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Courageous Woman – Courageous Church: An Easter Sermon

April 9, 2012

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church

on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012

 Texts: Acts 10:34-43         John 20:1-18

Jesus said to her: ‘Mary”. After he had called her by the common name of ‘woman’, he called her by her own name, as if to say, ‘Recognize him who recognizes you.’ . . . And so because Mary was called by name, she acknowledged her creator, and called him once again ‘rabbouni’, that is ‘teacher’. He was both the one she was outwardly seeking and the one who was teaching her inwardly to seek him.

Gregory the Great, Homily 25[1]

Unlike the other disciples of Jesus who fled for safety during his arrest and crucifixion, Mary Magdalene stayed. She stood at the very foot of the cross as her beloved teacher and friend, the one who had revealed God’s love to her, died a horrible, public death as an enemy of the state. Mary is a courageous woman. She rises in the dark on the first day of the week to visit the tomb; to find the man who had shown God to her, who had healed her spirit and given her hope.

Mary Magdalene weeps as she seeks Jesus’ body, unwilling to give up, long after Peter and the disciple Jesus loved have left the gravesite. When Mary discovers someone new in the garden, she pounces with her desperate demand, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” I don’t care if you had a part in stealing his body or even possibly desecrating it. Just tell me where he is, please. I will bear the body and do what needs to be done to restore him to his grave.

Who hasn’t known grief like this after the death of a spouse, or a parent; a close friend, or even a pet? The powerful urge to look for them in the places we have known with them? The conversations we begin, or the habitual things we do, because part of us not yet aware that they are gone. Like setting a place for them at the table, rolling over to speak to them in the morning, hearing them run the shower – because that’s what they did every morning. Who in grief hasn’t heard the voice of a loved call our name, or answer a question we didn’t know we had asked out loud? Held the expectation that they might come through the door at anytime? Grief is powerful.

And who has not stifled the expression of grief, tried to keep it ‘appropriate’ so that it didn’t both others; put on a good face so that people would think we were OK? Who hasn’t felt the urge to keep grief’s hauntings to one’s self, as if they keeping them that way they might remain more real than if spoken aloud.  Who hasn’t felt the pressure to make grief acceptable?

In first century Palestine, it was not acceptable for a woman and man who were unacquainted to address one another, let alone for the woman to initiate the conversation. But Mary doesn’t care. She doesn’t care and she doesn’t even pause to wonder whether she’ll actually be able to carry the body herself if she can locate it. Her passionate faith and aching grief breed in Mary determination, not resignation.

And to this woman, Jesus gives the greatest gift. He reveals himself resurrected to her, first.

Women are featured at critical junctures of John’s Gospel story. The Gospel unfolds with Jesus’ mother, Mary, addressing him as her son at the wedding at Cana, urging him to increase the wine despite his reluctance. When Jesus travels to Samaria he has a deep theological and political conversation with a woman at a well. She becomes one of several women who recognize Jesus clearly as the promised deliverer of Israel. Another Mary, the sister of Lazarus whom Jesus has raised from the dead, anoints Jesus as King. She does this even as the word on the street is that the chief priests are planning to put Lazarus to death as well (John 12:9-11). But Mary is undeterred by these death threats.

When we think about the followers of Jesus too many of us still think of the 12 disciples named in the Gospels; 12 men symbolizing the 12 tribes of Israel, whom Jesus was trying to unite once more through his ministry. We rarely think about the leadership of women in the Jesus movement. But John’s Gospel is clear. Not only were women present, they were active – inaugurating, proclaiming, and confirming Jesus ministry; they propelling Jesus’ mission forward and proclaiming him as savior. And now the first person to whom Jesus reveals himself as resurrected is this courageous woman, Mary Magdalene.

To many of us, this might sound like the whole of the Easter story – an empty Tomb and the appearance of the Risen Christ – this moment of hope restored, the victory of life over death. It is this movement that Janet Morely captures in her poem, “Roll Back The Stone”:

When we are all despairing;

when the world is full of grief;

when we see no way ahead,

      and hope has gone away:

Roll back the stone.

Although we fear change;

although we are not ready;

although we’d rather weep

      and run away:

Roll back the stone.

Because we’re coming with the women;

because we hope where hope is vain;

because you call us from the grace

      and show the way:

Roll back the stone.[2]

This after all, is the story that Mark’s Gospel tells us: the women go to the tomb, find it empty, and are told that Jesus is not there, he is risen. And they flee in fear. In addition, Matthew tells us that Jesus himself entrusts Mary with the Good News of his resurrection and gives her his promise to meet the other disciples in Galilee. In Luke, Jesus additionally appears on the road to Emmaus and to men on a lakeshore, in order to explain to them (again) that he had died according to the scriptures. But only here in John – only here in John – do we hear what that good news means beyond hope restored: Jesus says to Mary “Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, “I am going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (John 20:17 CEB).

