Sermon for Easter Day, 2018

Sermon for Easter Day

April 1, 2018

The Rev. Matthew R. Dutton-Gillett

 This has been a strange year for the church calendar.  Ash Wednesday, which is the day that marks the start of the Lenten season that precedes Easter, fell this year on February 14 – Valentine’s Day – requiring people to figure out how to celebrate love with an ashen cross prominently displayed on their foreheads.  I’m not sure the blend of penitence and romance was really that intoxicating.

And now here we are at Easter Day on April 1 – April Fool’s Day.  The coincidence of these two days conjures up some interesting images: like the stone being rolled away from the tomb of Jesus, only to have our Lord pop out, waving, and say, “April Fool’s!  Don’t worry – I’m fine.”  One can imagine the greeting cards that could be made based on combining Easter and April Fool’s Day.

When the church calendar and the secular calendar collide, there can be some interesting, funny, and sometimes unfortunate results.  But it’s also true, I think, that sometimes these calendar collisions can shed light on something that we had not previously seen or noticed; they can bring out a deeper truth about something.  And, surprisingly, I think combining Easter and April Fool’s Day does just that for us this morning.

We know that on April 1, when somebody tells us something that seems just a little too incredible, we should be on our guard.  That a trick or a prank is afoot, and if we’re not careful, we could fall victim to whatever the hoax is and risk being made to look ridiculous or, of course, like a fool!   If we can put ourselves in touch this morning with that April 1stsort of wariness, then we will perhaps have some idea of the position in which Mary Magdalene found herself on the first Easter morning.

While the gospels disagree when it comes to the details of Jesus’ Resurrection, there is one thing about which they are unanimous:  which is, that Mary Magdalene was there.   In some versions, she is there alone, in others, she is accompanied by another woman or women, as she is in Mark’s version of the story which we heard a moment ago.  But she is the one constant reference point in the story of Easter, aside, of course, from Jesus himself.   It is Mary – sometimes referred to simply as The Magdalene – who becomes the first person to be initiated into the truth of the Risen Christ, and it is she who becomes the bearer of that truth to the remaining 11 of Jesus’ male disciples.

And it was not an easy truth to bear.  Not simply because it was something completely new and unheard of,  but also because Mary was, obviously, a woman, and as such, she must have known that she would not be believed.  Women of Mary’s time were not considered reliable witnesses. Their testimony was not admissible in legal proceedings.  Women were classified as officially unreliable when it came to discerning matters of truth.  And so I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Mary to walk into that circle of Jesus’ male disciples with the news, “Christ is Risen.”  It must have taken incredible courage.

And the men did not believe her.  Some of them ran to the tomb themselves to check, and discovering it empty, they were unsettled and mystified.  But the emptiness of the tomb was not sufficient of itself to convince them that Mary was telling the truth.  They may not have thought she was lying, but rather just carried away by her emotions and her grief over Jesus’ death.  Women, in their minds, were given to emotionality – it was one of the reasons that they were not considered reliable witnesses.  It was not until the Risen Christ appeared to the male disciples themselves that Mary’s story was believed.

In the New Testament, it is the male disciples who become the principal preachers of the Gospel, it is they who bear the truth of the Risen Christ to the rest of the world. They get all the credit planting the seeds of a movement that would become Christianity.

But today, on Easter, we are invited to remember how it all really began:  with Mary Magdalene meeting the Risen Jesus for the very first time in human history, and by that meeting made the bearer of an incredible truth.  It was a truth that was a little too incredible for the disciples, at first.  They thought it was an April Fool’s joke.   And for a while, they believed Mary to be the fool.

Over the centuries, the Christian tradition has been confused when it comes to The Magdalene.

On the one hand, there is a wonderful story about Mary that is probably a combination of legend and fact, but that honors her as the chosen first witness of the Risen Christ and as a courageous preacher of that truth in her own right.

