Sunday, May 14, 2017

Today's sermon-Preaching the Gospel of Mary

There are a number of stories and teachings in the Bible that never find their way into the lectionary and are, therefore, are never preached. Take, for example, the story of that time God tried to kill Moses. Try preaching that one sometime.

And then there is this from 1st Corinthians where Paul writes in chapter 11 “I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ. Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.”

Not a very good piece of scripture for a Mother’s Day sermon around these parts. But, you know, neither is it representative of how women are depicted throughout the Bible.

Take Jael for instance. Jael saves Israel. Her story is told in the 4th chapter of Judges. The general Sisera was being pursued by the people of Israel at the request of Deborah the Hebrew Judge. He ends up at Jael’s tent, trying to hide anonymously. But Jael recognizes him as an enemy of her people. After the general went fast to sleep. Jael sneaked into the tent with a tent peg and hammer. The Bible says that she drove the nail through his temple and pegged his head to the ground. Battle over. Israel safe, for the moment.

There was Pharaoh’s daughter who openly violated the Pharaoh’s mandate to kill the Hebrew children and saved Moses…thus saving the Hebrews. There was Rahab who protected the Israelite spies at Jericho and saved their lives, earning her a place in the genealogy of Jesus though she was a prostitute.

Hagar, the slave women, who gave birth to Abraham’s first son and though exiled to the desert protected Ishmael and nurtured him so that he could follow God’s call to father one of the world’s great religions, Islam.

You know the stories of Esther and Ruth…and then it was the women, not the frightened men, who were the first to find the tomb was empty.

The stories of all of these women among so many others demonstrate Paul’s words in 1st Corinthians do not do justice to women. But there is another story of a fiercely independent woman that didn’t even make it to the Bible. It is the story of Mary Magdalene and her relationship with Jesus told in the Gospel of Mary from which Cathy read this morning.

There were a number of writings that didn’t make the cut. Like Mary’s gospel, the gatekeepers felt many of them were too strange in their message, too gnostic, that is they taught that salvation comes from acquiring knowledge rather than from the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, these texts were outlawed and 2nd century Bishop Athanasius, the same Bishop who decided the Book of Revelation belonged in the Bible decided the Gospel of Mary should not and ordered it and others be destroyed.

But some of the monks defied the Bishop. They weren’t willing to allow them to be lost forever. So, they gathered them up, sealed them in large pots and buried them in the desert in upper Egypt, where fragments of the Gospel of Mary, like that you see on the front of your bulletin, were discovered in 1896. It remained unpublished until 1938.

The Gospel of Mary exposes a theological understanding of women and their role in the faith far different from those words of Paul I read. As the narrative opens, the Savior is engaged in dialogue with his disciples. Afterward, Jesus departs, leaving the disciples distraught and anxious. According to the story, it is Mary who speaks up with words of comfort and encouragement. Then Peter asks Mary to share with them any special teaching she received from the Savior, “Peter said to Mary, ‘Sister, we know that the Savior loved you more than the rest of the women. Tell us the words of the Savior which you remember—which you know (but) we do not.”

Mary recounts a conversation she had with the Jesus. "I saw the Lord in a vision,” Mary says. “He said to me: “Blessed are you, that you did not waver at the sight of me. For where the mind is, there is the treasure." I said to him, "So now, Lord, does a person who sees a vision see it through the soul or through the spirit?"

In the conversation, Jesus teaches that the inner self is composed of soul, spirit/mind, and a third mind that is between the two which sees the vision. The next four pages are missing. When the narrative resumes, Mary tells of the revelation given to her in a vision. The revelation describes an ascent of a soul, which as it passes on its way to its final rest, engages in dialogue with four powers that try to stop it. Her vision does not meet with universal approval.

Andrew said to the brethren, "Say what you think concerning what she said. For I do not believe that the Savior said this. For certainly these teachings are of other ideas." Peter is offended that Jesus selected Mary above the other disciples to interpret his teachings. He asked, "Did he then speak secretly with a woman, in preference to us, and not openly? Are we to turn back and listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?"

However, Levi comes to Mary Magdalene’s defense. The Gospel of Mary says, “Levi answered and said to Peter, Peter you have always been hot tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well. That’s why He loved her more than us.” And when they heard this, the Gospel reports, they began to go forth to proclaim and to preach.
Thus, the Gospel of Mary exposes as untrue, the church tradition that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, it is a piece of theological fiction. The Gospel of Mary also provides us with a convincing argument from in the earliest days of Christianity, for the legitimacy of the leadership role of women in the movement.
Theologian Karen King wrote a book titled The Nag Hammadi Library, in which she makes these observations:

“The confrontation of Mary with Peter, a scenario also found in The Gospel of Thomas and The Gospel of the Egyptians, reflects some of the tensions in second-century Christianity. Peter and Andrew represent orthodox positions that deny the validity of esoteric revelation and reject the authority of women to teach. The Gospel of Mary attacks both of these positions head-on through its portrayal of Mary Magdalene. She is the Savior's beloved, possessed of knowledge and teaching superior to that of the public apostolic tradition. Her superiority is based on vision and private revelation and is demonstrated in her capacity to strengthen the wavering disciples and turn them toward the Good.
Taking the 1st Corinthians verses I read earlier out of context is not fair to Paul, though throughout his writings are verses that have been used to marginalize women. But, if you read his letters in their entirety and watch what he does more than what he says, you can imagine him joining Levi in the debate with Peter and Andrew. It was Paul who wrote that "in Christ there is neither male nor female."
Priscilla and her husband Aquila were side-by-side companions of the Apostle Paul in his work both in Corinth and in Ephesus, and Priscilla is portrayed as the more gifted and capable teacher, a clear-cut case of a knowledgeable woman being used in the teaching of a man with no hint of an objection from Paul.
Further, in Paul's letter to the church in Philippi he urges an unnamed fellow-worker to "help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel.” In the letter to the Romans he mentions other women who labored with him "in the Lord.”
We won’t put an end to the debate over whether the Bible is a patriarchal text…but we know what we have experienced in the life of this church…and that is the critical role the women among us have played and continue to play.
It is impossible to imagine Highlands without their commitment, without their leadership, and without the contributions they make of the gifts God provided each of them. To witness what they do, what they accomplish…to witness their leadership at Highlands, one might not help himself in exclaiming as did Libanius, a 4th century pagan philosopher QUOTE: “What women these Christians have.”
So, on this day when we celebrate what women we Christians have, let us give thanks to God for all their leadership in our faith community. AMEN

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