Jesus said to her, “Mary!”: A Sermon for Easter Day

This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on Easter Day 2016 is built around the reading form the Gospel according to John appointed for Easter Day in year C of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find that reading here

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

What powerful and wonderful words they are that we claim and proclaim this morning; words that change everything.

Words that change everything…

It was just three days ago that we gathered to celebrate the last Supper and watched, and participated, as Jesus washed our feet and we washed the feet of others. We listened as Jesus instituted the sacrament, the bread and wine, the Body and Blood, the sign and symbol of Gods ongoing presence among us.

It was just three days ago that we stood numb and then fled in panic as Jesus was arrested and taken from us.

We gathered the next day at his trial and we shouted “away with him! Away with him! Crucify him! Crucify him!” And then we stood in shock as he died on a cross and was laid in a tomb.

But today we come here to this place, we duck down and walk through that threshold, and entering the tomb. Upon finding it empty we proclaim,

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

And everything is changed. Where we have been, what we once were, no longer defines or limits us, because the light has shined in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. Love freely given has proven to be the greatest power of all. We are beloved and nothing

“neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38, 39).

Those words… the words that change everything, come at the climax of a story; a story that we have claimed and proclaimed for almost two thousand years; a story that today features some supporting characters with whom we are very familiar…

First there is Peter, one of the first to follow Jesus; Peter who was the first to name Jesus as the Messiah; Peter who was there at the Transfiguration; Peter who didn’t want Jesus to wash his feet; Peter who cut of the ear of the slave of the High Priest with a sword; Peter who denied Jesus three times in order to save himself…

Peter, who isn’t the first to arrive at the empty tomb but somehow manages to be the first inside…

Then there is the beloved disciple, the one who was reclining on Jesus’s breast at the last supper; the Beloved Disciple who Jesus, as he died on the cross, named as Mary’s son; the Beloved Disciple whom Jesus told to take Mary as his mother… The Beloved Disciple who was the first to arrive a the tomb and was apparently shouldered aside as Peter stumbled… first through the door…

And yet neither of these central figures get a speaking role in John’s Gospel today. John seems anxious to move them off the stage so that someone else can step into the light, Mary Magdalene.

Mary Magdalene from whom Jesus had expelled seven demons; Mary Magdalene who was one of the women who followed Jesus and the disciples; Mary Magdalene who was one of the women who helped to bankroll the movement; Mary Magdalene who was there at the foot of the cross as Jesus died; Mary Magdalene who sometime in the middle ages acquired a reputation for a notorious, less than virtuous that is nowhere supported by the Gospel accounts…

It is Mary Magdalene who gets the starring role in today’s story, and it is her part in the story to which we, some two thousand years later, need to attend.

 

Mary is out in the dark, alone, in the middle of the night, before the sun has come up.   And she clearly expects to find the stone still blocking the mouth of the tomb. She hasn’t brought anyone to help roll away the stone. She hasn’t come with spices or ointments to anoint the body. She doesn’t seem to have a plan of action. She is there grieving, lost, in despair. All she can think to do in this moment is to come to the place where Jesus’s is laid in a desperate attempt to be near him.

When she finds that the stone is rolled away she doesn’t look inside. She doesn’t know that the body is gone but she runs to the Disciples and she says, “’they’ have taken the body away.” Mary’s greatest fear in this moment is that the powers of this world, that ill defined “they,” have triumphed once again; that the movement towards freedom that she had sensed; that the light that she thought she was seeing in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, had been extinguished. Mary is there in this moment fearing that all of the promises that she has heard and felt have come to naught. Mary is afraid that the light has come into the world and that the darkness has overcome it once again.

 

John tells us that Peter and the Beloved Disciple race one another to the tomb. He doesn’t tell us whether or not Mary runs back with them, but when Peter and the Beloved Disciple leave to go to their homes, Mary is there, weeping… It’s not until Mary is alone at the tomb that things really begin to get interesting.

Mary looks into the tomb, maybe for the first time, and sees two angels sitting on the bench where Jesus’s body had been laid. Angels! Dressed in white! Angles who speak to her and ask her why she is weeping!

