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Monday, April 25, 2011

The Easter Adjustment

Easter A, 2011

John 20:1-18

John 20:1-18 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went toward the tomb. The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples returned to their homes.

But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

David Norris is a young and attractive New York politician running for the United States Senate in 2006. His campaign is going incredibly well until a tabloid newspaper publishes embarrassing photographs from his college days. His campaign turns sour, and on election day, he is beaten badly at the polls. He goes into a hotel restroom to gather hits wits before making his concession speech, and is shocked to find there a dancer named Elise, who is hiding from hotel security guards because she has crashed a wedding at the hotel. Chemistry sparkles between David and Elise, they kiss, and, inspired by her, David’s concession speech turns into an honest uncovering of the calculating and manipulative underbelly of politics. The speech instantly catapults him into national attention and makes him a favorite for whatever office he runs for next.

David and Elise make a date to meet the next morning at a bus stop, but a mysterious man wearing a fedora spoils their plan. The man in the hat keeps referring to a book he carries with a moving map. David loses Elise’s telephone number, and, despite taking the same bus every day for the next three years, never sees her. Finally, one day, he sees her walking along the street, he gets off, and they reconnect, to the dismay of the same man in the hat, who has been following him all the time.

It turns out that Harry, the man in the hat, and other behatted men like him everywhere, are members of The Adjustment Bureau, who intervene now and then in people’s lives to make sure the plans of The Chairman are carried out. David is destined to become President of the United States, and Elise to become a world-famous dancer, but if they get off the plan in the book by falling in love, then everything will turn awry. The caseworkers in the hats step in to keep The Chairman’s plans in place. Some people, Harry explains, call them angels.

David keeps resisting the caseworkers and their plans, so a senior caseworker, Thompson, is called in to help. Thompson reveals the existence of the Adjustment Bureau to David, and explains that David can never tell anyone else about the Bureau, or he will be “reset:” his memory will be erased and his brain essentially lobotomized. David asks, Whatever happened to free will? Thomson answers him,

We actually tried free will before. After taking you from hunting and gathering to the height of the Roman Empire, we stepped back to see how you'd do on your own. You gave us the dark ages for five centuries until finally we decided we should come back in. The Chairman thought that maybe we just needed to do a better job with teaching you how to ride a bike before taking the training wheels off again. So we gave you raised hopes, enlightenment, scientific revolution. For six hundred years we taught you to control your impulses with reason. Then in nineteen ten, we stepped back. Within fifty years you'd brought us World War One, the Depression, fascism, the Holocaust and capped it off by bringing the entire planet to the brink of destruction in the Cuba missile crisis. At that point the decision was taken to step back in again before you did something that even we couldn't fix.

The Adjustment Bureau, starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, raises intriguing questions about predestination and free will. Are human beings mere instruments in some cosmic symphony orchestrated by God, or do we have the freedom to choose who we are, what we do, and whom we love? Are there angels all around who, whether they wear hats or not, keep us to The Chairman’s plans, introducing accidents like a spilled cup of coffee or a twisted ankle to just skew our timing enough to keep us on the Master’s track? Holy Week casts doubt on free will as we watch Jesus move inexorably to his execution. Did Jesus have a choice to be someone else than a crucified Messiah? Was Judas doomed from his birth to betray his Lord? Could Pilate have rendered another verdict, perhaps releasing Jesus instead of Barabbas?

What about us? Are our lives set before we’re born? Is there a plan for my life? Is this it, or is there a better one that I’m missing somehow? Or am I doomed to struggle all my life with my feelings of despair, with my inability to be the person I want to be and my frustration with falling back, again and again, into the same patterns of darkness and failure? I work and struggle and slip and fall over and over and over, and then I die. In the words of the old Peggy Lee song, Is that all there is? Sure, there have been some good days, there are people who say they love me, and, well, it could have been worse. But when teenagers are killed getting off the bus and middle-aged men die in their kitchens, you have to wonder who’s pulling the strings.

Harry, the junior caseworker assigned to David, gives David his hat, which enables him to go through special doors in the city, skipping across time and space. David and Elise flee the men from the Adjustment Bureau until they end up at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, where David explains about the Adjustment Bureau to Elise, and the plan for them to be President and a great dancer, now thwarted by their love. There is a special door they must decide to go through, but if they do, they will sacrifice their destinies for the sake of love. Elise hesitates, then runs through the door in hand with Harry. They find themselves fleeing up a skyscraper, until they reach a dead end on the roof, surrounded by caseworkers, including Harry. Knowing they are doomed and that they are about to be reset, their minds erased, and separated forever, David and Elise declare their love for each other and embrace in a long farewell kiss. When they finally break, all the caseworkers are gone except Harry, who reveals to them that because of their love, he has reset their plans and the plan of the world. Harry, it turns out, is the Chairman.

It is the plan of the powers of darkness for Jesus to die, for hope to be shattered, for sin to triumph, for hatred to reign, and for Creation to continue its spiral into chaos. Judas, Pilate, Herod, Caiaphas, and even the disciples play into that plan either as willing conspirators or as unwitting victims. But just as David and Elise sacrifice their fame and glory for the sake of love, when Jesus refuses to save himself and come down from the cross, when he refuses to call twelve legions of angels to defend him, when he refuses the call of the crowd to proclaim himself King and begin an insurrection, a miracle happens. The plan is shattered. Only love can change the plan – a love which abandons ambition and even life itself. Greed and hatred and even death are powerless, because they have no power over a soul surrendered to love. The cross changes all the rules and all the plans, and makes an empty tomb not just possible, but imperative. Death cannot hold a life abandoned to love.

We’re here this morning to see if the tomb is still empty. We’re hoping, despite all the evidence, that maybe we can avoid the deadly plan that seems to be playing itself out in us. There is an escape, but it only passes through a cross. We cannot carry our ambition and our prejudice and our greed and our hatreds with us. We cannot carry our own lives through that door – it is only wide enough for love. Jesus is the way, and if we will drop everything else and hold to him alone, then we’ll find ourselves in the midst of the Easter Adjustment.

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