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Busy, busy, busy

The story of Mary Magdalene at the tomb illustrates the importance of taking the time to live as we say we want to live, Lillian Daniel says in an Easter sermon.

April 19, 2011

Editor’s note: Lillian Daniel will be the convocation pastor for Drawn into Scripture: Arts and the Life of the Church , Duke Divinity School's 2011 Convocation & Pastors' School, Oct. 10-11. This sermon was preached on March 23, 2008, at First Congregational Church (UCC) in Glen Ellyn, Ill.

There are four different versions of the resurrection story; each of the four Gospels tells the story slightly differently. And yet the people who put the Bible together allowed these inconsistencies to remain side by side. I think they thought that thinking Christians could handle it. Another reminder that while the Bible is to be taken seriously, it is not meant to be taken literally.

So if we take the Bible seriously, we take these little differences among the Gospels seriously as well. We ask ourselves, which of the peculiarities of this story matter? What’s the lesson in this version for us today?

So today as you hear the resurrection story from the Gospel of John, ask yourselves these questions: Who is the main character in this story? Who gets to see Jesus first? And who does not? And why is that?

Mary Magdalene took her time. She was lost in the long winter of her grief. Like the ice that surrounded us this winter and seemed as though it would never melt, so was her sadness. She was not in a rush. In every Gospel, she is at the empty tomb, a key figure whose attendance remains undisputed. She was there, and she stayed and she met the resurrected Jesus.

The other disciples in this story, Peter and John, were in a hurry. So much in a hurry, they actually raced to the tomb. Raced each other, to see who would get there first. And that gets recorded in Scripture. John was the winner.

At least John was the winner in the Gospel of John, the Gospel of his followers. The winner gets to write history. These little quirks in the Gospels remind us that the Bible is God’s word mediated through some real human personalities.

But even in John’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ friend, is the most important character. After the two disciples have rushed in and then rushed out again, she remains behind. She spends some time in the empty tomb. She spends some time crying. And it is then that she sees Jesus. At first she thinks he is a gardener, because he looks different.

The resurrected Jesus looks different in all the appearance stories. He was not immediately recognizable to those who ran into him after Easter, even to his closest friends. They had to stop and spend some time with him, and then after that they recognized him. But it took a little time.

Time is something we are not very free with in our society. We hold it pretty close. We are careful where we spend it. I think we are freer with our money than with our time. We will spend money on silly things, but when you ask someone for their time, they hesitate. They feel the need to tell you how little of it they have.

The only socially acceptable answer to the question, “How are you?” has become, “Busy. I am so busy.” “How are the kids?” “Oh, you know, busy.” “Mom, can you …” “No, I’m too busy.” “How’s retirement treating you?” “Oh, I’m busier than ever.” To which our societal chorus responds: “Good.”

As if being busy is a sign that life is as it should be. Busy means productive. Busy means your kids are successful. After all, you have to play a lot of sports and musical instruments to be busy. You have to have an important job for it to keep you busy. You have to be a superhuman parent, the most devoted kind, to be busy.

Heaven forbid you not be busy.

Hogwash. This Easter, I am declaring a war on busyness. I want to burst the busyness bubble. I want to say a few words that nobody admits to in our busyness-worshipping society, but they may ring true to you as people of faith, even to those of you too busy to hear it.

First, a lot of the things that keep us busy are actually not important. But they are things that we are used to doing, and so continue to do, without actually stopping to ask why.

I remember once when I was complaining about being busy, a wise person asked me if I had ever done a time exercise. He suggested that I first write out my values, my general philosophy about what I wanted to spend my time on.

You can imagine the categories: time with family, friends, helping others, sharing the gospel, serving the community, working, exercising, prayer. What would your categories be?

And then, this exercise demanded that I sit down with my calendar and look at the last three months of my life, and mark each hour I had spent in any of those categories.

At the end, I was supposed to rank the categories in order of the time I had actually spent in them, and see if there was a disconnect.

Well, there certainly was. For one thing, I hadn’t even thought to have one of my categories be watching television, but according to my calendar, it was one of my core values.

And if you asked me if I appreciated nature and God’s creation, I would have said, “Yes,” and if you asked me how important I thought sitting in front of a computer is, I would say, “Not very.” But my calendar told a different story. So try the exercise yourself. It is jarring, especially to those of us who think we know ourselves.

But engaging time, really looking at how you spend it, is a profoundly spiritual issue, and so we should engage it spiritually.

Do not, for example, as people of faith, opt for a secular solution like time management. Time management as an expression says a lot. Because who really manages time? Not human beings, but God. God created time, and he didn’t create time for us to manage. He created time for us to appreciate.

So the first shift might be from time management to time appreciation. What would our calendars look like if we viewed time not as something to be managed but as something to be cherished?

Mary Magdalene learned this lesson the way many of us learn it. She learned to cherish time when the person she most wanted to spend time with was gone. Jesus had died so unfairly young, and Mary, along with all the disciples, must have been performing her own version of the time exercise.

Lost in the long winter of grief, they asked: Did we spend our time with Jesus wisely? Did we talk about the right things, the most important things? Which category did the hours fall into? If we could have more time with him, what would we do now?

Unlike most of us, Mary had her chance to do more than imagine that. In the resurrection, Jesus truly returned to her. Peter and John rushed off; they had news to spread and they were busy.

But Mary had taken time simply to sit in the grave, to sit in the moment and grieve. She got more time. But let’s remember, the reason she got that time with him is that she gave that time to the moment.

The promise of the resurrection is that we will get more time. We will get it on the other side of this world. We will live again, and see each other again, and know God and all the answers to our questions. That is the promise.

But in the meantime, shouldn’t that good news affect the way we live while we’re still here on earth?

Busy, busy, busy. What if being busy is keeping us from our most important work, which is loving God and one another?

In the empty tomb, Mary found Jesus. In the empty spaces, may you find him too, in the people you love, and in the time that you have been given.

Let’s stop managing time and instead appreciate it, as God’s gift. No more time management. Only time appreciation.

No more busy, busy, busy. Just thankful, thankful, thankful.