Mary, confronted by this miracle, seems completely unmoved… She doesn’t fall to her knees. She doesn’t cover her eyes. She doesn’t flee in terror… She responds to them as if their presence was as commonplace as meeting a stranger in the market…

Then she turns and sees Jesus, her teacher; the one who had rescued her from a life of pain, suffering and misery; Jesus, the friend she had watched die a terrible and shameful death on the cross… and again, she seems completely unmoved. She doesn’t recognize his appearance or his voice, and she speaks to him in the same way she had just addressed the angels in white!

It’s not until Jesus “touches” her by speaking her name that she finally “sees” The Truth, but when she does… everything is changed!

 

We don’t know what was going in on the minds of the other two people who visited the tomb that morning. John tells us that the Beloved Disciple, when he finally gets inside, “saw and believed,” but he also tells us that Peter and the Beloved Disciple

“did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.”

How much did they understand? Was The Truth beginning to creep into their imaginations? We don’t know for sure because John moves them offstage right away. What we do know is that they left the tomb and they went home… They went home.

 

What was going on in Mary’s head? Why didn’t she react to the angels in the tomb? Why didn’t she recognize Jesus right away? It is possible that her grief had blinded her; that she was so numb, so worn down, that she wasn’t herself, and couldn’t see clearly…

But I think a better explanation lies in what happens next.

Jesus asks her to go and tell the others that he has been raised from the dead and is going to ascend to the God who loves us all. Mary becomes the messenger, the evangelist, the interpreter that we need to understand, to grasp, to believe.

Mary lived in a world where the dead were dead. Jesus was crucified, died and was buried. End of story. Full stop. She couldn’t see the Angels, she couldn’t see Jesus, because they were outside the realm of possibility, they were unimaginable. Her grief, her pain, and her understanding of the way the world works, kept her from seeing The Truth.

It was her name… her name, gently and lovingly uttered by The Truth that changes everything; that reshapes her imagination; that reshapes her understanding; that reshapes her world. And it was Mary Magdalene who was given the task of sharing The Truth that would reshape, re-imagine… that would change the world. She accomplished that task by sharing what Jesus had shared with her.

 

So here we are, sitting in the empty tomb. It doesn’t matter who we were when we came in… Peter, the Beloved Disciple, Andy, Dorota, Martha, Don…. We need to leave here this morning as Mary Magdalene!

Peter and the Beloved Disciple are out there; in the people we know, at home, at work, in the marketplace, filled with grief, remorse, shame, anger, dismay… blinded to The Truth that we proclaim. They are out there, in a world for which the dead are dead. End of Story. Full stop. A world in which a love so powerful that even death cannot destroy it is outside the realm of possibility, unimaginable…

This morning, gathered together in a tomb that has been empty for almost two thousand years, a tomb that will never again hold sway over us, we are called to be Mary Magdalene, to go out into the world and to proclaim in a loud and joyful voice

Alleluia, Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

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To Testify to The Truth: A Sermon for Good Friday

This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison Wisconsin on March 25, Good Friday, 2016 is built around the Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to John.

You can find that reading here

 

“What is truth?”

I wonder how Pilate spoke those words.  Was he sincere?  Did he utter them with a plaintive longing in his voice?  Was it merely a rhetorical question?  Or…. Did he ask it with a derisive sneer?

The story would seem to indicate that, at least at first, Pilate was in search of the truth. He goes out to meet the crowd that is clamoring for Jesus’s death and asks, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” He comes back inside to question Jesus and asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  “What have you done?”

He goes back outside and tells the crowd that He can find no case against him and offers to release him, but the crowd continues to insist that Jesus be put to death.

So, seeking to placate the crowd, Pilate has Jesus flogged, and, understanding Jesus to be innocent, again tries to release him.

But the crowd roars for Jesus’ death and tells Pilate the Jesus has claimed to be the Son of God.

Pilate returns to Jesus and continues to ask him questions, still trying to understand, still seeking the truth, almost begging Jesus to respond and spare himself the fate the crowd demands.

Pilate is frightened. The crowd’s charge, Jesus’ responses have him beginning to recognize that there is something going on here that is beyond him, something that he doesn’t understand… and he continues to work the crowd trying to find a way to have Jesus released…

And then something devastating happens… The crowd finds a way to turn their threats against Pilate…

“If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.”

