Every generation has a baby name that is popular. In my generation, that name was Jennifer. As I was growing up, every grade had tons of Jennifers. I became quite accustomed to the experience of eagerly looking up when someone called my name, only to be disappointed to see they were calling out to someone else. The name was so common that by the time I got to college, I learned to ignore people calling out my name because more likely than not, they were not actually calling me. They were calling one of the other twenty Jennifers nearby. Although the practice helped me save face, the practice was a bit of a hindrance when someone actually was trying to get my attention.
The solution, of course, was a nickname – something to distinguish me from the sea of other Jennifers. So in college, most of my buddies just started calling me “Andrews.” It may sound silly, but having a name that was distinct, that when called, I knew I could answer, gave me a sense of belonging and identity. When someone shouted, “Andrews” across the quad, I knew a friendly face would be looking for me when I raised my eyes. Though seemingly simple, that nickname made me feel known, especially at a time when everyone is trying to figure out their new identity, where they belong, and who they will be.
I suspect that Mary was the common name in Jesus’ generation. All we need to do is read through the New Testament to know that there are more Marys than we can count. Sometimes I even have to look back when I come across a Mary to be sure I am thinking of the right one. So when Jesus calls Mary Magdalene by name, I imagine there must have been some way she knows not only that this is Jesus, but also that he is talking to her.
Easter morning has been a rough morning for Mary. She comes in the tomb before the first light of dawn has broken. She is probably still a bit bleary eyed – that kind of haze one has in the days after a death of a beloved one. She comes to halt before she gets all the way to the tomb though. The stone that is supposed to be covering the tomb, protecting Jesus’ body, is gone. Before even going in to assess the situation, Mary runs – runs hard to find the disciples, demanding that they get up and help her. Two of them, the beloved disciple and Peter, sprint ahead of Mary. She is too tired from her first run to keep up. By the time she reaches the tomb, the two disciples are already stepping out of the tomb, Peter looking perplexed and the other disciple with an enigmatic smile. And without so much as a word to her, they leave – just like they left Jesus on that fateful day.[i] Mary, overcome with the memories of Jesus’ crucifixion and the continued emotion of this morning, breaks into tears. When she finally checks inside the tomb herself, she not only sees two angels, she also has an encounter with a supposed gardener. Frustrated by their insensitive questions, she exasperatedly asks the gardener to just tell her where the body is.
That is when the big news today happens. The supposed gardener calls her by name. Not the common name that everyone has. The supposed gardener calls her by the name that only Jesus calls her. The haze dissipates. The tears halt. The cloud of despair vanishes. And she calls Jesus by the name that only a few call him, “Rabbouni!” This is a tremendous moment in our text today. In the flurry of running, and confusion, and questions, and tears, and despair, two people see each other crystal clearly. Mary is called by her name – Jesus communicates to Mary that she is known, the she is beloved, that she has an identity and a purpose unique to her. She is his sheep who knows and recognizes the voice of the shepherd – the Good Shepherd.[ii] Her relief is palpable. The return of her confidence is immediate. Her sense of celebration is ready to explode!
When I was in high school, I had a summer where I attended both a short conference and then a long summer program. Both were residential. The conference was the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership conference, or HOBY for short. I made a few fast friends, but was there just a few days. A week or so later, I was off to a six-week residential program. It was my first time staying away from home that long, and I was admittedly a bit nervous since no one else from my high school was going. After I unloaded my bags, and was getting ready to say goodbye to my parents, someone behind my shouted, “Hey, HOBY!” Without even looking at who it was, I knew I did not need to worry about belonging. I was already known here. I had a place here. I could have a purpose for those six weeks.
We have all had those moments of clarity around identity, belonging, and purpose. Whether we are returning to our home town after a long time away, whether we develop good friends at school or in a civic group, and whether that happens at a reunion, we all know the deep, profoundly affirming feeling that comes from being known. For those of you with a church home, and especially for those of you who have found a home here at Hickory Neck, you most likely found that feeling here. Perhaps the liturgy was what brought you a sense of identity – either the liturgy reminded you of a practice from your earlier life, or the liturgy offered something to you that you did not even know you were missing. Perhaps a ministry at church brought you a sense of identity – those little sacred moments that come when you realize that you are actually really good at inspiring people to serve the world, making beautiful music, or teaching children about the love of God. Or perhaps the community brought you a sense of identity – that first time when someone remembered your name or a part of your story, when someone came to you for expert advice, or when someone knew just by looking at you that you were hurting – and then offered to take you to lunch or coffee. The church is a place where both Christ and the community call you by name.
Now I would love to tell you that the wonderfully affirming and life-giving feeling of being known is an end unto itself. I would love to send you home on this beautiful Easter Day with simply a sense of love and affirmation. And that is certainly part of the gift I am giving you today – to tell you that you can be known and loved here. But something else happens to Mary at that tomb. After that profound moment of affirmation, Jesus tells her to go and be a witness to the disciples. Jesus always gives his beloved homework. He is that teacher that even on a Friday will give you an assignment for the weekend! But Mary does not see this as a burden. Even though Jesus will not let her cling to him – cling to the way things used to be, Jesus’ affirmation this day propels her to go out and share the good news of the risen Lord with the disciples. In this way, Jesus not only recognizes and honors her identity; Jesus also gives her purpose – a call.
That is your homework on this Easter Sunday. I know you want to go eat those big Easter meals ,go find those Easter eggs, and find what Easter chocolate awaits at home. But remember that while this place is a place that calls you by name and affirms your beautiful identity, this is also a place that commissions you to go out and share the good news. That wonderful sense of affirmation is not for you to bottle up and keep for yourself. That sense of affirmation is meant to embolden you to share that affirmation with others – to meet people where they are, to hear their stories, and to share how this day of resurrection, love, and affirmation is for them too. In the same way that you have a vocation, a call on your life, you also are to affirm vocation and call in others. So this week, as you bask in the warmth and beauty of this day, go out and share that good news with others. Someone may be waiting for you to call them by name. Amen.
[i] Richard B. Hays, “Do Not Cling to Me,” Christian Century, vol. 109, no. 10, March 18-25, 1992, 299.
[ii] Karoline M. Lewis, John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 241.