|The baptism of Sarah Fedaie, St. James Episcopal Church, San Francisco|
The author of the Gospel According to Mark ends with the story of an unexpected anointing. Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome come to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body. Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome – say their names with me – Mary Magdalene, Mary and Salome – they are the only women disciples of Jesus who are named in Mark’s Gospel. This means we need to pay attention to them.
They were part of the group of women who had accompanied Jesus throughout his ministry in Galilee. They supported the movement he was organizing, and followed him along with the crowd who had marched with him triumphantly into Jerusalem just a short week ago. Jesus had chosen the Passover Festival, the annual celebration of the Jewish people’s liberation from oppression in Egypt, as the time to occupy the Temple and shut it down. It was to be his final confrontation with the authorities to protest the sacrificial violence of the Roman Empire and in support of the alternative to empire: what Jesus called the Kingdom of God.
Then, it all went wrong. Jesus was arrested, tried on trumped up charges, and executed by the state with the full-throated support of a mob carefully cultivated by the authorities. Jesus died outside the gates of the city, crucified between two insurrectionists, a punishment reserved for the crime of sedition. Jesus’ support for the victims of the regime’s greed and violence, his nonviolent advocacy for a new form of community based on justice and dignity, was perceived to be too great a threat to go unaddressed. Jesus had to die because he resisted empire.
The disciples – the twelve men in Jesus’ inner circle – betrayed, denied, or abandoned him. The previously supportive crowd turned against him and became a lynch mob. Perhaps Jesus had failed to meet their expectations of a violent revolution. At any rate, it was only the women who persisted, witnessing his crucifixion, death, and now burial. Their coming to the tomb was in its own way an act of resistance. It was forbidden to provide victims of crucifixion the normal burial rites to honor and remember the dead. Unjust regimes are in the business of making bodies disappear and obliterating memory. But the women refused to forget, despite the pain and the risk. They defied the authorities one last time and brought spices to the tomb to anoint his body.
In this very act, we see the seeds of an alternative memory of Jesus that contradicts the official record. The minority report that would become the Gospel According to Mark was born in this refusal to accept business as usual. But in that moment, I suspect that Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome were just trying to find some closure, some relief from the trauma they had suffered. They came to anoint Jesus.
Imagine their shock upon discovering that the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty. There was no body to anoint. Even the dignity of burial, the usual rituals of grieving, was denied them. This was when the crack in their world really came apart. There was nothing left to hold on to. They had finally hit the wall. And in that moment, rather than anointing Jesus, it was they who received an anointing.
It was an unexpected anointing, and not particularly welcome. It would have been so much easier if the body had been there. Then they could have grieved, and raged, and lamented – let all out and let it all go. They could have moved on, holding their pain and their resentment inside like a tight little ball, said, “Well, at least we tried,” admitted defeat and called it a day. Sometimes, it seems so much easier to just give up.
But instead of leaving behind a body, Jesus left behind a messenger who said, “Don’t be afraid. Jesus has been raised; he is not here. He has gone ahead of you back to Galilee; just as he told you. Tell the other disciples to meet him there.” When someone tells you not to be afraid, you probably have good reason to be afraid! Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome were terrified – and amazed – scared into silence.
They came for a funeral and received an anointing; commissioned to share the good news that Jesus has been raised and has gone ahead of us. He isn’t an inspiring memory, a painful loss in the past, but rather the one who opens a way to the future. But to get there, Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome must go back to Galilee, to the place where it all started. They must go back to the beginning, pick up the pieces, and renew the movement for justice and dignity that Jesus continues to empower through his Resurrection life. The thought of starting over terrified these women – at first. They got over it, else we wouldn’t be telling this story. Scared silent at first, just as the empire hoped, they eventually found their voices.
The Gospel According to Mark refuses to make Resurrection easy. It isn’t all rainbows and unicorns or Easter bunnies. It isn’t about skipping down streets of gold hand in hand with Jesus after we die. It is about being willing to choose life when it would be easier to give up. Resurrection is about being vulnerable enough to allow who and what we love, and the love of Jesus for us and for all, to empower us to keep on keeping on.
Mary Magdalene and Mary and Salome came close to the pain in their community, the pain in their own hearts, and it brought them to their knees. But they got up again because the tomb is empty. There is no future there. Jesus has gone ahead of us and is calling us to catch up. The Risen Jesus is the triumph of sacrificial love over sacrificial violence, but we aren’t done yet. There is so much more life and so much more love left to share.
You would do well to be a little afraid to discover the tomb is empty. Meeting the risen Jesus is not a get out of jail free card. It is an anointing to continue the work of love and justice that Jesus was just getting started. It is more likely to be a go directly to jail card. I imagine Mary Magdalene, Mary, and Salome could identify with a story that Lutheran Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber tells.
Nadia is the founding pastor of the House of All Sinners and Saints, a new expression of church in Denver. She is not your usual pastor – unafraid to sport really cool tattoos and speak, shall we say, in the vernacular. Content warning for the next part of this sermon! Anyway, she recalls Andi, a radical young queer woman, raised Unitarian, who started hanging out at All Sinners and Saints.
One morning Andi called up Nadia and said, “Hey Rev, I need some pastoral care.” “Sure,” said Nadia, “what’s up?” “I think I’m having a crisis of faith.” Nadia thought to herself, “Huh, I wonder what a crisis of faith looks like for a Unitarian,” but set a date to meet for coffee. When they sat down together, Andi said, “I think I’m starting to believe in Jesus.” Nadia just shook her head, “I am so sorry. You’re, like, really screwed now. Sometimes Jesus just hunts your ass down and there is nothing you can do about it.”
That is what encountering the Risen Jesus is like. It can turn your world upside down. Just when you thought you were comfortable, or at least willing to accommodate your discomfort; just when you thought you’d arrived, or decided to give up; Jesus hunts your ass down and you have to go back to Galilee and start all over again. The difference is that held in the loving gaze of the Risen One we know we have everything we need. No matter how challenging it may be, God’s anointing is sufficient. God isn’t done with you – or us – yet. The movement Jesus inaugurated is still in need of recruits. The work for justice, human dignity, and now care for the planet still goes on. That is the church’s work, the work of the movement Jesus continues to empower.
The Resurrection of Jesus from the dead is not the end of the story, all tied up in a nice bow. It is just the beginning. Mary Magdalene, Mary and Salome persisted to the end – and beyond – to a new beginning. They persisted and so must we. That is what it means to share in the Resurrection life of Jesus. Amen.