Sunday, April 4, 2010

Poised at the Edge

Forgive me, I have not blogged in a while nor posted sermons. Sometimes it's just complicated.

My Easter sermon, along with my confession that I prefer Ordinary Time to the High Holy Days.  Perhaps Marcella Althaus-Reid put it best:
There can be no sanitization here, or something of the divine essence will be lost—it is not the genetically modified, metaphysical Son of God that declares the divine-human conjunction, but the screaming baby born amidst the cow shit and fleas, covered in his birthing blood and received into the uncertain arms of his child/mother, who declares salvation for all...the divine is earthy, messy and partial and is to be found there in all its glory, not in splendid doctrine stripped of all humanness. (1)
Sermon, Sunday April 4, 2010
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings:
John 1:1-5
John 20:1-18

After all they had been through in the last week, Jesus’ followers deserved a break from the fear and unrest that had become such a part of their lives.  After all, it was only a couple of weeks ago that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead.  Jesus had been talking strangely of his own death for quite some time, and after Lazarus, the religious leaders began to plot to kill Jesus.  So they had gone to a little town near the wilderness to hide until the Passover, when Jesus decided to walk right into the death trap that had been set for him.

At Passover, Jesus marched in to the city triumphantly on a donkey, and the crowds pressed in shouting “Hosaana!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel!”  Perhaps the disciples thought the crowd’s admiration might be enough to keep Jesus safe, but Jesus said over and over “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”  Then came the night of Passover, and after washing the disciples’ feet, he began to speak to them his last teachings. After praying for them, he went out to the garden where he was arrested, tried, and executed.  Poor Peter had had an especially difficult few days—after swearing he would never deny Jesus, he fulfilled the promise Jesus made that he would deny him three times.  The torture and death of Jesus must have been excruciating for friends to watch or even just to know about.  Finally his body had been taken down from the cross and gently dressed and buried, just before the Sabbath.

Mary Magdalene, in the wee hours of the morning, came to the tomb—perhaps she was planning to further care for the body, or perhaps she just needed to be close to her beloved Teacher, even in his death.  When she arrived, she saw that the tomb had been opened.  Distressed by this violation, she ran to get the other disciples.  Peter and John (the beloved disciple) came running—John saw the linen wrappings lying on the ground, and Peter (impetuous, stubborn Peter) pushed his way into the tomb to verify that the body was indeed gone.  Then the disciples left Mary at the tomb and went home—what terrible grief she must have felt, sitting there at the tomb!  And perhaps it was because she was not afraid  to sink into her grief—to remain at the tomb, even though Peter and John were not interested—perhaps this is why she became the first person to witness Christ’s resurrection.

At first she did not know him—she thought he was the gardener.  It wasn’t until he called her by name—just as he had called Lazarus out of the tomb by name—that Mary recognized Jesus.  In that moment he transformed her grief to joy, just as he had promised weeks earlier.  And so this day, this Easter day, is a day for turning sorrow into joy—just as Jesus promised two thousand years ago.  We celebrate the resurrection with songs and prayers, lifting up our hearts to the Lord. 

California, where I am from, is home to the most glorious creature on earth: the monarch butterfly.  Most of you know that the butterfly is a symbol of resurrection, and here is why.  The monarch caterpillar is a tiny little thing at first, gold and brown stripes.  It eats and eats until it is fat and long, and then one day, when the time is right, the caterpillar hangs itself up by its tail from an overhang or branch.  It curls itself into the shape of a “J” and then begins to spin silk into a chrysalis.  In a little while, the caterpillar is completely encased in a light green shell, rimmed with gold beads—such delicate beauty I have rarely seen.  In the next 10 days, the caterpillar liquifies into a sort of goo—there is nothing left of the caterpillar, and it is not yet a butterfly.  And then slowly, the butterfly forms, folded up inside the chrysalis.  If you watch very carefully and get very lucky, you can watch the moment the butterfly emerges from the chrysalis, when it pauses for some moments or an hour to linger nearby, allowing the air to dry its wings before it flits off into the horizon to bring life and beauty to the earth.  This was, I think, the moment that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb—that moment when Jesus had emerged and was hovering nearby to dry his wings delicately and carefully before flitting off here and there to appear to the disciples.  And Mary was privileged to witness this one moment of delicate beauty, poised on the edge of death and rebirth.  Whenever you see a butterfly, be reminded of the resurrection and of the tender love that flowed between Jesus and his disciple Mary.

Last night I attended an event in New York City—an event designed to rally support for Mumia Abu Jamal, who currently resides on Death Row in Pennsylvania. It was a fascinating event, and an unusual space for me to be in. Unusual for me because I am used to being the liberal whacko among more moderate and conservative Presbyterian brothers and sisters. As I made my way to the lecture hall, two gentlemen from a marxist newspaper stopped me. They were protesting that this event was not radical enough.

Later that evening, a man named Vijay Prashad spoke. He spoke about empire and capitalism, and the wounds that reside in all of us.  He offered words of hope and patience, and he spoke with humor and care for the humanity of all people.  I was deeply moved.  Later still, after the lectures were done, several of us waited to thank the speakers, to get a chance to shake hands with people whose brains amazed us. Dr. Prashad spoke with a young woman ahead of me who was asking how she could throw herself into the world to change it. And he said something like this, “No, no. Pick something to get involved with. Start with something small in front of you. And enjoy the world—you’re allowed to enjoy the world. Otherwise you’ll burn out too fast.”

