09 April 2012


John 20:1-18

Resurrection of the Lord/ 8th April 2012
In John’s Gospel we begin Easter morning in the dark.  While it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb.  We don’t know why.  It’s not like she was expecting resurrection and wanted to be the first to see; she wasn’t expecting the stone rolled away, wasn’t expecting an empty tomb.  Full of sorrow, maybe unable to sleep, she went to the tomb.  Why?  The other Gospels tell us that the women went with spices to anoint and embalm his body.  Here, Mary Magdalene goes alone. Maybe she just wanted to be close to his body, to what was left of his presence.  She goes to the tomb with love mixed with grief.  This might sound morbid, but there is a comfort, I know, in being able to go to the grave of a loved one, to just sit there, to pray, to think, to remember.

            But then she discovers that the body of the man she loved is now missing.  She’s lost her Lord not once, but twice, yielding a double-grief.  John and Peter have been and gone, verifying the fact that the body was indeed missing, they go home and leave Mary all alone. “Mary stood weeping outside the tomb,” John tells us.  It’s a painful, poignant scene, isn’t it? Imagine how that must have felt for her?  Abandoned.  Alone.  Lost. Confused.  She notices two angels sitting where Jesus’ body had been, at the foot and at the head.  “Woman, why are you weeping?” they ask.  “Because they have taken away my Lord and I don’t know where they have placed him.”  She turns and notices a man there, thinking he is the gardener.  But she doesn’t really see him.  Her mind, her sight, her thoughts are all clouded by grief. 

            That’s what grief does.  That’s what fear and sorrow and sadness can do.  They muddy our judgment, falsify what we say, hinder our understanding, blind us to what’s happening right in front of our eyes. 

            In a dizzying moment like this we naturally look to hold on to something, something to grasp that’s solid and sure, something known and rational – even if it might be wrong.  John tells us the tomb is in a garden.  Mary is in a garden.  So Mary expects to see a gardener.  Who else would be there?  That’s whom she sees.  It’s rational – but she’s wrong.

            I’m intentionally honing in on this moment in the story because I think it’s telling.  My hunch is that all of us have had moments, like Mary, when our judgment and assessment in times of crisis are distorted, even wrong.  We think we’re being rational, but it just might be the rational that stands in the way of allowing us to see what’s really going on.  Facing dead men walking and then talking constitutes a time of crisis, at least to me. The skeptic in all of us starts to surface and wonders, how can this be?  We turn to the rational as a kind of default defense mode.  In a scientific, skeptical (some might say, jaded) age like ours, our default mode is reason – we ask what’s reasonable, what’s possible within the scope of reason.  Our rational default mode is often a defense against the possibility that we might not fully understand what’s going on and that scares us.

            Now don’t get me wrong, our rational mind is useful and good.  Reason as a method of knowing has taken us far – and we probably need more of it in some areas of our lives.  Yes, reason has taken us far, no doubt, but I wonder if it has taken us far enough? 

There are aspects of reality that cannot be known through reason.  There’s a lot that goes on in this universe and within our hearts that reason doesn’t understand, such as why we are blown away by the beautiful – whether it’s in nature on such a glorious day like today, or on a canvass, or in the human soul; why are we are rendered speechless by music or the power of words or when both are combined in the singing of a hymn; or why we are overwhelmed by the presence of God in stillness or in prayer; or why we smile and laugh when we see a baby smiling or laughing; or why we cry inconsolably when we’re lost in grief.  Reason is not helpful in these moments. 

Novelist and essayist David James Duncan says this way of talking about human experience sounds foolish, because it is foolish – “to unadorned reason.”  But he has come to this conclusion:  “from boyhood through manhood,” he writes, “it has been my experience that trying to grasp an insight, a deep mystery, a transrational experience, or any act of love via reason alone is rather like trying to play a guitar with one’s buttocks.  Our powers of reason, like our buttocks, are an invaluable tool.  But not for the purpose of hearing ‘vast pulsating harmonies’ in nature when we listen to the sounds of the woods.”[1]  Philosopher and economist, E. F. Schumacher put it like this, “Nothing can be perceived without an appropriate organ of perception.”[2]

            So tell me, what kind of organ is needed to recognize resurrection?  That’s the question.  What is required for the transfiguration of perception?  What will remove the scales from our eyes and allow us to see?  What will speak to us in the midst of fear and grief and pain and sorrow?  The rational mind will get us only so far.

