“Noli me tangere,” Scenes from the Life of Mary Magdalene by Giotto
A sermon for Easter Day, April 20, 2014. The lectionary readings are Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Colossians 3:1-4, and John 20:1-18.
What does it take to wake you up in the morning?
An alarm clock? A strong cup of coffee? An elbow in the rib?
For the cartoon characters Wallace and Gromit, it takes a little more than any of that. Wallace and Gromit are the British clay animation figures who star in several of their own short films and one full-length movie. Wallace is the inventor who tinkers with all kinds of odd contraptions. Gromit is his silent, though intelligent and anthropomorphic dog. They both love a good Stilton cheese. But their waking up is especially amusing.
For Wallace and Gromit, there’s an alarm that triggers a tea kettle, which makes steam which activates a giant hand that pokes the underside of the bed. Then there’s the smell of cheese—the Stilton, of course—and then a spring-loaded bed, a slide, a chute that lands them into their clothes, with a cup of coffee made just like they like it.
We awaken in different ways, sometimes more dramatically than other times.
In today’s Gospel the wakeup call comes early for Mary and the others.
It takes Mary and the others a while. They’re still groggy from the last few days’ events. Things get even more dreamlike for them when Mary sees that the great stone from the tomb has been rolled away. She goes to wake up Peter, and he brings another disciple. But things are even more confusing. The dream just gets worse. Someone has taken the body. The male disciples go home. But Mary Magdalene remains. A man speaks to her, but she can’t recognize him. Finally, when the Resurrected Jesus speaks her name, she wakes up fully. Fully conscious, fully alive, she recognizes Jesus and understands.
Then there is appearance after appearance. After appearing to Mary, Jesus appears to some of the other disciples on the beach, inviting them to come to shore and have breakfast. Later Jesus appears to the ones on the road to Emmaus, to Thomas, and others. With the resurrection, that same rooster who crowed three times to signal the betray of Peter has been reemployed. But now, that rooster is busy waking up everybody: Wake up! Jesus is risen from the dead! And with his rising, there is change in the air.
In our first reading this morning, from the Acts of the Apostles, we see the power of the resurrection to wake up. And in this story, it’s Peter who gets a wake-up call from God. Just before, Peter has been out and about preaching and telling people about Jesus. Peter is a devout Jew, following the laws and practices of his faith, and so is preaching as a part of a reform movement within Judaism. One afternoon, Peter goes up on a roof and takes nap. Since this is just before dinnertime, Peter naturally dreams about food. But it’s a strange dream. In this vision, this dream, this trance, he sees a large sheet lowered from heaven, full of all kinds of foods that he’s not supposed to eat. He heard God say, “take and eat,” but Peter knows that some of these foods are against the religious teaching. But the voice from heaven says, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Acts 10:15)
But this dream is a part of God’s waking Peter up—not so much about dietary rules and whether Peter should or shouldn’t eat certain things. Much more than that. God points Peter in the direction of Cornelius, a Roman Centurion—not a Jew, not someone who has grown up like Peter, but an outsider, some Peter would have complete overlooked otherwise. But Peter wakes up to the possibility of moving outside what’s known and usual, what’s traditional and expected. Cornelius is the first non-Jew to be brought into the way of Jesus, but he opens the door for all of us.
As friend, foe and follower recognize the risen Lord Jesus, there is a lot of waking up going on. They wake up to love: the love of God that would not leave them without comfort. The love of God that would befriend, that would die in the place of, that would extend mercy and compassion and forgiveness even from the cross. They awaken to peace: peace that transcends any and all understanding; peace that is no wimpy peace—this is a peace that has defeated death, that has won victory over violence and put evil in the grave, slammed down the lid and danced on it.
They awaken to the possibility of forgiveness: forgiveness that is beyond imagination, beyond human doing, but by God, through Christ. Propelled by the Holy Spirit forgiveness then moves through each of us as we extend it to one another. Forgiveness is never deserved, never earned, never timely, but is always a grace given.
How might Christ be calling us to wake up more fully? Are we, at all like Mary Magdalene, so close to his presence and way, and yet we don’t recognize? We don’t see clearly because we still have sleep in our eyes?
It’s been a long winter with lots of days when it was really hard to get out of bed. I don’t know about you, but I’m very slow to awaken to spring this year. I’m a little like some of the trees. Having been shocked once too often by the cold, I’m waiting a while to open up fully.
Life itself can feel like a long winter. When illness or health problems of some kind nag at us, it’s hard to feel fully alive, fully awake. Job worries can feel like a bad dream or even a nightmare. Challenging relationships can lull us into a place of indecision, inaction, and simply getting by. All kinds of things can sap our energy and cause us to move through life half asleep, wanting to hibernate, waiting for something—anything, to wake us up.
Some of you will remember Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. A lot of us read it in school, or maybe you’ve seen a more recent performance. But if you recall part of the story, a young woman named Emily dies at the age of 26. She asks if she can return for a brief visit with her family. And she’s granted that wish, provided that she choose the least important day in her life — which “will be important enough,” she is told. She chooses to return on her 12th birthday, only to find her father obsessed with his business problems and her mother preoccupied with kitchen duties. It’s mundane, every day, boring, business-as-usual. Emily exclaims,
Oh Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, 14 years have gone by. I’m dead!” Unable to rouse her parents, Emily breaks down sobbing. “We don’t have time to look at one another. . . . Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you! Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?” ((Act III, part 3)
Do we look? Do we see what’s before us? Easter can be that blast of new life to jolt us awake. Look around, Christ says, life is precious. Look around, he says, love is rare and needs tending like a garden. Smell the smells of this new day. Listen to the sounds of creation’s song.
Calling us by name, inviting us to recognize his resurrecting spirit, Christ offers to lift us up, to give us what we need in life, and to live through his spirit, sharing his love with others.
This Easter and always, may we awaken with joy and grace.
Alleluia. Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia.