Beloved of God: some of you may not yet have seen the email that went out on Thursday night to the congregation from the wardens and me. In it, I shared that after six years as your rector, I have accepted a call from Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows to serve on her staff as the Canon to the Ordinary for Congregational Development and Leadership, in the Diocese of Indianapolis.
I will be glad to talk more with you about what that involves, but the most concrete thing for right now is that it means my time as your rector will be drawing to a close. I will be here with you for the rest of the summer, and into the first two weeks of September. On Friday, September 14, word is that we’re going to have a big party. September 16 will be my last Sunday at St. Augustine’s. The next day will mark our move to Indiana.
You are a remarkable church: strong and loving, practical and wise…because you are comprised of remarkable people: strong and loving, practical and wise…filled with joy and good humor, and knit together by the good work of the Holy Spirit. And you will continue, of course you will continue, to be exactly who you, after I have gone.
I want you to know that this is no small heartbreak for me, and for my family, to leave St. Augustine’s. You are the church that I love. And if I can presume to paraphrase e.e. cummings: I will carry you with me/I will carry you in my heart.
So let’s carry each other, these next weeks that we have, in celebration and thanksgiving for the journey we have shared. I am so grateful for this time as your priest.
The Church has been working out its salvation with regard to women in the story of Mary Magdalene from the time she walked this earth, throughout centuries and millennia, until now.
Most commonly, Mary Magdalene is memorialized in writing and music and art as a prostitute, a cautionary tale, only redeemed because she is penitent. That’s how Mary Magdalene gets managed, too often, in the history of our culture and in the memory of our church. Her virtue in that narrative is that she is sorry, and Jesus is generous.
Mary Magdalene’s introduction in Luke’s gospel takes place just after an unnamed woman interrupts Jesus’ dinner with a Pharisee. That woman is a sinner, the text tells us, and for more than a thousand years, the church has interpreted this woman’s sin as sexual. (As an aside, I will tell you that the Greek word for “sinner” in that passage is the same Greek word in the same gospel that Peter uses when he cries out to Jesus in the fifth chapter: “Have mercy on me, for I am a sinner.” However, I have yet to see any scholar ever interpret Peter’s sin, in his use of the same word, as a sexual one.) Anyway. Because this story of the sinful woman with the alabaster jar who comes and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair and anoints him with oil from the alabaster jar – because that all happens just before Mary Magdalene is introduced in this gospel…and because Mary Magdalene happens to be a woman…Mary Magdalene is interpreted, first by Pope Gregory the Great in a sermon series in the sixth century and thereafter by many, many others, as being that same peculiarly sinful woman.
Mary Magdalene’s image has been reinvented, throughout the centuries, “from prostitute…to mystic, to celibate nun, to passive (helper), to feminist icon, to the matriarch of divinity’s secret dynasty.” Anybody remember The DaVinci Code? The church and our culture have been working out our salvation as regards women for a good long while now.
“How the past is remembered, how…desire is domesticated, how men and women negotiate their separate impulses; how power inevitably seeks sanctification, how tradition becomes authoritative, how revolutions are co-opted; how fallibility is reckoned with, and how…devotion can be made to serve violent domination – all these cultural questions helped shape the story of the woman (from Magdala) who befriended Jesus of Nazareth.”
What we know about her from scripture is this: Mary Magdalene is named – something that happens rarely for women in the Bible; and her words are recorded, as well, which is even more unusual. We know she comes from Magdala, a small fishing town on the Sea of Galilee in the same region as Nazareth. She carries stature, Mary Magdalene; because not only is she named, but she is named first wherever she is remembered among others in scripture – a sign of honor and respect for her.
We know that Jesus healed her when he cast out seven demons, and that she followed him after that, together with other women: Joanna and Susanna, and others whom Jesus had also healed of evil spirits and infirmities. We know that these women had sufficient resources and independence that made it possible for them to leave what they were doing to follow him. And more than that, we know that they had enough money, in their own control, that they could help fund his ministry…and they did.
We know that when the other disciples got scared and fled from Golgotha during Jesus’ crucifixion, Mary Magdalene stayed.
And finally, in today’s gospel passage, we know that three days after his death, Mary walked in the dark to his grave. And after the confusion and the running and the empty tomb, we know that – again – Mary Magdalene stayed. The stone had been rolled away. Jesus’ body was not where they had laid it.
“They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where…” she told the angels, as she wept, not knowing that those angels were angels. “If you have carried him away, just tell me where,” she begged the gardener, who, it turns out, was not the gardener after all. And then he said her name…and she knew. And he sent her to tell the others…and she did.
In that moment, we know something very important – maybe most important – about Mary Magdalene: she is the first evangelist. She is the first one to share the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.
She had experienced what it was to be possessed by demons, and she also possessed the strength that it took to be healed of them. She took the risk, one way or another, as the disciples had, to leave whatever her life was before that healing, in order to follow the one who had healed her. She had both the resources and the practical generosity to offer in paying what was needed for Jesus’ ministry. She stepped into a space of unimaginable pain at Jesus’ crucifixion, and then she stayed there with him through it all. And even in the confusion and further pain at that empty tomb, when the others left, she stayed. She stayed, and would bear witness to good news greater than anyone could ask or imagine.
What does it tell us, that our history has taken: a woman strong enough to withstand possession and be healed, a woman who risked danger and judgment by following a teacher who threatened the religious order, a woman who practiced generosity from her own means, who stood in the midst of pain and stayed there, a woman first to carry the good news that Christ was alive – what does it say, that our history has most often reduced her to that most common trope which would give the powers that be the powers they need to in order to control a powerful woman?
And where is the good news of her story?
Well, I believe it is first in the fact that we know it. We know her name and her words and her actions. And so we can also know that we are her heirs.
In 1980, the rector at the time – the Rev. Joe Mazza, father of our own Joy Witt – together with the wardens and the vestry of St. Augustine’s, petitioned Bishop James Montgomery to set aside his concerns about women’s ordination (four years after women’s ordination had become regularized by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church) and make Janice Gordon a priest. Men and women worked together to convince the bishop that women could serve as preachers and evangelists in the legacy of Mary Magdalene. Later that year, through no small effort of the leaders of this parish, the Rev. Janice Gordon would go on to be ordained at St. James Cathedral with three other women. She would serve here at St. Augustine’s, the first woman called to a clergy staff in the Diocese of Chicago.
That legacy continues, even now, as this parish sustains the ministry of our deacon, the Rev. Sue Nebel, and as you called me to be the first woman installed at St. A’s as rector.
And that is not all – because this church is filled with women who are the heirs of Mary Magdalene, and with men who know our names, and listen to our words. You are strong enough to bear what you should not have to, and you are willing to do what it takes to be made whole. You take risks, and are generous. You know what it is to stand steadfast in spaces of pain, and stay there. And like Mary Magdalene, God has entrusted you with good news that this world needs desperately for you to share.
So go, you bearers of the gifts handed down from generation to generation, all the way to us. Do not be reduced by a cautionary tale, because that version of redemption has always been too small to be true of God’s promise for us. Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, as evangelists and allies, carrying the testimony of the God who knows us and names us, who loves us and calls us very good.
Blessed Feast of Mary Magdalene, dear people of this church I love. Go forth as witnesses to the good news that is her legacy, and ours.
 Luke 5:8