A Sermon from Sherborne

The Woman with a Past

A sermon for Evensong of the Eve of the Feast of St Mary Magdalene, preached in Sherborne Abbey on Sunday 21 July 2019 by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


Tomorrow is St. Mary Magdalene’s Day. At Castleton Church, dedicated to her, they anticipated the Feast this morning to celebrate Patronal Festival. Quite right too. And we can celebrate her now, as the liturgical day is held to begin on the previous evening – technically at dusk, but this will do.

Mary Magdalene was a woman who had a past but also, at one time in her life, what seemed like no future at all. St. Luke tells us in chapter eight of his Gospel that until Jesus healed her she was possessed of seven devils. Now ‘seven’ in the Bible always means completeness, totality, so this is Luke’s way of telling us that Mary had suffered the most severe mental disorder. It is also an ancient tradition (and based on the internal evidence of the Gospel an entirely reasonable inference) that Mary is the self-same woman Luke mentions a few verses earlier, the ‘woman living an immoral life’ who came to the Pharisee’s house where Jesus was a dinner guest, and made the Lord’s feet wet with her tears, drying them with her hair and anointing them with kisses and costly perfume. After all, Mary’s home village of Magdala, on the shore of Lake Galilee, was known both as a village of great wealth and also as a village of harlots. It’s not clear whether the wealth produced the harlots or the harlots produced the wealth, but either way to be known as Mary of Magdala was more like being known as ‘Mary of Soho’ than ‘Mary of Sherborne’. But perhaps Soho has changed since my youth….

But even if we only knew of the seven devils, we would know Mary as someone with a past, abandoned to the worst powers of the Evil One. She had sinned much and suffered much. But she had been forgiven much and healed of much, and now she loved much. She certainly loved the Lord enough to follow him to Jerusalem and to the cross, and later to come to anoint his body for burial in the tomb, just as perhaps she once anointed his feet with oil of myrrh. And to her utter dismay the stone is rolled back, the tomb is empty. Through a blur of tears she sees a figure. The gardener? – ‘Oh sir, they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.’ And then she hears that familiar voice: ‘Mary’.

You have a past, and so have I. We all have. I know very little about the past of most of you. It is not my job to make windows into your souls. So I do not know if your past is free of ghosts and shadows. I do not know if you carry the scars of past failings and disappointments, of ancient guilt and old grudges. And you know no more of my past, either. To that extent we are strangers to one another, and perhaps that is as well. Of course from time to time a parishioner comes to me with a present problem – a depression or anxiety or fear – and soon it becomes apparent that it is their past which is the real problem: something that happened long ago is still casting a shadow over the present, and over the future too. Then, with their permission, I can ask some gentle questions and peel back the layers to discover something of what has been troubling them over the years. Always it is important that I know when I have reached the limit of my competence and need to suggest that it is time to seek the help of someone with more appropriate skills. It is equally important that I forget whatever I have been told. Everyone has a right to utter confidentiality. I know, but I do not know. And I only know a little. But God knows all. He knows us through and through. He knows all the things that we hide from the world. He knows all the things we try to hide from ourselves.

No doubt there have been times for you which have felt like fresh beginnings, when the past seemed dealt with and a fresh chapter begun. Perhaps at your Confirmation, your first communion, on your wedding day, when you moved home or changed your job, you really felt that your past was behind you, and that you had reached a fresh start.

Perhaps there have been moments when you felt your relationship with God had really begun for the first time, or had been totally renewed. You really did intend to follow Jesus. You really did, but then…well…you know…you kind of drifted back into the old ways. ‘And they all forsook him, and fled’. So have you. So have we all.

What brought you back? A friend? Your conscience? A passing encounter or chance remark? And you tried yet again. Then faith got difficult again. ‘I used to pray…I don’t now…I don’t know why I’ve drifted away…they have taken away my Lord’. Then one day, quite unexpectedly, he spoke your name: Mary, Jonathan, Simon, Sarah. And you thought ‘Oh, if only I could cling to him, make him be present always: that would make it so much easier’. But ‘do not cling to me’ he says, as he said to Mary. Don’t cling to him, because he has work for you to do. You with the past, you who have been forgiven much. You must not keep all that love and mercy and forgiveness to yourself. It has to be shared. You have been healed of much; you have been forgiven much – now you must love much. Love the Lord much, and love one another much.

Oh, but it’s so difficult. It would be easier to be sent out on some dramatic mission, wouldn’t it, like Paul sent all over the Mediterranean and parts of Asia. To be sent like Patrick to Ireland or Boniface to Germany or Aldhelm to the heathen South West of England. It is so much harder to begin again where you are so well known, to live differently because you are living Christianly with people who know you so well – at home, in the street, at work or at school. But remember, Paul’s first task after his conversion on the Damascus Road and the recovery of his sight was to go back to Jerusalem, where he was known by all and feared by the Christians: he had to go back and live and speak and act differently, and we are told that he did just that, moving about freely in Jerusalem, speaking out boldly and openly in the name of the Lord. [Acts 9:29]

And you must do the same, you with the past, you who have been forgiven much. Will you do it? Will you go to those who do not know Christ, those you know and see all the time, at home, at the office, at the factory, the hospital, the college or the school; those you meet at WI or the Arts Society in Sainsbury’s or Waitrose? Some of them will hardly know Christ’s name, except as a swear word. Will you tell them he is alive, ascended, mighty to save? You will have to win their friendship, you will have to love them much. But you have been forgiven much and loved much. Will you not do this for him?

Do you remember – you will have to be at least as old as I am if you do – do you remember Wilfred Pickles and his ‘Have a Go’ programmes on the BBC? He once asked an old Chelsea Pensioner, ‘Is there one special thing you’d like to do before you die.’ There was a long pause. Then that old soldier, with a long past, who no doubt had sinned much but had been forgiven much, replied in his old shaky voice: ‘Yes. I’d like to win one soul for Jesus Christ.’ I hope and I pray that that would be my reply too – and yours.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 21/07/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne