Sermon for Bold Women Sunday

Note: Each year, Hope Lutheran’s local chapter of the Women of the ELCA, or WELCA, observes Bold Women Sunday in February. I, as the pastor, choose a Biblical woman to focus on for that day. So today we talked about Mary Magdalene, and had a mini-Easter celebration. Here is the sermon.

John 20:1-18

Mary Magdalene is probably the most well-known woman of the New Testament next to Mary, the mother of Jesus. And yet, she is one of those women that we think we all know, but in reality, we don’t. How many movie portrayals of Jesus’ life has Mary Magdalene shown up in? I can rattle off a few: Jesus Christ Superstar; The Passion of the Christ; The Last Temptation of Christ; last year’s movie, Risen, starring Joseph Fiennes, and probably many more. And in just about every single one of these movies, Mary Magdalene is portrayed as a reformed prostitute. But yet, nowhere in Scripture does it say that she was a prostitute. The Gospel of Luke names Mary Magdalene as one of several women who were supporting Jesus out of their own finances, and it also says that Jesus drove seven demons out of her, but it does not say that she was a prostitute. So, why is she believed by many to be a prostitute? In the Middle Ages, Pope Gregory the Great, with no proof whatsoever, stated in a homily that he believed her to be the unnamed sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. And since everyone knew that for a woman to be sinful meant that she had to have been sexually promiscuous, poor Mary Magdalene suddenly became a prostitute. Even though there is nothing in the Gospels to indicate that this is true, it was assumed that because a pope said it, it must be true. The damage done, Mary Magdalene has been thought of in popular culture as a prostitute ever since, and still gets portrayed as such, even though the Roman Catholic Church said officially, in 1969, that Mary Magdalene was not the same woman as the sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet.

Another popular portrayal of Mary Magdalene is the idea that she was in love with Jesus and may have secretly been married to him. Although an older idea, it became prominent again in Dan Brown’s popular novel, The Da Vinci Code, where one of the main characters turns out to be a descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and the Roman Catholic Church had covered up the knowledge that Jesus and Mary were a couple to suit their own purposes. Pure fiction, although I thought the book was very riveting when I first read it. This idea comes from well-meaning people who have studied Jewish culture and who have noted that it was highly unusual for a Jewish rabbi in the first century to be unmarried, and so they try to marry Jesus off. Mary Magdalene is the female disciple who is mentioned in all four resurrection accounts, plus the mention that Luke makes of her as a prominent figure among Jesus’ band of followers, so she becomes the ideal candidate for Jesus to have secretly married. But the truth is that, while yes, it would have been unusual for a Jewish rabbi not to have been married, it was not unheard of. And there is absolutely no evidence in the Gospels tying Mary Magdalene to Jesus in that way.

So, let’s get back to what we do know is true about Mary Magdalene. First, she was a prominent follower of Jesus, and she is mentioned in all four accounts of the resurrection. Second, she was an independent woman who had finances of her own and who supported Jesus with those finances, along with other female disciples. Third, Jesus drove seven demons out of her. And finally, as we see in today’s Gospel lesson from John, she was among the first of the women to see the risen Jesus and believe, and she was the one who ran and told the disciples, making her the “Apostle to the Apostles.”

Let’s then take a look at our Gospel lesson today. John 20 is the most detailed account of Mary Magdalene that we get in the Scriptures. Mary Magdalene was among the women who had been with Jesus when he was crucified, standing at the foot of the cross. She had seen him die, and she knew that people don’t come back from death, especially death by crucifixion. John doesn’t tell us why Mary was going to the tomb—in the other Gospel accounts, the women are going to anoint Jesus’ body, but in John’s, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea had already done that. So, perhaps Mary was going to the tomb to mourn and to say goodbye to Jesus. But when she got there, the stone was rolled away and the tomb was empty. Now, we who live after the resurrection often wonder why Mary and the others were so slow to believe what Jesus had taught them. But the fact is that people simply don’t live again after dying, and so a teaching about resurrection is very hard to believe. And thus, Mary’s natural assumption is that grave robbers have come and stolen Jesus’ body. And so, not knowing what else to do, she runs to tell the male disciples.

