Sunday, July 17, 2016

Of Mary Magdalene and Fish Who Know They’re Wet

I had a great time both writing and preaching this sermon. I started out with a vision of weaving together the feminist critique that pretty much has to be part of any sermon on Mary Magdalene with other interlocking oppressions in general and racism in specific.

The rapidly unfolding events of the news cycle sadly provided both the opportunity and the challenge -- the news of the police shootings in Baton Rouge broke as I pulled into my parking space before the 7:30 service.

And the death of Former Presiding Bishop Ed Browning added another level of personal poignancy and historic context.

Anyway, it was "well received"-- and as always I'm grateful for the privilege of being part of a place like All Saints Church where there is room enough for a preacher to tell the truth ... both about how beautiful and hard life can be; how far we fall short of the mark how often and yet how much hope and promise there is in the Gospel ... and in the work and witness of those who have gone before us.

Sunday, July 17, 2016: All Saints Church Pasadena
Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene [transferred]

Let there be peace among us, and let us not be instruments of our own or others’ oppression. Amen.

This is the prayer I’ve come to think of as the Gospel According to Barbara. They are the words Bishop Barbara Harris – the first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion – has used to begin every sermon I ever heard her preach – and they are the words that came to me as soon as I began working on this sermon for this morning’s celebration of the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene.

The appointed day is actually July 22nd but since here at All Saints Church (for more years than anyone but Anne Peterson can remember) we transfer her feast to an adjacent Sunday, for us today IS Mary of Magdalene Day!

Now, I may not remember when All Saints started doing it, but I do remember that at the time it was considered kind of an edgy-if-not-radical thing: moving "her" feast day out of the shadows of weekday observance into the center ring on a Sunday. That was in the pre-Da Vinci Code Days when the work being done to reclaim Mary Magdalene's identity by feminist scholars was finally leaking into the pew and pulpit. It seems a very long time ago.

We’ve been at this for decades now – do we really still have to point out that biblical scholars agree that for centuries, Mary Magdalene was misidentified as a prostitute, although nothing in our scriptural record identifies her as one?

Do we really need to revisit how that came about: how Pope Gregory the Great made a speech in 591 A.D. where he lumped together the actions of three women mentioned in the Gospels and incorrectly identified an unnamed woman prostitute as Mary Magdalene?

Do we need to remind ourselves and each other – and anyone else who’s listening – that this erroneous view was not corrected until 1969 when the Vatican issued a “quiet retraction”? And do really we need to footnote all those sources that name Mary Magdalene as a prominent disciple and leader of one wing of the early Christian movement that promoted women's leadership? Have I reached the maximum allotment of rhetorical questions for one sermon yet? I think we get my point.

So let’s shift to some good news – some breaking news – from the Vatican. Recognizing St. Mary Magdalene's role as the first to witness Christ's resurrection and as a "true and authentic evangelizer" – the Vatican announced that St. Mary Magdalene’s day – July 22 – has been elevated from a memorial to a feast on the church's liturgical calendar. The decree was entitled "Apostolorum Apostola" or "Apostle of the Apostles” -- and in his comments, Pope Francis said (and I quote)

"It is right that the liturgical celebration of this woman has the same level of feast given to the celebration of the apostles in the general Roman calendar and highlights the special mission of this woman who is an example and model for every woman in the church."

Yes, it is good news. Yes, it is a step forward. Yes, it is one of those incremental victories we celebrate on the way to achieving audacious goals.

But let’s be clear: “same level of feast given to the celebration of the apostles” is not the same as “feast of an apostle” – and so while it is a step forward it is also a step short of equal status for Mary Magdalene. And why -- I couldn't help wonder -- is her example and model for every “woman in the church” and not for everyone in the church?

Bottom line: Separate but equal is never equal and sexism is still a thing.
Ergo the Gospel According to Barbara:

Let there be peace among us, and let us not be instruments of our own or others’ oppression.

And in order to do that we have to be fish who know we’re wet. And in order to explain that, let me tell you a story. It comes from one of those mandated-by-the-diocese continuing education days that happened to be led by Michael Bamberger – an openly heterosexual, white, male, Episcopal priest – who began by talking about the changes he's seen in his life in the church.

“Something I've had to learn is that men are mostly clueless about the inherent power their gender gives them,” said Michael. “And was something it took me a while to learn. Because I grew up in a church where that power was so unquestioned – where the sexism was so normative – that there was literally no awareness of the power differential. And that is where the danger is: it's when we don't recognize the power we have."

Those would be the fish don't know they're wet.

"What is or is not offensive," said Michael went on to say "is determined by the person who's been offended. Not by the person with the power to offend.

And in order to make this church not just a safe place but a healthy place, we need to continue to attend trainings like these to recognize the power we don’t know we have. We have to change our behavior and – in some cases -- to make amends to those we've offended by abusing the power we didn't know we had."

“Abusing the power we didn’t know we had” is what happens when we’re so busy enjoying the privilege of being fish we don’t know we’re wet. It is what happens when we do not realize that we’re swimming in the water of sexism. And racism. And classism, heterosexism, xenocentrism, Christianism, ageism and ableism … to name just some.

And what happens when we abuse the power we don’t know we have?

A very quick biblical case in point is Mary’s encounter with the Risen Lord in today’s Gospel. It is the first resurrection story in John’s Gospel. The second is when Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room when Thomas is out running an errand. The third is when Jesus appears to the disciples in the upper room when Thomas is BACK in the room. The fourth is when Jesus appears to the disciples on the lakeshore.

