A Christian Community
in the Tradition of Church of the Saviour
Three Questions for Easter
April 7, 1996
Marjory Zoet Bankson
Gospel Lesson: John 20: 11-18
Mary stood weeping outside the tomb.
"Why are you weeping?" the angels asked.
"Why are you weeping?" Jesus asked.
Isn’t the answer obvious? Why did these heavenly messengers ask Mary such a stupid question? Each time, she pulls herself together and gives an answer. To the angels, she explains that it’s the empty tomb…a sign that somebody has taken his body. A final heartbreak, leaving her no place to come with her grief. That’s why she is weeping.
To the gardener (she supposes), she dares to ask if he is the "guilty party," the one who has removed Jesus’ body. Perhaps he knows where the body is? In her grief, Mary speaks boldly. There’s nothing left to lose.
Mary stands in a long line of Survivors, made bold by their loss:
- the mothers who stand before mounted police with pictures of their children who have "been disappeared"
- Catholic and Protestant women patrolling neighborhoods together in Dublin to quell the violence on both sides
- Muslims, risking death to stay as the Serbs return to their villages
- Vietnamese and Chinese writers who dare to name the exploitation and persecution that persists today.
Mary says, "If you have taken his body, tell me…and I will take him away." The body is her focus. No question for her of his death. She saw it with her own eyes. She weeps because she loved him and now he’s gone. But for us, it’s the question that’s important for today. Why do you weep? It’s a good question. One that leads to truth.
Question l: Why do you weep?
During this Holy Week, I have been dwelling with Sr. Helen Praejean’s story, Dead Man Walking, the book and the movie. She is "an ordinary person (who) gets involved in extraordinary events." One step at a time, she moves from a protected middle-class environment into the middle of violence, brutality and the public debate over capital punishment…simply by agreeing to write to a prisoner on death row. It begins like an afterthought, amid her work at a settlement house in a poor neighborhood of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Why do you weep? Mary Magdalene wept for an innocent man, crucified like a common criminal between two thieves. Sr. Praejean wept for a guilty man who finally came to trust her enough that he could move beyond his own fear and pride to weep…and let love in. Feel remorse. Ask forgiveness.
Why do you weep? When do you weep? Pay attention to your tears, even if you keep them inside. Your tears are a sign of holy ground. A sign of connection. An indication of unfinished spiritual work.
On Thursday, as I was writing this sermon, a friend I’ll call Sue telephoned. She taught a body movement class here in the School some years ago. A Holyoke graduate, bright, articulate, committed Christian. Since then she has suffered 3 psychotic breaks and been diagnosed with schizophrenia. After long periods of feeling numb with drugs, she is beginning to come alive again. She called to talk because it was Easter… sobbing with anger at God for her lonliness, her fear and her pain.
I didn’t know what to say. I’m not a therapist or a pastoral counselor. Just a person who’s been there through the years. Finally, as I listened, I felt something shift inside of me and a way opened…
"You’ve got a right to be mad. You don’t deserve this. You’ve had a lot of gratuitous horror." And she laughed!
"That’s it! Yes. Maybe it’s my image of God that’s cracking — the old I’ll-be-good and you’ll-reward-me game is over, isn’t it." Just then, I felt my tears rise to the surface…and fall back again. My truth. There is no prize for being good. No reward for being right. No ticket to heaven in taking the sacraments. No guarantee of companions when the chips are down. Pain isn’t fair. Some people get a lot more of it than others. Sue doesn’t deserve the prison she is living in now, nor do I deserve the healthy body that I have. I cannot save her from her pain, but I can stay present to it when she calls. We have those moments. We each have those people and places where weeping is called for. We can start there.
Mary stood weeping, because she loved the man who delivered her from seven demons. Why do you weep?
Question 2: Who calls you by name?
Jesus appears and quietly says her name: "Mary." Her eyes are opened. She knows who it is! This is the moment of resurrection! This is the action of Easter morning! TO HEAR and TO SEE one you have not recognized. That’s the experience of Christ, God-with-us. It’s MARY who has the experience of Christ, not Jesus!
This week, all the major news magazines are cashing in on Resurrection. Everybody seems to be discussing how to understand the concept of "a Risen Christ." The Jesus Seminar is creating a big stir and talk shows are full of christology. It’s an amazing event. People are arguing about what happened to the body of Jesus, whether he actually ascended into heaven and whether Paul’s conversion was an intrapsychic guilt trip or an actual encounter with the Divine. We’re talking christology in public!
I’m not going to take on the experts this morning, but I do want to draw your attention to the text for this morning. It’s MARY who has the experience of Christ, not Jesus! In this story, Jesus appears and disappears like a ghost, but it’s MARY who is physically like us. She stands where we stand, on the human side of death. She is drawn out of her dazed and tearful state into a new kind of relationship with God when she hears her name called. Who calls you by name?
"Rabboni!" she cries. "Beloved teacher!" It is the equivalent of Jesus calling God "Abba. Daddy." Suddenly the Presence of God has come to meet her, sought her out in the garden. She is not alone any longer. Roman myths were all about elevating certain humans to a godlike state. Caesar was to be worshipped as a god. And, although the Jews rejected that spiritual framework for a covenant relationship with One God, the disciples had a hard time moving to the family form of Jesus’ relationship with God. We remember James and John, arguing about who would be sitting at the right hand of Jesus in God’s kingdom. They still hadn’t gotten the essence of Jesus’ relationship with God as "Abba." But here, in this story of Mary Magdalene, she gets it…right before our eyes. "Rabboni," she cries out with joy, "You’re here!"
