by Daniel Harrell
This is my first Sunday back preaching since Christmas, which I mention mostly to lower your expectations. Dawn, Violet and I arrived back safely from a wonderfully full three-month Sabbatical at Fuller Seminary in sunny Pasadena, California. Thank you Colonial Church for your deep generosity in blessing us with this time away. More happened than I can begin to summarize fairly in one sermon, so my plan for the coming Sundays is to offer a series of sermons touching on some of the many things that I learned and experienced, from the ways psychology shows our minds to be wired for belief to how black faith matters for white people, as well as insights from Deuteronomy on political leadership and from Jonathan Edwards, why it might be good to shrink the church and Mary the Mother of God. It was an eclectic Sabbatical. The warm winter sunshine of Southern California helped me better appreciate the Minnesota snowbird phenomenon. I missed the cold less than I thought I might. Though I did miss you, and it’s good to be back and to see all of you here. Granted, you aren’t here to see me. This being Easter, you’re here to see the risen Jesus.
Easter’s irony is that you see Jesus by first not seeing him. In Luke’s gospel, we do see two men in dazzling clothes—angels we haven’t heard from since Christmas. They address these perplexed and petrified women with a certain insouciance: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” It matters how you perceive that empty hole.
Fuller Seminary frequently holds its weekly chapel outside—in January under palm trees. Seminary President Mark Labberton, whom I’ve been privileged to know since his Presbyterian pastor days in Berkeley, preached a moving message about all the ways our perceptions deceive us. As human beings, we continually go about seeing people and things in our world, and then naming these people and things with names informed by our backgrounds, social status, experiences, race, gender and even genetics. We then act and respond to these people and things as we’ve named them. However, the tragedy of our human condition means that our perceptions are frequently flawed and our naming regularly wrong—we fail to see and know people and things as they truly are—and thus our actions end up distorted, alienating, hurtful and harmful.
Look no further than our country’s distorted presidential election season with its many mischaracterizations of every kind of person and process. A less serious example might be me getting my hair cut in Pasadena. I went to a walk-in shop three times over the three months and had three different barbers, male and female, each of whom invariably asked what brought me to Pasadena. Each time I’d say “Fuller,” though I alternated between saying Fuller “School of Theology” and Fuller “School of Psychology” (Fuller has both) depending on how I perceived the barber perceiving me. I’ve done this my whole life. As a preacher with a PhD in Psychology, I’ve responded to the “what do you do” question based on the reaction I anticipate from my perception of the person I’d just met, sometimes getting it right, but mostly getting it wrong. It always works better to just say the truth. But this is the thing: our perceiving and naming has been warped by so many false expectations and disappointments that we really don’t know what’s true anymore. Our vision’s been obscured by layers of insect matter and grime thickly splattered across the windshield of a cross-country drive, blurring our view as we blow through life, making it hard to partake of the reality before our eyes.
Here in the Easter story, grieving women are the first to arrive at Jesus’ grave. Despite all they’d been told about resurrection and all they’d seen Jesus do, they still showed up hauling burial spices and ointment intent on embalming Jesus’ dead body. Even with the stone rolled away and Jesus gone, they remained somehow perplexed, wondering what on earth could have happened. Angels clean their windshields and send them off to inform the disciples, whom you’d expect to be overjoyed, but they can’t believe what they perceive and name as nonsense coming from ditzy women. Peter—the disciple who denied ever knowing Jesus three times to the barbers who cut his hair—at least took the time to go and see for himself and left amazed. But then he just went home.
We come to the empty hole every Easter ourselves, and then usually just go home or maybe out to brunch. How to make sense of a dead man rising? It’s as strange as a rabbit delivering chocolate eggs. Faith defies rationality, common sense and scientific reason. Still, I did read on sabbatical of one physicist’s attempt to show how quantum equations governing the chaotic expansion and contraction of the universe demonstrate such an astounding hypersensitivity to motion that a mere wave of the hand spins disturbance into the fabric of space at the speed of light causing distances between objects alternately to decrease and increase in an oscillatory manner, resulting in a vast reservoir of potential energy sufficient to perfectly simulate every creature that ever existed or could conceivably exist (subjectively raising them from the dead if you will) thus providing a convincing impression of these simulated life forms as having lasted eternally.
