You Are My Sunshine! – Br. Jim Woodrum

Br. Jim Woodrum

John 20:1-18

When I began to pray with this morning’s Gospel lesson from John, I was struck at first by two sentences: “Then the disciples returned to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.” The feeling these sentences evoked for me was kenopsia. In his book of neologisms, author John Koenig defines his word kenopsia as: “the eerie, forlorn atmosphere of a place that’s usually bustling with people but is now abandoned and quiet—a school hallway in the evening, an unlit office on a weekend, vacant fairgrounds—an emotional afterimage that makes it seem not just empty but hyper-empty, with a total population in the negative, who are so conspicuously absent they glow like neon signs” (from Greek, kenosis “emptiness” + opsia “seeing”).[i]

Have you ever experienced kenopsia or “emptiness-seeing?” The sense of kenopsia often takes me back to a memory from April of 2019. My father had just passed away, following my mother’s death 11 months earlier. As the extended family left, leaving me behind after the funeral, I found myself sitting alone in the den of my childhood home. Surrounded by the echoes of my upbringing, I listened to the air conditioner cycle on and off, a sound all too familiar. The house smelled just as it always had, and atop the dryer lay a stack of bath towels, neatly folded, waiting to be placed in the linen closet upstairs—a task meant for a day that never came.

Despite the comfort of familiarity, an overwhelming difference cast a shadow over everything: the absence of my parents. Gone were the aromas of dinner cooking on the stove. The evening news or my mother’s favorite true crime shows no longer filled the air with sound. Though the house was crowded with remnants of my parents’ lives, it felt profoundly empty. This emptiness wasn’t just a lack of presence; it was an active, almost tangible void. The experience was as fascinating as it was sad and unsettling.

In the Gospel of John, when the author describes Simon Peter and the beloved disciple leaving, while Mary remains behind alone and weeping, it conjures for me a sense of kenopsia. Only a week prior, Jesus was alive, passionately teaching all who would listen about the arrival of God’s kingdom on Earth. Then, merely three days before this ‘kenopsial’ moment, Mary witnessed the swift and horrifying trial and execution of Jesus. It was an event so shocking, she might not have believed it had she not seen it with her own eyes. Now, the palpable emptiness left by Jesus’ absence was deepened by the mystery of his missing body.

I often ponder about the duration Mary waited before gathering the courage to look into the empty tomb and confirm for herself that Jesus’ body was truly absent. How long did she dwell in a state of kenopsia, attempting to grasp the significance of these events, before the sight of the empty tomb solidified its reality for her? Her grief must have been so profound that it obscured her awareness of the angelic beings within the tomb. When the angels inquired why she was weeping, her disconnect from Jesus’ prophecy—that he would die and rise again after three days—prompted her to attribute her sorrow to the presumed theft of Jesus’ body. Did she question the presence of beings inside the tomb at all? To her, the reason for her tears seemed self-evident, understandable to any observer. Was Mary delirious in her sorrow?

As a child, I cherished singing “You Are My Sunshine” to my mom, a gesture that held a special place in her heart throughout her life. As a teenager, I would instinctually roll my eyes and plead with her to stop, when she would sing it to me—especially if it was in front of my friends. The day before my mom passed away, we found ourselves deep in conversation when she began to serenade me with those very words: “You are my sunshine.” As she approached the line, “you’ll never know dear, how much I love you,” she peacefully drifted into sleep, leaving the conclusion of the song drifting in the air of poignant memory.

On the Sabbath after I returned to Cambridge following my mother’s funeral, I walked through Central Square, my thoughts heavy with memories of my mom and concerns for my dad, now alone. It was then that an older man, disheveled and likely unhoused, walked past me and randomly began to sing, “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine.” While many might dismiss this as mere coincidence, for me, it was a profound message. In that moment, I felt assured of my mom’s presence, and I was enveloped by a warm serenity that I will never forget.

In our gospel narrative, Mary encounters a profound moment similar to my own experience. She is asked once again by a voice near the tomb, “Woman, why are you weeping?” This time, there follows a second question: “Whom are you looking for?” This inquiry carries a nuanced implication. After death, the body of the deceased becomes a ‘what’ rather than a ‘whom’, indicating an object rather than a person. The absence of the soul creates an instance of kenopsia, only this time the hyper-empty place is a body. The question “Whom are you looking for?” suggests the search is for a living, animate being, not a mere lifeless corpse.

Initially, Mary does not recognize the voice. Thinking the speaker is a gardener, she doesn’t even look up as she makes an urgent request for information on the whereabouts of the body. However, when the man calls out her name, “Mary,” she is instantly drawn out of her grief and into the remarkable truth of Jesus’ resurrection. The person before her is not a lifeless entity—the ‘what’—but rather the ‘whom’ she had not realized she was truly searching for. Jesus stands before her–alive, warm, radiant—and meeting Mary’s eyes with a loving gaze. Her reply, “Rabbi,” upon hearing his voice speak her name, reinforces the realization of the miracle she had been taught to expect: Jesus is indeed alive, fulfilling the prophecy that he would be raised from the dead.

