Friday, March 30, 2018

Familiar in the Unfamiliar

[The Angels ask Mary]:  “Woman, why are you weeping?”
[Mary] said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.”
When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus.
Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”
Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (Which means Teacher).  John 20: 13b-16 (NRSV)
I was in my fifties before much of the significance of this scene started to really lay claim to my soul.  Every time I explore the scene again, it grows in power, its meaning sharpens a little more. 
Easter, 2018, finds me preaching from the Gospel of John and the extract above is part of the common reading for the day.  I will touch on other elements of the scene, but the center piece of the message is how Mary recognizes Jesus through the calling of her name.   
John in his beautiful writing style is looping back earlier in his Gospel where the Good Shepherd says about his sheep: "The sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out" (John 10:3). The Good Shepherd then adds, "I know my own and my own know me" (John 10:14).  Mary is part of his flock, so it should not be surprising that she recognizes the risen Christ when his voice is heard calling her name.
Mary is experiencing the familiar, Jesus, in an unfamiliar place, the garden outside the tomb. 
Because she is a member of Jesus flock, she recognizes Jesus through her called name. 
For Mary, here in this scene, it was the voice of Jesus calling her by name, making the unfamiliar, familiar.  Life is like that, we are able to live and survive in the unfamiliar because of the familiar. 
Sometimes, for some of us, the familiar is television, the older the better.  Remember the television series that started in 1983 and ran till 1992, about a bar in Boston, ‘where everybody knows your name:’ Cheer’s?  Our name is a powerful force to take us to familiarity even in a place of unfamiliarity.   
The familiar is often best understood, experienced, in community.  James Baldwin published in 1961 a collection of essays about the black experience in the United States, under the dark title Nobody Knows My Name.  Baldwin’s title suggests he is haunted by the absence of community, i.e. Nobody.  In comparing Baldwin’s essays with the Gospel of John with community one writer suggests:
When one's name is known and called, one is enfolded in community. When Mary's name was called by the risen Jesus, she was enfolded into the company of heaven, and she recognized the One who now lives directly within and from the life of God.
That is goosebump:  Jesus is calling Mary into the community of heaven.  In her case, it is a community of the faithful who encounter the risen Jesus.  At this moment in the John biblical narrative, it is a pretty exclusive community:  her.  Be not anxious:  It doesn’t stay that way. 
Do we understand, when Jesus calls us by name, it is a call to community? 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:  “We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God.”  Are you ready to be interrupted by God? 
Here’s the question: if Jesus calls you by name, would you recognize his voice?’  Here my Bonhoeffer twist is, ‘would you want to recognize his voice?’ 
An industrial size dose of candor would compel many, if not most, to admit we do not truly believe that Jesus will come to us in the garden and call us by name. 
If Jesus does, we will do everything in our power to pretend we don’t recognize the calling voice. 
For many, if not most, recognizing Jesus voice in the garden would scream out for immediate rejection.
Jesus is calling us to disconnect from the preferred familiar, and emerge in a reality so profoundly different, so totally unfamiliar, we cannot imagine it.
At least, we cannot imagine it, until Jesus calls us by name. 
It is important to place ourselves in spaces where we experience and affirm Jesus in our midst.  We do this in hearing “the body of Christ, broken for you”, in the scent of the oil from the candles, in the familiar sound of a favored hymn or anthem that stirs us in places too deep to be named, in the feel of the Bible given to us in love in a confirmation class fifty years ago.  Those are the familiars that help us to live in the unfamiliar and are part of how we hear the voice of Jesus calling our very names.  The unfamiliar includes the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake, staying overnight for Family Promise, or creating emergency buckets at the United Methodist Committee on Relief here in Salt Lake.
Easter comes, and then it comes, and then it comes again.  Easter in a familiar rhythm, sound, sights and smells.  However, from those familiars, we are called to serve, and that can make the familiar pretty unfamiliar. 
Are you familiar enough with the voice of Jesus to recognize him calling you by name, and if yes, is he calling you into the unfamiliar?  If so, listen.
Selah, Pastor Dennis