 

Pontius Pilate was a mid level bureaucrat, a career military man and politician whose position rested on his ability to curry favor with those above him, especially with the Emperor.

If word got back to Rome that he had released someone who was undermining Caesar’s claims to divinity, Caesar’s claim to divine kingship, if he released someone who was seeking to usurp the basis of the Emperor’s power… Pilate’s career, maybe even his life, would be over.

The fear that Pilate felt as he began to approach the truth about Jesus was suddenly supplanted by fear for his own career, fear for his status and rank in society, fear for his position in the only hierarchy he knew and understood.

So in this moment of crisis, Pilate turns his back on truth and condemns an innocent man.

He turns his back on truth…

Jesus told Pilate, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Apparently Pilate wasn’t listening.

Jesus told us that we are all, all of us, beloved of God. The truth he proclaimed has the power to break down the walls that divide us, the instinctual tribalism that causes us to see the world as “us” and “them.”

Jesus told us that we are all, all of us, children of the same God and that we are called to care for the weak and the poor, the disenfranchised, those on the margins, even those who have harmed or wronged us!

The truth that Jesus proclaimed has the power to bring our conflict, our police actions, our wars to an end.

Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

And he taught us that the way to true life, a life that is shaped by and infused with the eternal, comes through loving God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and through loving our neighbor as ourselves.

When push come to shove, and the harsh political realities of listening to, and living by the truth to which Jesus testified became clear… Pilate stopped listening to the truth and bought into the false promises of demagoguery and empire…

Demagoguery and Empire cannot abide this truth and so, when it is confronted by The Truth, it seeks to destroy it…

 

It seeks to destroy The Truth

Jesus didn’t just give voice to truth… he himself IS truth.

Jesus, Emanuel, God among us. Jesus, The Truth manifest in our midst, trying to help us to grasp the reality, that we, all of us, with all of our scars, imperfections and flaws, are beloved of God, have value in God’s sight, and are worthy of dignity, respect, of love.

Jesus’s words, his testimony, his teaching countered the claims and lies of empire. Jesus, The Truth’s very presence among us, represents a challenge to the fear, competition, scapegoating, and the tribalism that fuels and under girds empire… so empire had him killed.

Rome killed The Truth to suppress its voice and oppress a people.

Pilate killed The Truth to suppress its voice and protect his own position, status, and power.

The temple authorities killed The Truth to suppress its voice and protect a way of life, their traditions, their religion, their heritage, … all of which supported their power and their privileged place in society.

 

Today, standing at the foot of the cross we look upon the work of empire and we are called to acknowledge and confess

The evil we have done

The evil that enslaves us

And the evil done on our behalf

Whenever we fail to care for the poor, the hungry, the naked, or the prisoner, we are here, standing at the foot of the cross.

Whenever we diminish, degrade, or dehumanize another in order to maintain our power, status or privilege… we are here, standing at the foot of the cross.

Whenever we scapegoat a person, or a people, in order to justify their oppression and our own acts of aggression… we are here, standing at the foot of the cross.

Whenever we deny our connection to, and responsibility for one another, whenever we deny a child of God the dignity and respect that, by virtue of our common origins, belong to all of us… we are here standing at the foot of the cross.

 

In just a few minutes we will sing, “Where you there when they crucified my Lord?” I think that we want to hear that song as filled with pathos and shared grief. We sing those words in search of others who share our pain and dismay at the spectacle of The Truth, dead, nailed to a tree, its side pierced, its breath stolen away.

But even as we stand at the foot of the cross and sing these words the voice of demagoguery and empire is ringing out, telling its lies, looking for people to devour in its insatiable appetite for destruction and death.

Where you there? Against this backdrop of fear mongering, of incitement, of tribalism; against empire’s howl of rage and confusion at the threat to its power and privilege, we must hear the words of this hymn as a call to action.

Will we be there when they try, again and again, to crucify our Lord?

Will we raise The Voice of Truth in protest?

Will we risk the wrath of empire and proclaim the kingship of The Truth?

Will we begin to heal the wounds inflicted on the Body of Christ…. by following his commandment and loving one another as he has loved us…

Or will God’s people someday look back at us and ask, “Where were they, when they crucified our Lord?”

Andy+