John 20 vs1-18 – Sermon Notes for Sunday 04152012

Many of the formative stories of Israel’s faith journey begin with God calling someone’s name: Adam; Noah; Abraham; Moses; Samuel; Jeremiah. And in the Christian story, we read of Joseph (Mt 1:20); Zechariah (Lk 1:13); Mary (Lk 1:26-38); Peter, Andrew, James and John (Mt 4:18-22); Matthew (Mt 9:9-13); the 12 Apostles (Mt 10:1-4); Martha (Lk 10:38-42); Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10); Lazarus (Jn 11:1-57); Peter (Jn 21:15-19); Paul (Acts 9); Ananias (Acts 9).

There is something powerful about being called by name. This may be contrasted by other stories where there is no mention of being called by name – most of the prophets stories are told in this way. The prophet Ezekiel reports that the LORD simply called him “O mortal.” Perhaps the lack of direct naming is a way of emphasizing humility and the universality of their calling. However that may be, our story for today is very clear that the Lord called Mary by name, and that in this calling she was able to recognize him.

Several things to notice about this story:

  1. Mary comes to serve the Lord with very limited theological understanding. She is being as faithful as she knows how to be in the circumstance – and Jesus honors that.
  2. Mary invited others on the journey with her – and they also had limited understanding.
  3. Mary stayed longer than the others to linger over this painful mystery. She does not run or hide from the pain – and it was because of this that she was able to encounter Jesus.
  4. Mary was in prayerful conversation with God’s messengers (angels) sharing her grief, confusion and fear.
  5. Mary saw Jesus moving in her life but did not recognize him – in fact misidentifying him as someone who was possibly undermining her relationship with God. She supposed him to be a gardener who had possibly moved the body of her Lord.
  6. Mary speaks to Jesus without recognizing him – she is in relationship, is in conversation with Jesus despite her lack of recognition or understanding.
  7. Mary did not believe in the resurrection when she experienced Jesus call her by name. (neither did Peter and John or anyone else).

So, do you want to hear Jesus call you by name?

  1. Serve him as best you know how. Don’t allow your lack of knowledge and understanding keep you from doing what you can.
  2. Share your journey with others who are also seeking the Lord.
  3. Be honest with yourself and God about your fears and heartaches.
  4. Seek Jesus passionately.
  5. Ask those you encounter where they may have seen Jesus.

As we hear again in Jeremiah 29:

7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. 8 For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let the prophets and the diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, 9 for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, says the Lord. 10 For thus says the Lord: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. 11 For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. 12 Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. 13 When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, 14 I will let you find me, says the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile.

Did you hear that from Verse 13-14? “When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart I will let you find me.” This is what Mary was doing. Was she a sophisticated theologian? No. Was she a great champion of faith? No. Was she a noted leader in the community? No. She was one of the women whom Jesus had healed, and who had chosen to provide material support to Jesus and the apostles on their missionary journeys. She was there at the foot of the cross as Jesus was crucified, and now was one of the women who came to the tomb to honor and remember him. She was looking and longing for the presence of Jesus in her life. That was enough.

Psalm 145:18 The LORD is near to all who call on him; to all who call on him in truth.

Learning to serve the poor

When I was in college I was fortunate to serve as Mission Intern at a big-steeple downtown church. When people came to the door seeking financial support, I was their liaison with the church. I had afternoon office hours and a monthly budget – I always exceeded both. Each month my supervisor would meet with me, show me the budget and how much I had given away, point out the overage and grimace in a way that expressed compassionately, “This can’t happen next month.” “I know,” I’d smile back, both of us recognizing that it probably would, and it did. I also coordinated the church’s running of a Saturday Soup kitchen, using the model known as Second Helpings – where restaurant food is collected, deep frozen, and reserved to those in need. A small group of us from a campus ministry, full of the idealism and indefatigable spirit of the young, cornered the senior pastor of the above mentioned church and said, “We’re going to start a soup kitchen, and we’d love it if you all help.” Without missing a beat the pastor responded, “We’ll do it at our place!” and sure enough, over time that’s exactly what happened.

These experiences, along with time spent as a volunteer coordinator for a Habitat for Humanity chapter, left me frustrated. I kept feeling like we were putting on band-aids, doing triage, but not helping people to address their foundational issues that put and kept them in need of help. I wrote my senior thesis on “The Socialization of the Homeless: A Call for Change” wherein I argued that the homeless in general, and the poor more broadly considered, need more than for someone to hand them resources; they (like all of us) need to participate in a community of support where transformation can occur and inner capacities can be discovered and developed to their fullest capacity. This is also the argument made by Robert D. Lupton in TOXIC CHARITY: How churches and charities hurt those they help (and how to reverse it).

Dignity is a key theme for Lupton – he emphasizes maintaining and even enhancing the dignity of the poor through all policies, programs and practices intended to help alleviate poverty. This also results in heightened dignity-with-humility for those who serve – doing for is dehumanizing for those with power as well as those without. This focus on dignity then leads to numerous shifts or outright reversals. from “doing for” to “doing with”; from focus on need to focus on relationship; from emergency assistance to development assistance; from focus on meeting our needs to meeting the needs of those being served; from “charity to parity”; from “going on tourist mission trips” that displace local labor and leave little long term change to sending skilled community developers; from food pantry to food coop; from gentrification to re-neighboring; from “experts” leading to community leaders leading with “experts” (i.e. people with knowledge, skills, resources and networks) serving in support capacities. All of these shifts result in heightened dignity for all involved.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions”, a phrase oft used in literature and perhaps originating with Bernard of Clairvaux, certainly applies in this present context. Churches and charities (and governments and individuals) mean well. We need to look at the unintended consequences of our actions before we take them. We need to act in partnership and community with those being served. We need to develop opportunities for reciprocity wherever possible. We need to build on strengths while filling asset gaps.

I am also now fortunate to serve in a community where some people understand these premises and are seeking to develop community awareness while enacting policy and developing program. We have much to learn. Jesus called the adults around him to learn from the children; I think a parallel principle applies here – the poor have much to teach those who would want to help them. Needing help does not make one helpless – meeting needs unilaterally does.