Rev. Liz Milner’s Sermon for the Feast of Mary Magdalene and the St. Mark’s Community

Often in life we come to a situation, a loss, a challenge, with the tools we have in our hands, the natural and learned gifts and capabilities we have, wanting to bring some comfort, some help, some solutions, some…thing, that will ease the situation, at the very least dignify it, bring sense or closure maybe.

That Sunday morning after what had been a horrible few days, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb doing what she knew to do, anoint the dead and mutilated body of her friend and mentor Jesus, with spices and oils – to, posthumously, give him a shred of the honor, love and dignity he deserved after all he had done for her.

Difficult things happen and we meet them, we hope, with care and tenderness. Difficult things happen and we bring what we know to do, what we are good at doing, what we’re able to do.

This is good.

This sermon is about Mary Magdalene, but let’s acknowledge the issue in our hearts and minds this morning: the retiring rector in the room, the other MM of the morning, Matt McDermott. Next week is his last Sunday with us as a church, as our rector, our priest. And, a lot of you are feeling a lot of things. Difficult things maybe.

And we bring what we can to each other to help, comfort, reassure, celebrate legacy and friendship, to move forward….. That’s good. That’s needed.

I think also the story of Mary Magdalene brings us another gift on this slightly strange day as a community … a gift for a community looking to help one another move forward, yes grieve Matt’s imminent departure, bring one another what we can to help and tend…. 

Mary also leads us to a gift in the situations and relationships and difficulties many of us have in our own lives quite apart from our life as a church – situations where we look for and embrace solutions, solace, and support.

In today’s Gospel a few verses back we learn that Mary, along with some other women had come to the place Jesus was buried. They brought spices to anoint his body – this was the way. It would help dignify the mutilated, battered Jesus, it would help quell any smell from the decaying body, it would give comfort to the mourners as they practically got to engage the dignifying, familiar ritual for the dead… they brought what they knew to do, what they could do, to help themselves, one another and Jesus…

Mary came to that garden with a heavy heart, but determined to bring the human gifts she had, to bring.

What she left the garden with was quite different and wholly unexpected.

When the women first got there, just before the passage we read today, they found the tomb empty.

Their hearts sink as they assume someone has taken the body and they run to the disciples to let them know. Everyone rushes back to the tomb to figure out what has happened and together they again find emptiness and fear for the worst. 

Everyone, except Mary returns slowly, quietly, despondently back home.

We bring what we can…. And we face the unexpected, the emptiness, the weirdness and we fear for the worst. Sometimes that sense of emptiness is the worst – the voids in our lives that we cannot fill ourselves and we know it. 

The emptiness of Grief – two beloved deputies who work at the jail I work at died last week, one from a heart attack, one was hit by a drunk driver. Both had young children at home, both over 20 years working in tight knit teams at the jail. The grief has been palpable, overwhelming for everyone… the emptiness that no one can fill. We bring what we can – prayers and listening ears, grief books and resources, chocolate… it doesn’t fill the hole.

The emptiness of difficult relationships in our lives – ones that should be filled with warmth, laughter and intimacy but for one reason or another are not…

The emptiness of unfulfilled ambitions and hopes, the emptiness of boredom…

All kinds of empties, big and small in our lives…

And, let’s be honest, the emptiness of Matt’s leaving – for him and us….

Let me be really clear. I am not exactly equating Matt’s retirement with Jesus’ death and disappearance from the tomb. Though there are echoes of similarity between the stories, though both are momentous: I would need to say that they are actually on completely different scales 🙂

What I am saying is that as we face this big change together as a community, and also as we each face difficult transitions, changes and situations in our own lives – grief, disappointment, unexpected situations and troubles… we all try to bring what we can to the table – our human gifts and coping skills, we anoint the body of the past and do what we can to help fill the voids

and often we experience, with Mary, a sense of emptiness, a fear that everything will be awful, and we can become despondent and lost.

The disciples all go home and Mary stays, but she is distraught, weeping, looking again into the emptiness to see, what? 

She sees two figures, and my guess from the way she responds to their question, “Woman, why are you weeping?” – 

her quite reasoned human response, she has no idea she’s in the presence of angelic beings.

“Someone’s taken him and I don’t know where he is”

The What, the who, I used to depend on is gone, and I can’t find him.. My foundation, my rock, has disappeared.

She turns, in her tears, her eyes blurry no doubt, her nose running and sees someone else, who asks her the same question

“Woman, why are you weeping? Who are you looking for?”

From her response, again, we surmise, she has no idea who she is talking with…
“Sir tell me where he is and I will go get him..”

In her response see again this beautiful longing to bring her own strength, her own “I can make this better”… first she brought the spices, now she brings “I’ll go get him”….. Just tell me where he is.

