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Sermon preached by Anne M. Watkins, Associate for Member Incorporation
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of St. Mary the Virgin (transferred) – August 17, 2014

In the Name of God, who creates and pursues, Jesus, who loves and redeems, and the Holy Spirit, who guides and sustains.  Amen

There’s just something about Mary, don’t you think?  That was true for the Cameron Diaz, Ben Stiller, Matt Dillon film-Mary.  And it is true today, fo there is something about our Mary – the blessed Virgin, Anne’s daughter, Joseph’s betrothed, Jesus’ mother.   So, today, we depart briefly from our regular order of lessons during Pentecost to observe – and ponder —  the Feast Day of St. Mary, the Virgin, noted on our calendar of Saints on August 15t and transferred for us to this morning..

Mary holds a rather singular honor in Christian tradition in that she figures prominently in not one but three holy days – the Annunciation, observed in March, when the angel Gabriel announces that she will become pregnant with God’s own son; the Visitation – observed in May — in which she travels to her cousin Elizabeth to share this magnificent news with the words we heard  just now in Luke’s gospel; and today, observed each August 15th.  Additionally, in our lesser feasts and fasts calendar, Anglican’s acknowledge the Conception of Mary on December 8th.  Note that  we’ve dropped the Roman Catholic doctrine of “immaculate conception”, which refers to the belief  that Mary was born without the taint of original sin, ie. Immaculate, and that it had to be so in order for Jesus to have also been free of sin at birth.It is a doctrine that, for Anglicans, has some holes and flaws in its thinking – but that’s a discussion for another time. 

Today’s observance is a day when we recognize the end of Mary’s life rather than her beginning – called either the Assunption of Mary (in the Roman Catholic tradition) or the Dormition (in the Orthodox tradition)These traditions hold that Mary “fell asleep” in God and that her body and soul were taken up together into heaven —  assumed —  not unlike Elijah in the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) being taken up in a whirlwind and not unlike Jesus’ own ascension.  And while there is no direct scriptural evidence of this – we don’t hear of or see Mary again in the Gospels after Jesus beholds her at the foot of the cross and commends her to the care of his beloved disciple[1] — nevertheless, here we are.  The Protestant Reformation largely dismissed these traditions – and dismissed the special attention afforded to Mary.  We Anglicans, in our forging of the Via Media – the Middle Way — particularly as some important traditions were reclaimed some centuries later, continue to honor Mary, though without some of the excesses.  She is a first among the Saints.  Our invitation today is to embrace that Anglican tradition and look neither too closely at how Mary was born, nor how she may have died, but look instead at how she lived.  And, in looking at how she lived, to glean some clues for our own lives in faith.

Probably three months, or so, have passed since the angel first announced God’s favor upon Mary – and we find her visiting her cousin, Elizabeth, some distance away from Mary’s home.  In the Magnificat – the song Mary sings out as she greets her cousin – we meet her in the aftermath of having exercised the gift of free will and saying “yes” to God’s incredible invitation to bear God-self into the world.  What Mary shows us is the fruits of what happens when we act out of a willingness to hope … and to risk.  Hers is an example of an ability to see possibility in the impossible; to dare to believe fully in God’s promise of salvation, of abundance, of purpose, of life.  That abundance came to her in the hope that new life always offers – even when conceived in such a way as to potentially bring disgrace upon herself, her parents, her betrothed.  In spite of the realities of her day, Mary believes in God’s promise to be with the lowliest of humankind.  To partner even with a woman – never minding the obvious and necessary biology – for God comes not to a wealthy woman of privilege, but to an ordinary young woman without means of her own.  Without means – save a willingness to hope, to believe, to risk; a willingness to use her life to bear God into the world.

This summer, we Episcopalians have honored other women who were willing to take risks at the behest of the Holy Spirit’s prompting and bear a bit of God into the world.  Some forty years ago, eleven women pushed the envelope toward eliminating exclusion by acting in advance of the Church giving its official assent to the ordination of women to the priesthood.  We know them as the Philadelphia Eleven.  They were followed by the Washington Four – all fifteen of whom, along with the men who stood in solidarity with them – moved the Church beyond dabbling and debate and deferral on this issue and took action.  Like Mary, they were willing to hope and to risk – because they dared, too, to believe in God’s favor toward them.  So, they took their place among the women we sang about in our processional hymn in these more recent days of old. And, in their day, they received a certain notoriety – a notoriety not shared by Mary in her day.  Remember again that this young woman – who dared to say yes to God –was rather a non-descript, Jewish girl, for the most part, minding her business and getting on with the conventions and expectations of her life.

