from the physical things we are doing in which we both must be vulnerable and open to one another in new ways. I am seeing her naked, aging body as a thing of profound beauty as I learn to help her bathe. I am drying her hair and styling it the way she likes so that when she looks in the mirror she recognizes the person looking back at her. I am reassuring her when the evil spirit she calls “la la land” begins to take over her consciousness every afternoon when the sun starts to go down. The redemption of God’s Spirit is made palpable and real through vulnerability in relationship, through invitation and response. Kopas suggests that we encounter the very presence of Christ in such moments of non-verbal communication, when in the midst of our vulnerability we are yet able to be open to the healing love of God shown through touch, care, waiting and commitment.
When it comes to Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Jesus at the empty tomb, Kopas understands the relational communication as an encounter of commitment. Here she means something specific.
The clear vision of what is entailed in a commitment would be a contradiction of the commitment, for to be committed is to take a stand and to affirm a value that can only be known in living it out. When I look at the value, it is demanding and noble. When I live it out in the concrete, it may become burdensome and imbedded in ambiguity. Can I live with ambiguity and even failure, convinced the commitment is true? Even beyond that, can I accept with joy that there is no alternative to commitment? (Kopas, 205)
My father raises canaries. He says that the most difficult part of canary care is trimming the bird’s nails. You have to catch the bird and gently cradle it in your palm and your last three fingers, while holding each ankle one at a time between your forefinger and thumb. You then cut each toenail, not too short and not too long. It is a carefully executed process. You can’t clutch the bird because that will scare it. But you also can’t hold it so loosely that it tries to get away.
Such is the case with Mary Magdalene on the morning of the first Easter. Encountering Jesus was, for Mary Magdalene, sort of like holding a canary. When she saw the risen Lord, her first inclination was to run to him and clutch him in her arms and never let him get away. But in her heart she knew, as did he, that he could not stay. He told her he was going to the Father. It was a delicate moment, for both of them. But in that delicate encounter, in that relationship of trust, God created plenty of space around them, enough for Mary to be able to wait without fear, and to know that the Lord had risen indeed, as he had promised. She stayed with him as long as he was present. And then, when he was gone, she went and told the others what she had seen, and what Jesus had said to her.
Kopas offers this theological explanation of the encounter between Jesus and Mary Magdalene at the tomb:
The last encounter with a woman recorded by John is the incident where Mary Magdalene meets Jesus in the garden without recognizing him at first (Jn. 30:14-18). She has remained, waiting after Peter and John have left the tomb. In her waiting, she is gifted with the presence of Jesus. If she is truly to receive his presence as gift, she must not cling to him because, as he tells her, he must return to the Father. It becomes apparent that seeking is not the whole story. The discovery of God's transformative presence occurs in my attentive waiting as well as in seeking. Moreover, the gift is most fully appreciated when I do not try to clutch it but return to an attitude of waiting (Kopas, 205).
Maybe God is like us and we are like birds. God cradles us gently in the palm of his hand, holding us neither too tightly nor too loosely. God promises to raise us up, on Eagle’s wings, and bear us on the breath of dawn, and make us shine like the sun, and hold us securely, now and forevermore.
Likewise, maybe holding on to the risen Christ during the season of Easter is like holding a canary. We must not clutch him or hold on too tightly. But we also must not lose sight of him or let him go altogether.
As we move into these great fifty days of the Easter season let us follow the lead of Mary Magdalene. Let us commit to the practice of waiting and holding Christ loosely and gently. May we trust in his promise that he will not leave us, and that he is coming again to us again. May we wait with patience and let love lead the way, all the way to the celebration of Pentecost, and on through the remainder of the year, and to the end of this life, all the way through to the life that is to come.
by Dawn Chesser
My mother is one of the lucky ones. She has Medicare coverage, provided courtesy of the United States government. She has supplementary insurance. She has a husband who loves her fiercely and would do anything for her. She has a family to help. She has financial resources. She has friends. She has love to lift her and privilege to carry her along through the process of recovery.
But even as I write about my mother’s experience I am acutely aware that there are many here who do not have all of the privileges my mother enjoys to help them along. [Continue Reading]
While privilege has afforded each patient here the opportunity to rehabilitate in a modern, clean, bright, spacious facility staffed by a full array of nursing care, therapists, administrators, cooks, janitors, and various other caregivers who seem to enjoy one another and the work of caring for people, in most cases patients here spend long days alone. While the staff is amazing, and genuinely caring, they have many patients and limited time to spend with each one.
I know from years and years of serving as a parish pastor that many care and rehabilitation facilities are not like this one, and caregivers may not be equally kind to everyone.
All sorts of things get in the way of our ability to love one another as God loves us. We get caught up in our own needs and fears, our vision limited by our prejudices and judgments, our racism and misogyny, our wounds from our life experiences that have never fully healed. It clouds our ability to see some people as fully human, fully beloved children of God. We think that some of God’s children deserve more than others. We judge that this child of God has worked harder than that one, and so has earned the right to enjoy a nicer hospital, or rehabilitation facility, or nursing home. This child of God was a good mother, so now as she faces old age and declining health, her daughter sits with her, while the child of God across the hall sits alone. Is it her fault? Was she a lesser parent?
Perhaps her daughter or son doesn’t have the ability to take time off from work. Maybe she doesn’t have any children or a spouse. Maybe her family lives far away. Maybe they are estranged. Maybe they don’t care. Maybe they are sick themselves. Maybe she is all alone in the world during her winter years.
Such is the case for so many elders in our communities today. We have much to learn from cultures that place a high value on caring for the elderly and infirm. What are we doing as church communities to assist families in this crucial ministry?