Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Faces of Our Faith: Mary Magdalene

The Rev. Bailey Pickens
The 23rd Sunday after Pentecost (October 28, 2018)
Mark 16:1-11

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But 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. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

[Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.]

This is Holy Wisdom, Holy Word… Thanks be to God!

When I was in seminary, we talked a lot about a famous line of Karl Barth’s, which said one must preach with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. We talked a lot about how some preachers didn’t seem to want to use the newspaper and why that might be. We talked about how some preachers didn’t seem to want to use the Bible, I guess to try to right the balance. We talked about how we would do both.

Now it turns out that this is one of those quotes that really takes on a life of its own and is difficult to trace back to the person it’s usually attributed to, though Barth certainly said similar things somewhat regularly. One was in an interview with TIME Magazine in 1963, and he said this: he advised seminarians “to take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”

Seminary was years ago now but Barth’s insistence that we need both Bible and newspaper is always on my mind, especially in these last few years. The only other maxim that rattles around in my mind with nearly the same insistence is perhaps the most famous post from a twitter account that began as a spam bot and ended as a performance art project, called horse_ebooks. It’s a post from June 2012, and it reads: “everything happens so much.” And it does, doesn’t it?

Barth said to interpret newspapers from your Bible, and I try, but everything happens so much. This week, each time I thought I had found the story in the world that I was going to bring into the pulpit with me to set before you alongside Mary Magdalene, something else happened. First I thought I would bring to you the government’s suggestion that it can legally mandate a person’s gender. Then I thought I would bring to you thousands of people, adults and children, walking thousands of miles towards hope and the hostility and danger that waits for them here days in advance. Then I thought I would bring to you two African-Americans dead at the hands of a white supremacist who said, out loud, to the first other person he found with a gun: “Whites don’t kill whites.” Then, yesterday, another white supremacist killed eleven Jewish people as they prayed and welcomed a new baby into their community of faith, and he shouted “All these Jews need to die.” It was less than one week from the first of these stories to the last. All of them are still true; their consequences continue to ripple; the people made afraid by them are no less afraid.

I sat down with these newspaper stories in front of my Bible and I asked it: What do you have to say to this? I asked God, What does the Word say about this, about systematic legal oppression, about hatred, about murder?

Today, Sunday, is the day after the Jewish sabbath. It was on a morning like this, early, that Salome, and Mary who was James’s mother, and Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons, gathered the spices with which they intended to prepare Jesus’ body, two days too late, for the burial he had already received. They, observant Jews, could not go any sooner, because Jesus’ execution was on Friday, and the sabbath began at sundown, so this morning, Sunday, was the soonest that they could go. Jesus was already in the tomb, already had been for nearly two days, but they loved him and all of his disciples had run away, so they were going. The entrance was sealed with a huge stone, and they knew they wouldn’t be able to move it themselves, but they loved him, so they were going. And they arrived—you know this story—and the stone was already moved, and there was a young man in a white robe sitting there, and he told them that Jesus was gone, raised, go and tell the others. And they ran away and said nothing because they were afraid.

Mark probably ends there, according to scholarship, did you know? It ends in frightened silence.

A lot ends in frightened silence. Perhaps you know the feeling. I, usually so ready with something to say, read the headlines as I reread Mark’s account of women going to mourn the death of another Jewish man and found that all my words retreated into frightened silence at the weight of Christianity’s antisemitic legacy, our first, best, oldest prejudice. Centuries before our adoption of race-based chattel slavery we taught the evils of the Jews, God’s chosen people, our elder siblings in God’s family, we chased them from our cities and burned their synagogues and killed them in village squares. When, eighty and more years ago, Hitler needed someone to blame, he chose a people for whom distrust and hatred ran deep, deep in Christian Europe, and that hatred is no stranger here, either. It flourishes.

