John 20: 1-18
Easter Sunday, March 30, 1997
Marjory Zoet Bankson
The fire burned all night. And while it was still dark, I lay awake, wondering.
Would the pot we had been shaping all during Lent — the one you may have noticed emerging from the plastic bag, here on the altar — would the pot be whole this morning? Or in pieces?
If it cracked, I was going to take instant glue and make it whole, at least to the casual viewer. Not that Seekers are "casual viewers," though I think we may pretend to be when we don't want to get too involved. But the pot came through the fire, burnished by flames, transformed by 12 hours in the fiery furnace — a little like Daniel and his three friends. A fragile vessel, marked with the words on the bottom: Seekers, Easter, 1997. A witness to the power of transformation (changed form), surely another word for Resurrection!
On that first Easter morning, the women didn't come looking for resurrection either. They came "while it was still dark," with leaden feet and broken hearts. The dawn spelled doom for them.
These women had stood "a little way off" as Jesus hung on the cross, a public spectacle. Even ridicule and shame could not shake their loyalty. And so, on the first day of the week, they did what they could. They brought oils and spices to anoint the bruised and hastily wrapped body of their beloved master. Whether or not he was the Messiah, they could claim their love for him in this small way — while it was still dark. The disciples were nowhere to be seen. Even the hapless Peter, shamed after his blatant lies denying Jesus, stayed away. But the women came. Mary Magdalene came. Mute. Blind with grief. Her very source of life destroyed.
Maybe some of us come to Easter morning that way, struck down by circumstances beyond our control– by health problems, betrayal in relationships, job loss or simply by the futility that comes from looking ahead at more of the same. Not all of us come with hearts full of joy this morning. Some of us long for the dark to hide in, like Mary.
I'm guessing that some of us who could not fill out a green sheet last week helped with the Easter breakfast this morning — brought flowers, moved chairs, helped with cleanup. Some of us who think we have only a small gift of self to bring may have done all that we could just to get here this morning. Bringing oil and spices may be all we can do — and it is enough to open space for a life-changing encounter with God!
1. Two Circles: One Body
We remember that Mary Magdalene joined the band of disciples traveling with Jesus because, according to Luke, she had been healed of seven demons. Biblical treatments of "demons" suggest that it was something that possessed her that she was powerless to control — crippling, and isolating. Archetypal hellishness. So we know that Mary knew the power of God in Jesus in a personal, intimate, physical way because she had been freed!
Like the other women whom Luke names, Mary traveled with the disciples, supporting them out of her means. The church has long trashed Mary Magdalene, assumed that a woman could have no "means" excepts as a prostitute, but that doesn't fit the facts. She was more likely a patrician daughter who had inherited money and position because there were no brothers. A Roman citizen probably, protected by privilege. Like the other women who traveled about the countryside with the disciples, she brought financial support and good connections to the little band of faithful students. She gave out of gratitude because Jesus' divine power was real for her.
In contrast, when I think of the male disciples, I cannot recall a single story of healing, though we could say that all were healed of their narrow focus and social bigotry by their association with Jesus. But the difference is important. The disciples were selected by Jesus out of their daily work, called to leave their nets and tax tables to learn of God's realm by observing and practicing in the company of Jesus. We know he loved them and taught them and explained many things, but they did not carry his Christ-power in their very cells the way Mary did. Peter watched his mother-in-law healed, but had to wait to be rescued from his own impulsiveness on the water to know the physical presence of Christ the way Mary did. He was cured of embarrassment, not life-long demons then.
It looks to me like there were two intertwining circles around Jesus: the ones he selected by name and the ones who joined at their own initiative because they had been healed, who gave because they could. The tension between the two circles among Jesus' disciples became a situation of creativity and call for both Mary Magdalene and the disciples. Jesus had used that dynamic difference before: James and John arguing over who will sit at Jesus' right hand in glory; the disciples' reaction to various women who ministered to Jesus or reached out for healing; and finally, the scene in our Gospel lesson, Peter and the other disciple run to the empty tomb, check it out for themselves and return home …while Mary stayed, weeping wordlessly.
The resulting structure among the disciples was not all that different from what we have at Seekers: an inner circle of members called to a public commitment and discipline and an outer circle of "non-members" who belong here and support the life of Seekers for a variety of reasons. The Gospel lesson for today is a warning and a teaching for all of us– that God persists in using the outcast, the renegade and the outsider to keep both circles attuned to the Spirit rather than upholding rules and traditions. In Seekers, we all started at the wounded edge. Most of us have experienced healing here, from church or family fractures. We've all moved toward Jesus with our giving of time, money, initiative and need. Two circles, one body, joined by Christ.
