Resurrection is large and sweeping. Monumental. Massive. “If Christ has not been raised,” Paul wrote, “Then our preaching is in vain… our faith is futile…” But before it was large, first it was small. It was intimate. It was personal and poignant. Before it swelled out to include you and me and all of human history, resurrection was something shared between Jesus and Mary.
Throughout the Sundays leading up to Easter at First Baptist Church, we focused on the last words of Jesus from the cross – the words we heard echoed in the darkness of Good Friday here in this place; words that ended, finally, as Jesus was taken from the cross and placed in the grave and it seemed there would be no more words from Jesus.
But today we hear the first words – the first words after resurrection. And one of the first words that Jesus speaks as the risen Christ – his first single word that prompts us to recognize him as the one who keeps his promise and makes it back, and that causes us to hear him as the one who speaks into the silence and darkness of our lives – this first word is not a pronouncement or a parable, a command or a call. The first word is a name.
John chapter 20 verse 16: Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
And that’s what resurrection is at first – the assurance to Mary that she is known by Christ.
Maybe you know how life-altering it can be to be known and recognized. Sometimes it’s enough to save you. That’s what’s described by attorney Marc Barber. In his Pro-Bono legal work, Barber has focused much of his time and energy working as an advocate for children who are victims of abuse. That’s how he encountered a particular counselor, who is himself an adult survivor of abuse. A larger than life presence from Hawaii with wild curly hair, this man was adored by the children he counseled, so Barber often utilized his services for his clients and their families.
On one visit he noticed a toy on the counselor’s desk – “Trolley,” from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. When Barber asked about it, the curly-haired counselor began to describe some of what he endured growing up in an abusive home, and how one particular day, alone upstairs after his mother had left the room, he crawled over to the TV cabinet, pulled himself up and turned the knob. And there on the old box television was Mr. Rogers – himself an ordained Presbyterian minister who sought to bring the love and life of Christ into his wide-ranging work with children. It was the end of the show. Mr. Rogers in his way was having a quiet, calm conversation with thousands upon thousands of kids. But the man said, “In that moment, he seemed to look me in the eye and speak directly to me as he said, ‘And I like you just for being you.’”
“It was like the voice of god…It hit me in the soul,” the man said. “I was a miserable little kid. I was sure I was a horrible person. I was sure I deserved everything I got and that I didn’t deserve better. That’s all I had ever known… all I knew to expect…until that moment. It gave me hope. I’ve kept those words with me. I think they saved my life.” (1)
“That’s all I had known… all I knew to expect.” Death. It was all Mary knew. She was breathless with her own grief, and all she had endured. John describes her walking to the tomb, but I wonder if she didn’t feel like crawling. The spices in her bag weren’t all that heavy, but what about all the grief and hopelessness she carried from what she had seen? She must have felt like dragging herself there to that place you can never be prepared to visit.
You know that place. It’s a place well represented in a medieval monastery in Isenheim – in northern France – where a former art history professor of mine once traveled. The monastery had once specialized in healing, with a hospital in a great hall. And in that hall two sweeping portraits hang on opposite walls. On one side hangs a portrait of the crucifixion. On the parallel wall hangs a rendering of resurrection. Parallel images in that great hospital room. The patients would rest and wait to receive care in the space in between those two paintings.
A space somewhere between Friday and Sunday – somewhere between the death we’ve seen and the resurrection for which we hope. You know it, because that’s where we spend much of our lives. The space where fear carries the day. Pontius Pilate signs the death certificates. Rome wins, as they always do. Promises broken. Hopes laid open. Tombs left closed and guarded against any chance of change. Broken people stay broken there. Dead people stay dead. It’s all Mary and all of us who walk with her can see through the early morning haze.
