Most of us at one time in our lives have played the game called spot the difference. Two copies of what at first glance appear to be the exact same picture are placed side by side. The challenge is to find the differences between them.
If you are like me, your eyes will first go to all the things from the replicated picture that are missing from the original. Unless of course what has been added is something quite unnatural like a second or third tail on a dog. In that case my eye will catch it right away.
But there’s something in our human nature that seems to draw our attention more quickly towards what’s missing in our lives than towards what’s been added. It’s why we go without noticing the new glasses our best friend or even our spouse has been wearing sometimes for months on end until finally we say “something about you looks different.” Take something away, however, especially something that we really value and we will notice it pretty much immediately. For example, I had no idea how much I wanted to go out for Easter brunch this weekend until the possibility was gone.
This is what’s going on with Mary in our Easter story when we find her grief stricken and hovering outside the empty tomb. She’s weeping because all she can see in front of her is death and even more loss than she had already experienced those last few days, as if what she had gone through hadn’t already been enough. All she could see is that now Jesus was completely gone, and with him all hope and all possibility of cherishing even what precious little was left of the dreams he had inspired. All she could see was what had been lost, when in fact he and all the love and grace, reform and renewal he represented was standing right in front of her hidden in plain view.
Many of us in the church have been calling lent 2021 the lentiest lent of all. After this week in which our neighbouring community of Lynn Valley experienced a violent attack in the heart of their shopping district followed by a destructive fire set by an arsonist just two days later; after this week in which here in British Columbia we set a new single day record for Covid-19 cases; after this week in which we are witnessing all over again the arrest and death of George Floyd; we might want to call holy week 2021 the holiest holy weeks of all.
At first glance it appears this week as if the forces of death and despair, evil and injustice are winning the struggle over the forces of goodness and love. Like Mary standing outside the empty tomb seeing only defeat through her teary eyes, our own vision has become a bit cloudy in these days. We see loss and the potential for more loss in front of us because we are continuing to experience losses of many kinds.
Easter, however, is all about seeing the world through a different set of lenses. Easter is about seeing new life, hope, possibility and the victory of love over hatred and life over death, right in the midst of loss and despair, right before our very eyes, right in the heart of the graveyard.
Take a moment to think about this last year. Where in your own life, even amongst all the struggles, have you seen and experienced possibility where you thought that there was none? Where have you seen love conquer hatred and fear? Where have you seen life emerge out of death?
In this last year I have watched countless people learn new ways to connect with their loved ones and colleagues. How many of us have become proficient at zoom in the last 12 months? This last year I have made friends with neighbours who I’ve lived beside for years. They’ve always been there but this year I’ve really gotten to know them, their gifts and their needs. This year more of us have seen and responded to the previously unseen struggle that people of colour have lived with for decades due to systemic racism. This year I have witnessed front line workers giving and giving of themselves tirelessly for the sake of others, rising up day in and day out, carrying on when they thought they had nothing left to give. This year I have seen people make positive choices for their lives that they never would have made if it hadn’t been for Covid-19. This year, this week in fact, I have seen people running to help and care for victims of a violent assault, putting their own lives at risk, instead of seeing them run away in fear.
In the Buddhist tradition there is a saying that when the student is ready the teacher appears. You might recall from our scripture reading that when Mary finally recognizes Jesus, the Risen Christ, she refers to him as “Rabbouni” which means “teacher.” But what is it that makes us ready to recognize the teacher when the teacher arrives?
I think what makes us ready to see what is right in front of us and perhaps has always been there, are times in our lives when we are made ready because we realize we don’t actually have the answers. Sometimes it happens when we are up against a wall and we have no other choice than to open our eyes to a new way of being. Other times it’s when we’ve been broken and we realize the only way forward is to submit to a power beyond ourselves to bring us to life again. And then there are the moments when possibility opens its doors before us because we have been harbouring our desire for it within the depths of our souls for so long we have somehow loosened the lock, we have somehow budged the stone wedged into the entrance to the tomb.
We tend to think that resurrection is a linear experience: Christ has died, Christ is Risen, Christ will come again. One follows the other, in the same way that autumn follows summer and summer follows spring or lent follows Christmas and Easter follows lent. The truth is all these thing are present all of the time. We are dying even as we are rising, Christ is coming even as Christ is absent. In the depths of our despair lie the seeds of our delivery. Because of that the life that we are looking for, the beginning we desire, the healing that we need is right in front of us, hidden in plain view, always there, we just can’t always see it.
The thing that opened Mary’s eyes that day at the tomb, so that suddenly she could see the presence of the one who was standing right in front of her the whole time, was the calling of her name: a personal invitation to see and know the possibility of new life and the truth of all that she had been told about the power of love. Once she heard that personal invitation and the directive not to linger too long at the tomb, she was on her way running to tell the others I have seen the Lord.
It’s the invitation given to each one of us today, the invitation to experience, believe and trust in resurrection not in a life beyond this life but to have our eyes opened to the life that is here among us right now and then to go and tell the world what we have seen.
Some say when the student is ready the teacher will appear. Others have said that when the student is really ready, the teacher will disappear and the student will become the teacher.