2. Who Sees Angels?
Like Mary and Peter on Easter morning, we struggle with what it means to be a resurrection church. Focus on Jesus is, in a way, easier. No wonder Marcus Borg and John Crosson of the Jesus Seminar have found a hearing here. We can agree that Jesus, his life and ministry, what he stood for and how he acted, speaks of the way we want to go with our lives. We can affirm that Jesus' first-hand relationship with God is one that we want for ourselves.
But what about the Risen Christ? What is the reality of Jesus in the Garden with Mary Magdalene. Is this just hallucination? Imagination? Relating to an ephemeral Spirit is both harder and easier to get our 20th century minds around. Harder because the very notion of rising from the dead has a theatrical sound to it. Easier because we don't have to be specific, bodily about it. What do we do with the image of a suffering Jesus? Is God limited and little before the power of evil? What kind of a God would let an innocent man die so publicly, so shamefully? And when we count the thousands of Jewish and Christian martyrs that Rome crucified in the next few years, it's a testimony to me of the power of God that there were any followers left to pass on the story! How do we stay in touch with the power of God when we're scared and feeling overwhelmed? When evil seems to be winning? When we give up the Sunday school images of omnipotence and benevolent goodness? Those must have been the questions that Mary and Peter carried to the empty tomb on Easter morning. Not only was their friend and teacher, Jesus, dead, but the realm of God which he had shown them must have been in shambles. What would emerge?
When the disciples came to the tomb at Mary's bidding, they just saw linen burial cloths and no body, but after they left, Mary bent down and she saw angels there! The tomb was not empty after all! It was full of light and story.
"Woman, what are you seeking?" the angels said. I'm reminded of Walter Wink's proposition that every church and every institution has an angel–that energizing spirit which embodies the essence of a collective body. Was there some connection between Mary's healing from seven demons and her ability to see angels there? Was her experience with the powers and principalities an essential ingredient for this revelation? Were the disciples too tied up in their desire to understand and figure out a next step to see? What could this story have to say about Seekers' Angel?
Several years ago, we spent some time identifying the essential qualities of Seekers. Unlike the other Church of the Saviour churches that are identified by mission, the essence of Seekers is found here, in worship— the larger circle that includes all of us. Our call is to "be church" together. How we do that is up to us. We've chosen to let Celebration Circle structure our worship because every organism needs some kind of organizing principle, but the essence of Seekers comes from Robert Greenleaf's description: Seekers are people who listen collectively to call forth prophets in our midst. Those prophets exist in both circles!
In some ways, the polity we have inherited from Church of the Saviour doesn't fit with our call to "be church". The polity creates an inner circle of members tasked with decision-making for the whole community and an outer circle of "non-members" who, in the old CoS structure, had no voice in decision-making. In practice however, I believe the Angel of Seekers has been at work during the discernment process that will take us to a new home. In the past few months, our search has progressed through the initiative of individuals with time and energy to look. We have affirmed our call to function as a whole community by offering everyone the chance to be involved in the search for space, narrowing the field, exploring alternatives and naming the issues before us. People who couldn't be at meetings have taken the time to write and many have deepened their daily practice of prayer and scripture reading in order to listen for God's guidance. Many have looked hard at their financial resources, willing to risk a purchase — as the founding members of Church of the Saviour did to purchase this building which we have called home for 20 years.
I sense that the Angel of Seekers has been part of the process and certainly felt that a week ago Tuesday, at the congregational meeting. We listened intently to each other and those who felt called to move more quickly managed to wait, to care and to notice ways to move the process along for the whole community. The meeting was not just for information, but participation in the decision-making process. Perhaps there are other ways we could listen and hear prophetic voices even more effectively the next time. Our differences create a polarity that I see as God's creative energy, male and female, insider and outsider, head and heart— but we have to bring what we have to the engagement. The invitation in Mary's story is to stay with the tension; let it quicken to new life — like a fertile egg.
3. Quickened and Sent
When the man she thinks is a gardener speaks her name, Mary Magdalene knows it is Jesus.
The sound of her name awakens her from her grief. Her body remembers the bone-deep healing.
She knows the sound of God, the sound of Love. "Mary," he says. "Teacher!" she cries, alive again.
