Sermon: This Ain’t Your Mama’s Mary Magdalene

[Preached on the Feast of Mary Magdalene at All Saints Church, Pasadena, CA. A video version of this sermon can be viewed via YouTube:  

womensvoicesMy friends in Jesus Christ, this ain’t your mama’s Mary Magdalene–that is, if your mama even had a feast day of Mary Magdalene. What I mean is that I’m not going to engage the long debate between Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians about whether Mary Magdalene is the same “sinful” woman who bathed the feet of Jesus with her tears. Because it just doesn’t matter. What does matter to me is that Mary Magdalene is the first disciple that Jesus ordains to announce the Good News of the resurrection. “Go and tell the others,” he says to Mary Magdalene.

Go and tell. This commissioning of Mary Magdalene may be one of the most empowering moments for women in the Bible. Much recent Biblical scholarship has noted the relative dearth of women’s voices and women’s stories in the Bible. Women were often unseen and unheard in the centuries covered by the BIble. As a result, some Biblical scholars have worked to unearth the voices of Biblical women: to call attention to the stories and speeches of women that are rarely discussed, to point out the disturbing facts about women’s lives in these times that we tend to overlook. They work to unearth the voices of women to whom something happened, but whose story is not told. While I was in a Biblical Studies class at Yale, we were discussing the Book of Joshua and feminist interpretations of it. These feminist interpretations were being likened to other interpretations that come from the so-called margins: postcolonial, African-American,  liberation theology, LGBTQ. We were discussing how these interpretations work against the dominant voices that interpret the Bible.

The assumption was that the non-dominant interpretations are the minority reports. The less heeded. The less heard. I finally said, “How is it that women make up 51% of the world, and yet their voices are considered the marginal view? The minority view? Women are the majority!” And people said, “Yeah. Funny how that happens.” And then we moved on.

But I asked again, “No, wait a minute. How is it that women make up 51% of the world, and yet our voices and our actions are considered ‘marginal’?”

This leads to my second reason why this ain’t your mama’s Mary Magdalene. I don’t want to talk about Mary Magdalene because she doesn’t get to say very much. I want to talk about Judith.

A whole book of the Bible is named after Judith. It was probably written in the first century Before the Common Era, and probably by a Palestinian Jew. It reads like a historical book, but it has too many incorrect details to be considered history.

Here’s the story. The small army of the Israelites has routed a large army of the Assyrians, and this makes the king mad. So he tells his general Holofernes to take the formidable Assyrian army and to wipe out the Israelites, who were on a mountaintop in Bethulia. Holofernes decides to camp at the foot of the mountain and to cut off the Israelites’ water supply so that the Israelites will die of famine.

This action sends the Israelites into panic, and they wail at their fate, sure that they are going to die. But then Judith speaks.

She has the longest speeches of any woman in the Bible, which is quite a feat since few women in the Bible actually speak. It’s remarkable that she gets to speak in this story because Judith was a widow, and widows were considered very low on the social strata. Normally, she would not be given a voice in political or military matters. But she first delivers a long speech to the Israelites. Listen, she says. Stop trying to figure out the ways of God. Remain faithful to your Jewish practices, and trust that God will deliver us. And no matter what, give thanks. Then she tells them that she has a plan to save Israel, but they can’t ask her what she is going to do. Then she says a long, rather gory prayer to God, asking God for deliverance from their oppressors, the Assyrians. The portion we read today is the gentlest, most traditionally feminine part; the lectionary people cut out the harshest parts.

Afterward she does an incredibly brave thing: she goes down to the Assyrian camp with her maid. She wears her finest clothes and sandals, her best perfume and jewelry. In another long speech, she uses deceit to trick the Assyrians. She tells Holofernes that the Israelites have sinned greatly, and God will surely give Holofernes success over the Israelites. Holofernes is so taken by her good looks that he invites her to stay the night, but as is the way with Biblical heroes and their women, he drinks too much. Thus Judith’s virtue is preserved, and she takes this opportunity to behead Holofernes with a sword. Then she sticks his head in a bag and returns to the Israelite camp with her maid. She shows the severed head to the Israelites and tells them to hang it on the wall; when the Assyrians see it, they will panic and flee. Sure enough, the entire Assyrian army flees when it realizes that its general has, well, lost his head.

And then Judith speaks again, delivering the lengthiest song of praise by any woman in the Bible.

I am focusing intentionally on the fact that Judith is the most verbose woman in the Bible. That’s because it is so remarkable to hear from a woman in the Bible at all. It’s even more remarkable when all the political and military leaders listen to her every word and acknowledge her as the one who delivers them from destruction. She gets a much better reception than Mary Magdalene does. In the Gospel of Luke, when Mary Magdalene and the other women tell the male disciples that Jesus has risen from the dead, the disciples consider it “an idle tale.”

To be given a voice in matters. To be heard. To be believed. This is an extremely important act of empowerment for women.

Go and tell, Jesus says to Mary Magdalene. Go and tell. His first call to a disciple after his resurrection is to a woman. He calls Mary Magdalene to lift up her voice in thanksgiving and praise for the Resurrection, for the God who offers salvation to all.

In fact, when women do deliver speeches in the Bible, it is almost always a prayer of thanksgiving for what God has done for them.

We have Mary’s great Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for God has looked upon the lowly.”

