Whom are you looking for?

I preached this sermon at 6:45am this Easter morning, standing on the Clark Street Beach of Evanston, with the sun rising over Lake Michigan.  We then shared in the sacrament of communion as we celebrated Jesus’ rising.  Jesus Christ is Risen!  He is risen indeed!  Alleluia! 

The lectionary text was John 20:1-18. 

I spent the week before Palm Sunday in Turkey with a group of Northwestern students, visiting prominent historical and religious sites and engaging in interfaith dialogue. As we entered into the mosques and holy sites of Islam, I was captivated by the way the Muslim worshipers prayed in these spaces. 

The men performed their ritual ablution outside under awnings of stone and wood. They sat on stools with their pant legs and shirtsleeves rolled up, water pouring out of the spigots and into their hands. The women’s area was enclosed, with talking and splashing water echoing around the room. Headscarves came off and towels came out. In both places, the worshipers brought soap—this was no ceremonial splashing but real washing, up to their knees and elbows, behind their necks and ears. In the prayers themselves, the worshipers raised their hands, bowed to the ground, and came up again in a dance of devotion. The chanted call to prayer was loud and throaty and passionate. Theirs was not a religion that stayed only in their heads or existed primarily in some detached spiritual realm. Prayer was a place where their bodies and spirits were one, where the God they worshiped was intimately invested in their embodiment.

Sometimes we forget or gloss over the physical fleshiness of our own beings, let alone the physical fleshiness of Jesus. We forget that the God we worship had dirty feet that needed to be washed, cried tears that ran down his chin, got hungry and tired. Our God had a body that bruised, and bled, and died, a body that needed spices and aloes to keep the smell of death away.

When we forget that our God had a body, we run the risk of turning the resurrection of Jesus into a nice, clean metaphor about the cycle of new life rather than a tangible experience of God’s power for real life over real death. The Gospel of John confronts this kind of thinking. The passage we read begins the resurrection account with Peter and the beloved disciple discovering the empty tomb and folded grave clothes. But it doesn’t end there. God doesn’t leave us to go home wondering about the lack of a body. Easter is not just about an empty tomb but a risen Christ, about a God who is present in the real earthiness of our existence.

After Peter and other disciple head back home, Mary remains outside the tomb, not just crying but weeping with streams of tears. She, like the disciples, is confused, so confused and distraught that when Jesus himself stands in front of her, she doesn’t recognize him. For millennia Christians have speculated why Jesus was unrecognizable in this moment, but I think that the answer is very simple. Mary wasn’t looking for him. She and the disciples had encountered an empty tomb and were stuck in that emptiness.

We have been there, in that space. We have all stared into the face of death—into loss, into pain, into uncertainty, into utter abandonment—and felt the great gravity of emptiness pull us into hopelessness. I stood in that space a few months ago when I found out that a young friend and member of my home church had attempted suicide and was in a coma on breathing tubes, hanging between life and death. The day they were deciding whether or not to turn of the machines connecting her to life-giving breath, I stood in the shower and wept. The emotions would hit me in waves: one moment I’d be putting shampoo in my hair and the next I would be about to collapse, pleading with God. I couldn’t keep the prayers inside of me—they burst out audibly. At one point, I did fall to my knees, and kneeling in a shower feels somehow a little like drowning. Drowning in the awful reality of unstoppable death.

This is why we need a God with a body. When I knelt in that shower and cried and performed my own ritual ablution, I needed God to be present with me in that messy, terrifying moment of emptiness. A God of some non-material, non-embodied reality would not be able to enter into my experience of despair and sit with me under the pounding water and fearful tears.

This is the good news: God in Jesus Christ saves our whole selves through his embodied death and resurrection. Jesus is present with us not as an ephemeral spirit but as a God who chose to take on flesh, to take on material molecules and a thirsty throat and hands that could touch and hold. At the beginning of Lent, we smeared ashes on our foreheads and declared, “From dust you came and to dust you will return.” Our God became this dust that makes us up. There is something so good, so necessary, about our bodies that Jesus lived and died as a body so that, when he rose in the unexplainable power of God’s life over death, our bodies would be a part of that victory. Our emptiness would be transformed into abundant life.

When Mary, blinded by her tears and her grief, confronted who she believed was the gardener, he asked her a simple question: “Whom are you looking for?” Whom are you looking for? What kind of savior are you looking for? Are we looking for a God who floats above our material reality and rescues us from our bodies? Or do we bring our whole bodies to the worship of God and expect God to be present in our embodied reality?

