April 16, 2017

“Tales Women Tell”

1 Corinthians 15:1-11

John 20:1-18



Some of you casually accepted the title for this sermon without blinking. Some of you read it and were put off by it. Everyone should be a bit uneasy.


The tradition of the day is that these witnesses cannot be believed. Women are not to be trusted for their testimony. Neither are they the ‘official’ leadership in any group or system. At best, they are allowed to worship just outside the ‘real’ sanctuary where the other ‘goyim’ or ‘God fearers’ pray. They are exactly like the women of the wall today who are relegated to a spot several hundred feet down the sacred foundation of the temple. They are not allowed to pray loudly so as to not distract the men who are praying at the ‘real’ wailing wall. These people offer the first testimony.


Someone, not of our close knit group of guys, a person who had to follow along on the edges, makes her way to the tomb. Her name was Mary. She has been called Mary Magdalene. She has been the subject of wild speculation like so many prominent figures are. Some have said she was a harlot. Others, quite creatively, have suggested that she was Jesus’ partner. Some have even imagined that she bore his child. Early in the church’s tradition, she is is often identified not only with the anonymous harlot with the perfume in Luke’s gospel, but also with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus; this interpretation is often called the “composite Magdalene” in modern scholarship. The seven devils removed from her by Jesus “morphed into the seven capital sins, and Mary Magdalene began to be condemned not only for lust but for pride and covetousness as well.”[1]


What we do know is that she appeared to be the leader of this group of women who also followed Jesus. Being a woman, and living in a society where they were seen as little more than property and a means for procreation, she was never the less depicted as a brave and resolute person who stayed nearby Jesus throughout his suffering and crucifixion. She was one of the best disciples.


The men, you might note, have scattered. The end of the Jesus story, as they had conjured up in their minds, did not turn out as planned. Fearing for their lives, or soundly dejected, they have made their presence scarce in the final days. I do not blame them.


Then, maybe because she and the other women were doing the woman’s work of anointing the body, or perhaps it was because of her unwavering dedication, early in the morning on the first day of the week, she leads a small group of women to the tomb.


I do not know precisely what was going on. But I have stood at the edge of freshly dug graves enough to have a sense of the mood. There is a scripture I use there, perhaps one of the earliest writings of the christian era, from another outsider named Paul to some folks in Thessolonica: “But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”[2] But on this day no one knew this, so no one could say it.


Perhaps they are there to do what so many do, to tidy up the grave site and mourn. I imagine that this is the work Mary was about that day. So it was a normal day, the usual for those who were grieving. But the removal of the stone and the empty tomb disrupt what she was about. Her mind moves to the logical conclusion that someone has taken Jesus’ body. What other conclusion could there be?   In a closed an ridged structure of ‘that’s the way things are’ only the old and familiar occur. In this closed system of thought that only includes “this is the way we’ve always done it,” this is a wrinkle that requires some serious straightening out. Find the body, and get things back to normal.


To this one who is not an authority in this ‘good ole days’ system, this one who was not welcomed at the table, but had to tag along at the margins, Mary’s closed world (and ours) is broken open when Jesus calls her name. The one who was certified as dead greets her. The established rules as to what should happen, what can happen, how things can happen, are overthrown. Those who had authority and expertise on such things are demoted. And because of who she was, the old structures of who is an ‘appropriate’ disciple of Jesus Christ is left in shambles. The faithful are depicted as followers, not so much believers. It is a new day.


But even Mary is stuck in prevailing mindset. She asks the gardner, “tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.”[3] Even she wants only to do what is acceptable and proper. She only wants to do what she is charged with doing, permitted to do by her place in society. But his calling of her name, that familiar voice, shatters her customary world, as comfortable as it may be. It is Mary Magdalene, who begins the proclamation of Easter.


Now, remember with me that we do know the entirety of the story, so that with Mary we can experience, and with Peter, we can proclaim, the reality that Jesus demonstrated day after day: ’God shows no partiality.’ With Saint Paul we can affirm that now and forever ‘by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.’ Despite every effort among secular and religious folk to assert otherwise, it is absolutely true, that ‘whoever you are, and wherever you are on life’s journey, Jesus welcomes you…Today we know this. Today we are certain that Jesus came to redeem the whole world, even you and I, as imperfect as we are. John ends his gospel in a way that affirms the least likely of prophets saying, “So we proclaim and so you have come to believe.”


Do not be afraid. Tectonic plates are shifting, yes, but it is because God is creating a new heaven and a new earth. Do not be afraid. Your life and your security are where they have always been-hid with Christ in God. This is the good news. Rejoice.


[1] Morrow, Carol Ann, “St. Mary Magdalene: Redeeming Her Gospel Reputation.” Liguori Publications. Catholic Update Newsletter. Nov. 30, 1999.

[2] 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14

[3] John 20:15