Sermon Given at St. Paul’s, Chattanooga | April 19, 2019
She was 14 years old. She was a runaway. Her name was Mary Ann.
She had left home in Opa-locka, Florida. Now she was in Ohio. What exactly caused her to run away, I do not know. And the last I have read about her, she now lives in Las Vegas and works as a cashier at a casino. She may be very happy there and enjoy all the people she meets in her work.
But in the photograph, taken so long ago, she is in anguish. She is a witness. 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio is kneeling over Jeffrey Miller, presumably already dead, his life leaking into the Kent State soil. It is May 4, 1970, and Mary Ann has run so far from home. She has run so far and ended up as a witness. On that day, she did not run. On that day, she kept a vigil over a dying boy.
When I first saw the photograph, I did not understand it. My brothers were in the next room, watching the Watergate hearings. I was too young to understand Watergate, so they let me look at a book of photographs from Life magazine. The pictures would be pretty.
Why is the girl crying? And who is the boy? Is he dead? Was that her boyfriend? Her brother? Her son? I did not know and I did not understand.
Where is Kent, Ohio? Where is Opa-locka, Florida? And why was Jeffrey Miller, a student from Long Island, who had transferred from Michigan State, now never going to be 21 years old?
Had Jeffrey Miller ever thought about the end, about how it would be at his death? Did he imagine his mother being there or the student council sponsor by his side or the homecoming queen from JFK High School in Plainview?
Had he ever been to Opa-locka, Florida? Had he ever dreamed of running away? If you are from Long Island and you run away, where do you dream of going? Do you dream of Ohio?
Did he know the runaway was there and that her name was Mary Ann? At that moment, where was the homecoming queen who had promised to remember him always and that he should never change?
Mary, the mother of Jesus, was 14 years old once. But that was a long time ago. At 14, an angel had come by and told her a story and she had believed it. From that moment, she lived from belief to belief, until the story became a baby and then a child and then a man, walking full grown into St. John’s Gospel.
Unlike St. Matthew’s account, St. John’s Gospel contains no song from Mary. In fact, she has very little to say in John’s Gospel.
“Do whatever he tells you.” These are Mary’s last recorded words in St. John’s story of Jesus. With these words, Mary blesses Jesus and his ministry.
She has given birth and raised him up and has let Jesus go but not before telling those present at the wedding in Cana and those in the world and those yet to come, “Do whatever he tells you.”
In other words, she trusts him.
While her words cease, Mary does not disappear from the story.
At the feeding of the 5,000, we do not know if Mary was present. There were so many people and we are not even sure if all were counted, if anyone bothered to count the women and children. In such a crowd, at such a scene, it would be easy for the Mother of God to be overlooked.
“You are his mother? He told us he had no mother. He told us that we were all his brothers and sisters. Do you have this many children?”
“Do whatever he tells you.” Mary, look around at all these thousands. They are being fed; they are doing what Jesus tells them to do. If they do not recognize you, it does not matter. Now, maybe you are last. But you have been the first. All that matters is that you are a witness and you see all these following him. But first he followed you.
But now they are gone, all those thousands. Despite all that he said, so many have left, so many have wandered off, so many have not believed. And did the angel ever mention the cross? When you were 14, was there talk of the cross?
Where have they gone, with their full bellies? Those whose blind eyes can now see, why have they shut their eyes to this darkness? Those whose lame legs can now walk, why have they run away? Those who have been raised from the dead, why do they now avoid his death? Am I no longer the mother of them all?
As Jesus dies on the cross, we are told that he cried out, asking where the forsaking Father was.
In such a moment, as Jesus is dying, as the thousands are a memory, we are told that his mother was present. She has not run away. She is a witness.
And she has brought others with her. Not thousands or hundreds. There are not even twelve. There are five. Four women and one man stand witness at the cross. While others mock the crucified, five people remain with Jesus to the end. These are her children. This is her son.
They are a long way from a wedding where Mary’s words to do what Jesus instructed them to do produced wine and caused the number of followers to grow into the thousands. At that time, long ago, it was hard to hear the killing machine which was already approaching.
Now, with the roar of the cross drowning out all the world’s distractions, one voice would have been heard over the violence and the mayhem. A mother’s voice would have been what Jesus heard as he died.
Mary had not run away. He did have a mother. While all appeared to be in ruin, his mother is willing to stand close to the killing machine and refuse to run away. She is doing what he told her.
Jesus, I am here, your mother is here. Remember, you spoke of where two or three are gathered. Well, we are five. Imagine what you could do with five. With five, we could begin again.
On this day, as the church has been emptied of the other images and symbols that enliven our faith, we are left with the cross. The church has been stripped and we have been stripped and the cross remains, awkwardly central to this room and to our faith. There is no denying that the cross is in this room now.
I do not believe that Mary remained silent while Jesus died. While St. John gives us no accounting of what she might have said while her son died, that does not mean she did not speak. That simply means St. John might have realized some conversations are too holy and too personal to belong to the wider world. There are some things a mother has to say to her son before he dies that no language can hold and no pen given to paper can ever properly record.
She was a witness. She did not run. She was there at the beginning, only 14 and an angel disturbing her, young Mary with her head in a book. If she was there during all the great campaigns and preaching missions and healing events, we do not know. How do you find one woman in such a crowd of people, especially if you are not counting the women and the children?
But she was there at the end, comforting her son as he died, telling him the names of those who remained, who would still follow and do whatever he told them. If this is the end, we were witnesses. If this is not the end, there still need to be witnesses to this day and to its madness. Someone will need to tell the thousands and the thousands of thousands what filled our bellies on this day and what meal we did not eat.
As long as the church endures, we preach Christ crucified. As long as the church endures, we preach that he did not die alone, that there were witnesses, Mary and her children.