Two Gardens

Sermon for Sunday, April 16, 2017 || Easter Day, Year A || John 20:1-18

On three occasions over the last couple years, I have left Home Depot laden with weather-treated boards and decking screws. I brought the materials home, lugged them to the backyard, and set about shaping them into rudimentary boxes. I’m not much of a carpenter, so “rudimentary” is actual quite a compliment. Thankfully, all these boxes have to do is sit in the sun and rain, full of soil and compost and manure.

You see, my wife Leah has become quite the gardener since we moved to Mystic. There was a single three foot by six foot box in the yard when we arrived, a remnant from a previous occupant. I built another the same size, and, let me tell you, the tomatoes Leah grew that first year were…mwah…delicioso! I put in a 4 x 8 bed last fall, which now has little stalks of garlic reaching through the soil. And a few weeks ago, I knocked together the last box, a long narrow one, 12 x 2, for peas. Needless to say, the surface area for gardening at the rectory has tripled in the last year, and I am looking forward to eating the results. Continue reading “Two Gardens”

Whom are You Looking For?

Sermon for Sunday, April 5, 2015 || Easter Sunday, Year B; John 20:1-18


2015easterdayGood morning, and welcome to St. Mark’s on this glorious Easter Sunday. This morning we walk with Mary Magdalene to the tomb and find it empty. And yet our emptiness doesn’t last for long because Jesus, the Risen Christ, stands there, shining before us, as the dew glistens on the early spring flowers blossoming in the garden.

But before we get to this beautiful encounter, I want to talk to you for a moment about my favorite comic strip. Calvin and Hobbes and I grew up together. Bill Watterson’s impeccable creation began its run about two months before my third birthday and ended just before I turned thirteen. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I told you I learned to read so I could consume Watterson’s genius. What attracted me to Calvin and Hobbes turns out to be the same element that makes our Christian faith so beautiful. The comic strip is all about the adventures of a young boy and his stuffed tiger. Yet while Calvin’s parents see only a stuffed tiger when they look at Hobbes, Calvin sees a living, breathing beast who might hug him or pounce on him depending on the tiger’s mood. For Calvin’s parents, the stuffed tiger is a “what.” It’s just another thing, a toy. But for Calvin, Hobbes is so much more than a “what.” Hobbes is a “who.”

In the same way, our Christian faith is based not on a “what,” but on a “who.” Yes, we have doctrine and catechism and creed, but none of those trappings matter if we forget the answer to the “who” question that undergirds them all. In the garden this morning, the Risen Christ asks Mary Magdalene this “who” question. Whom are you looking for? At first, Mary answers with a “what” response. She’s wondering what has happened to the body of her Lord. But when Jesus says her name, she recognizes him for who he is – he’s still Jesus, and yet he’s more somehow, as if the power of the resurrection made him a truer version of himself. I imagine Mary launching herself into his arms and their embrace lingering because she thought she had lost him – she had lost him – and yet here he is. You can try embracing a “what,” but only a “who” will embrace you back. The Risen Christ is the answer to this “who” question our faith asks.

Throughout the last two chapters of the Gospel according to John, Jesus appears to his friends five times. In each encounter, something could keep the disciples from recognizing the Risen Christ in their midst, but his presence dispels those barriers. The same barriers often stand in our way and keep us from embracing the Risen Christ in our midst. These barriers trick us into seeing just a stuffed tiger, so to speak, when Hobbes is standing there grinning with a pile of snowballs at the ready. I’d hazard to guess we’ve all known each of these barriers. But today, on this feast of the Resurrection, Jesus gives us the opportunity to answer his question anew and dispel those barriers once again. So whom are you looking for?

The second half of our Gospel reading this morning begins with tears. “But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.” Her sorrow could be a barrier keeping her from seeing the Risen Christ. Indeed, when she sees him, she thinks he’s the gardener. She even accuses him of stealing her Lord’s body. She’s hurting, and not even a vision of angels staunches her pain. In moments of sorrow, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Responding with his name won’t necessarily make the sorrow go away. But it will help us notice his presence in our midst, suffering with us, and offering us strong arms to carry our burdens when they become too heavy to bear alone.

