Better than New

ERH Sermon photo 04 21 2019

Easter Sermon; John 20:1-18

Charles, my two-year-old son, has just learned a new phrase: “Good as new!”

It comes from a cartoon he watches where the medic, a penguin, will declare the various sea creatures that he treats to be, “good as new!” as soon as the penguin affixes a bandage or ointment to the affected spot. Charles, in true toddler form, applies this maxim liberally: Goldfish crackers on the floor? Just sweep them up — good as new! (Then he’ll swipe one out of the dustpan and pop it in his mouth for good measure!) Crayon marks on the wall? Surely a wipe will make them: good as new! Tender herbs ripped out of pots, with dirt all around? Let’s just stuff them back in — good as new!

While my Midwestern heart deeply resonates with this sentiment, that just a bit of glue or elbow grease can erase any defect, a piece of me wonders how to teach my child — as I myself am still trying to learn and accept! — that the biggest, most important things in life aren’t ever “good as new” again in the same way, but that when something else rises in its place, it can be different and new in its own way, and deeper, though perhaps heavier, for it.

There’s the example of the Japanese pottery style, Kintsugi, which takes broken pottery, ornate and perfect before it was reduced to shards, and artists glue the pieces back together, lining the cracks with gold. Is it “good as new”? The cracks remain, they’re even highlighted rather than glossed over, and the impeccable pattern and vision of the original artist is interrupted by these cracks and lines covering their vessel. But can you imagine that the new piece might be more beautiful and more accessible for baring its story on its face? It might be even better than new.

A friend of mine lost her grandmother to cancer when she was a freshman in high school. At the funeral, her grandpa gave her his wife’s watch, he entrusted this family heirloom to a 14-year-old. She wore it every day of her life for more than 15 years, more than half her lifetime, and one day, having taken it off to go work out, she lost it. It was a nice watch, one that she should have had insured, but didn’t. For two years, she took on extra side jobs in order to save up for an identical watch, wondering all the time whether it would feel like a forgery when a new one was finally on her wrist. The day arrived, and she burst into tears when the familiar heft was on her arm again; she said that realized it was not less-rich or less-real for not being the same piece of machinery. The new (used) timepiece was both her grandmother’s watch, a family heirloom and a tie to the woman who had so inspired her young life, and also a witness of her own grit and faithfulness, a tangible reminder of the constancy she sometimes wondered if she possessed. Was it “good as new”? It might even have been better than new.

We come, then, to Jesus’ risen body. Have you ever wondered that his post-resurrection body still had nail marks in his hands and feet? That there was still a spear wound in his side? Why didn’t God, when he was drawing the breath of life back into Jesus human flesh, just wave his fingers and erase those scars, “good as new”? Wouldn’t it be better, less upsetting, more hopeful, to just ignore the recent unpleasantness and move on to the Easter brunches and egg hunts and chocolate overdoses without the bloody scabs of torture staring us in the face?

There is that great dissonance between the pastel perfection of smooth eggs nestled in fresh bright grass, and the blackened marks of deep, bloody wounds, hardly dried over. The colors of Easter and spring and new life are not the jewel-tones or the shadowed hues of travail. The visual signals which surround us this day in demure flower buds and light-colored dresses do not communicate the ferocity of death and the turmoil of new life.

Indeed, it takes an awful lot of intellectual discipline and imagination to put ourselves in the place of those beloved companions of Jesus on the very first Easter morning; our reality is so shaped, our history and sense of the world is so imprinted with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead that it cannot help but color our reading and reflection on the witness given to us in John’s Gospel this morning. We know what awaits Mary and Peter and John at the tomb; we know what happens to the body and spirit of their beloved companion, we know the ripples that come from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth over the intervening 2,000 years. And so, it can be difficult to comprehend their uncertainty and their fear at that moment, (that moment:) “[e]arly on the first day of the week, while it was still dark.”

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb.” She had no idea, no reason to think, that she would encounter there a Jesus who was “good as new;” who, despite — or because of — the nail marks in his hands and the spear wound in his side, was, indeed, better than new. Mary went to the tomb expecting the broken pottery, expecting the lifeless body of her beloved companion, expecting, in the darkness, to find more darkness, and yet, she went. Mary chose to go straight to the middle of her pain and darkness, to face exactly the thing that was most terrifying and most disorienting and most confounding, the thing that unmoored her very identity. And when she walked into the middle of this great, heavy, lightless place, she was rewarded with a vision — better than a vision, as she could hold on to, could literally cling to, her teacher and Lord Jesus — and that he was better than new, because it was the same Lord, the same Jesus, the same body that had endured each lash from the whip and each long dinner party, had walked with her all over Galilee and had laid those very hands on children and sick people and the destitute.

The hope of Easter is not in erasing the marks and scars of pain in our hearts and lives, if God did not erase the pain of the cross from the body of his Son, there’s no reason to imagine that he would erase the pain of our lives from our memories and our history. The hope of Easter is that God takes the nail marks and the spear wounds and the shards of our lives and puts back together a new life for each of us with greater strength and more sturdy hope and deeper love. Amen.

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