Sermon for Easter Morning, Sunday, April 16 2017, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Acts 10:34-43; Ps 118:1-2,14-24; Col 3:1-4; Jn 20:1-18
She stands in the garden alone. She is the last one left, Mary Magdalene. Not all the details of this story agree with Matthew’s account which we heard last night, and they don’t have to; whatever happened that day was multiple, confusing, remembered in fragments poised betwen history and dream. But all the gospels agree that she was there, agree that she has been there through it all, that she was on long trek from Galilee to Jerusalem, that she stood by the cross as her beloved teacher was murdered, that she saw the body taken down, entombed, the rock sealing the entrance. She has seen the disappearance of even the body. There is nothing left but absence. And still she stands, the one disciple who will never leave, who will persist beyond all loss and all hope. If all she has left is absence, she will be loyal to absence. In the garden, at the end of all things.
And we wait in the ravaged garden of this world, remembering beauty in the world of bombs and hunger, mourning the loss of all those lives to the machine of power, mourning of the loss of hope to despair, trying to be loyal to love when it seems that there is nothing left even to want or care about our loyalty. In the garden where all loves end.
Then someone speaks to her. She is too lost in her grief, at first, to understand quite what is happening; though she is not wrong, exactly, even now. The Word, the creating intelligence which spoke all gardens into being, is in the voice. The gardener’s hands tend all that is good and growing, even in the desert of this world.
“Why are you crying?” the gardener asks. And she tells him, because why not, because why should the man in the garden not know—that the body is gone, that everything is gone, that she is prepared to bring the body back all by herself if she has to, she isn’t asking anyone for help or pity, she only needs to know this one thing. She has not given up, not this one, even now. Maybe she is looking for the wrong thing, for a dead thing, for something lost, but she will not stop searching.
The desire for God, the mystics have said, is the presence of God. Our only doom is to give up that desire, to let the world convince us that there is nothing more to want that what there is, to ignore the empty space. But she will not, she will fill that empty space with her hopeless love. If we stand in the longing, we begin to touch, in mystery, the longing of God for us.
And the voice speaks her name. And she turns.
To be called by your name is no small thing. There are ritual public moments, when a name is spoken, changed or renewed. Today, when we come to baptized Sharon and Benjamin, we will first speak their names, they will claim those names and be given them back by the community, always known and always new. And there are the moments, in relationship or in solitude, when we know our selves to be known, intimately known, and changed by that knowing. The moments when we are named, truly named, the names we have always and never had. When the risen presence of the Word comes to us, unimaginable, and speaks, and we turn. We turn towards that love, and our own love is answered.
She must turn. From the absence to the sunrise. He will name her, but she must make that turn herself. In a poem about Good Friday, about his own disloyalty and failure, the poet John Donne wrote a final couplet which leans into Easter, and into that woman in the garden. “Restore thine image so much, by thy grace, that thou mayst know me—and I’ll turn my face.” Love makes us ourselves again, love makes us lovely, love can make us the beloved creatures God knows us to be. But we ourselves must turn in that direction.
And because we turn towards love, we must turn again towards the world. Mary cannot remain in the garden; for the world needs gardening. She cannot remain simply in the presence of her beloved, for he too cannot stay here, cannot be in one place only, cannot be contained or permanently held. Life breaks the boundaries. He names her, he gives her back her self—and almost immediately, he also gives her her work. Go and tell. Speak. Walk away from the tomb, the tomb still and always empty. Go into the world and do your work.
I have not been able to help noticing that the disciples, when Mary went to them, apparently didn’t believe a word she said. “I have seen the Lord!” she tells them, and yet later they are still huddling in the upper room as if nothing had changed. But the Gospel records her story. So someone must have heard it, remembered it. This woman who was the first to tell to someone else that this story is not about death, that the story of all our lives is a story of life, she is not forgotten.
Tell the impossible story—that love is stronger than death, and many waters cannot quench it, and floods cannot drown it. That we are not lost among the graves. Tell it in the face of all the evidence. Tell it even if no one believes you, tell it even if you can hardly believe it yourself. Because without this story, the world is lost. Keep saying this, that our hearts and souls can rise out of the rubble, that life will rise up in the abandoned places, that another world is possible, that we can begin to build that world in the wreckage of this our garden.
For if there is to be evidence of resurrection in this time, that evidence must be us. We are the witnesses now, whether or not we feel adequate to the task, whether or not we even want it. We have been made and loved and named. Go into the world, live out the story that the hungry will be fed, and the prisoners will be released, and all the designs of power will fail, and the garden will come back to the city, and the green things rise again. Be, your own selves, the truth of that story in this time and in this place. Walk back into the place of murder, and tell them that they will not prevail. It is foolish, and sometimes dangerous, and it doesn’t make sense.
Power and greed and fear will try to stop you, time and grief will wear you down. But life stands with you, speaks your name in the morning.