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Monday, April 25, 2011

Mary's Walk

This was my sermon yesterday.

John 20:1-18

            On Sunday morning, after the longest and most dismal, heartbroken Shabbat of her life, Mary of Magdala wakes up before dawn.  Or rather she gets up, for she had been awake for hours anyway.  She dresses herself without waking any of the others, puts on her shawl, goes downstairs, and walks alone through the narrow, quiet streets of Jerusalem.  She is heading for the cemetery, outside of town.
            There are times in our life when we just need to show up.  We don’t even know why.  In fact, it often seems pretty pointless.  We just have to be present, even though we have no good reason.  Even if it’s just going through the motions.  We can’t remain spectators on the sidelines.  We have to get ourselves up in the darkness and perform the inconvenient, difficult, painful, routine tasks.  We have to go to the grave, as it were.  From one particularly depressing perspective, our whole existence on this earth is just a long walk to a tomb.  But if we don’t start walking, nothing else can happen.
            When she arrives, she finds where the tomb had been carved into the rock… but the large round stone that had sealed the tomb had been rolled away, leaving the tomb open.  This is not right.  She feels alarmed and frightened, and she immediately runs all the way back the way she had come.  She enters the house, goes upstairs and wakes up two of her friends.  One is Peter, the leader of their group.  We don’t know the other disciple’s name.  He’s just called “the other disciple,” but he was the disciple most loved by the man who had been executed three days earlier and placed in that tomb, Jesus.
            “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb and we don’t know where they have laid him!” she exclaims, breathlessly.  How did she come to this conclusion?  All she saw was the open tomb; it doesn’t say she looked inside.  And who was the “they” she suspected of removing the body? 
            At this Peter and the other disciple jump out of bed.   And they positively run to the tomb, their sandals slapping the stone pavement.  The nameless disciple gets there first and peers into the darkness, seeing the gravecloths on the shelf; but Peter, known for his impetuousness, recklessly runs straight into the tomb.  He sees the cloths too, but no body.  Then the other disciple comes into the tomb and looks around.  The text says quite simply.  “He saw and believed.”            
            The two of them go back to the house they were staying in, in the city.

            What did the disciples see, exactly?  Nothing.  An empty hole in the earth.  They do not find what they expect to find.  They find at first... nothing.  A mystery.
            But finding nothing, while it is disturbing, could be better than finding what they expected, which was Jesus’ dead body.  Finding nothing opens up possibilities; it ignites the imagination.  The disciple Jesus loved is the one to whom it occurs that this might actually be a good thing. 
            It is like when the doctor comes and tells you after a battery of tests that they didn’t find anything.  Often that’s a relief.  Yeah, maybe you’re still wondering why you feel so rotten, but finding nothing is usually better than some of the things you were afraid they might find.   
            Mary had followed them to the tomb, and when the two men go back to the house in the city, she stays in the cemetery by herself, weeping.  She bends over to look inside the tomb.  This time she sees “two angels in white,” sitting where the body was supposed to be.  Why didn’t the other two disciples mention the two angels?  You’d think that would be important. 
            They ask her why she is crying.  And Mary finds herself strangely in a conversation with… angels.  “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him,” she says, in confusion.  We still don’t know who “they” are.
            She turns around looking back out the door of the tomb and sees a man, out in the cemetery.  She thinks he’s the groundskeeper, coming to work.  Finally, maybe here is someone who can explain all this.  He says to her the same thing the angels said: “Woman, why are you weeping?  Whom are you looking for?” 
            “Sir,” she says, “If you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”  She thinks he has moved the body for some reason.  She offers to fetch and carry the body somewhere… herself?
            Mary is showing signs of stress, at this point.  She is living in the tension and confusion of a transitional, disordered place in which her old understandings and expectations have broken down.  She doesn’t know what to believe.  She is knocked off her foundations.  She is still trying to cram this increasingly weird and anomalous set of experiences into her old mental categories.  It is very scary and difficult, when our world stops making sense, and we have to get our mind to expand to grapple with new things.

            And then the man, who is Jesus himself, calls her by her name.  “Mary,” he says, gently.  He knows her.  She recognizes his voice.  She realizes that Jesus is alive!  He is standing right there, now.  And he calls her.
            Mary answers, recognizing Jesus as her beloved and respected teacher.  “Rabbouni,” she says.  And this whole bizarre morning begins to reorganize and sort itself out and become intelligible, but transformed.  It is a new world now, a world in which death did not have the final say anymore.  A world where betrayal and denial, miscarriages of justice, and political chicanery don’t work.  A world in which the Romans kill someone and they don’t stay dead.  This is good news!  This changes everything!    
            Jesus’ living presence reveals and proves that life is way bigger and stronger than what we experience.  It proclaims the good news that love always wins.
            Just as he calls Mary, Jesus calls us.  By our name.  Dead people don’t do that; that’s how we know he’s alive.  Not only does he call us, but he changes us.  He liberates our deepest, truest selves.  We find ourselves, we come to ourselves, in him.
            He calls us from death to life.  Instead of a world permeated with death and loss, guilt and failure, fear, shame, and anger, when Jesus calls us we are delivered to live lives of purpose, hope, justice, and love.  Now the most substantial force in our existence, death, is neutralized.
            And he gathers us into a community, and he sends us on a mission, to witness to God’s love in all we do.
            Jesus tells her not to cling to him.  Now is not the time for grasping, possessing, owning, keeping, and comprehending.  This is not about creeds and doctrines.  Jesus is not to be grasped; he is to be followed.
            He tells Mary to go to the other disciples and tell them what has happened.  Because seeing alone is not enough; this is not about her private experience.  Like Mary, we must also tell; and not just in words.  Jesus comes to transform our lives and our world.  Mary returns to the disciples, to the community, and the community now bears witness to the world what she has experienced.  It bears witness by being the new community of resurrection and living according to the values and standards revealed in Jesus.
            Now he shapes our lives, beginning in the new community of the church, according to his values of love and peace, goodness and truth, hope and beauty, healing and forgiveness.  We live in a new world now… if only our minds would catch up with this truth.  If only it were reflected and expressed in our behavior, all the time.  Still, we proclaim with Mary what she learned that morning: This mortal existence is not a fearful, defeated mope to the tomb, but the joyful dance of everlasting life.  +++++++    

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