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Sermon preached on Sunday, July 23, 2017 by Pastoral Care Associate Sally Howard in celebration of the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene.

In the name of the Mother of life,
Father of the universe,
They of all relationship
You dwell in our hearts and take us into your arms,
promising that no matter how dark the night,
you will always be with us. Amen

It was only a little more than two years ago that I stood in this very same pulpit on another Mary Magdalene Sunday. So much has happened since that Sunday! I am grateful for this opportunity to take another look at our amazing heroine and consider again what in her story can help us meet the challenges of this day and this time.

Mary Magdalene’s story may be found in all four gospels. Actually, it’s a bit of fake news that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. It is now known that the long-held characterization of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute is not, I repeat, not historical fact. Over 40 years of feminist research has led to a reevaluation of the role of women in early Christianity and Judaism. Researchers have revealed vibrant elements of women’s participation and leadership. The discovery in 1947 and earlier of the so-called gnostic Gospels — writings that were not part of the approved canon of the Christian (New) Testament — produced data in which Mary Magdalene is unexpectedly prominent: a leader, prophet and mystic, praised and loved by Jesus and in conflict with his other disciples. Many feel that the church has covered up this Mary, and betrayed its faithful by suppressing feminine metaphors for God and female leadership past and present. Reclaiming Mary fulfills the desire, both popular and scholarly, to rethink the relationship between religion and sexuality. [1]

Reclaiming Mary means reclaiming her fierceness as a woman who challenged the dominant culture. After Jesus healed her, she joined him in building a community built on radical inclusion and forgiveness that rejected the use of power over others. Jesus modeled a life of power used for and with others, always magnifying the voices of the silenced ones. Scriptures say, even though he was by very nature God, he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but Instead gave up divine privileges, to become one of us. Jesus trained his empathy to see the suffering of those who were hurt by the supremacy granted him as a male by his culture. He felt responsible to those hurt by his cultural privilege, even if that status wasn’t something he created or endorsed. He focused his energy on healing the afflictions it caused. It is inconceivable that Jesus would not have included Mary as he did the male disciples, in his ministry of healing and anointing others.

It was Mary of all Jesus’ disciples, who proved the most capable of being a reliable friend to him. At his death on Golgotha, Mary Magdalene is expressly identified as one of the women who refused to leave him, sitting at the foot of the cross. She did not run; she did not betray or lie about her relationship with Jesus; she witnessed. And she held vigil when everyone else had gone home.

The gospel of John tells us that it was Mary Magdalene who saw that the stone had been removed. She ran to tell the other disciples who hurried back with her to the tomb. When Peter arrived, he looked into the tomb, saw the strips of linen, and other burial cloths and, he and the other disciple went back to their homes. It doesn’t appear as if they had discussions with Mary. In fact, in keeping with dominant culture, they probably dismissed her. However, she stayed in the garden out of the sheer tenacity of her love.

This chapter of John’s gospel reveals to us a woman, who is not afraid to travel during the darkness of dawn to honor Jesus. As a perceptive woman, Mary doesn’t have to enter the tomb to conclude that Jesus is gone. She remains because she wants to know where the body of Jesus is. We see that even before encountering the risen Jesus, Mary Magdalene is brave and faithful. Her faith was uncomplicated – it never wavered.

I believe it was because of her faithfulness that Jesus revealed himself to her, before he returned to the Creator. It was because of her faithfulness that Jesus called her by name and commissioned her to proclaim the good news. Mary Magdalene had returned to the tomb in darkness to complete the end of a relationship by anointing the body of Jesus, and the truth of the matter was that her journey to the tomb resulted in the beginning of a new life – one of resurrection, reconciliation and sharing the good news. It was because of her faithfulness that we have an example of how important it is to proclaim the kindom of God– even to those who may not believe or dismiss us.

Jesus related to Mary and other women as they were created – as equal reflectors of God’s image. He chose to lay aside his own cultural entitlement to heal the wounds male privilege had inflicted on others. It took almost two thousand years for our church to accept the full ministry of women. Like Mary Magdalene, we are brave, we are faithful, and we are here to stay!

We accept the challenge to magnify the voices of those heroines and heroes who have been silenced and whose stories don’t make it into our history books or onto our church windows. Jesus calls us to enlarge our own personal and cultural stories—to see both the hidden and transparent cultural influences that are often difficult to address. We have a responsibility to seek out the stories of pain our privilege causes others, even if it’s not something we necessarily have endorsed or created. We can develop what our director of multiculturalism, Isaac Rueles calls, “community resilience”, the ability to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations with honesty and mutual respect. In beloved community, we stay at the table, especially white folks, until we see each other in all of our complexity, both broken and blessed. Sometimes this path calls us to re-examine our own cherished stories- to make them deep enough to include the pain of others.

One of my heroines is my Grandmother Ruth. The oldest of three daughters, she grew up on a farm. Ruth was determined to go to college, something unheard of for women in the rural Midwest of her day. When she finished a four-year degree, she went to work to finance the education of her two younger sisters, one of whom was disabled by polio. After Ruth married, she continued to work. After her retirement at 65, she ran for county supervisor. Let me make it clear: no women had ever held public office in Kosciusko County IN!

I campaigned for her when I was five at local fish fries. I handed out flyers, and wore a button that read, “If I could I would vote for Ruth McCleary.” I was so proud! So proud of her and so proud of myself, as a girl. Her courage shaped my story about myself and what was possible for me. By the way, she won! Grandma Ruth became the first female county council woman in Kosciusko County. In her first term, she procured the funding for the county’s first community mental health center, the one in which I would train and work 16 years later, before going to graduate school.

As I have grown in my awareness of white privilege, the societal advantage that comes with being seen as the “norm” in America, my beloved narrative of the fish fry has changed. I am still proud of my grandmother. I am grateful to all the strong and powerful women who helped me know that I was valuable, capable, and the beloved face of God—grateful to so many women in this community and in the larger community, and in history. Through time and proximity, my story has been enlarged by the lives of women of color and LBGTQ people, and by those who are poor, immigrant, or mentally ill—my story has had to enlarge and change.

Back at those fish fries, there were faces that were absent from the crowd—no brown, black, poor, or immigrant people. And I had no fear that someone would call me an ugly name or bar my entry or follow me around suspecting I would steal something, or call the police just because I came on the premises. The police?? It was a given in my world that they were there to protect me and keep me safe. I lived in a social environment that insulated me from race-based stress. I felt at home and that I belonged. I do most days of my life even now. I felt and feel safe in a way that just isn’t possible for so many.

In Indiana in the 60’s: The fisherman, the workers that processed the fish, the waters the fish were caught from, the native peoples who resided in Kosciusko county long ago forced off the land or exterminated—their lives and experiences and suffering were invisible to me then. Now I know that my access to college, to training at that community mental health center my grandmother helped establish, to graduate school and post-graduate training—all were facilitated by the culture that favors the color of my skin.

And as followers of Jesus, we are responsible to enlarge our stories to include all those who have been hurt by our culture’s white supremacy and heteronormativity.

We are obliged to see and empathize with the pain it has caused, just as Jesus did for Mary Magdalene.

And like Mary, and my grandmother Ruth, we must be fierce and faithful, using our strength, our voices and our power, to bring healing and justice to our world.

Amen

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[1] There is something about Mary Magdalene, Jane Schaberg and Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre

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