Then again, “Some things are only visible through eyes that have cried…” These are words from Monsignor Oscar Romero, former Aschbishop of El Salvador. Many of you know his story. Father Romero was named Archbishop of El Salvador in 1977, during a period where the Central American country was run by a succession of military dictatorships. Romero was chosen in part because he was seen as unlikely to be overly critical of the authoritarian government. But the powers-that-be miscalculated that, especially as he began to see the intimate effects of oppression against the most vulnerable. He became an especially fierce critic of the military regime that seized power in 1979. So it was soldiers from that regime that would enter a church in 1980 and assassinate him right in the middle of mass, at the very moment he lifted the body and blood to heaven – “do this in remembrance of me.” That was 36 years ago this past Thursday. Maundy Thursday. The crucifixions didn’t stop with Jesus.
It’s the story we know all too well in a world that is still violent, oppressive, and unjust against so many sons and daughters of God. Often it’s all we know to expect. We pray with Archbishop Romero in a prayer left behind, “The kingdom always lies beyond us…” Beyond our grasp. Beyond our vision.
As it was so far beyond Mary early that morning. The cross – where she was one of the last to leave him – is still perched outside of the city, visible against the early morning horizon with it’s daybreaking message of “this is the way things are and will always be.” Maybe Mary looked at it and remembered the stories of others who had hung there, like Judas the Galilean or Theudas of Egypt – leaders who sought revolt or resistance to the system until Rome struck back executing the leaders publicly and shamefully, to see their movements disperse never to be heard from again.
And you see and hear enough of that story – see enough evidence of the death and destruction it brings – and you start to live your life by its script. And so Mary carries spices for a burial and a bulletin for a funeral, because death is all she had known, all she knew to expect, all she could see, all she could hear.
Until the moment she hears something else. Notice, it’s not what she sees – an empty tomb, grave clothes cast aside, not even two angels in white. It’s not what she sees. It’s what she hears – a word at once intimate and recognizable, spoken into the silence and suffering of her own life. That’s what causes her to turn. And that’s what always does it.
The preacher Tom Long tells of driving across town one day and pushing the scan button hoping for a traffic report. The radio paused on a Christian radio show. The host was taking calls, and a woman named Barbara called in. And Barbara was saying she had problems. A lot of problems: work, stress in her marriage, conflict with her teenage children, experiencing depression. As she unfolded her problems, the host interrupted her. “Barbara, let me ask you something. Are you a believer? If you’re not, you’ll never solve these problems. Are you a believer?”
“Uhh. I don’t know.”
“Now Barbara if you were you would know it. You either are or you’re not. Now Barbara, are you?”
“I’d like to be… I think. I guess I’m just more of an agnostic at this point.”
Well you could almost see the host come to the edge of his seat to seize that moment, “Now Barbara, there’s a book I’ve written that I’d like to send you. And in this book I have indisputable, irrefutable proof that Jesus Christ rose from the dead and he is who he says he is. Now if I send you this, will you become a believer?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I‘ve had problems out of preachers.”
“I’m not talking about preachers I’m talking about proof. Now if I send you this book, will you become a believer?”
“I’m having trouble even trusting right now”
“Not trust. I’m talking about truth. If I send you this, will you become a believer?”
“Well…yeah, I guess so. If you send it to me. Yeah.” (2)
Now it may sound strange coming from a Christian pulpit on Easter Sunday but I’m sort of sorry to hear Barbara threw in the towel so quickly. I hope she’ll become a believer. And I believe that faith in Christ could alter her life. But does that happen from proof?
It was not an empty tomb that changed Mary. It was not the pile of grave clothes, or even two figures in white. Those are simply the kind of things you can wrap your mind around or take pictures of. Those are verifiable facts. And notice, when they see it all, the first reaction is to offer some sort of plausible explanation: “They have taken away my Lord,” Mary says. Those were the facts.