In that story, Mary is given the title of Apostle to the Apostles – a high honor, indeed.  It says that after the Resurrection of Jesus, Mary became an evangelizer, contemplative, and mystic.  Recognized in this story as a wealthy woman of some importance, it is said that she boldly presented herself to the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar in Rome to proclaim the Risen Christ.  She had with her an egg, that she used to illustrate her message: just as an egg breaks open to allow a new life to come forth, so did the tomb break open to release the Risen Life of Christ.   Holding the egg out to the Emperor, she uttered the Easter proclamation: “Christ is risen!”

Mocking her, the Emperor said that Jesus had no more risen from the dead than the egg in her hand was red.   No sooner did he finish saying this, however, when the egg in Mary’s hand suddenly turned red as a sign from God to illustrate the truth of her message.  The story says that after this, the Emperor believed her.

As I said, a story that is as much legend as fact, but which is important because it puts Mary in a decisive role – just as the Gospels do.

On the other hand, however, the church also ended up bringing Mary down a few pegs, undermining her reputation.  In the year 591, Pope Gregory I gave an influential homily in which he conflated the figure of Mary Magdalene with an unnamed sinner from Luke’s gospel who anoints the feet of Jesus, and he indicts the Magdalene for a variety of sins, including covetousness, displaying herself, speaking pridefully, and, worst of all, prostitution.   From that day onward, the word “prostitute” has been the one most prominently attached to Mary.  In the imagination of later Christianity, Mary was transformed from a powerful, courageous preacher of the Gospel and faithful disciple of Jesus to a woman of questionable background and reputation whom Jesus had forgiven for her many sins.   She came to be seen as a tainted woman.

Mary’s fate in the gospels – as the first witness to the Risen Christ who is not believed – and her worse fate in the history of the church – from faithful disciple and preacher to repentant sinner and tainted woman – shows us what so often happens to people who are asked to bear the burden of bringing a new truth into the world.

Think, for example, of Martin Luther King, Jr., the great hero of the civil rights movement, the 50thanniversary of whose death is only three days from now.  He dared to speak a new truth, the truth of the equality of all human beings, and people questioned his character, impugned his reputation, and ultimately killed him.  He and so many others who stood up for that truth paid dearly for attempting to bring it to a world in which so many were not ready to hear it.

Think of Harvey Milk, the San Francisco Supervisor who, along with Mayor George Mascone, was assassinated after only 11 months in office, during which time he was responsible for passing a stringent gay rights ordinance for San Francisco.  He was the first openly gay elected official in California history, and was the most pro-LGBT politician in the United States at the time.   His first campaign manager said of him, “What set Harvey apart . . . was that he was a visionary.  He imagined a righteous world inside his head and then he set about to create it for real, for all of us.”   He is one among so many who have paid a high price because they were trying to introduce a new truth:  that gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people are just like every other human being.

Think of the incredible number of women who have come forward under the hashtag banner MeToo to expose the ways they have been exploited, abused, and diminished as they have sought simply to do the work to which they felt called.  Many of them have been ridiculed and criticized for bringing to light a truth that has too long been kept in the shadows.

Finally, think of the millions of young people who took to the streets of this country just last week, and whose leaders have been vilified and mocked by so many people who ought to know better.  They are struggling to bring a new truth into our world:  a truth that exposes our addiction to and veneration of violence, and our need to do something about it.  It is a truth that so many do not wish to hear, and many of these young people are being made to suffer by adults for being the bearers of this truth.

In these examples (and there are many more besides), we find women, people of color, people with a different sexual identity, and young people, all of whom are like Mary Magdalene, because like her, they are unlikely witnesses.  They are people to whom our society at large has been reluctant to give credibility.  Like Mary, they have not been deemed trustworthy when it comes to matters of truth.

And yet, the truths they speak, the truths into which they seek to initiate the rest of us, matter deeply. In every case, they point us toward new life that is struggling to make itself known among us.  And that new life is always about justice, about peace, about the dignity and respect of every human being.   That new life is always about making our hearts larger and are egos smaller so that we can make room in our lives for the other.  So much room, in fact, that we don’t see the others as “other” anymore, but just as part of the great human family, just like ourselves.

Why is it, do you suppose, that those who are given the burden of bearing new truths into the world are those whom the world has the hardest time seeing and hearing?  Why would God make women the first witnesses to the Risen Christ, when they were among the least likely of their time to be believed?  Why choose the Magdalene?

