Mary Magdalene is one of the few women who are named as followers of Jesus. Mary is often listed first among these names. She is often portrayed in movies, including Jesus Christ Superstar and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, as a prostitute. Why? Mary Magdalene is often connected with the woman of the street who breaks the jar of perfume and washes Jesus’ feet in Luke 7. In Luke’s Gospel this woman is nameless. Mary Magdalene first appears in Luke 8. As scholar Fred Craddock points out, “Only popular legend has made her a prostitute.” Luke’s eighth chapter tells the reader that Mary was healed of seven demons. Craddock observes, “Demon possession caused various maladies of body and mind but not moral or ethical depravity.”
Mary plays a significant role in the Gospel story. All four gospels account for Mary being present at the death of Christ. More importantly, Mary was the first witness of the resurrected Lord. In Luke’s account of the resurrection, the two men “in dazzling apparel” tell the women, “Remember how he told you . . .” (Luke 24:4,6). This assumes that Mary Magdalene and the other women were apart of the inner circle of Jesus’ followers. The dazzling men are under the impression that these women were present when Jesus predicted his death and resurrection (“Remember how he told you”).
Luke continues the narrative saying that the women “remembered his words” (24:8). The women are told to go and tell the disciples what has taken place. They recalled what Jesus had said and told the eleven and “all the rest” (Luke 24:8-9). As Craddock points out, these women were not “errand runners for disciples; they were disciples.”
Mary Magdalene, the woman saved from seven demons, is one of the first witnesses of the Resurrected Christ. Her role in being one of the first to communicate the resurrection to others, places her among the Bible’s major players.
How are you living as a witness of the Resurrected Christ?
Resources: Craddock, Fred B. Luke. John Knox Press, 1990.
This is an incredible film from writer Danny Strong (who you may remember as one third of The Trio in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer) and director Lee Daniels (The Paperboy, Precious). It is a great story of a butler, a father, a son, and a movement.
The film is based on the true story of White House butler Eugene Allen, who is deceased now. Allen started his service in 1952 with the Truman administration and ended it in 1986 during the Reagan administration. His service as a butler in the White House parallels the Civil Rights movement, which is the basis of this film.
The Gaines family is a fictional family, with Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) as the butler. The film opens in a cotton field in the south. “It was hard work,” Cecil narrates as the film unfolds. Cecil is a small boy working alongside his father. These opening scenes are incredibly important, because they set the tone for the rest of the film.
While Cecil is working along side his father, Thomas Westfall (Alex Pettyfer) enters the field and demands Cecil’s mother (Mariah Carey) to meet him in the shed. Cecil watches his father watch his wife leave the field to do as the white man says. Cecil and the other field workers try to continue their work, despite the cries and screams coming from the shed.
As Thomas leaves the shed and is struggling to buckle his overhaul’s back, Cecil’s father, though silent at first, speaks up. Thomas takes a gun out of his overhauls, points it at Cecil’s father, and pulls the trigger.
Young Cecil learns two lessons on this day that will shape the man he will become. The first is the value of silence and the second is better to be alive than to speak up. The memories of this day will haunt Cecil throughout the rest of the film. Even though he doesn’t speak of it hardly at all during the film, the way Forest Whitaker portrays Cecil you can tell he is remembering.
It is by understanding this opening scene in the cotton field that we get a fuller picture of who Cecil is as the Civil Rights movement starts. And who Cecil is as a father during these difficult times. Cecil’s life is shaped by this early tragedy in his life that he never speaks of, which makes it difficult for his eldest son, Lewis, to understand him.
Lewis is the prodigal son, leaving home to gain his own life experiences. Even in high school, Lewis showed signs of disagreeing with his father. Lewis would go to Tennessee for college and would join the Freedom Riders. To capture the sense of what this time was like, the film blends in news footage of young African-Americans being beaten and arrested for sitting at white only counters or for riding the freedom buses. Lewis would eventually join the Black Panthers.
Director Lee Daniels creates a visual treasure of sorts as he draws a parallel between Lewis’ involvement with the Freedom Riders and Black Panthers alongside his father’s serving in the White House. Lewis is the rebellious young adult whose actions are wrapped in the need for change. Cecil, on the other hand, is the speechless, unquestioning, servant. It is the parallel between keeping silent and speaking out.
In the meantime, Gloria Gaines, who is brillanitlly portrayed by Oprah Winfrey (dare I suggest an Academy Award nomination?), deals with her loneliness by turning to the bottle. Cecil’s silence was not only reserved for the White House. In fact, there is so much unspoken tension between the couple. It is a rare occasion to see him be affection with Gloria. We mostly see Gloria at home, but not in the traditional the wife-stays-at-home role. She is most often the hostess for other families. They gather in the Gaines home for parties and for dialogue. Even here, in this setting, Cecil seems to blend in with the wallpaper. He remains silent on the issues, even when it comes to Lewis’ involvement, other than that he thinks Lewis should not be involved.