I was reminded of that this morning as we think about the glory of Easter, the triumphant claims of resurrection, and the seeming expectation that the whole creation must be redeemed, and I mean NOW.  Perhaps we might simply start with a small thing in front of us. And enjoy the world. And in that way we might change the world.

I have spoken before of a book by Haven Kimmel, A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana.  It is the story of her girlhood, stories of her family and the world around her.  She writes about one particular Easter, when her mother insisted yet again that she would attend the Easter sunrise service, and that she would, yet again, wear a dress.  Her mother remained unmoved as Zippy objected strenuously. Despite her best efforts to escape the worship service, Zippy found herself dressed and out the door on Easter morning, off to church with her mother.
     Mom and I trudged the one block down the street.  It was still dark but I could see a little light on the horizon.  We would gather in the meadow behind the church, which happened to face the east, so we would see the sunrise in its glory.  There were three churches in Mooreland, and they all had sunrise services, but we were the only ones with a meadow, which was, really, no kind of claim if you didn’t want to be there in the first place.
     Pastor Eddie and his wife, Shirley, were standing in the meeting place. There would be no more than fifteen or twenty of us, because common sense can prevail even with the most faithful.  Shirley had brought two baskets of lilies, which looked especially beautiful on the still winter ground, and I could see that under their coats, everyone was dressed in their best clothes. The Hicks family were all there, making up more than half the assembled number, and so there was the sweetness and festivity that they took everywhere with them.  There is a kind of wildness that grows up among people who have gathered in the dark, and we all felt a little giddy...
     I looked up at my mother as her voice rang out above all the others. She had made an Easter dress for me, but not one for herself. She was wearing an old gray dress Mom Mary had given her, out of season, and a red plaid coat that looked like a horse blanket with buttons. She looked down and saw me staring at her, and took her gloveless hand out of her coat and rested it on my head. I leaned up against her and put my hand in her warm pocket, where she always kept some Kleenex and those Vick’s cough drops that taste brown.
     Every year I forgot how short the sunrise service really was; how quickly we were inside the church for coffee and sweet rolls.  We would even get to go home for a few hours, then come back for the regular Easter service, the one the normal people attended, including my rotten sister, who with her husband slept right through the sunrise on Jesus’ high holiday.
     On the way home, Mom stopped me just as we reached Reed and Mary Ball’s house.
“Look! Do you see those flowers? Those are called crocus. Aren’t they beautiful?”
     I couldn’t think of what to say. I’d seen the crocus every year of my life, and they always just looked like fierce little weeds to me. “They sure are purple,” I managed, which caused Mom to nod her head as if that were the whole point of them. (2)
Two things catch my thoughts in this passage. The first: “There is a kind of wildness that grows up among people who have gathered in the dark...” Isn’t this our story? Isn’t this the story of all humanity as we suffer together in this world? When we step into solidarity with our brothers and sisters who struggle to find food, shelter, safety, and love, we find together a wildness and freedom that is impossible to know safe in our snug homes.  Easter reminds us that the joy to be found is in the midst of fellowship with others in the darkness.

Second, in the midst of grand passion narratives, death-defying resurrections, and trumpets blowing, sometimes all we can say is “those flowers sure are purple.” But like Dr. Prashad said, find something small you can do that is right in front of you and do it. Enjoy the world. And maybe we can change it that way.

Jesus said to Mary Magdalene, “Do not hold on to me.” And it was a reminder that he was not to be found at the tomb.  There was work ahead of her and the other disciples, and Jesus would meet them along the way. We pause at the tomb to grieve, to seek the beauty of Christ as he prepares to flee the scene, and Christ tells us, “Do not hold on to me.” He reminds us that he is not to be found here and now, but in fellowship and struggle with others in the darkness ahead.  We are to go on ahead, there is work to be done.

May we be resurrected and lifted up in our daily lives, clothed anew in the love of Christ.  May each of us be like Mary Magdalene, able to know when we have seen the Lord and ready to go tell others of this miracle we have known.  I pray for all of you, and for myself as well, that you may be resurrected from whatever physical or soul death you have come to.

In beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...What has come into being in the Word was life, and the life was the liberation and survival of all people.  The Word sustains us in the midst of violence and oppression, and violence did not extinguish us. (John 1:1-5, my paraphrase)

(1) Lisa Isherwood & Marcella Althaus-Reid, “Queering Theology,” The Sexual Theologian: Essays on Sex, God and Politics (New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 7.

(2) Haven Kimmel, A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana (New York: Broadway Books, 2001), 243-244.


  1. Wonderful! Just wonderful! I love the way you think, the way your spirit moves, the awareness you have of the beauty around you and the depth of your soul. There is about you, and maybe some of this comes from your other posts on facebook, a tiredness. I don't mean this in a negative sense at all. I recognize that tiredness in me and in most people. The tiredness of getting everything done, taking care of responsibilities, of just moving through the day. On top of that tiredness however is something that I'm not sure what the word is. I think I would call it hope. I've always thought hope was the least respected part of faith, hope and charity. In many ways I think it is the most important. It is not the hope of "wishes" - I hope I win the lottery. It is the hope of something much deeper and more mysterious. You bring it with you and it comes through even in your short blurbs. I will probably never meet you face to face but I am glad that I have made your acquaintance through FB and through your writings. The people you serve are lucky to have you.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing. I truly appreciate your spirit, your passion and your honesty. Your references and examples make it so easy to visualize and apply.