The Roman Catholic priest and mystic, Richard Rohr, points out that it is on just such people, who he calls the “little people” of the world, that Jesus himself focused his attention when he began his public ministry.   And Rohr suggests that there is a reason for that:  because only those who have been belittled by the world are really able to hear the Gospel clearly.  Because it is they, who have been made the world’s victims, who are most able to perceive the world’s brokenness, because they are the ones who have been lacerated by the sharp edges of that brokenness.   And so they are the ones whose wounds become the soil in which new life begins to grow, and among them are the ones who dare to bear this new life into the larger world because they have been pushed so far that they have nothing more to lose.

Mary Magdalene was such a person.  Jesus had changed her life in ways we will never know.  She was devastated by Jesus’ death, and the wounds of Mary’s pain and loss and grief became the soil in which the new life of Christ was able to find a home.  The male disciples had gone off and hidden themselves before Jesus had even died. They were mostly just terrified. But Mary, despite what Mark’s Gospel suggests this morning,  had no fear, I think.  Instead, she had the agony of loss.  And so when new life suddenly appeared before her, when the Risen Christ reached out to her and called her by name, she was ready to receive it.  There was no fear to get in between her and the new life being offered to her.  And having been at the end of her rope, this new, risen life was the only thing to grab onto, and she embraced it completely.  She became the unlikely bearer of this truth, because for her, in the absence of this new life, there was nothing.

Over the centuries, the truth that the Magdalene declared to the disciples found its way into the various corners of the earth.  At first, it was mostly those whom Rohr calls the “little people” who grabbed onto it. In its first centuries, Christianity was mainly a religion for those who were at the ends of their ropes, who had nothing else to lose, and gladly grabbed on to the good news of the Risen Christ.  Eventually, Christianity became the religion of almost everyone in the Western world, not just the powerless, but also the powerful.  And the incredible, amazing, April Fools-ish news of the Risen Christ just became part of the atmosphere that people breathed.  It became part of a tradition, and that tradition came to be managed by religious professionals, and a lot of rules got created.  The Magdalene got demoted from a preacher to a prostitute, and Jesus’ radical vision of the inclusive kingdom of God in which everyone had a place of equal dignity got transformed into a blessing of the status quo.

But God always finds a way. The new life that erupted from the tomb on that first Easter morning always finds a way to keep erupting in the life of the world.  The Risen Christ still keeps trying to upend our settled traditions, to call us away from old lives of sin to new lives of grace.   The Risen Christ always finds his way to the belittled ones of the world and manages to make some of them prophets.  And the world calls those prophets fools.   Just as many people would call us fools for being here today, gathered around the story of a man who we claim was raised from the dead.

But you know what?  History is littered with fools – people who stood up and testified about the corrupt things in the world and insisted that a new day was coming.   Fools who bet their lives on the reality of a new life shining in the midst of darkness.  Sometimes they suffered for it greatly. But to paraphrase Dr. King, the arc of history tends toward new life.   And generally speaking, it is the world’s fools who move history forward.

So be a fool for the Risen Christ today, and every day.  Listen to the voices of the powerless and the oppressed, and join your voice with theirs. Insist that there is a new day coming, a day of justice and peace, when the dignity of every human being will be seen and respected.  St. Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, said, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until the present time.”   My, how the world does groan, and shudder. Some people think all that groaning and shuddering is about things winding down and falling apart.   But fools for Christ know what St. Paul knew: that this is the groaning and shuddering of a world about to give birth to new life.   We are called to be the Mary Magdalenes of our time.  We are commissioned to insist that the story is true, to bear witness to new life wherever we find it, to proclaim that God is still up to something in this world, and that the forces of life will overcome the forces of death.

The Resurrection of Jesus is not an April Fool’s joke.  It is the mystery that points us toward the way God always works in our world: taking those whom the world regards as weak and making them powerful, powerful enough to break through the world’s corruption to bring forth the new life of God’s kingdom.  If you look – if you really look – Christ is rising all around us.  If you look – if you really look – Christ is rising in you.