Sunday, August 15, 2010

12 Pentecost/St. Mary the Virgin

August 15, 2010

Luke 1.46-55

+ I belong to a very, strange, very mysterious sub-culture in the Church. Or maybe I should call it counter-culture. I am a very proud, very unapologetic follower of this strand of belief. And although there are some people who instantly look down their noses at it, or quickly stereotype anyone who claims this brand of Christianity, I proclaim it loudly and gladly.

And yes, I know it is Pride Week and that instantly thoughts may be heading in that direction, but that’s not necessarily the direction I’m heading (though the two really aren’t that different in some ways).

What I loudly and boldly profess this morning is that I am…an Anglo-Catholic. I know I comes as a huge surprise to you.

“What?” You might “Father Jamie? An Anglo-Catholic? I can’t imagine!” Yes, it’s true. For those of you in the know, immediately, when I say Anglo-Catholic, some negative images might pop up in your minds. Thoughts of spiky, overly-conservative, misogynistic forms of Anglicanism immediately come to mind. And when that happens, I quickly have to add that some of the greatest liberal, progressive, social and justice-minded people in the Anglican Church throughout history were Anglo-Catholics.

It was the Anglo-Catholics who labored in the slums of the East London in the nineteenth century. Throughout history famous Anglo-Catholics have also included none other than people like poets Christina Rossetti and T.S. Eliot, one of the greatest Archbishops of Canterbury (in my humble opinion anyway), Michael Ramsey and Frances Perkins, who was Secretary of Labor under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the first woman to hold a cabinet position in the U.S., just to name a very few. And modern Anglo-Catholics encompass such people as South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Louie Crew.

And I am a fairly new member of an order of progressive-minded Episcopal clergy (which include a good number of women clergy) called the Society of Catholic Priests, as well as a member of Affirming Anglican Catholicism, which represents progressive Catholicism in the Anglican Communion.

Anglo-Catholics have a rich liturgical history, as most everyone knows. We call the Eucharist “Mass,” we like incense and vestments and all the other “smells and bells” that go along with so called “Hugh Church liturgy.”

But they also have a rich spiritual history. Two areas of Anglo-Catholicism that I cherish above all others is the centrality of belief in the Blessed Sacrament—and in the True Presence of Jesus in the Bread and Wine of our Eucharist—and in the honor shown Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Which is why, today, although it is Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, I have chosen to peach about Mary today. I choose to preach about Mary because she has a lot to teach all of us as Christians.

But first, we do need to acknowledge the fact that Mary makes a lot of us non-Roman Catholics a little nervous. My very Lutheran grandmother, who, as many of you know, was a long-time member of St. Mark’s Lutheran for many years ago, would be somewhat upset I imagine to know that I would be preaching in St. Mark’s pulpit about, of all people, the Virgin Mary. Let’s face it, when most of us non-Roman Catholics think of Mary, we think of how the Roman Catholics honor her. Visions of plaster statues in backyards, or on dashboards of cars or on the side altars of churches no doubt go through our minds. After all, as my grandmother would say, they “worship” Mary.

Every Roman Catholics I know denies that they worship Mary, though they certainly do not deny that they honor her greatly and place a quite a bit of importance in her intercession. And I, as an Anglo-Catholic, can say the same thing. But I think that stigma of Roman Catholics having the market cornered on the Virgin Mary is still very much a reality in the Christian church as a whole.

The fact is, all of us who are Christians should honor her and should remember at times how important she is to our faith in Christ. It is a good thing to honor Mary and who she is. And certainly it’s nothing new in the church as a whole.

The honor paid to Mary goes back to the very earliest days of the Church. In fact, it goes back even further. In the Gospel of Luke, we hear Mary say, "From this time forth, all generations shall call me blessed."

Certainly that prophecy she made on that very momentous day when the Angel came to her and told her she would bear the Son of God has come true. Mary is by the far the most honored saint in the Christian Church.

But who is this Mary that is so honored? Well, when we meet Mary, she is a simple Jewish girl. It’s believed that she was about fourteen when she became pregnant and bore Jesus, which, at that time and in that place, would not have been by any means unusual. Outside of that, not a whole lot is known about her life. We know for certain of the words she spoke to the angel Gabriel, to her kinswoman, Elizabeth, when she visited her not long before she gave birth. But outside of the words we hear in the Gospels, there isn’t a whole lot we know she said. The only other instance in which her words are recorded are at the wedding feast at Cana, when she instructs the servants there, regarding Jesus, to do “whatever he says to you.”

