Easter Sunday: March 27, 2005
A Sermon for Seekers Church
by Marjory Zoet Bankson
A Corporate Call for Seekers: To Celebrate Creativity
Scripture: John 20:1-18
“Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and you Father, to my God and your God.“
For centuries now, we have heard that Mary Magdalene was a woman of ill repute, a prostitute saved by Jesus. Renaissance painters contributed to that image and even though there is not one word in scripture to support that view, it was preached as gospel by Catholics and Protestants alike. It does not take a movie like The Last Temptation of Christ or even a novel like The DaVinci Code to smother the call of Christ with sexuality.
Set aside, if you can, any preconceived notions about Mary Magdalene and Jesus, and listen with your heart to their words:
“Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.“
This is no triumphant declaration of resurrection! Instead, it is full of ambiguity and intimacy. She has no idea who he is or what he wants from her. It is an encounter that is much more believable when my own heart is full of questions, hungry for reassurance and direction.
Our theme for this season of Eastertide is “Seeing in a New Light.” Mary Magdalene stands at the threshold of seeing things differently, responding creatively rather than despair.
The scriptural record of their relationship puts Mary in the same company as the rich young ruler. In Luke 8:2-3, we read that Mary had been healed of seven demons and that she helped to support the disciples with “her means.” Unlike the rich, young ruler who turned away from Jesus, Mary Magdalene apparently dedicated her wealth to supporting Jesus and his disciples … and became a follower herself.
Some authors have speculated about the nature of Mary’s “seven demons,” but whatever they were, we can assume they were debilitating and isolating, like seizures or manic-depression. When Jesus expelled those demons, I can imagine Mary’s deep gratitude for her own healing and for the amazing gift of community which she had with the men and women who traveled with Jesus. We don’t know for sure, but they might have been her first loving relationships. They became her family!
The crucifixion ended all of that! The male disciples fled for their lives. While it was still dark, Mary and some of the other women crept back to the tomb where Jesus’ body had been put over the Sabbath. Their hopes were shattered. Their teacher was gone. Their future dashed. They were numb with grief, hopeless and helpless in the face of Jesus’ tortuous death on the cross.
In John’s gospel, Mary comes alone. Then, when she finds the tomb empty, she runs back to where some of the disciples are hiding — to tell Peter and the unnamed “beloved disciple.” They run back to the tomb, verify that it is empty and leave again. However, Mary stays. Why? Because her love stops there, where his body was. She can go no further on her own.
Last week, Anna Gilcher preached on “bearing the beams of love.” We began by looking deeply at one-another with love for a full minute in silence. I was sitting next to my nephew, Drew, doing something we had never done before. I felt my heart open and a tide of love flow through me to him. Tears came and a lump in my throat, as I felt the mixture of gratitude and awe and wonder between us. It surprised me…and I knew that it came from a source much larger than my own cramped heart.
Anna spoke of Judas, who was not able to bear the “beams of love” and so he killed himself after betraying Jesus. Moreover, she spoke of Peter, who was able to bear Jesus’ penetrating gaze and to know the truth about himself instead of being crippled by guilt. Peter was able to see Jesus in a new light after the resurrection.
Mary Magdalene was also able to bear those “beams of love.” Whatever scars she bore from her “seven demons” had long since been healed. Though blinded by her grief, she recognized his voice and instinctively reached out for him:
“Don’t hold on to me….“ If you would bear the beams of my love, then let me go. Do not make an idol of what was. Do not hold on to the comfortable security of our community together. Do not clutch at the past. The time has come for a new call!
Perhaps the first part of any new call is to release the past. Peter had to release his guilt in order to function as a servant leader in the early church. Mary Magdalene was not so much burdened by guilt as by gratitude. She had been given new life by Jesus. Her gratitude had opened the wellsprings of her heart. Now she needed to let that go…to gather the strength and confidence which had been growing in her all along, and turn it to another purpose.
I want to stay here in this eddy of the story for a few minutes, to reflect on our life as a healing community, where love can grow stronger and confidence increase as it had for Mary Magdalene. I believe that is the kind of community described by our call as Seekers — to be a worshiping community, with shared leadership, living out Christian servanthood in our daily lives.
In the thirty years since Seekers formed at Church of the Saviour, I believe we have been faithful to that call. We have tried to be a community of called individuals, nourished by God’s love as it comes to us through persons, rituals and prayer. In fact, there has been a healthy tension between those who work in considerable danger…and look to Seekers as a sanctuary for nourishment, and those like Mary, who need some prodding to let go of a cozy community to serve a more demanding mission.
On Maundy Thursday, I caught a glimpse of how our rituals of worship invite love to grow. Julian and Beatrice wanted to wash Andy’s feet, so there they were, Anna with the towel and pitcher, and Julian with his tiny hands stroking Andy’s long bare foot with oil and water, looking up at him so solemn and full of purpose…growing love with trust and touch. I felt my tears again, a sign of sacred ground. It reminded me that love is not an abstraction or even a commandment. Love is always local. Love grows where we can help one-another extend our care beyond ourselves. That is how we are invited to creativity, to newness and hope. I do think God needs our bodies…our hands…our feet…to be love where we are in the world.
