(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on April 17, 2016)
A couple of years ago, Steve Fawver had this brilliant idea.
He found out we could get golf lessons really cheap, and thought several of us should do it together. I think it was a Groupon or a fundraiser or something. We’ve golfed together off and on since we were in college, and when I went to seminary, I discovered a really nice course that I could play for $5 a round with my student ID.
It was great! I played weekly, and I really improved a lot. When we moved back up here, I had played quite a bit more than Steve and the others had, so I had this narrow window of time where I was better. Lately…not so much. And by lately, I mean, say, the last 20 years.
But here’s the problem: the time when I was good was when you sort of form impressions of yourself. I set my identity as a golfer, and my identity was: I know what I’m doing. I may not always score really well now, but I have a really smooth swing, if I do say so myself. That’s sort of what lurks under there in the dark recesses of your brain. Yeah, sure, Steve’s beat me this entire millennium but I’m just sort of having trouble scoring; bad luck, those putts will start to fall. I’m actually a really good golfer with a great swing.
So we go to these lessons. I’ve got the visual burned into my brain, because it was a really scarring experience. We’re hitting balls at the driving range, and the golf pro starts working with us one at a time. I’m on the end, and I can easily look straight ahead to where Steve and the other guys are getting their instruction.
With each of the other guys, he watches them swing for a little while, and then he comes up and gives them like this one little thing to work on. And every time, he chats with them a bit, and then BAM! BAM! BAM! They all start hitting these AMAZING shots. It’s like magic. One little tip, and everybody vastly improves.
I’m starting to get excited about what will happen with ME…because, you know, my swing is already really smooth and good, and now it’s just going to get better.
I’m actually hitting the ball pretty well, and he watches me for quite awhile without saying anything. Cause, you know, how do you mess with perfection? How’s he gonna add any value to my game with these lessons?
But then actually when he comes up to me, it goes a little teensy bit different than it went with the other guys. “Umm, yeah, there’s a lot going on here.” Like good? But somehow his tone doesn’t seem to match that.
And then it’s like I should be typing 150 words per minute, because he just launches into “Golf Swing: Extreme Makeover Edition.” He’s changing my stance and bending my back and changing the arc and shifting my hips. It’s like the only thing he HASN’T decided to change is just to give me left-handed clubs or tell me to take up tennis.
So I gave it my best shot. Tried to remember it all. Knees bent, bend the back, pivot not move the hips, slow backswing, different arc. Chunk. Smack the ground. Try again, thump thump thump. About 10 yards.
For the rest of the lesson, I can’t hit the ball to save my life. Steve is hitting a particular chosen dandelion 200 yards out, and I’m lucky if the ball moves at all. Nobody really knows what to say to me. We kind of awkwardly chuckle, and all hope that when we play the next time, it will seem more natural.
Yeah that’s not how it went.
We were planning to play 18 holes, but I have never been in so much misery over 9 holes in my life as I was on the front 9. I can’t even explain to you how horribly bad I was. Like there aren’t words.
Nobody could talk to me, nobody (least of all me) was having any fun. I remember doing something I’ve never done before, quitting after 9 holes when I was planing to play (and had paid for) 18. I’m sure the rest of them were glad to be able to enjoy the back 9 without me, but I think Steve was worried I was never going to play golf again.
Why do I relive that horror in front of you all today?
Because to me golf is, like so many things can be, a metaphor for the spiritual life. It’s so tricky, so difficult to know how to help somebody else, and yet week after week we have this crazy idea that someone can stand up here and say something that’s going to help everybody follow Jesus more faithfully.
The problem for me that time was that the golf pro gave me way too many things to change, way too much to think about, and it absolutely destroyed me. I couldn’t do anything right, because I was trying to do too much. Sometimes we are like that in our life with God. We try this system of reading the bible cause someone recommended it; we try this listening life small group because it changed someone’s life. We volunteer at Habitat for Humanity because we know we need to serve, we try all kinds of things and pretty soon we don’t know which way is up or what God is trying to do in us.
Sometimes we get overwhelmed by trying to do too much, things that work for others, but aren’t necessarily what God has in mind for us.
But then there are other times in golf, where the problem is, I’m not being intentional enough. Sometimes what I need is one simple thing, like taking extra time to think through how I should hit a shot, or focus on bringing the club back slowly. Sometimes I need to focus a little more intently in order to improve; and of course the spiritual life is like that, too.
We talk all the time at Newberg Friends about how God is always present with us, how we don’t need any special activity to be able to connect with God. Yet sometimes “all the time possible” ends up being “I’ll do that another time”.
One size does not fit all when it comes to spiritual help.
It’s not always the same for every person, and even for each one of us, what we need is not always the same at all times of our lives. This is one reason why the goal for the person speaking on a Sunday morning is to do our best to invite you into a place where God can speak, where the Holy Spirit can work and personalize the message for you. We recognize that not every message will connect with every person every time, and so try to balance out the focus over time.
So today, this message is for people who, like me with my golf lesson, are in a season where you are over-thinking it. Where you are overwhelmed by all the different things to try, all the things that need to change. During Lent, we used different biblical people to illustrate weeds that are choking out what God is trying to do in our lives.
