I wonder if the following names mean anything to you? Jamye Flowers Coplin, Margaret Hamilton, Katherine Johnson, Frances Northcutt, and JoAnn Morgan. Does it help if I tell you that they were pioneers in their field and indispensable to one of the most monumental achievements of humankind? How about if I tell you that some of their colleagues were called Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins? Yesterday, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landings, and not that any of you look a day over twenty-one, but if any of you do remember Apollo 11, I’d love to hear your memories of it.
A person on the moon was a monumental achievement. But whilst the names of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins are instantly recognisable, the majority of the 400,000 people who made the moon landings possible are not known, among them many women like the ones I mentioned earlier. They were often overlooked or ignored, relegated to the night shifts before the launches, receiving little to no recognition and enduring a lot of sexism and, in some cases, racism, along the way. Now it’s obviously ridiculous to ignore or overlook women for many reasons, but with the space programmes, overlooking women meant that they endangered male astronauts because, as they discovered when they first sent a woman into space, the only way to have a wee safely in space, without risking a UTI or dismemberment, is to wee like a woman. Every day is a learning day.
So, what has this got to do with Mary Magdalene? Well Mary has gone down in history, we remember her name and thanks to the preponderance of Marys in biblical times, we get to know that she’s from Magdala near the Sea of Galilee, and in fact, she is mentioned by name in the Gospels more than most of the apostles. And in our Gospel reading today, small though it may be, it is significant in that it tells us that she has been transformed by Jesus, healed in some way through the casting out of seven demons, which some scholars think might mean mental illness and others think it could be something debilitating but common like migraines. And along with some other named women – Joanna and Susanna – and many others, they were with Jesus, accompanying him as proclaimed the good news of the Kingdom of God, and financially provided for him and their mission. But perhaps the most important thing we know about Mary Magdalene is that she was witness to the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. She had a front row seat to some of the most monumental moments of God’s salvation history. She was the first to proclaim the risen Christ, the next chapter in the good news of the Kingdom of God, we forever remember the name Mary Magdalene.
But then, as church history goes on, something rather strange begins to happen to legacy of Mary Magdalene. She finds herself caught in character assassination, a hit job is launched on her integrity and relationship which Jesus and the memory of her becomes distorted, a reason to overlook her, to ignore her, to downplay her role as apostle to the apostles. The witness to the most monumental moment in God’s salvation history is reduced to a subheading in our Bibles today above our passage: ‘some women accompany Jesus.’
I was in the Holy Land earlier this year and I went to Magdala, and let me tell you about Magdala: it is so boring. Seriously, it’s such a dull place. It’s dry, it’s dusty, it’s very beige, if you’re in the area, you might as well go, but don’t go out of your way to visit. My highlight of Magdala was sitting down with my friend Becky and talking about our favourite episodes of the TV show ‘Brooklyn Nine Nine.’ But we went there because it’s where Mary Magdalene is from. And she matters. And she matters because Jesus showed she matters. Because Jesus invited her to take her place in the story of God’s salvation history just because.
The story of humankind according to us are big names doing big things, like remembering the man who walked on the moon but not the women who enabled him to get there; it’s the story of discriminating against people based on gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and how your body and mind work; it’s the story of people saying ‘what good can come from Nazareth?’ and ‘why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came?’; it’s the story of saying, ‘I don’t think I matter, because the world doesn’t treat me like I do.’
But as Mary Magdalene shows us, this is not the story of Jesus. Rather, the story of Jesus is that you matter. You are significant. In God’s story, everyone is named, everyone is wanted, everyone is valued. Because a man walking on the moon is a big deal, but it is nothing compared with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus which is a cosmos-shattering declaration of just how much each person matters, how much you matter. Your worth in the eyes of God is not dependent on where you come from or what you do or how you’ve made a name for yourself, your worth is set from the moment your Creator fashioned you out of love. The God where the sun and the moon bow down before him is the God who calls us all to follow him, to personally know him and encounter him. This is the God who declares us ransomed, healed, restored, and forgiven because nothing, neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ.
Like Mary Magdalene, Jesus invites us to have the thread of our lives woven into the great tapestry of God’s salvation history. It’s not an invitation to fame and renown, to going down in the history books, a shot at temporal glory. Rather it’s an invitation to an eternity of being loved and known and valued, of unending mercy and grace. It is the best invitation to ever receive. Mary Magdalene accepted the invitation, she followed Jesus, she stayed at the cross, she goes with him to his burial, she is the first at the empty tomb. She is written off by the world as ‘some woman’ but because she follows Jesus she is the first to declare ‘I have seen the risen Lord.’ So, for each of us, the invitation is there, to follow God wherever he may call us, whatever the cost may be, and who knows what extraordinary and ordinary, spectacular and intimate, once in a lifetime and everyday moments we may witness in the continuing story of God’s salvation history.