I was eating my lunch outside my office one day in Maryland when one of the construction workers who was working on our new church stopped and said, “Afternoon, Reverend.” He was not one I had met before, so I figured he must be new to the job.
I stuck out my hand and said, “My name is Michael.” He briefly looked horrified that I had given him that information, and replied, “Thanks, Reverend, I’m Bill.” We exchanged some pleasantries about the lovely day. After you’ve been a clergyperson for awhile, you get this sense that somebody wants to talk to you about something other than the weather. He did.
Suddenly it came out. “You know the truth, don’t you?” Being an Episcopalian I said, “The truth about what?” Again he gave me that momentary look like something was terribly wrong. “You know, he said, the truth about, about him.” His voice lowered and he furtively pointed skyward.
“If you mean God,” I said, “I can tell you what I know about him. But it won’t be the whole truth.” I know I shouldn’t do that to people, but I am who I am.
“You’re a Reverend, how can you not know the truth,” he replied. I said, “It takes your whole life to discover what the truth is, and then we only really know it when God reveals it to us face to face.” I knew I had lost. “But I need to know the truth now,” he said. “I can’t believe you don’t know the truth,” he said as he wandered off. I didn’t pursue him; I thought I had probably done enough damage.
I never saw him again. Turns out he was a temp. Or maybe an angel sent to test me or just mess with my head.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have available to me yet what I came to say a few weeks ago, that the truth is not a doctrine or something we might call “a fact.” The truth is a story. The Truth, or the Gospel, is not a proposition to sell but a story to tell. May Bill the construction worker and I would have had an interesting conversation about stories, although I’m pretty sure that is not the answer he was looking for.
Mary Magdalene does not believe in the resurrection in this morning’s Gospel reading because she is taught it. She experiences it. It is a story that happens to her and then a story she tells. And it is that story, told and re-told, passed on to the next person and the next, that is the truth we call resurrection.
After his death, Jesus’ disciples, men like Peter and women like Mary Magdalene, did not go around teaching people something like the Nicene Creed. They went around telling what Mary first told the disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” And in telling their story their intention was not to “prove” anything. It was to offer something. It was to offer an experience. It was to offer the possibility of being part of the story that begins, “I have seen the Lord.”
I can say to you with all sincerity that I believe what we are about to say in the creed. I believe Jesus rose from the dead, and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Some people in progressive churches like this one have trouble believing in the resurrection, particularly as an historical fact, and that is perfectly fine. I would defend your right not to believe it with every fiber of my being.
But I happen to believe in the resurrection, and that is mostly because I have a very strong sense that I am part of the story that began, “I have seen the Lord.”
Now I, of course, have not seen the Lord, not directly. His mother has not shown herself to me either, about which I am somewhat resentful, but we remain on good speaking terms. But I have experiences that connect me to that story.
Some of those experiences involve cemeteries. One thing I continue to miss about my old church in Maryland was that we had a cemetery. And I miss that cemetery especially on Easter Day, because my second Easter there, in 1992, I decided we were going to have the Easter Egg Hunt in the cemetery.
As you can imagine, that was not everyone’s first choice, but somehow I talked them into it and about 20 kids ran all over that cemetery finding Easter eggs. It was an amazing sight. What better place to have an Easter Egg Hunt than a cemetery?
A funny thing happened then, some of the older folks in the congregation came out to watch. Some of them had been pretty grumpy about our doing this, but when they saw the kids having so much fun, they relaxed and some of them came over to me and we walked around the cemetery and they told me story after story of the folks buried there. I could still walk around that cemetery and tell you some of those stories.
I have never been the same since. Now when I go to visit my grandparents’ graves, which are at two different cemeteries in Avoca, when I drive in the place seems alive to me. I know, bizarre. But when I walk around stories just keep bubbling up—it helps, of course, that it’s a small town and I know or am even related to most of these people.
What those stories do is break down what seems to be the obvious truth, the facts. These people are dead and I am still alive and there is no connection between us anymore.
But that is not what I experience. The truth is not in the fact of their deadness and my being alive, facts though those may be. The truth is in the stories we share. The truth is in the memory that is kept. Relationships do not die. Jesus said, “Mary,” and she knew who he was.
And that goes on for me in those cemeteries. I am not just experiencing pleasant (and some unpleasant) memories. I am experiencing an aliveness that I cannot explain. Despite all signs to the contrary, these people are not dead.
We in the church know how this works. It is why Jesus gave us this thing we do together at this Altar, to keep his story living, to make it an ongoing story of Jesus and you and me and millions upon millions of people who have come to an Altar to do what he asked us to do: “keep my memory,” “remember me.” It is such a simple thing, but, for many of us in our tradition and other sacramental traditions, it is the source of our truth. It is why we believe.
That does not translate well to “sound-bite,” Bible-verse” evangelism. All we can do, if we are honest to ourselves, is say, “Let me tell you a story," or "Tell me a story." Together we can find the truth in it, because it is a story of truth, one that ultimately begins, "I have seen the Lord."
It is a story that is the truth, a story that we are alive—and forgiven, loved and free, despite all signs to the contrary.