“I have seen the Lord…” – Sermon for Easter Vigil, 2023
Posted On April 9, 2023
I had the privilege of participating in the Easter Vigil at St. Micheal Lutheran Church in Harrisburg, and to preach the Good News for the service. Here is what I preached:
There’s a famous psychology experiment that was conducted in 1999 called the “Invisible Gorilla Experiment.” Maybe you’ve seen the video. The researches told participants that they would be watching a video of people passing basketballs to each other. And they were to count how many times the people in the white shirts passed the balls. That was their goal. The video is pretty simple. There aren’t any distractions to prevent someone from counting, even with the people in the video moving around and weaving between each other.
What the researchers were really interested in was finding out how many people were so focused on the task at hand that they would miss something so out of place that it seemed impossible to not see. About halfway through the video, there is a person in a gorilla suit walking through the crowd. At the end of the video, the researched ask a simple question – did they see the gorilla?
Amazingly, 50% of the participants don’t see the gorilla and have no idea that a gorilla walked through the crowd, stopped in the middle, did a little dance, and then casually walked away. They missed it completely because they were so focused on counting the number of times the basketball is passed around. The gorilla is unexpected and doesn’t fit in to the task at hand. Our brains don’t know what to do with the information, and for some people, it causes a type of blindness to such things.
According to an article in Practical Psychology about this, the experiment “shows that sometimes, we literally can’t see things that are right in front of us.” (Source)
If we have been around a church for any length of time, we are familiar with the Easter story – very familiar actually. It’s the core, central story of what is means to be a Christian, a follower of Jesus. Holy Week is summed up as life, death, and resurrection. It’s all there. But I wonder if we are missing something that is right in front of our face.
In the Gospel we hear about Mary Magdalene going to the tomb and the stone has been removed. So, she gets Simon Peter and the other disciple, and they come back. They look in the tomb and see the linens, but no body of Jesus. We’re told they didn’t understand the scripture yet, that he must rise from the dead. So, they leave and go back to their homes.
But Mary stays and weeps. She looks in and sees two angels where Jesus’ body had been laying. I’m sorry, stop right there. Time out. That should raise lots of questions. She sees two angels, but does she really see what’s going on? The angels ask Mary why she is weeping. And she says, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him.”
She’s expecting to find a body. This is her focus. That’s what she can see. Anything else is unexpected, preventing her from seeing it. And then Jesus appears to her and we are told, she did not know it was Jesus. Sometimes we literally can’t see things that are right in front of us. Especially when we have a focus and attention that is directed on something else – something that we expect.
The beauty of the Easter Vigil is that we get to hear the larger story – God’s story through all of creation and time. It’s the story of how God keeps coming to creation, to bring salvation, liberation, and to move creation towards shalom, wholeness. Always the same story. Sometimes though we’re like the participants in the study – so very focused on listening to what God has done in the past, that maybe we miss the unexpected that is right in front of our face. Like Mary, we can’t see what is right there.
Don’t get me wrong, these stories are important for us to hear, to be reminded of who God is and what God does. And I love the Easter Vigil. It’s my favorite worship service of the year. These stories all show God as the one who has acted to bring creation and life into existence. It was God who acted to bring salvation and restoration. It was God who acted to provide what was needed. It was God who made a path forward. It was God who provided nourishment. It was God who promised hope for people in exile and who were lost and then fulfilled those promises. It was God who offered forgiveness and showed mercy. It was God who stood with all who suffered and provided faith for them, so that the faithful would know that they were not alone.
But all of that is in the past. It’s easy for our attention to be so focused on what did happen that maybe we are missing what is right in front of us.
All these stories lead us to Jesus, God who takes on flesh to be with us. Jesus does many acts and we hear about them in the Gospels. Jesus continues what God has always been up to. All those things that I just listed and that we heard in the readings.
How easy it is to look at all of that and see what happened in the past and just stop there. And when we do, our expectation becomes that God only acted in the past. We miss what is right in front of us. The beauty of the Easter Vigil is that we hear the bigger story of what God has been doing since the very beginning, with all of it pointing to Jesus, and his death and resurrection, so that, like Mary, we can hear Jesus call our name, and see him right there in front of us.