Meanwhile, in another part of the city, in the parade that is not described in the scriptures but which historians tell us most certainly would have taken place, Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor would also have been riding into town. In contrast the the modest display put on by Jesus and his followers, Pilate would have rode into town with a great show of power and might. It would have looked something like the great displays of military might we see in our day and age when the rulers of certain countries parade with all their tanks and troops of soldiers. Pilate’s parade would have been quite a contrast to the Jesus parade making quite a statement about where Jesus believes true power comes from and where Pilate believed it came from.
This year, the pairing of the two scripture readings we have heard today brings to mind two different parades, not the parades of Pilate and Jesus, but the Palm parade of Jesus and the parade of those who carry the paralyzed man lying on his bed to Jesus so that he might be healed.
Throughout this Lenten season of recovery, we have held onto the belief that healing in many forms can come to those places in our lives and those places in our world that are the most broken. Gathering around the image of beach glass, shattered and fragmented, ground down by the storms of life and miraculously transformed into something beautiful, we have dared to believe that the holy vessels that are our very lives can be made new even in our brokenness. And we’ve needed to believe this because we have been worn down and we have been broken and fragmented over the course of this last year.
As we come to the end of our Lenten season and enter that time of the Christian year when we face into the depths of Jesus own brokenness brought on by the depths of society’s brokenness, as we face into the brokenness we all carry within us due to our human frailty, today’s pair of parades have an important message for us about the healing that we need. Placed side by side, they illustrate the way the healing of our corporate, societal, and systemic brokenness is inextricably connected to our individual healing. They pair Jesus confrontation with the powers and principalities that create systems of inequity and abuse through the story of his triumphant ride into Jerusalem, with the quieter but no less significant confrontation of the inner wounds that immobilize and demonize us through the story of the healing of the paralytic.
Together they give us an important clue to the link between individual healing and societal healing but that clue is easy to miss.
It comes during the story of the healing of the paralyzed man when after Jesus has forgiven the sins of the paralytic the religious leaders accuse him of blasphemy. Just to be clear, Jesus doesn’t forgive the sins of this man because he believes his sin has caused him to be paralyzed. He forgives his sins because he perceives a deeper wound within the man than his inability to walk. He perceives a deeper need. And then, he suggests to his critics that these deeper wounds, these inner wounds that we carry are even harder to heal than our outer wounds, harder but not impossible. What is easier to say, he asks “your sins are forgiven, or stand up and walk?” But Jesus doesn’t just see and heal the inner wounds of the paralyzed man, he also sees the faith of those who carry him. He sees their faith without any of them saying a thing. Their actions speak louder than words. Their outer actions convey their inner faith and their inner faith compels them to bring their friend forward for healing.
In all of this, the writer of Matthew’s gospel is teaching us that those forces, those demons with which we struggle and from which we cannot free ourselves must rely on a greater power to free them and that greater power must be made known through the community that supports and experiences healing together.
Perhaps what these two stories combined are really trying to say to us is that there is no individual healing without community healing and no community healing without individual healing healing. My freedom will always be bound up in your freedom. My healing will always be bound up in your healing.
I don’t need to repeat what we all know by now which is that during the course of the last year we have seen systemic inequity and the brokenness of our society laid bare. The most vulnerable in our communities have been the most vulnerable to contracting Covid-19. So it’s encouraging to see that with the vaccine rollout we finally seem to be getting something right. Those vulnerable people, the elderly, the homeless, indigenous people living both on and off reserves and lately those who are crammed like sardines into facilities where they process and package meat day in and day out are the ones who have been first in line to get vaccinated. Queue jumping is not only punishable by shame, people have been known to lose their jobs for doing it. For once the last are first and the first are last. For once, our collective attention has been turned towards those most in need.
Is it possible that somewhere deep in the soul of humanity we have actually been transformed by this pandemic? Is it possible that right in front of our eyes the sins of the past are being redeemed in the present?
Of the many articles and reflections I’ve read the last couple weeks about what we have learned a year into this pandemic more than a few have celebrated the ways we as individuals and institutions have attempted and at times succeeded at trying to turn the tables on the tide of inequity in our world. But there are also those who warn that when the reality of scarcity begins to set in again, our human inclination towards the survival for the fittest will also kick in. We’ve seen that already in countries holding back vaccines for their own citizens. We could see it when we have to start paying back all the money we have spent to keep ourselves afloat during this time.
However, if enough of us have been transformed like broken shards of glass made beautiful by the washing of the sea; if enough of us seek to be truly healed of what ails our broken world, if enough of us allow our faith to inform the way we chose to act and live in the world, then maybe, just maybe our hosannas, our shouts of “save us” will finally be silenced. Silenced not because we will have given up on Jesus and his peace loving and healing ways but because we will at last be saved from what has been killing us for far too long.
My freedom will always be bound up in your freedom. I will only be healed when you are healed. As we continue on the final leg of our Lenten journey of recovery may we stay close to the healer who leads us and our world through our brokenness and into the promise of new life and may we be the healers who offer that new life others