The contemporary neuroscientist and psychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist, argues convincingly in his book, The Master and His Emissary:  The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, that for the last several hundred years we have favored the rational side of our brains, primarily to aid evolution and progress, however this has been done at the expense of our emotional, intuitive, feeling sides.[3]  We can discover a lot about the world using the rational; to use only that part, however, we cut ourselves off from the part that honors mystery and the sacred. We’re divided creatures, cut off from what our souls are really searching for. There’s a marvelous animated summary of his views that you can find on YouTube, which I recommend.  It’s from a speech Gilchrist gave summarizing these ideas.  In that speech, he closes with this remarkable quote from Albert Einstein (1879-1855):  “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant.  We have created a society that honors the servant but has forgotten the gift.”[4]

            What is slowly killing the West is hyper-rationalism, where we over-intellectualize everything, even the faith, and see it as a problem to be explained or explained away.  The sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) warned in the last century, “We [Christians] are building an iron cage, and we’re inside of it, and we’re closing the door.  And the handle is on the outside.”[5] The solution is not for Christianity to become anti-rational (God knows that’s already happening with the growth of fundamentalism). The solution might be remembering there are others ways of knowing. Einstein again is helpful here:  “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It is the source of all true art and all science.  He to whom this ‘emotion’ is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder, or stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.  His eyes are closed.”[6]

            So what opens our eyes?  What allows us to see? What is this ‘gift’ that bestows life? Who will turn the handle for us and free us from our iron cages or crack open our tombs?

             There’s nothing more mysterious and baffling and wonderful than love. Not the sentimental or romantic variety, as wonderful as they are.  I’m talking about a deeper, more profound form, which undergirds every other expression of love in this mysterious universe.  When Mary goes to the tomb in her grief, it’s really love that sends her there after him – yes, grief too, but if you stay with grief long enough we discover that often the emotion that sits underneath it is really love – and it’s love that allows her to find him and it’s Love-itself that finds her. 
It’s God’s love that turns the handle. 
It’s God’s love that opens our eyes and allows us to see
what reason can’t even begin to imagine. 
It’s God’s love as pure gift that bestows life, which yields resurrection. 
For, isn’t this ultimately what resurrection is – love seeking love?
The one she’s looking for is also looking for her, and will not give up until they meet and they are seen by each other. 

            Yes, Mary’s love is strong, but not strong enough to see through her grief and sadness. The gospel’s claim is that all our searching is matched by an even stronger love who is searching of us. It’s the kind of love that wants union and reunion with us and will never give up on this goal, no matter what; a love that never gives up on us.  That never quits.  That never ends.  That’s what resurrection is all about.  It’s a story shot through with compassion, and goodness, and devotion.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus said before he died, words that we heard here in the sanctuary on Thursday evening:  “I will not leave you orphaned” (John 14:18).  I will not abandon you.  This is the word our souls need to hear and know and feel in the depths of our being.  That God will not give up on us or leave us.  No matter what we have done, no matter how terrible we might have been or are, no matter the source of our guilt or shame, no matter how heavy the grief, or dark the world may appear, nothing can separate us from God.  There are so many in this world that simply do not know this or believe it’s too good to be true it, or think they’re beyond redemption or hope.  No one is beyond redemption!  No one is beyond hope!  There are people who have been to hell and back who cannot accept that God is really on their side, who feel hopeless, orphaned, lost in grief or double-grief and regret.  Maybe that’s you.

            Then hear this – not with your rational mind – but with your heart, your soul, and with every cell in your body, hear this word in your gut:  Christ is Risen.  And the one who raised him from the grave is the same one who in love calls out to you by name and invites you to come alive and know again – or maybe for the first time – the deep inexorable love of God!  A love that’s relentless, tenacious, unyielding, resolute, it’s determined, unquenchable – inexorable!  It will go to any height or depth or length to show us we are precious and holy in God’s eyes.  This love is unflagging and steadfast in its desire to be with us, to be near us, to hold us and never let us go. 

The inexorable love of God has and is and will never stop entering
into death in order to reach through it to us,
to lay claim to us and hold us;
it enters into all the darkness of our hearts and the world and
endures it all and suffers through it in order to assure us that the darkness can never overwhelm us;
it seeks out every possible way to bridge the chasm of separation
 between us and God and one another,
to pull us back,
to bring us home.  
               It never gives up. 
It’s forceful and strong,
as scripture says –
“for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame” (Song of Solomon 8:6) – and yet
it’s gentle and tender, all at the same time,
a love that can push away boulders and shatter tombs,
and yet rests upon us and lives within us
with a presence that warms and assures us
that nothing can separate us from God.   

That’s what Mary knew.  That’s what’s offer to you and to me.  Resurrection.  Love seeking love. Christ is risen! Christ is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

Image:  K. Kovacs.  Anastasis (Resurrection) fresco, Church of St. Savior in Chora, Istanbul, Turkey (May, 2011).

[1] David James Duncan, God Laughs and Plays:  Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right (Great Barrington, MA:  The Triad Institute, 2007), 216.  The internal quotation, “vast pulsating harmonies,” is Duncan’s allusion to Aldo Leopold’s (1887-1948) mystical-naturalist history, Round River (1953).
[2] Cited by Duncan, 216.
[3] Iain McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary:  The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2010).
[5] The “iron cage” or “shell as hard as steel” (tahlhartes Gehäuse) is introduced in Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904/5).
[6] Albert Einstein, The World As I See It (Citadel Press, 2001).

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