It’s like what we read from Sam Roberts, an obituary writer from The New York Times, who this week imagined – given the facts – what an obituary for Jesus would have sounded like: “Jesus of Nazareth,” he begins “a Galilean carpenter turned itinerant minister whose appeals to piety and whose repute as a healer had galvanized a growing contingent of believers, died on Friday after being crucified…He was about 33.” The imagined obituary closes, “After he was declared dead on Friday night, he was buried nearby in a cave. On Sunday, his disciples reported that the body was missing.” (3)
Those are the facts. The proof. We don’t have a video of the empty tomb. If we did, what would we even expect to see? We don’t have a seismograph of the Easter earthquake – that’s not how God works in the world. In no case do any of the gospel writers tell us what happened behind that stone. It’s as if it happens outside of our sight, walled off somewhere, amidst the mystery of God.
It’s not proof that changes Mary. It’s not a fact that changes her life, or any of the others. It’s a word. It’s an encounter. It’s a voice slowly recognized amidst the tears and the tombs. It’s a name. That’s what changes them. That’s what changes us.
“The Good Shepherd calls his sheep by name,” Jesus had said earlier in John’s gospel. It’s what we hear when he calls into the tomb of his friend, elsewhere in the gospel, shouting a name, “Lazarus.” He’s emerged from his own tomb now and he calls Mary to step forth from hers – the tomb of the world she had always known and the story she had rehearsed for so many years, where you believe “nothing will really change” and “my life will be what it will be…” The entombed existence where you’re tempted to hide out under rocks and behind locked doors living in fear, where broken people stay broken and our best hopes die and stay dead.
And the text says at that moment that Jesus spoke her name, “she turned.” She is turning for all of us, dropping her spices, dropping her script, and turning into a new world of resurrection and life. A grand and monumental story – a life-altering moment – that starts with something as intimate as a name.
How many need to hear that first word today? How many are walking under the weight of oppression and abuse, their feet striking the path with the rhythm of the grieved? It’s all they know. It’s all they can see. All they can hear. And I don’t mean in places far and wide – distant and large – I mean in places close, small, intimate, within our own state, our own city.
I think Marc Barber’s story of the curly-haired counselor stayed close to me in part because just last week I had the opportunity to tour the Family Justice Center in downtown Greensboro. Several other faith leaders and I visited this remarkable facility, one of a hundred or so comparable facilities across our country, where those who are vulnerable to violence and abuse can go, find safety, find resources, maintain anonymity, and experience hope from those trained to help them imagine another way. In the course of our informational meeting, we took a building tour, and on the first stop we came into a waiting room, designed to look like a living room with the comforts of home. Just off the waiting room, through some French Doors, was a room full of toys – stuffed animals, and balls, and a play kitchen. A play room for children. My breath caught, my feet stayed in place.
Because those are the names Jesus knows. Those are the ones for whom he died and came back. The vulnerable, the oppressed, the grief-stricken and fear- burdened. He died putting his body between them and the powers of violence and death, and he came back to keep his promise to them – to all of us – so that we might know what it is to be known and recognized, and so that we might turn into a new story where the very Creator of the universe raised Jesus from the dead, and where this God is every bit as incomprehensibly loving and merciful as Jesus made God out to be, and where the God who made this world and loves this world is really and truly and absolutely tirelessly redeeming it from anything that tries to make it other than the goodness God created. Jesus rose for those who need to know we do not have to die to experience resurrection. That’s why this encounter sends Mary racing from the scene to shout as loudly as she can, “I have seen the Lord!” Because when you experience it for yourself you recognize there’s a whole world of people who need to hear it, too.
The next time attorney Marc Barber saw his curly-haired counselor friend after the day the man shared his story, he was waiting outside the counselor’s office, where this larger than life, joyous man was working with one of his clients. Trolley the toy was right there on the table as always. Barber watched as when they were done, he helped his young client out of the chair, took both of her hands, looked her in the eyes and said, “And remember, I like you for being you.”
If we have heard the first words of resurrection, may we also go out to share them with others, that all of us might say with Mary, “We have seen the Lord.”
And that all of us might know that the one who spoke Mary’s name knows our names, too.
(1) From a tumblr story told by user “thedarklawyer.” Names changed.
(2) Easter Sunday Sermon, Duke Chapel, May 11, 201