Even when we are blind to the abundant life God offers, Jesus, as he did that first Easter morning, calls our names. Jesus speaks, and his voice echoes in our eardrums and pumps through our blood and calls us to the recognition of his presence in the very stuff of this here and now life. We turn around and see Jesus standing right in front of us, where we least expect it, in the mundane, every day, physical reality of our lives. In the sand between our toes, in the laughter of a loved one, in bread and wine and water, in grace that floods every moment. We touch and hear and see and taste that the Lord is good.

My friend from church who attempted suicide did not die that day. She miraculously not only lived but suffered just minor brain damage and memory loss. But I know that someday, like every one of us on this planet, she will die. She will be lowered into the ground and covered with the dirt from which she came and to which she will return. Just like each of us standing here on this beach. But because of the risen Jesus, we know that this is not the end of the story. Through the risen and transformed body of Jesus Christ, God holds our bodies and lives—hers and mine and yours—and, though we don’t yet know how, God will bring us all into completion and fullness. The resurrection of our embodied God will extend to us all.

So as we enter this season of Easter, we are called to pay attention to where the risen Christ shows up in our embodied reality, often where we least expect it. When we turn to Jesus and listen to his voice, we are invited into the miracle of God’s uncontainable, close-as-breathing presence, and we will be able to say, with Mary, I have seen the Lord.

Mary’s Yes

I preached this sermon at a chapel service at my seminary two weeks ago on a day we celebrated Women’s History Month.  It also seems appropriate for our current celebration of Holy Week. 

Today we are celebrating women. Responding to the call to tell women’s stories during Women’s History Month, we are singing songs written by women, enacting rituals that remembering women, bringing attention to injustice against women, and, just now, we read a story that features a woman.

So let me set the scene the story. In the chapter before today’s passage, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Mary and Martha, Lazarus’ sisters, were witnesses to that miracle and sign of Jesus’ identity. At the end of that chapter, we read that those in power are shaken by this event and are determined to put Jesus to death. The miracle of life is a scary thing sometimes. We don’t know how to respond.

But Mary and Martha and Lazarus did. They welcomed Jesus back to their town of Bethany with a banquet. I imagine a table piled high with olives and lamb and fresh bread. Did they know Jesus’ favorite food? It’s probably there, carried in on a steaming platter. A breeze blows from the street through the open wall, where curious passers-by peer in with excitement to catch a glimpse of both the man raised from the dead and the one who did the raising. Musicians play in the corner. Everyone laughs a joke. Lazarus reclines next to Jesus, and Martha can’t stop smiling as she pours the wine.

The passage tells us that it’s six days before Passover; there’s a sense of counting down to something. We know that there is a death threat hanging over Jesus’ head and that Jesus has foretold his own death. We seem to be close to the fullness of time. The gospel writer wants his audience to know that something important is about to happen.

Enter Mary. We know so little about her. She is one of at least three siblings. She wept bitterly over her brother’s death. She knows and loves Jesus. Imagine her holding a jar, coming from the doorway to the outward end of the couches, past her brother, the sight of whom always gives her heart a start of joy. She takes the jar she’s holding and breaks it open. The thick, amber oil pours slowly onto Jesus’ feet, the scent of so much perfume starts filling up the room. Do people fall silent as they catch the scent and realize what is happening? Do the out-door watchers point and whisper? What does Jesus do?

Mary pours out the whole jar. The whispers grow louder. “She probably paid 300 dinarii for that!” “I’d have to work a whole year to pay for a jar of pure nard!” Mary’s action comes at great personal cost.

When the jar is empty, Mary removes her head covering and carefully unpins her long hair. Those who see shake their heads and purse their lips. A woman with her hair down is a woman without honor, a woman of loose morals. Mary’s action is unashamed, even reckless.

She takes her long hair and begins to wipe Jesus’ feet, spreading the perfume, sending its aroma out to fill not just the room but the entire house. The gospel writer wants us to hear a connection between the way Mary wipes Jesus’ feet and the way, five days later, Jesus will wipe his disciples’ feet as he washes them. After completing the washing, Jesus will call his disciples to serve others in this way as he has served them. His act of service will be a model for what it means to truly follow Jesus.

And here is Mary, five days before Jesus gives this command to his disciples, embodying true discipleship, following the call the participate in the self-giving actions of Jesus. As a woman, she is on the margins of society with barely any power available to her. But as a disciple, she has entered into the heart of Jesus’ call.

