Eyes to See

April 1, 2018
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

John 20:1-18

They almost missed Easter. In John’s telling of it, it takes seven tries before somebody finally understands what has happened.

One. Mary goes to the tomb and sees the stone is rolled away. She assumes someone his taken body out of the tomb and that what she reports. No hint of resurrection yet.

Two. Simon Peter and the other disciple run to see for themselves what’s going on. The disciple gets there first and peers into the tomb but doesn’t get it.

Three. Peter goes inside next and sees the linen clothes left laying where they had lain him, but draws no conclusion.

Four. The other disciple enters the tomb but still they don’t understand resurrection has happened. No Easter yet. Instead, the men go back home.

Five. Mary stays at the tomb and takes another look. She repeats her body-snatching theory to the two angels she now sees inside the tomb: “Where have they taken him?” she asks.

Six. Then Mary sees Jesus, takes him for the gardener, and asks him if he took the body.

Seven. Finally, when Jesus says her name, Mary understands. She runs to tell everyone: “I have seen the Lord!”

It’s resurrection by increments. Inch by inch it dribbles out, and they almost miss it.

It’s a recurring theme in the gospel – how difficult it is for people to grasp what God is up to. They don’t see beyond the material – the stone is rolled away and the tomb is empty. They want answers to the wrong questions.

Right under their noses God has upended history and started a revolution against the powers of death, and it almost slips by unnoticed.

The prophets of old had warned about this. God’s coming reign, they said, would require a different kind of vision, a new way of hearing and comprehending that went beyond the material. They urged the people of God to pay attention in new ways, to have “eyes that see and ears that hear.” And hearts that understand.

If on Easter we’re looking for hard evidence that proves the veracity of the resurrection we’ll be disappointed. But if on this morning of mornings we can finally look out at the world with eyes that see, we might catch a glimpse of the reign of God among us, of light that no gloom can overcome, of justice that will not be stopped, of peace that will have no end.

Eyes that see are not bound by the merely observable. Ears that hear are not restricted only to sounds we make.

They look and listen far beyond, into the heart of God.

This week on Wednesday evening at 6:30 we start a new mid-week worship series on the Sounds of Creation. In the renewal of spring and the return of life to the earth we sense nature’s own Easter. The service will run Wednesday evenings in April in Westminster Hall – which, if you haven’t yet seen it, is designed to feel like a clearing in the woods. Worshippers will enter to the sound of bird song, and the song will continue through the service. If we have ears that hear the sounds of creation gill give us a glimpse of the divine nature.

“I don’t know who God is exactly,” poet Mary Oliver writes, sounding a bit like a frustrated Mary Magdalene on that first Easter morning.

“But I’ll tell you this.

I was sitting in the river named Clarion, on a

water splashed stone

and all afternoon I listened to the voices

of the river talking.

Whenever the water struck the stone it had

something to say,

and the water itself, and even the mosses trailing

under the water.

And slowly, very slowly, it became clear to me

what they were saying.

Said the river: I am part of holiness.

And I, too, said the stone. And I, too, whispered

the moss beneath the water.

Said the river: imagine everything you can imagine, then

keep on going.”

(At the River Clarion)

There’s a failure of imagination initially on that first Easter morning, and it’s still happening. We have domesticated Easter to the point that it now lacks the punch with which it hit Mary on its seventh try. Resurrection is scandalously good news. Astonishing news. It should stop us from living however we were living and transform us into new people.

Imagine everything you can imagine, the poet advises, then keep on going. We need eyes to see and ears to hear and hearts to understand the miracle of this day and of this life and of this God of ours, whose love will not be bound by death.

Easter can be a dramatic, world-altering experience, like Saul on the road to Damascus, or it can be in the little things – more often in the little things – if we have eyes to see the risen, living Christ all around us.

Twenty-five years ago when we were raising babies we depended on Anne Lamott to help us through. She writes about what it was like to live through the challenges of being a single mom, especially with a colicky baby that didn’t like to sleep very much. She, too, sounds a bit like Mary on Easter morning. After a particularly rough evening with her son, Lamott writes,

“Last night, I decided that it is totally nuts to believe in Christ…Then something truly amazing happened. A man from church showed up at our front door …After exchanging pleasantries he said… ‘What if a fairy appeared on your doorstep and said that he or she would do any favor for you at all, anything you wanted around the house that you felt too exhausted to do…and too ashamed to ask anyone to help you with?’

