Sermon by Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church of Harvard University, for the Memorial Church's Sunday Worship Service. Video by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.
"Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed" John 20:8
Flannery O’Connor is one of my favorite writers. Her 20th century short stories creatively capture the complexity of Southern life. Her faith-informed worldview constantly calls forth the need for God’s grace in human affairs.
Consider her short story “The Lame Shall Enter First.” The story weaves together the lives of three characters. There is the recently widowed white father Shepherd, and his grieving ten-year-old son Norton. Shepherd is a scientistic atheist. He counsels kids down at the local reform school. Shepherd believes his call in life is to do good and promote science as the counter to evil, ignorance, and injustice. This view of the world, however, alienates him from his heartbroken son — a son who longs to see his mother again. But Shepherd sticks to his gospel of rationality and social service. He tells the ten-year-old, “If you stop thinking about yourself and think what you can do for somebody else, then you’ll stop missing your mother.”
This line introduces the third character — an African American teen that Shepherd meets at the reformatory. His name is Rufus Johnson. Rufus is handicapped by a club foot. His mother is incarcerated, and his Pentecostal preaching grandfather whips him. And to find dinner, Rufus has resorted to digging through trashcans. Shepherd felt, however, that he was an incredibly intelligent kid. So Shepherd invites Rufus to live with him and Norton. If he can just share his resources and disabuse him of the religious mumbo-jumbo, Rufus could have a bright future.
Toward this end, Shepherd purchases his son and Rufus two gifts — a telescope and a microscope. Both are meant to encourage his scientistic view of reality. A telescope to wow the boys with the immensity of the universe. A microscope to capture the minuteness of reality.
And when Norton declares that his mother is happy in heaven because he saw her waving through the telescope, the father responds, “Your mother isn’t anywhere. She’s not unhappy. She just isn’t. She doesn’t exist. That’s all I have to give you, son. The truth.”
When Shepherd catches Rufus teaching Norton about heaven and hell in the Bible, he chastises the boys. “That book is something for you to hide behind. It’s for cowards, people who are afraid to stand on their own feet and figure things out for themselves.”
Rufus needs to take responsibility and learn to stand on his own two feet. In fact, Shepherd thinks that the reason the boy acts out is that he is insecure about his club foot. Shepherd purchases Rufus a special shoe to take away his limp. He is thus irate and appalled when Rufus rejects the shoe. But Rufus asks him, “Haven’t you heard that the lame shall enter first the kingdom of God?”
O’Connor uses this tragic tale of heartbreak and dashed hope to make a more significant point. Things aren’t always as they appear. Seeing is not always believing.
O’Connor thus offers an astute cultural critique. We live in a culture that privileges eyesight over all of the other senses. The human eye is the primary epistemological source. We associate the ocular with intellect, eyesight with understanding, and physical vision with veracity.
Consider our colloquial phrases around comprehension. When we want to make a point, we say, “Look.” When we want to convince someone, we might say, “Look at it this way.”
When we understand, we say, “I see.”
According to literary scholar Cassandra Nelson, O’Connor wanted to use her work to reclaim an earlier understanding of vision, an understanding of vision like the ancients. An understanding of vision associated with intuition, imagination, the mind, and the heart.
In this regard, O’Connor is consistent with today’s Easter gospel lesson. We witness Mary Magdalene arriving at the tomb early on Sunday morning. Mary is mortified. The stone is no longer in front of the grave. We assume Mary went in and looked around. Because the Bible says that she ran to retrieve the other disciples and declared, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.”
Simon Peter and another disciple, possibly John, possibly James the brother of Jesus, sprint back to the tomb. And to underscore Mary’s epistemic certainty born of empirical verification, she repeats again, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him.”
The other disciple, however, walked into the tomb and looked around. He saw the same image as Mary. His eyes scanned the empty tomb. His eyes examined the interior walls, perused the pavement, and, like Mary, observed Jesus’s physical absence. Nevertheless, this disciple came to a different conclusion. While Mary concluded, “they have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him,” the Bible says that this disciple “saw and believed.” He believed that God raised Jesus from the dead.
Most philosophers of perception will tell you that all forms of interpretation have a subjective dimension. When we look into the world, our perception is always and already informed by our presuppositions. Our sight is colored by our disposition. Our interpretation is informed by our beliefs.
One person might see a police officer shooting an unarmed civilian, while another person might see a heroic officer protecting himself from a violent criminal. One person might see an elite academic institution with honorable standards of excellence, while another person might see a bastion of white male supremacy that reinforces cultural homogeneity. It depends on the conceptual tools that inform your sight. No matter who you are, our emotions, our experiences, our intuition, and ingrained moral commitments inform what we see.
