Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Real, Gritty Faith

Audio of this sermon can be heard here.

Today is the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, and today we celebrate the fullness of faith.

I am sure you have heard the story of Alfred Nobel and the impetus he had for establishing, through his estate, the prizes that bear his name. His brother Ludvig died, but the paper accidentally published Alfred’s obituary instead. The inventor of dynamite, Alfred was hailed as one “who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before,” as the paper reported that “the merchant of death is dead” ( Nobel did not like what he saw. He did not want to be remembered for his contribution to the forces of destruction, so he decided to change his legacy. As if equipped with a time machine, Nobel reversed the course of his life and left the bulk of his estate to establish the Nobel Prizes, thus securing him a legacy as a great promoter of knowledge and the betterment of the human race. Not bad for a revisionist’s first attempt and changing history.  

How will you be remembered? How will I be remembered? I don’t mean that as a vain exercise of writing one’s own epitaph—of trying to control one’s legacy from the grave. There’s a funny, poignant take on that in the film The Royal Tenenbaums, in which Gene Hackman’s character memorializes himself as having died while “rescuing his family from the wreckage of a destroyed sinking battleship”—a complete lie…just like most self-written obituaries. I mean those questions as a reflection on the present. What matters to you? Where is your focus? What is the object of your life? How do you measure success? What drives you?

In the business of religion, we often hold up supreme examples of faith and righteousness and ask—whether implicitly or explicitly—are you as good as that? What do you think WWJD is all about? It’s a movement built upon the belief that we are supposed to be as good as Jesus. Think about that for a second. Who wants to be a part of a church that says, “Our measure for personal success is perfection itself?” No thank you! Likewise, the veneration of the saints is often an exercise in remembering just how not-good-enough we are. There are exceptions, however, and today’s saint is at the top of my list of people worth remembering.

Mary Magdalene is the patron saint of failures like you and me. The gospel accounts of Luke and the longer ending of Mark remember her as one from whom seven demons were cast out. The tradition gets a little muddy, and some people confuse her as the “woman of the city” (i.e. a prostitute) who Luke reports as anointing Jesus’ feet, even though Luke doesn’t actually make that connection. In the Middle Ages, that tradition grew, and, after the Reformation, her penitent identity was held up by the Roman Catholic Church as a model for the church—an icon for the Council of Trent. But, pulling all of that aside, sifting through all of the extra baggage, we are still left with a woman whose grief is magnificent and whose faith is imperfect yet complete.

Mary Magdalene is one who looked on while Jesus was crucified. She is remembered as having seen the place where his body was laid. When the disciples fled and hid out of fear, she was among the women who went to the tomb carrying spices to anoint his lifeless body. In John’s account of the Easter story, Mary is the only one at the tomb—still weeping over her loss. Even when the stone was found to be rolled away and the grave was empty, Mary wept. Angels in white appeared to her asking why she wept, but all she knew was that the body of her Lord was gone. Jesus himself appeared to her and asked her what she was looking for. Still blinded by her grief, she could not see him and pleaded with the supposed gardener for the return of Jesus’ lifeless body. And then her patient, tireless, agonizing grief was rewarded, and Jesus revealed himself to her in a simple word: “Mary.”

Mary Magdalene is remembered as the faithful one—not because she anticipated the resurrection but because she remained at the tomb even through her grief. She is the first to behold the resurrection not because of her understanding but because of her faith—a faith that brought her to the tomb in tears, a faith that made enough space for God to transform those tears into joy. That is the faith that the Magdalene commends to us. She does not ask us to perform miracles, heal the sick, or brave the firing squad for the gospel. She does not invite us to be crucified upside down or travel to far-away lands so that we can be remembered as faithful servants of Christ. She is a reminder to us that we need not be superheroes or understand the deep mysteries of our faith. Her call is that we should faithful in our own time and have a quiet, patient faith that waits. We need not be perfect—far from it. Faith is what makes our meager offering beautiful to God.

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