A sermon preached by the Rev. Jeffrey Gill on Easter Sunday, April 8, 2012
Easter Day sermon
April 8, 2012
Christ Church Andover
Acts 10:34-43; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Mark 16:1-8
Kit and I have a colleague who is the rector of a parish on the South Shore. Tim has a… unique… sense of humor. He’s has deadpan, out-of-the blue wit. He’s ironic and not nearly so earnest as some of us tend to be. But he is a good guy and a faithful priest – and perhaps history will even say a brilliant pedagogue.
Tim decided a couple of years ago that the season of Lent should be a little more fun than it typically is for most people – fun while also serving a good purpose. And that good purpose, he mused, might be to educate people about the saints – all those people, some ancient, some modern, who fill out the days on our calendar of saints in the Episcopal Church – people whom the Church holds up as signs of holiness and virtue, people who are not perfect, but who represent for us in one way or another what it means to live a godly life.
And so, being a big sports fan who always fills in his bracket for basketball’s March Madness each year, he decided that the church should have a season of Lent Madness, and that the saints could compete throughout the season of Lent for a golden halo, to be awarded to the one who after a season-long bout with competing saints emerged as the favorite by virtue of a weekly web-based balloting process. And in the process, people would read up on and discuss whom they were voting for, and would come to know the stories of the saints and grow in their own Christian life because of them.
So, little did most of you realize that last week, just as the Final Four were battling it out in New Orleans for the NCAA championship, the Faithful Four were battling it out for the Golden Halo in cyberspace. Over 50,000 people voted during the season among an array of saints that extended from David Oakerhater, a 19th century Cherokee priest in Oklahoma, to Thomas Cranmer, to Joan of Arc, or St. Monnica. And finally, the Faithful Four came down to these four sainted people: Queen Emma of Hawai’i, Queen Margaret of Scotland, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the first person we encounter in today’s Gospel, Mary Magdalene. No one could have known that there would be two pious queens in the Faithful Four, but having predicted as early as Ash Wednesday that this could well be the year of the woman, Fr. Tim was not surprised to see that the Golden Halo for 2012 would be awarded to Mary Magdalene. And he is clear that part of his goal in this whole Lent Madness scheme is to help people understand who the true Mary Magdalene really is. He writes that
Mary Magdalene is often confused with “the sinner” mentioned in Luke’s Gospel, sometimes with Mary of Bethany (the sister of Lazarus), and unnamed others including the woman possessed by demons. That she was the first witness to the Resurrection of Jesus as Christ is one of the few points of agreement among theologians and Biblical scholars. Despite ongoing disputes about who and what she was, her feast day is celebrated by the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches, the Church of England, the Episcopal Church USA, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as well as the Roman Catholic Church. (See Lent Madness online at http://www.lentmadness.org/2012/02/john-huss-vs-mary-magdalene/).
Mary Magdalene is the first of three women named in Mark’s account of the resurrection. Together with Mary (the mother of James) and Salome, we see her going to the tomb on the third day, the day after the Sabbath, to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. The biggest concern of these three women as they walked along was for how they would roll the stone away to get access to his body. But when they arrived, they found the large stone had already been moved. And when they entered the tomb, they found a young man dressed in a white robe, and they were afraid. He said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here.” He then told them to go and tell Peter and the other disciples that Jesus was going ahead of them to Galilee, and that he would see them there.
The women left the tomb in terror – and amazement. The three of them who had been talking as they walked along could no longer speak – because they were terrified. Stunned. Speechless.
Why were they terrified? Because this thing had just become a lot bigger than it was a few minutes before. Death had seemed so final. They had begun to imagine that all of the hopes they had invested in Jesus had come to an end, but now, all of a sudden, they had to begin to think differently.
Death is something that, hard as it might be to accept, we can and do learn to live with. Mary Magdalene and the other two women had already accepted the fact of Jesus’ death and were doing what loving friends do, which was to care for his body. We have rituals that help us move on through the pain of loss, that help us face reality and whatever comes next.
But what about life?! Now they are told that he is not dead. He is risen! This doesn’t fit with any of the norms and expectations. There are no rituals to help adjust to this new reality. It’s unfamiliar territory. And they are terrified!
It’s true, isn’t it, that sometimes life is more terrifying than death. The sudden realization that they now had to to begin to imagine a very different kind of future was too much to comprehend! They had to try to wrap their heads around how this would play out politically, and whether their lives would now have to be lived in secret. Everything was an unknown, and they were terrified.
The Gospel of Mark leaves us right there – with the terror. But we know the story does not end there. And perhaps this is why Mary Magdalene is a saint for us. Yes, she feels the terror, but she moves beyond her fear to something much, much more.
In John’s Gospel the story goes on. It concludes with Mary actually seeing the Lord, whom she mistook as a gardener at first. And then, Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, "I have seen the Lord.” (John 20:18) Finding them in hiding somewhere in the environment of Jerusalem, and announcing to them the startling good news, Mary became the “apostle to the apostles.” And history has remembered her in this special light. The Eastern churches refer to her as “Equal to the Apostles,” because of her special role in announcing the good news; and a prominent New Testament scholar today suggests that “…Mary was a prophetic visionary and leader within one sector of the early Christian movement after the death of Jesus.” (Karen King)
There are many legends and a lot of mystery around just who Mary Magdalene was. But that she had a close relationship with Jesus is clear from what we know in the Gospels. Some scholars wonder whether she might have been the one known in the gospel of John as “the beloved disciple.” Others find reason to believe that she was a leader in the early church in a branch that promoted women’s leadership.
But the reason that Mary Magdalene is a saint in so many branches of the Christian faith today is that she showed us that it’s possible to move from fear to joy, from desperation to hope, from stunned silence to proclamation. She became a joyful and fearless witness to the Lord’s resurrection, and became a leader in the new movement that would form around this message of hope and of new life. “I have seen the Lord,” she said. There was a moment when Mary decided she would not be captivated or immobilized by fear. She would take her fear and let it be transformed into action. Sent to the disciples to bear the good news, she mobilized the disciples for their life with Christ in this new, transformed reality.
For all its whimsy, Lent Madness just might be onto something. Mary Magdalene really is a saint for our time. There’s a lot of fear out there in our world. Perhaps some of us here today are afraid of what the future might bring. Many cannot see beyond the bad news in the paper or on television. It just seems easier to imagine that things will always lead inexorably downward than it is to have hope and to embrace the possibility of new life. But Mary Magdalene stands as a witness to the fact that the story does not end with fear or retreating into decline and obscurity. Her move from terror and fear to hope and action made her a leader and a shaper of a new movement that would transform the world, and is still transforming people’s lives – a movement that would boldly proclaim the victory of life over death. It is a message we still need to hear, and a movement that still needs every one of us.