The Feast of the Resurrection: April 16, 2017
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Some of you may be familiar with the classic children’s book by Eric Carle, Brown Bear, Brown Bear – with bright, beautiful primary color pictures, the book asks over and over again, brown bear, brown bear, what do you see? Yellow duck, yellow duck, what do you see? Red bird, red bird, what do you see? And all the animals respond in turn, I see someone looking at me! That book never failed to calm and quiet our kids back in the day, and we read it so often that the words still keep repeating on an endless loop in some part of my mind, eternally: What do you see? What do you see?
Perhaps you’re also familiar with the old Far Side cartoon illustrating the different way people see things. One person looks at a glass of water and says, ‘The glass is half-full.’ The second person looks at the glass and says, ‘The glass is half-empty.’ The third person looks at the glass and says, ‘Hey! I ordered a cheeseburger!’
There are so many ways to see. And so many ways not to see.
I came across a book that was written several years ago called Catching the Light (by Arthur Zajonc). It tells of a famous medical case from 1910 of a boy who had been blind since birth from cataracts. Surgeons were able to restore sight to his eyes and make them functional again. But when they took the bandages off and waved a hand in front of the boy, and asked him, ‘What do you see?’ the boy replied, ‘I don’t know.’ Because he didn’t – all he saw were bewildering shapes and shadows. He had never seen, so his mind did not know how to process the new set of information his eyes were receiving. The surgeon, Dr. Moreau, noted that although the boy now had the power to see, he still had to learn from the beginning how to use that power. ‘To give back sight to a congenitally blind person,’ he said, ‘is more the work of an educator than of a surgeon.’ Light was there to be seen – but the boy could not see it until his brain learned to understand what that light was.
Perhaps that goes some way toward explaining why we don’t always see what is right in front of us.
In the Easter gospel story we just heard, not everyone sees and understands what they are seeing. Mary Magdalene comes to the tomb early in the morning, expecting it to be sealed. But it is open. And so she runs to tell Peter and the beloved disciple – we never have his name, but let’s assume it’s John. And they come running. John gets there first and looks in the tomb, and sees that it is empty, that the grave clothes are lying there. Peter arrives, goes all the way into the tomb, and sees also the cloth that was on Jesus’ head, lying there. And they both turn around and go back home.
But Mary Magdalene does not go. She stays, and bends over to look into the tomb herself. And she sees two angels in white, sitting where the body was. And then she turns and there’s a man standing outside the tomb, and when that man calls her by name, she sees that it is Jesus. And she runs off again, and tells Peter and John and all the rest of the disciples, I have seen the Lord. I have seen what Peter and John did not.
I have always wondered why those other two did not see the angels sitting there in the tomb. And why Mary Magdalene sees all that she does see.
Perhaps it’s because Mary Magdalene had been healed by Jesus. Jesus had saved her life, freed her from seven demons, Luke says, from the powers of darkness that held her captive. And she is profoundly grateful. She is one of those whom Jesus heals who then becomes one of his disciples, following after him because of the gift of life she had received from him. She knows in her very being that he has the power of life. So she is ready to see him again, there in the garden.
Or perhaps it’s because Mary Magdalene, as a woman, was always on the outside of the group. With no husband to lend her legitimacy in a male culture, she has no power and leadership in the world as it is. She knows from Jesus a love and respect she has never felt before from anyone, and she loves him fully in return. She knows she needs him, and she knows what his voice sounds like when he calls her by name, and so she sees him, there in the garden.
Or maybe it’s simply because Mary Magdalene stayed. She stayed at the cross when most of the disciples fled – she and Jesus’ mother and only a few others, stayed and kept vigil until Jesus was dead. She stayed and looked and saw the worst that could happen – looking squarely at the torture and death of her beloved Lord on the cross. And now, two days later, she stays at the tomb, uncertain of what is happening and where the beloved body has gone. She lingers, and looks again. She lingers long enough to see the whole beautiful, wonderful truth.
And because of her seeing, her first witness to the resurrection, we all are here on this beautiful Easter morning. So people of St Michael’s, what do you see? Is the tomb half-full, or is it all the way empty? Do you see the good news of the glorious light of the resurrection? Or do you see only puzzling shapes and images that don’t make sense?
Easter Day in church is a re-enactment, a reminder, of something that already happened. It is the day when we remember in a big, splashy way that the resurrection happened, that Jesus was raised from the dead, that God is a God of life who makes a way out of no way. We remember that every Sunday, really, as we gather together and learn from scripture and break bread together in the presence of God – and if you like what today is like in church then I invite you to come back again as we keep celebrating Easter together.
But when we leave this church today, when we step away from the reminder of the music and flowers and light, we might have a harder time seeing it. It is hard to see that story of resurrection made real in our world. Out on the streets right now people are desperate, poor and hungry. In hospitals right now people are sick and dying and in despair. In our country right now people are nurturing wounds of hatred and division that have us closing our doors and our hearts to the least and the lost – refugees, immigrants, the poor, the mentally ill. In our world right now we are continuing our waste and desecration of the creation we were meant to be stewards of. All around us right now intensifies the dividing up of humanity into tribes of us and them. When we leave church today, we will see all of that, and worse. We could just see that and nothing else. We could see all of that and just want to turn away, see instead whatever distraction is closest to hand.
But perhaps we might linger, as Mary does. We could linger to look squarely at all of that torment and suffering, human beings crucifying ourselves and creation over and over again. And then, remembering the teachings of our faith, we might linger longer. We might remember the words that tell us that we were once strangers in Egypt; that God particularly loves the poor; that Jesus calls us to love one another; that Jesus tells us to love our enemies; that scripture says over and over and over again, do not be afraid. We might remember the words that tell us that God is faithful, and Jesus is with us, even to the end of the age. We might remember these words from scripture; these words we hear in our worship and music together; these words we hear repeated to us in the life of a faith community.
And all of that might just educate us into seeing. We are made in God’s image; we have the power to see God all around us. But most of us need to learn how to use that power. If we linger, and if we know our own need, and if we see in our own selves how God’s healing power has acted, then we might learn to see differently. So that we look at the pain and anger and yet also see the healing at work in people’s lives. So that we see the terror of despotic governments and also see the power propelling those who work for justice and mercy. So we see the rocky hard ground of closed hearts and see them broken into love and forgiveness. So we can see God’s Spirit at work, bringing life where we expected to see only death. Happening in us, and happening through us, and happening all around us – resurrection light breaking into the darkness of our tombs.
And like Mary, we might just see Jesus standing there before us, calling us by name, sending us out to tell what we have seen. Because Peter and John, they missed it – and they need to know. And so do a whole lot of other people.
Today, beloved community, Christ is risen! Today and every day, he is risen indeed. Life breaks out of what constrains it; light shines into our eyes; we are healed, and at last, we can see. And so we sing with all of the angels, Alleluia! Amen.