Mary Magdalene once had seven demons. I often wonder what they were. Jesus cast them out of her, and she followed him to the cross and then to the grave, and she was the one who first told his other disciples that he had risen. They did not believe her. There is uncertainty around this story in Mark, about whether it’s an addition to the abrupt ending, when it was, perhaps, added, and by whom, but I find it believable. A woman reporting something true and nobody believing her? That is one of the realest things there is. But let us extend a bit of sympathy to the disciples: as my wife often says, they may not have known about germ theory, but they knew that dead people stay dead; they stayed dead then as they stay dead now. And now this woman—this woman who once was possessed, whom they knew to be unstable, maybe dangerous, certainly not reliable, even if Jesus had in theory healed her—she was telling them this absurd thing, that Jesus wasn’t dead anymore, that the world didn’t work the way they knew it worked. Come on.

The problem, of course, is that she was right.

As Christians, we have two legacies, and we can choose which one has our loyalty. The first is a history of power, the Christianity of Roman emperors and English crusaders and Spanish conquistadors, the Christianity that gave an excuse to the gold- and power-hungry, the Christianity that has killed pagans and Jews and Muslims and Indigenous people and enslaved Africans and other Christians, attached itself to power and to political expediency, the Christianity that now says this nation is blessed above other nations as long as we keep it white and that will keep it safe.

The other is the faith of a terrified woman, a woman who had known evil intimately, to whom God had come just as intimately close, who moved through terror at the upsidedown-turning of her world and rejection from those close to her to insist on the absurd truth of the good news, that death is over—if we want it. The icon on the cover of your bulletin shows the Magdalene holding a deep red egg, as icons of her often do. The story goes that in the time after Jesus’ resurrection she found her way into the presence of the Roman Emperor Tiberius and she greeted him with “Jesus is risen!” and held up an egg to use as a metaphor, and the Emperor very reasonably scoffed and said “Your Jesus is no more risen than—than—than that egg is red!” Whereupon the egg bloomed crimson in her fingers.

Death is over—if we want it. Jesus is Lord even of death and has pulled its stinger out. An absurd claim then as now, yet every one of Jesus’ disciples, the first ones Mary Magdalene told, died for it. Because it was true, and because there was power in it.

There are people in this country who are friends with death and they are very powerful. They tell us that we must build our army stronger, our walls higher, our bank accounts larger, or we will be overrun by people who are poor and grasping, sick and foreign, unchristian and dangerous. They tell us the danger is already here. They tell us that we must keep quiet in public, that shouting and shooting are equally violent, that nothing is so very wrong as all that. They tell us to keep our eyes on the road and everything will be fine. Then they say God Bless America, and many Christians fall in line.

My friends: this is the vision of Nazis and robber barons. It killed two people in Jeffersontown and eleven in Pittsburgh. It is not the vision of Mary Magdalene, our mother in faith, and it cannot be ours. Mary Magdalene saw an upside-down world in which death is over and a Jewish woman from nowhere can testify to the risen Jewish Lord before a Roman emperor. Her vision is the vision of children blessed and women honored and enslaved and oppressed people made free, of freedom marches and liberationists and the radical twin claims of dignity and of hope. This is the vision of martyrs and the history of joy. It does not have any common sense at all; it proclaims Christ, the God-Man, executed by the imperial state and alive forever, here with us in this room. It says to hell with compromise, with accepting how things are, with small goals; it says that God is casting the mighty down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry and sending the rich away empty, and death is over—if you want it.

This has always been the minority position because it is easier to fold the idea of Christ’s resurrection into business as usual than it is to accept the consequences of the resurrection, of God’s action breaking in to the world. We often don’t actually want it; it will bring us into conflict with power and with those close to us who, seeing in the newspaper how everything continues to happen so much will prefer to retreat into what is familiar. But today I am asking myself and all of us: Can we see ourselves in the women who accompanied Mary? Can we trust God to give us the courage they had, to watch death happen and respond with love, spices in hand? We have seen what God does with death: God raises. My friends, death is over, if we want it. Let’s go.


Featured image: “Arisen” by Hannah Garrity with A Sanctified Art LLC. Used with permission.