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Based on the Scripture readings:
John 20:1-11
Gospel of Mary (See notes following sermon)

2006 July 2
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Gretchen L. Elmendorf, Associate Pastor

Free from Fear

On this holiday weekend, the topic of freedom is a poignant and very complicated one. A friend of mine, a therapist, gave me a recent picture from the Globe of a soldier, a father, holding his very young boy in his arms, just prior to going off to Iraq. My friend, ever attentive to the meaning of relationships and the roles we take on in life, asked me to look at that child's eyes. "You have to look at this boy's eyes, Gretchen. It tells a thousand stories." And so I saw what my friend saw, and it broke my heart. This innocent little boy was peering deeply into his father's eyes. This three year old was the one holding his Dad's face in his hands (not the other way around as you might expect), and it was as if he was saying nonverbally, "Don't move Dad. Stay still for just this moment in time. I need to get a really good, close, long last look at you. I love you more than the stars. Am I ever going to see you again?"  Today is a day to pray for that boy, that soldier, and many more. But just as I stare at this newspaper image of an American soldier and child, I am confronted with the headline of this weekend: "G.I.'s Investigated in Slayings of 4 and Rape in Iraq." The investigation is the fourth into suspected killings of unarmed Iraqis by American soldiers announced by the military in June (NY Times, front page, July 1).  Today is a day to pray for those unarmed Iraqis and the many more like them. Today is a day to find ways to support nonviolence in what the most recently outgoing bishop of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Frank Griswold calls "our bleeding, broken world."

And today is a day to really think about freedom. What are we trying to be freed from? What are we trying to be freed for? One of the remarkable aspects of our faith is that secular terms, like freedom, take on new meanings when reflected upon in the church. We may look at the fireworks in the sky and think one thing about freedom, but when we come to church, we are so often invited to think about aspects of our humanity in a different way than what our culture tells us.

Paul writes in the Galatians: "For freedom Christ has set us free" (Gal. 5:1). "For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'  If, however, you bite and Back to top devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another" (Gal 5:13).

Freedom, what are we trying to be freed from? Something fascinated me in children's chapel last Sunday. Sally Brickell and I sat with the kids and asked them to reflect upon scripture that they would like to memorize by heart. Two of the teachers, Wendy Benjamin, and Liz Ramos, had created memory boxes with the kids that hold strips of paper with scripture verses written on them. As I asked kids what stories they remembered from the Bible that we studied this year, there was a great pause, and then a hand rose. "Fear not," said the girl. "Fear not?" Do you mean the story of when the angel meets Mary to let her know she will give birth to Jesus? "Yes, that's the story." "Fear not, for you have found favor with God," goes the passage (Luke 1:30).  So she wrote down this verse for her memory box. I've been thinking all week about that moment in chapel. How important it is that this person can identify fear as a topic scripture takes on. How valuable it is that this person knows that an angel came down to tell us "Fear not," because God is at work. And how telling. There is so much to be fearful of in this world, even children and youth are getting this message. They need their faith as much as we do.

I worry about this world we're leaving to our children, as perhaps you do too. Some of the news over the two weeks has been very scary, if not downright freaky. Did you hear the latest from Stephen Hawking (I'd be interested to hear what the astrophysicists of our church think about this one.) that we need to find another planet in another galaxy where human beings can live and preserve our species before time runs out on this planet Earth? Hawking argues that we could be wiped out by disease, or global warming, or nuclear war. Right after this news, I made the mistake of watching clips from Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth on television just before going to bed the other night. I could not count on a peaceful night's sleep after reflecting upon Gore's assertion that we have 10 years left on our planet before the destruction of global warming will be irreversible.

Freedom from fear is one thing we need, I'll say, and we need something as miraculous as God to free us up. Theologian Margaret Miles recently gave a keynote address at the Harvard Divinity School alumnae day (Jun 7, 2006), entitled: "Living Lovingly in a Culture of Fear." She said that we are suffering so greatly from our culture of fear that:

Anxiety is the number 1 health problem in the country, leading to epidemic depression, alcoholism, eating disorders, and prescription drug addiction.  In a culture of contagious insecurity, psychological vulnerability makes Americans willing to live in gated communities and to lose civil liberties and privacy in exchange for security measures.a

Back to topMoreover, American society is violent because it is fearful.b

A culture of fear can paralyze our ability to address systemically the evils of poverty, hunger, desperation, and violent aggression in our homes, on our streets, and across the globe, convincing many of us that all efforts are doomed to failure. But passivity, a "helpless victim" mentality, and aggression resulting from fear can be challenged by a committed practice of political and social engagement."