Oprah Winfrey gives a commanding performance in this film. Gloria does not have any moving monologues, just a few seemingly generic lines. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Winfrey gives Danny Strong credit for writing those words. But, as Strong points out, Winfrey gives those lines life. That combined with her simple actions creates meaningful scenes.
Charlie, the younger brother, sees the world differently from his rebellious older brother and from his silent, servant father. He joins the armed forces and goes to Vietnam. “You fight against your country,” Charlie says to his brother, “I want to fight for my country.” Charlie represents yet another perspective to the Civil Rights era. Is there one this is more right than the others? Gloria, in a dramatic scene where Cecil throws Lewis out of the house, slaps her son and tells him that if it was not for the butler, he wouldn’t be where he is now. Gloria’s action implies that maybe more than one perspective is needed.
In writing about the about the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15), Fred Craddock observes that the parable should really be referred to as the parable of the forgiving father. It is this image that I see in Cecil Gaines. There are so many converting moments in the film, or as Oprah would say, “ah-ha moments.” One was when Cecil and Gloria were invited by Nancy Reagan (Jane Fonda) to the State Dinner. “I got all confused after that,” Cecil recalls. As Cecil reflects on what it was like to be on the other side of the serving, he concludes:
Lewis was never a criminal. He was a hero fighting to save the soul of the country.
He resigns after a long career as a butler, and leaves the White House and joins Lewis. Lewis is curious as to why his father is there. “I came here to protest.” The next scene is Cecil and Lewis in a jail cell together. This jail cell scene, with father and son laughing and smiling, represents the forgiveness that resides between them.
A forgiveness that humanity as a whole has yet to reach.
My sermon from Sunday, July 14, 2013 on Amos 7:7-17 and Luke 10:25-37 preached at Peakland United Methodist.
When I was in school I dreaded pop quizzes. Those infinite little secret weapons that teachers used to pull out on a whim that would ignite fear in the eyes of helpless children everywhere – it was a scheme. And every teacher always had a stack of pop quizzes ready to go, no matter the subject or day of the week.
You didn’t know when they were coming. That was the point. The teacher didn’t want you to be prepared for it. The worse pop quiz I ever took was in seminary – seminary! I thought those days of sitting in fear of those stacks of quizzes were over. But oh no. We were assigned a 200+ page book to read over the weekend. Most of us had read . . . .most of the book. After opening class with a prayer, the professor proceeds to hand out this pop quiz.
Well, to say the least, nobody was happy. And as we found out, none of us did well on that pop quiz.
Pop quizzes were things we thought teachers used to trick us into doing our homework or trick us into studying when we didn’t need to…..or simply just to trick us.
The religious leaders in our text this morning are in the Temple asking Jesus some strange questions that really don’t seem to have anything to do with anything. The verses we read from Luke 19 tell us that these religious leaders don’t care much for Jesus. They are like cats of prey in waiting, ready to pounce when the time is just right.
There’s only one problem. Jesus knows they are there. Jesus has been in the Temple all day teaching. As Spencer reminded us last week, this is the same Temple that Jesus was teaching in as a child. The same Temple that Jesus over turned tables because they had turned this House of Worship into a Den of Robbers.
The priests and scribes have been questioning his authority all day. Jesus knows they are waiting to pounce. It doesn’t look too good for the religious leaders.
What they need is a really good question for Jesus. A question that Jesus can’t give a Jesus answer to. A question that will trick Jesus so that no matter what his answer, he will alienate half the crowd.
They don’t only need a question . . .they need someone to ask the question. In Luke 20:20, Luke says that they sent “spies” to ask this question of Jesus. We don’t really know who these spies. They could have been a different order of clergy or just some random “do-gooders” the priest came upon on the streets. Either way, whoever these “spies” were, the question they were sent with is a pretty well known question (especially at this time of year): “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
You can almost see the priests and the scribes in the shadows of the Temple, rubbing their well manicured hands together, cackling amongst themselves, “We have him now!”
But they forgot, they were asking this question to Jesus. The Messiah. The Son of David. The Healer. The Word made flesh.
Jesus gives what is now a classic response, “Give to Caesars what is Caesars, and give to God what is Gods.” The wrinkled brows of the priests and scribes become all distorted as they sit in silence. As Luke says in 20:26, “And they were not able in the presence of the people to trap him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became silent.”
Then, we come to the text we read this morning. A different group of clergy or religious leaders step up to challenge Jesus. The Sadducees.
Now, these guys! Most of the time when we see the Sadducees mentioned in the New Testament, they are mentioned alongside the Pharisees. Here though, Luke separates them, for as I learned this week, there are some significant differences. According to Josephus, a first century historian, they were boorish in their social interaction and only influential with a few wealthy families, not with the common people – that would be those who were following and listening to Jesus. And you thought the Pharisees were stern when it came to following the laws, these guys had them beat, hands down! They were strict in obeying and stricter in their punishments.
And they encouraged conflict with rather than respect for their teachers. Instead of being open to having a dialogue about differences in theology, they were very stern about what was right and what was wrong. Which brings us to their pop quiz for Jesus. Invoking the name of Moses and the law, they paint a picture of a woman who has had no children and whose husband has died. The man’s brother marries the widow. But he dies, and so the next brother marries the widow. But he dies! And this cycle repeats itself until she has been married 7 times before she herself dies.
