Looking For Jesus In All The Wrong Places

John 20.11-18

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, what are you weeping?” She 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?” Whom 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). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

 

I love learning about different Easter traditions. Some families will insist on purchasing matching outfits for the family so they can get that perfect picture for the mantel. Others will spend weeks crafting the perfect Easter menu for the family following church. And still yet others will take time to dye Easter Eggs with the kids, and scatter them throughout the house.

In my family, we always had our Easter baskets to rummage through before church. I can vividly recall waking up as a child and experiencing the profound wonder and joy that the Easter bunny had come to my house, and left a basket full of goodies just for me.

But as I got older and wiser, apparently the Easter bunny did as well.

One year, probably toward the end of Elementary school, I came downstairs on Easter and there was no basket with my name on it. I know that I looked straight toward my mother with a look that said, “What happened?!”

She smiled and said, “Taylor I came downstairs early this morning and I discovered something new and something strange. The Easter bunny knows you’re getting older and decided to hide your Easter Basket.”

And thus began a wonderful and bewildering tradition in the Mertins household. Year after year the bunny became craftier with hiding spots. Once, after searching for a good fifteen minutes, I found my Easter basket in one of my sister’s closets, another time it was hidden outside on the picnic table, and still yet another time (after a very frustrating search) I found it in the attic.

But one year, I couldn’t find it. I looked and looked. I went out to the shed. I climbed up the magnolia tree. I even looked in the refrigerator. No Easter basket.

My mother, being the great mother she is, had already searched through the house and found it, but refused to participate. The only hint she gave me was this: “It’s in a place you never go to.”

I searched that house top-to-bottom, bathrooms, closets, hallways… I went over the same places with a fine-toothed comb multiple times, but I couldn’t find it. I was at the point where I was convinced the Easter bunny had forgotten about me. But my mother, being the great mother she is, saw me in agony, walked over to the laundry machine, opened the lid, and pulled out my Easter basket.

I had been looking in all the wrong places.

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Jesus was killed on a cross and then buried in a tomb. After three days Mary went to the tomb and was shocked to discover that the stone covering the entrance had been rolled away. So she ran to tell the disciples. Peter and John in turn ran back out to the tomb with Mary and found the linens that had covered Jesus’ body neatly folded in the corner. The gospel tells us that they saw this and believed, and then returned to their homes.

But not Mary… No, Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. And while weeping, she leaned into the tomb and saw two angels who asked her what in the world was she doing. She turned from the tomb and saw Jesus, though she did not recognize him. Jesus said to her, “What are you doing? Who are you looking for?” And supposing him to be the gardener, she said, “If you took him away please tell me where he is!”

And Jesus said, “Mary” and her eyes were opened to the resurrection.

Mary was looking for Jesus in all the wrong places. How many times had she heard him proclaim his death and resurrection? How many times had he told her what was to happen? What did she think he meant when he said “I will rise up again”?

The resurrection of the dead, Easter, it upsets and upends all expectations. Mary, this follower of Jesus, someone whose life was forever altered and transformed by the Lord, cannot even come close to it without hearing Jesus call her by name. She cannot fathom what it is she is looking for and even confuses Jesus for the gardener.

Mary gets a pretty bad rap in the church for confusing her Lord for the maintenance man. I mean, hadn’t she spent nearly every day with him since he saved her from the crowd ready to stone her? Wasn’t he the most important person in her life? And she supposes him the gardener?

But maybe Mary sees more than she knows, and more than we give her credit for. Maybe she really saw the Gardener. After all, God had given life to Adam in the Garden long ago and called him to take care of it. Perhaps in the resurrection Jesus has become all that God intended: He is the Gardener of God’s creation; He is new Adam. Maybe the bible has come full circle from the Garden of Eden to Jesus as the gardener through Mary.

            She sees and believes.

Many of you know that I have a Good Friday tradition of carrying the cross through Staunton. If you’ve ever been here with us on Easter you’ve heard stories about my experiences of carrying that large cross over my shoulder. You’ve heard about the countless people who have said, “God bless you.” I’ve shared with you my sadness about the people who shouted curse words as I walked passed.

