The story begins under humble circumstances but builds momentum over time: a woman and a man talking in a cemetery under the cover of darkness on an early Sunday morning.
The woman is Mary Magdalene. In movies, she is usually portrayed as having the looks of Angelina Jolie and the morals of Mother Theresa – an interesting combination, to be sure. In the DaVinci Code, Mary is so special that Jesus falls deeply in love with her, marries her, and together they have children.
Of course, there is nothing in the Gospels about any of that; however, Luke chapter 8 tells us that, long before the crucifixion, the twelve disciples were with Jesus, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities. One of these women was named Mary Magdalene from whom seven demons had gone out, as the Scripture goes…
I imagine as sophisticated modern folks you don’t believe in demons, except maybe you made an exception that week after you saw the movie “The Exorcist.” I never actually saw that movie myself. The mere mention of some of the details in that movie were enough to keep me away forever. Instead of thinking of demons as little creatures that whisper evil suggestions into your ear, New Testament demons are more like insidious and repetitious thought patterns that lead a person into self-destructive or other-destructive behavior. Scripture tells us Mary had seven of these demons. I’m only guessing that Mary’s life could at times feel like a living hell.
Mary Magdalene follows Jesus because he loved her enough to remove her demons and give her a new life – a life connected to the love of God. Of all the people living on planet earth in AD 30 Mary encounters this man in a cemetery, in the dark, early on a Sunday morning.
And who is this man?
Let’s recap – this man was a Jewish Rabbi who was tortured and then executed by a government that used a perfected method of capital punishment called crucifixion, which only killed you after it inflicted maximum psychological and physical pain, as you hung stark naked in the hot sun with everyone mocking you in your shame and suffering.
The religious leaders of the time turned him over to government authorities, not because he threatens their power by proclaiming the arrival of God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven, but mainly because he saves all the wrong people. The religious and government authorities of his day grumble and say, “he welcomes sinners and he eats with them.” And they despise Him for that.
Why do they care about that? Because these sinners are, in their mind, the kind of people God is supposed to hate. People like Zacchaeus – Chief Tax-collector who worked for the Romans collecting taxes from Jews to pay for the soldiers occupying their land. What does Jesus do? Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner and brings salvation to him. To the ruling class of his day, Jesus’ hospitality towards sinners is too much. They fear that, if Jesus keeps this up, he’ll be breaking bread with just about anyone.
“No,” they whispered in the shadows of the day, “we’ve got to get rid of this rabble rouser!”
And so it begins, just a man and just a woman in a cemetery under the cover of early morning darkness when the man calls the woman by her name, “Mary,” helping her escape from living hell for the second time in her life. The first time was from demons; this second time was from despair – mind you, the deepest, darkest kind of despair; the kind that leaves you with no hope at all. When Mary witnessed Jesus being crucified just two days earlier, she probably thought, understandably, that she would never see Jesus alive again.
When Mary recognizes Jesus after he says her name, Mary runs to tell the disciples, but in the Gospels we are told the men take her words as an idle tale, refusing to believe her or her story. But, Jesus finally encounters the disciples in the upper room behind locked doors and it’s as if a giant asteroid has crashed into the ocean triggering a massive tsunami that spreads in all directions across the cosmos.
After a few weeks there are about 120 people who believe in Jesus and his resurrection. Following Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, 3,000 women and men – overwhelmed by Jesus and the power of this cosmic tsunami – start believing too. But it doesn’t stop there. In fact, the waves keep moving out from the resurrection of Jesus and, here we are today, dripping wet in baptism.
It’s a powerful reminder that without resurrection there would be no church and no parishioners. During non-Covid-times, there’d be no choir singing about a Crucified Messiah who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, forever and ever. Not here, not anywhere, at no time. Again, just a man and just a woman talking in a graveyard under early darkness on a Sunday morning getting us to this! Easter!
