Sunday, April 24, 2011

What's in a Name? (John 20: 1-18)

It might be hard to picture retro-rocker Bob Seger, with his love of guitars, horns and "old time rock and roll" as a prophet. But his 1978 song "Feel Like a Number" outlines a problem starting in his day that only got worse, as anyone who's ever dealt with those misnamed "customer service lines" can tell you.

Everyone he deals with makes Seger feel more and more like he's not only anonymous, he's irrelevant: "To teachers I'm just another child/To the IRS I'm another file/Just another consensus on the street." I think that's a feeling that our modern world can push on us pretty heavily. The circle of places and people where we matter as individuals is quite a bit smaller than it used to be, and there's something about human beings that pushes back against that idea.

And there's quite a bit of money to be made in helping that push back -- everyone from beauty salons to clothing stores to tattoo parlors have opened wide their gates to people who want to "express their individuality" in different ways that often end up looking a lot like the other people who want to express their individuality. It seems like only after they've spent the money on these outward signs do people start to understand their individuality and identity has roots other than haircuts, shirts and ink.

According to the Biblical witness, human beings have pretty much always sought ways to distinguish themselves and have an impact, going back to the first man and first woman eating from the tree of knowledge so they could "be like God." A  generation or so after Noah, people gathered on the plains of Babel to try to build a tower to Heaven so they could "make a name" for themselves, or be remembered by those who came after. Neither of those ideas panned out very well.

Is that because God is against the idea of human individuality? Some people believe so. Many folks who disagree with Christianity claim its goal is to create people who passively follow whichever leader they happen to have, and think whatever that leader or guru tells them to think. These people say the whole point of the Christian message is, "Do what you're told."

We've got some folks in the Christian world who do seem to teach that idea, but I think both they and the folks who see them as representing all of Christianity are wrong. For one, human nature resists that kind of system. History shows time and time again that governments and systems that try to make people just cogs in a state fail. There's almost always enough people who don't like getting told what to do that their orneriness gets contagious and the system collapses, or enough people outside that system they can stop its leaders' plans in their tracks.

For another, it seems like societies have had their strongest and most prosperous times when their individual members have been encouraged to unleash their own creativity. Neither great art nor great literature came from committees.

And I imagine most of us have had those times like Bob Seger describes where we have felt like numbers or like we are anonymous and irrelevant -- and we don't much care for them, do we? People who try to take their own lives are obviously dealing with significant problems, but one of the things that they often share is a sense of despair or hopelessness that grows from a mistaken conviction that nothing matters, including them.

These kinds of evidence suggest -- to me, anyway -- that human beings have within them a desire to matter, and not mattering poses big problems for our well-being. If we believe that God had anything to do with human creation, then we believe this desire is naturally part of us: We're supposed to want to matter and we're supposed to feel something's wrong when we don't matter.

But like I mentioned before, many of the ways people seek to matter don't work. They may be the same ways that everyone else tries to matter, so they wind up not mattering much at all. Or they may be more damaging than they're worth, destroying the self we're trying to express.

When I picture Mary at the tomb, I wonder if that sense of not mattering was part of what she felt. From Luke we know she was a woman possessed by demonic spirits, and whether you believe that or you believe she was mentally ill, she probably didn't have a lot of people who cared about her back in her home village of Magdala. After all, everyone's life would be easier if the demon-possessed woman would just disappear or at least pretend like she'd disappeared, wouldn't it? After Jesus healed her and she became one of his followers, I imagine it was the first time in a long time she felt at all valued in some way, and I wonder how strong that belief was. Would it continue now that Jesus was gone? Did she still have value in a world without him? Was his message of her importance to God something that could outlast his death? Out of the millions of people in the world, did Mary of Magdala have a place in the mind of the Lord?

Then with a single world, she understands two things: One, that Jesus is not gone and the world is not now nor will it ever be "without him," as he himself had outlasted death.

And two, the Lord, the Word of God without whom was nothing made that was made, in the same voice that said "Let there be" to the whole of creation, said also the one word that helped Mary understand she had and would always have a place in his mind: "Mary."

He says that word to you, too. May we all hear his voice.

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