I had a very eclectic Sabbatical.
The Lord, like quantum reality, works in mysterious ways—none stranger than that first Easter morning, occurring as it did the day after the Sabbath. For Jews, the day after the Sabbath, the day after creation and rest, is deemed the perfect first day, the all-important harbinger of a new creation when time and eternity finally compress together as one. Humans experience time as a constant tick-tock flow from future to past, slice by slice, but time is really an illusion, relative and arbitrary, subject to perception. Since time slows down as an object approaches the speed of light, some physicists and philosophers propose an alternate existence outside of time beyond the speed of light, a perpetual present where past and future are viewed simultaneously. Theologians situate God in such space where clocks prove irrelevant and history is experienced as a writer would see the character and occurrences of her novel, everything before her eyes all at once, even as the characters themselves experience existence a page at a time. Resurrection has already been written, new creation already happened; it’s only a matter of our experience catching up to reality.
Travel to any non-Western country, or just to Los Angeles, and you’ll see a kind of timelessness played out in real time. Some of our best friends from Ghana are always late and never leave because right now is all that matters and always overrides what’s next. Relationships mean more than schedules, personal connections more than efficiency and organization, being present more than any future since the future can only be lived as present.
While in California we experienced this relational immediacy and compression of time over and over again. While at dinner with the pastor of a church we attended, who happened to be Tony Jones’ roommate at Fuller, Dawn and I remarked how we’d graduated from Gordon-Conwell Seminary in Massachusetts. The pastor’s spouse replied how the only person she knew who’d attended our school was her brother, Tom, who as it turned out was Dawn’s seminary boyfriend whom we’d had over to dinner with his wife not so long ago.
This was my second sabbatical at Fuller Seminary, the first happened 16 years ago during which I taught a preaching class (can’t you tell?). I had a student whom I helped secure a position at First Baptist Santa Barbara. Hans knew a friend James from Boston who happened to sell me my car and whose daughter, whom I baptized, now attends Hans’ church. We went to Santa Barbara to see a longtime friend, the fiddler Hanneke Cassel whom you’ve heard play here, and we stayed at the home of Old Testament professor Tremper Longman (from whom the aforementioned daughter takes classes) also whom I’d just met in San Francisco last fall, whose books, as we discovered, Dawn had helped edit back in Massachusetts. When we stopped by First Baptist to hear Hans preach, we met his new Children’s Pastor who’d just moved from Cape Cod where, coincidentally, she’d worked at the church Dawn’s parents attend, which is ten minutes away from the church Colonial Church is modeled after, though now I’m stretching it.
Unable to take the Deuteronomy class I’d planned due to its cancellation (much to relief of those who feared a Deuteronomy sermon series next fall), I took instead the only other class available to me, one in spiritual formation added at the last minute and taught by the same professor, Richard Peace, who went to seminary with Dave Williamson, and who taught me my first seminary class in Boston, in this his last class at Fuller before he retires. Similarly, my university mentor, Grant Wacker, an outstanding religious history professor I’d not seen for 35 years, happened be a Fuller Trustee and in town for a meeting. We had coffee and I got to say thank you and discover he was good friends with a Tufts professor who had been my seminary intern in Boston as well as with Randall Balmer who you remember being with us last fall. I ran into a high school friend, still others who’d been part of a search committee for a job I didn’t take, a Boston best friend, Barry Corey, who’s now a college President in LA, and even Katie Sanders, one the pastors at Upper Room in town for a conference. I could go on.
“All in God’s time,” a Southern preacher might say, meaning that for God time is no object. He’s got the whole small world in his hands. In Christ, the future’s so certain it seems just like yesterday, meaning new creation and our own resurrection are already present and so real we might as well start living them now. As the late University of Southern California philosopher Dallas Willard said during his last days on earth: “I think that when I die, it might be some time until I know it.”