As I was reading this story again and thinking about it, I realized something that I hadn’t clearly seen before: when Mary tells her story of the empty tomb, Peter and the other disciple come running and verify that the tomb is indeed empty. But they don’t do a blessed thing about it. Instead, they shrug their shoulders and go home. All right, let’s think about this for a moment. The men are the ones with the power in this society. They’ve just been told, and they’ve seen for themselves, that the body is gone. John tells us that they don’t yet understand that Jesus is risen from the dead. Therefore, they’re most likely operating under the assumption that Mary has made: the body has been stolen. And they’re not alarmed by this? Are they not wondering what’s happened? Are they simply afraid? Don’t they care? What in the name of God are these two guys thinking, to just go home like everything’s okay? And here’s the even more startling part of the story: Mary stays in the garden. She stays. She weeps, because not only is her Lord and Master dead, but now she doesn’t even know where his body has gone. She weeps in hopeless despair, and she bends over to look into the tomb one more time, just to be certain she didn’t miss anything.

The next thing that happens is even stranger. She suddenly sees two angels there asking her why she is weeping. Well, that would seem rather obvious. If you’re in or near a tomb, there’s a near 100% certainty that you are mourning someone you love who has died. But, Mary plays along and tells them about her pain. Then she turns around and sees Jesus. We don’t know why she doesn’t recognize him at first. It could have been that she wasn’t really looking at him. It could have been that her eyes were so swollen from the tears that she couldn’t really see clearly. Most of all, it’s probably that she still wasn’t expecting someone to come back from the dead. So Mary assumes that this guy is the gardener. And she outright accuses him of being a grave robber and says that she will go and get Jesus’ body! Mistaken in her assumption though she was, this is a bold, strong, and persistent woman.

And because Mary stays when the disciples leave, she is the first one to see the resurrected Jesus. She is the first one to believe the good news, because Peter and the other disciple who came with him only believed Mary’s story that the tomb was empty. And Mary is the first one to hear the risen Jesus call her name, and the first one privileged to bear the good news to the others that Jesus is risen! He is risen indeed! It is for this reason that she is named the Apostle to the Apostles.

Jesus is calling each one of us by name. Are we listening? And shall we go where he calls us to go? It has been my experience, as I have heard Jesus calling my name, that he is very persistent. He hasn’t let me go until I have listened to him and gone where I have heard him calling my name. And we see that in this story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the risen Jesus. She persisted. When the male disciples left, she persisted in doing what she thought was right: staying at the grave, weeping for her Lord and Master who she thought was dead, accusing the man she thought was the gardener of moving the body and demanding that he tell her where the body was so she could go and get it. And then, when Jesus calls her by name and she recognizes him, she persists: trying to hold onto him, and then, when Jesus redirects her attentions, going and announcing to the disciples that she has seen the Lord.

Jesus persists in calling us, flawed though we may be. And once he has called us, he expects us to be persistent in our calling: to share the good news that he is risen, and that he brings forgiveness for our sins. Now, one thing that persistent does not necessarily mean is to be obnoxious. One can be persistent in speaking of Jesus without being obnoxious about it. It simply means listening to the other person first, and then sharing your faith and what Jesus means to you when the moment calls for it. Persistence can also mean continuing to do the good works which Jesus has called us to do—not so that we can get to heaven, because Jesus has already accomplished that for us—but to help our neighbor who is in need. And when we are asked why we are doing these things, we use that as an opening to speak of Jesus, graciously, with gentleness and respect for the other, and how much Jesus loves all of us.

