Love Will Find You

I want to move slowly through Jesus’ resurrection appearance in John’s Gospel to appreciate the author’s magnificent storytelling. In the other three Gospels, several women arrive at the tomb together, and they are met by dazzling angels who tell them Jesus has risen. Matthew is the most dramatic,

And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, rolled back the stone, and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing was white as snow. And for fear of him, the guards trembled and became like dead men. But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified.

That is a resurrection story worthy of a halftime show at the Superbowl. Bring out the marching band and cue the Hallelujah chorus, with Rihanna and Mick Jagger guest appearances.

John’s Gospel is more for the introverts among us. Mary Magdalene goes to the garden alone in the early dawn. The first Easter Sunrise Service starts solo, just Mary in solitude and grief. Mary was at the cross as Jesus died while the other disciples hid. She sees the stone rolled away. She does not shout for joy, “He is risen.” Mary assumes someone stole Jesus’ body and didn’t even look in the tomb. She rushes to tell Peter and the disciples.

Peter comes carrying the guilt of failure and cowardice after his three denials.  He is no hero at the tomb either.  He sees the grave clothes neatly folded, which takes us one more step into the mystery. These graverobbers must have been very neat. Can you imagine, “Wait, fold everything nicely. Leave the tomb better than you found it. We may be thieves, but we are not barbarians.” Something more than a robbery has happened.   Peter observes and goes home without comment.  He doesn’t look for the body, organize a search party, or even comfort Mary. Peter goes home. “The tomb is empty, I have had a nightmare of a weekend, so I’m going home and continue feeling sorry for myself.” Mary must deal with this herself.

These first two scenes in John’s Gospel let the story breathe with humanity. In the first reaction to an empty tomb, people see what they expect to see. I would be right there with Mary, expecting the worst. I can empathize with Peter, feeling exhausted and too numb to deal with the unknown. Unless we see with the inner eyes of faith, we will always see what we are conditioned to see.

Our brains pay close attention to the negative threats in our environment. Our minds wander from our breath to anxiety about things left undone, past failures, and worries about the future. If you have tried meditation, you know the challenge of letting go of thoughts. These thoughts are rarely musing on all the happy moments and spending time being grateful. Why would you meditate if that was the problem? It takes time to learn to empty the brain of negativity. Brains must be trained towards gratitude and hope.

Disaster and fear sell better than optimism. In last week’s sermon, I said that news sources often emphasize the negative and sensational keep our attention. This week, Washington Post journalist Amanda Ripley’s column examined a cynical bias in news reporting. She tells this story:

At a cocktail party in a crowded Washington living room some years ago, I met a magazine editor working on a high-profile new book. It would transport the reader into the future, he told me, describing in vivid, terrifying prose all the catastrophes that might happen because of climate change: unbreathable air, dying oceans, hunger, drowning.

Would it offer people any hope? She asked.

“It’s not my job to give people hope,” he said, sounding vaguely disgusted. I got the sense that hope was for the weak. And that by asking my question, I was weak, too.   A year later, his book ended up being a bestseller. So, I figured maybe he was right. Maybe hope is not our job. But then I couldn’t help but wonder, whose job is it?

Ripley notes in the article how it feels safer to pitch negative stories to editors. It is easier to publish stories about buffoonery than progress. I wrestled with this as a journalism major. My early heroes were Woodward and Bernstein, exposing corruption. In high school, I read “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair and wanted to be a muck-racking journalist. I thought if I revealed what is unjust and evil, someone would do the work to improve the world. But it doesn’t necessarily work that way. Ripley points out how a cynicism bias makes us seem worldly and realistic, but it isn’t the whole truth. If that is all, we hear, we lose hope. She points out how hope is seen as naïve, even weak:

The word [hope] sounds gauzy and fey, like rainbows and sunsets. It feels like a gateway drug to delusion and denial. “I don’t want your hope,” climate activist Greta Thunberg said at the World Economic Forum 2019. “I want you to panic.”

We need Greta Thunberg’s passion, but we feel defeated and overwhelmed without hope. It is possible to look at the world as it is, to face the worst of humanity, and still see through the eyes of faith, hope, and love. Mary Magdalene is a great model for this attitude. Mary does not run away from grief and fear; she lets love draw her in. She is at the cross while others are keeping a safe distance. When Peter goes home, she is determined to find out what happened to Jesus’ body. She may not have fully understood what happened, but she is engaged. Sometimes the most faithful thing we can do is show up.

Let’s look more deeply into the second half of the story. She investigates the tomb for clues, and now there are two angels there who ask her, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  She is at a grave!  She thinks a body was stolen!  Why do you think she is weeping? I love how she is unimpressed by the two angels.  She is single-minded in her quest for the body of her Jesus.  She turns to the gardener, “Have you taken the body?  Tell me!”  The gardener also asks, “Woman, why are you weeping?”  She might think, “Why is everyone so concerned that I’m still grieving when we should be finding Jesus’s body?”

When Jesus asks again, he adds, “Who are you looking for?” This question is not a rebuke. In John’s Gospel, Jesus uses questions to get to the heart of the matter. In the first chapter of John, two men follow Jesus after he is baptized. Jesus turns to them, saying, “What are you looking for?” The conversation leads to Andrew becoming the first disciple, and he recruits his brother Peter. Jesus asks similar questions of several people. A lame man is begging by the pool of Bethsaida, and Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” The man starts to tell his tale of woe, and Jesus says, “Do you want to be well?” Later when, Bartemeus, who is blind, is shouting by the roadside, Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” It may seem completely obvious as we read the story that the lame man and the blind man want to be healed, and Mary wants to find the body of Jesus. But does Mary really want to recover the dead body of Jesus?

Who are you looking for? What do you want? The question is an invitation to speak about what you truly need, and what you really hope. We often go through our day unaware of what we are looking for. As Yogi Berra said, “If you don’t know where you are going, you will probably wind up someplace else.” We often journey through life on autopilot. The self-driving car of our brain takes us to where our habits lead. It charts a course to lessen our fears and anxieties so we feel safe. But is that what we really want? Leaving the auto-pilot in charge won’t deliver us to our true hope, which is often not on the map.

The path of the Spirit takes us on a different route. Hope is created as we take the journey. The Spirit draws us past cynicism and despair to show us that love wins. Like Mary Magdalene, we don’t always understand the big picture, but all we must do is take the next step and then the next one. We may have to look for love through some challenging times, at the foot of a cross, or the bewilderment of an empty grave. Mary searched for love, and when she felt near a dead end, love found her. Jesus spoke her name, and love flooded in.

This message is where John’s story is leading. Are you looking for love? By love, I mean a deep connection to life, a strength that flows through you and connects you with everyone and everything. Here is the surprise. The loving God is also looking for you. Love found Mary in the graveyard. Love will soon locate the disciples locked in a room from fear and Thomas so full of skepticism. Love will discover Peter and heal his shame. And love will find you too.

Be not afraid. Christ is risen. Love wins. Alleluia and Amen!

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