I carry the cross through our town because I want the death of Christ to rattle them out of their complacency. I want them to know and remember what God was willing to do for them. I want them to see the cross and believe.

So on Friday, like I’ve done the last three years, I got to the sanctuary a little before noon, grabbed the cross, and started walking. Before I even made it to the Post Office, 5 cars had pulled over to thank me for what I was doing. From St. John’s to downtown I was blessed by a great number of people with honks, waves, and the occasional “Amen brother!”

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But when I got to Beverley Street, something changed. I walked up toward the Valley Mission and then back toward Mary Baldwin, and no one so much as even looked at me. When I carried the cross for the first time people avoided me by jaywalking to the other side of the street and averting their gazes, as I got close. But this was different; it was like I wasn’t even there.

Now, to be clear, I’m not looking for attention or praise while walking around this town, but I was dressed in all black with rather large cross over my shoulder; I’m hard to miss. And this year, this Good Friday, people could not have cared less.

They kept talking with their friends. They walked hand in hand with their children. They continued to type on their phones. And the cross seemingly meant nothing to them.

We live in a strange new world; one in which the cross can be ignored and the message of resurrection can be limited to a basket, or a bunny, or some eggs.

So I kept walking, feeling a little hopeless about the power of the cross and the Good News. I got to the top of Beverley Street and walked passed Mary Baldwin and the Food Lion. I just wanted to get back to church and rest.

But then the Lee High bell rang and all the kids started leaving. “That’s just great,” I thought. “It’s one thing to be ignored by families downtown, but a one bunch of teenagers? C’mon God.”

I kept walking up the hill, and a great line of High School students were walking down right toward me. And when the first one got close, she stood right in front of me, coughed to get my attention, and then said, “That’s so cool!”

For the next 30 minutes I had conversations with just about every kid on that sloped section of Coulter Street. We talked about Jesus, the cross, and resurrection.

And, unlike many of us, their response was joyful. Many of them thanked me for doing what I was doing; a good number of them asked me more questions, and most of them walked away smiling.

Those high school students weren’t burdened with questions about how this could happen, or the theological ramifications of such an act, or who gets to be part of the resurrection from the dead. They heard the Good News, and that was enough.

How often do we go looking for Jesus in all the wrong places?

We purchase the latest self-help book assuming that it will fill the emptiness we feel. We look for him in the bottom of a bottle when we lose someone we love. We search for him in finite and material experiences in attempts to deny the inevitability of our lives.

When the truth is that Jesus is near us all the time and we regularly fail to recognize him: in the face of the hungry stranger standing in the median by the stop light; in the hopeful Word of a timely sermon; in the bread and the cup at this table, in the strange encounter with teenagers who are perhaps hearing the Easter story for the first time.

Sometimes we treat this story as if it’s the ending, like the whole Christian year leads up to this and we’re done, like the faithful life concludes with an empty tomb. I’m not sure why we do that, because the apostles and earliest Christians understood Easter not as the dramatic conclusion to the story. For them, as it should be for us, Easter is the beginning.

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It is the beginning of God making all things new. It is the beginning of the end for the powers and principalities that struggled to captivate the world. It is the beginning of a new time not under the dominion of death, but one that stands in the light of the glory of God.

It is the beginning of a new relationship between God and his people where, instead of looking for Jesus in all the wrong places, Jesus comes looking for us. Jesus meets us in the midst of life when we least expect it, on a hill outside of a high school, in the wave of a neighbor, in the words of a hymn, in a phone call from an old friend.

The resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the epitome of God’s power and grace. Through it we see how God took something like a cross, a means of death, and turned it into the joy of life-everlasting. On Easter God transformed the tomb in the same way that He did on Christmas in a virgin’s womb. God made a way where there was no way. On Easter, Jesus opened up a strange new world for people like you and me.

For some of us we might be hearing the story for the first time. For some of the high school students it was definitely the first time. Or maybe you’ve been to church every single Easter of your life and you’ve heard the story over and over. Perhaps it doesn’t strike you like it once did. Maybe this Easter you’re filled with more doubt than hope. Perhaps this Easter you can’t believe you even went to church. But that’s not a bad thing; the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is a new beginning; a new beginning for those of us who have never been to church, haven’t been in awhile, or have always been here. This gift we call Easter is for all of us.

So open your eyes and look for Jesus. Discover him in the bread and in the cup, listen for him calling your name in the songs we sing. Witness the power of resurrection in the people in the pews next to you. Hear the Good News, the best news: He lives! And so do we!

Hallelujah! Amen.

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O To Be Wise – Sermon on Proverbs 1.20-33

Proverbs 1.20-33

Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you. Because I have called and you refused, have stretched out my hand and no one heeded, and because you have ignored all my counsel and would have none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when panic strikes you, when panic strikes you like a storm, and your calamity come like a whirlwind, when distress and anger come upon you. Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer; they will seek me diligently, but will not find me. Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord, would have none of my counsel, and despised all my reproof, there they shall eat the fruit of their way and be sated with their own devices. For waywardness kills the simple, and the complacency of fools destroys them; but those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

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Wisdom is standing on the street corner shouting at anyone within distance. In all the town squares she is that preacher standing on a box yelling at the crowds to repent from their ways. At the entrance of the largest cities she is the one holding up the signs about our idiocy and the power of God’s wrath. She is all the preachers, prophets, and teachers that weep in sadness that their words are no longer heeded. Wisdom is frightening and demanding.

How long, all you simple minded people in this congregation, how long will you love to remain being so simple in your thoughts and reflections? How long will you enjoy scoffing at the events in your life and hate the knowledge that is given to you in scripture and in church?

Listen to Wisdom right now, because she is pouring out all her thoughts to you and making all of her words known in this place.

Yet, she has called and called, she has screamed and screamed, and none of us have listened. We ignored her words and demands, and now she laughs at our suffering and at us. She will relish in the calamities that come like a whirlwind, she will delight in our frustration and anger. She knows that when we are at the end of our ropes, when we have nowhere else to turn, that we will turn back to her, but it will be too late.

Because we have so consistently hated knowledge and did not fear the Lord, we will eat the fruit of our way, and be sated with our own devices.

Wisdom cries out from the streets, yells at us in our cars and in our pews: “Waywardness kills the simple, and our complacency as fools will be our undoing. But whoever listens to Wisdom will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Are you feeling uncomfortable yet? When you heard me rambling up here about Wisdom’s disposition, did you squirm in your pews? This is one tough scripture precisely because Wisdom does not mince her words and comes with a clear and stern warning. We can continue in our stupidity that leads to suffering, or we can listen to Wisdom and live in peace.

For a long time, the book of Proverbs has been marginalized and forgotten in contemporary American Christianity. Similarly the church might confess that our wisdom has suffered a similar fate in culture. Many of us no longer read our bibles, we no longer know what it means to pray, and we live in fear rather than in hope.

But are we really at fault? The church has not done the best job of equipping Christians for the work of discipleship, and the world is full of other options for Wisdom. We are constantly overwhelmed with choices and advice. For instance: The front of our church right now is filled with most of the books that I was assigned to read in seminary. You can read about what it means to do church, you can read books about preaching and teaching, you can read about suffering and temptation, but none of those books taught me the true wisdom of what it means to be a pastor.

Any of us can read about the importance of praying for our enemies in scripture, but the words cannot possibly prepare us for the moment when someone grabs us by the hands and actually asks us to pray for them.

Any of us can turn on the news, or search online to hear about the refugee/migrant crisis happening in Europe right now, but all we hear and learn means very little unless we ourselves are forced to flee our home in hopes that someone else will welcome us in.

So it’s not so much that we have not been given the chance to learn and become wise, but because there are so many options out there, we run the risk of feeling like we just walked into at an all-you-can-eat-buffet prepared for people who ate before they arrived.