Nadia Bolz-Weber, is a former drug addict, stand-up comic, and now, a Lutheran pastor of a church in Denver called House for All Sinners and Saints. Nadia is covered with tattoos – the most prominent being on her forearm, of Mary Magdalene.
One day Nadia gets a text from one of her newer members, a Unitarian woman, named Andie, who says she may need some pastoral care. To which Nadia thinks, “What could that possibly mean for a Unitarian to have a crisis of faith?”
“Yeah”, Andie continues, “I think I believe in Jesus.”
Nadia responds, “I’m so sorry! But sometimes Jesus just hunts your skinny-self down and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, page 146
I think this was Nadia’s cheeky way of saying that as much as we may be looking for Jesus, that He is always looking for us as well, especially those of us…
– who have questions
– who are at times frustrated by the current state of affairs
– who ask why bad things happen to good people
– who try hard to remain positive in a sometimes cynical world
– who have doubt or feel unworthy of His love like Mary Magdalene.
It’s inspiring to me these days to see so many people coming to us to baptize their children into the faith which we received. Jesus’s arms are open wide to receive any and all who come to him.
I’m also reminded of a story that happened in 1964 when Martin Luther King was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama. People who believed in Martin’s vision of a better tomorrow planned a march from New Pilgrim Baptist Church to the city jail for the afternoon of Easter Sunday. They set off, 5,000 strong, all dressed in their Sunday best, until suddenly they ran straight into Commissioner and fervent anti-segregationist Bull Connor, backed by police and firemen who with their firehoses and truncheons blocked the marchers way.
It’s said the marchers didn’t know what to do so one of the leaders of the march asked the people to get down on their knees and pray. Suddenly, one of the other marchers jumped up and yelled, “Nope, the Lord is with us in this movement! Off your knees! We’re marching on!”
Bull Connor yelled to his men, “Stop ‘em, stop them now!”
As the story goes, this time none of the police moved a muscle, not even the police dogs. Miraculously, everyone was perfectly calm. Some fireman were seen with tears in their eyes, prompting them to drop their fire hoses to the ground. The marchers then respectfully marched right between the red fire trucks, softly singing, “I want Jesus to walk with me.”
From the very beginning of Jesus’s time spent here on earth, even to this very day, people have been coming to Him for a source of strength and guidance to navigate through this wacky world we live in and to help us navigate through sin and darkness so we can live in light and love. No matter how crazy things get, or how discouraged we might get, Jesus and His Way are always before us to help us to get closer to Him and where He wants to lead us.
Easter is not an idea. Easter is about Jesus of Nazareth, who, as one person so poignantly put it, “lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly” and who is, thankfully, still saving people just like us. Whether by accepting Jesus, being found by Him, seeking Him, however we find ourselves in relationship with Jesus this Easter morning – we’re all in a better place because of Him. Our relationship may start small but end up larger and more profound than we could ever know. All of these stories: Mary Magdalene, the Unitarian woman, the marchers in Birmingham, Alabama, speak to the spiritual momentum and inescapability of Jesus’ love and story and influence in our lives, especially in the face of humble, even desperate or dangerous beginnings.
A long time ago someone told us about Jesus. In my case it was my parents, my church, and the parochial school I attended – they all pointed me to Jesus. You have your story too. Maybe it was a series of people who told us about Jesus. Maybe it was on our own that we discovered the priority Jesus gave to those on the outskirts of society, those who felt marginalized or not a part of – whatever it was, and today we find ourselves here this Easter morning, because someone or something nudged us to discover more about this man who hunts our skinny selves down and there’s nothing we can do about it!
Whatever our faith-journey is, please consider this sermon an invitation for you to spread the word about Jesus, not only with our words, but also with our lives, so that everyone can come to know the life-giving message Jesus came to share. After all, someone passed this faith on to us; so let’s pay it forward, by the way in which we live and love, so others can also know the peace and love and light that we know.
Happy Easter everyone!
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog