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Sunday, 22 July 2012

Mary Magdalene

Today, July the twenty-second, is the Feast of St Mary Magdalene, if you are the sort of church that celebrates that sort of thing. Which we aren't, of course, but nevertheless I can't resist having a look at Mary Magdalene today, because she is such an intriguing person. We know very little about her for definite:

Firstly, that Jesus cast out seven demons from her, according to Luke chapter 8 verse 2, and Mark chapter 16 verse 9.

From then on, she appears in the lists of people who followed Jesus, and is one of the very few women mentioned by name all the time.

She was at the Cross, helping the Apostle John to support Jesus' mother Mary.

And, of course, she was the first witness to the Resurrection, and according to John's Gospel, she was actually the first person to see and to speak to the Risen Lord.

And that is basically all that we reliably know about her – all that the Bible tells us, at any rate.

But, of course, that's not the end of the story. Even the Bible isn't quite as clear as it might be, and some Christians believe that she is the woman described as a “sinner” who disrupts the banquet given by Simon the Leper, or Simon the Pharisee or whoever he was by emptying a vial of ointment over his feet – Jesus' feet, I mean, not Simon's – and wiping it away with her hair. Simon, you may recall, was furious, and Jesus said that the woman had done a lot more for him than he had – he hadn't offered him any water to wash his feet, or made him feel at all welcome.

Anyway, that woman is often identified with Mary Magdalene, although some say it is Mary of Bethany, sister to Martha and Lazarus. Some even say they are all three one and the same woman!

So if even the Bible isn't clear whether there are one, two or three women involved, you can imagine what the extra-Biblical traditions are like!

Nobody seems to know where she was born, or when. Arguably in Magdala, but there seem to have been a couple of places called that in Biblical times. However, one of them, Magdala Nunayya, was on the shores of Lake Galilee, so it might well have been there. But nobody knows for certain.

She wasn't called Mary, of course; that is an Anglicisation of her name. The name was Maryam or Miriam, which was very popular around then as it had royal family connections, rather like people in my generation calling their daughters Anne, or all the Dianas born in the 1980s or, perhaps, today, the Catherines. So she was really Maryam, not Mary – as, indeed, were all the biblical Marys.

They don't know where she died, either. One rather splendid legend has her, and the other two women called Mary, being shipwrecked in the Carmargue at the town now called Saintes-Maries-de-la-mer, and she is thought to have died in that area. But then again, another legend has her accompanying Mary the mother of Jesus and the disciple John to Ephesus and dying there. Nobody knows.

And there are so many other legends and rumours and stories about her – even one that she was married to Jesus, or that she was “the beloved disciple”, and those parts of John's gospel where she and the beloved disciple appear in the same scene were hastily edited later when it became clear that a woman disciple being called “Beloved” Simply Would Not Do.

But whoever she was, and whatever she did or did not do, whether she was a former prostitute or a perfectly respectable woman who had become ill and Jesus had healed, it is clear that she did have some kind of special place in the group of people surrounding Jesus. And because she was the first witness to the Resurrection, and went to tell the other disciples about it, she has been called “The Apostle to the Apostles”. So what can we learn from her?

Well, the first thing we really know about her is that Jesus had healed her. She had allowed Jesus to heal her. Now, healing, of course, is as much about forgiveness and making whole as it is about curing physical symptoms. Mary allowed Jesus to make her whole.

This isn't something we find easy to do, is it? We are often quite comfortable in our discomfort, if that makes sense. If we allowed Jesus to heal us, to make us whole, whether in body, mind or spirit, we might have to do something in return. We might have to give up our comfortable lifestyles and actually go and do something!

What Mary did, of course, was to give up her lifestyle, whatever it might have been, and follow Jesus. We don't know whether she was a prostitute, as many have thought down the years, or whether she was a respectable woman, but whichever she was, she gave it all up to follow Jesus. She was the leader of the group of women who went around with Jesus and the disciples, and who made sure that everybody had something to eat, and everybody had a blanket to sleep under, or shelter if it was a rough night, or whatever. Mary gave up everything to follow Jesus.

Again, we quail at the thought of that, even though following Jesus may well mean staying exactly where we are, with our present job and our family.

But Mary didn't quail. She even accompanied Jesus to the foot of the Cross, and stood by him in his final hours. And then, early in the morning of the third day after he was killed, she goes to the tomb to finish off the embalming she hadn't been able to do during the Sabbath Day.

