Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of St. Mary the Virgin (transferred) – August 19, 2012
The rector was invited to attend a house party. Naturally, she was properly dressed and wore her priest clerical collar. A little boy kept staring at her the entire evening. Finally, the rector asked the little boy what he was staring at. The little boy pointed to the priest’s neck. When the priest finally realized what the boy was pointing at, she asked the boy, “Do you know why I am wearing that?” The boy nodded his head yes, and replied, “It kills fleas and ticks for up to three months”.
If St. Paul’s is the first Episcopal Church you’ve attended whose subtitle is “Anglo-Catholic,” you might also have found yourself staring at some things we wear and do here and have your own ideas about their usefulness. We are a church where you will find ritual, colorful vestments, exquisite music, chant, bells, and incense.
All this is the result of a movement by a group of Anglicans in the 19th century who realized that in order to remain apart from some of the unhealthier aspects of Roman Catholicism and some of its theologically questionable dogma, the Church of England did not have to throw the baby out with the bath water—even things as basic as candles and Altar coverings.
They recognized that there were elements of sacred tradition, especially in the liturgy, that were a part of the history of the ancient church and that should be included in the worship and practice of Anglicans, and later, the Episcopal Church here in America. The impetus for this shift in perspective is called the Oxford Movement and worship at St. Paul’s was influenced by that movement.
Today we celebrate the major holyday on the church calendar that honors St. Mary the Virgin, which actually occurred on August 15. While it appears on the calendar for all Episcopalians, it is within Anglo-Catholic tradition a particularly festive day that honors the Blessed Virgin Mary as the birth-giver of God’s Son, the (ϴϵοτόκοϛ) Theotokos, a title accorded to her by one of the ancient councils of the universal church in the fifth century.
Although this is a feast that commemorates what may have happened to her at the end of her life—and you may read about that in the announcement sheet today—the Gospel reading for this holyday takes us to a different place. It is about the very beginning of God’s call to Mary. It describes a visit between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth, each of these women astonished at the unexpected news they have received at the hand of an angel—that they were mystifyingly, bewilderingly pregnant—a scenario for which Mary and her elderly cousin, Elizabeth, were the most unlikely candidates—one a devout young woman without a husband, the other married but way beyond the age of childbearing. Yet now they both carried the gift of new, stirring life within them.
This revelation by the angel led Mary to make an extraordinary and difficult journey to the hill country to visit her cousin. So here we have the story of two women who have discovered that, in spite of their limitations and circumstances, their lives have been caught up in the dramatic workings of God. What seemed yesterday to be impossibility was today their reality.
At the first sight of her cousin rushing up the hill, Elizabeth greets her: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Mary responds in song, describing a world turned upside down, in which the poor are gratified but the rich are turned away empty. “God will come to the help of my people, in this child I carry.”
If we will let the Spirit speak to us today, we will find in this story a world of the unexpected that can happen when God touches our lives in profound, surprising, even bewildering ways. Mary and Elizabeth’s stories, and the blessings that came through the new life they would bear, hold out the promise that God can do great things through ordinary people—even you and me. God still intrudes in our lives when we don’t expect—maybe even when we don’t want it. God still stirs up new life within us.
Since it was founded in 1930, the Order of Benedictines of Jesus Christ Crucified has opened its doors to women whether they are sick, handicapped or healthy. At a time when women in poor health were routinely rejected from answering a call to the religious life, this order gave women with disabilities a chance to become a nun. The long somber call of a bell’s toll fills the tiny monastery chapel. Those who can, stand. Some of the nuns who move about in motorized wheelchairs, who walk gingerly with the assistance of crutches or who simply do not have the strength—sit. Then the sisters open their books and begin to sing.
In the daily routine of prayer, work, and silence, the sisters live as many of them have always dreamed. And they became defined by their life of ministry in prayer and service, not by their disability. The bane of these sisters’ existence has been that everyone calls them the “handicapped nuns.” Their reality is that they are Benedictine nuns living fully and with joy the contemplative life, a life of service and ministry in prayer.
Of course the labels others may attach to us are society’s labels, not God’s. Mary was an unmarried teenager and Elizabeth was very old and barren—neither popular nor respected in their time and culture. In God’s eyes it’s not about being disabled or carrying any other stereotype that the world might plant on us. It’s about how we respond to the challenges and limitations of life in spite of them and how we respond to God’s promise to do great things for us and our “yes” to God’s invitation—especially when we least expect the ask.
Mary and Elizabeth and those Sisters in wheelchairs are proof that God often chooses the most unlikely people to do God’s work in the world. If we ever wonder why God is calling us for a particular purpose, rest assured it’s not because we are a shining star or Phi beta kappa, but because we are an ordinary person whom God trusts will do what God invites us to do in an extraordinary way.
Mary’s song beckons our soul to magnify the Lord and our spirit to rejoice in God our Savior in the assurance that God has looked with favor on us and wants to do great things through us. You just never know—an angel may call on you to tell you that God has chosen you as someone through whom God will bless the world in ways you could never begin to imagine. God may be stirring up something new within you defying all your limitations, and creating possibilities beyond your wildest dreams. Mary and Elizabeth and those Benedictine Nuns assure us of that. What seemed yesterday to be an impossibility may tomorrow become a reality.