There is Hannah’s great hymn of praise to God when he delivers her from the humiliation—in her time and culture—of infertility, and she gives birth to the prophet Samuel.

There is the prophet Deborah’s hymn of praise after her great military conquest.

And of course we have Judith’s lengthy hymn of praise.

Then again, few of them thank God for having helped them behead the oppressor as Judith does.

Beheading people is probably taking things a step too far.

These hymns of praise are glorious and life-giving. But what we don’t hear are why these women exult in the God who delivers the lowly. The obvious implication is that they experience themselves as lowly, and yet their experiences of oppression are rarely discussed in the Bible.

The sad thing is, the oppressive experiences of women are not discussed much in in our time either. I think our society likes to believe that these things don’t happen anymore, that there is equality between men and women. After all, women are 51% of the population. How could they possibly be ignored?

I’m here to tell you it happens. And when women are ignored, it is sometimes to their great detriment. After a shocking series of domestic violence murders in Dallas, Mayor Mike Rawlings realized the city needed to do something. Some of these incidents of domestic violence occurred due to the city’s lack of response to women’s desperate 911 calls or warrants for their partners’ arrest. He said of domestic violence, “It’s the biggest act of terrorism in the United States, going on right behind our closed doors, and we don’t even talk about it.” They have started a campaign in Dallas called “End the Silence on Violence.” They are starting to tell women’s stories and to take women’s cries for help seriously.

Go and tell, Jesus said to Mary Magdalene. Go and tell.

I have had the privilege and the sorrow of hearing women’s stories my entire adult life. It started early in my professional life. I was a manager at a large Silicon Valley company, and a woman I did not know came to see me. She told me that she worked in another department but didn’t want to talk to her manager, and she had heard she could talk to me. Then she told me that her husband was physically abusive, and she had had to miss work due to her injuries. She was afraid she was going to get fired for missing work. I asked her whether she and her children were now in a safe place, and I assured her that she could use sick leave or other types of leave to heal. What struck me was how this woman was afraid to tell her story to human resources or her manager, as if she was somehow responsible for what had happened to her.

And then the stories just kept coming: in every workplace, in every neighborhood, in every church. “I lost custody of my child because my husband could afford a high-powered lawyer and I couldn’t.” “My ex will not let me take my children to visit family south of the border.” “My husband left last month and emptied all the bank accounts, and I have no way to feed the children.” “I was beaten by my boyfriend.” Often, the woman is embarrassed to tell me. As if she somehow is to blame for these injustices. Just two days ago, as I was wondering whether this really was the topic to preach about, I witnessed an incident of domestic violence on the streets of Pasadena. And then, when I was telling the woman I had just met that day that I wasn’t sure whether I should preach about domestic violence, she said, “My girlfriend beat me up. You should preach about it.”

This affects every class, every race, every culture in our society. The problem is that these situations are so common that we give them little attention. It is considered uncouth to speak of these things. For the longest time, I wondered why women—some of them acquaintances, but some of them complete strangers—would come to me and tell me about the injury or injustice they had experienced. Why tell me? I have no experience in this, no way of helping them out of their dilemma.

And then I remembered those words of Jesus to Mary Magdalene: Go and tell the others. Some might say that Jesus commissioned Mary Magdalene to tell the Good News: that Jesus is risen, and salvation is available to all. Maybe lifting up the voices of women who are suffering doesn’t sound like Good News. But the thing is that we don’t get to the resurrection without the crucifixion first. We can’t hear the Good News until we’ve unearthed the Bad News.

We can’t celebrate the human family until we celebrate and lift up the voices of the whole family, including the 51%. The majority. The women.

I have a dream. I too have a dream. My dream is that women’s voices will be unleashed in our courtrooms, in our churches, in our legislatures, in our Oval Office. I have a dream: That we have the same percentage of women making laws as we have seeking gynecological care. That when a woman tells the family court, I can’t afford a lawyer, the court says to her, Then a well-trained, feisty advocate will be appointed for you. That when a woman calls 911 and says Help! I am in danger! the dispatcher believes her and sends a car right away. I have a dream that we will have the same percentage of women preaching in the pulpit as we have praying in the pew.

I have a dream that women’s voices will be so honored and lifted up that we will no longer consider it amazing that Judith said more than a few words in the Bible. We will no longer have to rescue Mary Magdalene’s reputation because she needs no defense from us. But the women in our very midst do. And so, with Judith, I prostrate myself before God and pray that God give us the strength, the courage and the pure chutzpah of Judith to act decisively to protect women.

6 Thoughts

  1. Your sermons enlighten me, Janine. I dont know whether I like them or their titles better. You are well aware of our changing SIM team. Percy is a star! We are making a move toward significance. Maybe we can get SIM a trip out to Pasadena and get the west investing in future ordained leaders and achieving our BHAG of funding theology in a to send them on in a manner worthy of God (3 John 6).

    *Tom *

    [image: Tom Business Card-small]

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    *From:* Theology on the Ground [] *Sent:* Tuesday, July 30, 2013 1:03 AM *To:* *Subject:* [New post] Sermon: This Aint Your Mamas Mary Magdalene

    Janine Schenone posted: “[Preached on the Feast of Mary Magdalene at All Saints Church, Pasadena, CA. A video version of this sermon can be viewed via YouTube: My friends in Jesus Christ, this aint your mamas Mary Magdalene–that is, if your mama even had a feast day of Ma”

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