Following is the manuscript Rev. KJ Norris wrote for Mother’s Day 2018. It is not an exact transcription of the audio file, but the intent and preacher are the same.
“What’s in a name?” Shakespeare asks.
“For That which we call a rose
By any other word would smell as sweet.”
And yet, we know from the tale of Romeo and Juliet that much is in a name. A name can lead to tragedy in love and death.
For some of us we hear a certain name or a nickname, and we are taken to another era. Perhaps when you heard your full name as a child: “David Barnes Bennett” you knew you were in real trouble. Your name was soon to be followed by: “get down here right now.”
Or maybe you had a nickname like buddy or skip or jelly bean that was an insider name; something known only to your family, but still when you hear it today, you feel like you are home.
Names have power and meaning.
And today we meet a person who only needs to hear one word to have her life transformed.
Over the past several weeks we have been journeying alongside the disciples after the resurrection. We may have expected that when Jesus was raised from the tomb, life changed immediately for his followers. We may have expected to find them rejoicing and going out to proclaim the Good News. We often celebrate Easter as a one time event, as something that happens one day a year and then we go out the business of our own lives.
But the Early Church understood Easter to be quite different. Easter in the church is not actually a day but a season. It is a season of 7 weeks. For the past seven weeks, you may have noticed, a white cloth has been placed over the communion table as well as the pulpit and the lectern. And I’ve been wearing a white stole. It’s to remind us that we are in the season of Easter. The coming of the resurrection is in one way, a one time event but for the disciples, and often for us, it takes many weeks to come to understand and believe that Jesus really had risen from the grave.
So, we have been taking this time to look at the stories of those who saw Jesus after he had been raised. We looked at Thomas’ journey and Peter’s journey and the disciples as a whole as they moved from fear to forgiveness.
Today on Mother’s Day it is appropriate to follow the journey of a woman who saw Jesus after the resurrection. You may know that women in Jesus’ day, in first century Rome, had very few rights. For instance, in the court of law, if two men gave testimony that a particular event had taken place, the courts accepted it as truth. However, the testimony of woman was considered unreliable and a woman’s words had no power in court.
And also, in the 1st Century a man could say to his wife for any reason: “I divorce you, I divorce you, I divorce you” and on these words alone she could be put out of her own home and family and into the the streets. However women could not divorce their husbands for any reason at all. They had no legal recourse.
Women in literature at that time rarely are named unless they are understood to be goddesses. Women were seen as unimportant and so they often went without names.
But one woman beats the odds. Peter’s name is given 19 times in the four gospels according to Wikipedia (no I didn’t count myself). Thomas comes second; his name is listed 12 times. And then tied for second is a woman. Mary Magdelene, named 12 times as well. More than any other of those who followed Jesus, including those who we call the twelve apostles.
Mary Magdelene is named in the beginning of Jesus ministry; she walked with him throughout his journeys; and then she is named at the cross, again at the tomb, and again at the resurrection. No other disciple is seen to stand with Jesus through all of life and throughout the tribulation of his death and burial.
So what do we know about this one called Mary Magdelene. First, have you noticed that none of the rest of the disciples get last names? There were no formal last names back then, instead if you needed more than one name you went either by your father’s name, James and John are both named that way, as the sons of Zebedee or by the place you were raised, the one who is responsible for burying Jesus’ body is known that way, as Joseph of Arimathea. He was from the town of Arimathea.
Mary likewise is given the name Mary Magdelene because she is from the town of Magdala which was a fishing town on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus often taught. We need this name to distinguish her from all the other Mary’s in the Bible—have you noticed there are quite a few? There is Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary the sister of Lazarus, for instance. It was a popular Jewish name at the time, a version of Miriam who was Moses’ sister. Miriam was the worship leader in Moses’ day and this was a name of honor that many wanted to pass on to their daughters.
The Gospel of Luke gives us a little of Mary Magdelene’s back story. Chapter 8 tells us, “Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.”
So we know that Mary was one whom Jesus had healed during his early ministry. We also know she was a wealthy women who enabled Jesus to continue his ministry by helping to fund his work. Matthew also affirms this by stating Mary Magdalene a woman who had followed Jesus from Galilee and had provided for him.
Mary’s life had been forever changed from an encounter with Jesus. And from that day forth she had become his follower, his disciple and had served financially to support the ministry. Unlike most Rabbi’s of his day, it is clear that Jesus allowed women to follow him and to be full students of his teaching.
We see, for instance, in Luke, Jesus coming to the home of Martha and Mary and Lazarus, siblings who lived together. Martha busied herself with the traditional duties given to women—cooking and cleaning for their guest. But her sister Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and studies under him in the traditional place of the student to the Rabbi, a position usually reserved only for men in the culture.