And we know what happened – how she found the tomb empty, and raced back to tell Peter and John about it, and how they came and looked and saw and realised something had happened and dashed off, leaving her weeping in the garden – and then the beloved voice saying “Mary!” and with a cry of joy, she flings herself into his arms.

We’re not told how long they spent hugging, talking, explaining and weeping in each other’s arms, but eventually Jesus gently explains that, although he’s perfectly alive, and that this is a really real body one can hug, he won’t be around on earth forever, but will ascend to the Father. He can’t stop with Mary for now, but she should go back and tell the others all about it. And so, we are told, she does.

She tells the rest of the disciples how she has seen Jesus. She is the first witness to the Resurrection, although you will note that St Paul leaves her out of his list of people who saw the Risen Lord. That was mostly because the word of a woman, in that day and age, was considered unreliable; women were not considered capable of rational judgement. At least Jesus was different!

So Mary allowed Jesus to heal her, she gave up everything and followed him, she went with him even to the foot of the Cross, even when most of the male disciples, except John, had run away, and she bore witness to the risen Christ.

The question is, of course, do we do any of these things? We don't find them comfortable things to do, do we? It was all very well for Mary, we say, she knew Jesus, she knew what he looked like and what he liked to eat, and so on.

But we don't have to do these things in our own strength. The Jesus who loved Mary Magdalene, in whatever way, he will come to us and fill us with His Holy Spirit and enable us, too, to be healed, to follow Him, even to the foot of the Cross, and to bear witness to His resurrection. The question is, are we going to let him? Amen.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Grief, healing and resurrection

 Note to self: Do check you have all the pages of the sermon before you leave the house.  It doesn't do to find the last 150 words or so are Not There!


“Your daughter is dead.  Why bother the Teacher any more?”
“Your daughter is dead.  Why bother the Teacher any more?”  Jairus was bringing Jesus to his home, to heal his daughter.  Not such a little girl now; she was twelve years old, probably expecting her parents to start thinking of a husband for her within the next couple of years – her culture, you were more or less grown-up at 13.  And then she fell ill.  Seriously ill.  The doctors were shaking their heads; nothing they could do.  

But there was this Teacher, Jesus of Nazareth they called him.  He was beginning to get a reputation locally for healing, as well as teaching.  What had Jairus to lose?  “When he saw Jesus,” we are told, “he fell at his feet.  He pleaded earnestly with him, ‘My little daughter is dying.  Please come and put your hands on her so that she will be healed and live.’”  And Jesus agrees, and goes with him.

And while this is happening, here is the other person to be healed that day.  The one for whom twelve years was not so much a lifetime as a life sentence. The one with the haemorrhage. Twelve years of constant nagging, dragging pain. Twelve years of constant blood loss, of constantly feeling unwell, of constantly being tired and anaemic.
 

And nothing was helping. She’d spent all her money on seeing doctors, but they hadn’t been able to help, and the problem was, if anything, growing worse. She was becoming weaker, and knew that soon she would be too weak to carry on. Her life, too, was drawing to a close – and it may well be that she was profoundly grateful that it was happening.

But then, a rumour swept through the crowds. Jesus of Nazareth was visiting Capernaum today! Everybody had heard of Jesus of Nazareth. He had done some spectacular healings. Maybe, just maybe....

He was coming to look at Jairus’ daughter, the rich man’s kid.  Jesus wouldn’t look at the likes of a poor old woman, no doubt. She didn’t have any money. She didn’t have clout, like a synagogue leader. She was just a lonely old woman.

But the crowd was so huge that Jesus could barely walk up the street. The disciples were going, “Excuse me, excuse me, make way there now, oh would you please shift your – er – yourselves”, but progress was very slow. And the woman, caught up in the crowd, suddenly plucked up the courage and just, with one finger, touched his cloak.

And Jesus felt it. In all the crowd, with people everywhere, jostling and rubbing up against him, he felt that one deliberate touch. "Who touched me?" he asked. We aren't told the tone of voice he said it in. Sometimes, preachers seem to reckon he was irritated, angry even. I don't think so. I think he was full of compassion and love. He knew. He may not have known who she was, but he knew why she was hiding.

And yes, he did have time for her.  It wasn’t about money.  It wasn’t about social status.  It was about compassion.  And also, of course, it was about knowing that she was now well, that she could resume her rightful place in society.  That she would no longer be poorly all the time.  So he lifts her up: “Daughter, your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering.”

And then they come out of Jairus’ house to tell him that it is too late.  “Your daughter is dead.  Why bother the Teacher any more?”

But Jesus was undaunted.  He grabbed his three closest associates and told everybody else to butt out.  And he reached out to her and held her hand. "Get up, little one!" he said. And she did. She woke up, yawned, and stretched, for all the world as if she had just been enjoying a lovely, refreshing nap. "Get her something to eat," Jesus said, what could be more practical? And he didn't want her surrounded by the media of the day all yelling at her and stressing her out, either, so he suggests the parents don't tell anybody.

Well yes.  And the story is a lovely, hopeful story  –  and we, here at King’s Acre, are having our antepenultimate service before we are closed down.  What has this story to say to us today, as we grieve for the death of our church?

It is about faith, of course.  It’s about not losing hope.  About not despairing.

Jairus must have despaired when they came out to him and told them  his daughter was dead.  Or perhaps he despaired before that, when the doctors told him there was nothing more they could do.  

The woman must have despaired long since, when the bleeding simply would not stop,  when the naggy, draggy pains in her uterus wouldn’t go away.  Maybe she had been a young woman, looking to start a family.  That wasn’t going to happen now.  She despaired.

But Jesus didn’t despair.  Not ever.  Not even in the Garden of Gethsemane.  It was pretty close, I think.  “ ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death,’ he said to them. ‘Stay here and keep watch.’  Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. ‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you.  Take this cup from me.  Yet not what I will, but what you will.’”

“Not what I will, but what you will.”  I wonder how much struggle it took for Jesus to get to the place where he could say that.  Quite a lot, I shouldn’t wonder.  It isn’t easy, is it?

I know when this thing of King’s Acre closing was first mooted, my immediate reaction was, “Look here, God, if you do that, I’m never speaking to you again!”  Mind you, on sober reflection I decided I couldn’t actually cope without God, so I changed it to, “If this is seriously what you want to happen, please make me willing to accept it!”

I do wish he’d hurry up!!!

Seriously, though, it’s all very well, isn’t it, reading these stories and thinking about them, and reminding ourselves that we do not need to despair.  Right now, I don’t know about you, but for me right now that feels like rather a huge ask.  

And yet the rational part of me knows  –  not just believes, KNOWS  –  that God is going to bring something great out of this.  I don’t know what, yet, and it is not yet time to even think of finding out.  But we know, as St Paul reminds us in his letter to the Romans, that God works all things together for good for those who love him.  We also know that there is resurrection.  Even in nature.  Jesus said that if a seed didn’t fall into the ground and die, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  And look at caterpillars.  To become a butterfly, caterpillars have to be completely remade.  While they are in the pupa, all their bits dissolve away, and are made from scratch, from the material that is there.  It’s not just a matter of rearranging what is there, it’s a matter of total breakdown and starting again. The caterpillar more-or-less has to die before it can become a butterfly.

I wonder what sort of butterfly we will become.  What sort of fruit we shall bear?

We don’t know yet.  And maybe now is not the time to find out.  Now, and these next two Sundays, is a time for grieving.  We need to grieve.  We need to acknowledge our emotions, our sadness, our anger, our whatever else we may be feeling.  That’s okay, and it’s right to be sad  –  even Jesus wept, you may remember, when his friend Lazarus died, even though he then went on to raise Lazarus from death.  He had no thought that there was anything wrong with grief.  Yes, he removed the mourners from the little girl’s bedroom, but that was basically so she wouldn’t be frightened when she woke up.  There was nothing wrong with grieving for her death.

But within all that we also need to be aware that there is hope.  There will be resurrection  –  perhaps not of King’s Acre as we know and love it, but of something.  In the Psalm we had for our first reading, we were reminded that:
“weeping may stay for the night,
   but rejoicing comes in the morning.

And the Psalm finished on a hopeful note, too, didn’t it:
“You turned my wailing into dancing;
   you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent.
   Lord my God, I will praise you for ever.”

Today we grieve, and it’s right and proper that we should.  But there will be resurrection.  God will remove our sackcloth and clothe us with joy.  It may not happen this month, maybe not even this year, but one day it will happen.  The woman who was bleeding had to wait for twelve solid years.  I don’t for one moment think we will have to wait so long  –  some of us can’t, anyway.  Let’s be on the lookout for it, whenever it happens!  Amen.