Prior to the notoriety of the Philadelphia Eleven, there was another ordinary woman of her time — a daughter, a wife, a mother — who was getting on with the conventions and expectations of her life.  Getting on with the conventions and expectations of her life save for a moment in 1946 – nearly thirty years before those irregular ordinations – when she reluctantly said yes and helped open a crack in the door of Episcopal Church governance.  It opened just wide enough to let a sliver of light in that made a quiet, but important impact on magnifying God’s dream of inclusion; of opening doors to the marginalized; of giving voice and presence to the invisible; of according women their due place in the church and in the world. Betty Dyer was the sister of a priest and niece of a bishop – a lifelong, devout, and obedient Episcopalian — living with her spouse and children in St. Louis, Missouri when she found herself identified as the favored one to stand for election as a deputy to General Convention from her diocese – the first woman to break into the male club of the House of Deputies.  Amid challenge and legal interpretation of the Canons of this Church, Mrs. Randolph H. Dyer – and, please do take note of how she was identified — was eventually given seat and voice; in fact, having been elected to lead Missouri’s deputation.  It was a momentous event, that is largely unremembered.

Less than three years later, before the next General Convention met, Randolph Dyer accepted a new position and relocated his family away from Missouri.  Other women in that and other dioceses were elected to other deputations, but new challenges and new interpretations precluded their being afforded the same recognition.  It would be 1970 before women were finally admitted for good to the highest decision-making body of our Church.   Yet, Mrs. Randolph Dyer reluctantly, but willingly, bore a sliver of God through a crack in a door that widened some thirty years later to break barriers and propel God’s dream for inclusivity forward.

Winston Churchill once famously said that nothing great ever happened in history before noon, unless the participants stayed up all night.  We might also note that no controversial action that moves the world forward takes place without some lone, quiet figure being willing to take a risk and break open a crack through which God’s light shines.

We might wonder how many nights Mary … or Mrs. Randolph Dyer … or the Philadelphia Eleven … or the men who stood in solidarity with them …stayed up as they came to terms with the invitation before them.  How many nights might it have taken before that genuine song – My soul magnifies the Lord … could burst forth with unbridled joy and conviction?

We might consider how many nights we need before we take our places as full participants in bearing-God into our world.  For that, dear ones, is where our identity is.  We also are Mary – here and now.  The Holy Spirit comes to each of us, saying, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you …do not be afraid.”

Where are you being asked to give birth to God? Where might you rise and sing, my soul enlarges –my soul magnifies – my soul reveals – God to those who most need to hear hope and abundance and love and promise?

We are seeing too plainly the despair and broken-ness that comes when we neglect that invitation.  We see it in war and violence on far-away turf and just around the corner.  We see it in comedic and dramatic genius snuffed out in aching moments when the disease of depression and despair takes over.  We see it in unarmed men and woman of color being tear-gassed in their own neighborhoods when they dare to exercise a citizen’s right to protest and seek information.

We also see the difference that is made when God’s invitation is accepted – whether in large, splashy, newsworthy ways or  (and this is more likely the  more effective) in what happens in the quiet, unobtrusive everyday ways of our lives.  It happens in the ways we greet strangers who cross our paths and make time and space to hear their stories.  It happens in the ways we take interest in our children — and all the children around us – showing them, by example, the fruits of compassion, the fruits of  kindness, the fruits of generosity and of hope.  And it happens in the ways we stand in solidarity with and give voice to the voiceless – not out of naïve, idealistic optimism, but out of a mature, faithful understanding that this is how Christ’s life lives out God’s dream for all of creation.

In the end, what does any of us want but to know we’ve made a difference – somehow, with someone, in some place; to know somehow and in some way that we’ve born a little bit of God into the world.    In the end, there are no small ways for those small slivers gather together to shine the bright light of   Christ.  For we know that Christ born into the world is all that can save it.  And, in the end, we are the Mary’s who either exercise our free will to say “no” and turn away … or to say, as did Mary, “Yes, let it be according to your will.”  My soul – and your soul – does, indeed, magnify the Lord.  Amen.



[1] – “25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Dear woman, here is your son,’ 27 and to the disciple, ‘Here is your mother.’ From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.” (John 19:25-27)

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