Acts 10:34-43; John 20:1-18
The First Congregational Church, Columbus
April 11, 2004 -- Easter Sunday, 9:00 a.m.
Rev. Ronald Botts, Preaching
Some years ago Margery Williams wrote a children's story about a stuffed rabbit and a little boy. The rabbit lived in the nursery and talked to the other toys when the humans weren't around.
Now the mechanical toys in the room felt especially superior and contended they were real because they had springs and could move. So one day Rabbit asked the Skin Horse, the oldest and wisest among the toys, "What is real? Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick out handle?"
"Real isn't how you're made," said the Horse, "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, then you become real."
"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.
"Sometimes," said the Horse. "But when you are real, you don't mind being hurt."
"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up, or bit by bit?"
"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Horse. "You become. It takes a long time, that's why it doesn't happen often to those who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally by the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out, and you get loose in the joints, and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are real, you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
And so it happened that the Velveteen Rabbit was indeed loved by the Boy, and dragged around the garden, and left out in the dew, and became very shabby. One day the Nurse tried to throw the bunny away because he was almost worn out, but the Boy protested, "You can't do that. He isn't a toy; he's real." And the Rabbit shivered with joy, for what he hoped for had happened. At last he was real!
Well this story, loved by both children and adults, raises an interesting question about what's real and what isn't. Now on the surface there wouldn't seem to be any doubt about this. A rock isn't alive, but a dog is. A lake has actual water, but an mirage only contains the imaginary sort. Something is or it isn't and that's all there is to it. Or so it would seem.
During the Korean War a ship of the Royal Canadian Navy rescued 19 survivors from a vessel that had been sunk by Communist guns. The captain notified the ship's surgeon to stand by as the injured were brought on board. All had wounds, and several were severe.
A pounding storm rolled the ship all night as the doctor worked feverishly over the survivors. Despite fifteen foot waves that buffeted the ship, the surgeon cleaned, cut, extracted, sutured, and bandaged. He removed a bullet lodged within an inch of one man's heart; shrapnel from the abdomen of another, and dealt with a collapsed lung in a third. Going without sleep or rest, this committed physician worked throughout the night. In the end all 19 men were transferred safely to an evacuation ship the next morning.
The Canadian ship, the Cayuga, remained off the Korean coast for some months. Whenever they put into port, the ship's doctor toured the war-torn villages of the countryside. He delivered babies, gave advice on nutrition, responded to injuries of all kinds, and amputated limbs that would have otherwise proved fatal. It's the kind of heroic action that often takes place in the aftermath of battle, but which oftentimes goes unnoticed.
What changed this situation into something else was a journalist who decided to write about the exploits of this Navy doctor. I say it changed things because not long after the articles ran, a physician from rural New Brunswick contacted the War Office. He told them that both the name and background of this hero were the same as his.
In the course of an investigation it was discovered that this doctor--a popular and respected officer--wasn't at all who he was thought to be. If fact, he was neither Canadian nor a doctor. All his documents were false.
People had trusted him and believed in him. He had provided appropriate treatment to hundreds of sick and injured, and was responsible for saving scores of lives. Yet, he wasn't a real doctor. Or was he? The line blurs sometimes between the real and the not-so-real, the absolute and the maybe.
In our Gospel today the distinction gets called into question once again. It is Sunday morning and Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb. The last time she saw Jesus he had been hung on a cross to die. All hope seemed to die there with him in the hot afternoon sun.
Mary comes to the garden cave where he had been taken, but she finds it empty. So she runs back to get Peter and another of the disciples, but upon seeing the empty place they can only confirm what she already knows. They leave, but Mary stays behind in the garden. She begins to cry for fear that his enemies have removed the body and desecrated it in an attempt to further destroy his influence among the people.
Suddenly she turns and she sees someone behind her. She doesn't recognize the figure, but assumes that it must be the gardener already about his duties. The stranger asks, "Why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?"
Mary replies tearfully, "Sir, if you have taken him away, please tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Whereupon the voice of the other becomes warm and intimate and he whispers, "Mary."
"Rabbouni, [Teacher]," she replies.
The scriptures tell us that Mary returns quickly to the disciples and witnesses, "I have seen the Lord. [I have seen him!]"
Where does the real, and only what is imagined, intersect? How far does the one go before it crosses over into the other? Who was it that Mary met in the garden? Was Jesus as real now after his death as he had been before? Could it be that he was even more real?
I cannot prove that someone loves me but, if I know that person well enough, I can attest to it without hesitation or doubt. A fellow might tell me that his girl is the most beautiful woman in the world, but when I meet her I am struck with her plainness. Where does reality leave off and imagination begin? What's real and what isn't?
And for that matter, what makes us real? Is it a birth certificate which documents our existence? Is it the image that stares back at you in the mirror? Is it a pocketful of credit cards that allows you to make purchases in a certain, familiar name? Is it the blood that spills out when you cut your hand? Or is it when a little looks up at you and calls, "Mommy" or "Daddy?"
Easter Day is considered the most joyous day of the Christian year, yet it is also filled with questions. For some of us here there even may be some reticence to celebrate with abandon, some uneasiness in affirming what our hymns profess so unflinchingly. Despite all the flowers and liturgies and prayers and people dressed in their newest and best, there is a gnawing question that some of us hear and can't quite dismiss: Is it all real?
Now if that's you, know that you have company. To wonder about something so mysterious as death and resurrection is not an indication of waning faith, but an acknowledgment that the human mind has trouble contemplating such a singular and inexplicable act. In other words, you're a typical Congregationalist.
True faith always starts from an honest encounter of teaching and tradition with the experience of life as we know it. Absolute proof of things spiritual is impossible, but that doesn't mean they aren't true. Who was it that Mary Magdalene met in the garden that day? There was no question at all in her mind. For me, there's no question either, though don't ask me to explain it. Some things, like love, we just know. The proof is in the heart and not in the mind.
So this brings us back full circle to that elusive question of what is real, or in the probing question of the Rabbit, when in life it is that we become most real? When do we become most fully human, most aware and awake to life in its greater dimensions? Where is it that we connect our individual lives with all of creation?
When? Where? In the profound words of the Skin Horse: "It happens to us when we've been loved a long, long time."
Easter is the story of the resurrection, but it's more than that. It is the story how much we are loved--how God cares for us before we are even conceived and loves us up to the day we die, and beyond. The fact of this, however, won't make any significant difference in your life until you personally realize that it is so and allow yourself to be loved. You have to accept the gift.
Today, more than anything, Jesus tells me this of this love and, by his life, he shows it to me. He lets us know that even if we are worn out and shabby and tired and old, God loves us, and that is what truly makes us real. That's what gives reason and purpose and joy to our living, today and everyday.
You see, Easter celebrates life renewed, not only that of Jesus', but also ours as well.
Copyright 2004, The First Congregational Church
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