This Easter Sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 3/27//16. It looks at the discipleship of Mary Magdalene and the Empty Tomb, especially in light of North Carolina this week.
Happy Easter everyone! In the Christian holy calendar, we celebrate today the story of hope in the face of oppression. Jesus, a spiritual teacher and reformer, birthed a religious movement that would change the world. But today, we celebrate his life, and his victory over greed, victory over indifference, victory over abuse of power; and that saving message that defines spiritual life: Care for the sick, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless, visit those in prison.
Earlier, we heard the story from the Gospel of John, told and retold from a few perspectives. Personally, I’m most moved by the telling from the perspective of Mary Magdalene. She’s often overlooked; she’s seen as a secondary figure by many, and not always in a positive light, and sometimes, folks even say things about her that weren’t true. I think most of us go through our lives, at least at some point, where we can relate to that – being overlooked, or passed over, or criticized for things we haven’t done. In fact, it’s the very opposite for Mary Magdalene. Where we often hear about the apostles who witnessed the risen Jesus, Mary is the first person to witness Jesus on Easter. And He tells her to go and tell the others; Mary – Go and Tell Them! Mary Magdalene, a woman who is far too often mistakingly looked down upon, is the Apostle to the Apostles. In a way, she’s the first Christian. But we don’t always talk about it that way; I wonder why?
We heard a historical version of the story, and we heard a personal version of the story. But Scripture is alive and meaningful for today as well as the past. It’s not just a retelling from a community’s perspective, but a way to look at the events of the world today. As I did last year, I may be starting a tradition of con-temporizing Scripture each year for Easter. This year, I’m holding in my heart the news in North Carolina.
Bill Moyers reported that, “In a shocking, unprecedented move, the North Carolina state legislature convened a special session late Wednesday in order to introduce and pass a sweeping anti-LGBT bill, HB-2, which overturns local ordinances protecting gay and transgender rights. Republican Governor Pat McCrory signed the bill into law later that night, writes CommonDreams.org.”
The ACLU of North Carolina would say, ”Rather than expand nondiscrimination laws to protect all North Carolinians, the General Assembly instead spent $42,000 to rush through an extreme bill that undoes all local nondiscrimination laws and specifically excludes gay and transgender people from legal protections.”
With this difficult news in mind, I offer this modern take on the Gospel of John:
Late in the night, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene heard the news coming from North Carolina. Late in the night, a sweeping anti-LGBT bill overturned local ordinances protecting gay and transgender people.
So she ran and went to the disciples, the ones whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken Justice out of the court, and we do not know where they have laid it.”
Peter and the other disciples set out to see for themselves. And they saw the remnants lying there. But the cloth, the compassion that covered Justice, was not with the remnants, but rolled up in a place by itself.
At first they did not understand, that Justice must be risen anew in each generation. Then the disciples returned to their homes.
But Mary stood weeping on the state legislature steps. As she wept, she bent over to look into the legislature; and she saw two angels in white – spirits without gender, sitting where Justice had once rested; one at the head and one at the foot.
They said to her, “why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away Justice, and I do not know where they have laid Justice down.”
When she turned she saw Justice standing there, whole and waiting, but she did not recognize it at first.
Justice spoke to her heart, “Whom are you looking for?” Supposing the speaker to be a lawyer, she said to Justice, “Sir, if you have carried Justice away, tell me where, and I will take Justice back.”
But Justice spoke to Mary’s heart, and called her by her name, and she knew once more.
Justice said, “Do not hold onto me here alone, for I have not yet risen in all our hearts. But go to my siblings and say to them, “I am rising. To my God and to your God. From heart to heart.”
Mary Magdalene went and announced, “I have seen the Lord.”
For I have not risen in all our hearts yet…For me, that’s the core of the Easter message. We come out of a time of loss and turmoil; and it’s not magically washed away. Things may still be very difficult, but sometimes difficulty can point toward transformation – without glorifying the difficultly. In North Carolina, where fear and hate have had a chance to wedge themselves into the laws – laws that I can’t imagine will survive Federal Court appeals – we can find hope in the empathy we see in so many people. Decent people are outraged by ignorance, and fear, and bias in our neighbors. That wasn’t always the case, but empathy is rising in more hearts, year after year.
Empathy – a big word that means to understand and care for you in your times of pain, because we understand from having lived through a time of pain ourselves. The Easter story is the ultimate story of empathy – and empathy is a spiritual compass to live by.
Earlier in the service we handed out paper and crayons for drawing. If you have that with you, and would like to reflect – on the side you havent drawn yet, think of a time where you learned to care for others – to be empathetic. Maybe you can draw that. Or think of something inside of you that has been difficult, that you would like to love into something more; maybe a hope for something that means a lot to you. Sometimes the things inside us that used to keep us down, become the things that later in life lift us up.
Walt Whitman says this in his epic poem, “Leaves of Grass.” The excerpt goes, “I will therefore let flame from me the burning fires that were threatening to consume me, I will lift what has too long kept down those smoldering fires… for who but I should understand love with all its sorrow and joy?” Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman p. 278. Walt Whitman was a great American Poet, a Unitarian, and like many of us here, from Long Island. This excerpt from his poem talks about what we’ve been reflecting today. What’s the thing inside you that once kept you down, that has become a source of strength and identity in your life? We’re coming to a close in our month where we’ve been reflecting on what it means to be a people of liberation. Part of being liberated, is finding the rough parts in our lives, or finding the things that others chide or make fun of us for, and love them into fullness.
I know as a gay man, that’s been true in my life. What once was threatening to consume me, I now lift up. I don’t think I’m alone in that. Maybe, as the Mary Magdalene story goes, being a woman you’ve been told you’re second to the men around you. That’s not true – and it can be challenge in a world where we’re taught foolish things, to love ourselves into fullness. Or maybe you’re made fun of in school for being smart. I remember being called a geek when I was a kid. But that turns around in time, and the parts we might be embarrassed by because the empathy hasn’t yet risen in the hearts of all our neighbors, becomes sources for understanding life and love, sorrow and joy, all the more fully.
If you haven’t find a thing to draw yet, and you want another idea – try this – What’s that part of you that you want to love more of, or love again, love into fullness? Or what would a people of liberation look like?
Happy Easter everyone. Justice, empathy and liberation have not yet risen in all the hearts of the world, but Go and Tell Them. Hope has risen today. To my God and to your God. Heart to heart.