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Books and television shows and lecture halls can point us in the right direction, but lady Wisdom will more often show up in the places where we live our lives. She shows up in the busy streets, in the public squares, and at the bustling intersections. Wisdom appears in our simple experiences, in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it advice from an acquaintance, and in the quick responses of our children.

On Wednesday night St. John’s hosted the first meeting of “The Circle.” It was designed as a space where the youth of the church can feel comfortable sharing reflections on their own discipleship and partake in communion with one another. Our first meeting went pretty well, the conversation flowed naturally, and I was incredibly impressed by the youth’s ability to convey how Jesus is real for them.

But toward the end of the meeting, I saw the youth really come alive. We were sitting around the table with our bibles opened to Proverbs 1.20-33. We read together about Wisdom yelling out from the streets and then I asked them to share pieces of advice they wished they could tell their parents without fear of getting in trouble.

Up to that point I thought all the youth were really enjoying The Circle, but with one question about advice for their parents, they all became animated and had more advice than I could possibly write down. We went back and forth for at least fifteen minutes before we were able to agree on a solid list that everyone agreed on and, in the true spirit of Wisdom, I am now going to share the list with all of you.

Disclaimer: Parents, your children were vulnerably honest about their responses and they knew I would be sharing them in church. I will not tell you who said what, but listen carefully, because the advice might be for you…

I wish my parents knew that nobody is perfect.

            I wish my parents knew that is not worth it to takes things so seriously all the time.

            I wish my parents knew that they could trust me; after all, I trust them.

           I wish my parents knew how much it hurts when they interrupt me.

            I wish my parents knew that patience is still a virtue, even when you’re old.

            I wish my parents knew that I am smarter than they think I am.

            I wish my parents knew that if they tell me “not to have an attitude,” I am DEFINITELY going to have an attitude.

            I wish my parents knew that I love them, but sometimes I don’t love their cooking.

Wisdom is a tough pill to swallow. But even as difficult as it is to hear Wisdom speak to us this way, whether it be the dreadful warnings in scripture or the advice from our children, it is difficult to argue with her warnings. The advice the youth offered was so profound that it not only applies to parents but to all people. We could read about how we are supposed to behave as rational human beings, but having a youth tells us that patience is a virtue, and to remember that nobody is perfect actually affects us in all the right ways.

It shocks us to hear something so right from someone we least expect. It bewilders us to hear Wisdom crying out in the streets when we would otherwise like to ignore her.

To walk in the way of Wisdom is incredibly demanding. We cannot claim to be wise by reading a lot of books and watching a lot of television, true wisdom requires us to act and move in the world.

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When Wisdom cries out, when we hear about what our children wish they could say to us, it hurts (or at least cuts deep), but it makes sense. When we forget about who we are and whose we are, when we forget about the ways of God built on love, we often get ourselves in terrible predicaments. We say things without thinking, we act without conscience, and we believe we are smarter than the people around us.

I regularly discover wisdom in the people from this church who listen for the still small voice of God while the world is screaming and spinning. I will be in my office after a difficult phone call, or standing outside shaking hands following worship, or walking through the grocery store, when one of you will come up to me and say something that just reorients my entire being. Something like: “Remember God loves you too

Wisdom is all around us, particularly in the people in the pews next to us, calling to us to start behaving like God wants us to. Because Wisdom is finally approachable and possible as we participate in the practices of God, who is Wisdom. We start to see and hear the Wisdom around us as we search for ways to love like God, listen like God, and even laugh like God, in the complicated and ordinary places of life.

I experienced the depth of Wisdom this week when our youth spoke far beyond their ages and dropped some important knowledge on me. In them I experienced a power greater than my own, and realized that if I gave up my false assumption that I was greater than, or wiser than, those youth, I would start to recognize the true wisdom around me and actually listen.

Where do you hear Wisdom? Do you hear her in the scriptures you read? Do you find her in the worship services at St. John’s? Have you seen her shouting through a parent or a spouse or a child? Does she make you uncomfortable when she shows up?

Wisdom speaks to us all the time; we only need the patience to hear her, and the strength to respond. Amen.