Easter V – May 6, 2007
Li Tim-Oi Service – Toronto
0 God, the light. Of the minds that know you, the joy of the hearts that love you, the strength of the wills that try to serve you. Grant us to so know you as to love you, so love you as to serve you – in whose service is perfect freedom. And since you have called all of us to your service, make us worthy of that calling and empower us for that service, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
It is a joy and a privilege to participate in this service honouring the memory of one of God’s true servants, our beloved sister in Christ, Li Tim Oi. I knew of her and of her faithful witness long before I had the opportunity to meet her at the Lambeth Conference of 1988 and I cannot begin to tell you what an inspiration she remains for me and how honoured I was that this first woman priest came to Massachusetts to be a concelebrant at my consecration to the episcopate.
As I thought of Tim-Oi and today’s, service, I was reminded of a book I encountered a few years ago. It was a compelling little volume titled “The Magdalene Gospel” with a superscription: “What if women had written the Gospels?” The author, Mary Ellen Ashcroft, a professor of English at Bethel College near Minneapolis, MN and now also a priest, has a penchant for women’s stories. I have never met her, but she sent the book as a gift to me by the hand of her son, whom I confirmed in one of our Massachusetts congregations.
Ashcroft enlivens the well known Gospel stories on the experience of Jesus through the voices of the women of his company. Luke refers to them simply as “certain women,” which perhaps is more a nod in the direction of their novelty, rather than their integrity. But, at least, their presence is acknowledged.
Gathered privately on the outskirts of Jerusalem, possibly at the home of Mary and Martha of Bethany, during what had to be the terrifying two nights and bitter day between Jesus’ death and his resurrection, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of Jesus, Joanna and the other women recount their very personal stories of how Jesus changed their lives. It is an imaginative retelling of the Gospel narratives from the perspective of Jesus’ women followers, some of whom are identified by name for the first time. Perhaps even more vivid than the articulated memories of healing and hope that give rise to their grief and tears, is the way in which they care for each other and draw strength from each other. Their sharing in this shadowed and. whispered time together, one can imagine, empowered and emboldened them to risk even further danger than standing at the cross, by resolving to visit the tomb of a crucified person, particularly one who had been perceived as a political troublemaker.
Foremost among this group is Mary Magdalene, who in some accounts goes with the other Mary to the tomb. In the Gospel according to John, however, she would seem to be at the tomb alone and alone encounters the risen Christ. This poignant portion of John’s Gospel, which we heard read, is the Epilogue which closes Ashcroft’s book.
But it is African American Emory University professor Renita J Weems, who in her book, “Just a Sister Away” — a womanist vision of women’s relationships in the Bible – who puts the real flesh on the Magdalene and provides some insight into the too easily glossed over lives of this much misunderstood, much maligned woman arid others who participated fully in the ministry of Jesus. What brought her to this point in her life?
Because her name is often the first name mentioned in the list of women’s names in the Gospels, Mary Magdalene, according to Weems, might be assumed to have been a leader — – if only among the women. Similarly, because there are no less than seven Mary’s in the Gospel, over time Mary Magdalene has often been confused with and mistaken for not only the profiles, but the sins of many other women. There is, for example, little to substantiate that the sinner who anointed Jesus’ feet with her hair and tears was Mary Magdalene, although many people choose to conclude it was she. More pointedly, Luke tells us that before she met Jesus, she had been plagued with seven demons.
We don’t know the specific nature of Mary Magdalene’s illness however we do know that once she was healed, she proved a loyal, articulate, persuasive and charismatic follower. Weems suggests it is not far-fetched to suppose that at least some of her illness was brought on by her inability to express herself fully. That could be attributed to the life she was forced to live as a woman in first century Palestine. Imagine, she notes, a gifted, intelligent, bright, charismatic woman living in a society which had no place for gifted, intelligent, bright, charismatic women. Like many women today, Mary’s emotional and physical infirmities were probably symptomatic of the stresses and strains she was forced to live through on a daily basis; stresses and strains that came in the form of relationships and environments that were neither affirming nor encouraging, stresses that were, in fact, repressive and destructive.