Contrary to what popular culture has said over many years, Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute and she was not involved in a secret relationship with Jesus. So then, what is the image that this saint gives us? She gives us hope that women can be strong, whole, and independent on their own, and still be disciples of Jesus. She shows us that Jesus calls each one of us to a vocation of telling others that Jesus is risen, that he loves us, and that he forgives us. Whether female or male, Jesus loves us as whole human beings, no matter what our status is in life. And we are each given the commission to share this good news with everyone we meet, both in word and in deed. So, let’s be bold and persistent as Mary Magdalene was. Let’s go forth and tell everyone we meet that we have seen the Lord, and invite them to come and see as well. Amen.

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Sermon for Epiphany 6A

Matthew 5:21-37

When people find out that I came to the ELCA from the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, there are usually two reactions that I observe. Sometimes it’s either one reaction or the other, and sometimes it’s a combination of both. If the person has had experience going to an LCMS congregation, the story that I hear is one of how, when the pastor found out that the person was from the ELCA, he told the person that he or she could not receive communion there. I hear how the person was hurt by that prohibition, and sometimes how the person became angry, too. The other reaction I get is when the person has heard of the Missouri Synod Lutherans, but doesn’t really know what the difference between them and the ELCA Lutherans are. When this happens, I usually point out the most visible differences: the rules on who can receive communion in the LCMS vs. the ELCA, and the fact that the Missouri Synod does not ordain women to be pastors. The times when I get a combination of those reactions is when the person has been hurt by being forbidden to receive communion in a congregation of Lutherans, and doesn’t understand why this happened. And it is then that I realize that all of the visible differences between these two Lutheran church bodies boil down to one thing: people interpreting Holy Scripture differently, in order to make it relevant for the society we live in.

In today’s Gospel lesson, a portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we find Jesus interpreting Scripture in a new way for the community of disciples who were forming around him. As good Jewish people, Jesus’ disciples would have known the Torah: the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, what we Christians call the Old Testament. And they would have known the Ten Commandments. They would have known God’s command not to murder; they would have known the commandment to not commit adultery; they would have known their society’s laws, drawn from the book of Deuteronomy, regarding divorce, and they would have known the laws regarding oath-taking. These laws are not news to them. But those commandments were given by God on Mount Sinai many hundreds of years before Jesus and his disciples were living in Palestine. Jewish society had changed over those many centuries: the people had gone from being a nomadic people of twelve tribes loosely bound together, to a united people under one king, then to two kingdoms, and then dispersed when empires came in and conquered them. In Jesus’ time, there were many Jewish people living together in Palestine once more, but they were now under Roman occupation. And many Jewish rabbis besides Jesus were helping their people to interpret God’s Law for that day and that time, so that they might live faithful lives with God. Like these other rabbis, Jesus was interpreting Holy Scripture so that it would be relevant to how the disciples interacted, not only with others in their community, but also with those outside of the Jesus-following community.

So, let’s take the first part of today’s Gospel, where Jesus interprets the command not to murder. Jesus tightens this up: for those in the community that claim to follow Jesus, the command not to murder goes much further than the actual taking of another person’s life. It means that you are not to be angry with another person; it means that you are not to insult another person; and it means that you are not even to call another person a fool. Wow. I know in my lifetime I haven’t followed that rule very well. How about all of you? By the way, I think that Jesus knew that spontaneous anger is a natural, human emotion. That’s really not something that we can help, and in some cases, anger is good; for example, when we become angry at some injustice that we see. In this case, our anger can motivate us to work for change. What Jesus is talking about here, and we see it when he talks about leaving our gift on the altar and being reconciled to our brothers and sisters, is letting that anger take root inside us: in other words, holding a grudge. But that still doesn’t get us off the hook, does it? I know that I have held grudges against people in my lifetime.

Why does Jesus interpret the commandment not to murder in such a strict way? Well, let’s hear from a modern-day interpreter of the law: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” So says Yoda in the Star Wars movie franchise. Well, Jesus doesn’t start with fear, like Yoda does. But I think he would agree that anger—an unresolved grudge—leads to hate, and hate would lead to murder. In other words, our thoughts matter, because our thoughts are what lead us to violate the commandments. In the community that follows Jesus, loving one another and treating one another with respect begins with our thoughts.