“Whose wife is she,” they ask, “in the resurrection?”
Let’s step back for a moment. Did you notice when Luke introduces these guys, he takes the time to mention that they do not believe in the resurrection? Luke kinda just slipped that in there, but it’s important because it helps shape the question they ask. So, here’s the deal with their question. The question isn’t about marriage, it’s about the resurrection. The Sadducees know this is a dividing issue among the people. It doesn’t matter how Jesus answers the question, it’s not going to change their minds about the resurrection. As Fred Craddock says, “their minds had been settled long ago.” They are simply asking the question “to argue, to embarrass, to force Jesus into one particular school of thought, or perhaps just to divide the audience.”
Their motives are questionable.
There’s a Jewish saying that goes, “Rake the muck this way; rake the muck that way. It’s still muck. Meanwhile we could be stringing pearls for heaven.” This is basically what the Sadducees are doing. They are raking the muck. They are asking a theological question as a trick question to get rid of Jesus. They are asking this question to avoid what really matters; trivial questions like these keep them from seeing who Jesus really is even when Jesus is right in front of them.
When do we do the same? When do we rake the muck? When do we waste our time playing word games instead of seeing Christ right in front of us?
Don’t get me wrong, I think questions are essential to our faith. In fact, I’m fairly fond of asking them. When we counter the questions that the Sadducees and other religious leaders ask with questions that Jesus is asked by others, we begin to see a difference. For example:
Jesus always has time for questions that are real and authentic. Jesus allows these holy interruptions. The answer Jesus gives is not a slogan or a marketable sound bite. The answer Jesus gives is simply himself. The answer is Christ. In Christ your child will be healed. In Christ your demons will be dealt with. It doesn’t matter how unclean you are, in Christ, you are loved! In Christ, there is life.
The difference between these questions is a matter of the heart – it’s about attitude. Its’ about what we intend when we ask the question.
The Latin root of the word “question” means “to seek”. It’s where we get the word “quest” from. To ask a question is to enter on a journey. Lucy wonders what is beyond the lamppost. Wolverine has questions about his origins. Aladdin wants to know what will happen if he rubs the lamp. Alice wants to know why this white rabbit is running around with a big pocket watch. Questions can send us on a quest for answers.
Kenda Creasy Dean, Professor of Youth and Culture at Princeton Theological, has been quoted saying, “God is in the questions.” God is in the quest. God is in the journey. An appropriate statement I think as we consider the journey that Lent symbolizes. Lent is traditionally a season in the life of the Church where Christians fast. The spiritual practice of fasting is about letting go of the things we depend on – meat, soda, facebook, TV, complaining, gossiping – to find dependency on God. As John the Baptist says in John 3:30, “God must increase, but I must decrease.” Lent is that time when we embark on a journey as we ask ourselves questions to discover where in our lives we need God to increase. In what ways do we need God to heal us? What demons do we need dealt with? In what ways do we need to feel loved? In what ways do we need new life? “Real questions,” as one pastor puts it, “are doorways to the journey to newness.”
Are we willing to ask questions and be asked questions that engage us on a journey to deepen our faith or are we content with just raking the muck?
If we choose to engage in this journey, we have to open the eyes of our hearts. Paul says in Ephesians 1:18, “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened.” When we open the eyes of our hearts, we gaze upon the journey through eyes of compassion and mercy. We see and feel our own brokenness, taking advantage of the Lenten journey reflecting on the sacrifice Christ has made for us. The journey is not just an intellectual journey to Christ, it is a journey of the heart. A journey of mending and healing.
This journey is not just a personal journey. There are others walking along beside us. Their journeys intersect with ours. Especially during Lent, when we find ourselves on the same road leading to the Cross, following the footsteps of Jesus.
When I first came to Lebanon, almost 10 years ago, we worshiped in the old, smaller sanctuary. We worshiped in a much tighter space, often with our knees to our chins. And for many a Sunday, we sang, “On a journey together we can face any weather; Keeping Christ the center of our community; On a journey together we can make the world better; By forgiving and loving, starting with you and me.”
We sang that song when we broke ground, right here for this new building. We sang that song during the months that followed as bit by bit this building came into existence. And we sang that song the first Sunday we worshiped in this space.
On a journey together. That song represented for us the journey we were embarking on as a church – as a community of faith – as we worked to fulfill who God was calling us to be. Friends, the journey is not over. We are a community full of the called. We need to be okay with facing questions that send us on a quest to fulfill whom God has called us to be.
So, this Lent as we journey remembering the steps that Jesus took, let us not be content with raking the muck and pop quizzes, rather let us consider the questions that will deepen our faith as we gaze with the eyes of our hearts on the steps Christ is calling us to take. The steps in our own faith journeys as well as the steps Christ is calling us as a church to take.
Who is God calling you to be?
Who is God calling us to be?
 Craddock, Fred B. Luke. Page 237