The Rev. Dr. John L. Hooker

Feast of St. Mary the Virgin
14 August 2016
Grace Episcopal Church

There’s a lot going on this morning, isn’t there. Perhaps by now, you’ve figured out that it’s been a while since I’ve presided in a parish with the level of ceremony you’re used to, but it seems to me that a word of explanation is in order even for those of you for whom these liturgies arenormative.

This Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost falls on August 14, the day before the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, as our Prayer Book calls it: August 15 has, time out of mind, been celebrated by the Holy Church Universal as a major Feast day in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and for the sake of celebrating this Major Feast together, we are transferring tomorrow’s Feast to today.  Moreover, because a parish named “Grace Church” does not have a special day in the yearly Kalendar to mark as a Patronal Feast, your parish leadership has made a spectacular theological leap to declare this your Patronal Festival, for surely there is no greater exemplar of Grace than the life and witness of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

So you see what I mean: there’s a lot going on here today.

“But wait!” as the Ginsu knife commercial says, “There’s more!” In keeping with the Church’s practice of celebrating saints on the day of their earthly death, August 15 — the day that we’re celebrating today, August 14 — originated in the earliest days of the Christian Kalendar to remember the day upon which the Blessed Virgin left this earthly life. We still hear echoes of that in today’s Collect, which begins: “O God, you have taken to thyself the blessed Virgin Mary, mother of thy incarnate Son.”

Our four Canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and even The Book of Acts are silent upon the death of Mary, so for our Gospel, we double back to the earliest days of Mary’s earthly ministry. So let’s double back there with them, because there are two very important things to mark along the way, two important lessons for us from the life of the Blessed Virgin.

You remember the story: the 1st Chapter of the Gospel of Luke tells how, “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God unto a city of Galilee, named Nazareth, To a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women.

And you know how the story progresses; when the Angel Gabriel makes God’s mission known to Mary — that she is to be the Mother of the Only-Begotten Son of God — Mary says simply, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word. Mary said “Yes.” Mary said simply “Yes” to God. And there is our first life’s model from the Blessed Mother: when God moves in our lives, the only appropriate response is to say “Yes.”

Mary’s actual words may have been simple, but Mary’s response — the response itself — was anything but simple. In order to give herself time to begin to wrap her mind around the enormous changes that this saying of Yes will mean to herself, to her life, and to her body, Mary went with haste to seek the comfort and wisdom of her older cousin Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah, one of the priests of the Jerusalem Temple. You will, of course, remember that Elizabeth herself, in her later years, is pregnant with the mighty prophet whom we will know as John the Baptist, and that Elizabeth’s pregnancy — like Mary’s — is the result of God’s direct action.

So there is our second life’s model from the Blessed Mother: while it may be our bodies and our lives with which we say “Yes” to God, we will always need the strength, the comfort, and the wisdom of the Beloved Community to accomplish whatever God gives us to do. In other words,whatever God gives us to do cannot be done as lone rangers. In order to do God’s work, we absolutely have to stay connected to God’s people.

Finally, in the interaction of Mary’s and Elizabeth’s greetings, both of them pregnant, both of them filled with the grace of the Holy Spirit’s action within them, finally we come to the text of our Gospel, The Song of Mary, or, as the Church has known it for centuries, Magnificat.

Here is the meat of our focus today, because here is such a clear statement of Mary’s understanding of what it means to participate in the Kingdom of God, the Reign of Christ. I ask your forbearance for my use of a more venerable form of the text today; I have to confess that modern versions of this glorious text sound to me more like the language of Star Wars than theology. I use the word theology advisedly, because there is no greater theology in all the New Testament than this: it is the first clear, great statement of how the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ will turn the known world upside down.

So we begin; Mary said,

My soul doth magnify the Lord, * and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior.
For he hath regarded * the lowliness of his handmaiden.

Mary is saying that when God acts in our lives, our very souls are enlarged: we are made bigger simply by being part of God’s mission in the world. Moreover, when we allow God to work in and through our lives, we become the very glass through which others actually see God. This is the initial statement that true greatness in the Kingdom comes not from who we are at birth, but from how we allow God to work in us and through us.

For behold from henceforth * all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath magnified me, * and holy is his Name.

When God chose a young teenage girl from a nothing town in a despised region, belonging to a downtrodden people to be the Mother of his Only-Begotten Son, he could not have found anyone lower, anywhere on any social order. The young Mary — or, more likely, Miriam — of Nazareth, in Galilee, was the lowest of the low, the most vulnerable of an utterly powerless people. Is that telling us anything? It should say to every one of us that God will always use the most unlikely people to accomplish the most amazing things. Does that tell us anything about our foolish notions of who’s in/who’s out, who matters/who doesn’t? This should bring every one of us to our knees to ask forgiveness for our foolish notions of pride and accomplishment and meaning.  This should bring every one of us to our knees to ask forgiveness for our contempt for and failure to work with the despised and downtrodden of the earth.

That’s exactly what the next two verses say:

And his mercy is on them that fear him * throughout all generations.
He hath showed strength with his arm; *
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

And then come the ringing indictments about how we use our resources:

He hath put down the mighty from their seat, * and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things, * and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, *
as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

This is nothing less than 1st Century AD Liberation Theology: God is first, last, and always on the side of the poor. The goal of the Kingdom of Heaven, of the Reign of Christ, is always to give preference to those at the margins of society. And don’t think that just because you and I aren’t numbered among the top 1% of the wealthiest that we escape being sent empty away: in the Gospel of Luke, rich means having more than we need and not sharing it.

Well … there’s so much more that could be said, but I’ve already said so many words here. It seems appropriate for me to close by reminding you that in the Church’s Kalendar, today — August 14 — is actually the Lesser Feast of Blessed Jonathan Myrick Daniels, a true 20th Century Saint, martyred on this very day 51 years ago.

Jonathan had left seminary in Cambridge to go down to Selma and to assist with voter registration in those turbulent days of the American Civil Rights Movement. It was on this very day — August 14 — fifty-one years ago that he and three colleagues were arrested and jailed. On August 20th, he and the three others were unexpectedly released from jail, as they left the jail without police protection, they were confronted by a gunman who cursed them and took aim at a 16-year-old black woman, Ruby Sales. Without stopping to think about his own safety,Jonathan pushed Ruby to safety, and he took the bullet that was meant for her.

In the aftermath of his murder, a number of his papers came to light; in one of them he said that it was the very Gospel we have today that called him to action. One afternoon in St. John’s Chapel of the Episcopal Divinity School, as the congregation sang Magnificat, the words He hath put down the might from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek, Jonathan writes that he knew that he had to go to be part of the Civil Rights struggle for justice. “The Virgin’s song,” he wrote, “the Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear to me in the weeks ahead.” The Virgin’s song strengthened his resolve and gave him courage — like Mary — to say Yes with his own life, with his own body, with his very being.

Thirty years later, Ruby Sales came to Jonathan’s seminary as a Postulant for Holy Orders; it was my privilege to teach her and get to know her. She said to me that Jonathan’s ministry was cut short because he took her place with that gunman. Jonathan had stopped the bullet meant for Ruby with his own body, and Ruby knew it was her destiny to continue Jonathan’s ministry of love and justice. Both of them heard God’s call; both of them — like the Blessed Virgin Mary — answered with their lives, their selves, and their bodies. Pray God we will do no less in our own day.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Copyright © 2016 John L. Hooker; all rights reserved.

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