My mind has been on loose threads and cloths these last few days. It began last week in a discussion I had with the women of the Fellowship Committee and ECW. I cannot remember how we ended up on the subject, but I confessed to cross-stitching and needlepointing, and they started talking about the kneelers that had never been finished. Don’t freak out gentlemen, I had a piano teacher who recommended it as a way to keep my fingers more nimble despite the breaks and stoves from playing football. The discussion of fabrics continued a bit with my daughter Amanda and I discussing Hesiod. She was introduced to Hesiod fairly recently, more on that in a moment, and so we chatted a bit about the cosmology of the Greeks according to Hesiod. Then yesterday I found myself taking my oldest daughter Sarah shopping for her Easter dress. I joked on Facebook yesterday that there is no greater love than this, that a dad takes his daughter dress shopping, much to the amusement to many of the ladies here at Advent and sympathy of most of the men! The liturgies of Holy Week, as many of you have commented, are beautiful services on their own; woven together, however, they create a wonderful blend of the public and private nature of worship, capture the horror and joy of the fact that God’s Son walked this path to save us, and place these events in their historical context and setting. Those liturgies rightly end with the Vigil, where we remind ourselves that the stories of the Bible all point to the story that we read this week: that God’s Anointed will die for His people and rise from the dead on the third day. Lastly, of course, there was the reading from John. John ties up so many threads that it is hard not to preach a long sermon fully explaining each and every one of them so that you will see them clearly, too. Yes, threads and weavings have been much on my mind these last few days, as they should be.
One of the polemics of the Gospel narrative, and there are many, is the idea that humans and gods are trapped in fate. I shared a name a few minutes ago, Hesiod, who was an ancient Greek poet. Hesiod is among those early writers who give us a sense of how the ancient Greeks perceived the world. In particular, there were three powerful sisters to whom humans and the gods were subject. I know we like to think that Zeus was the most powerful god, but even he was subject to the will and design of these three ladies. Their names were Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Collectively, they were known in antiquity as the Fates. I won’t bore you with their confused lineage or other interesting details other than to say that these three ladies were responsible for this wonderful tapestry we call life. Threads in this tapestry represented individual lives. Clotho spun the threads, Lachesis weaved the threads into the great tapestry, and Atropos determined the length of each thread/life. Whatever these ladies decided was the course of the world. Gods, for all their power in the ANE cosmology, were subject to the Fates. Zeus was more of a divine CEO, carrying out their design, than a creating or determining force. If the Fates decreed a human died, the human died. If the Fates decided that a god died, the god died. Humans and gods could argue or bargain with them, but the ladies usually stuck to their plans (and threatened your thread with Atropos’ scissors if you argued too passionately!).
From my perspective, what made their work truly interesting was their need to deal with uppity gods and uppity human beings. The Fates control was such that, if a human being or god acted as if he or she had free will, the action could put a kink or knot in the Tapestry. A significant portion of their work seems have been spent correcting the mistakes of others. If a god whom they had decreed should live happened to die an untimely death, they simply stretched out the thread causing the god to come back to life. If a human being did something that messed up their beautiful work, they might cut the kink (kill the upstart), stretch the thread to pull the knot (reward the individual with a longer life), or take another action to keep harmony in the tapestry. Imagine a world where you believe your fate has been sealed and that they best you could hope for was not to draw the attention of the gods to yourself. That is the world in which our Lord appeared, but the threads He used created a more beautiful, more vibrant tapestry than humans could ever have hoped.
If you want to see what I mean, turn back to your Order of Worship and the reading from John. Where is the scene set? A garden. Now, think long and hard, when the Bible begins and human beings are introduced, where are we? A garden. Now here’s the real tricky question, if we fast forward to Revelation 21 and 22, where are we promised that we will be forever? That’s right, back in the Garden. Woven throughout Scripture is this thread of the garden. Adam and Even sinned, so they were kicked out of the garden. Now, here is Jesus of Nazareth dying on a cross for our sins and being resurrected, and we are told in the garden. What was a rueful loss becomes a source of joy and hope! Adam and Eve must have left the garden with regret and sorrow, but Mary must run from it exploding with joy and hope.
Let’s look deeper. Who gets the message first? Everyone answered Mary Magdalene because that is how our translation reads. What if I told you that in the original text Jesus uses the Hebrew Miriam instead of the Greek Maria. Would that mean anything to you? Can anyone think of another Miriam? I know we have all been watching the History Channel and CNN and learning how the Old Testament was patriarchal and misogynistic and that women were chattel, but can you think of another Miriam? Who is described as the first prophetess? Who saw Pharaoh’s daughter pull her brother from the Nile and arrange for their mother to nurse the princess’ newfound child? Yes. Her name was Miriam, Moses’ older sister. One of the images we are given about Jesus is that He will lead God’s people from their bondage to sin just as Moses did God’s people from their bondage to Egypt. Here’s Jesus using Mary’s Hebrew name and recalling for just a moment, that same idea. A Miriam will be the herald who declares that God has freed His people, again!
Look even closer. Jesus has taught in this Gospel that He knows His sheep and His sheep know His voice. When Mary first sees the man standing in the garden, does she recognize Him? No, she thinks He is the gardener. In truth, Jesus is The Gardener, but that is not the revelation intended here. How does she recognize Him? He calls her by name? She hears His voice and knows Him. And immediately her confusion and profound sadness and disappoint are turn into surpassing joy and thanksgiving. Something in His Body is different, make no mistake about that. He can travel vast differences instantaneously. He can enter locked rooms. But He is still Jesus. His friends will see the wounds. His friends will eat and drink with Him before He ascends to the Father. But His voice? His voice is that of The Shepherd. When He calls to Mary, she knows Him! Just like He promised. . .
Look still deeper. How does she address Him? Women were not allowed to go study under rabbis. In this aspect the shows have been very accurate this week. Only men were allowed to go and study under the rabbi’s in Israel. Of course, Jesus has always been an equal opportunity educator. Mary and Martha comes to mind, as does this scene with Mary Magdalene. Mary hears her Master’s voice and she responds by calling Him “Rabbi.” For Him to accept the title from her is to accept that she was a disciple, an unheard of practice in the ANE! But that is precisely how He responds. And, pulling a thread from another teaching, one of Jesus’ promises is that His people will know His teaching. He will dwell among them and they will be His people and He will be their God. And the people will not have to seek God, because they will know where He is. And the people will not have to be taught about God, because He will have taught them and imprinted Himself on the eyes, ears, hearts, and minds!
Lots of loose threads are ties up in our reading this week. No doubt you are beginning to wonder whether I am going to touch them all. I’m not, but I am. One of the polemics against the cultural understanding of time, of course, is that God acts in history and bends it to His purposes. It is an idea that often finds a home in our own culture. The idea that God can intervene in history is incomprehensible to some. They tease us for worshipping Spaghetti-Monsters and other such nonsense. But consider your own experiences with God. Each of us gathered here today, no matter how tenuous our attachment to our faith might be, has probably been drawn in by some miracle. Were I to take the time and ask you, and you trusted me and those around you, everyone present today would likely have a miracle which speaks to a deep longing within your heart. Why else would you be stuck indoors on such a beautiful day! Some of us might like the idea of the parting of the Red Sea. Others may like the idea of manna and quail and water in the wilderness. Maybe some of us long to know that the Lord can stop the moon or sun in their courses. Maybe some of us were drawn in by the Incarnational miracles. Perhaps we like the healings of disease, the casting out of demons, the control of the weather, or the calling of those dead back to life. Each of us has a miracle or two which sings to us, which tells us that God can accomplish for us that longing we most want in our hearts.
In many ways, God is the master weaver. God takes events and bends their outcomes to His will and His purposes. Unlike Zeus and the other gods who bowed to the control of fate, God proclaims Himself the Master of this world, the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen. When His purposes require a miracle, an act of power, He acts. More amazingly, though, God seems to be incredibly adept at using human beings in this wonderful tapestry He is creating.
