Sermon 23rd July - Mary Magdalene - Song of Songs 3, 1-4 & John 20, 1-2, 11-18
The bible, perhaps especially the gospels, fascinate me! Perhaps you should be relieved to hear me say this, I am after all a priest; your priest. I think the bible fascinates me most because of its characters and, as a Christian I of course believe that Jesus is the leading character, the one whom the rest of the narrative revolves around. But, I really enjoy reading about the other characters in the gospel stories, learning from them, identifying with them, allowing them to both act as a mirror into my own shortcomings and as a source of hope.
I am perfectly capable of being all bravado like Peter, only then to crumble at the last. Like James and John I am perfectly capable of seeking preferment. Like Thomas I am perfectly capable of my moments of doubt. But, is there anything of Mary Magdalene in me? Is there anything of Mary Magdalene in you? In some ways this is a hard question to answer because we don’t know much about her. Perhaps, the best place to start is with the challenges she poses.
What we do know about Mary is that she was the first to arrive at Jesus’ tomb. We do know that she was so disturbed by the emptiness of the tomb that she ‘ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple.’ And, we do know that the risen Jesus first revealed himself to Mary. What can we deduce from this chain events?
Well, first of all I would want to suggest that Mary Magdalene was an intimate not only of Jesus but also of the apostles. She was fully included as integral member of the emerging Jesus movement. And in greeting her so tenderly just outside the empty tomb Jesus affirms her status as the ‘apostle to the apostles.’ It is a remarkable fact that Jesus revealed the resurrection first of all to a woman. Women in first century Judaism ranked way behind men in the pecking order. It is a fact we would do well to ponder on, for one of the amazing things about Jesus is that he always seems to subvert the hierarchical order of things. Mary Magdalene unashamedly receives Jesus' affirmation of both herself and, Jesus’ subversion of the assumed order of things.
That too is worth pondering. How often do we seek to preserve the status quo? Not many of us are natural boat rockers. But, the world needs more boat rockers. We need more modern day Marys; women and men who allow themselves to be affirmed by Jesus and who then go on to spread his message; a message that subverts the assumed order of things. A message that makes it clear that the Kingdom of God is available to all on equal terms.
I think it likely that Jesus chose to reveal himself to Mary Magdalene because she, over and above all the characters in the gospel stories, is the one who dared to truly love, even adore, him. This again is a challenge to us? How deep is our love for Jesus? Do we, like Mary Magdalene, adore him? The reading from the Song of Songs clearly expresses the kind of love that Mary Magdalene seeks: ‘I will rise now and go about the city, in the streets and in the squares; I will seek him who my soul loves.’ Do we seek such love? Do we locate such love in the person of Jesus Christ; for that is Mary’s challenge to us? In a few months’ time we will sing ‘oh come let us adore him,’ but why wait? Let’s start our journey of adoration right now. Let’s adore Jesus through the simple act of sharing in the Eucharist this morning.
Mary of course gets one thing wrong. She believes that her adoration for Jesus is contingent on his physical presence with us. Note that I said physical rather than real, for as Christians we start every celebration of the Eucharist by proclaiming that ‘the Lord is here,’ and that ‘his Spirit is with us.’ So another challenge from the story of Mary Magdalene is to allow our love for Jesus to take shape through the work of the Holy Spirit, for it is the Holy Spirit who makes Jesus real to us in the here and now.
So there you have it a series of challenges provided for us by Mary Magdalene:
The challenge of accepting our own status as dearly beloved by God. The challenge of critiquing the assumed order of things and of working for inclusivity and equality. The challenge to love and adore Jesus by accepting his very real presence with us through the work of the Holy Spirit and, the simple act of sharing in the Eucharist together. And, the challenge to rush off to tell others of Jesus, Amen.
Rev. Andrew Lightbown
St Benedict: Proverbs 2, 1-6 & Luke 18, 18-22 – Hospitality
Although Benedict died somewhere around the year 550 I think he is in many ways a saint for our times. Benedict wrote his famous rule for men and women who were seeking to live well together in community. But, he always recognised that religious or monastic communities have porous boundaries. Yes, they contain a number of fully professed brothers and sisters living together as monks and nuns, but they also had lay brothers and sisters, folk who joined them just for worship, and visitors.
In a similar way churches may well be made up of a community of believers who worship together Sunday by Sunday come what may, less frequent worshippers, occasional worshippers and, visitors. All of these groups have a stake, a very real stake, in the life of the church. Benedict insisted that, in his words, the monastery should be a place ‘where all may flourish and none need fear.’ The church should also be a place where ‘all may flourish and none need fear.’
In many ways Benedict’s concerns, or values, were our present day concerns. He wanted his communities to be places of holiness, healing and hospitality. These of course are our values. This evening I want to restrict any insights that I might have to offer to the value of hospitality. Hospitality has frequently been referred to as the unofficial Benedictine vow with Benedictine monks’ official vows being: stability, obedience and conversion of life. Stability and hospitality are, I think, inextricably linked. Stability implies a deep level of commitment to people and, place and a willingness to stick with those same people through the inevitable trials and tribulations of ordinary life. Hospitality means not just welcoming people, but affirming people. We are only able to be hospitable when our own roots are stable.
Caring and sharing are central to a Benedictine understanding of hospitality. These themes are the central motifs of the reading we have heard from Luke’s gospel: ‘sell all that you own and distribute your money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven, follow me.’ For Benedict the exercise of hospitality, and indeed charity, imply the sharing of our very best, the things we treasure. Benedict would very definitely not consider the redistribution of second hand goods or those things that we think have gone passed their sell by date to be the demonstrative of hospitality. Hospitality is about sharing the best of things.