It heightens our consciousness of the stresses, strains and conditions under which our sister Tim-Oi laboured and bore faithful witness – conditions which many of us present today could not survive with our bodies, our minds and out souls in tact.
We do not know what Jesus said to Mary Magdalene that gave her back her mind, what convinced her to abandon her demons and join his itinerant band of women arid men who looked for a new way of living and being. Perhaps it was the words intended for the menstruating woman- “… your faith has made you whole” – that gave her an indication of her own healing. Whatever it was, Weems concludes, she was never the same again.
Nor were any of the others in this unusual circle of women who joined the company of Jesus. These women who had quit their homes to travel, unaccompanied by husbands or fathers, in the company of other men; these women who had given everything they had to support and affirm Jesus’ ministry — their gifts, their talents, their time and their money, their very substance. Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward. Chuza; Susannah, Salome, Mary, his mother, Miriam, known to us as Mary, Clopas, Mary and Martha of Bethany and Rhoda and Lydia —heretofore nameless and identified only as the bent over woman” and “the woman hemorrhaging for twelve years.”
Nor were any of the men of his company the same again. Their lives had been turned upside down by the simple, yet profound, words – “‘Follow me.”‘ Nor, for that matter, are those of us who count ourselves in the company of Jesus the same.
What might Tim-Oi say to us in her Gospel – Her Good News of Jesus Christ? She might say that as we find Mary weeping outside the garden tomb, we find her stuck at a point beyond which many people today cannot or do not move. Despite her commitment, her loyalty, her great love for Jesus, we find the Magdalene still mired in the dust of Calvary stuck right there at the cross, unable or unwilling to remember or to believe Jesus’ own clear pronouncement that on the third day he would rise.
She also might tell us that we could well note three things about the scene outside the tomb — three things that are as applicable today in their own way as they were on that first Easter dawn.
First, it was because Mary was seeking for a dead Christ that she, could not find him. And many people keep making the same mistake today. The Christ they knew lived in Palestine 2000 years ago and they are impressed by what he did, what he taught and by what he suffered. Emotionally and spiritually they take their stand at Ca1vary and there they stay.
Secondly, for all her searching about the tomb, it was not Mary Magdalene who discovered Christ, but Christ who found her. This is the way it usually happens. God is seeking us, not only when we have lost God, but even when we are alienated from God and do not realize God is missing from our lives. When our spiritual lives become meager and thin, as they sometimes do, we need to recall that LOVE that will not let us go.
And thirdly, although Mary was seeking him with her whole being, she did not recognize Christ when she saw him. We don’t need to fault her for this, for apparently the risen Christ was different in some ways from the Jesus she had known. She failed to recognize him, supposing him to be the gardener. So it often is with all of us.
At times all we, see is some needy and perhaps less than attractive soul, someone who does not appeal to us, someone who lacks the necessities of life and who claims our assistance — like so many of the people we see on the streets and who assault us on the sidewalk with their varied calls for alms. Preoccupied, annoyed, disdainful and fearful of’ involvement, we are tempted to ignore these unwelcome claims. And then — we are taken aback as we recall the words: “As you did it to one of the least of these, my brethren, you did it unto me.”
As we continue to celebrate these great Fifty Days of Easter, I believe that Tim-Oi would have us consider how fortunate we are. From the vantage point of 2000 years, we who claim to have moved past Calvary, past the empty tomb and beyond the garden can, by our daily living of the Baptismal Convenant – with all of its implications for peace with justice and respecting the dignity of every human being – help others to have meaningful encounters wit the Risen Lord – as did our sister, Tim-Oi – that they too might be changed, might find new ways of living and being, and have their lives of mourning turned into joy in the loving, accepting fellowship of the Resurrection. Amen.
For the faithful witness of our dear sister, to whom God opened the gates of larger life fifteen years ago, let say: Thanks be to God and let the church say Amen.