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Climb Your Tower

John 11:1-27 and the Gospel of Mary

May 26th, 2024

Good morning again! Thank you for choosing to be here instead of all of the places you could be on this beautiful spring day on this holiday weekend. There are parts of this vocation that truly delight me, just light me up and I can tell you how amazing it has been to be among a church of fellow seekers and it has really delighted me to see how you have just jumped into this! IT has already been a gift to explore this with you! 

If you are so moved, I invite you as you are comfortable, to take some deeper breaths -letting go of the lists or the worries or the worlds’ wounds, just for a time, to be open to receiving whatever word the Universe has for each of us today. 

I invite you to join me in a spirit of prayer as we are all held by these ancient words from Psalm 19: God may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

It was two summers ago, and I was sitting in a ray of sunshine drinking my coffee in a good vacation mood, looking at social media and catching up on the news when across my feed came a sermon from Diana Butler Bass called: Mary the Tower. It was a message she shared at that year’s Wild Goose Fest and after I heard it, I wept and shouted out loud: It was there all along!

It turns out I have been on a journey that I didn’t know about for a while. Has that ever happened to you? It was all around and I didn’t quite see it. I guess life happens like that sometimes. We think we have so much agency and I do think we humans have more power than we think and also, I believe that the Universe, or God or whatever name we have it, Mystery sometimes guides us, pulls us, threads us along or as Taylor Swift says, there are invisible strings that pull us along, that bring us to moments, people, paths, we are alive for.

In 2004, I decided I had to stay an extra year in Berkeley at seminary because I fell in love with theology. And also I was sort of nervous about getting out there and serving the Church. I applied for the MA and became a sponge of feminist theology, womanist theology, process theology, eco-theology, liberation theology and so much more! And I realized I wanted to study what would happen if any of this was really allowed to be a part of the church. 

At the time, Rosemary Radford Reuther, author of Sexism and God Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology, Gaia and God, Goddess and the Divine Feminine: A Western Religious History and so many more books, she was one of the professors at Pacific School of Religion then, and so I ended up proximate to and a student of one of the worlds most renowned feminist theologians and that wasn’t even why I chose the school. In the fall of 2005, I was finishing my thesis, the title was Changing Church, and at the same time I accepted my first call, which was serving at Wellesley Congregational Church outside of Boston. If you know where I grew up and you know Wellesley, you might understand how shocking it was to me. At the time, the Main Street, had not just a travel clothing store, but a children’s travel clothing store. That’s the kind of town it was.

The church was huge and fancy and had just been through a significant capital campaign and a major renovation. It felt almost untouchable, literally.  Then, you had to get permission from the secretary if we were planning to use tacks. I am not kidding.

Yet the people were incredible and nurtured me in my new vocation and at the same time I was writing my ordination paper. I remember my ecclesiastical Council and there was one hang up. One older male minister and he did not like my suggestion that it seemed unlikely that the Creator of the Universe could only show up once in all of history and it just happened to be in the body of man. 

It was all around me and I didn’t quite see it. It was there all along! 

And I couldn’t see this call for my life at first, because I grew up hearing how inferior women are. It was the background noise of my cultural milieu. Men could have certain things, do different things, achieve certain things, but what was available to women was limited. It wasn’t until someone moved from Napa, CA and became my dear friend that I had a woman in my life who had a college degree and dared to have an opinion. (Her mom.)

And honestly even now in 2024 our culture devalues women. Our bodies. Our perspectives. Our needs. Our opinions. Having them in any circumstance is seen as too much. So it makes sense that for a lot of us, it takes a while and has taken awhile to see the truth of our fullness and sacredness. But the best thing about the truth is that it can be hidden or crossed out or buried in caves, but it cannot be killed.

The tricky thing though is that some stories have been told so many times that even if they aren’t true, we want to hold onto them, because we know them and because some have gotten power from them. Are you with me?

But when something is so true that it is shouting at us, demanding that we listen, that we turn toward Her fully, sometimes we must try and hear, maybe even in a way we haven’t before. 

And this is part of the journey we are on this summer. 

Which brings me back to two summers ago and Mary the Tower. I have heard this story in John 11 so many times.  And if you grew up in any kind of Christian tradition, the mythology and the archetypes of Martha and Mary are ingrained in many of our minds. Among women’s groups and retreat settings it was common to ask if you are a Mary or a Martha? The busy one or the one that stays in the moment? But not long ago, then a master’s degree student of New Testament (now with a PH.D. and a teaching job and Villanova) named Libbie her full name is Elizabeth Shrader Polzcer by the way and now Dr. Polzcer then just a singer songwriter student in New York, started investigating John 11 and went to the library and looked at a fragment called Papyrus 66 which is the oldest and most complete piece of text known from the Gospel of John and she saw that in Greek it said something different than it says in our English bibles. 

