Resurrection in Disguise

Sermon by Lori Erickson preached at New Song Episcopal Church on Easter Sunday, April 17, 2022:

Christ and St Mary Magdalene at the Tomb (painting by Rembrandt)



Let me begin by welcoming all of you to New Song this morning, especially those who are visiting or who haven’t been in a church for awhile—or maybe ever. I spent a lot of years away from Christianity myself, and I remember occasionally showing up at Christmas and Easter services and feeling out of place. So I want you to know that we warmly welcome you this Easter Sunday. And who knows—you might decide one day to come back regularly, as I did.

This is the most important time of the church year, the day on which we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus and the triumph of life over death. And it reminds me of a story, one that you probably won’t think relates much to Easter, but be patient because I think it does.

The story happened to a friend of mine, a fellow travel writer from Michigan, who was attending a tourism conference in Ohio. There was an opening reception involving a lot of people, only my friend arrived a little late so she missed all the introductions. She was wondering around with a glass of wine in her hand and struck up a conversation with a friendly looking, middle-aged man. He asked her about her work, and she talked at some length about herself, what she was currently writing and why she was in Ohio. Then she turned to him and asked, “And now tell me about you—what do you do for a living?”

And the man answered, “I’m the governor of Ohio.”

This story of mistaken identity reminds me of a moment in the Gospel reading for this morning, a small detail that’s one of my favorite parts of the Bible. Amid all the drama, all the emotion, all the joy and surprise of the Easter story, this detail has a homey, slightly ridiculous feel that always amuses me.  Here it is again:

[Mary] turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!”

It’s that line “Supposing him to be the gardener” that makes me smile, and which reminds me of my friend chatting unawares with the governor of Ohio. It’s not that either the governor or Jesus were in disguise, exactly, but instead that our perceptions shape our seeing.

As many of you know, I’m a writer, and I often resonate to the masterful story telling of the Bible, especially in the Gospels. So many of these stories ring true to our own experience, even after thousands of years. We read them and say, “Oh yes, that’s still how people act today.” So we can recognize the yearning of the Prodigal Son to be forgiven, and the anxiety of the shepherd as he searches for his lost sheep, and the compassion of the Good Samaritan who stops to help the wounded man on the side of the road. The details of their stories are different from our lives today, but human psychology is the same.

And of all the stories told in the Bible—and indeed of all the stories recorded in human history—the story we have heard this past week is among the most profound of them all. It’s about a man who was betrayed by his friends, abandoned by his followers, and sentenced to death by a corrupt government working in alliance with unethical religious authorities. The Roman governor gives the crowd the opportunity to show mercy to either an innocent man or to a criminal, and they choose the criminal. Jesus suffers the most painful method of execution that the Romans could devise (and the Romans were very good torturers indeed). He dies alone except for his grieving mother and a handful of heartbroken followers. It is a story so tragic and overwhelming that it has captivated people for more than two thousand years.

Part of what makes this story so powerful is that it has many characters, and many moments, that resonate with our own experiences. Most of us, too, have betrayed our principles and kept silent when we should have stood up for what is right. We have suffered under corrupt rulers and longed for redemption. We have watched innocent loved ones suffer and die. We have caused others to suffer and have felt guilty for our actions. We have been unjustly accused of something and have had to suffer the consequences.

And I think many of us have been like Mary Magdalene, too, so overwhelmed by grief that we don’t realize that resurrection has happened. We see Jesus and think he’s the gardener.

That’s because resurrection is often a tricky thing, isn’t it? It reminds me of Carl Sandburg’s poem about the fog, in which it comes creeping in on little cat’s feet, so subtle that it’s easy to miss its arrival.

I have a friend, for example, whose house was damaged in the derecho in 2020. It took her months to settle the insurance claim, and then more months to find a contractor, and then even more time to find a second contractor when the first one backed out. As a widow who’d lost her husband nearly a decade ago, everything about this experience was hard and frustrating. And then the new contractor was a very nice man, and they really hit it off, and now they’re dating, and she’s not lonely any more. She wasn’t expecting resurrection, but it came in the form of a windstorm.

Or maybe you once lost a job you loved, and it seemed like the worst thing in the world, but then it led to something better. Maybe you struggled with alcohol or some other addiction and eventually your world fell apart, but because you hit bottom, the seeds of rebirth were able to sprout. Or someone you loved died, but the next day the sun came up again, and bleary eyed with grief, you saw the dawn and recognized the terrible, wonderful gift of another new day.

The thing about resurrection, you see, is that it requires a death of some sort. It might be the death of a career, a belief, or a hope. It might be facing up to the reality of a disability or a marriage that can’t be healed. Resurrection isn’t necessary for easy losses. It’s for the big ones.

In my own life, the most dramatic resurrection I’ve ever witnessed happened 31 years ago when our son Owen nearly died of bacterial meningitis when he was five months old. He was in a coma for more than a week. During that time his doctors said that even if he lived, there was a significant chance he would have brain damage. Seeing Owen come back to life again was the most miraculous thing I’ve ever witnessed. After lying motionless for many days, within the space of an hour he opened his eyes, began to smile, and starting reaching out to us, just like the baby he’d been before. The shadow of death passed over our family that day, leaving us bathed in the light of grace.

I hope you have your own resurrection stories, because this is a day to remember them and be grateful for them.

And maybe, too, resurrection is happening right now in your life, only you’re missing it because you think you’re talking to the gardener instead of God. The Holy Spirit is good with disguises, after all. It’s one of her favorite tricks.

We’re living through a time when we need resurrection not just on a personal level, but on a national and global level as well. After Covid and political unrest and environmental crises and war in Ukraine and all the litany of bad news that assails us every day, it’s easy to despair. But we need to remember, as the English writer G.K. Chesterton put it, “We have a God who knows his way out of the grave.” And because God knows his way out of a grave, he gives us a way out of our own graves as well.

(Wikimedia Commons image)

Because as the first lines of the Gospel of John tell us, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it.” There’s a paradox hidden in that statement, which is that the darkness reveals things that are hidden in the sunlight. In the dark, you can see a candle flame at a distance of more than two miles, as well as stars that are thousands of light-years from Earth. During the day, thousands of things grab our attention every waking hour. But in the darkness—of the night, of the grave, of tragedy and sorrow—we can see what has been hidden.

So let us celebrate the return of the light, which is growing brighter and stronger all the time. Resurrection is happening once again. Let us recognize it, and welcome it.

Alleluia! The Lord is risen.

The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!


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