In Dead Man Walking, Matthew asks the warden if Sr. Helen can touch his arm as he walks to the death chamber. He wants to know she is there. He needs to draw on her strength to do what he is about to do. As they walk, she reads from Isaiah:
Do not be afraid…I have called you by your name,
You are mine. Should you pass through the sea,
I will be with you…
Should you walk through the fire,
You will not be scorched,
And the flames will not burn you. (Isa 43:2)
"I have called you by your name. You are mine."
The apostle Paul had the same experience on the road to Damascus. He was called by name. Called to a new life, to a new relationship with God. Not elevated to a godlike status, as the Romans might have said, but changed right where he was, on the road. Familiar. Personal. "Abba." "Rabboni." Beloved.
Listen. You will hear your name too, as we gather round this communion table. Isn’t that what we come hoping for? That someone will see us, know us and not reject who we truly are? In the movie, Matthew was afraid that Sr. Helen would not like him because of his tatoos. It’s a measure of his denial, since she already knew the lurid details of his crimes. "Nobody’s ever called me a child of God," he says bashfully, as he begins to let in her love.
Who calls you by name? Who do you weep for? "I have called you by name. You are mine.
Question 1 is Why do you weep?
Question 2 is Who calls you by name?
And the last question is
Question 3: What work does Love require?
"Don’t hold onto me," Jesus tells Mary Magdalene. "Go and tell the disciples I am ascending to my Father and your Father, my God and your God." That’s what Love requires of Mary: Don’t hold on…Go and tell.
Listen to the words that Jesus uses. My Father and yours, my God and your God. This God is also your "Abba" now. We belong to the same family. If we don’t focus entirely on the ascension part of this comment, but rather on the relationship which Jesus is revealing to Mary in these words, I believe we can understand the heart of the resurrection. It’s not about avoiding death and suffering. It’s about our relationship with God, "my father and yours," and doing the work that flows from that new relationship:
- a father goes with his son to another AA meeting;
- David Lloyd dares a first-person sermon on Palm Sunday;
- a girl apologizes to her teacher for cheating;
- Rachael and Kate organize food for Mary on Saturdays;
- we give extra money so the kids at FLOC can have life-vests for fun!
In Dead Man Walking, Matt’s rage is always close to the surface, but he has to reach for Love’s leading: "I’m going to tell Bourque and LeBlanc (parents of the victims) a thing or two, coming to watch me die. Especially Bourque. I’ve heard he’s been telling people that he wishes he could pull the switch himself."
"Your choice," Sr. Helen says, "if you want your last words to be words of hate." Then she tells him that his anger is understandable, but she also tells him about the pain he’s caused for these parents who will never see their children again, never celebrate birthdays…never see their grandchildren because of what he did. "Have you thought about that?"
"There’s another side to you too," she says, "a part that wants not to be shriveled up by hate, a part of you that wants to die a free and loving man. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s possible and it’s up to you." That’s his work. Deciding how to be as he faces death.
She too has work to do. To sit with the parents of those murdered young people and watch him die. Earlier, Sr. Helen was confronted by the parents of those young people. "Why didn’t you come to visit us? Why did you spend all your time with that killer?" She fumbles, stunned into awareness. Then she does what she doesn’t want to do–goes to visit them. Hears their pain and rage and surprise that she hasn’t come around to their side, wanting vengeance. Now she has to share the final act of execution with them.
At each step of the way, Sr. Helen has done what Love demands, however reluctantly or hesitatingly. "Look at my face," she says. "When they strap you down, look at my face. It will be filled with love."
Sr. Helen brings a tape recording of the St. Louis Jesuits to the prison, wanting to play it, but prison rules forbade music "because it would stir emotions" and remind people of their human side. "You sing it," he says. "But I can’t sing." "Please…" And so she does:
Be not afraid, I go before you always…
Come, follow me, and I will give you rest.
If you cross the barren desert you shall not die of thirst…
If you stand before the fires of hell and death is at your side,
Be not afraid, I go before you always…
Come, follow me, and I will give you rest.
In the end, he is able to face those parents and ask forgiveness, to choose love in the face of death. His work is done. But Sr. Helen’s work is not over. With each round, she has moved into a more public battle against capital punishment. She knows that criminals must pay a penalty for what they have done, but she has seen how taking a life in this calculated way dehumanizes people from the governor to the people who come to watch him die. Her next work is beginning, like Mary Magdalene’s call to "Go and tell."
And what is the work that Love requires of you? As you come to the communion table this morning, ask yourself the three questions that Mary’s story presents to us:
Why do you weep?
Who calls you by name?
What work does Love require of you?
I want to close with the last scene from Dead Man Walking. Sr. Helen and her brother have driven to a lonely little chapel where one victim’s father is part of a prayer vigil:
We "tell the beads" as the old French people used to say. One at a time. Hail Mary, Holy Mary, Hail Mary, the mysteries of Christ and our own, life and joy, suffering and death — we round the beads one by one, a circle and round we go, dying and behold we live, the soul stretched taut, the soul which says: No more, I can take no more. Hail Mary, Holy Mary, breathed in and breathed out, linking what eyes cannot see but what the heart knows and doubts and knows again.
Holding a rosary is a physical, tangible act — you touch and hold the small, smooth beads awhile and then let go. "Do not cling to me," Jesus had said to Mary Magdalene. The great secret: To hold on, let go. Nothing is solid. Everything moves. Except love — hold on to love. Do what love requires.