Often we strive, grasp for ways to make better whatever problem and pain we are facing..
In small ways – how many times can I try a new app to help me lose weight, consume healthily and get fit?
In bigger ways – how can I change my life to feel more fulfilled? What can I do to make my loved one thrive and be happy? What can we plan to help our church be our church when Matt goes?

“Tell me where he is and I will go get him”


She hears her own name spoken by God, and in a moment her story, and the story of all of us and all creation, pivots to a whole new paradigm and dimension.

Mary had thought she was coming to bring what she could to dignify death, comfort grief, care for trauma

What she actually received was – well it’s hard to put into words honestly.

New life that no one saw coming?

New hope – death is no longer the end it always has been?

New commission – be a messenger not only of what can be humanly done, but also a messenger of what the divine can do?

God’s answer to us at our moments of emptiness is not only to tend to the real pain and suffering, it’s also to bring an impossible, resilient, insurmountable hope of the always renewing, resurrecting, reality of God’s presence and life in us and our community and our world. The impossible is now possible and nothing is beyond hope.

Mary was no stranger to renewal and hope in the face of struggle… her first meeting with Jesus, detailed in Luke 8, says, when she first encountered him, he healed her from seven demons.
We have no idea what those demons were. Often it has been taught by the church and assumed that she was a prostitute but there’s no mention of that anywhere – let’s put that mistake down to…. Well misogyny.

She was however a troubled, turbulent, tortured soul  – seven demons – seven the number of perfection, perfectly oppressed…
Trouble and toil which no doubt she as a woman of means had tried to address in many human and sensible ways, had stubbornly haunted her until she encountered the supernatural healing presence and power of Jesus.

She was healed and freed.
Mary teaches us that true and transformative healing and freedom from all that torments us, will manifest as we encounter Jesus.

Her response to that healing was to become a faithful presence and follower of Jesus. 

She supported him from her own pocket, and she went around with him witnessing the incredible miracles, listening to the teachings, watching the growing resistance to his magnetic ministry from the powers that be, loving him. She committed to day in and day out companionship of God in his mission on the streets and in the homes of this world… the good days and the bad days, schooling herself in redemption, grace and healing.
And of course she was present and didn’t leave that one horrible, terrible day when this healer and hope-dealer was pinned down and tortured to death a few feet away from her. She refused to leave in the face of suffering.

So she turns up with her spices and oils to do the only thing she knows to do after that…. 


As she hears her name she is again forever changed and healed once more even more deeply, than before. She is our messenger today of this, sent out by Jesus that morning, and still speaking to this day.

Thank you Matt McDermott for giving this church the gift of Mary Magdalene as you leave, for dedicating the sacred peace of the chapel to her so we can always remember her prophetic words to us and this community. 

So, Mary, what are you saying to us in our individual struggles, and to St Mark’s at this pivotal moment?

I think if she was in the room right now she may say..

First believe you can be healed, it’s possible – Jesus took all my demons and can take what torments and enslaves you too, be free

Secondly turn up! This is Mary’s practical exhortation:

Walk the streets together with Jesus, come to serve in God’s house together, go out to the jails and the shelters and the suffering places and spread the love, do what you can here in church, learn from each other and from God, give what you have, don’t shy away from being present to yourself and each other and your community in times of suffering even when it seems like there is no answer, just stay.

Thirdly, when you bring what you can and it’s not enough and you’re out of answers, listen for God calling your name, and experience the mystery that God is already alive and present in those moments with a paradigm shifting, revelatory, personal and communal resurrection, an unshakable hope that the future is warm and bright and full of promise, that as much as you’ve already been healed and helped by God, a deeper more profound healing is coming, and you get to be part of spreading that message to many others.

I want to end with part of poem by George MacDonald, famous xian writer, on Mary, as a prayer and transition to the rest of our service where we celebrate this resurrection promise…

Mary Magdalene

by George Macdonald

With wandering eyes and aimless zeal,
She hither, thither, goes;
Her speech, her motions, all reveal
A mind without repose.

She climbs the hills, she haunts the sea,
By madness tortured, driven;
One hour’s forgetfulness would be
A gift from very heaven!

She slumbers into new distress;
The night is worse than day:
Exulting in her helplessness,
Hell’s dogs yet louder bay. Thou risest up: the earth is fair,
The wind is cool; thou art free!

Is it a dream of hell’s despair
Dissolved in ecstasy?

That man did touch thee! Eyes divine
Make sunrise in thy soul;
Thou seest love in order shine:—
His health hath made thee whole!

Thou, sharing in the awful doom,
Didst help thy Lord to die;
Then, weeping o’er his empty tomb,
Didst hear him Mary cry.

He stands in haste; he cannot stop;
Home to his God he fares:
“Go tell my brothers I go up
To my Father, mine and theirs.”

Run, Mary! lift thy heavenly voice;
Cry, cry, and heed not how;
Make all the new-risen world rejoice—
Its first apostle thou

May we follow her blessed example….

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