But, why should we do this? Well, St Benedict writes in his Rule that: ‘all guests who arrive should be treated as if they were Christ, for he will say, ‘I was a stranger and you took me in.’’ St. Benedict stressed that ‘each person should be treated with respect,’ whilst also writing that ‘special care and attention should be shown in the reception of the poor and pilgrims because in such people Christ is more truly welcomed,’ he went on to add that ‘when it comes to rich people we are more likely to show them respect because we are in awe of them.’
Benedict’s notion of hospitality asks us to consider our values. Do we welcome the poor and the different on equal terms to the educated and the wealthy? Or in our mind's eye does a hierarchy exist? Are we content to share of our best with everyone, equally, full stop, or is there just the possibility that we might suggest to ourselves that a visitor, or pilgrim, might not really value that which we treasure? I would like to suggest that we need to be very careful when we offer, as part of our hospitality offering, something that might be considered second best because the accompanying subliminal message is that ‘you are second best.’ In the kingdom no-one is second best.
As a church I would like us to become truly excited by Benedict’s understanding of hospitality. I would like us to explore what it might mean for us in this community. I would like us to do this for one simple reason: it is through the exercise of hospitality that we reveal the love of God for each and every person; ‘I was a stranger and you took me in.’ Amen.
Rev. Andrew Lightbown
Trinity 2. Gospel: Matthew 10, 24-39, (but focusing on 34-39)
34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.
35 For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.
37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me;
and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."
I don’t know how you react to the above verses. Jesus, the man who has stressed that his role is to bring peace, suddenly seems to be rejecting the whole concept. The Messiah who insisted that the first words his disciples should say when entering a town were ‘peace be with you, ‘ and who used exactly the same words to greet the apostles in the post resurrection encounters, and who promised that he would leave us his peace is now stressing that he has come to bring a sword. In fact he seems to be rejecting the whole concept of peace.
We are entitled to ask ‘what on earth is going on?’ We are also entitled to ask why on earth should anyone want to follow a Messiah who appears to prize violence and discomfort over peace? After all, none of us want to be unsettled do we? And this is precisely the point. Jesus' role, his prophetic role, is to unsettle us. To draw out and reveal our conceits, inconsistencies, false loyalties and our need to belong to, and prioritise, our membership of certain tribes and cliques. The sword is about bringing freedom, it's about the severing of ties with unhealthy, yet inherited, structures of belief and belonging. The sword exists to cut away false certainty and idolatry so we can find greater freedom and greater peace.
And yet many will want to resist the hard and unsettling work of finding the deepest truths and real peace. For to find real peace takes courage. To find real peace means running the risk of severing unhealthy systems of thinking, relating and belonging. To find real peace necessitates the confronting of unhealthy truths. To find real peace means working for that which is potentially costly. To find real peace means casting aside the untruths that we have inherited both from within the church and from within society, hence the reference for ‘setting man against his father,’ and ‘daughter against mother,’ and so forth. Our priority must always be God and his values; ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’
And we need to be aware of the very real temptation to distort God’s values to meet our own particular needs, of the needs of the tribe, clan or clique which we either belong to or aspire to belong to. Throughout the ages the temptation has always existed to contain, domesticate and dampen down the gospel. This temptation is alive and well today. In fact, I would argue, this is the Western Church’s biggest temptation. The reason is that to live out the gospel and, to speak of gospel values always runs the significant risk of unpopularity, or at worst persecution; ‘blessed are you when they revile you for my name’s sake.’ It sounds nice and poetic until you contemplate its real meaning.
The Second World War theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, dared the church in Germany to live as people who believed in the Sermon on the Mount. He also knew that many members of the church would prefer to both peddle and receive what he referred to as ‘cheap grace,’ rather than accepting the mantle of ‘costly discipleship.’ Costly discipleship means fighting for peace and justice. It means caring about the outcast, the marginalised and the refugee. It means resisting any temptation to sanitise, re-define in the light of secular political ideology, and domesticate the incarnational theology of Jesus as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. It means doing so in the sure and certain knowledge that many in the church, and in wider society, will regard the task as either just to painful to contemplate or as being beyond the mandate of the church.
Jesus always stood head to toe with oppressive structures of thought and behaviour. He dared to tell his birth brothers, the Scribes and the Pharisees, that they were so wrong on so many levels. He didn’t buy into the whole idea of hierarchy and status. He hated injustice and exclusion. He befriended the poor, the ill, the outcast and stranger. We must, if we are serious about our faith, do likewise. Otherwise all we are left with is ‘cheap and feel good grace.’ And, yes it is entirely possible to feel good about our faith without allowing our faith to be a source for good and positive change. During the 1930s the church to which Bonhoeffer belonged, and this was his chief criticism of his own church, traded the freedom to attend church and say the prayers of the church, in return for its silence on all other issues. It was a false, and ultimately very costly, form of freedom. We must make sure we never make the same sort of mistake for if we do others will suffer. We must employ the sword of truth to sever through all false and comfortable notions of peace.
I would like to leave you with two quotes from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was one of the few churchmen to stand up to Hitler:
‘We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself,’
‘the ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world it leaves behind?’
Will you, even knowing the cost to your status and reputation, strive to help create a more just and Godly society?
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