The apostle Paul famously wrote: “For now we see through a glass dimly”—a bug-covered windshield as we speed down the road—“but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Fully known and fully seen and rightly named—Jesus does all this. He sees our whole selves—our goodness and badness, our fullness and neediness—he sees us honestly and names us rightly and acts toward us lovingly with grace and redemption in the bright light of resurrection that is new every moment.
Mark Labberton told the story of being a pastor in Berkeley when a troubled woman contacted him out of nowhere needing to talk with a minister. As she had not willingly spoken to a man in 15 years, she requested strict conditions be placed on their encounter. She had to meet off church property, and because she had a lot of anger, she would need to meet somewhere she could yell and pace and scream and curse. Mark Labberton agreed to meet, but did ask if she had a gun. She said she didn’t expect to bring one.
They got together at a nearby park and sat on separate benches, yards apart. Her story erupted from deep inside—all the wrongs done, the hurt suffered, the blame, the shame, the fault, the rawness and horrible senselessness.“Do you understand what I’m saying?” she wailed. “Don’t talk!” and then finally, “It all boils down to this: Is there a God in the universe who sees me? A God who could ever love me? Heal me? Help me? Forgive me?” Mark said yes. Yes, absolutely yes. He told her about the love of Jesus and resurrection, about new creation already finished and ours for living now.
The woman didn’t show up for their next appointment. Mark tried calling her but she’d disconnected her phone. Tried to visit her but she’d moved away without a trace. He searched online but she was nowhere to be found.
Twenty years later, after moving to Pasadena to join the Fuller faculty, Mark was out getting coffee. On the cashier’s counter sat a donation jar with a description of work being done in Myanmar that any spare change could support. Impressed with the description, he read on to the end and saw an email address—first initial, last name—that matched the initial and last name of this same woman from twenty years prior.
It was so unusual that he immediately banged out message: “Hi. I don’t know if you remember me, or if you are even this person, would you be this person?” Then he sat and watched his screen. A couple of hours went by. Finally a reply. Ding!
“Yes, it’s me.”
“Where are you?”
“Currently in the Sierras. But I live in Pasadena.”
“Oh my God, what are you doing in Pasadena?”
“I’m a student at Fuller Seminary.”
“What?! Why are you a student at Fuller Theological Seminary?”
They met again and Mark heard her entire, extraordinary testament of transformation. Grace had overwhelmed her, shined light on her darkness and raised her from the dead with a power and fullness that inspired her to lavish love in so many ways on so many people—people whose vulnerability and hurt and rawness she could rightly see and name and act on— for more than twenty years in some of the world’s most risky places. All in God’s time.
Have you been raised from the dead yet? My first sabbatical at Fuller Seminary was not really a sabbatical as much as it was an attempt to escape some serious problems in my life. Troubles, done to me and by me, wrecked me and left me for dead, I felt, a zombie desensitized by loss and shame, smothered deep under layers of deception, lies told to myself, to my family to my friends to the point that they sounded like truth. A hypocrite beaten and buried by the weight of this enormous emptiness, I wondered, even as I taught students to preach it, whether there was indeed a God in the universe who sees me? A God who could ever love me? Heal me? Help me? Forgive me?
Driving back from Pasadena this week I remembered driving back that first time sixteen years ago driving back from Pasadena to Boston, and stopping here in Minneapolis. I needed to talk to a minister, so I drove here, to Colonial Church, where I’d never been before but where my friend David Fisher was the preacher. And I sat right over there and listened to him preach from right here and afterward, just like that troubled woman, unloaded my lies and my fears and hurt, without quite so much screaming and cussing, and wondered aloud whether resurrection was real and David loudly exclaimed, Yes, Yes it is, and with such mercy that it blew me away, amazed me beyond belief, like it did everybody that first Easter, so much so that I could return to Pasadena these many years later for a redemption tour of sorts, and then drive back again to right here, right now, but in a brand new way I could have never planned or expected or imagined and say to you too, that Yes, Yes, resurrection is surely real and beautiful and now and right on time. God’s time. It is all in God’s time.