Walking with Mary Magdalen

This Eastertide, I am doing something I have not done before: preaching a sermon series on the Acts of the Apostles. This is the sermon from the Second Sunday of Easter, Year C, April 24, 2022. The lectionary can be found here.

Open our minds that we might hear your truth.  
Open our hearts that we might know your love. 
Open our lives that we might share your Gospel to the ends of the earth.

At the end of my sermon last week, Easter Sunday, I shared an image I have of Mary Magdalen looking back as she leaves the tomb.  She realizes that the tomb is not empty but full of God’s promise, God’s love for all people, and hope for a transformed world.  Jesus has sent her on a mission to share this good news, a mission that we are called to join.  Like Mary Magdalen and all who walked this earth with Jesus before his death and resurrection, we are invited to figure out what it is we do, how we are to be, as people who share God’s love with the world.  It can be a daunting task, this calling to follow God’s Holy Spirit wherever she will lead.  It can be daunting as we undertake our personal faith journeys.  It can be daunting as we discern how to live our faith together, in community.  Daunting as it may be, we know from the Incarnation and the Resurrection that life with Jesus is transformed life, with blessings and grace beyond our wildest imaginings.

Part of the rhythm of our shared faith is that each Easter season, from the Second Sunday of Easter through the Seventh Sunday of Easter, our lectionary omits a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures in favor of a reading from the Acts of the Apostles.  Although not historical in the way we understand that word today, Acts is a history of the origins of Christianity and the Church.   Through the stories of many apostles (those who were in Jesus’ inner circle) and many more disciples, we hear about the trials and tribulations, successes and celebrations of those who responded to the call to share the Good News with as many as possible.  It is a beautifully compelling story about people from all walks of life coming to believe in Jesus and choosing to allow that belief to shape their lives, changing them forever.

Early in this story, in the second chapter of Acts, is a passage that is an integral part of our faith tradition:

“The devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.”

If this sounds familiar to you, it may be because it is the first promise we make in the Baptismal Covenant, the covenant we renew each time we baptize someone.  The four promises that follow flow from it.  The five are intended to help us to better understand how to live our lives in ways consistent with our faith, to live as Jesus would have us live.

For the past several years, since at least the start of the search almost five years ago, you (and then we) have been discerning how God is working in this parish and what it is we are being called to do. This is something your Vestry and Finance Committee talk about all the time.  It is a frequent theme of other conversations, such as in Adult Formation and less formally.  It is conversation we all can engage in, together and in our personal prayer. 

The pandemic and then the flood added layers of complexity and, in some ways, distraction that we had no choice but to accept.  Now we are at the place in which we are not quite as unsure or reactive as we’ve had to be since March of 2020, even as we know we need to remain nimble and flexible, which is always a good thing when one is committed to following the Holy Spirit.   So, we are now ramping up a conversation we thought we would be having in early 2020, after we’d spent a year getting to know each other.

This Eastertide, as we pray and break bread together, we will explore what it means to be Church in a sermon series focused on the readings from Acts.  We’ll hear about Peter, Paul, and Silas, Tabitha and Lydia, as well as some unnamed people. We’ll ask ourselves how their stories, which we know are part of our story, can help us to better understand what it is God is calling us to do now. In other words, what does it look like for us to accept the invitation to walk alongside Mary Magdalen?

Today’s reading from Acts picks up in the early middle of the story with Peter blatantly defying the high priests’ orders not to teach in Jesus’ name, i.e. tell the good news of the Resurrection.  He clearly states that as “witnesses along with the Holy Spirit,” they “must obey God rather than any human authority.”  What happened before this point in the story might help us to better understand how the ministry of Peter and those he encountered connects to where we find ourselves today in ways that may be surprising.

From before the beginning of Acts, which is something of a continuation of Luke’s Gospel because they were written by the same person, Peter and others are on a mission that includes the Scriptures that formed Jesus and some of them, praying for and following God’s guidance, gathering, preaching, and testifying to their experiences of God.  In the telling and re-telling of Jesus’ story, they make following Jesus central to everything they do. 