“’I can’t even say,’ I said. ‘It’s too horrible.’”

“But he finally convinced me to tell him, and I said it would be to clean the bathroom, and he ended up spending an hour scrubbing the bathtub and toilet and sink…I sat on the couch while he worked…feeling vaguely guilty and nursing Sam to sleep. But it made me feel sure of Christ again, of that kind of love. This, a man scrubbing a new mother’s bathtub, is what Jesus means to me.”

(Operating Instructions [New York: Pantheon Books, 1993], p. 69-70)

Eyes to see. Imagine everything you can imagine, then keep on going.

A few months ago I got a call from the caregiver of a beloved, long-time Westminster member in her late 90s. It had been a couple years since she had been able to come to church. Her health was declining, but she’d been a member here for more than 71+ years and she wanted to see the new wing, which was almost complete.

“Could I drive her down to the church to see the project?” the caregiver asked.

“Of course,” I said.

I met them at the door, wheelchair at the ready. We donned hardhats and spent a good bit of time touring the construction site. We rolled into each room. She was delighted with everything. We talked about ministries that would spring up in the new wing, the music and mission and education and new worship. She marveled at each space we entered. After rolling around for an hour, she headed home.

She died a few weeks later. It turns out that visit was her last trip out of the house.

As she left Westminster that day after our tour, I was struck by what had just happened. Her vision had failed some time ago. She was no longer able to see, but you never would have known it as she marveled at the new space and the promise it held for her church.

She didn’t come simply to see the building. She came to see beyond the building, to imagine the church and its future.

Eyes to see. That’s the gift of Easter. If we’re not paying close attention, watching and listening with our hearts, we may miss it. It takes imagination to see things and, especially, to see people, in an Easter light.

The Rule of Benedict, written for monks 15 centuries ago, says that all strangers should be received as if they were Christ himself. With our new open door policy at Westminster we’re finding that is keeping us busy.

On Ash Wednesday a neighbor from down the street came through the church’s open door. He showed one of our staff members his eviction notice. It said he was $32 short on his monthly rent, and he asked for assistance. Normally we don’t give out cash – we refer people to agencies – but the staff member had a feeling about this man, said to herself, “Being poor is the hardest job!” She happened to have $33 on her, so, rather than “make him jump through another hoop” she did the most hospitable thing: she gave him what she had, and assumed she’d never see the man again.

That was Ash Wednesday, and then we went through the forty days of Lent.

On Maundy Thursday, at the end of Lent, he walked back in through the open door and gave the receptionist $33 and said to pass the money and his gratitude on to the staff member who had helped him. She has eyes to see, just as he did.

Much of the turmoil in our land these days comes from vision that is too narrow, eyesight that lacks imagination or is turned in on itself. We see a young black man and assume he’s a threat. We see a cop and think he might harm us. We see a Muslim immigrant in religious garb and think they’re challenging us. We see an evangelical Christian on the other side of a protest and write them off as ill-informed, or worse.

Easter didn’t happen so our long-standing prejudices would go unquestioned. We weren’t given resurrection eyes to see the same old injustice and find it acceptable.  Christ didn’t rise to affirm our place of privilege in the world, or our tendency to ignore the pain of others and pass by the poor.

Nancy Smith-Mather is a Presbyterian mission co-worker in South Sudan supported by Westminster. Because of the strife in that land they’re now living in Uganda, serving the South Sudanese in refugee camps there. Nancy wrote recently of something a South Sudanese church leader had said to her:

“Those who break the chain of resentment, retaliation, violence, and hostility are people who take away the sins of the world.”

He was using the language of our liturgy that we use to describe Jesus: “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.” Those who break the chain of resentment, retaliation, violence, and hostility are people who take away the sins of the world.

That church leader sees through the lens of resurrection.

Easter ushers in an entirely new way to understand life. It brings us out of the shadows of fear and into the light of a new day. The radiance of the resurrection makes God’s desires for the human family clearly visible. Our call to love God and to love God’s people can no longer be dismissed.

It may take some time for us to comprehend, we might even miss it at first, but Easter gives us eyes to see.

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed.

Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!

Amen.

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