Later that evening, “The doors of the house where the disciples had met where locked for fear of the Jews.” The disciples have hidden themselves away because they’re afraid they will be next for the cross. The fear is so palpable that it hangs in the room like fog, silencing all attempts at conversation and isolating each man with his own dark thoughts. But a locked door and fog of fear cannot stop the Risen Christ from appearing in their midst. He dispels their terror with a word of peace. In moments of fear, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” As we breathe out his name, we breathe in this same peace, the peace that passes all understanding.

The next week, Thomas is with them. He wasn’t in the house the last time, so he still hasn’t seen the Risen Christ. “I need to see him and touch to know you are telling the truth,” he says to his friends. His doubt is understandable. How could he possibly believe a story so incredible without some shred of proof? And yet when the Risen Christ stands before him, he falls to his knees and utters the most resounding declaration of faith in the whole Gospel: “My Lord and my God!” And all without ever touching Jesus. In moments of doubt, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” And in those moments, even the smallest, most doubtful voice we can muster is enough when we say, “You, Lord.”

Some time later, seven of Jesus’ friends are out on the Sea of Tiberias fishing. Or should I say trying to fish. They’re out all night and they catch nothing. You can imagine their frustration mounting as the morning sun gilds the clouds. But then someone on the beach beckons to them and tells them to cast the net one more time. And the bulging net is so full they can’t haul it in. In moments of frustration, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Saying his name helps us reorient ourselves to what matters and let go of our frustration long enough to try again, this time with Jesus’ posture of abundance replacing our frustrating and shriveled posture of scarcity.

Once on the beach, with the fish grilling away on a charcoal fire, the Risen Christ takes Simon Peter aside. He knows Peter feels ashamed for the way he acted on that terrifying night when Jesus was arrested. Three times Peter denied knowing Jesus. So three times Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” With each affirmation – “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you” – Jesus replaces Peter’s shame with a new sense of worth. And with this new sense of worth comes a mission: “Feed my sheep.” In moments of shame, the Risen Christ asks us: “Whom are you looking for?” Shame has a way of making us feel unworthy to say his name. And so he asks again and again until we know that his concern for us makes us worthy to respond: “I’m looking for you, Lord.” And for him to say, “Well, you found me, and no amount of shame will ever make you unworthy of my love.”

Sorrow. Fear. Doubt. Frustration. Shame. These are just a few of the barriers that can keep us from being aware of the Risen Christ in our midst. But in each case, Jesus does not let those barriers keep him from coming near, embracing us, and never letting us go. Never letting anyone go. This is the power of the Resurrection: the barrier is temporary, but the embrace is eternal. The “who” at the center of our faith outlives and outshines all of the “what” that we clutter our lives with. So when you leave this church today, go out into the world with Jesus’ question to Mary on your lips: “Whom are you looking for?” Today, tomorrow, every day, and on into eternity, make this your answer: “You, Lord. I’m looking for you.” And here the Risen Christ say to your soul, “You found me. And you have been found.”

Art: Detail from “Mary Magdalene in Meditation” by Le Nain Brothers

Four Names

DevotiONEighty will be taking a break during the week following Easter. It will return next Monday, April 16th. In the meantime, here is my sermon for the Easter Vigil from Saturday evening. –Adam

(Sermon for Saturday, April 7, 2012 || The Easter Vigil || John 20:1-18 )

If you’ve ever been to a Bible study that I’ve led, then you know that I have a lot of favorite scenes in the Gospel according to John. But the one we just read is easily in the top three. What always strikes me about the scene is the movement from Mary’s desolation when she weeps at the empty tomb to her utter elation when she recognizes the resurrected Christ. John paints the scene with a special tenderness he reserves for only the most intimate of moments between Jesus and his followers. John focuses our attention on this intimate moment, the first reaction to Jesus’ resurrection, because the moment of the resurrection itself is far too mysterious and far too momentous for John to attempt to narrate. That moment belongs to God alone. And so John gives us a sliver of Mary Magdalene’s story – her move from desolation to elation when she realizes that Jesus is still with her as he promised he always would be. And the pivotal moment of this story is Jesus calling her by name.