Mary’s womanhood in this story is both a blessing and a danger for us as post-modern readers. It is a blessing because we see the typical strictures around women torn down and the fullness of God’s invitation extended. It is a woman who models real discipleship. But we are also walking on dangerous ground. Mary is a woman performing an act of service. We might be inclined to valorize her servant-hood to the point of telling women, who are so often called by our culture into self-effacing sacrifice, that they can never give enough of themselves. Women, don’t complain. Don’t speak up. Don’t resist. Don’t demand respect. Humiliation and even shame are part of the Christian servant-hood bargain. It’s one thing to talk about self-sacrifice in situations of privilege. It’s another thing to talk about self-sacrifice when the worth of selves, in this case of women, has been consistently denied.  

But to view Mary’s action this way would be to miss the point. When Judas calls her act into question, Jesus doesn’t respond by saying that Mary is right because she is acting like a servant. He tells Judas that Mary has kept this for the day of Jesus’ own burial; Jesus connects Mary’s anointing, and thus her discipleship, to the recognition of Jesus’ impending death. What does this connection say about the meaning of Mary’s anointing?

When Mary anoints Jesus’ feet, she brings her whole self to Jesus’ movement of radical love. The other disciples don’t get it. Like Judas, their hearts might be elsewhere. Like Peter, they might be afraid. Like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, they might come timidly to anoint Jesus’ body. Mary anoints boldly. Mary brings her whole heart, her whole self, to the task of loving Jesus well, knowing that it could cost her everything.

When we follow Jesus, do we put our whole selves in? Do we de-compartmentalize our lives and let go of the ways of being that distract us from God’s call? Are we willing to recognize the profound faith of the unexpected and marginalized other, are we willing pay the price of our sense of superiority and attend to the ways God shows up where we have given up?

When Mary anoints Jesus, she refuses to play by society’s rules for norms and roles. She uncovers her head and deals extravagantly. She acts like a disciple even though she is a woman. She doesn’t let the smallness of the world’s imagination restrict the largeness of her love. She looks foolish for the sake of Jesus.

When we follow Jesus, are we willing break the status quo? Do we uncover the insidious habits of thinking that objectify women and hide abuse? Do we stand up for the right of all people to love and commit their lives freely to another person, regardless of sex or gender? Do we rebel against standards of busyness and name ourselves as worthy of rest? Are we willing to look foolish for Jesus? And do we do these things not just as persons but as pastors, as future leaders of the church, as prophets within our own institutions?

When Mary anoints Jesus, she chooses to identify herself with creative resistance. Jesus’ ministry was marked by attention to the powerless and by a boundary-breaking love that calls all people together. This kind of boundary-breaking is always terrifying to those who have hedged themselves with power. This kind of boundary-breaking gets you killed. Mary casts her lot with Jesus, knowing his way of fighting oppression, believing that his love could resist the power of death and create new life out of hopelessness.

When we follow Jesus, do we commit ourselves to the love that resists the power of death? Do we stand with oppressed female factory workers not just with our voices but with our dollars? Do we create spaces of healing and acceptance for teenage girls drowning in messages of self-hate? Do we break the boundaries that keep so many women struggling to care for themselves and their children? Do we join our fate to theirs?

When Mary anoints Jesus, she models a discipleship that gives everything, that rejects the status quo, that joins in with a subversive, boundary-breaking love.

But most of all, when Mary anoints Jesus, her action is born out of gratitude for the triumph of life over death. Jesus has raised her brother from death into life. Jesus has given her and her family new life and strength. Mary is not a model disciple because she worked harder at it. Jesus spoke life into Mary’s existence, and she responded with everything she had. Jesus doesn’t leave us alone in the hard call to follow him. Jesus equips us for unexpected and courageous discipleship. We respond with everything we have because Jesus speaks life into our existence.

I have this image of me, standing at the edge of the banquet room, unwilling to break open my jar and engage the risky work of loving a God condemned to die. I imagine I am not the only one standing there. We ring the room, unsure, not wanting to cause a scene, not certain we have the courage to begin the messy work of justice and mercy. Afraid to say “no” to death because saying “yes” to the life of Christ is sometimes just so terrifying.

Thank God for the courageous and unexpected role models we have in women who embraced the costly, counter-cultural, and transformative nature of discipleship. We have Mary of Bethany, who boldly anointed Jesus. We can learn from Catherine of Siena, who defied the gender roles of the 14th century and worked to bring peace to Italy. We remember Sojourner Truth, who took to task those who tried to deny her humanness and womanhood. We look to Sister Helen Prejean, who dares to build friendships with those society has discarded on death row and fights against the injustice of the death penalty. These women are disciples of an untamable God. They have responded to Jesus’ gift of life with a whole-hearted “yes.”

So, my friends. Serve Jesus with bold acts of love. God has breathed life into our bones and will give us the strength to answer the call of discipleship. Like Mary, may we give our whole selves to the subversive and transformative love of Jesus.