My Inaugural Sermon (on Love, Commitment and Chesed)

Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene
July 22

Ruth 1

Psalm 73

John 20:1-18

[And here is the video!  Click here to view]

I just spent some time in Oklahoma this last week, visiting my parents who just celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary.  65 years. As my mother quipped on her 50th wedding anniversary: “The first 50 years were nothing.  It’s the next 50 years I’m worried about.”  The Hebrew language has a word for love like my parents’: chesed.  It’s usually translated as “steadfast love,” and you see it all over the Psalms.  However, in my opinion, “steadfast love” is a very pale phrase to describe what chesed is.  A better translation would be “Unconditional, Iron-clad, Covenant-backed, Built-Ford-Tough-Love” (although that probably doesn’t roll as trippingly off the tongue).  This is love that sticks around.  It is not going anywhere, any time soon.

Our society does not do a very good job of chesed these days.  We live in a throw-away culture where 50% of all marriages end in divorce and 40% of all children are born out of wedlock.  We have a highly mobile economy that does not encourage long-term commitment, we have a tax structures that penalizes marriage, and we have a legal system that features instruments like the “pre-nuptial agreement” – which literally banks on marriages failing.  So how do we go about doing chesed in the middle of all this?

“Ruth and Naomi,” Phillip Ratner, 1998

Let’s go to the Hebrew Bible reading this week, which features the story of Ruth and Naomi.  Naomi is a widow who has not only been left without a husband, but has lost her only two sons as well.  Naomi is very bitter, and understandably so.  In Biblical times, being a widow without family meant that you not only had no one to provide for you, but you also had no one to protect you either.  That is why YHWH is so often mentioned as the protector of widows and orphans – because there was no one else to do it.  So Naomi, being a realist, tells her daughters-in-law to go back to their families where they can at least find protection and provision – even under the social stigma of being a widow.  Orpah, her first daughter-in-law goes home.  She’s not being callous, she’s just being sensible.  In that time, what could a bunch of widowed women possibly do together except starve?  Her other daughter-in-law, Ruth the Moabite, though, is not leaving.  Ruth is a model of the Lord’s chesed.  Ruth clings to Naomi and, in one of the most stirring declarations of love ever written – one that is still used in marriage ceremonies around the world – she says: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.  Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried.  May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”

Wow.  That’s some strong stuff.  So the chesed of Ruth is more than just fluffy “steadfast love” – We’re talking about love with a backbone.  It’s built-Ford-tough-love.  It’s love that is not going anywhere, anytime soon – whether you like it or not.  It’s love that is downright inconvenient.  Naomi wanted to be left alone in her bitter widowhood, but Ruth was not about to let her do it.  That’s how chesed works.  It rudely interrupts our personal pity parties and drags us back into the light of the living again.  It is not about to leave us alone.

Let’s flash forward to the New Testament.  In the Gospel reading today – which is the feast day of Mary Magdalene – we have the Easter appearance of the Lord Jesus at the tomb.  In the

Fethiye Cliff Tombs, Turkey

time of Jesus, tombs were not places that respectable people hung out in.  It was necessary to go there to anoint the dead for burial – which was usually the job of women – but the task of handling the bodies made one ritually unclean, after which you had to go and perform purification rituals before you could touch anyone or anything else.  Tombs were also the abode of unclean spirits, and also of the insane and the demonically possessed.    If you had to anoint someone for burial, you got in, you did it, and you got out – no hanging around.

When Peter and the “Disciple that Jesus Loved” go to Jesus’ tomb with Mary Magdalene, they see that the stone has been rolled aside and the dressings for the body have been left behind.  Peter and the “Other” disciple did what any Jewish person with good sense would do – they left and returned to their homes.  Not Mary Magdalene.  In spite of the fact that she was outside a tomb, and in spite of the fact that being associated with Jesus could lead to her arrest, Mary stayed outside the tomb, weeping.

Alexander Ivanov, “The Appearance of Christ to Mary Magdalene,” 1834-1836

It’s interesting to note that the word “Magdalene” eventually became the root for the English word “maudlin” – an adjective describing an embarrassing display of emotion, theatrical weeping.  In our culture, public displays of emotion are generally frowned upon.  Where our loved ones pass away, we are expected to soldier on steadily through our grief and get over it promptly.  Employers generally allow about a week for bereavement leave, in spite of the fact that psychologists estimate it takes seven years to completely get over the loss of a loved one.  So if we persist in our grief, we are seen as being like Mary Magdalene – maudlin and embarrassing.

The chesed of Mary Magdalene, however, is not bound by conventional standards of appropriate grief.  She stays at the tomb, weeping, in an unseemly display of public emotion.  Why?  Because she is bearing witness to a very public wrong.  Jesus Christ was tortured to death unjustly and publicly.  Mary Magdalene was present, bearing witness at the crucifixion and she was present, grieving at the tomb, on the day of Resurrection in all four Gospel accounts.  In Biblical studies, repetition is very significant.  When images or stories are repeated, it’s a big, red arrow saying “Pay attention!  This is important!”

A memorial in Aurora, CO

Some scholars attribute her grief to her personal relationship with Jesus – that she was more than a mere Disciple.  You can read more about that in Margaret Starbird’s The Woman with the Alabaster Jar.  But regardless of the source of her grief, the main point is that she respects her grief and gives it the room it deserves.  When we bear witness to public injustice and violence, her grief is our grief.  When we bear witness to the loss of our loved ones, our grief is God’s grief.  When we grieve, we are not alone.  God’s chesed does not stand outside our grief, tapping a watch, telling us to get on with life.  God grieves with us.  In the aftermath of the horrific shooting in Aurora, CO this week, public grief is certainly in order.

Finally, the chesed of Mary Magdalene not only engages in public grief, but it asks hard questions.  While Peter and the Other Disciple have wisely left for home, Mary is not only staying outside a tomb – where she has no business staying – but she is not leaving until she gets her questions answered: What have you done with the body?  Tell me where you have buried him.  We manifest God’s chesed when we ask the hard questions of each other.  “Are you sure you really want that third drink?”  “Do you really want to Friend your ex-boyfriend on Facebook?”  In the case of Aurora, CO, the hard questions might include how this young man managed to legally obtain two Glocks, a pump-action shotgun, an assault-style rifle and 6,000 rounds of ammunition without one red flag being raised.  God’s chesed is not for the faint of heart.

But that’s the good news.  When we are ready to give up like Naomi, send all our friends packing and curl up with that third or fourth drink, God’s chesed is right there, staring us in the face, dragging us back into the land of the living and rudely reminding us that we are not alone.  We might wish it were otherwise, but that’s the good news.  It’s all about the chesed.

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