It’s suggested that Jesus’ words to Mary might indicate her instinct was to embrace him tightly for a long time. This seems like a natural reaction after overcoming shock. However, Jesus’ directive is interpreted not just as a prohibition against physical touch but against clinging. Different translations highlight this nuance. Theologian N.T. Wright offers insight into this passage. He proposes that Jesus was signaling a change in their relationship. The familiar interactions in Galilee and Judea, like walking together, sharing meals, and having discussions, would cease. Wright suggests that “Don’t cling to me” aptly conveys Jesus’ message, emphasizing a shift from possessing to letting go, in anticipation of Jesus’ ascension to the Father.[ii] Instead, he gives her the apostolic vocation of an evangelist: “’Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” And so, Mary went back to where the disciples were gathered and said, “I have seen the Lord”; and then recounted all that he had said to her.

How can we engage in prayer with this passage from the Gospel of John during Eastertide? Understanding the moment when Jesus calls Mary by name is crucial. This act signifies a deep connection, shedding light on a core aspect of Jesus’ teachings familiar to Mary as His disciple. Jesus had taught, “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”[iii] This narrative emphasizes the intimate bond between the shepherd and his sheep, symbolizing the profound relationship Jesus aims to have with each of us.

How did you find your way into this sheepfold today? Perhaps, like Mary, you’ve experienced the call of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, personally addressing you by name. Reflect on how this encounter has unfolded in your life. How did Jesus come to know you so intimately, and how have you learned to trust His voice? It’s likely that our journey to trust Him uniquely intertwines with our own experiences of kenopsia—the sense of being alone, broken, and profoundly empty. The beauty of hearing Jesus’ voice lies in the promise of being invited into a dynamic, warm, and vibrant connection with Him. He yearns for you to recognize His call and to meet His loving gaze with your own.

Secondly, when faced with kenopsia, it’s crucial to shift our awareness. Mary, engulfed in sorrow and confronted with the profound emptiness of Jesus’ tomb, didn’t realize Jesus was right beside her until He spoke her name. Similarly, we all will endure our own versions of Good Friday—times marked by loss, departure, and profound loneliness. It is precisely in these moments that we should shift our focus to recognize Jesus’ presence near us. Just as He called out to Mary, Jesus invites us to call upon Him, allowing Him to reveal Himself amidst our despair, thus reaffirming His unwavering presence. Whenever you feel overwhelmed by kenopsia, reach out to Jesus, asking Him to make Himself known in the midst of your sorrow, comforting you with the knowledge of His presence.

Finally, be alert to the manifestations of the Paschal mystery around you—the assurance of Jesus’ triumph over death, a promise extended to all of us. The liturgical preface for the commemoration of the dead in the Book of Common Prayer eloquently captures this: “For to Your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our earthly dwelling lies in death, an eternal home is prepared for us in the heavens.”[iv] This conviction was brought home to me when I heard my mother’s song, “I am your sunshine,” echoed in the voice of a man I passed by in Central Square. It served as a poignant reminder from Jesus that death does not hold the ultimate power over us.And it is for this reason that we all can say: “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!!![v] Happy Easter and Amen!

[i] Koenig, J. (2021). The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. Simon & Schuster.

[ii] Wright, T. (2004). John for Everyone (Vol. 2). SPCK.

[iii] John 10:2-4, 11

[iv] 1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 382

[v] 1979 Book of Common Prayer, p. 499

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  1. Pedro on April 11, 2024 at 17:11

    Thank you very much, Brother Jim! A great sermon: very touching, moving, and insightful!

  2. Rho Croft on April 7, 2024 at 22:44

    Thank you. It touched several memories.

  3. Tudy Hill on April 6, 2024 at 21:37

    Thank you, Br Jim, for this moving testament of your faith. I love when you talk about your parents, because you speak with such ease and genuine affection. I wish I was there to hear you in person; but listening to you was second best. Alleluia!

  4. Pamela Post-Ferrante on April 6, 2024 at 21:29

    Brother Jim,,
    Tonight I was catching up with SSJE, as I hadn’t been here to complete Holy Week.
    I can’t find all the words to express what your sermon evoked. But, there were tears and admiration of your faith and courage. I thank you deeply for giving an Easter Sermon that I will never forget.

    You are my sunshine . That gift

  5. Dan Andrus on April 6, 2024 at 19:05

    Thank you! What a gift, an enduring and priceless gift!

  6. A. Walker on April 5, 2024 at 20:24

    Br. Jim,

    Thank you for the profound and insightful sermon. The fact that Jesus calls Mary by name suggests the rapport they have – it is more than a just a meeting. It is good to be reminded that Jesus calls each of us by name, and when we experience that hyper-emptiness we can reach out to Him, our Shepard.
    Bless you and Happy Easter.

    P.S. Great word, Kenopsia! Thanks.

  7. Dee Dee on April 4, 2024 at 15:37

    I’m so thankful to have read this sermon today, especially the suggestion to, “reach out to Jesus, asking him to make himself known in the midst of your sorrow, comforting you with the knowledge of His presence” — how wonderful that would be. And the idea of kenopsia is meaningful, as well. Thank you, Br. Jim.

  8. Jaan Sass on April 3, 2024 at 20:30

    Thank you for Another meaningful sermon.

  9. Kemetia Foley on April 1, 2024 at 21:32

    Br. Jim,
    Thank you. So thoughtful and meaningful. Happy Easter.

  10. Carney S Ivy on March 31, 2024 at 21:02

    Br. Jim,
    Thank you for this touching and powerful sermon. One of my AA friends often says “Is it odd or is it God?” I tend to choose God.
    Bless you and Happy Easter.

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