Consider Mary Magdalene. Mary viewed the empty tomb through the eyes of understandable fear. Jesus was put to death as an enemy of the state. He was crucified for challenging Roman apartheid on behalf of the Jewish people. Jesus’s followers were tormented by an angry mob of Orwellian sheep — sheep who merely repeated the propaganda of those in power. There were those who mocked Jesus in life and sought to malign him in death. So through this lens of anxiety and fear; through this lens of terror and trepidation — Mary came to a conclusion, “They have taken away my Lord, and I don’t know where they have laid him.”
My aim is not to disparage Mary this morning. In fact, I identify with Mary. How many of us often interpret reality through the optics of anxiety? How often does your world come into focus through the frames of fear? Like Mary, this view will make you feel alone. It will make you assume the worst.
On a campus of overachievers like this one, I would argue that it happens at every stage. You show up as a freshman and think everyone else has it so together. She looks so smart. He seems so comfortable here. And then you look at yourself and think, “I must be the mistake.”
“They have taken away my sense of self, and I don’t know where they have laid it.”
It’s time to graduate, and it appears that everyone else is stepping into six-figure salaries. “I know that she’s going to medical school. Of course, he will get into his top choice of law school.” And you look at yourself and think, “I just don’t measure up?”
“They have taken away my future, and I don’t know where they laid it.”
There are even numerous full professors on this campus who wake up every day with such a distorted view. It’s part of the pathology of a hyper-competitive culture. “If only I can be as productive as her. Why can’t I write a report like him? She always receives outside offers. And then we look at ourselves and think, “I better act real smart and pompous, lest somebody else see that I am really nervous and scared.”
“Somebody has taken away my confidence, and I don’t know where they have laid it.”
These are problems of perception. One could argue that today’s hyper-visual culture of performativity known as social media only exacerbates the problem. Our “snaps.” The “Gram.” Facebook. Everybody is at their flossy best. It makes us view ourselves through the eyes of anxiety. This is so dangerous. Flossy photos often serve as a thin veneer that conceals more than reveals our true humanity. It’s connection without communication. It’s sight without insight.
We see, but we don’t really know. We scroll, but we don’t understand. We streak, but we don’t really see. Thus, social media amplifies our optical anxiety. It enhances our ocular insecurity. And when we assume the best about everyone else, we invariably assume the worst about ourselves.
Yet when we move past connections to real communication. When we move past merely the ocular to include the emotive; from just the physical to the spiritual; from the instant to the intimate, you and I may begin to perceive reality differently. Rather than viewing life through a lens of fear, we can view life through a lens of faith. Rather than seeing what is, we can see what’s possible. Rather than just physical sight, we can develop a spiritual vision.
This is what that other disciple reveals. He sees the empty tomb, but he recalls something else. He recalls the time and tenderness he felt with Jesus. He remembers the intimacy and emotion evoked by Jesus’s teachings. He recounts to himself the experience and encounters with Jesus — how the blind retrieved their sight, the lame began to walk, the deaf began to hear, and the diseased were made whole. Not merely because Jesus healed their ailments. But because Jesus brought them into a community and taught them empathy.
In Jesus, the disciples were not defined by who they were — a motley crew of misfits. They were defined by whose they were — blessed and unique children of God.
In Jesus, followers were not recognized by their insufficiency — what they didn’t possess. They were known for their capacity — who you can become.
And with Jesus, life was not defined by social status or class rank. Life is defined by care, compassion, and human kindness.
This is what Easter is about. It’s about impossible possibilities. It’s about seeing beyond the immediate to the ultimate; beyond the surface to the interior; beyond the horrors of Friday to the resurrecting power of Sunday morning!
It’s Easter! See yet believe. No matter what may be going on in your life.
Believe that Jesus is a friend that will never leave you nor forsake you.
Believe that Jesus is a friend that will stick closer than a brother or sister.
Believe that when your situation looks dire, and circumstances appear defeated, God has resurrecting power.
This is why I believe that when that disciple looked in the grave and saw the empty tomb, he started singing to himself.
I’ve seen the lightning flashing. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I’ve felt sin’s breakers dashing, trying to conquer my soul.
But I’ve heard the voice of Jesus, telling me to still fight on.
He promised to never leave me. Never leave me alone.
No, never alone.
No, never alone.
He promised never to leave me.
Never to leave me alone.
 Cassandra Nelson, “Seeing Is Believing: What Flannery O’Connor Meant by ‘Vision’,” Commonweal, November 2, 2016