Their mission is not just about telling the stories that connect the past and history with the present and future – they take action.  They actively participate in many “signs and wonders,” for which they give God the credit.  They commit to doing all things for the common good and to helping their neighbors in whatever ways are needed.  They praise and worship God every day.  There are highpoints, such as the many times thousands of people heard or overheard their stories about Jesus, believed, were baptized, and committed to living differently.  There are low points, such as when they are imprisoned or when a couple, Ananias and Sapphira, try to work both ends against the middle with horrible results.

They are doing all of this in times that sound a lot like the times in which we live today.  It seems as if little has changed in the past 2000 years. There is conflict and violence, devasting illness and oppression. There is so much chaos in the world and in the developing Church.  It seems that since the last supper, the apostles and disciples are being constantly surprised and that life with Jesus is not what they signed for, or at least not what they thought they were signing up for.  So, in some ways, little has changed.  What has not changed is God’s love for God’s people, Jesus’ presence with us, or the Holy Spirit’s desire to guide us to new life. Their stories illustrate how the Spirit works in or, maybe, despite the chaos to bring new life.

What the stories of the earliest Church tell us is that remaining grounded in the faith: relying on Scripture, prayer and worship, good works, and active love of neighbor can change the world in good and life-giving ways.  Holding the usual trappings of success loosely, taking risks and acting courageously in the face of deep fear and even threats, opens our hearts, minds, and lives to deeper experience of the abundance of God’s grace in ways that continually surprise and transform.

Though the specifics of the story in 2022 will be significantly different than those of the story from the first century, the basic premise is the same: 

God is God. God’s love is unconditional and unequivocal. 
We are Easter people. We believe in new life each and every day. 
We are people of faith. We believe in the power of prayerful discernment. 
We are people of the Word. We believe in the wisdom of our holy Scriptures. 
We are Episcopalians. We believe in the ministry of the baptized. 
We are St. Stephen’s. We believe in the power of love to transform us and the world.

Won’t you join your leadership and me as we walk with Mary Magdalen out of the Easter tomb?

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland

Leaving the tomb

This is my sermon for today, Easter Day 2022. This is the link to the lectionary. We read Isaiah and Acts, along with the Psalm and the Gospel. This was something of a first for me; it is the “kick off” to a sermon series I am doing in Eastertide, based on the readings from Acts. We will be exploring what it means to be church, maybe even a new church, in these much changed times.

The theologian, Frederick Buechner, wrote:

The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb…

He rose… If it is true, there is nothing left to say. If it is not true, there is  nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, life has never been the same again…

What is left now is the emptiness. There are those who, like magdalen, will never stop searching it until they find his face. (frederick buechner. com/content/easter)

In today’s Gospel, Mary Magdalen has gone to the tomb, expecting, no doubt, to see Jesus’ body, to pay her respects, to say a final goodbye to her friend, her teacher, a man she loves so much. She is doing what we know is an important part of saying goodbye when someone we love dies. We need to go. We need to pay our respects. Some­times we sit by the body, saying those things we wished we had said while our loved one was still with us. It’s all a part of what we need to do to be able to let go of a past and what was just so recently our present, and to move on into a future that is full of lots of unknowns. It’s a future, that quite frankly, we may not welcome. And yet we do it because we have to do it. We cannot move forward unless we do it.

We don’t know all that much about Mary Magdalen. We do know that she was a devoted follower of Jesus, that she believed fully in Jesus’ mission of mercy, justice, compassion, and hope. In Luke’s Gospel we are told that Mary was been cured of seven demons. We’re kind of given to believe that this is when she got fully on board with Jesus’ mission, with who Jesus is, and what he can be for the world. All four Gospels tell us that Mary Magdalen was with Jesus and at the tomb. For Mary Magdalen, the relationship with Jesus was truly life changing. Not only was she cured of her demons, she was given the promise of a life and a future that she couldn’t otherwise dream possible.

And then Jesus is killed.

And then his body is missing.

And then she mistakes him for the gardener.

And then he speaks to her and tells her what it is the is to do next.

