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Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas LangNicholas
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Feast of St. Mary the Virgin — August 16, 2015

The rector was invited to attend a party in the home of one of her parishioners. 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”.

When we see or hear something out of our usual frame of reference, we usually wonder what it’s all about. You might wonder why in the midst of the long season of green vestments, we are suddenly in white and honoring St. Mary the Virgin.

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 Theotokos, a title accorded to her by one of the ancient councils of the universal church in the fifth century.

So, in the liturgical tradition of this parish, we keep this feast as a special day on the calendar.

The theological background for the feast is both sketchy and not biblically based but rather the result of oral tradition passed on about Mary’s end of life from the early Christians. That tradition says that she fell asleep and was assumed right into heaven—body and soul.

Since we don’t find anything in the scriptures to support  this, the Gospel reading for this holyday takes us to a different place in Mary’s life, 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 teenager without a husband, the other married but way beyond the age of childbearing. Yet now they both carried the gift of new life stirring within them.

Mary then made this extraordinary and difficult journey to the hill country to visit her cousin. In spite of their limitations and circumstances, the lives of these two women 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.

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 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 it—maybe even when we don’t want it. Our Creator God is still stirring up new life within and around us.

I’m sure that Mary and Elizabeth were the topic of a lot of mean-spirited gossip and even name calling because of their unusual predicaments and pregnancy.  Mary was an unmarried teenager and Elizabeth was old and barren—neither a status respected in their time and culture. Of course the labels others give us are society’s labels, not God’s.  God sees us as beloved ones no matter how others may perceive us.

Mary’s story teaches us that it’s not about our inadequacies and imperfections but 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 through us —especially when we least expect to be asked.

Mary and Elizabeth 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 to what seems just very ordinary stuff, rest assured it’s because God trusts us to do in an extraordinary way.


Categories: Sermons