Turning and Returning to Jesus
A Sermon for Easter Day
Last night, after our Easter Vigil service, which included four Baptisms, the families of those four children reassembled near the Baptismal font for a “photo op.” I'm always pleased when families want to make a picture of this once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I'm honored when they ask me to be in the picture with them. Rev. Jessica and I stood in the background for those photo shoots, and in the last one, the newly-baptized young man who was being held kept turning his head around, to look at me. And to touch my beard. And to smile. It wasn't very helpful for the photographers, who were trying to capture the moment for posterity, when he kept looking in the opposite direction. But Jayven Manuel turned again and again to look at the guy who had poured water over his head three times, “in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” I loved it!
Jesus must have loved it when Mary Magdalene went looking for him. She was weeping, because of all the disciples, Mary loved Jesus with a longing that drove her to look for his body in the middle of the night. “While it was still dark,” the Scripture says. I suspect her own darkness of despair over the depth of her loss and confusion was as real as darkness gets in anyone's life. Mary's friends, Peter and John, the one called the beloved disciple, after racing each other to the empty tomb, simply and sadly just went home. They could not do – at least not yet – what Mary Magdalene could do and did.
And what exactly did Mary do? She turned around. She turned around to face Jesus. Do you remember that part of the story? “(The two angels) said to her, 'Woman, why are you weeping?' She said to them, 'They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.' When she had said this,” the Scripture says, “she turned around and saw Jesus standing there. . .” (John 20:13-14).
Last night, before they were baptized, we asked those four candidates a series of questions. They were too young to answer for themselves, and our Book of Common Prayer wisely says that parents and godparents may answer for them, which they did. One of the questions asked and answered was this: “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?” And the answer is. . .help me out here, folks. . .I will, with God's help.
Before we can see Jesus, before we can accept Jesus, before we can obey Jesus, before we can follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. . .first, we need to turn to Jesus. We need to turn around, like Mary Magdalene did. We need to turn around and look, sometimes, in the opposite direction from the one in which our parents and our other loved ones think we ought to be looking. We need to turn around and look at Jesus.
Please understand me. I am not Jesus, and last night, young Jayven may simply have been wanting to put his little fingers in some scraggly old facial hair. That might be all there is to it. But maybe not. So, work with me here! (Use your imagination, which is a gift from God.) Take a moment and think about a time in your life when you knew you needed to turn around and face someone who had something important for you to hear or to understand. Think about a time when you returned somewhere, to share some wisdom you had been waiting to share with someone, all along. Think about a time when you turned around, or re-turned, to find God. What I'm talking about is conversion.
For Christians, conversion has to do with Jesus. But “conversion” is the word all the world's religions use to describe that kind of moment, that kind of experience when we dare to stop, turn around and face the God of our understanding. Or we dare to re-turn to the God we never understood, but who calls us now, softly and tenderly, by our very name.
Jesus did just that with his dear friend Mary Magdalene, who did not recognize him at her first turning. She thought he looked like the gardener. . .or some other guy with a beard. But then Jesus simply spoke the word she had learned as a baby. “Mary,” Jesus said. He called her by name. And she turned to Jesus again, this time with full awareness of just who he was, and spoke another word in her native language. “Rabbouni.” My teacher. In that moment, Mary Magdalene was converted, a word that literally means she turned around.
Conversion is a change of mind and a change of heart – both. It may be instantaneous – just one turn does it – or it may take a couple of turns and returns. It may even be about a whole lifetime of turning. And conversion may mean taking more than one time to turn around and face God around the very same issue, again and again. One wise teacher put it this way: “I had a nervous breakdown. Then I had another one. I'm a slow learner.”
What or who is it we need to face, who or what is it we need to turn around and see, on this Easter Day? How is Jesus waiting for us to turn around this morning and face the glorious music of a new life, the kind of life Jesus is waiting to give us? Maybe it's a drug or alcohol problem that is staring us down. Maybe it's someone who has made us angry for a long time, and now, finally, it's time to look them in the eye and speak the truth to them, by name. Maybe it's the gay son or lesbian mother we have been afraid to talk with except on Facebook, but today, with God's help, we're going to see them at Easter dinner, and it's time to turn the page and start a new chapter in what we might call the scripture of our lives.
“God responds to our turning with joyful grace,” says spiritual guide and author Brian Taylor. “We are given the power to be (clean and sober), (or) to let go of fear and anger, or to live freely and responsibly with (who we, our loved ones and all the people of the world really are). All of this happens not because we beat ourselves up for being bad, but because we came to the truth, (we) turned in hope to a gracious God, and then (we) received what is (God's) good pleasure to give us. . ..When we turn away from sin (and death) and toward new life,” Taylor says, “we rejoin the flow of how we are designed to live. . .a power enters our lives and carries us along with it. . .This divine power does things in us we would never think of or be able to do on our own,” without God's help (Becoming Human, p. 184).
My sisters and brothers in Christ, we have come here today, whether we knew it or not, to be converted. So, let's do it. Let's just do it! Let's let it happen. Let's let God do for us what we would never think of doing on our own. Let's let God do for us what we could not and cannot do for ourselves.
Let us turn around today, and look at the risen Christ, who is here, in our very midst. . .who is here in the person sitting next to us. . .who will be out there, waiting for us, when we leave here today. Let us turn around and look at the risen Christ, who is calling us, by name, calling us to turn and to return, calling us to live the new life that awaits each and every one of us.
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia! AMEN.
—The Rev. Thomas A. Momberg
March 31, 2013