I Saw (Him) Standing There

April 2, 2013

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Thomas Jefferson weighed in on the proposed architecture of the first Christ Church, Charlottesville. Colonial churches had pews with doors on them, reserved for those who could pay. Jefferson, however, asked that, “pews be open and free, so that worshippers would be seated pell-mell in life as we would lie in death.”

Death is the great equalizer, but life is a great equalizer too. Suffering, acute or general, is no respecter of persons. Unhappiness breaches the defenses of class, wealth and religion. I don’t mean to sound abstract; just think about your life. Think about the person who makes you unhappy. It might even be you!

I suspect that’s one of the reasons we’re here on Easter Day. It still is the thing to do – sort of – at least in the South before brunch and the Easter egg hunt. And today is the Main Event – the resurrection of our Lord! But who isn’t yearning for some comfort in the face of the pell-mell afflictions of life. To borrow from T.S. Eliot, I need “fragments to shore against my ruin,” help for unhappiness, hope for a heart in conflict with itself.

There was an op-ed in The New York Times on Palm Sunday written by Will Wiles called “Unhappy? Clean House.” It addresses the idea that a change in environment will make us happy – that better homes will create better people. One architect said a “person’s soul could be cleansed when his domestic surroundings were purged. Soon the streets of our town will shine like white walls. Fulfillment shall be ours.”

Now, I like a good Spring Cleaning as much as the next guy. I believe in feng shui. I once thought that all we needed at the Walker house was crown molding and then fulfillment shall be ours. We got crown molding. But I find I still get really irritated at the dogs and children! Now I think maybe we need new shutters.

Obviously, our happiness cannot be based on our environment. We may believe that our home is the cause of our unhappiness, but clearly, crown molding is no lasting solution. Wiles says, “home improvement can be…a distraction from underlying problems unrelated to décor. I like to remember the architect Cedric Price. Confronted by a client who wanted to turn his life around with a new house, Mr. Price suggested that what he really needed was a divorce.” Hah!

I’m NOT suggesting a divorce will solve your problems this Easter morning! But clearly your help must lie beyond your crown molding, your job, address, haircut, or significant other. And since we’re here at Church, seated in pell-mell style, and we haven’t died yet (!) why not look at the account of the first Easter morning to see from whence our help comes?

The exchange between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is where I want to look today. Mary comes to the tomb expecting to find Jesus’ corpse. She saw him die on the cross and his body carried to the tomb. She loves Jesus because He cured her of a complex cluster of mental illnesses. So she comes to the tomb to anoint his body with spices.

But, He’s gone. She presumes his body was taken. Two disciples come and go, but Mary stays by the tomb, crying in the dark. She gradually becomes aware of someone standing there. It’s Jesus, risen from the dead. But in her extreme grief, and the predawn darkness, she doesn’t think or see clearly; she mistakes him for the gardener. Then we have the helpful words between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

The help, ironically, is in a question, rather than an answer. Jesus’ question is, “Why are you weeping?” The first words out of Jesus’ resurrected mouth are in essence, “What’s wrong? Tell me what’s bothering you.”

It sounds like a cliché, but it is enduringly true. Just simply to be understood is profoundly helpful. Just to be able to talk about what is wrong and to be listened to will go a long way in making a person feel better. Don’t you long for someone to ask you what’s wrong, and then to really listen, without interrupting or telling you how they experienced the same thing and how they solved the problem? Unfortunately this rarely happens in life between people preoccupied with themselves.

This is especially true in male female relationships. Red Skelton joked, “I knew I married Mrs. Right. I just didn’t know her first name was “Always”! I heard a minister preaching about this dynamic. He said all men are terrible listeners! When their wives or girlfriends are weeping like Mary Magdalene, instead of saying, “What’s wrong? Tell me what’s bothering you”, they say, “Don’t cry, I know exactly how to fix this.” Or maybe your man is guilty of The Huff Post’s top way to recognize and stop dating a narcissist: “when you express your needs, he gets defensive.” (Gulp!)

The minister said men don’t listen because they’re only interested in one thing – what might politely be called the “baser instincts of life” to which women tend to be tone deaf. Women think men are obsessed with the baser instincts, when men are in fact just being normal. And men think they have to fix every problem, when in fact all women want is for them to shut up and listen. Therefore, all male-female communication is a complete disaster! This, of course, is never true in my house, or in yours. But, I’m just telling you what another preacher said.

Jesus asks Mary Magdalene, “Why are you weeping?” There’s a similar scene in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia stories. A lonely and lost boy named Shasta is walking alone at night in a forest. He’s been abandoned and mistreated. He’s afraid and despairing. Gradually he becomes aware of a presence beside him. It’s Aslan, the Great Lion, whom he has yet to meet.

Lewis writes:

“And being very tired and having nothing inside him, (Shasta) felt so sorry for himself that the tears rolled down his cheeks. What put a stop to all of this was a sudden fright. Shasta discovered that someone or somebody was walking beside him. It was pitch dark and he could see nothing. “Who are you?” he said, barely above a whisper. “One who has waited long for you to speak,” said the Thing. Its voice was not loud, but very large and deep. “I can’t see you at all,” said Shasta, after staring very hard. Then he said, almost in a scream, “You’re not – not something dead, are you? But then he felt the warm breath of the Thing on his hand and face. “There,” it said, “that is not the breath of a ghost.”

Then, like Jesus to Mary, Aslan says to the unhappy boy, “Tell me your sorrows.” There is a scripture that invites us to “cast all our cares on Him, because He cares for us.” God listens.

If we are here to find help in the midst of life’s unhappiness, then we are also here on Easter to find hope in the face of death. You try to change your environment in life to find happiness, usually to no lasting avail. Death, however, changes your environment without asking your permission. Life is forever altered; just ask someone who has lost a father or a daughter in the past year, or in the past 30 years.

When you pour out your sorrows to the One who really listens, so often you want a concrete answer or solution. When Mary speaks, Jesus doesn’t give her an answer or a solution. Instead, He gives her a single word: Mary. He calls her by name. He’s not a problem solver; He’s a presence. He gives her Himself; He’s there with her, not something dead, but very much alive.

Justin Welby, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, talks about a dark time in his life. His daughter was in a terrible car crash. Doctors were working to save her life. He and his wife were beyond distraught, crying out to God. Don’t think of him as an archbishop, just a frightened father. He says that time was filled with “prayer at it’s rawest, prayer of O God help! Where are you?”

He remembers a moment with his wife at a café outside the hospital crying and praying, anxiety ridden. Then they both sensed the same prayer – “Your will be done.” They handed their daughter over to God. It was agonizing. As they returned to the hospital, the doctor came out and said, “She suddenly seems to be going.” Crying as he recalls the scene, Welby says, “at that moment (we) felt the presence of Jesus in that room was so overwhelming. (We were) getting the answer to prayer we didn’t want most of all in all the world, and yet sensing God was at the center of it.” His daughter died shortly afterward. Welby’s Easter hope assures him he will see her again in the Resurrection. It’s the hope we share today as we say, “Alleluia, Christ is Risen.”

On Easter day, you’re given much more than fragments to shore up against your ruin. For even in what feels like your ruin, you turn in the dark, wondering where He is, mistaking Him for something else, and then…. He’s standing there, at the center of it, calling you by name.

Amen.

Bible References

  • John 20:1 - 18