EDITOR’S NOTE: After a brief illness, beloved Christian author and theologian Rachel Held Evans passed away on May 4, 2019, at the age of 37. In the midst of deep sorrow and mourning, Nadia Bolz-Weber delivered the following sermon at Rachel’s funeral on June 1, 2019.
While it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed. As she wept, she looked in and saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” – John 20:1, 11-13
Woman, why are you weeping?
I must confess that I used to hear this as a slightly passive aggressive question — as if the angels were implying that Mary was overreacting. Or this question was the equivalent of sending her some vapid “don’t worry be happy” meme. I’ve gotten a couple of those from well-meaning Christians recently. As if Christian faith is mostly a mechanism to bypass negative emotions in favor of delusional positivity. Almost like they were rebuking me for my tears; as if with enough faith I’d not need to grieve. This is, as they say, hogwash.
I have faith.
And right now, I have faith that our grief is actually holy to God. I have faith that Jesus stood at the tomb of his friend and cried tears as salty as our own. And yes, I do have faith that, in any spiritual and eternal way, death has no sting to it whatsoever.
But it stings now. And I feel that sting in my eyes.
So as I read this text from John again, I started to see the question, woman, why are you weeping not as an accusation, but as an invitation.
So for those gathered who have also been crying quite a lot, I invite us to the same question: Why? Why are you yourself weeping? It’s a holy question.
So maybe, for just this moment, we choose to not bypass the real truth of our sadness and ask one another, what’s the thing under the thing.
I myself am crying — because I feel robbed. I am crying, because death is a thief we cannot put on trial and punish.
I am crying, because I assumed we would all have a future in which Rachel raised her babies and kept writing books and grew old with Dan.
I am crying, because Rachel’s death makes me realize that not one of us is promised one more day, and that just terrifies me.
I am crying, because this grief has opened the door and let in so much other grief, and I don’t know how to uninvite its friends to this party.
And selfishly I am crying, because there was a part of me that only Rachel seemed to see, and I don’t want that part of me to go unseen in this world.
I’m pretty sure Rachel, like everyone else living in this century, had some form of caller ID. But you’d never know it. I’d call; she’d say hello. I’d say “Hey Rach, it’s Nadia,” and she’d say, “Naaaaadia.” I’m crying, because no one says my name like that.
I’ve heard it said that grief is the price we pay for having loved and so, yeah, I think this love-soaked grief of ours is holy to God.
Because while there are those who would reduce the Christian faith to moralism and delusional positivity — we know that the God we worship is not a shiny toothed motivational speaker churning out cheerful memes in times of suffering. Because the God we worship is a crucified and risen God. Which is to say, we worship a God that is not unfamiliar with darkness. A God who comes close to those who mourn. A God who comes close to those who stand outside of tombs. A God who is not far off, but who is as close as that choppy breath that falters in your weeping.
Luke’s gospel tells us that Jesus had freed Mary Magdalene from demons and evil spirits. Which is why, while it was still dark, when Mary Magdalene stood weeping outside his tomb, she looked in, saw angels and was asked, Woman, why are you weeping, I wonder if maybe she was crying because to Jesus she wasn’t “that crazy lady” like she was to everyone else. To him, she was just Mary. And when Jesus said her name, Mary — it felt like a complete sentence. And now she wondered who would ever see her as whole, who would ever call her by her real name.
I think she was crying because having felt divine love in the presence of Jesus, she knew couldn’t go back to living without it. So she cried saying…
They’ve taken him away, and I do not know where he is.
They’ve taken love away, and I do not know where it is.
They’ve taken kindness away, and I do not know where it is.
They’ve taken my own wholeness away, and I do not know where it is.
And so while it was still dark, she went to his tomb thinking maybe the tomb was the end of the story.
As you may know, Rachel loved Mary Magdalene, as many of us do. Mary Mag, the apostle to the apostles, the first witness to the resurrection, the woman of valor whom Jesus told to go and tell the boys.
I started to wonder this week, “Why was Mary Magdalene chosen for this role?” See, I don’t think it was because she had followed the instructions for how to make herself worthy to witness the resurrection. And I don’t think it was because she fit the high priest’s description of an ideal preacher, and I don’t think it was because she had pure doctrine. But most importantly, I don’t think it was despite who she was; I think it was BECAUSE of who she was.
I think Mary was chosen because she was a woman from whom demons had fled. I think Mary was chosen, because she knew what it was like for God to move; not when the lilies are already out in church and the lights are on — but while it is still dark. Because unlike when the men looked in and saw only laundry, when Mary Magdalene looked in the tomb, SHE saw angels.
Mary Magdalene saw angels, because she was not unfamiliar with the darkness. She had the kind of night vision that only comes from seeing what God does while it’s still dark.
I do not know why this is God’s economy. That it is while we are still in despair. That it is while we are still grieving, while we are still sinners, while we are sure that nothing good will ever come. That it is when we are faced with the nothingness of death — that we are closest to resurrection.
That is while it is still dark that God does God’s most wondrous work.
I do not know why it is that.
Only when there is nothing else we can possibly do — only when we have exhausted every possible good deed, every perfect confession of perfect faith, every pious notion, every woke tweet, only then do we finally spread our trophies at his feet and turn at the sound of our name as if it is a complete sentence and respond saying, “Rabboni! My teacher and my God.”
Many of you know that the last thing Rachel tweeted was about having to miss Game of Thrones. So as I watched the final episode, I know I couldn’t be alone in thinking of her when Tyrion said: “There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it.”
This is not the end of the story (as Rachel said). A story Rachel was willing to risk being wrong about. A story about God walking around like he definitely didn’t understand our rules. A story about God thinking it’s ok to have dinner with sex workers and Sadducees — and ideally at the same time. A story about God going around forgiving the sins of basically everyone without even going through a proper verification process. And then touching both lepers and Roman soldiers as if they were also holy.
A story about how we humans thought this much indiscriminate mercy didn’t sound right to us. And this much mixing of people who shouldn’t mix didn’t sound right to us. And this much grace didn’t sound right to us and so we had to try and destroy the story Jesus was telling about who we were and who God is and so we hung him on a tree just outside of town. And how there he took all of it — all our broken junk, all our sin and shame and need to blame others, and all our precious verification processes and our self-righteous garbage, and he took it all into his broken body and from the wooden throne, the king of kings proclaimed his judgement: “Forgive them father, they know not what they are doing.” Forgive them, they don’t yet know their real story.
And how three days later, while it was still dark, death was already being defeated. And Mary stood weeping.
And this story still isn’t over. And we know it is not the end, because we are still being caught up into it. Mary Magdalene’s life, Rachel’s life, your lives — we are all fodder for God’s really, really long memoir of how God loves humans.
The love that saturates our grief. The love we have for Rachel, that she had for us, doesn’t just stop. Because tombs are real, but they are not the most real thing. Which means that death might be the enemy, but it cannot defeat the story of the gospel.
In other words, the resistance is winning my friends. Nothing can stop it. And, as Rachel says, there are still prophets in our midst.
And while it may still be dark, the light is breaking through. And the darkness cannot, will not, shall not overcome it. Amen.