Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of St. Mary the Virgin (transferred) – August 14, 2011
In my short tenure as a clergy person, this is the third time I’ve been assigned to preach on the feast day of St. Mary. Someone must have a particularly strange sense of humor, or perhaps a short memory. Maybe it’s a matter of continuing to groom a born and bred Calvinist Protestant into a real Anglo Catholic!
Two years, based on the question posed by one of my daughters at a young age – “Mama, if God hadn’t chosen Mary to be Jesus’ mother, do you think he would have asked me?” – I suggested in my first Feast of St. Mary the Virgin sermon that yes, God may have chosen her and furthermore, God had chosen her – and each one of us – for something special – some thing extraordinary. God asks us to make room for the unexpected, the risky – we have all been invited to become one with God.
Last year, I talked about Mary as one of those people who, when their feet hit the floor in the morning, the Devil grumbles, “Damn, she’s up!”
This year, I’d like to consider Mary as a prophet – one who, in Walter Brueggemann’s definition of the prophetic “nurtures, nourishes and evokes a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” In other words, a prophet is one who nurtures while painting a clear picture of the world that is different than the picture that pervades the culture.
In this conception of the prophetic, we remember that before Mary became a prophet in her own right, she was the recipient of a prophet’s voice. When the angel Gabriel visited her, he nurtured her with words of encouragement and then informed her that what God had in mind for the world – and for her – pretty much flew in the face of what a young girl living in an occupied territory could expect at that time.
“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you… Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Yes, Mary was the recipient of prophetic news. During this strange encounter with an angel Mary first received news of God’s favor followed by news about her very body. She received news that God was once again on the move in the world – creating a new way to move in closer – a new way to be in relationship with the beloved creation.
Mary’s own prophetic witness to this movement of God is heard in the words of the song she burst into just a few days later – when she visited her older cousin Elizabeth who was also unexpectedly pregnant. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is a song that is as full of the unexpected as were the bellies of these women.
Mary’s song begins with a shout of exuberant praise to the one who messed up her perfectly “normal” life. “My soul magnifies the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior!” “This is how a Savior acts?” I want to ask….turning lives upside down?
Mary, however, understands God’s action in her life as unqualified and unearned grace. She understands God’s attention and calling as goodness – even though the immediate reality of an unplanned pregnancy would rock her world. Mary is able to appreciate the grace of God in something most, if not all of us, would run from.
The prophetic part of this song is very much in line with other prophetic voices in the Hebrew Scriptures – voices Mary would have known from her upbringing. These voices all carry important messages about God and about how God has acted in the world and how God will act.
The first prophetic message in Mary’s song is that God is a God of mercy. God acts in ways that are loving, benevolent and compassionate – seeking and providing for the good of his children – and by extension, the good of Creation.
Secondly, Mary aligns herself with the lowly and poor, understanding that God is the God of the poor, whether we understand this poverty literally or figuratively (I think a case can be made for both).
The third prophetic theme found in the Magnificat is that God is the God of the humble. Mary knew that pride had been and continued to be the great weakness of humanity in its relationship to the Creator. From the beginning of time, pride has always blurred the vision of God’s Kingdom.
The last thing I want to point out is that Mary’s prophetic witness was clarified and fully realized in the life of her son, Jesus.
Hear what Jesus had to say about mercy: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful;” “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy;” “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
What about poverty? Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” In the beatitudes, Jesus contrasts the poor and the rich – declaring it is the poor who will receive the kingdom – understanding that possessions can become a hindrance to our relationship to God. Jesus himself lived in poverty and understood those who share that existence. To choose poverty, then as now, deeply challenged the ways of the world. But, as some of us can attest, being completely dependant on God nourishes and strengthens our relationship with God.
And finally, Jesus lifted up humility as the preferred stance toward God and toward others. He demonstrated this in his response to the temptations put before him in the desert. When he called the disciples and invited them into his mission he said, “Learn from me, for I am lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus instructed his followers not to take the places of honor saying that “All who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
I still believe that God wants to find a home deep within each one of us: “would God choose one of us to be Jesus’ mom?” You bet! And I still believe that when we truly become the body of Christ, there are those who will be disappointed and on the look-out: ”Damn they’re up!”.
This year, on this Feast Day of Mary the Virgin, as we consider her prophetic voice along with the model and teaching of her son, our Lord, I hope that we will find ways to be real about the Kingdom they were announcing – a kingdom run by one who is merciful, a kingdom where the poor receive good news and are cared for, a kingdom full of those who know their utter dependence on the Creator and with humility rely on God’s goodness.