Names are rare in the Gospel according to John. I went back and counted, and in the entire 21 chapters of the Gospel, Jesus calls exactly four people by name. There’s Simon Peter, first among the disciples. There’s Lazarus, whom Jesus brought back to life. There’s Philip, who had been with Jesus from the beginning. And then there’s Mary, who heads to the tomb before dawn on the first day of the week. In each of the special moments when Jesus calls these four people by name, he is somehow affirming or strengthening his relationships with them.

The first thing Jesus does when he meets Simon is give him the nickname “Peter,” which means “Rock,” which is a pretty cool nickname. We invest all kinds of theological motivation to this name because of Peter being the “rock” on which the church is built. But if they were any two people besides Jesus and Peter, we would see the nicknaming as a sign that their relationship is moving into the territory of good friendship. At the end of the Gospel, Jesus says Peter’s name three times, and this naming reasserts the relationship that Peter had denied three times during Jesus’ trial. In the end, their relationship is repaired because Jesus calls Peter by name.

The Gospel describes Lazarus as “one whom Jesus loves.” When Lazarus dies, Jesus is days away, and Lazarus’s sisters make the faithful accusation that if Jesus had been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died at all. So Jesus goes to the tomb and shouts out, “Lazarus, come out.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “Lazarus, I raise you from the dead.” Rather, he says, “Come out.” Jesus calls Lazarus by name, but does not give Lazarus the option of remaining in the tomb. The naming is joined to Jesus’ command to return to his family and his friendship with Jesus.

Jesus calls Philip by name after Philip says to him, “Lord, show us the Father; that will be enough for us.” Jesus replies, “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been with you all this time? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” Jesus calls Philip by name in the midst of wondering how Philip could possibly not know him yet after being with him from the beginning. With this, Jesus calls Philip into deeper, more committed relationship with him.

And then there’s Mary Magdalene, who is weeping at the empty tomb. She is desolate, thinking that her Lord’s body had been stolen and possibly desecrated by the people who put him to death. With tears and the fog of despair clouding her vision, she sees the gardener, who asks her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Could this gardener be in collusion with the body-snatchers, she wonders? And she accuses him of being in on the plot. But then he says the all-important word: “Mary.” And she turns and the desolation vanishes in an instant of delight. And new elation, new hope, new life surges in to fill the void. “Teacher!” she shouts, and I imagine her jumping into his arms. Then Jesus gives her a task – to be the first to proclaim his resurrection.

So why does Jesus saying her name change the story? Why is this the pivotal word? As with Peter, Lazarus, and Philip, saying Mary’s name proves Jesus’ relationship with Mary. Her name is the outward sign of her inward identity. In this way, names are quite sacramental. Know a name and you know something of the person. Who among us didn’t feel elation when we found out our high school crush did, in fact, know our names? On the flip side, take away a name and you begin to take away the humanity of the person. How many Jews had their names erased and exchanged for numbers in the concentration camps?

Saying Mary’s name is Jesus’ shorthand for saying that he has returned just as he promised and that life would never be the same again because their relationship would never end. Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus foreshadowed this when he said, “[The shepherd] calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. Whenever he has gathered all of his sheep, he goes before them and they follow him, because they know his voice.” Later in the same passage, Jesus talks about the command from his Father that he “give up” his life in order to “take it up again.” Thus, Jesus links the power of the resurrection with the power of naming, which is really shorthand for the power of relationship.

This is the good news of the resurrection: Christ rose from the dead to show us that nothing, not even death, has the power to keep him from remaining in relationship with us. Christ knows each of our names. They are written in the book of life. They are written on his heart, just as his name is written on ours. As Jesus called Peter, Lazarus, Philip, and Mary to deeper relationship by saying their names, he calls to each of us. He calls to each of us, speaking our names, and thus ourselves, into being.

These names of ours are special things – they carry within them the promise of eternal relationship with God in Christ through the power of the resurrection. So the next time you find yourself in a moment of silence, a moment of peace at the center of the maelstrom of busyness that marks our lives today, just be still. Be still and listen. Be still and listen for the resurrected Christ calling you by name.