Martha is of course, annoyed with her sister for not helping and asks Jesus to send her in to the kitchen. Martha wants Jesus to respect the cultural norms of the day and to not allow a women to be a disciple, learning like the men. But Jesus refuses. Instead, he praises Mary for wanting to learn and tells Martha to choose this unconventional path instead of worrying herself with the affairs of the house.
Jesus broke all the rules when it came to women. He gave them a place of honor when others would not and gave them equality in a time when women were seen as being worth less then men.
And Mary Magdelene, whose name we are given even more times than all of the men but Peter, was one of those disciples. She followed Jesus, learned from him, supported him. And in the end, she did not run and deny Jesus as Peter did; she did not betray him to gain greater riches as the disciple Judas did. Instead, she stood at the cross and wept for him as he died. She found the strength to stay with him even until the very end.
And when Joseph of Arimathea asked for the lifeless body of Jesus to be taken down from the cross for burial, Mary followed still. She needed to see the tomb so that later she could honor Jesus’ body in the traditional way, with the preparation of spices, kind of like our process of embalming. She watches as the heavy stone is put in place to keep out grave-robbers, a common problem of that day.
And early in the morning, as John says, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene and some other women go to the tomb. When they see that the stone has been moved, Mary assumes the worst: Grave Robbers have taken the body of the Lord. So she runs all the way to the house where Peter and John are staying and then they all run back to the tomb.
The men look inside and see something very strange: Jesus’ clothes.
If it had been grave-robbers, this makes absolutely no sense. Usually, the robbers are not really after the bodies in graves, they are after everything else. They want the clothes and the expensive spices and others gifts that people may bury alongside their loved ones.
Also, notice that John takes care to describe the way the clothes are laying in the tomb. They almost see to be undisturbed. It’s very different than when Lazarus came out of the tomb. He was all rapped up in his grave clothes and needed help from his sisters to be unwrapped. This is something different. Jesus’s head rap is still separate from the rest, just as it was when he was laid in the tomb and his body linens are undisturbed. Something miraculous has happened here. Just as we see Jesus later appearing out of no where into locked rooms so it seems that he moved through the linens somehow.
And while the male disciples head home, perhaps beginning to believe, perhaps full of confusion, Mary stays at the tomb and weeps. She looks again into the tomb, hoping beyond hope that this how thing is just a nightmare of her imagination, but this time she sees two angels, sitting where the Lord has been placed.
In all other accounts of humans seeing angels, the people are filled with amazement or fear, that holy awe we talked about two weeks ago, but not Mary. Mary has already seen the very face of God in the flesh and angels are nothing in comparison. She only cares for one thing: They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him,” she explains.
She continues to weep as she hears a voice behind her repeating the question about her sorrows, and through her tear stained eyes she looks up and sees Jesus but thinks he is the gardener. “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.”
And then just one word follows. The word we all hear in a crowded room. The word that has the power of tragedy for Romeo. The word that has the power of life for the sheep who are called by the good shepherd. Just one word.
Jesus knows her name. And calls to her out of the depth of her sorrows.
Rabbouni! She exclaims! And we can imagine Mary rapping Jesus in an enormous bear hug, unable to contain her excitement as she comes to realize that the one who was dead as defeated death. Resurrection has come to him and to all through the Lord Jesus Christ.
I don’t think she ever wanted to let go, prompting Jesus to tell her lightly: Do not cling to me. I must ascend to the Father. And he explains that she has a job to do as well. She must go to the twelve and tell them of Jesus’ resurrection. Church history will call her the apostle to the apostles. Before anyone else is given the call to go and preach the good news, Mary is given this assignment. The first preacher in all of church history is a woman. Commissioned directly by Jesus himself.
And what about us?
What is our call? I think, like Mary, we are tempted to cling to Jesus. This is a beautiful desire. A desire to stay where there is comfort for our affliction. To simply remain at Jesus’ feet, learning and growing. And that is good and beautiful. The church gives us seven weeks to live into the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection. Jesus doesn’t rush us into forgiveness or courage or away from doubt, but gives us time to walk this journey of life with him. To grow to know him.
And yet, we also see that learning and sitting still is not enough. The day comes when Jesus calls us to go out. To speak boldly. To tell our story. To report what we have seen.
And that is what next week is all about! Next week is Pentecost. The day that we will celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. The day when we will remember how the message of God’s love and truth is to be proclaimed in the whole world.
God knows your name and has given you a story as well. On Pentecost Sunday we will have time to share what God is doing in your life. You don’t have to share. But you are invited to. In this safe space, we are invited to proclaim God’s work in our lives. To go out like Mary and tell the good news.
God knows your name and has a story for your to share.