So she did more digging. I love that a non-fancy student of the Bible who used to be a song writer noticed what the mostly male scholars before her had missed. Here is what Diana Butler Bass wrote, “The text where it had those two Mary’s, the village of Mary and his sister, Mary, her sister Mary the text had actually been changed. In Greek, the word Mary, the name Mary, is basically spelled like Maria in English MARIA and the I, the Greek letter I is the letter Iota. And it looks basically like an English I. Libbie saw that the Iota had been changed to the letter TH in Greek, Theta. That somebody at some point in time had gone in over the original handwriting and actually changed the second Mary to Martha…and also the way it comes out in English.” 

So at some point along the way someone changed the oldest text of the Gospel of John and made Mary into two. Mary and Martha. And when Libbie went digging she saw that in all of the other parts of the fragment that same editor had changed it there too. She wrote her thesis about this and got the attention of the Harvard Theological Review and then the fancy people in Germany, the Nestle-Aland Translation Committee.

I guess when something is so true that it is shouting at us, demanding that we listen, that we turn toward Her fully, sometimes we should at least try and hear. And so they did. And they agreed that she is onto something. It’s a real-time conversation. Will we allow this to be a footnote or do we change our Bibles? We are alive for this!

Further research shows that older texts, like diaries of pilgrimages and the writings of church fathers around the second century show no Martha at all, only Mary. You might be wondering Pastor Nicole, why the heck does all of this matter? 

Here you go: If it’s all Mary in John 11 then the Gospel of John gives the most important words to the same woman who was at the cross, the tomb, who claimed to have experienced him beyond the death. She’s the one who Jesus meets in the garden later in John 20 and so as we read in the Gospel of Mary, she is the one to whom Jesus trusted his teachings, she is the thread, the one who listened and heard, who showed up and stayed, the one who helped grow the movement after he was gone. 

And now we know that Mary Magdalene is not Maria from Magdala, but rather the word, it’s Aramaic for tower. She’s Mary, the Tower. She was there all along! Hidden for a while. Her character assassinated. Her teachings in dusty caverns. But as Libbie said in an interview “It’s almost like the Gospel itself is moving and meeting us where we are now. At the time, the gospel met people where they were and now there might have been a shift so that the gospel reveals itself in a new way, meeting us where we are now.” She went on, “That’s how I see the Gospel. That’s what I see as the truth.” 

It matters because we didn’t get her. Instead, history gave us Peter the Rock. But if you put all of this next to every other Gospel, she stands with him equally as Mary the Tower. And with Peter the Rock, we got Popes and Patriarchy, we got Male authority and superiority and that gave us a Male God and now here we are in a time when people are fleeing that in droves. And that isn’t wanted Jesus wanted anyway! What if we right here are now stewards of this new truth? What if it’s part of our job to bring this all back together? We get to be alive for the uncovering! 

We know Jesus included women from the start. He included all those whom the world tried to devalue. He included those labeled unclean or unworthy. I believe that Jesus also wanted us to have Herstory, Mary the Tower, pointing us not to external religious authorities, not to performative acts that decide who is in and who is out, but pointing us inward to the beauty and the gift of our bodies and spirits, to the treasure of our minds, and leading with our hearts. This is a chance to tell the whole story. I really do think it changes everything.

I believe that part of why I am alive here on this earth at this time is to bring some of this back into the Church and how we live our Christian faith. My middle name after all is Marie. 

I know now how many of you are on this journey too, it’s a path of uncovering, reclaiming, healing and renaming. It looks different for each of us, but it’s on the way to the same thing. The heart of the Gospel of Mary is, Anthropos, which is to be fully human, that’s our aim, that’s our path, the gift that we each get to embark upon. We get to be alive to hear the truth that was there all along, you have it. Climb your tower! 

Beautiful people we will now take 2 minutes to listen and reflect with those around us. Knowing we have lived for centuries with Peter the Rock, what does a Christianity look like that has a place for Mary the Tower?


Beloved of God, we get to be alive for this uncovering, bringing it all back together. The treasure is here in the being fully human together. May it be so. Blessings on your climb. Amen. 

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