Something in a Name
Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, April 11th, 2021
There is something special about being known by name. There’s something in the way a lover says your name that makes you feel as if you are the only two people standing in a crowded room. There’s something in the way a child says your name that can make your soul dance with delight.
Six months after his mother’s death, the late Catholic priest Henri Nouwen wrote a letter of consolation to his father. He said, “During the last six months I have grown painfully aware of how accustomed I had become to her unceasing interest in all that I did, felt, thought, or wrote, and how much I had taken it for granted that, even if nobody else cared, she certainly did. The absence of that caring attention often gives me a deep feeling of loneliness.”
Maybe it was that “deep feeling of loneliness” that led Mary to the tomb, long before daybreak. Maybe Mary’s grief was not so unlike our own. Sleep can be hard to come by in times of grief. Even good sleep is short and often interrupted by vibrant memories. Maybe one of those memories for Mary was the special way that Jesus had said her name, with uncommon dignity and respect? We don’t know. We only know that while the land was still covered in darkness, Mary goes to the tomb of Jesus and even an empty tomb proves no special solace for her.
As John tells the Easter story, the tomb is not empty for long. Angels appear to Mary and ask her: “Why are you weeping?” Surely, Mary must have thought, “What a ridiculous, insulting, question.” What else do you do when someone you love dies? You weep. You wail. You do not sport a stiff upper lip, because your lip cannot help but quiver.
As John tells the story, Mary is lost in the great fog of grief and does not recognize what has happened. While sharing her conspiracy theory with the angels, the risen Jesus comes and stands next to her and asks her the same question asked by the angels, “Woman, why are you weeping?” Mary has no more clarity when Jesus asks the question than when the angels do. She mistakes the risen Jesus for a gardener or a grave robber and wants him to help her find her dead friend.
This whole Easter scene would be comic, if not for the fact of how blinding grief can be. For those in grief, each footstep takes ten times its normal effort; you have no energy to plan for the future because every waking thought is caught up with the past. Deep in the night’s darkness, deep in her own grief, Mary goes to the tomb in much the same way that you and I visit the graves or resting places of our loved ones, to remember what once was, to wish it could somehow be the same again.
Easter does not happen for Mary when she sees that the tomb is empty or when she hears from a couple of angels that Jesus has been raised or even when the risen Jesus stands right in front of her. Easter happens for Mary when Jesus calls her by name. In that moment, her eyes are opened and she does what any one of us would do. She tries to hug her beloved friend, to hold on to him for dear life, to weep for joy in his arms. But the risen Jesus stops her.
The Rev. Kim Clayton argues, “Mary is the first person to learn that Jesus cannot and will not be held or controlled now that he is raised from the dead. And in fact, we will come to know Jesus only when we stop holding him to be who we want him to be, contained by our labels and categories.”
Rowan Williams, the retired Archbishop of Canterbury says, “There is a clinging to Jesus that shows itself in the longing to be utterly sure of our rightness. We want him where we can see him and manage him, so that we know exactly where to turn to be told that everything is all right and that he is on our side. We do it in religious conflicts, we do it in moral debates, and in politics. We want to stand still and be reassured, rather than moving faithfully with Jesus along a path into new life whose turnings we don’t know in advance.”
Easter means many things in John’s Gospel, but it never means living anchored to the past. Jesus has been crucified, has died, and now, by God’s grace and God’s grace alone, is risen. Jesus has changed and Mary must change too. For Mary, it is time not to look back but to look forward, time for her to testify to what she herself found impossible to believe at first.
On that first Easter morning, Mary had a whole world awaiting her testimony, waiting to hear news too good to be believed, but during Eastertide 2021 who is there left to tell the story? It is old news. Everyone has heard it. That may seem to be true, particularly to those who sit in church pews or in baseball parking lots or who watch church services on screens week after week, but I suspect it is not even close to the truth.
How many sophisticated, educated, worked and overworked people have even the slightest concept of Easter, that even death can be overcome by God, that the risen Jesus knows them by name, that they are God’s precious children, and that their lives have meaning not because of their level of education or their place on the social pecking scale or the hours they clock at work, but because of the God who loves, forgives, claims, and names every last one of them and us?
It is one thing for preachers to pontificate about Easter once a year to a joyful crowd of worshipers, it is something else entirely for people to know in the deepest and often most hidden places of their being that God knows them by name and will not leave them alone in their grief and will lead them into a future far beyond their wildest imagining. For, truthfully, do you or do you know anyone who ever tires of hearing good news, the best of news? "The Good News," Barbara Brown Taylor says, "is that when the bottom has fallen out from under you, when you have crashed through all your safety nets . . . the good news is that you cannot fall farther than God can catch you" (Bread of Angels, p. 133).
So, how do you and I tell the Easter story today? Maybe the key to answering that question is by looking at how the Gospel writers tell the Easter story. The fine preacher and novelist, Frederick Buechner writes, "It has always struck me as remarkable that when the writers of the four Gospels come to the most important part of the story they have to tell, they tell it in whispers. The part I mean, of course, is the part about the resurrection. They are trying to describe it as truthfully as they can. It was the most extraordinary thing they believed had ever happened, and yet they tell it so quietly that you have to lean close to be sure what they are telling. They tell it as softly as a secret, as something so precious, and holy, and fragile, and unbelievable, and true, that to tell it any other way would be somehow to dishonor it."
In a few minutes, when you leave Cove Creek Park or turn off your screen, may your heart leap with Mary’s and may your tongue wag, even in a whisper, about the risen One who not only knows all the world by name, but who knows you by name, and who calls out your name again and again from your first breath to your last goodbye to the moment you know resurrection life.
Who could possibly need to hear the Easter story in 2021? More people than you and I can number. Actually, it’s a story that people are dying to hear. And, it is a story that you and I are alive to tell.