YOU’VE BEEN RECOGNIZED
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
Easter, Year A; April 20, 2014
Genesis 42:1-8; 45:1-5; John 20:1-18
“Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew,
‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher).”
As a great many of you know, this is my first Sunday sermon in half a year. I was in and out of the hospital and rehab for most of the fall and early winter. The problem was pulmonary embolisms — blood clots in my lungs — and a whole raft of complications, some of them pretty serious.
When I started feeling a little better, early in the new year, I asked my pulmonologist, Dr. Gustavo De La Luz, when he thought I might return to work. “I’m really hoping to get back for Easter,” I told him.
“Ah, Easter,” he said, flashing me a broad, Latin grin. “Resurrection!”
Now, that was a good deal more theology than I’m used to hearing in a doctor’s examining-room, but I appreciated it, all the same. I appreciated even more Dr. De La Luz’s medical judgment that, yes, I probably would be back for Easter. And so I am.
Resurrection is why we’re here today. The resurrection of Jesus, yes — but, more than that, all the many other resurrections we yearn for. Recovery from illness. Renewal of a marriage. Surviving that dreaded examination. Finding a way out of financial difficulties. Going out there and re-inventing ourselves, if the situation warrants it.
Our very bodies are continually dying and being reborn. Did you know the typical life of a human skin cell is 3 or 4 weeks? Look at your hand, and think about this: a month from now, the skin you are looking at will be completely replaced. Deeper inside, red blood cells survive for 4 months, and white blood cells as long as a year. Only the neurons in our brains remain with us an entire lifetime.
These bodies of ours we know so well are, in fact, changing all the time. One cell dies and another instantly replaces it. Each day — whether we realize it, or not — is punctuated by hundreds of thousands of little cellular deaths, and each one is redeemed by an equal number of rebirths. On the cellular level of our bodies, resurrection is a continual miracle.
Sadly, we can’t make the same claim said for the human organism as a whole. As we accompany a loved one through a final illness, keeping vigil by the sickbed in those last days or hours, you and I know the day will come when the riotous rebirth of cells within that human body will finally cease. Respiration will slow. The once-reliable heartbeat will grow irregular. The eyes will fail to display their characteristic light.
This, Mary Magdalene knows, is what’s happened to Jesus. No thanks to the conniving Temple officials and the corrupt administration of Pilate, who did him in. The price, for them, of restoring order to the city was torturing Jesus’ body until it had become a bleeding, gasping wreck of the human form. The sheer violence of his death had been horrific to behold — and Mary had beheld it all. After so many others had fled in fear, she and only a very few others remained.
After he had breathed his last, as she and the other women hastily bundled the corpse into the tomb before sunset and the start of the Sabbath, she ran her fingers along his arms and legs. The coldness and stiffness of his flesh was a stark reminder that every human life is so very fragile. Mary found herself face to face with that bewildering, perpetual mystery: how a human life is here one day and gone the next. Ever since, her heart has been a cold stone within her chest.
It’s no wonder she doesn’t recognize him. There are some who think the experience of being reanimated inside the tomb may actually have changed Jesus’ appearance — that he now has a “resurrection body.” But I don’t think that’s necessary to explain Mary’s lack of recognition. For one thing, resurrection is so utterly unique, she has no reason to expect it. And for another, Mary is a typical Middle Eastern woman. When a strange man calls out to her, she’s not supposed to look directly at him. Modesty requires that she avert her eyes.
It is the sound of her own name that causes Mary to look up. This man she has assumed to be a stranger is no such thing. But who is he? He knows her, this gardener (or whoever he is). He knows her.
Indeed he does, as Mary now discovers, in that joyous moment of recognition. The return of the son of God to life — this world-shaking revelation of good news — is focused, for an instant, on a single word, spoken to a single person. The word is “Mary.”
The risen Lord will have many other things to say and do in the days that follow — as attested by all the Gospel-writers, and by Paul. Yet, this moment belongs to one person alone, this woman with whom he enjoys a special bond. Before she realizes who it is standing before her, he recognizes her. And the joy of that recognition is like none she has ever known.
There are some who think Christian faith is all about beliefs. They imagine that becoming a disciple is a matter of learning and accepting certain theological doctrines, of affirming the right creedal statements. Right belief is important, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s the primary thing. It comes after the moment of decision, not before. Theology is an attempt to make sense of experiences that are essentially beyond words. I doubt if anyone has ever been saved because somebody else constructed a perfectly convincing logical argument for the existence of a loving God. We Christians are saved not when we understand in our minds who Jesus is, but when we hear him calling our name, as Mary did, and when we answer that call.
When I was in the hospital, I was thrust into a very different environment. I spend a lot of time around the church, as most pastors do, and everybody here knows me. I’ve lived in Point Pleasant Beach long enough that a lot of people in town know me, as well. Suddenly, though, I was no longer the pastor of the Presbyterian Church, nor was I Carl who lives in the gray Victorian on Forman Avenue. I was the patient in bed A. They strapped a bracelet around my wrist, made of that indestructible substance, neither paper nor plastic. It bore my name, my doctor’s name, my date of birth and a computer bar code.