But the story of Mary becomes very interesting in the years following the Gospels. It is here that we see the fulfilling of her prophecy. It is here that we find that she truly does become blessed for all generations. If we don’t believe that, then let’s take a look at the Creed which we will recite together later this morning. Besides Jesus, there are only two other people mentioned in it. The first is Pontius Pilate. The other is Mary.

It specifically says, he was “born of the virgin Mary." That’s an important phrase. On one hand, what this phrase says to us is that Jesus was really a human being. He was born of a woman, just like all of us were born of a woman. He did not simply come down out of heaven like an angel, or like the gods of the Romans or Greeks. He was born, like any other human being. On the other hand, the phrase tells us that although he was born like us of a woman, unlike us he wasn’t born in an ordinary way. He was born of a virgin. This virgin birth puts a whole new light on who Jesus was and who he claimed to be. He was like us. He was a human being, like us. But he also was not like us, because he was at the same time God. So, we can see how important Mary’s role is in our own views of what we believe.

In a sense, she appears to us as a kind of “hinge” in our understanding of Jesus. Without her, Jesus would not have been able to come to us. She literally bore Jesus to us. The Greeks call Mary the Theotokos, or God-bearer. And she really is. If we believe Jesus was God, then she did, in a very real sense of the word, bear God. Through her, God came to us in the person of Jesus. She was the Mother of God, as hard as it might be to wrap our minds around that phrase.

Now most of us here can agree with those statements. But still, even despite that, most of us who are not Roman Catholic still have a hard time with Mary. The fact remains that Mary needs to be honored by all of us who call ourselves Christians.

So, what do Lutherans believe about the Virgin Mary? Well, here’s what one very prominent Lutheran said about Mary:

"men have crowded all her glory into a single word, calling her 'Theotokos'. No one can say anything greater of her or to her, though he had as many tongues as there are leaves on the trees, or grass in the fields, or stars in the sky, or sand by the sea. It needs to be pondered in the heart what it means to be the Mother of God."

Do you know who made that comment? That’s right. Martin Luther. I think a lot of good Lutherans would be shocked to know that many of the early founders of the Lutheran church had a deep affection for Mary. For example, in Article XXII of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Lutherans testify that

blessed Mary prays for the church

Now listen to that.

blessed Mary prays for the church.

That’s a present tense verb. She prays. Right now. Those Lutherans truly believed that Mary was in heaven at that particular moment praying for the church. The Apology goes on to state that Mary

is worthy of the highest honors
and desires
to have her example considered and followed

So, the founders of the Lutheran Church held her in high esteem. They commended her as example. OK, so the early Lutherans honored her.

What about the Episcopalians? Well, for Episcopalians such as myself—for Anglo-Catholics—we see a Church without due reverence for Mary to be a pretty bleak place.In many Episcopal churches I’ve visited, there are statues or paintings of Mary.

There are side altars—so-called “Mary Altars”—in their churches, or even Lady Chapels (which I often jokingly threaten our Senior Warden Laura Nylander that we should build at St. Stephens—much to her chagrin and adamant protests). I even know of many Episcopalians—including, yes, yours truly—who pray the Rosary on a regular basis. So, as you can see, we Episcopalians do honor Mary greatly and we love her dearly.

So, I am adamant in my view that we should reclaim Mary’s role in our life as Christians. We should not fear her, or let her be pigeon-holed in some dusty corner that we imagine belongs only to Roman Catholics; nor should we worship her or hold her in any higher than she merits. Still, she is, without a doubt, a vital person in our Church and in who we are as Christians.

Mary continues to speak to us, not in supernatural visions necessarily as she did to St. Bernadette or any of the other visions of Mary we hear about occasionally, but in her words recorded in scripture. Remember what Mary said at the Wedding in Cana. Those words are just as clear to us today. She is still saying to us, "Listen to my Son. Do what he tells you."

This is the heart of Mary’s continued role in the Church. She is the example. Just as Mary said “Yes” to the angel when he brought her his good news, we too can say yes to God and, in saying yes, we can bear God within us, as she did.

Like Mary we can be bearers of Jesus to the world, to those who need Jesus and long for Jesus. We too can carry Christ into the world and let him be known through us. Just as Jesus found in Mary his first earthly dwelling-place so, following Mary’s example, Jesus can continue to dwell on earth within each and every one of us as well.

So bear Jesus to the world as Mary did. Carry him within you where you go.And let his light and his presence be known through you to everyone you encounter and serve.