After Jesus reveals himself to Mary, he sends her to his disciples with the message of his resurrection and their creation as one family in God. Mary becomes the first apostle –the first one who is sent. In fact, she is “apostle to the apostles”![3]

And Jesus’ message is intimate and powerful – both in its message and in its messenger. He and his followers are now part of the same family, whose one parent is God. While early on in his ministry Jesus referred to his immediate followers as “disciples”, or students, and they, like Mary, called him Rabbi, or teacher.  at the close of his ministry, during the Passover meal, Jesus himself insisted on calling them his “friends.” (John 15:15). Now that he’s been resurrected, Jesus calls them “brothers and sisters.” Jesus’ resurrection gives births to a faith community of equals. Instead of hierarchy we find an unusual family. In this family all are welcome, all are empowered, and all are equal – sharing the same parent, God. Not that this faith community of equals means that we are all the same: In the words of Kwok Pui-Lan, as the early church was quick to learn, “The lifting up of every voice, the celebration of diversity, the affirmation of plurality, helps us see glimpses of the amazing grace of God in all cultures and all peoples.”[4] But If the ministry begun by Jesus was to survive, resist, and ultimately outlast the domination of the Roman Empire, it required, and still requires,  courageous disciples – women and men unafraid, like Mary, to defy the conventions of their day in order to announce this good news.

For almost ten years I led a Thursday morning Bible study at my former congregation. One of the participants, a physician, was always ready to share a story about her faith, how she was nurtured by a small traditional sect in a New England Town, and how she has grown since then as a Presbyterian. I particularly remember a story she told about a time in the early 1960s when a community group was holding a dance for youth. The group regularly sponsored dances that were eagerly attended by young people in a small New England town. Jill attended the dance with her classmates from sixth grade.[5] All the kids were having a great time, dancing with one another. One of those dancing was John; the only African American child in their class. When the adult who was running the dance noticed that John was happily dancing with all the girls from his class, he quietly pulled the girls aside and instructed them to refuse to dance with John if he should ask them again. He warned that if they continued to dance with him, then the adults who were sponsoring the dances would not hold them any longer. Jill was suddenly scared. She knew that declining to dance with John was wrong. But she was a girl who had been raised to respect and obey her elders, and she didn’t want to be the cause of ending the dances entirely. So when John asked her to dance, she politely said, “no,” as did all the other girls; except for Sara, the one Jewish girl in their sixth grade class. Sara said “yes.”

To this day when Jill encounters an injustice, she remembers this dance, and John and Sara. She remembers that she was too intimidated by the adult authority to do what she thought was right but that Sara was willing to disobey. Perhaps, Jill reflects, that was because Sara was Jewish and knew what it was like to be excluded. However, the regret that Jill feels when she remembers hasn’t immobilized her. Instead, this memory continues to inspire her to speak up and act when she encounters an injustice.

“I am going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” (John 20:17 CEB).

The kind of family Jesus creates through his resurrection is one that challenges and changes restrictive understandings of society that are based on exclusion and fear. It unites and empowers women and men to relate with dignity and equality to each other. And it continues to require a courageous church family unafraid to defy conventions in order to bring this gospel message that was first borne by courageous Mary Magdalene. Like Mary, like Sara and Jill, death, intimidation, fear, and convention, have no power over us.

Sisters and brothers, Christ is Risen. Christ is Risen indeed. And we have been given to one another, for the transformation of the world.

Let us pray:

God of resurrection, it seems impossible that at the very point of despair, you bring life. Like Mary Magdalene we search for you among the dead, yet surprisingly discover you alive in our midst. In uncertainty and grief we can become isolated from one another. We remember especially all who mourn today. Meet them this day, brother Jesus. Bring comfort and hope. Make us one family, God; people unafraid to bear witness in our own lives and the life of our church to your resurrection community of equals. Help us receive the spiritual power that we need to resist domination and violence in our own day. In our lives and through our words, may we bear your gospel message of “good news.” Amen.

[1] Gregory the Great, Homily 25, in Gregory the Great: Forty Gospel Homilies, trans. David Hurst. (Cistercian Publications, 1990), p. 193.

[2] Janet Morley, in Bread for Tomorrow (SPCK, 1992), p. 122.

[3] This phrase, common today, was originated by Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza.

[4] Kwok Pui-Lan, current President of the Society for Biblical Literature.

[5] “Jill” is a name chosen for publication and posting. Members of the congregation will recognize her.

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