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July 23 2023 “Mary Magdalene, rescued and rescuer”

July 23 2023 “Mary Magdalene, rescued and rescuer”

Like so many of the disciples, Mary of Magdala was rescued by Jesus.

You’ll remember that Matthew, the tax collector who collaborated with the local Roman occupiers, was rescued when Jesus invited himself to dinner at Matthew’s house. Nobody who valued their reputation would set foot in such a sinner’s house, much less sit down to a meal. But Jesus saw the good in him, and for the rest of his life, Matthew explained that even a wretch like him could change.

And Paul, clutching warrants for the arrest of any Jesus people he could find, was knocked off his horse and blinded by a vision and a voice: Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? The cruel lawman became the ardent advocate.

Mary’s story is never told in the Gospels. Luke just says she had seven demons driven out of her. That might mean the first six exorcisms didn’t do the trick, or more likely, since the number seven means “complete,” it meant that her demons completely controlled her life. In the Middle Ages, some preachers suggested she suffered, like we all do, from all seven of the deadly sins. Anyway, like so many others, Mary’s life was turned around by this healing teacher or teaching healer. She left her home village on the big lake in Galilee, like Peter and Andrew and James and John. Like Matthew. And she began to follow the man, staying in strangers’ houses, eating other people’s food, answering questions. Telling people just what demons used to haunt her days.

For two or three years, she talked to people, local folks and the soldiers, families, and slaves of Roman occupiers, posted there far from their homes back in Africa, Asia, or Europe. After Jesus would heal someone, a crowd would gather. Mary would encourage people to listen to what he had to say, because his words were as precious as his touch. He had sent all seven of her demons away, and she knew how to keep them from coming back.

Luke also notes that along with Joanna and Susana, Mary provided for the other disciples out of her own resources. In other words, she was at least somewhat wealthy. At the end of his life, she stayed close to her teacher, watching him die as the crowds yelled insults, seeing him buried, and in this morning’s story, meeting him–alive– outside the tomb where she had expected to find his body all wrapped up in white cloth. She thought he was the gardener, but when he spoke her name, she realized who this stranger was. Don’t hold on to me, Mary, for I have not yet ascended to my father.

What does he mean, don’t hold on to me? A week later, he told Thomas to at least touch him, if not hold on, but on the other hand, in another story, just after some disciples recognized him in the act of blessing and breaking bread, Jesus vanished. So those people couldn’t have clung to him, either. Letting go of him, Mary runs to tell the others.

I’m guessing she eventually went back to Magdala, and (if the synagogue there would tolerate her story about a man raised from the dead who was more powerful than his public execution) she rejoined the cycle of worship. She helped grow the movement that would one day become a world religion.

Her neighbors surely remembered those demons before her miraculous healing. Fill in the blank: [count on fingers] she used to be angry, depressed, anxious, undependable, disabled, not in her right mind, self-destructive,  annoying, pitiable…

There are so many kinds of demons. But the neighbors must have been amazed, because now Mary was confident, kind, good-humored, generous.

In the decades to come, what really persuaded people was not so much the stories the first Christians told about Jesus. It was the way they now carried themselves. This Holy Spirit thing seemed to make them flat-out good people.  See how they love each other, folks would say.

Surely you know a few people like that, maybe even in this room. People whose love is so genuine. They don’t just follow the golden rule, do for others as you would have them do for you but also the platinum rule, love one another as God loves you. A real follower of Christ tries to look at everyone with heaven’s eyes, which sometimes means telling a painful truth with love. Following up on something tender or frustrating with patience. Assuming the best, but recognizing that the people we love are not ours to control. Staying connected, even if the other person seems hopelessly stuck.

Maybe Jesus did six failed exorcisms for Mary, whose subconscious self just kept resisting. But maybe Mary wouldn’t give up. For the rest of her life, she told her story: there is no one I have ever met who I trusted more than Jesus. Nobody who knew me better. When you were with him, it felt like being with God. You felt you could do anything, and you wanted to only do good.

We know some of the demons that keep us from being complete, or “perfect,” as we heard Jesus describe it a few weeks ago. Compulsions to spend money we don’t have. An inner voice calling us ugly or unworthy. An unshakeable memory of a parent who never really wanted us. A conviction that we are boring, or unintelligent, or clumsy. A demonic chatter that won’t leave us alone, commenting on everything we do. A fear that if we let someone into our life, they will just abandon us. An urge to gamble, to take a foolish risk. [take suggestions]

Because demons aren’t red devils. They don’t rule from the underworld, but try to rule from our unconscious. They don’t use pitchforks; they use perfectly normal desires for love, power, or approval. I don’t know where they come from, but our minds are quite skilled at giving them a place to live.

What Jesus did for Mary Magdalene was to recognize the false and negative Marys that had grown up in her soul, and because she trusted him so much, she allowed him to “cast them out” and make room for the true Mary to take her proper life back.

And we are supposed to do the same for each other. Probably not as dramatically, but just as lovingly: help name the demons. Help people make room for their goodness to grow back. Trust the love and strength already in them, and join them in praying for more.

So on that Sunday morning, Jesus called her by her true name, Mary. She embraced him. He gently reminded her not to hold on to him. He was moving on once again, and she was going to be fine. More than fine.

10am Summer Service

Second Service (Program Year)