When I was learning to cross stitch and then needlepoint, I received countless clucks of approval from older women and then tons of advice. To keep your threads from bunching up, use beeswax. To keep your threads from knotting, make sure you are always pulling the exact same way in the exact same direction. Their advice may have been pretty good. But nothing ever really eliminated all my issues. Sometimes the thread just kinked; at other times it snapped; at other times it frayed. I could be taking all the care in the world and still these things would happen and frustrate the heck out of me. And even when nothing like that happened, still the whole piece did not look like it should in my mind’s eye. Looking at the backside of my work was rather disappointing. The back was where the tie-offs were. The back was where some of the knots were hidden. The backs were where the colors crossed the boundaries and sort of made everything look like a mess. It was only when I held up the front that the picture truly began to take shape. It was only when those tie offs, frays, and kinks were consigned to the other side that I could begin to see, truly to see, the art I was creating.
The amazing thing about God’s tapestry, though, is that He uses people like you and like me to create His beautiful work. Jesus takes the “loose threads” of this world and creates the most majestic of tapestries. Mary Magdalene was possessed before she met Jesus. Peter, poor Peter, is there an Apostle with higher highs and lower lows of faith? And what of Paul in his letter this morning? He reminds us that he is least fit to be called an Apostle because He actively persecuted, he actively sought to undermine the will of God, in his duties before he met the Risen Lord on the way to Damascus! Miriam in the Old Testament, for all her wonderful efforts, found herself on the wrong side of a fight with God and Moses. Sarah? She believed enough to follow her husband, just not enough to think a 100 year-old woman could have a baby. David? For all his heart for God, he committed a few nasty sins. If He can save men and women like them, He can surely save men and women like me and like you!
One of the reminders of John’s Gospel is that God can take anyone, ANY SINGLE PERSON, and use their faith and obedience to His glory and, in the end, save them. It is an amazing offer of hope. No matter what sins we have committed, no matter how many bad decisions we have made, God not only can use us, He wants to use us as heralds of His in-breaking kingdom! So often we buy into the siren-song of the world. We begin to believe that we have made too many wrong choices, that we have strayed too far from Him for too long, that we have put off and put off a decision we know we should have made. In weaving terms, we have frayed our threads, we have knotted our threads, we have kinked our threads, and we have dragged our threads through all kinds of muck and mud, discoloring them, making them unsuitable for any real use.
Yet the God Incarnate, Man divine stands there in the garden this morning calling to each of us as He did Mary nearly two millennia ago. Jesus is always reaching out that hand of invitation, offering that embrace of true love, to you and to me. We need only to accept His offer. We need only to call Him Lord, and He takes care of the rest. Our threads are restored to their vibrant colors, more beautiful than any thread in any dress or tie we see here today! Our kinks and knots are smoothed by His mercy and forgiveness, that we might be worked into His wonderful tapestry of redemption and salvation. Even better, we become part of The Story, His Story, and promised a share in His eternal kingdom for our willingness to submit our lives to His call and to let Him use us to reach others with this amazing, Gospel news. We are given new robes! We become the Mary’s and Peter’s and John’s for others, inviting them to come and see. Best of all, not even death can keep His story and His plans for all who call Him Lord from being fulfilled! His power to redeem, as we are reminded again this morning, cannot be thwarted! His power to save cannot be subdued! And one day, one glorious day in the future, we who call Him Lord will hear His voice and answer His call to us, just as did Mary this morning.
Brothers and sisters, the voice that calls to you from the garden this morning is no “figment of your imagination.” It is not the result of some “mass hysteria.” It is none other than our Lord Christ, graciously pursuing you, graciously reminding you, that all He did, all He suffered, He suffered for you. Now, He asks only that you join Him. Lend your voice to the throng, lend your thread to His Tapestry, lend your story to His story, that others in the world might be drawn into His saving embrace through your witness . . . The Lord is Risen. Alleluia!