Last weekend, before Holy Week started, our family celebrated my youngest’s fourth birthday. A dear friend was there and asked me how I was doing, knowing full well that Holy Week and Easter were coming. I launched into a diatribe about all the things I was juggling – birthday party, work commitments, packing for Spring Break, and the pressures of writing an Easter sermon. The last complaint caught her attention. “You’re worried about an Easter sermon?” she asked. “Oh, yes!” I explained. “It’s a big day. The sermon needs to be good!” She looked at me, dumbfounded, and said to me, in a way that only a best friend can, “You know nobody comes to church on Easter because of the sermon.”
Now as a preacher, you can imagine my ego was a little bruised. But the more I thought about her observation, the more I realized she was right. We come to church on Easter for a whole host of reasons. We come to church on Easter because that is what our family has always done, and the continued observation of Easter somehow connects us to the past, present, and future, creating a sense of belonging and identity. We come to church on Easter, because we long for a good word – a reminder that even in a tumultuous world, there is the promise of resurrection life, joy, and hope. We come to church on Easter because we love the music, the flowers, the crowded seats, the Easter attire, and the experience of being a part of community. And some of us are not sure why we come to church on Easter, but we suspect, or at least hope, we will find something that can revive our weary souls.
I suspect what most of us are hoping for today is an experience like Mary Magdalene’s. I am not sure Mary knew why she went to the tomb that fateful day. In John’s gospel, Mary is not there with spices to anoint Jesus’ body. She does not bring flowers or some memento to leave at the tomb. In fact, she comes to the tomb in darkness, before the morning light has arisen, perhaps in a fog of knowing she needs something but not sure what that something might be. And then, not unlike the chaos that may have been your morning to get here on time and half-way presentable, Mary’s life gets thrown into chaos. An empty tomb means she and the disciples run around like chickens with their heads cut off. Later, Mary finds herself bemoaning to angels and a stranger alike that she just wants Jesus’ body – a physical reminder of all the horror and love and pain that has happened. And in the midst of this chaos, a simple, profound thing happens. Mary is called by her name.[i] And her world gets turned on its head.
There is something very powerful about being called by your name. We will frequent restaurants or coffee shops because we love being recognized by name by our favorite barista or shop owner. If you have ever received a blessing or healing prayer by a person who knew your name, you know the intimacy that is created between the two of you, and the power of hearing your name lifted up to God. We even try to use nametags here at Hickory Neck because we know how wonderful being known by name feels. Being known by name creates a feeling of acceptance, affirmation, affection, and acknowledgement.[ii] I can only imagine the rush of emotions when Jesus calls Mary by name today – not just the recognition of who Jesus is, but the reminder of how much he has loved her.
I suspect we should add that to the list of reasons why we come to church on Easter Sunday. We want to be known too. Perhaps we want to literally be called by name. But perhaps we know just being here creates the same sense of belonging that being known by name creates. When we sit in these seats today, we know that we are sitting next to someone who is longing for belonging today too – who also rallied to get to church on time – maybe with kids in cute dresses, or maybe just pulling their aching bodies to church. When we sit in the seats today, we know that we are surrounded by a group of people who also love having their senses overwhelmed – from the smell of fragrant lilies, to the joyous sound of song [brass], to the taste of communion bread and wine, to the sight of fanfare and smiles, to the feel of another hand at the peace. When we sit in these seats today, we know that we will be offered a word of joy, light, love, hope – and we want our lives to be marked by that same sense of promise.
Now you may feel tempted today to take all that affirmation, encouragement, and joy, and go about the next days on your own personal high – as though the gifts you receive today are solely for you. But what all this fanfare, acknowledgment, and hope are meant to do is to propel you out into the world. When Mary is called by name, receiving the blessing of recognition and encouragement, she does not stay at the feet of the resurrected Jesus. She becomes John’s gospel’s first preacher. “I have seen the Lord,” Mary says to the disciples. Now I know some of you will go out from this place today and do just that – you will put on your Facebook page, “Alleluia, Christ is Risen!” or you will hug your neighbor and tell them what a joyous day you just had at church. But for others of you, sharing today’s joy may take you a little more time, or may look a bit different than proclaiming, “I have seen the Lord,” to your favorite barista. But what Mary invites us to do today is find our own way of sharing the beautiful gift we receive today – to give someone else the gift of joy and hope, to quietly tell a friend what a cool experience this day was, or to simply call someone else by name – sharing that same sense of belonging and affirmation you receive today. You came to church this Easter Sunday for something. Mary invites you to give that something to someone else. Amen. Alleluia!
[i] Serene Jones, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 378.
[ii] D. Cameron Murchison, “Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 380.