It’s easy to focus on what’s wrong with the world. That’s been going on for a long time. Part of these stories show us the brokenness, hopelessness, and how cruel people can be to one another. It’s easy to focus on the chaos in the world. To focus on the things that make us feel like we are drowning in sorrow and despair. To believe that there is only a choice of cruelty and destruction because that is what we constantly hear about and are exposed to. To believe that we are trapped and the only way through is to give up because the odds do not look good. To see the multitude who hunger and thirst for food, for meaning, for justice, for acceptance of who they are, and for right relationship. To feel lost and hopeless because it seems like nothing will ever change for the better. To feel swallowed up in the belly of the beast of this world. To suffer at the hands of those whose very creed is that the cruelty is the point.
These are all real. They are real pains and sufferings. They are real experiences. On Friday, Richard Rohr’s daily meditation quoted the author Racheal Srubas as saying “Denying pain would intensify it but facing hard facts of life and death would lead people deep into reality, the only place where God eternal can be found.”
It is in the midst of Mary weeping, feeling the fullness of sorrow and loss, that God eternal is found. It’s there that Jesus, the God who takes on our flesh, but also knows the fullness of pain, suffering, and death, makes himself known fully to Mary and to us. He calls her by name and calls our name too, so that we, like Mary, can see him.
The Gospel proclaims the ultimate Good News to us – life, death, and resurrection. But it’s not some abstract idea. The authors of the book “The New Parish” put it this way – “If love is not manifest concretely, towards real people and situations, it risks becoming just an ideology. It risks turning into a moral code, a sentimental notion or, worse yet, a vision that co-opts actual presence.” (Pg. 71).
The beauty of Jesus’ resurrection is that it doesn’t negate, ignore, distract, or pretend that the things we experience aren’t real or didn’t happen. They do happen. They are very real. God isn’t into dismissing the human condition and experience. Jesus comes to us over and over again in our human condition, in our limitations, in our pain and sufferings, in our being lost, in our being held hostage to cruelty, and is with us in those things, gives us what we need, and liberates us so that we can see more than just the terrible things that we have been experiencing and are going on in the world.
Jesus calls our name, opens our eyes, like Mary, so that we can see Jesus, we can see hope, we can see grace, we can see mercy, we can see forgiveness, we can see new life and a new path forward. The resurrection of Jesus is the proclamation that the story, and our story, doesn’t end with suffering and pain, exile and being lost, hunger and thirst, persecution and cruelty. No, that’s not the whole story. It’s never been the whole story. That’s why we listen to all these stories in the Vigil. None of these stories end in the valley of the shadow of death. God acts, and brings salvation, new life, wholeness, and fulfilled hope.
Stories have three basic parts – the introduction of what’s going on who is involved. Then part two is the challenge, the confrontation, the going into the valley, where it looks hopeless with no solution. And part three is the resolution, the liberation, the salvation. That’s what today’s Good News is all about. Jesus completes the third act of the most important story of all. He opens Mary’s eyes and ours to see him. And where is he, so often where we least expect him to be, is at the place where things are real. Jesus’ resurrection is love in a concrete manner, with real people and a real tomb, where he really experienced suffering death, and where people really wept and mourned. And it’s in the midst of all of this, that Jesus does what God has always been up to, just as we have heard in these stories.
At the end of the Gospel, Mary goes, as directed by Jesus and announces to the disciples – “I have seen the Lord.”
Where are we seeing the Lord? Where are we seeing Jesus in unexpected places, where he calls us by name and opens our eyes to what he is already been up to?
In my own life, I’ve seen the Lord in a variety of unexpected places, changing people’s lives in ways I would never have imagined. Places like a truck stop and a homeless encampment. I have seen the Lord bring healing and create community and trust among strangers. I have seen the Lord fill stomachs, provide hope, and liberate people from cruelty. I’ve seen the Lord at food pantries and in kitchens. I’ve seen the Lord on the lawn of the US Capitol covered in blankets. I’ve seen the Lord inside the Pennsylvania Capitol as I distributed ashes with other pastors. I’ve seen the Lord in people who have almost nothing giving all they have to someone else in need. I’ve seen the Lord in so many places.
Mary said, I have seen the Lord. The resurrected Jesus isn’t some abstract idea. He shows up, in real places, where real stuff is going on, and he calls our names so that we can see him – all of us. And he sends us out, like Mary, to tell how we have seen the Lord. Jesus invites us to keep the story going. Jesus is risen! That’s Good News, the best news ever. How have you seen the Lord? Amen.