April 7, 2015

Untimely Appearances


Text: I Corinthians 15:8: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

Timing is everything. We are taught this from a very early age. Students know this, comedians know this, lovers know this, entrepreneurs know this. You can have a great idea, but if it comes after the essay is due it won’t help you. You can have the funniest line, but if you miss your moment it’ll fall flat. You can have a great opening line, but it won’t matter if the object of your desire already has a filled-up dance card. You can have the most brilliant invention or cause or book in your head, but if it’s too far before its time or has missed its moment, then it simply won’t matter.

Timing is everything. If the key to success is being in the right place at the right time, then at least half of success is timing. Now, as it happens, all of you are in the right place at the right time, at least this morning; it is Easter Day, and you are in church. So at least today you are all a fabulously successful.

Timing is everything. Even God must experience this. For some of us the moment of searching, the moment of being open to the possibility of God exactly intersects with a moment in which we find a way to be connected in a spiritual community. Somehow it seems as though for other folks the moment gets missed, somehow.

We raise our kids in the church hoping that we can hold them here just long enough that their moment of openness will somehow come while we still have them here. And that’s true for everyone, really. We receive each next person through the doors of this house trying to be that presence of God for them, just in case what brought them in here is their own moment of possibility. But we never know whether it is or it isn’t. We just keep on trying at it, because timing is everything, and our task as disciples is to try to be present to everyone’s moment of openness to God.

The women who come to the tomb on Easter morning have great timing. They get the Easter equivalent of catching Santa Claus before he gets back up the chimney. They come out at daybreak, the earliest possible moment for them to attend to the body of their friend. Of course leave it to the women to be the only ones brave enough to go, and the only ones resilient enough to do a task that needs doing—caring for the body of a dead friend.

But what they find is that they have happened upon the scene just as Jesus has somehow been raised and has returned to God. We don’t know just exactly who the young man they encounter is. It might be an angel. It might be one of the three mysterious men who visited Abraham way, way back at the beginning of the covenant story, the ones who promised an amused Abraham and Sarah that they would have a child.

Whoever it is, the story wants us to understand that this person is at least a messenger of something that has just happened, and just  possibly the agent by means of which it happened. And the women show up just as he’s finishing the sweeping up. Their timing could not possibly be better.

We never find out whether those women come to have some kind of special authority, some kind of special position, because they got there first and saw what was happening. It certainly must have made the men feel afraid of them, because they spent the next nineteen hundred years or so sidelining the women.

That’s likely because these three women gave proof of a basic, and uncomfortable, theological fact; in order to have great timing in  your relationship with God, the first condition is that you actually have to show up for the meeting.

Paul, on the other hand, doesn’t have great timing. At least he doesn’t think so. Paul is counted among the apostles, but he always feels a little bit defensive about the basic fact that he never met, he never touched, he never walked with Jesus. He wasn’t one of those twelve disciples. He came along later.

That’s what he means when he describes himself as “one untimely born.” He’s out there trying to build churches and bring people this message about Jesus, and at least some of them must be asking him—yeah, but were you one of the original disciples? Paul is worried that his timing wasn’t good enough to get people to listen to him.

So the question for us in our own time is—which of these describes us? What’s your sense of your own timing?

The kind of Easter experience we want is the one the women have. We want God, or at least an angel, to show up when we walk out in the morning. We want our questions to be not just answered, but overwhelmed. We want to be brought out of the tomb of our doubts and our uncertainties into the light of a joyful and certain faith.

But sometimes it feels like the Easter experience we get is more like Paul’s. We feel a sneaking suspicion that we’ve missed our moment, that our timing is a little off. We keep going out to the place where we think we might run into God, but God never seems to show up.

Now, of course, there are a couple of possibilities here, a couple of things that lie between these two extremes. One is that in just the same way that you have to make your own luck, when it comes to feeling our faith get resurrected you have to make your own timing.

You think that what I’m going to say now is that the best way to make your own timing when it comes to God is to show up in church more. Well, of course, I’d like that—but actually it’s not what I mean.

Instead what I mean is that we all have to have the discipline to pay attention more to the examples of grace in the lives of the people around us, people we know and people who are complete strangers. It’s not so much a question of being in the same place at the same time as often as you can stand it. It’s more like a question of being in every place all the time approaching the world in a certain way.

Think about the things you practice. Maybe you practice yoga, or maybe you practice running, or maybe you practice the piano. Here’s a certain fact about humans: Whatever we practice, we get better at.

So if what you practice is looking for reasons to be discouraged, or doubtful, then you will certainly find them. If what you practice is feeding that little voice inside you that makes you afraid to appear foolish to the people around you, then that is what you’ll get good at—being afraid.

And if what you practice is the discipline of looking for the little signs of God’s grace all around you, of looking for the young man sitting there, or the old woman working there, or the child playing there, or whoever it is you meet when you get up and go out into the garden of your life, who shows you something gracious and true about God’s life in the world—well, then, that is what you will get good at.

So that’s one of the possibilities. That’s one way to find Easter in  your heart again. But I said there were two. And strange though it may be to imagine, here it is:

It’s that you are not like the women in this story, and you’re not even like Paul with his terrible timing. There is one other part of the story. It may be that you are that young man just finishing up in the tomb.

We are Christians. Don’t let anyone take the full meaning of that label away from us. Don’t let the people who use that word as a club for beating up on someone else take that away from us. They’ve only learned the small parts of the story that agrees with the world they want to have.

We are Christians, and that means we are supposed to be agents of resurrection, not just beneficiaries of it.

You may not know it—you may never know it—but you are be exactly the person that someone else comes across when they walk out into the garden of their losses and their sorrows. You are the sign for them that the darkness doesn’t engulf us, that grace is possible in the world, that the snow finally does melt—that God, the God who created us out of love and restored us out of that same love, does not give up on us.

That message is timeless. That hope is forever. You can’t show up too early or too late for it. You just have to look. Amen.