Whenever I prepare an Easter sermon, I always think way too hard about what it is I'm going to say. And today was no different. As my mind went in many different directions, I began to wonder just how our minds work anyway. Our minds are so complex and mysterious. For many of us, Christianity, our faith, even the person of Jesus himself, is really a heady exercise. We think very hard about faith, and perhaps sometimes, our minds can get in the way. What we think we see in the world is only really what our brains allow us to perceive. Our brains are trained from an early age to make assumptions about the world, to perceive the world in particular ways, like shorthand that allows us to function at efficient and productive levels. When we encounter something new, something we don't understand, we often find ourselves a bit confused. And when an entirely new way of being is presented to us, it's difficult to understand that new world at all.
When I was in college, I remember learning about a small island in Micronesia, northeast of Australia, named Pingelap. Although every indigenous group is unique, the people on this tiny island of Pingelap are exceptional because so many of them are colorblind. By some estimates, only one in every 40,000 people around the world are colorblind, but on this tiny island of Pingelap, one in ten are colorblind.
Imagine what it would be like to live without the breadth of color most of us experience. The world would look like a very different place. Rather than seeing the shocking differences between muted pastels and bright fluorescents, we would see very subtle shifts in tones and textures. And, as scientists discovered, when enough colorblind people shared life together, such as those on Pingelap, a new visual culture actually developed. Scientists discovered that those who are colorblind created their own artistic culture, and in some cases, they were able to create patterns on canvas and with cloth that only they could see. In other words, this group of people cannot see what we take for granted - the vibrancy of colors all around us. Yet because of their colorblindness, they saw beauty in new and creative ways - ways in which those of us who see color cannot appreciate.[i]
What we see in the world, what we perceive to be true, is a mental game. But how much of that perception has become limiting to our ability to see what's right in front of us? How much are we letting our brains and our heady assumptions control the way we live?
Now, let's be honest. We love predictability - we crave predictability because predictability makes us comfortable - makes us feel secure. We all get a little flustered when things change from what we expect. When someone moves your stapler at work, or your spouse puts the car keys in an unexpected place, or perhaps your favorite restaurant stops serving your favorite dish. Whenever things like that happen, we remember how much we love predictability.
We see some of that predictability in today's gospel lesson. Consider Mary Magdalene and the disciples - they have just seen their friend die in front of them. They have helped to bury him in the tomb. They know all about this pain, the rhythm of death, the heartbreak of loss, and they know what will happen next - and unfortunately, we know this rhythm, too.
We know all about fear and loss and heartbreak - we live this loss in our own personal lives, and too often, we have to live this loss on a global scale. We are reminded, far too often, that terrible things can happen without warning and when we least expect them, and we can get scared, because we are only human, and we know what to expect, we become numb to the pain, we jump to conclusions about loss and pain because it saves us from having to relive every moment, every time that pain happens.
And here in this Gospel lesson, only days after his burial, Mary has prepared to return to Jesus' tomb, prepared to do what she knows to do - anoint his body, pray for him, weep for him. Mary comes to the tomb and she knows what to expect. Jesus has died and had been buried and should have been in that tomb. The tomb should have been a quiet, still, predictable place. But the tomb was empty. And when they experienced the unexpected, they did not understand.
Mary came to the tomb just as we approach life - she knew what to expect, knew what had to be done, and was ready and willing to do the work. Yet Jesus was not satisfied with the predictable, Jesus was not going to leave Mary where she was, no matter how faithful she was - Jesus was looking for conversion. Mary had to be converted from the sincere and well-intended business of life she had undertaken.
