Okay, it is April 1. I think we need to start with a joke. Two boys were walking home from church after hearing a strong preaching on the devil. One said to the other,
“What do you think about all this Satan stuff?”
The other boy replied, “Well, you know how Santa Claus turned out. It’s probably just your dad”
There’s another one about a door-to-door salesman selling something called “New Blue Cheer.” The story involves actions, a change of voice, and a slightly raunchy punch line. But if I were my brother Tucker and you were part of my family of origin, just the mere mention of “New Blue Cheer” would cause you to chuckle. Quite likely, you’d ask me to tell the joke once again, even if there was only one person in the room who didn’t know it. And it is absolutely guaranteed that when you heard the punch line for what, the 100th time, you’d laugh.
You’d laugh because the joke was funny, but you’d laugh just as much because it was Tucker telling it. Each time he does, it would transport you back to all fun occasions that joke has been told among family and friends.
The jokes, the stupid stories, the heartwarming and even painful stories – they define us. We make sense of the world and our place in it through story. Through them we create meaning, interpret reality, and come to know who and why. Because of this, when we hear a story that we know is good and true, we want to hear it again.
It’s for this reason Jews retell the same story at Passover and Christians the same story at Easter. They are key to shaping our identity.
And yet, in every family, community, and indeed every crime scene – WHO tells the story matters a great deal. Ask two siblings, church members, or eyewitnesses about the same event and you are likely to get different stories.
A favorite example of mine is the way our family experienced Paris, France when our children were younger. In the summer of 2004, while on sabbatical, we took our 12, 14, and 16-year-old children to a host of places in Europe, including several days in Paris. If you asked one of us parents about the visit, we would have told of awesome cathedrals, the lovely Eifel Tower, the baguettes and cheese, and the awesome street life. Tammy would have told you about some art museums and I would have waxed on about the rugby fans took over the subway.
However, if you asked our then 12 year old, he would have told you about the pigeons outside Notre Dame that he fed while his family went inside to visit the church (no thanks, mom and dad, I’m just fine here); the cafeteria at the famous Louvre Museum (take your time, I’m just fine hanging out here), and finally, the awesome car hood ornaments – mostly BMW and Mercedes Benz – on cars up and down every block; or the day we went to the Mercedes Benz part store to find his own hood ornament (no sir, we don’t own any model of Mercedes Benz, my son just thinks they are cool; and I was afraid he was going to try and steal one on the street!). Paris was defined by what mattered to each of us, and we identified with different things.
If there is ever a story that shapes our Christian way, it is Easter with its promise of life overcoming death. But often overlooked in our ‘retelling’ are the sources, the person or persons whose experience we are reading about.
Today’s text has two sets of characters and two very different reactions to the same event.
Mary Magdalene arrives by herself in the dark of the night. The stone has been rolled away from the tomb, the text says. Mary seems to assume that because the tomb is opened, the body has been taken.
Her story is broken up in the text by the racing Peter and her fellow disciple to see the empty tomb.
As the story of Mary resumes, she is alone and weeping. While it is likely the writer of John combined several sources to craft her Easter narrative, this story of Mary is unique in this gospel. When she looked into the tomb the grave cloths had been transformed into angels. She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but assumed he was the gardener. She asked him the same question she asked the angels, ‘where is he? Have you taken him?’.
As the old spiritual sings, “hush, somebody’s calling your name.”
The encounter centers around two simple statements that Jesus makes to her. The first is:
“Do not hold on to me” (Do not cling to me, in the Message version)
We’ve been exploring the role of women’s voices throughout Lent. I am struck by the fact that it is Mary who is most faithful, most consistent, and most steadfast in both her presence and her love. She’s been devoted, dedicated and like any care giver or loved one following a death – probably struggling with what to do next, how to fill her time, how to hold on to personal, even private memories.
