Preached on 14th August 2016 (Patronal Festival)
at the church of St Mary the Virgin in Bishops Lydeard, Somerset
God has a sense of humour! Today proves it.
I think he’s enjoying the fact that I’m standing here preaching on this particular day in a church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary!
Because my perception of and relationship with Mary, the mother of Jesus, hasn’t always been entirely respectful or sympathetic.
My mother grew up in the infamous Gorbals tenements of Glasgow in the 1920s. She used to tell me that she, a daughter of Scottish Presbyterians, used to pass a Roman Catholic school on her way to her school and sometimes the children there would throw stones and shout insults at her and her friends. The sectarian divide in Glasgow was very real then.
My father was an Anglican clergyman standing in the middle ground as far as theology and liturgy were concerned.
It’s a comparatively recent development that’s taken place certainly in my lifetime that Anglican clergy are commonly called “priests”. I well remember “priest” being a Catholic title which went with language like “bells and smells”, candles and “high” church. And, of course veneration of the Virgin Mary, praying to her, the rosary, the “Hail Marys” – all considered to be catholic customs and attitudes.
Well, we all grow up to challenge what we think are our parents’ beliefs and sometimes we realise we’ve misunderstood them or judged them harshly. In time I chose to more or less ignore Mary the mother of Jesus except at Christmas and on Good Friday when she witnesses the crucifixion of her son – something too awful to imagine.
Then a few years ago I was asked to read this at a Community Carol Service. I think our vicar at the time had written it himself. Mary is talking about her experience:
“My journey to Bethlehem began long before the days when Joseph and I travelled up for the census. People thought that I was a sad and strange child – I was sad, but never strange, at least I don’t think I was strange! I was sad because the world seemed all wrong, not as God wanted it to be. I was sad because people didn’t seem to be able to change things, to make a difference in the world around them. They could see the injustice, the poverty, the suffering and all they would do was say things like ‘Perhaps God will send someone to make things better and to right the wrongs!’ I couldn’t see any point in waiting for someone else to do something, I wanted to get on and do it myself! Perhaps I was a bit strange after all.
One day an angel came. “You’re the sort of woman God is looking for Mary” he said, “God has a job for you!” At last I could do something, all I had to say was, “Yes”.
It was a long journey from that moment to Bethlehem – the rumour, the scandal, poor Joseph so hurt – but Bethlehem was just the beginning – it was an even longer journey from Bethlehem to that bleak hill outside Jerusalem and the Cross.”
I read it and my whole perception of Mary changed. Here was a young woman I could relate to, could identify with: spirited, with a strong sense of justice and of what’s right and what’s wrong; willing to take risks for God and to be active in his service. And I thought that she was probably quite tough and determined as well as compassionate and caring.
My oldest brother died nearly 40 years ago at the age of 34 and I saw something of what that did to my mother and father. I think Mary was a woman of sorrows, acquainted with grief. When he was about the same age as my brother when he died, she saw her son ill-treated with savage injustice and torture; she watched him, her son, naked and nailed to a cross dying in front of her.
I wonder if in those dark hours of suffering and death Mary doubted herself and God and Jesus. Did she berate herself for saying “yes” that day in Nazareth? Did she rage against a God who could allow this to happen? If she did it would have been a very human, honest and real thing to do.
I wonder if the experience of losing her son changed my mother’s perception of Mary? They would have had that deep grief in common.
And I wonder how much my brother’s death challenged my father’s faith and sense of vocation. I’ll never know because he couldn’t talk about it.
But I can imagine Mary sitting down with them and listening to their love and pride and grief, understanding their deepest pain. And I’ve come to see Mary as someone who understands me and my struggles with faith and sense of vocation.
My protestant self cannot pray to the Blessed Virgin Mary but I can and do ask her to pray with and for me and for those I love and care for, believing in her understanding and compassion.
This church building is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and so are we, the living church, the Body of Christ in this place.
We’re called to see the world through the eyes of Mary:
to see a world where there is too much injustice, pride and greed;
a world where the rich and the proud hold power and control;
where families are divided, fragile and worn out by poverty, addictions or abuse;
where lives are made miserable by depression, loneliness and isolation.
We ‘re called to see, through the eyes of Mary, a different world, God’s world, where the hungry are fed, the powerless are strengthened and all who are held captive by others or themselves are freed to become the people God wants them to be.
We’re called to see through the eyes of Mary seeking to bring God’s kingdom on earth – to bring peace, healing, forgiveness and reconciliation into the lives of suffering people.
We’re called to see others through the eyes of Mary – sons and daughters of God who Christ asks us to serve and care for as Jesus, on the cross, asked Mary to be John’s mother.
We’re called to be active in God’s service, willing to take risks and make a difference. Like Mary, we’re called to say “yes” to God. Like her we may find the journey at times difficult, challenging and distressing but like her we will also find great joy in knowing the presence of the risen Christ in our lives.
So let’s say “yes” today and every day and be ready to respond to God’s calling.