Slow Learners Get Another Chance

A Sermon on John 20:1-18 for Easter Day

Alleluia. Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia! I'm sorry, but that's not quite good enough. Let's try again. You get another chance! Alleluia. Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia! That's more like it!

Once upon a time there was a pastor who decided he needed a spiritual advisor, someone to help him, to guide and pray with him on his spiritual path. So he went to see a wise, old pastor who was now retired from active ministry, and he asked him to be his spiritual guide. The wise, old pastor - let's call him Grand Abba George - asked his younger friend, "What do you want to learn?" The pastor answered the question with his own question. "What's the most important thing you've learned?" Grand Abba George grinned. "I had a nervous breakdown," he said without hesitation. "And then . . . I had another one. You see," Grand Abba George whispered, leaning closer to the pastor, "I'm a slow learner. I learned that I'm a slow learner."

Are there any slow learners out there? Those of you in recovery from addiction understand what Grand Abba George was talking about. Recovering folks call that second breakdown a "relapse." That's why the 12-Step wisdom of "one day at a time" is so important. It's about living your life one day at a time, no matter what. That tends to slow life down. We can learn something from slow learners, from slowing down our life in the fast lane, even moving, when we must, into the lane called breakdown. What if we considered living our lives in a slower way? Slower driving, slower living. Is it possible slower is better, even healthier? Is it possible we might all need to be slower learners?

What about the disciples? Were they slow learners? Peter and the beloved disciple - John, the one whose name is on the Easter story we've just heard - they were definitely slow learners. When Mary Magdalene brought them news about the empty tomb, they ran, as fast as they could, racing each other. John beat Peter to the tomb, looked in, but didn't go in. Peter got there, went into the tomb and looked around. Then John joined Peter, looked around and did something Peter wasn't able to do, just yet. John slowed down enough to believe, the story says. What he believes, it doesn't say. All in all, it seems John and Peter were being given another chance to learn something about Jesus' resurrection. Did they take that chance to learn? Or were they sick with regret? Stunned into silence? Terrified that they might be the next to die?

"But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb." Was Mary Magdalene, who came there in the middle of the night, a slow learner? Mary was the first person to tell Peter and John and all the disciples that she had seen the Lord; the first person to preach the Gospel, to share God's Good News; the first and only woman to be named an apostle by the Orthodox tradition or any other part of Christianity, for that matter; the first woman, other than Jesus' mother Mary, to become a beloved disciple. With all those "firsts," was Mary a slow learner?

In her book The Meaning of Mary Magdalene: Discovering the Woman at the Heart of Christianity, the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Bourgeault says Mary needs to be seen as the first apostle, a most beloved disciple and a woman of wisdom - all three. Bourgeault looks through the lens of medieval scholarship at the four canonical Gospel accounts as well as fragments of other gospels called Gnostic, stories that did not make the cut for the canon of scripture we now call the Holy Bible. In addition to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, she studied the Gospels of Thomas, Philip and Mary Magdalene. Bourgeault argues: "Mary Magdalene earns her place among the apostles because, of all Jesus' students, she is the one who best catches the full meaning of his teachings and is best able to 'walk the talk'" (p. x).

Part of Mary's "walking the talk" is that she never runs away from Jesus. On Friday afternoon, the disciples run away, but Mary stays. On Friday night, as Jesus' body is laid to rest, the disciples are nowhere to be seen, but Mary stays. On Sunday morning, Mary does run with Peter and John to the tomb. And yet the men leave, without showing the slightest desire to understand what has happened. They go, but Mary stays. She stays, standing and weeping at the tomb. She does not run from her grief. She stays, because slowly, over time, she has learned this about her Lord: that's what Jesus does. Jesus stays with her and all his disciples. Jesus stays, no matter what.

Many of you have lost loved ones this past year, as I have. Many of you know how hard those "firsts" can be - the first birthday without him, the first Christmas since she died, the first Easter. Like Peter and John, Mary Magdalene was a slow learner in some ways. But she stayed. And look what happened when she did: she got another chance! Angels appeared! "Woman, why are you weeping?" "They have taken away my Lord . . . ." (20:13). Mary has lost her beloved teacher, her "Rabbouni," her dear friend. Now, it appears that someone has taken his body as well. She gets another chance, and at the same time, she is still learning. slowly, just what it is that is happening to her.

That's the way it is with us. They've taken away my beloved. Maybe it's a beloved person we've lost. Or maybe it's a beloved place or thing. They've taken away my favorite translation of the Bible. They've taken away my beloved 1928 Book of Common Prayer. They've taken away the church of my beloved childhood. They've taken away my beloved country, my beloved world. That kind of grief, all our losses piling up, can be so great, so difficult that we begin not to believe, not to trust anything, anyone, anymore. When beloved people, places or things feel like they have been taken away from us, we lose trust. We get suspicious. We fear some secret deal. We feel like we are outside, looking in. And we are slow to understand what it is that is actually happening to us.

But all good things come to those who . . . are slow learners. Look at what happens next with Mary, in the midst of her grief. Jesus also appears, and yet, she's still slow to see who it really is. Isn't that the gardener? Then Jesus calls out, "Mary!" That's all he had to say. "Mary!" She turns around. She is converted. She learns. She learns that you just can't explain resurrection. New life is just a mystery. The Risen One just calls us out - calls her, calls you, calls me - by name.

One of my spiritual guides is a Grand Abba named Paul Simon. At the age of 69, he is now, among other things, both the first recipient of the Library of Congress's Gershwin Prize for popular song and an assistant coach for his young son's baseball team. Married three times, Simon knows something about being a slow learner. He's been given another chance, personally and professionally. His latest CD, "So Beautiful or So What," is full of music about the mysteries of God. One of the songs on that new CD is called "Rewrite." It begins, "I've been working on my rewrite / That's right, I'm gonna change the ending / Gonna throw away my title / and toss it in the trash." It ends:

I'll eliminate the pages / where the father has a breakdown
and he has to leave the family / but he really meant no harm.
Gonna substitute a car chase / and a race across the rooftops,
When the father saves the children / and he holds them in his arms.
And I say, help me, help me, help me, help me,
Thank you! / I'd no idea / that You were there
when I said help me, help me, help me, help me.
Thank you / for listening to my prayer.

How slow does a learner need to be? Slow enough to know we will always be slow to the ways and mysteries of God. Slow enough, humble enough to ask for help and to thank the Helper. Slow enough, human enough to know there is always more to learn. Slow enough to learn she will always have another chance, he will always have another chance - to rewrite life, with God's help.

Sisters and brothers, whether we want to admit it or not, we are ALL slow learners. We ALL have problems and crises - even breakdowns. And we ALL have another chance to learn - here, today. We all have another chance to learn something about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, the one who through his own life, death and resurrection teaches us about the mystery of our own living, dying and rising. If we are willing to learn, Jesus will teach us about our own relapses and recoveries; about times of breaking down and being lifted back up; about letting go of our old lives, so we can rewrite them; about getting another chance, with God's help.

Paul Simon said recently, "I'm not crazy about dying." Dear friends in Christ, he's not dead yet, and neither are we. No matter how slow a learner you or I may be, our lives have as many second chances, as many rewrites, recoveries and resurrections as we need. May God give us the wisdom, the grace and the courage to be slow learners.

Shall we try again? Because you get another chance! Alleluia. Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia! That's more like it! The Lord is risen indeed, IN US. Alleluia! Amen.