July 22, 2018

2018 July22

 

Proper 11 - Year B

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Karen Siegfried

 

 “As Jesus went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd…And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” (Mark 6)


“And Jesus had compassion
for them.”


“The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.” (Charter for Compassion)


It is my belief that compassion is the underlying force that propelled Jesus to use his incredible gifts of healing to make a difference in his world. It was not only his words that drew large crowds or even the idea that he was the promised messiah of Israel. What attracted the passionate crowds and strengthened the devotion of his followers was his tireless compassion which strengthened his willingness to relieve those who suffered in mind and body by sharing his gifts of healing.

 

One of those people whom Jesus healed was Mary Magdalene, a woman from the town of Magdala on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee. We don’t know the specifics of the how and when, but what we do know from the biblical evidence is that Jesus (in his compassion) healed her of seven demons. And from then on, she followed him until his death.


Not having the medical sophistication that we now have, 1st century Hebrews believed that illness was caused by demons that would play havoc on the body, mind, and soul. Access to medical care was at a minimum. Today we would name those demons as viruses, bacterial infections, chemical imbalances, dementia, epilepsy, and depression. However, whether you call them demons or illnesses, the outcome is the same: People suffer from assaults to the body, mind, and soul and desperately seek after healing wherever they might find it; whether it is by laying mats in the marketplaces for Jesus to touch or making an appointment to see the doctor or to rushing off to the emergency room for medical care.


Today, being the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene, I would like to spend some time speaking about her relationship with Jesus and her reputation. It is a story of compassion and healing. Back in August of 2014, I had the opportunity to “write an icon” of St. Mary Magdalene under the tutelage of a well-respected, Russian iconographer. He taught us the technique of egg-tempera in the painting of icons. (show & tell) What stands of for me in this icon are not only the eyes but also that it is unfinished. I never had time to put the finishing touch on this painting. But it is an apt reminder to me that we are all unfinished in some way. And that we depend on the grace of God to do the finishing work.


The word icon means image. Icons depict figures or events from the Bible or Church history to remind us of the Light of Christ that is reflected in the lives of the many saints that have gone before us. As you might remember, after Jesus healed Mary of her many infirmities, she became so grateful that she supported his ministry out of her own pocket. Mary stood at the cross weeping as her beloved teacher and friend suffered. She was the first disciple to witness to his resurrection and spread the good news to the other apostles who were hiding out in fear of their own lives. She was a woman of courage, integrity, generosity, and commitment. Indeed, her image is worth remembering!


So how did the reputation of
Mary of Magdala, who was once
honored as the apostle to the
apostles, morph into a penitent
prostitute, portrayed by many
artists as a loose woman
showing a lot of cleavage?

 

How did Mary, who was once one of the most powerful leaders of the Jesus Movement, get demoted and have her reputation sullied over the centuries? We don’t know for sure but what we do know is this: Women’s leadership in the church began to decline as the primacy of the papacy began to increase.


As the state of celibacy among the faithful was elevated over married life, and the spiritual was valued over physicality, women, sexuality, and issues of the flesh were suppressed. Eventually, the reputation of Mary Magdalene was tarnished when her identity was conflated with the woman in the bible story who anointed Jesus feet with oil and wiped them with her hair. By the 6th century, Pope Gregory sealed her fate for almost 1400 years, portraying Mary, not as a leader but as a repentant prostitute, while associating the 7 demons whom Jesus cast out as being the seven deadly sins.

 

What stands out for me in this history of St. Mary of Magdala is how easy it is to put a different spin on a story to support one’s position, even if it means playing havoc with the truth.  White lies, partial truths, conflation, double speak, flexible ethics, fake news, opportunistic media manipulations, ideological framing, false witness, and propaganda all play a part in promoting falsehood, whether it is in the church, in our relationships, or in the public square.

 

Partial truth often comes about whenever power is misused, thus shrouding all that is true, honorable, just, lovely, and gracious. We see this spin on stories happening today in the media and in the political arena as politicians fight to win at the expense of truth. Even in our relationships, partial truths are often spoken as we refuse to compromise or admit that we may be wrong. On an inner personal level, we allow deceit to go unchecked, rejecting honest criticism and refusing to rise above our ego defenses to do the hard work of refining our character in order to be a shining light of Christ to the world.

 

One of the greatest stories that has been spun over the centuries is the story of Jesus. Being a poor Jew of humble origin in 1st Century Palestine, he had incredible gifts of healing, preaching, and thinking outside the box of the conventional wisdom of his day. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, preached good news to the marginalized, challenged the rich, and exposed the hypocrisy of the powerful. Then he called his disciples to follow him as the way, the truth, and the life. And for the first few centuries of the Jesus Movement, many Christians did exactly that.

 

Outsiders were drawn into the early Christian communities because of their compassion and outreach to the marginalized. When a plague would break out in Rome, all who could, would flee to the hills. But not so with the early Christians. They would stay behind and take care of the sick, even at great risk to their own lives. And so these communities would grow in number as they lived out the good news of Christ.

 

So what happened to this primacy of healing and compassion in the lives of Christians? Why did Jesus’ humanity get overshadowed by his divinity, leaving people to worship him rather than follow him? How did this humble carpenter’s son get co-opted by the emperors of the world who used his name to justify the many crusades, pogroms, and witch-hunts that resulted in the killing of millions of Jews, Muslims, and accused heretics?

 

How did our nation turn from being a sanctuary for persecuted Christians in the 17th century to one which now closes its borders to the persecuted families of Central America? How did baptized followers of Jesus switch their focus and concern from healing the sick, feeding the poor, and ministering to those on the margins, to an ideology of federal fiscal austerity, unchecked individualism, and insatiable consumerism? How did we as a nation, settled by devote Christians, allow Christianity to morph into a nationalistic religion where standing for the national anthem is deemed more important than striving for the dignity of every human being?

 

I think it is time to re-spin the story of Jesus and recover his original focus of healing and compassion. This is what the Episcopal Church under the direction of our presiding bishop has begun.


“The Jesus Movement [in the Episcopal Church] is the ongoing community of people who center their lives on Jesus and following him into loving, liberating and life-giving relationship with God, each other and creation. Together, we follow Jesus as we love God with our whole heart, soul and mind and love our neighbors as ourselves and restore each other and all of creation to unity with God in Christ.” (Episcopal Church website, BCP, p. 855)

 

Jesus launched this movement
about 2000 years ago when he
welcomed the first disciples to
follow his loving, liberating, and
life-giving Way.

 

He launched this movement when he healed Mary Magdalene of her seven demons. He launched this movement when he showed compassion to the crowds and healed the sick to the point of exhaustion. He launched this movement when he sacrificed his life by speaking out in the name of justice, peace, and the dignity every human being.


Today, as baptized Christians in the Episcopal Church, we are being called to return to this authentic way of life as shown to us by Jesus. We are being asked to participate in this movement of compassion with our whole lives: our prayer, worship, teaching, preaching, gathering, healing, action, family, work, play and rest. In all things, we are called to be loving, liberating and life-giving—just like the God who formed all things in love. The question that is being asked of each of us today is this: Will you embrace this call? The decision of course, is always yours.

© 2018 St. Stephen's Episcopal Church
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