Teilhard de Chardin writes:
What paralyzes life is failure to believe and failure to dare.
The day will come when, after harnessing space,
the winds, the tides and gravitation,
we shall harness for God the energies of love.
And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world,
we shall have discovered fire.
I would say that Seekers Church has been a place where we could feel the fire of love and contribute our fuel to the flame. Like Mary Magdalene, Seekers has been a place to share our resources of energy, time, money and imagination. It has been a crucible for creativity in a world that would rather have compliance and mass production.
The second part of Jesus’ call to Mary was this: “Go and tell the disciples what you have experienced here.” To answer that call would require Mary to see herself in a new light, to trust her own experience and not depend on others to speak for her. It meant that she would have to face the disbelieving disciples who had already been to the empty tomb and step through the cultural barriers against women being valid witnesses.
Indeed, Mark’s gospel ends with these words: “(The women) said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” Nevertheless, John’s gospel records this clear call to Mary Magdalene to face her fears, to speak her truth, and claim her place as the first apostle…the first witness of the Risen Christ. Jesus called Mary Magdalene to say “Yes!” to a fresh future that was very different from her past. It would send her out into the world with an unbelievable message of hope!
On this first Easter Sunday for Seekers, here in our new home on Carroll Street, I am also hearing a new dimension of our call to be church. It is something we have been doing all along, but not named as our call. I also know that my naming it will not make it so, but I will take the nudging from Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene and tell you what I know in my heart. I believe that our corporate call is to celebrate creativity, which serves life as Jesus did.
Let us look at the signs.
Our first outreach from this building was sponsored by the Artist’s Mission Group. In spite of their insistence on having no corporate call, Martha pushed forward to sponsor a summer Art Camp…which brought Anna and her children here last summer.
Our first tenant is the Washington Storyteller’s Theater and our most frequent weekday renter is the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. We have said “yes” to them because we sense a compatible vision for ministry and social change.
Cynthia offers a regular poetry class to homeless women at N Street Village and Jean brings art to the patients at Christ House.
Our logo has become the mosaic which Kathryn and Peter shepherded into being, inviting all of us to contribute our broken shards to a pattern that celebrates God’s spirit brooding over the waters of creation itself.
We have supported and blessed an ongoing relationship with the Bokomoso Youth Theater in South Africa, growing from the initial connections that Paul and Roy made there. We have “taken advantage” of Roy’s musical gifts, and we supported the musicals that he has written for AIDS education in South Africa.
Our creativity takes a practical form in Guatemala, where more than a dozen Seekers have gone on pilgrimages with Faith@Work to build village schools in the Maya highlands. This year we have six Seekers signed up for the August trip and we are holding Jeffrey and Margreta in our prayers right now as they visit their adoptive son in Guatemala.
We have used our money to support “growing edges” among members of Seekers…always a sortie into the unknown.
Each week we worship with handmade bulletins and homegrown altars. We recite original liturgies and respond with prayers from our lives. In a culture where bigger and slicker is assumed to be better, we have chosen to foster human values based on Jesus’ way of simplicity and sustainable consumption.
Underlying this list is my recent experience of call to create unfired burial urns and painted prayer shawls. Some of you have seen my show at Mt Vernon Place Methodist Church in Baltimore and you know that the impulse has taken me from making products for sale to making sacred containers that are not meant to be permanent. In many ways, this show is a statement of my faith now…that we can let go of the idolatry of pretended permanence and trust death in the larger cycle of God’s creativity as it flows through all of creation.
Creativity that serves life as Jesus did means that we are not just talking about making art. The creative Spirit that undergirds this community does not mean that we do not care about the poor, the outcasts or those victimized by our society. Seekers will continue to “serve life as Jesus did” by addressing unjust social structures according to our individual calls.
We also know that “serving life” does not mean preserving some lives while decimating others. We are not naive about the ways that creativity can serve evil and destruction as well as life and celebration, and we must be aware that moral dilemmas do not always have simple answers. We recognize that creativity includes death and resurrection, endings and new beginnings. That is, after all, the path that Jesus walked and which we celebrate this Easter morning.
While creativity does not always look like art in a traditional sense, it does have the smell of uniqueness and locality about it. Creativity requires eye-to-eye and hand-to-hand contact with each other, with materials and with the earth too. What I see is that creativity, which serves life as Jesus did, transmits the love of God in tangible ways that invite all of us to wholeness: young and old, rich and poor, slave and free.
Even though I am saying that creativity is not just about painting pictures or making pots, I would like to close with a favorite quote by Pat Allen from her book, Art is a Way of Knowing:
Art making is my way of bringing soul back into my life. Soul is the place where the messiness of life is tolerated, where feelings animate the narration of life, where story exists. Soul is the place where I am replenished and can experience both gardens and graveyards. Art is my way of knowing who I am.
For Seekers I would add, celebrating creativity is a way of knowing who we are!