Featured Sermon: St. Mary Magdalene – Rev. Deacon Teresa Houser
Good morning. Yesterday, the Church commemorated Saint Mary Magdalene. Hers is a remarkable story, but probably not for the reasons many of you think. When I say Magdalene, most people who recognize the name think of what generations of believers considered to be the worst kind of sinner: prostitutes – those who sold their bodies for money. Mary Magdalene is remembered as one of these lowly women who Jesus forgave. After that, she went on to faithfully follow him. However, much like today’s parable of the weeds among the wheat, there is a lot more to the story than what most of us might know.
Mary Magdalene existed; the name Magdalene derives from Magdala, a city in Galilee. The first biblical reference to her comes in Luke 8: 2, where it is noted that Jesus drove seven demons out of her and also cured other women of evil spirits and infirmities. According to this passage, these women evidently held sufficient means to provide for Jesus and the twelve apostles traveling with him in some manner. Significantly, all four Gospels present Mary Magdalene as a witness to Jesus’ death and all four also cite her as the first to learn about the resurrection, most dramatically in a conversation with the risen Christ in John. These passages are the only specific biblical references to Mary Magdalene by name. Acts 1: 14 notes that certain women remained with the apostles in Jerusalem following the ascension and, although the text does not cite Mary Magdalene, biblical scholars assume she was one of these.
One could presume from these passages that Mary Magdalene became a faithful servant and travelled with the apostles throughout the remainder of her life. This includes the brave example of not fleeing the way others did when the going got really rough after Jesus’ arrest, and even remaining to witness the crucifixion. These passages provide examples of devoted service by Mary Magdalene specifically, but also indicate the important role of women in the early church. I am proud and grateful to acknowledge that from the pulpit of a church that both ordains women and celebrates their voice and leadership in the church today in myriad other ways as well. Additionally, she offers a powerful example of faithfulness in that she is the first witness to the resurrection. She is tasked with heralding the good news, and in the tradition of the Eastern Church that persists to date, Mary Magdalene is esteemed as an equal to the apostles. How then did she earn such a reputation that never specifically appears in Scripture?
In 591, Pope Gregory the Great gave a sermon that solidified Mary’s reputation in the Western church forevermore as a redeemed prostitute. He conflated three textual references to women and used these to form a composite person. Gregory described this Mary as a prostitute who begged forgiveness from Jesus and received it. Simultaneously, he omitted the texts that referenced Magdalene as a continuing faithful servant of Jesus and companion of the apostles in the early church. It wasn’t until the 1960s that efforts began to undo Pope Gregory’s portrait and re-assert the actual historical Mary Magdalene of the Scriptures. We could study all the motives biblical scholars and historians have offered as explanations for Gregory’s harlotization of Mary Magdalene, but really…too often too many of us today are guilty of the same one-dimensional, blanket consideration of people – including even ourselves. Too often, we – as a society, in our small groups, or as individuals — become too ready to accept convenient explanations, even if that means writing someone off as a weed. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that it’s not that simple. It is too hard for us, walking in the field beside each other today, to know what is for sure weed from wheat.
Instead, in this parable Jesus reminds us that we are all wheat and weeds intertwined. Jesus likely envisioned a poisonous plant called the darnel to make this point. Darnel and wheat looked very similar in their early stages. The roots of darnel and wheat grew intertwined, so it was no simple task to try to simply pull out the weeds. To do anything drastic to hurt the weed meant destroying the good with it at a time when the plant was still growing and it was too early to know which was which. Thus, Jesus calls on us to wait and watch. Let growth occur – there will be time to sort out what is truly good and bad later, by the experts (in this case, the angels). To put it in a more direct way as our psalmist did, only God truly knows our hearts – only God really knows if we are the wheat or the weed, and God will decide that in God’s time.
In the Gospel today, we are not called to weed but to till the soil of God’s garden on earth. Jesus doesn’t task us to weed in the field of community. Instead, our work is to prepare the soil so that good and healthy creation can grow. Paul writes about this in his letter to the Romans when he states that we have the responsibility to set creation from the bondage of its decay. We are to strive to be a community where people who have never had a chance to do so truly can feel and experience the sunlight of the spirit and what spiritual growth means. This isn’t just a nice, do-gooder impulse. It is our very duty. We answer this in the way we live together in community in many ways – when we welcome the stranger, as you did me. When we offer love and support to those who are going through challenges in our broader community, as we do with all of our outreach programs. And we do this when we gather together for worship and bible study, and for coffee and conversations. And when we take care of each other in all the other ways that we tend to each other’s needs.
Jesus provided us very real examples of the lengths to which this commitment is to extend as he dined with sinners and tax collectors, forgave an adulteress, and redeemed those consumed by their demons – even in Mary Magdalene’s case, a woman who presented herself sick with seven of them. But these examples are not weeds any more so than those of us sitting here today are! I think that’s what Jesus is reminding us – there is darkness that tempts all of us at times. I have gone through times in my life when I’ve lived it more like a very unhealthy weed rather than flourishing wheat. I’ve made bad choices and I’ve sinned. But those bad choices and those sins – those times are not the end of my story. That’s the Christian promise of redemption open to all.
In Aramaic, the language Jesus used, Magdalene means tower of strength. Mary Magdalene’s example is so much more to us than that of a repentant sinner, as vitally important as that is. The collect for her commemoration yesterday notes how Jesus restored her to health of body and mind. Hers is a story of fully becoming wheat and of tending to the gifts of creation. After she was redeemed by Jesus, she didn’t just go away to a comfortable life. She stayed with Him. She gave what she had to help others, and she remained to be of service – not just when Jesus was on earth, but through the tumultuous years of the early church. She represents fearlessness in following Jesus – even going to the cross with him – and gritty determination to herald the gospel message, even when it is not well received. It is because of her strength and grace in receiving the gifts of healing and recovery that the church marked a day to commemorate her example.
Twelve step recovery programs are spiritually-based, and the seventh step is all about humility and relying on God’s help to get there. I think the Seventh Step Prayer is very much in line with Jesus’ parable today, and what Mary Magdalene’s example demonstrates for us. In the first part of the Seventh Step Prayer, we humbly ask God to accept us as we are – good and bad — and for God to remove our defects of character, or those weeds intertwined with the wheat. These weeds are what stand in the way of our usefulness to God and others. Then in the prayer, we ask for God to give us strength to do God’s work.
Let’s go forth today faithfully asking God for help in removing the weeds from the wheat in our own lives so that we can better work in God’s garden. Let’s work together to prep the soil within us and around us to so that God’s beautiful creation can grow.