Delivered at Ames UCC
on April 19, 2019
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Here are portions of our 2019 Good Friday service as well as my homily.
One: Judas, slave of jealousy, where are you?
Many: I am here.
One: Peter, slave of fear, where are you?
Many: I am here.
One: Pilate, slave of Empire, where are you?
Many: I am here.
One: The story of the execution of Jesus is the story of our own weakness and shortcomings, as people who have missed the mark on justice and so have alienated ourselves from God and neighbor. So tonight, as we sit at the foot of the cross, we seek the ones who remained, who did not falter in devotion or love.
One: Mary of Magdala, where are you?
Many: I am here.
GOSPEL: Matthew 27.27–61
Many: is this your healer and teacher Jesus hanging on the cross?
Many: does your soul not break apart again?
Many: was all of that kingdom-talk a lie?
Many: where are the mustard seed, the bridesmaid, the generous vineyard owner now?
Many: were all of those parables tricks and lies rather than wisdom?
Many: does it all seem pointless now?
Many: do you feel angry and used now?
Many: tonight the powerful are still comfortable and laughing while you and the rest of the weak are tear-soaked and frightened.
Many: your rabbi, your magi, your mandarin, your guru, your friend is dead.
Have we all been duped?
Have we been fools for Christ, not out of love, but out of sheer stupidity?
Is all of this—these stories of love and upending—are all of them lies that we have been gullible enough, desperate enough to believe?
Last year on this bad night we considered Mary, the Mother of Jesus. We grieved with her, aware of all that his life cost her, promising to remain faithful to her precious son.
Some of us here have lost children, and that has been wrenching. And the grief has been lasting. Few of us can really fathom, though,the depth of the pain Mother Mary would have felt as she watched the fruit of her womb publicly bleed, thirst, and starve to death. It had to have been something more than grief, beyond pain.
So on this bad night, we turn our attention to another Mary, Mary of Magdala. As fellow disciples and seekers, we can come closer to understanding how Mary the Magdalene may have felt. Including, quite possibly, the feeling that she had been duped.
Mary of Magdala is the second most referenced woman in the gospelsafter Mother Mary. Magdala was a region know for fish processing, so as those of us who prepared for Holy Week with Dr. Amy-Jill Levine’s course learned, maybe she crossed paths with the fisherman disciples Andrew and Simon Peter.
We will never know that for sure, but we do have a story about how she was healed by Jesus. He cast seven demons out of her, making Mary perfectly healed, according to ancient Jewish numerology.We learn that Mary Magdalene then traveled with Jesus and we can imagine that she provided logistical support, perhaps even funding, as well as serving as a devoted listener and learner for his new Way. We also find her at the cross, the burial, and the tomb.
Mary Magdalene is in so many ways a model disciple: a woman who left her home to travel with men she was not related to, to devote her resources to and risk her reputation for Jesus. How compelling he must have been, how thrilling the walk by his side.
As much as Jesus’s descriptions of the kin-dom of God stir us today, at this great a distance, imagine how they felt to her, at no more a distance than the length of her arm.
And then it all collapses. And then one of her fellow travelers hands Jesus over to the authorities. The elation of the previous days and weeks is in ruins as she watches—from a distance no greater than her arms—it all collapse under the weight of betrayal as well as the new threat to her person.
But Mary of Magdala does not hide. She does not abandon her friend and her teacher. She stays by his side through the worst. Why? Maybe this Mary believed Jesus would escape. Maybe she assumed God would reverse the terrible course.
But as the minutes and hours pass by, did not doubt creep in? Maybe even anger at the man who showed himself to be just a man? Did she feel betrayed by Jesus and by God alike, and wonder if it was all a big hoax?
This, I think, is where we can relate.
As Christian religious and cultural hegemony collapse themselves, we are forced to ask hard questions about our faith claims and ourselves. Like, “What are we still doing here?”
What are we still doing here in an institution that, over millennia, has instigated and perpetuated so much abuse and corruption? What are we still doing here in a faith that claims radical equality before God yet seems powerless to ensure that equality between each other?
On bad nights like this when humanity has done its ordinary worst, does not doubt in an extraordinary best creep in, even anger, at a claim of some extraordinary better? Have we been betrayed by story and storytellers and our own grasping hearts?
I offer you no answers.
Though we are together as the Marys were, we are each alone in our search for what is trustworthy in the tales of Jesus’s life and what is true in the promises our forebears say he made.
I ask only that we be as brave as these women, as fearless in the face of contradiction and collapse. May we be as willing as they were to return to what appears to be a tomb like a dead end, in case it proves to be a resurgence of abundant life once more.