Setting Us Up for the Sequel
Sometimes, it’s the little things that make the biggest difference. How many times have you heard this Easter story? Is this the first? Or have you heard it year after year? Do you know it intimately, able to recite all the details, or do you find something new each time you encounter it? As I read the story this year, most of it struck me as memorable terrain: Mary Magdalene, Peter, and John all witnesses to the empty tomb; the foot race between the two men; the angels; Mary’s wonderfully baffled encounter with the risen gardener.
And then, there’s this little detail that jumped out, as if it hadn’t ever been there before: when Peter finally goes into the tomb, he notices that the linen cloths that covered Christ’s body are lying there empty, and that the cloth used to cover his head was separate, “neatly folded by itself.”
What an odd little moment! Why is that detail there? Now, it’s possible that the ancient audience who first heard this story would have recognized the purpose of that description, of folded cloths, but if so, it’s been lost to the ages. The gospel writer John offers no explanation as to why this matters. A Google search produces some fanciful theories, but none of them is borne out by actual research or fact. And I’d be willing to bet that, somewhere out there, this text is used to back up a parental assertion about making up your bed in the morning. But it’s all speculation; so we are left to wonder.
John’s gospel is marked by such little details. Just one chapter later, the risen Jesus appears to the disciples as they fish along the shores of the Galilee. They have been up all night, and they have nothing to show for it. Jesus tells them to try dropping their nets on the other side of the boat, and they get this huge haul of fish. John goes on to tell us that there are 153 fish in the net. Again, no explanation, just a little detail left out there, something to grab our attention.
And maybe that’s all there is to it: these little details are there to remind us that life is full of such details, so pay attention. And sometimes, the smaller the detail, the bigger the difference, so be alert.
I was reminded of this lesson a few days ago. Over the past few weeks, walking has become a regular part of my routine. I’ve particularly discovered that I love walking at night. So following our Maundy Thursday worship service the other evening, I decided to walk home. The shortest route is 2.3 miles, most of it on beautiful, scenic Peachtree Industrial. I have driven the same road at least twice daily for seven years now. And yet, as I walked it, it was as though I was experiencing it for the first time. Maybe you’ve noticed these things, too, but apparently I’ve always been in too big a rush to pay attention.
For example: did you know that there are significant stretches that have no sidewalk whatsoever? Or, odd little factoid, did you know that there’s a tree-house with a tire swing next to the MARTA tracks behind Brown Auto Wreckers? Look for it! Or that behind the line of trees hiding Peachtree Golf Club are guard dogs and armed sentries?
Well, that last part’s not true.
One other thing I noticed: nobody walks down Peachtree Industrial!
How often do we find ourselves in a similar circumstance? How often do we go on auto-pilot, sprinting through life, unable to stop for a moment to take in the world around us? Are we so eager to get this Easter story over and done with, or do we think we already know every intimate detail of it, that we miss that the head cloths are neatly folded up?
I wish I knew why there was a tree house next to the MARTA tracks. And I wish I knew why it is so important for the risen Jesus to make his bed. I’m ultimately not sure, but I think it may be as simple as this: the story pays attention to detail because God pays attention to detail. Jesus once told his disciples that God cares for us more than the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, that God counts the hairs on our head. The Creator God, the maker of our unfathomable universe and all that is, cares enough about one little species on one little speck of a planet that God continues again and again and again to reach out to us, to let us know how precious we are! The God whom we know in Christ cares deeply about the little things.
And, I think, these subtle nuances are there to remind us that there is always more to come. It’s like those moments in movies that set up the sequel: Darth Vader’s ship spiraling off into space, letting us know that the Empire might just strike back; Hannibal Lecter disappearing into the tourist crowds of the Bahamas; or Doc Brown letting Marty know that where they’re going, they won’t need roads. The cloths are discarded and folded because the story isn’t finished – not by a long shot. There is much, much more to come.
Friends, no matter how much we might know, we can never know it all. There is always more to discover, because curiosity is meant to be a lifelong pursuit. The world is far too interesting a place!
But we, we who are supposed to be living into God’s desires for our lives, we breeze right by. Our whole society seems bent on keeping us from paying attention to the little things. We are supposed to live frenetically. If we don’t, what will others think of us? And this kind of thinking infects our faith. It’s like the t-shirt says: “Jesus is coming. Look busy.”
That’s not the point, is it? I don’t think so. God is not interested in filling our calendars; God wants to fill our cups! But we, we who are so busy, we probably only notice the mess as our vessels overflow…
On this Easter morning, I believe that we are being invited to pay attention. We are being called to slow down, not because of what our bosses or our customers or our neighbors or our families demand, but because of what God desires for us.
There’s a wonderful quote from Thomas Merton:
God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtracting.
What’s the one little thing you can take away from your overcrowded schedule that would allow you to notice those little details?
You may find yourself walking on uncharted ground, getting looks from others as they fly by. But these details are all around us, if we can take the time to pay attention. And when we do, we will be surprised by what we see and what we gain in return. There is so much more to the world around us. And when we notice that, that’s when our story intersects with God’s story, reminding us that there is more to come.
What brings you here this morning? Is it habit or hope? Is it despair or desire? Is it stress or celebration? Is it fear or faith? Whatever it is that got you here this morning, know this: God is ready to meet you here. God is already at work: not only here, but wherever your paths might take you. My prayer is that you will have eyes to see God at work in the details all around you.
My brothers and sisters, the Lord is risen! He is risen indeed! And we, too, join with him in celebration of the newness of life! The story isn’t finished; not by a long shot.