Jesus is interpreting the next commandment, not to commit adultery, in the same way: the act of adultery begins with one look, and then the evil desire takes root in our thoughts. Someone made a comment recently that, no matter how literally a community of Christians reads Scripture, this portion of the Sermon on the Mount is where even that community would have to draw the line. Otherwise we would see many men without right eyes and without right hands. But Jesus’ exaggeration here shows how seriously he thinks his followers should be taking this commandment. Love and respect for one another includes having love and respect for women, which is also included in Jesus’ teaching on divorce. In the community that follows Jesus, loving one another and treating one another with respect begins with our thoughts, and it includes men not treating women as objects to satisfy their whims.

From anger, adultery, and divorce, we move on to oath-taking, which seems like it has little relationship to what has gone before. But again, Jesus is interpreting Scripture as to how the community of believers who follow him should behave towards one another. In 1st century Jewish culture, where only a small percentage of the population could read or write, giving one’s word was extremely important and, when you gave a verbal promise, you were expected to keep it. If the two people involved were not familiar with one another, then an oath was taken in order to make the promise binding even before God. Unfortunately, this practice had gotten out of hand, and oaths were taken for the littlest things, and then may or may not have been kept. Jesus is saying here that a community of believers who love and respect one another not only will have control over their thoughts, but will communicate with one another simply, and will trust one another to keep their word without need of an oath.

So, then, if Jesus were present physically here in 21st century America, how would he interpret the teachings of the Torah to be relevant to our time? Well, I would like to make some suggestions. “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you hold a grudge against a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment, and if you insult a brother or sister on social media because of his or her differing opinion, then you will be liable to judgment, and if you bully a brother or sister, either in person or on social media, then you will be liable to the hell of fire.” And the next one, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who views pornography, or who says that the woman was ‘asking for it because of what she was wearing,’ or who thinks that he has a right to use a woman as an object, has already committed adultery with her in his heart. And the same thing goes for women thinking these things about men.” And finally, when Jesus speaks about taking oaths, he might speak of fulfilling contracts that we have signed our names to. When we promise to do something, we should do our utmost to fulfill that promise. All of these things that he teaches are simply about loving one another and treating one another with respect.

As I was preparing this sermon today and thinking about these teachings of Jesus, all of my sinfulness flashed before my eyes. I thought about specific instances when I had fallen short of these instructions, and I remembered them with shame. And here’s the thing: I think Jesus knows that we are human. Jesus knows that we are unable to live up to these instructions all of the time, and he knows that our thoughts are hard for us to control. Martin Luther calls this the second use of the law: the law holds a mirror to us, so that we see how sinful we are, and how we have fallen short, and how much we have need of God’s mercy and forgiveness. And through Jesus, who gave us these teachings, and who died for us on the cross, we have that forgiveness that we so desperately need. Martin Luther writes, in his explanation of baptism, that our baptism “signifies that the old person in us with all sins and evil desires is to be drowned and die through daily sorrow for sin and through repentance, and on the other hand that daily a new person is to come forth and rise up to live before God in righteousness and purity forever”. Sin is a daily struggle for us, but we know that, because we have been baptized into Christ, we can always repent of our sins and be assured of God’s love and forgiveness through Jesus.

The teachings that Jesus gives us will always need to be interpreted anew to apply for new situations and new realities that we find ourselves living in. The people of first century Palestine could not imagine what 21st century America would look like, and what situations we would find ourselves in today. And yet, Jesus’ teachings still ring true throughout the centuries, and give us a vision of what the community of those who follow him should look like. Societies may change, but the command to love and respect one another never goes away. May God give us the grace to recognize our sinfulness, to repent of it, and newly forgiven, keep growing into those teachings. Amen.