Sermon delivered by Heather Entrekin, pastor of Prairie Baptist Church in Prairie Village, K.S., on Apr. 12 2009.
It is one grand occasion when we gather to celebrate Easter Sunday. This is the day we dress up and the church dresses up and we give it all we’ve got – lilies, trumpets, new clothes, glorious music and the best sermon of the whole year (no pressure there)!
But do you notice how little fanfare there is in the resurrection story of the Gospel of John?
It starts in the dark. (I tried that in a former church one time, pulled all the shades. It did not go over well.) Mary finds the tomb empty, runs to tell the disciples. They run to the tomb, find it empty, say nothing, go home. Mary has presumably run back with them because now she is looking in the tomb again, wandering around the garden. She does speak to angels who were apparently not there the first time, but instead of a booming “Fear not” or ringing “I bring you glad tidings of great joy!” as they do on other occasions, they ask a rather obvious, mundane question, “Why are you weeping?” She speaks to a gardener, who asks the same question. She answers as you would expect, “The body is gone and I don’t know where it is.”
Of course, the reader knows what Mary does not – the gardener is the one she is looking for. If there is a dramatic moment it comes now, as we wonder when the light bulb will go on and Mary will finally recognize that this is all about resurrection, that Jesus is standing right there in front of her, real enough to touch.
Mary’s inability to recognize Jesus resonates today. A 2008 American Religious Identification Survey shows that the percentage of Christians is 76%, down from 86 percent in 1990. The category of “nones” – as in, “none of the above,” which includes atheists, agnostics, secularists, people who say they have “no religion,” is up to 15 percent, from 8.2 percent in 1990 (from J. Brent Walker, “Reflections, Report from the Capital, march 2009, p. 3).
One could understand how a story like this story would seem more Disney or Spielberg than real to a skeptical reader, just a little disconnected from the real world.
To be honest, it is a challenge for Christians to claim a real relationship with Jesus. Not too many of us have seen Jesus standing beside a forsythia bush in our front yard, had a text message, heard his voice on the phone. Over the centuries, the church has gotten very good at doctrine, dogma, the intellectual. We believe better than we live the good news.
The thing is, the final exam will probably not be on Christian doctrine. Jesus will not stand there ticking off questions like, Virgin birth: Do you – Strongly agree, Somewhat agree, Agree, Disagree, Somewhat disagree…? It will be more like, Do you know me? Do you love me? Then what did you do about it?
This is no abstract, intellectual concept of Jesus. It is a down-to-earth, standing there, mud on his feet Jesus who knows your name.
I remember a time a complete stranger knew my name. It was the summer of my junior year in college when I was studying in Japan. A few of us had gone to a tiny Baptist church service and we were squeezing in as some other Americans were squeezing out on a narrow stairway. I shook the hand of one of the men and mumbled, “Hi, I’m Heather Entrekin….” And he stopped, looked me in the eye and said, “Are you Burt Entrekin’s daughter?”
Well, as a matter of fact I was, and am. I had just met my father’s former seminary roommate on the other side of the earth. There is a lot about that long ago trip I have forgotten, but that moment is crystal clear, because a stranger knew my name.
To be called by name makes one visible, significant. (My college friends were incredibly impressed.) There is a reason, in the holocaust, why names of concentration camp prisoners were obliterated. There is a reason why we carefully write names on a dry erase board of every guest including the tiniest infants who spend a week living in our church because they have no other homes. There is a reason why at every Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity meeting, we go around the table and listen to everyone’s name. There is a reason why we pay so much attention to the name we give and say it often. It is a sign of respect, a mark of relationship, a word of love.
“To name a name conveys the power of the person or thing so named.” (Michael Rogness, in Roger E. Van Harn, Ed., The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Texts, The Second Readings: Acts and the Epistles, p. 308). When Jesus calls your name, everything changes. Mary went from weeping to witnessing, from desolation to determination, from confusion to courage. She became the first apostle by Paul’s definition – one who has an experience of the risen Jesus and a commission to preach the good news (1 Cor. 15:3-11).
But that was that garden. What about this garden?
Shane Claiborne is a young man who met Jesus in person just a few years ago. (Google that name and listen to his story.) He confesses that he was a believer in Jesus long before he was a follower. But one day he went with friends to meet homeless people on the streets of Philadelphia and there he clearly saw a real Jesus.
He found out like John the Baptizer did, that Jesus was with the broken ones. Remember how John, at the mercy of the brutal Herod, sends a question from his prison cell, “Are you the one? Are you real?” A fair question from somebody who has put his life on the line. And Jesus answers not with a statement of faith. He says, “Tell John what you see and hear. The blind see, the lame walk, …the dead are raised.”
Karen Smith Thomas met Jesus that way. She is chaplain in a university in Morocco who guided students on a research project about nomadic tribal women. The students were stricken by the destitution and oppression they found and they said, “We have to do something for these people.” But Thomas said, “No. We are not going to do something for these people. If we do something, we are going to do something with these people.” Side by side with the least of these, they met a real Jesus, and they developed a traditional rug weaving enterprise that gave women a voice, income and hope who had never had such things (story told at Global Baptist Peace Conference, Rome, Italy, February 2009).
You may not be able to go to Morocco. You may not be able to stand beside homeless people on the streets of Kansas City. But wherever your life touches some one, some institution, some system that is broken, that is where Jesus stands calling your name.
Shane Claiborne tells a story of homeless people who broke into a boarded up cathedral in downtown Philadelphia wanting a place to stay. The diocese served a 48 hour eviction notice, using violation of fire code as the reason. Claiborne and a number of students couldn’t change anything but they thought it was wrong for a church to throw homeless people out so they moved in with the people, had communion together, prepared to be evicted, maybe arrested together because they believed that Jesus is real where people are broken.
While it was still dark, on the morning of eviction day, there was a knock on the door. They opened the door and found a group of firefighters standing there. The young people said, “I thought we had 48 hours, why are you here so early?” And the firefighters said, “We’re not here to evict you, we’re here to bring the building up to fire code. We think we can do it before the deadline.” And they did.
And so the diocese decided they would evict the homeless families on violation of sanitation code. No running water, no toilets. But before that deadline, a group of plumbers showed up…..
They showed up, firefighters, plumbers, students, as Mary once did. Now it’s our turn.
When you show up, it is not about how much you do, as Mother Teresa said, it’s how much love you put into what you do. How much you are willing to follow the one who loves you beyond all measure and imagination.
Is Jesus real for you? In an NPR series called, “This I believe” someone said, “I keep watching what I do to see what I really believe.”
The point of the story is this: He is real. Now what difference will it make?
He is risen. Jesus is real. Alleluia!