Can you even begin to imagine what it would have been like to be Mary Magdalen on that first Easter morning? I can only imagine, as the young people used to say, she felt “all the feels.” She felt the grief. She felt the sorrow. She felt the anger. She felt the frustration. She felt the fear. She felt the loss of hope. And I have to believe because the body is missing, Jesus is standing there, Jesus is speaking to her, she had to have felt some confusion. Maybe a different kind of fear. Shock. Relief, perhaps? More confusion? Excitement. Disbelief. Hope.

It is this hope that I want us to focus on. It is this hope that I hope is the feeling, the emotion, that she held onto most tightly on that first Easter morn. Because it is that hope that is the promise of a future in which God’s love would change the world and God’s promises would be fulfilled. It is the hope that in the words of our Presiding Bishop would “change the world from the nightmare it is for so many, to the dream God has for it.”

Hope that inequity, inequality, and injustice would be overcome once and for all.

Hope that all people would have equal rights regardless of those accidents of birth, such as race and gender and tribe and sexual identity, and all of those things that are a part of who God created us to be.

Hope that the natural resources that God has given to the world in abundance would be treasured and nurtured, and used to build up all people, to feed and nurture all people. And not to be held as resources to make a profit by a relative few.

Hope that violence and wars would cease to be. And that conflict would be resolved peaceably and with care for all.

Hope for a world in which god’s dream for God’s people is fully realized.

It is that hope, and only that hope, that can give us what it is we know we need, what each of us is seeking when, like Mary Magdalen, we keep looking and looking to see Jesus’ face in the people all around us.

And is that hope that I can imagine is the only way that Mary Magdalen could have been motivated to follow Jesus further after all that had happened in the past days, weeks, and months. It is the hope that motivated her to follow him in the first place.

It is the hope of the Incarnation, the in-breaking of God’s love into the world to live as one of us, to show us what it means to live as God created us to be, loving and caring for other people and for God’s creation over all.

It is the hope of the Resurrection, the promise that was given to all of us, believers and unbelievers alike, that there is nothing that God’s love cannot, will not do for us, including overcoming evil and death.

It is that hope that is only possible, again, we know we have had both the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and that those stories are not just stories from the past. They are our stories today.

The in-breaking of love into the world is a constant. It is not something we can change. It is not something we can give away, although sometimes it feels like we try really hard to do both. And, yet, God says, “Sorry, my children, my choice, not yours.” And when we can’t hear that, we’re brought into the story of new life, of life after death, of resurrection, of the triumph of love over all else.

That is the celebration of today. It is a celebration we do differently today, but it is a celebration that is ours each and every day because there is always new life. There is always resurrection if we are Easter people, which means if we believe that it is possible even when, perhaps especially when, we’re not clear how or, in my, case sometimes, why God would bother.

It’s a truth. It is THE truth. It is the truth that literally changed the world in ways that we cannot fully fathom. It changed the world for people who don’t profess to be followers of Christ. Resurrection is real. New life is ours.

Jesus was born to show us how to live with that truth.

Jesus died and was resurrected to remind us of that truth. Jesus died because we could not let go of some of the things that keep us from recognizing that truth.

Jesus rose to remind us that God will do the unimaginable to show us how deeply, completely, and uncondi­tionally we are loved.

Now, I have this image in my heart of Magdalen leaving the tomb, still feeling all the feels. She’s walking out to do what a good follower of Jesus would do, to do what Jesus told her to do, to tell the people that she has seen him and that he is not yet ascended, but soon will be, that the promise he made to them is coming true.

I have this image of her leaving the tomb, it’s a cave, and it’s in a rocky hill. As she’s coming out of it, she looks back and realizes then that what she is leaving is not an empty tomb. It is a tomb full of God’s promise. It is a tomb full of the love of God for all people. It is full of hope for a transformed world. And the steps she is taking to tell the people what Jesus said, are the steps we are invited to take as we figure out what it is we do, how we are to be, as people who share the good news of God’s perfect love through the resurrection of Jesus Christ and who follow in his footsteps to wherever the Holy Spirit will take us. Amen.

Copyright 2022 The Rev. Paula J. Toland