We are told Mary "came to the tomb and sees" that the stone has been removed - now something does not compute, something is not right, something is not what had been predicted, and so she runs to tell the others. When she gets back with two other disciples, she sees two angels sitting where Jesus had been lying - and still, she does not understand what is happening. At that point, she turns and sees Jesus himself standing there but doesn't know that it's him. You see, she is still reeling from the experience of what she didn't expect, still trying to make sense of an experience that is so radically different than anything else that she knows that her brain is getting in the way. It's only after seeing the empty tomb, seeing the angels, and seeing Jesus himself that Jesus calls her by name, saying simply, "Mary," and finally, she sees in the deepest sense, really sees what had been right in front of her the whole time.
And my friends, we are just like Mary. We want our world to be predictable. We want our world to be secure and certain and stable, but when we allow ourselves to live into the security we think we want, we can miss what is right in front of us, the truth that we really need. We can miss the truth of Christ, the truth of resurrection.
Can we see what is right in front of us - the beauty that surrounds us, the hope that gives light in the darkness, the promise of resurrection? I know what it's like to doubt and to succumb to the world's pressures. The world can feel scary and dangerous, the world tells us that might makes right and that putting others down is the only way to get what we want. But the way the world works is not working. The way the world has structured itself is not working. Today we get a glimpse into a divine opportunity, the opportunity of Christ. With Christ, with this amazing story of resurrection, we can actually live.
Now, perhaps we are not quite convicted of this truth. Maybe we want resurrection to be true, hope that resurrection is true, but perhaps, we have not yet witnessed, not yet seen the truth that God has put before us. Perhaps we have not yet been converted and convicted of this truth. Perhaps we have put our minds, our complex and highly educated minds in the way of God's ability to transform our hearts.
I spent a summer as a chaplain intern at a cardiac hospital. I was always fascinated with medicine, and when I had the chance to watch rare cardiac procedures, especially heart catheterizations and open-heart surgeries, I seized the opportunity! So, when I heard a story about a pastor who talked one of his members, a heart surgeon, into letting him be present in the operating room during open-heart surgery, I was fascinated.
As he tells this story, he was standing in the corner of the operating room as they brought the patient into the room and began this absolutely amazing process - literally opening the person up and repairing their heart, literally fixing the heart. And when the surgery was finished, the surgeon began to gently massage the heart to get it beating again. But this time, the heart didn't start on its own. So, he massaged the heart again, still nothing happened. And it began to dawn on the pastor that he might see his friend, the surgeon, lose his patient, that he might watch this patient, this stranger, die on the table in front of him. Now, the doctors at that moment got a little more aggressive to try and treat the heart to get the heart going and still nothing.
Finally, the surgeon knelt down beside his patient and he took off his surgical mask and he said, "Mrs. Johnson, this is your surgeon. The operation went perfectly, your heart has been repaired - now tell your heart to beat again." When he said that, the heart began to beat.[ii]
There are so many people who have experienced so much brokenness to their heart. Even though God has covered us up with his grace, sometimes we have to tell our own hearts to beat again, to love again, to hope again.
And today is our chance! Today is our chance to tell our hearts to beat again. Today is our chance to tell our souls to live again. Today is our chance to be transformed into the person we know we want to be, the person we hope to be, the person God made us to be.
Resurrection is not like anything we might expect. Resurrection announces that God has not given up on the world because this world matters. Our lives matter. Resurrection says that what we do with our lives matters. Every act of love, every kind deed, every moment of grace matters. Every one of us, everyone has a place in God's world, has meaning in God's world - everyone of us matters to God.
Today is the day to get your mind out of the way, to get your doubts out of the way and to listen to God's voice calling to your spirit - I have repaired your heart, I have healed your soul, you are a new creation, so get up and live, get up and live again, get up and love again, get up and hope again.
Thanks be to God for offering Jesus. Thanks be to God for the hope of resurrection. And thanks be to God for the gift of new life. Let us all say Alleluia! We have indeed seen the Lord - now get up and live!
[i] Oliver Sacks, The Island of the Colorblind (New York: Vintage Books, 1998).
[ii] "Phillips, Craig & Dean - 'Tell Your Heart to Beat Again' Story Behind the Song," from https://youtube/pdPp7ofeBMA.