Mary Magdalene knew a thing or two about fear, and she knew about political and social engagement. She and other disciples were hearing about threats that the end of the world was coming, too. Her way of moving through fear was to follow Jesus. Mary surely trembled at the foot of the cross as she watched her teacher, her Lord, being crucified. She had everything to lose by being there with Jesus in Calvary. How did she know she or other disciples wouldn't be next to be persecuted? Wouldn't the Roman authorities or some of the Jewish leaders just as well chase down Jesus' followers too? Didn't she have a lot to risk as a woman, known as a leader in this new religious movement, in a culture where men took the reigns? And yet, there Mary stood and stayed, at the foot of the cross, she, Mary, the mother of Jesus; Mary, the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome; and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

She made her way in the dark before sunrise to go to Jesus' tomb. Can you imagine going to a gravesite before dawn to see the body of one who had just been killed? But there she went. Moreover, she met Jesus and became the first witness of His resurrection. She followed Jesus' command. She went and announced to the other disciples, "I have seen the Lord." She spread the gospel and news of Jesus' resurrection. If we follow her story just a bit further, we find in the Gospel of Mary that she consoles the other disciples and helps them turn from their fear. "The other disciples," we are told in this gospel, "were distressed and wept greatly. 'How are we going to go out to the rest of the world to announce the good news about the Realm of the Child of true Humanity?' they said. 'If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?'"

It is further written: "Then Mary stood up. She greeted them all, addressing her brothers and sisters, 'Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts be irresolute. For His grace will be with you all and will shelter you. Rather we should praise His greatness, for He has prepared us and made us true Human beings.' When Mary had said these things, she turned their heart toward the Good."

If we learn from Mary, we will remember that in spite of what we fear, Jesus' grace will be us and will shelter us. Jesus has prepared and is preparing us for life as we know it. We should never stop praising His greatness. In spite of all we are worried about, we are called to be Back to top unwavering in our faithfulness and to turn our hearts to the Good.

Turn our hearts to the Good.

I love how out of the turmoil of our daily news, we hear of a surprise. Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet give their billions to philanthropy for the world. Gates goes as far as even betting that 20 of the world's top diseases will be cured with sufficient funding. This comes on the heels of Hawking's comment remember. (Some call this grandiose, others call this ambitious; at the very least, it's hopeful) Now I don't know what the Gates' religion is, and I'm in no way calling them saints, but their recent action reminds me of some of the good that Jesus calls all of us to do, no matter what pandemonium exists, no matter how troubling things look. With any and all resources we have, Jesus tells us to be of service to others -- to feed the poor; clothe the naked; heal the sick; strive for peace; speak out against injustice; give voice to the voiceless; love the lonely, the exiled, the wounded.

Remember Mary. Free yourself from fear by following Jesus above all else in your day-to-day life. Praise God's greatness. Do not lose hope; there's too much work to do. Trust that Christ has prepared you to live lovingly in this world of fear. Turn your hearts to the Good. Amen.

Introduction to the Gospel of Mary

I chose this gospel to read this morning for a few reasons. One is that it corresponds to the passage from the Gospel of John appointed in the Lectionary for this week. In chapter 20, we hear of Mary Magdalene being the first one to witness Jesus' resurrection. You also have no doubt heard all the buzz about the DaVinci Code movie, and before this buzz, there was an older buzz about the book. The Gospel of Mary helps illuminate who Mary was and was not. Though the book and movie are fiction, one thing I thank God for is that finally it is realized that Mary Magdalene was never, ever a prostitute. Professor Karen King, scholar of early Christian history at Harvard, calls this false label "theological fiction" in her book: Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle. Ironic that it takes Hollywood to shed light on some religious truth. Unlike Hollywood, however, I do not believe that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' wife nor was she the mother of His child. I can go into more detail about this with anyone who is interested. But I do believe Mary of Magdala was an apostle, and indeed, as Professor King and other scholars state, she was the apostle to the apostles. This is clear also in the Gospel of John.

We can learn from early Christian texts. Even though there are many that never made it into the Canon of the Bible, they are nevertheless valuable and can lead us to revealing truths of God's love. The Gospel of Mary, written early in the 2nd century, was lost and then re-discovered in the 19th century in fragment form. Two additional fragments were discovered in the 20th century. I hope you will hear that Back to top Mary has important revelations about how it is to follow Jesus. Listen now for a word from God.

Excerpts from the Gospel of Mary

The Savior's farewell

When the blessed one had said this, he greeted them all, saying, "Peace be with you. Receive my peace to yourselves. Beware that no one lead you astray, saying, 'Lo here!' or 'Lo there!' For the child of true Humanity is within you. Follow after him! Those who seek him will find him. Go then and preach the gospel of the kingdom. Do not lay down any rules beyond what I appointed for you…." After he had said these things, he departed from them.

Mary comforts the other disciples

But they were grieved. They wept greatly, saying, "How shall we go out to the rest of the world to announce the good news about the Realm of the child of true Humanity?" they said. "If they did not spare him, how will they spare us?"

Then Mary stood up. She greeted them all, addressing her brothers and sisters, "Do not weep and be distressed nor let your hearts be irresolute. For his grace will be with you all and will shelter you. Rather we should praise his greatness, for he has prepared us and made us true Human beings."

When Mary said these things, she turned their heart toward the Good, and they began to discuss the words of the [Savior].


For translations of the other fragments of Gospel of Mary, see Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, by Karen King or (Link outside NHCC; please advise the webmaster if it stops working.)

aJeffrey Rosen, The Naked Crowd: Reclaiming Security and Freedom in an Anxious Age

bLarissa MacFaquhar, "The Populist: Michael Moore's Art and Anger," The New Yorker (2004 February 16, p. 138).

Copyright © 2006 Gretchen L. Elmendorf.  Used by permission. to top


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