And yet at the conclusion of the lakeshore story, John 21:14 reads: “This was now the third time Jesus appeared after he was raised from the dead.” So either John couldn’t count … or the appearance to Mary … the “apostle of the apostles” didn’t count because she was a woman. I’ll let you do the math.

Over and over again women who have dared to point out that our scriptural record came to us from spiritual ancestors who were like fish oblivious to the water of systemic sexism they swam in are accused of “playing the woman card” – or worse. Historically that is how the voices of women have been silenced, marginalized and devalued. It’s as ancient as the disciples who dismissed the women who first proclaimed the resurrection and as recent as a conversation about unexamined male privilege that ended with “I’m not privileged. My parents were working class people.”

And of course it doesn’t stop with sexism.

People of color who name the racial inequality that infects our nation are accused of “fomenting racial division.” Historically that is how white privilege works – abusing the power of that privilege by refusing to acknowledge that it exists. It is as old as the sin of racism that has been part of our DNA even before we were a nation and it is as current as the blog posts and twitter feeds tearing down those to dare to speak the truth that Black Lives Matter.

And there it is. The reason we say #BlackLivesMatter is because we are fish who know we are wet.

The reason we say Black Lives Matter is because we know that all lives matter — and until we become a nation that acts like all lives matter equally the #BlackLivesMatter sign on our Quad Lawn reminds us that we will swim in the water of racism until we become the change we want to see – the change that will make liberty and justice for all not just a pledge we make but a reality we live.

And – if we’re truthful --sometimes it's just too hard. Sometimes it’s just much trouble. Sometimes it seems that nothing will change anyway so why bother. And so sometimes -- rather than drown in the water of oppression – we choose silence and let the fish in charge continue to swim about – continuing to be clueless about the fact that they're wet.

My brothers and sisters, the time for that option has long since passed. In the words of William Sloan Coffin, “The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.”

And you do not need me to remind you this morning Just how dangerous our world is. Still reeling from the Orlando tragedy last month we struggled last week with the violence across the nation and the oh-so-close to home shooting death of a four year old on his porch in West Altadena. This week alone we have seen another unspeakable tragedy in Nice and a violent attempt to overthrow the government of Turkey.

And between the time I printed out this sermon and drove to church this morning we have the news of another shooting tragedy involving police officers in Baton Rouge. It just goes on and on.

The truth we have this morning for our world too dangerous for anything but truth is this truth from the Gospel According to Barbara:

Let there be peace among us, and let us not be instruments of our own or others’ oppression.

Let us be fish who know we are wet. And let us find allies in this struggle to build a church that isn't just safe but to build a church that's healthy; to build a nation where freedom isn’t just for some but for all; to build a world where the human race becomes the human family God created it to be.

Let us become a family where nobody is shamed into silence for speaking their experience and where those with power use it to liberate others – not to leverage more power for themselves.

Let us become that "Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven."

We had a glimpse of that last week when in response to the tragic violence in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas we suspended our ‘business as usual’ and took our silent prayers into the streets in witness to our commitment to be the change we want to see. The veritable rainbow of women, men and children of all ages – led by our amazing youth with streamers streaming, flags waving and signs held high– were a powerful antidote to the corrosive cultural rhetoric that only serves to stoke fear and anger in our nation.

And this week Mary Glasspool – our former Bishop Suffragan here in the Diocese of Los Angeles and now an assisting bishop in the Diocese of New York – offered another glimpse of how to be that change we want to see … sharing in her weekly email this 1983 quote from poet Audre Lorde.
There is no hierarchy of oppression. I cannot afford the luxury of fighting one form of oppression only. I cannot afford to believe that freedom from intolerance is the right of one particular group. And I cannot afford to choose between the fronts upon which I must battle these forces of discrimination, wherever they appear to destroy me. And when they appear to destroy me, it will not be long before they appear to destroy you.
On Tuesday I will fly to Portland, Oregon to represent All Saints at the memorial service of one of the wettest fishes I’ve ever known: Former Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning.

Elected in 1985 he famously said “This church of ours is open to all — there will be no outcasts — the convictions and hopes of all will be honored.”

During the twelve years he led the Episcopal Church as Presiding Bishop he welcomed women into the House of Bishops, supported LGBT inclusion during the height of the AIDS crisis, and lobbied aggressively for civil rights and against the nuclear arms race. He opposed apartheid in South Africa, supported women’s reproductive justice and raised awareness about the suffering of the Palestinian people. He used his power to advocate for those on the margins – to liberate others rather than to leverage more power for himself.

For Ed Browning, there was no hierarchy of oppression – there was just the Gospel mandate to love your neighbor as yourself. In a world too dangerous for anything but truth he lived his life aligned with the same love Mary Magdalene – Apostle of the Apostles – proclaimed as she bore witness to the Risen Lord … a witness that survived down through the ages in spite of the best efforts of an institutional church dominated for millennia by fish who didn’t know they were wet.

Yes, we live in perilous times. The challenges we face are daunting, real and often overwhelming. But if we claim the Gospel of Barbara as our own we will become fish who know we are wet. And we will change the world.

Let there be peace among us, and let us not be instruments of our own or others’ oppression. Amen.

1 comment:

Kirk Downey said...

That is a good sermon.