I attended college at a place known for its beautiful architecture and leafy campus. But for four years, five days a week, early in the morning, I walked past all the beautiful building and canopies of leaves and down the stairs into the basement of a building, into a windowless room with walls painted hospital green, and took my place in a row of desks to learn Russian. Class started at 9 am.
In this rather Soviet atmosphere, we were greeted by our teacher, Veronica Dolenko, the most demanding and exacting instructor I have ever had. I’m not sure what it says about me that I chose to do this for four years, but there you have it.
The first week of our freshman year in Russian is seared in my mind forever. We spent time learning to say and write the Cyrillic alphabet and learning to say my name is Amy. But at least half an hour each morning was devoted to learning to say hello. The word for “hello” is the hardest word in the Russian language. Veronica Dolenko would approach each of us in turn, say hello, and then we were meant to say hello back. Occasionally, she would say, “very good,” and move on to another desk, to say hello to the next student. But often, after our “hello,” there would be a long pause, and then she would repeat “hello,” and we would repeat our “hello.” “No,” she would say, “Listen carefully.” And we’d be in for it!
This exercise was unbelievably frustrating; we were all ridiculous overachievers – used to getting things quickly – used to buckets of praise. We thought we were just going to slide into those seats, master Russian faster than you can say “”The Brothers Karamozov,” and be ready to end the Cold War. By the end of the week, some people were so frustrated by this experience of learning to say hello that they said “goodbye,” walked up the stairs out of the basement and out into the sunshine, like defectors who had escaped to a gentler country.
We didn’t like being beginners. It made us uncomfortable. I never asked her, but looking back, I think now that Veronica Dolenko had us figured out. I think she knew that what we needed more than anything else was to be slowed down, divested of our sense of masterfulness, and invited to be less acquisitive of the language and more curious about it; less worried about getting it right and more focused on exploring the landscape of a language.
When Mary arrived at Jesus’s tomb on the third day, she thought she knew what to expect. She had prepared bodies for burial before. She brought the right ointments and supplies. She knew what to do to honor the memory of her dear, dear rabbi. But she finds herself completely divested of her sense of mastery. The body is gone. Someone – a gardener? – is talking with her, and then, My God, he calls her by name. And she knows the voice. It is Jesus. She had seen him die. Here he is, calling her by name.
What is going on? There is nothing in her supply kit that she can use now. There is nothing in her experience of people being crucified that matches up with this moment.
And her reply – well, her reply is not only touching, but it is the very heart of this Easter gospel, it is the take home lesson for today. Mary replies, “Rabbouni.” “My teacher.” Yes, Jesus is still her teacher, for now she is a beginner in a course she never enrolled in, called Resurrection Life 101.
How about you? Are you enrolled in Resurrection 101?
Easter is a strange day, a hard day for many people. Easter is often presented as a yes-or-no proposition. Do you believe that Jesus, the Son of God, rose from the dead, or not? Do you believe that because of Jesus, we don’t have to be afraid of anything, not even death, or not? Do you accept Jesus as your personal savior, or not?
Some people are ready to answer these questions quickly and whole-heartedly. Yes, Ma’am, count me in! But a lot of people are more uncertain. This world gives us little to prepare us for such questions. And every day, the news headlines give us a lot that makes us wonder about what it means to hope and whether we can have faith in anything at all.
The Christian claim is that in Christ’s Resurrection, God is making all things new, and that through our baptism, we, too, are made new. If that’s the case, then you and I are newbies. We have been made new, and just like Mary Magdalene, we are standing on completely unfamiliar ground. We are standing there with our burial kits ready to anoint yet another loved one for yet another burial and grieve yet another loss when the ground shifts. The tomb is empty. The gardener appears.
We are beginners in this business of Resurrection hope. We need to spend at least a week learning to say “Christ is risen,” and a lifetime learning to say and live “Alleluia.”
Jesus loves beginners.
Notice the tone of utter mayhem that runs throughout this gospel story. Everyone is running and bending down and turning around and racing each other. It’s like the Keystone Cops. This is not a graceful scene but a bunch of people bumbling around, acting like parents trying to get their kids to school on time and they can’t find their wallet and there’s a detour on the route and the child’s socks don’t match. Jesus loves people like this. People like us.
Jesus invites us to let ourselves be beginners and to try on Resurrection Living, even if we’re not quite sure we’re doing it right.
Mary Magdalene began by returning to the other disciples proclaiming, “I have seen the Lord” – the first Christian sermon – beginning to live into a new vocation as an evangelist.
Peter, who was most recently seen denying that he even knew Jesus, will soon be commissioned as the cornerstone of the church, called to grow into leadership qualities only God could have seen in him.
Every letter written by Paul that we have in the New Testament is a response to a bunch of beginner Christians. Paul’s letters go to communities trying to figure out whether they believe and what that means, and how to live this new commandment to love one another. They are often making a hash of it and they have more questions than answers, and they are easily distracted and led astray by shiny, persuasive false gods. But they are loved and their beauty and faith grow through trial and error.
Easter is not about certainty. It is about your heart’s yearning and your will.
If the Christian testament is true then our lives originate in a loving God.
If the Christian testament is true, then God came to live a life with us, suffered and died like we do, witnessed to the futility of violence and scapegoating and oppression, and showed us that we don’t have to be afraid of anything, not even death. We are free to live with courage, forgive others, challenge unjust powers, and trust that our lives with God will continue after death.
If the Christian testament is true, God loves us when we aren’t sure, when we are beginners rather than experts, when we ask questions, when we ask for help and are quick to offer it.
God loves us when we are like children.
This morning, three wonderful people will be baptized into the Christian faith. Their calling is not to have it all figured out right now. Their calling is to set their heart on the Christian testament and join us in having beginner’s mind.
In a moment they and their sponsors will make promises. This doesn’t mean they have it all figured out. They are joining us on the journey of setting their hearts of this story. “I believe” – credo – I set my heart on it.
If today you are not quite sure what’s going on in this world, not quite sure what to make of this Resurrection story, not quite sure where to place your tent on the landscape of meaning- I invite you to an attitude of curiosity. What if I lived as if it were true? I wonder what this rabbouni has to teach me? I wonder what my hope might do to impact my neighbor, my friends, my family. Let this Easter message take you beyond the absolute world of right and wrong, yes and no, in and out, and know that God’s love for you doesn’t depend on how much faith you have. God’s love IS and will always be, and God is always thrilled when you care enough to ask questions and to show up graveside, as Mary did, racing to report good news to friends, determined to stick with it, even in the midst of confusion.
I hope you find yourself in lots of beautiful places. But there will be windowless basements. There will be times when you feel stuck with the same question, the same word, for a long time. Let yourself be like a child, curious and creative and trusting. And God will guide you into grace and new life.