Every time members of the staff came into the room — to draw blood, to take my blood pressure, to give me a pill, to wheel me downstairs for a test — they asked me to hold out my hand so they could read that bracelet first, then they had me repeat my name and birthdate, just to be sure. Often, they would scan the bar code with a handheld device. Hospital protocol required them to recognize me — in not just one way, but several — before they did whatever they had come into the room to do.
Yet, this sort of recognition is so different from the recognition that takes place between Jesus and Mary. Yes, it involved my name, my birthdate and a bar code, but it was hardly an encounter between heart and heart. My body was broken, and these good people were there to fix it (for which I was very grateful). My name was simply an identifying convention, a way the hospital staff could make sure they were dealing with the right body.
So many of our human interactions are like that, aren’t they? We know so many people, you and I. Many of them we know by name — neighbors, co-workers, fellow-students. Many more, we know by appearance: the person who pumps our gas, pours our coffee, punches our ticket, bags our groceries. On a certain level, we recognize dozens, if not hundreds, of people every day.
Yet — and this is the point — do we really recognize them, the way Jesus recognizes Mary, and she him?
Many of the most intractable problems in this world come from the failure to recognize one another, in a deep or meaningful way. So often, we treat other people not as the unique individuals they are, but as caricatures and stereotypes. We group them into categories, giving each category a label — and the labels are how we come to know them, not by their names.
It’s like that story we heard today, from the Old Testament, about Joseph and his brothers. It, too, is a sacred tale of recognition. The dramatic tension is at its greatest when the sons of Jacob, who have journeyed to Egypt to buy grain in a time of famine, fail to recognize their long-lost brother Joseph, who’s sitting above them on a throne, high and mighty, dressed like a pharaoh. He recognizes them, though — and as he does so, he remembers how they betrayed and beat him and cast him into a pit, eventually selling him into slavery.
Joseph could have ordered his guards to draw their swords and fall upon the brothers, cutting them to pieces until the stones of the palace ran red with blood. By the ordinary standards of the day, he would have been entitled to do that, and his story would have then become a typical tale of revenge and retribution. As such, it would have been quickly forgotten.
Yet, the thing that makes the story of Joseph and his brothers a tale for the ages is the fact that he recognizes them on a much deeper level. Joseph is no longer the same brash boy he once was, when he pulled on the coat of many colors and lorded it over his brothers. Joseph has grown through his grief. He’s been seasoned by suffering. When Joseph looks upon them, kneeling in abject fear before his distinguished personage, he sees enemies no more, but flawed and fragile men much like himself, a peculiar mixture of virtue and vice, humility and pride — saints and sinners in equal measure.
Then follows one of the most moving scenes in all of scripture. Joseph sends everyone out of the room except his brothers. The guards, the scribes, the courtiers, the chamberlains, the major-domos, the slaves who stand behind him and fan him with ostrich-plumes — everyone goes out. Then, Joseph lets out a wail so loud that everyone else in the palace, even the Pharaoh’s family, hears it. His brothers probably think they’ve fallen in with a genuine nut-case, but in that cry there is a lifetime of pain. He lets it go. He lets it all go.
It is only then that Joseph comes down from his throne, casts off his head-dress of solid gold, and embraces his brothers, saying, “I am Joseph. Now I see God has sent me before you to preserve life: so I might save this family from the famine.” Then, we can imagine him calling each brother by name and embracing them.
In that act of recognition, in the speaking of a name, there is new life.
There’s a time in the ordinary life of the church when we’re very much occupied with the speaking of names. It is the sacrament of baptism. At the very heart of that ancient ceremony is a naming: spoken ceremoniously by the minister on behalf of God. We can consider the act of naming, in baptism, as akin to Jesus’ naming of Mary, outside the empty tomb.
When followers of Jesus Christ are baptized, it is as though the risen Lord himself has spoken our name. No matter where we may go in life, no matter what sort of winding road may lay before us — into and out of the church, and back again, as many times as it takes — when life delivers us to the garden in the cool of the morning, there is someone waiting for us there. He’s been there since before time began. He knows us through and through and loves us despite it all. Most important of all, he knows our name.
Are you ready to discover — or re-discover — that sort of relationship in your life? Have you been putting off for some time that encounter with the one who knows you, and has always known you, more deeply than you know yourself? Are you ready to step out of the shadowy nowhere-lands of preoccupation with the self, and venture into the brightness of the day?
It’s between you and the gardener, this Easter Day. He’s calling your name. It remains to you to answer.
Lord of the nail-scarred hands,
Lord of the empty tomb,
Lord of the garden path,
where there is no pretending, only clarity:
you know us for who we are.
You have always known us.
You have not only seen us at our worst,
but you imagine us at our best.
You cherish the potential within us.
Continue to call us by name.
Continue to draw us to yourself.
Continue to heal us and restore us,
as we go forth to live and work
in the power of your Spirit:
to your eternal praise and glory. Amen.