Tuesday 21 July 2020

St Mary Magdalene - Seek, Find, Tell

Reflection during Morning Worship for the Community of Brendan the Navigator on Tuesday 21st July 2020, the Eve of the Feastday of St Mary Magdalene.

St Mary Magdalene, whose feast day falls tomorrow, plays a central role in Jesus’s ministry.
Her name tells us that she came from Magdala, now called Migdal, then a small fishing village on the Western shore of the Sea of Galilee, a little over 15 miles as the crow flies from Nazareth.

Luke tells us that she was one of several women who supported Jesus during his ministry in Galilee, after being cured of 7 demons. In those days all kinds of psychiatric illness were blamed on evil spirits. I think she must have been in great distress when she encountered Jesus, to need so many demons to be exorcised! We don’t know what her illness was, but perhaps she experienced psychotic hallucinations or something like that.

Mary was one of the women who accompanied Jesus on his last trip to Jerusalem. All 4 Gospels tell us she was one of those who watched and waited as Jesus was crucified, and we are told that she was close by when he was put in the tomb prepared for Joseph of Arimathea and the tomb was sealed with a stone on Good Friday evening.

In the early morning of the first Easter Sunday she went to the sepulchre with sweet spices to anoint Jesus’s body, and saw that the stone had been rolled back. She ran back to tell Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved. She returned to the tomb, weeping, and saw a vision of angels. And she said to them They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.

Turning around, she was the first to see the resurrected Jesus. She didn’t recognise him at once. She thought he was the gardener, even when he spoke to her. It was only when he called her by name, Mary!, that she knew who he was, and responded Rabbouni, meaning teacher in Hebrew.
And then she went to tell the disciples what she had experienced: I have seen the Lord.

That’s all we hear of Mary Magdalene in the New Testament, though no doubt she was one of the women who joined the Apostles in the upper room after Jesus’s ascension, as Acts tells us.

Many traditions and stories grew up about Mary Magdalene over the years.
Hundreds of years after her death, leaders of the Western Church identified Mary Magdalene as the same person as John’s Mary of Bethany, and Luke’s woman who was a sinner, who washed Jesus’s feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with perfume. Pope Gregory the Great preached a sermon about it in 591. But there is absolutely nothing in scripture to support this.

Quite unfairly, Mary Magdalene came to be seen as a prostitute who repented of her sins. There are many beautiful pictures of her, traditionally with long red hair immodestly worn down over her shoulders - other female saints have dark hair kept under a scarf. And her name was used for institutions for “fallen women”, including the notorious Magdalen Laundries here in Ireland.

The Eastern Churches are quite sure Mary Magdalene is different to the other two. In their tradition she retired to Ephesus with Mary the mother of Jesus and died there.

But in Provence a quite different tradition arose in the late middle ages. Mary Magdalene is supposed to have travelled with her brother Lazarus across the Mediterranean in a frail boat without rudder or mast to land near Arles. After converting Provence, she lived a life of penance in a cave for 30 years until her death, when angels carried her to her burial place in the oratory of St Maxime at Aix. The monks of V├ęzelay in Burgundy competed for years with the monks of St Maxime as to who had her real relics. They embellished their stories as they relieved pious pilgrims of their money.

To do the real woman justice, we must chisel away the later legendary incrustations, and get back to the simplicity of what we read in the gospels.
We should remember and celebrate Mary Magdalene, because as well as being a close friend of Jesus and supporting his ministry, she walked with him on the road to Calvary. She watched as he was cruelly murdered on the cross. She was there when he was laid out in the tomb. And she was the first person to experience his resurrection.

She was also the first person to carry the message of the resurrection, when she rushed to tell the news to the disciples. She was literally the Apostle to the Apostles. Let us put ourselves for a moment in her shoes that first Easter morning.

She was a seeker after God’s Kingdom. Jesus was her teacher. She believed he was showing her the way to the Kingdom. But he had been arrested, subjected to a show trial, and cruelly crucified. It must have seemed that all she hoped and prayed for had been dashed. Yet she loved him, so she couldn’t let him go without the proper rituals of mourning.

When she found the tomb apparently desecrated and the body gone, she must have felt she was living a nightmare. But she didn’t give up - she kept on seeking. She asked the person she thought was the gardener where the body had been taken to.

Then Jesus called her by name. Jesus found her - only then did she find him.

She heard Jesus say Go to my brothers and say to them “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God”, and she did as he asked. She must have felt an overwhelming joy, when she announced to the disciples ‘I have seen the Lord’.

What Mary Magdalene teaches us can be summed up in three words: Seek, Find, Tell.

If we seek God, we shall find him - but only when he calls us by name. And then we are compelled to repeat his message to others.