Now, after the celebration of Easter, we will look at different biblical people who demonstrate actions that can be taken to fertilize and feed the soil of our lives with God, actions that help us be most receptive to letting God’s seed grow in us into the fruit of the Spirit.
Today we will look at Mary Magdalene, who demonstrates a very simple but important way to prepare the soil of our lives: just hang around Jesus.
Mary Magdalene plays a very important role in the history of the church. As we noted on Easter, she is a key witness who tells the disciples that Jesus is alive. And her qualifications for gaining that important role in history were simple: she just kept showing up. She just kept putting herself wherever Jesus was.
Like so many things in life, the most important things in our life with God are the super simple ones. We look for technique, we look for tricks, we look for some new great depth; but the most important thing in our life with God are stated really simply. Mary Magdalene reminds us: show up! Look for Jesus! Do things that put yourself in his presence.
Turn with me to Luke chapter 8, and we will see the first example of Mary showing up.
After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases:Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out. Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means. (Luke 8:1-3, TNIV)
This is the first time Mary is mentioned, but I think what’s said here makes it pretty clear that she has been hanging around Jesus for awhile, hanging around enough to start to be shaped and changed by him.
Jesus has healed her, freeing her from spiritual oppression. Mary choosing to follow him is a response to what Jesus has already done for her. The other thing to notice is both Mary and Susanna are named, but not given any relational connection to a man. Most scholars think this is pretty clear that they were single women, a very unusual experience for the time.
Jesus made room for people around him that were rejected elsewhere. Joel Green writes, “This degree of identification and participation by women with a traveling teacher would have been extraordinary.” He goes on to write:
“Given the reality that persons who were ill or demonized also experienced different measures of social ostracism, the experience of healing among some of these women may have been accompanied by not a return to their own communities and families…but by incorporation into this new community being formed around Jesus.”
She showed up because she had been healed and made welcome! This is critically important for us to remember as a central part of following Jesus. We, like Mary Magdalene, have things that need healing, things that only Jesus is able to make right. Jesus has power over the physical and spiritual and social world, and he heals us and makes room for us in ways that other parts of society do not.
Jesus is worth hanging around!
Mary Magdalene and these other women go a step further: they also give financially and generously to support Jesus’ mission.
Green argues that at this early stage, the women are further along in discipleship than the 12 disciples! The only authority for any of them, women or the Twelve alike, is the same: they are with Jesus. “More importantly,” writes Green, “these women are thus characterized as persons who mirror the graciousness of Jesus’ own [giving], persons who, like Jesus, ‘serve’ others, and exemplars of Jesus’ message on faith and wealth.”
These women, and not the Twelve, are given as examples of people who both hear AND act on the teaching of Jesus! I love the way the truth of these noticings by Green help me see the powerful example of these women as leaders in the early church, leaders simply because they made the effort to hang around and follow Jesus! (Also, this is as good a time as any to say that most scholars debunk the popular idea that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute. To believe that, you have to assume that Mary was the one in Luke 7 who pours perfume on Jesus’ feet, and there is no evidence in the text to make that assumption.)
All of that strong evidence of doing what Jesus did happens simply because Mary Magdalene (and the other women) pursued Jesus, following him around, putting themselves where he was.
When we look at them later in Luke, that’s what they keep doing. They keep hanging around, even when it gets more confusing and dangerous. Turn ahead to Luke 23:48. This is at the cross, where Jesus has just breathed his last.
When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things. (Luke 23:48-9, TNIV)
When most people went away, the women stayed. They had followed him all the way from Galilee, and they didn’t stop when it seemed like it ended. They don’t have answers, they don’t know what to do…but they are there. Joseph of Arimathea takes the body, and then go down to verse 55.
The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment. (Luke 23:55-56, TNIV)
There they are again. The fact that they are present, that they have followed, gives them an opportunity to figure out an action step to take. They can prepare spices for his body. But the more important act for history, the more important fact as someone who will give testimony, is that they are a consistent witness.
They know he’s the same one they’ve followed since Galilee. They saw the body taken from the cross, they saw the tomb his body was laid in. They are the perfect ones to give proof that the one who is raised from the dead is the same as the one who died. They are the perfect ones to give proof that the empty tomb is Jesus’ tomb.
Perfect except for one thing: women were not allowed to give testimony in court. They didn’t have the credentials to do this, but God enabled them to play that role anyway…and their only qualification is that they just wouldn’t give up. They just wouldn’t stop being as near to Jesus as they could.
What a lesson for us!
Who am I? I’m not qualified. I’m not this, I’m not that. Who am I? It was Moses’ question when he was chosen to lead the people out of Egypt, it was Isaiah and Jeremiah’s question too. Who am I to do some great thing for God?
Mary Magdalene was healed, she kept showing up, and she did what she could to be like Jesus. And on the first Easter, she becomes the one to witness the resurrection, the one to bring the best news possible to the disciples. Her very identity should have made her excluded and unqualified, but that isn’t Jesus’ way. He heals, he makes room…and she did all that was needed.
She followed him and hung around him as many ways as she possibly could. And that led her to share her experience, to give testimony to the power of God in her life, and for the whole world. May we do the same.