And it is to this one that Jesus says, “do not hold onto me.” It is in the face of this love that Jesus reveals a great Easter truth; a powerful way of being living into the death defying love he had modeled and she had witnessed.
Do not hold onto me. Do not cling to me. Today you see that as I told you, life overcomes death. But, hold onto to the experiences you’ve had with me lightly. Cherish them, value them, honor them, live inspired by and from them…but do not cling.
Is not clinging to what we’ve had, past or present, one of the single most common barriers to our living a full life? Is not the secret to true love and true resiliency the recognition that life’s grace and beauty shape us precisely because we can’t bottle them, organize them, own them? The rising of the moon, the moment of a child’s discovery, the graceful laugh of an elder, the loveliness of a spring flower or ripe summer peach?
To Mary, maybe because she more than anyone could understand it, Jesus’ says, ‘do not cling to me.’ The sad truth on this day of resurrection 2018 is that Christian history has been and continues to be riddled with those (mostly men) who bring harm and pain to the world in the name of God because they hold on too tight, they cling, they seek to own and codify and limit access to the beauty of a God experience? The same holds true for so many of our broken relationships or failed projects. We’ve held too tightly.
The love Jesus and Mary Magdalene shared appears to have been genuine and authentic, a good, good thing. It is a reminder that not all that we cling to is inherently bad. It’s just that in clinging we seek to hold it as it was, rather than to let it continue to unfold, grow and emerge.
Which connects beautifully with Jesus’ second word to her on the day of resurrection.
“Go and Tell.” Of course, in the text, she was asked to tell the others that he would be ascending to the Father. But, as a spiritual offering, as a life stance, these words are incredible. In any way possible, go with the truth that life overcomes death, light outshines darkenss, love wins out over hate.
‘What you know this morning, dear friend, is not for you alone. Go and tell. Go, and be with others, be in communion and connection with others. Live and share and speak from the truth you see in this moment; but do so in community with others.’ Not as some street vendor hawking a religious product, but as a relational ambassador recounting to friends, family and strangers the teaching, the inspiration and the emergent possibilities in her life because of her connection to this Risen One.
The official stories of doubting Thomas, of encounters around meals with the men who gathered and eventually organized a movement that became the church; these are important and necessary for the founding of what we have come to call our faith.
But equally important, if not noticed, if not celebrated, have to be the unknown women and men whose faith and commitment to relationships have kept the body of Christ real. The unknown women and men who cherish what they’ve experienced but live with an open heart toward new ideas and new people; who put the quality of our togetherness above the clarity of doctrine every hour of every day.
Several times in the past couple of months, we’ve hosted funerals for families here with little connection to our congregation today. In each case, I’ve come away from those services and receptions with a deep sense of gratitude for that same kind of faith. The behavior of so many of you has modeled the sentiment “Regardless of your connection to us, whether you once were active or never were active, we honor that something ties you to this place and this ministry. As a community, we offer what we have – love, graciousness, openness and whenever possible, good food.
On this Easter morning, I love imagining that Jesus set Mary on a path of resurrection energy and vision. A path that every wise woman knows takes a lifetime to live into.
Earlier this morning, just after sunrise, we listened to these words from poet Ted Loder that I think sum up the spirit of Mary this Easter morning.
“I praise you for this joy, too great for words, but not for tears and songs and sharing;
…for this mercy that blots out my betrayals and bids me again
…to mend what is broken in and around me, and to forgive the breakers;
for this YES to life and laughter, to love and lovers, and to my unwinding self;
for this kingdom unleashed in me and I in it forever, (with) no dead ends to growing, to choices, to chances, to calls to be just;
no dead ends to living, to making peace, to dreaming dreams, to being glad of heart
for this resurrection (life) which is wiser than I and in which I see how great (your love is), how full of grace.
Ted Loder, Guerillas of Grace
On this Easter day, let us celebrate without clinging.
Let us share this faith together, focused on the community that gathers in a circle of grace.