Sunday 19 July 2020

Weeping and gnashing of teeth

Address given at St Mary's, Nenagh on Sunday 19th July 2020, the Sixth after Trinity

Have you heard the old joke about the hell-fire preacher?
Reaching the climax of his sermon about the day of judgement, he declares in ringing tones the fate of those who fail to meet the standards of God’s Kingdom: ‘They will be thrown into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth’. At which point an old woman interrupts him, saying, “But I have no teeth”; to which the hell-fire preacher replies, “Madam, teeth will be provided”.

Joking aside, it is always worth pondering the parables Jesus uses to teach his followers. The parable of the weeds of the field in today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel (13:24-30, 36-43) follows on from the parable of the sower we looked at last Sunday, and it is no exception. So let’s look at it a little more closely.

The images Jesus uses in his parable would have been vivid and familiar to a Galilean audience.
Weeds were one of the curses against which a farmer had to labour before the discovery of weed-killers. In this parable the weed is no doubt bearded darnel, a kind of rye-grass. In its early stages darnel is indistinguishable from wheat. Only when they both produce seed-heads can they be told apart. But by then their roots are so intertwined that the darnel can’t be weeded out without damaging the roots of the wheat. Weeding would only reduce the yield.

The wheat and darnel can’t be safely separated while they are growing, but in the end they must be, because the grain of the darnel is slightly poisonous. In quantity it causes dizziness and sickness. So the master in the parable gets the reapers to separate them at harvest time. The darnel will be bundled up and burned, while the wheat will be threshed and gathered into the barn.

The idea of an enemy deliberately sowing weeds in someone else’s field would also have struck a chord. It was a crime forbidden in Roman law, which prescribed a punishment for it, so we can be sure it used to happen.

Jesus tells the crowd that the parable is about the kingdom of heaven, and Matthew records him later explaining it to his disciples, to help them – and us – understand what he meant by it. It is one of several parables recorded by Matthew in which Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to different things – others are a mustard seed and yeast. Jesus is teaching by analogy, and I feel sure we should not take it literally, but rather look for the underlying message.

It is the devil, says Jesus, who sows the weeds, the children of the evil one, in the field which is the world.
We all know instinctively, don’t we, what is right and what is wrong? We have been created as souls with consciences - in the image of God, to use the imagery of the Book of Genesis. But we all also experience insistent little voices within us, which tempt us to do what our God-given conscience tells us is not right. Theologians call it original sin, and Jesus personifies it as the work of the devil. But in our culture it may be easier to think of it as the bad side of ourselves, that part of own psyche which enables and encourages us to damage ourselves and others.

Let me illustrate it with some examples. Advertisers play on our innate greed by whispering, ‘Because you’re worth it’. They tell us that we will live more exciting lives if we buy a new car which will pollute the air in cities and damage health. They offer us a surfeit throughout the year of the rich food we all crave, even though air miles and intensified agriculture damages the ecosystems we depend on. They tempt us with foreign sun holidays, contradicting the public health advice we must follow to suppress Covid-19. It is the thin end of a very fat wedge. Further down that wedge we find unscrupulous interests that seek to persuade us that we and our communities cannot afford to take the steps needed to prevent catastrophic climate change.

However, Jesus warns us against pulling the weeds in case we uproot the wheat.
He is teaching us not to be too quick in our judgements of others. We are all too liable to classify and label people as good or bad without knowing all the facts. And people can change. We can be redeemed from sin by the grace of God, and equally we can disfigure a good life by a sudden collapse into sin. As Jesus says elsewhere, ‘Let he that is without sin cast the first stone’.

We are not entitled to make a final judgement about the righteousness of any other person – only God has that right. It is God alone who can discern the good and the bad. It is God alone who sees all of an individual and all of a person’s life.

Of course, we can’t help forming opinions of others, using our reason which is also God-given. And it is surely right that we should let such opinions guide our actions when appropriate. But we must never forget we may be mistaken. We would do well to remember the Quaker maxim – ‘There is something of God in every person’ – and try to find it.

But of one thing Jesus assures us – we will be judged eventually.
‘Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire’, says Jesus, ‘so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

When Jesus talks about the ‘end of the age’, I don’t think we should understand it as the end of time. Rather I think we should see it as a time which will come to us all – as certain as our own death – in which we see ourselves as God sees us, in one piece from our conception to our death, how we have touched those we have met, all the good in us, and all the bad too.

We are all a mixture of good and bad. Throughout our lives we have often done the wrong thing, but we have also often done the right thing. God loves each and every one of us, and will forgive our failures if we repent and change for the better.

At the end of the age, at a time that will come to us all, each one of us will see clearly. We will burn in the torment of shame for the evil we have done in our lives - we will weep and gnash our teeth. But for the good we have done, we ‘will shine like the sun in the kingdom of the Father’.

The issue in front of us is the balance between burning and shining.