We can go a long way on the fuel of that flame—that flare of recognition. Nothing is so powerful as being known, being seen for who you are and loved anyway. On Thursday night, 30 people who were here for the footwashing service, heard a remarkable story from Deborah Hughes, who was part of this community 5 years ago. A year ago, her niece died of leukemia on Good Friday and her grief, she said, was intense. She works nearby, so she came without calling, hoping that we were still here; afraid, she said, that she would find an office building instead. She told us that she had spent time in a religious community, dedicated, rigid and hierarchical, but all the while she carried the image of Seekers in her heart–a circle where men and women participate as equals, where leadership is shared, where parents and children can wash each other's feet. Deborah had been called by name here — and she remembered, so she came back.
Have you been called by name here? Maybe not in the way you expected. Maybe not by the person you wanted to be seen by, but seen, named and known. Down deep, that's what we all want. To be recognized and remembered, like Deborah was on Thursday night. To claim our belonging and our impact on the whole community even when we haven't felt called to the core group. If you have heard your name, felt your deeper soul stirred by someone here, then you can meet the Risen Christ again in this garden in a direct, first-hand experience but you must show up!
"Don't hold onto me." were the words Mary heard. What's this? Something he needs from Mary? Something he cannot do on his own? Was there is something in their relationship which could hold him back, sidetrack the process? Divert him from leave-taking? God needs her to take the next step, make the next move. Think of it. God has faith in us to act, to hear the Holy, see the Sacred, discern the Divine hidden in the earthy clay of our lives. God depends on Mary's grief to bring her close, break her heart, open a place for the Other, learn more of Love. God depends on our grief or fear or longing or desperation or simple intention to bring us close. God has faith in us to do our part.
Then Jesus said to Mary Magdalene, "Go and tell my brothers what you have seen and heard."
Give them your words. Tell them your witness. Face the ones you fear. Speak your truth.
With his charge, Jesus gave Mary a way to belong to the post-Crucifixion band of disciples, but it was something she would have to do, something hard and unconventional. The other Gospel writers say that the women were too afraid to speak, but John concludes his story by saying that she did what Jesus told her to do. Not what you want from them. Not old grudges or new ideas. Tell them what you have seen and heard here, in the garden, by the tomb. This time, Mary was not to speak about her own bodily experience, but to take the stance of an apostle, speaking the reality of this "unearthly" experience and giving it voice.
We struggle with the same question today, alive in a disbelieving century, to voice those times when we encounter God. It's part of what makes Seekers a special place for me. We do make space for all of us to speak, to share those times when we meet God. Not just from the pulpit, but in the coffee hour afterward; in papers shared with spiritual directors or written for a class in the School. Outside of church, through song or dance or phone … we speak of God and know that witness is a word we care about. It's something that our Angel guards to keep us whole.
Our bridge to belonging to the whole is participation. In one sense, the amount of money you can give is not the question, but belonging is. It's in your hands, not up to someone else. If you withdraw, withhold your truth–your fear, your hope, your word, your coin–we all are harmed. Like Mary Magdalene, we must decide to face our fears and speak what we know.
Conclusion: The Egg Turned Red
We have no record of Mary Magdalene in the rest of the New Testament. There is only a fleeting glimpse in Acts l:14, which names the 12 disciples in the upper room and then says "Mary, the mother of Jesus, and the other women were there also." The Roman Church did not retain the stories of "the other women" as they moved into ministry, but the Eastern Orthodox tradition has not been so bereft
This icon (indicate picture) comes from that tradition, claiming Mary, who had patrician rank, gained an audience in Rome with the emperor. She denounced Pilate for his handling of Jesus' trial and then began to talk with Caesar about Jesus' resurrection. She picked up a hen's egg from the dinner table to illustrate her point about resurrection. Caesar was unmoved and replied that there was as much chance of a human being returning to life as there was for the egg to turn red. Immediately, the egg turned red in her hand! Which is why Orthodox Christians exchange red eggs at Easter.
Like Mary Magdalene, we may stand in the outer circle of those who come because we need healing rather than because we have already been cleansed of our demons. We may come with little or much, oils and spices of daily life, to the place and the person of Christ who has the power to bring new life.
Like Mary, we may be surprised to find the tombs we drag ourselves to are not empty after all, but filled with light. When we revisit places of pain, locked away for years behind stone, we may find the place aflame with messengers. Watch for the Living Christ!
Like Mary, listen for the voice of Christ, for it comes in surprising ways. Be ready for a call that will take you beyond your comfort zone. Let yourself open to the Mystery of this Easter Miracle, whether it makes any sense to you or not.
And finally, like Mary, know that you will be sent to face those you fear or hate the most. Not just the disciples, her brothers, but Caesar as well. Remember, if we have faith in the power and presence of God — God also has faith in us! The egg turned red as she spoke!