I shall finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
Saving God,
in Jesus Christ you opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
give us pure and constant wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen

Sunday 12 July 2020

Sowing the seed

The Sower, Vincent Van Gogh 1888
Address given at St Mary's, Nenagh and Killodiernan on Sunday 12th July 2020, the 5th after Trinity

Do you find it difficult to remember the point of a sermon you’ve just heard?
I do – as a child my father used to test me over Sunday lunch and I often failed. It is as if what goes in one ear comes straight out the other. But a vivid, familiar and appropriate image makes all the difference in making words stick. And Jesus in his parables shows himself to be a master of using images to make his point.

Today’s reading from Matthew 13:1-9,18-23, what we now call the Parable of the Sower, is a great example of this.

Let us enter the scene in our imagination, and reflect on the point that Jesus is making.

So many people wanted to listen to Jesus that he used a boat as a pulpit to address the crowd on the beach.
The beach was on a lake, the Sea of Galilee. I’ve never been there, but I see it in my mind’s eye as rather like Lough Derg: it’s about 40% larger in area, and wider but not so long. I imagine the people crowded on the beach at Dromineer, and Jesus sitting in a lake boat talking to them.

Did Jesus see a man sowing in a nearby field? Perhaps this is what prompted the parable, and everyone could literally see what he was talking about.

The sower broadcasts the seed by hand, just as our ancestors did 200 years ago before seed-drills were perfected. The seed is in a bag or a basket, and he walks steadily up and down the field, taking a handful of seed and throwing it out as evenly as he can. Even at a distance it would be quite clear to everyone what he is doing, because they have seen it hundreds of times before, and many will have done it themselves.

Imagine a big field divided like allotments into strips farmed by different families, with paths between them, beaten down hard by the passage of many feet. The crowd can see the birds following the sower swooping down to gobble up the seed that inevitably falls on the path, for all the sowers skill.

Everyone would understand that different parts of the field are of different quality. Some parts are rocky. Don’t imagine small pebbles - imagine sheets of rock just under the surface, with just a few inches of soil on top. Think of the Burren or the Aran Islands. The soil above the rock warms early, and the seeds germinate quickly, but without a depth of soil the young seedlings soon run out of nutrients and water and shrivel up in the sun.

Some parts of the field are infested with perennial weeds - imagine scutch grass and creeping thistle, which quickly outgrows the delicate crop, choking it.

But other parts of the field are good land, with a deep, clean soil. Here the crop has nutrients and water enough, and little competition. It will flourish and produce a harvest of thirty, or sixty, or a hundred times the seed sown on it.

‘Let anyone with ears listen!’ Jesus finishes.

When the crowd has left, the disciples are uncertain what he meant – as so often we are too.
So Jesus interprets the parable for them himself - perhaps to reassure them that they do indeed understand what he is getting at.

The seed sown on the path is the word of God’s kingdom spoken, but not understood. This is the good news that God’s kingdom has come near, which Jesus offers everyone. But the good news is snatched away, before it ever has the chance to sprout in people’s hearts.

The seed sown on rocky ground is the good news received with joy, but by people with shallow roots - without character. Their initial enthusiasm cannot withstand trouble or persecution, and they fall away.

The seed sown among thorns is the good news heard by people who are so trapped by worldly cares and the lure of wealth that they cannot act upon it.

But the seed sown on good soil is the good news heard by those who understand it, and do act upon it. Only such people will yield a harvest of good.

The point of Jesus’ sermon for us today is just the same as it was on that lake shore 2000 years ago.
If we are to be the good people God wants us to be, we must cultivate our characters so that we become like good soil which will yield a rich harvest of good.

Each one of us must develop the character traits of attention, of persistence, and of concentration.
·         Attention, so that we do not miss God’s call when it comes.
·         Persistence, so that we can withstand opposition and the mocking of others when we answer God’s call.
·         Concentration, so that the cares of the world and the pursuit of wealth do not distract us from acting on God’s call.

I think hese same character traits are also the ones we need to overcome the Covid-19 virus. Attention, to hear and understand public health advice. Persistence, to follow it when we see others ignoring it. And Concentration, to avoid being distracted by the calls of those with ulterior motives to prematurely reopen our society.

None of this is easy, of course. We cannot do it without help. So let us thank God for the vivid image Jesus has given us in the Parable of the Sower to show us the dangers we face. And let us remember, as St Paul tells us in today’s epistle reading from Romans 8: 1-11, that we have received the Holy Spirit to work within us to help us avoid the dangers: ‘If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you’.

Through that Spirit, by God’s grace, we will be like good soil which yields a rich harvest of good.

Let us finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word.
Bountiful God,
we thank you for planting in us the seed of your word:
by your Holy Spirit,
help us to receive it with joy,
and to live according to it,
that we may grow in faith and hope and love:
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen