Sunday, August 15, 2021

12 Pentecost + St. Mary the Virgin

 


August 15, 2021

 Luke 1.46-55 

 + As you all know, 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.

 What I loudly and boldly profess is that yes, I am…an Anglo-Catholic.

 Actually, it’s not much of a secret.

 I’ve always been VERY open about that.

 And you can tell I’m an Anglo-Catholic by the way I celebrate Mass or the things I say or the theology that I preach from this pulpit.

 Though, to be fair, I am probably a bit unorthodox to many Anglo-Catholics I know.

 But that’s all right.

 For some people, when I say Anglo-Catholic, some negative images might pop up in peoples’ minds.

 Thoughts of spiky, overly-conservative, misogynistic forms of Anglicanism immediately come to mind.

 And there is a validity to that.

 That has been a part of the tradition.

 But, I quickly have to add that there’s also another very long and just as important progressive strain of Anglo-Catholicism as well.

Some of the greatest 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 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.

 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 “High 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 Holy 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 preach about the Blessed Virgin Mary today.

 Because August 15 is also her feast day.

 And also because of the fact that I really love Mary!

 For us, today the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin.

 It is also called the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Feast of the Dormition (or going to sleep) of the Theotokos, the God-bearer.

 This feast day has a long history in the Church, and it is one of my favorites.

 And today, on this feast, 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 a few things about Mary.

 One of the big things is the fact that Mary makes a lot of us non-Roman Catholics a little nervous.

 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 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 very Lutheran grandmother would say, those Catholic “worship” Mary.

 Every Roman Catholic I know—and every Anglo-Catholic, including myself—vehemently 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.

 But I think that stigma of Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox having the market cornered on the Virgin Mary is still very much a reality in the Christian church as a whole.

 So, what about us 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.

 As we do here at St. Stephen’s.

 I even know of many Episcopalians even here at St. Stephen’s—including, yes, yours truly—who pray the Rosary on a regular basis.

 I also pray the Angelus, which honors the Angel Gabriel’s visit to the Virgin Mary to announce that she will bear Jesus, every single morning when I wake up.

 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 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, but in her words recorded in scripture.

 So, as you can see, we Episcopalians do honor Mary greatly and we love her dearly.

 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 Gabriel came to her and told her she would bear the Son of God has come true.

 As you know, each Wednesday at our 6:00 p.m. Mass, we usually commemorate a different saint, mostly those saints that we honor in the Episcopal Church, but sometimes a fun, obscure saint no one has ever heard of.

 Lately we have been honoring powerful women saints in the Church.

 And it has been wonderful.

 Because, let me tell you, there are many, many powerful women in the Church’s history!

 But all of them pale in comparison to Mary.

 Mary is by the far the most honored saint in the Christian Church.

 As she should be.

 By honoring her in such a way, we are helping to fulfill the prophesy of Scripture.

 And we should never forget the fact that she should be so honored.

 But who is Mary really?

 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 (which we have learned in our Wednesday night masses was probably Mary’s Aunt, sister to Mary’s mother Ann), 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.”

 Which are pretty important words!

 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 in just a few moments.

 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.

 And he was born of a Jewish woman.

 To be Jewish, one has to have a Jewish mother.

 It is through the mother that one is a Jew.

 So, through Mary, we know and acknowledge the fact that this human Jesus was Jewish, which also is very important.

 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 the divine Son of God.

 And that’s probably the most important aspect of all of this.

 Mary bore the Son of God, the Messiah, to the world.

 In an ordinary way.

 But in a very important way.   

 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.

 And in this way she is the prime example for us.

 It is a good thing to honor Mary, but more importantly, we should imitate Mary.

 That “Yes” that Mary said to God when the Angel offered the opportunity to bear Christ was an important “Yes.”

 It was the most important “yes” for us who follow Jesus.

 Without that “Yes,” where would we be?

 And just as Mary said “Yes” to the angel when Gabriel brought her  good news, we too should be saying “yes” to God.

 And, in saying yes, we too can bear Jesus within us, as she did.

 We too can carry Jesus within us and bear Jesus to this world.

 Like Mary we can bring 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.

 In this way, Mary continues to be so vital and meaningful to us.

 This powerful woman has taught us to be powerful as well, but to do so even in very humble ways.

 See.

 Mary really IS important.

 And we should be grateful for her and for example in our lives.

 So, let us do what Mary did.

 Let us bear Jesus to the world as she did.

 Let us carry him within us where us go.

 Let us say “Yes” again and again to God in this world, and in all that God asks of us, even if doing so is difficult.

 And when we do, we know this fact:

 When we say Yes to God, our Yes will allow God’s Light and presence to be known through us to everyone we encounter and serve.

 Let us pray.

 Holy God, when you call us, make us strong, like Mary, to say “Yes” to all you ask of us. Let our “Yes” by a powerful “Yes” in our lives and in the lives of those we are called to serve. And by saying “Yes,” let us bring Jesus into this world again and again, presenting him to those who long for him and need him; in whose name we pray. Amen.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

11 Pentecost

 


August 8, 2021

I Kings 19.4-8; Ephesians 4.25-5.2

 + Occasionally in our Sunday scripture readings, we find a story that kind of perfectly matches our own faith journey, or a situation in our own lives.

 I think that’s why people find such consolation in scripture.

 Very often, we can find our own lives reflected there.

 Well, one of the stories from scripture that truly resonates with many of us is our very short reading this morning from the Hebrew scriptures.

In our reading from 1 Kings, we find the prophet Elijah in the wilderness.

In that wilderness, after traveling a day’s journey, he asks God to let him die.

In fact, we find him praying a very beautifully profound prayer, despite its dark tone.

Elijah prays, “It is enough: now, O Lord, take away my life…”

Actually, it’s pretty theatrical.

But, if we’re listening closely, that prayer should actually cause us to pause uncomfortably for a moment.

It’s actually quite a shocking prayer.

But it is brutally honest too.

Anyone who has been in the depths of depression or despair knows this prayer.

Anyone who has been touched with the deep, ugly darkness of depression has probably prayed this prayer.

“It is enough. Now, O Lord, take away my life.”

Now, some people would be afraid to pray this prayer.

Why?

Because they’re afraid God might actually answer their prayer.

Well, in the case of Elijah, God actually does.

Wait, you’re probably sayinjg.

No. God didn’t answer Elijah’s prayer.

Elijah lived.

Ah, yes, but actually, God did answer the prayer.

In the midst of his depression, in the midst of his anguish, in the midst of the wilderness of not only his surroundings, but his own spirit, God really does answer the prayer of Elijah.

But…it is not answered in the way Elijah wants.

The prayer is answered with a beautiful “no.”

And we all have to understand and accept that sometimes “no” is the answer to whatever we might be praying for.

But before you think this is cruel—before you start saying that God’s “no” is a cruel no, follow this short, short story of Elijah all the way through.

Yes, God answers Elijah with a non-verbal no.

But God still provides even after the no.

For Elijah, an angel appears and feeds him in his anguish and in that wilderness.

Elijah is not allowed to die.

But he is sustained.

He is refreshed so that he can continue this journey.

This is a beautiful analogy for us, who are also wandering about in the wilderness.

I think many of us have probably come to that time in our lives when we have curled up and prayed for God to take our lives from us, because living sometimes just hurts too much.

We too, more often than not, in our despair and pain, cry out to God.

 We ask God to relieve us of this anguish.

 “Take this away from me, God,” we pray.

 Or, on really bad days, we pray, “Take me away from this pain, God.”

 “Let me die.”

 When that happens, God’s no is not the final word.

 The final word is God’s sustenance.

 The final word is that fact that, even in our anguish, even in our wilderness, even when we are exhausted and worn out and so depressed we can’t even function, God still provides us with Bread.

 Maybe not actual bread.

 But with the Bread of Life.

 A Bread that truly sustains, that truly refreshes.

 God provides us with what we need.

 As much as we may relate to this story of Elijah in the wilderness, we also have this reading from Ephesians this morning

 Now, I will say this about our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: it is one of the most difficult scriptures I have ever had to deal with in my life as a Christian.

 Every time I have heard it or read it, I feel myself sort of (and this is a very evangelical term)…convicted.

 In the mirror of this scripture, I feel inadequate.

 I see my own guilt staring back at me.

 St. Paul lays it on the line.

 “Be angry,” he says. “But do not sin.”

 OK.

 Yes, I can do that.

 Trust me, I’ve been angry plenty.

 So, be angry, but don’t act maliciously on your anger.

 “Let no evil talk come out of your mouth...”

 Shoot!

 I was doing so well up to this point.

 But, this is hard.

 “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit…”

 We grieve the Holy Spirit when we let those negative, angry words out of our mouths.

 When we backbite and complain.

 When we bash others when others aren’t there.

 What harm can it do? we wonder.

 They can’t hear it.

 But the Holy Spirit hears it.

 And those negative words do make a difference.

 They make a difference with God.  

  “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice” Paul writes, “and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.”

 Ok. Yes. We understand all of that as followers of Jesus.

 But, then, as though to drive home his point, he puts before us a challenge like few other challenges.

 “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

 “Be imitators of God,” Paul says to us.

 Be imitators of the God of love we worship.

 Be imitators of the God of love who loves each of us fully and completely.

 Be imitators of the God of love who loves us for who we are, just as we are, even when we lash out with our angry words at others.

 Be imitators of the God who hears our prayers and answers us by feeding us with a life-giving bread in the wilderness of our lives.

 For me, this has to be the most difficult thing about being a follower of Jesus.

 There are days when I want to be angry at those people who have wronged me and hurt me.

 There are days when I want to get revenge on them and “show them.”

 There are days when it feels almost pleasurable to think about “getting even” with those people and “putting them in their place.”

 It’s so easy and it feels so good.

 And it makes the pain of betrayal less.

 That is certainly the easier thing to do—at least for me.

 But driving that anger and hatred and frustration from me is so much harder.

 Being an imitator of God—a God of radical acceptance—is much harder, much more difficult.

 To be an imitator of the God of love takes work. Hard, concentrated work. 

 But, in the end, it’s better.

 Life is just so much better when the darkness of anger is gone from it.

 Life seems so much less dangerous when we realize everyone is not our enemy.

 Life is so much sweeter when we refuse to see a person as an enemy who sees us as their enemy.

 Life is just always so much better when peace and love reign.

 Yes, I know. It seems so Pollyannaish.

 It seems so na├»ve.

 It seems as though we are deceiving ourselves.

 But, the fact is, it takes a much stronger person to love.

 It takes a very strong person to act in peace and love and not in anger and fear.

 It takes a person of radical strength to be an imitator of a God of radical love.

 The strength it takes to maintain peace in a time of strife is more incredible than anything we can even imagine.

 I have had more than one former enemy become my friend, or at least my acquaintance, because of the effort to maintain peace rather than to antagonize.

 Not always.

 But a few times, peace has changed people’s hearts.

 Peace can do that.

 It can change people.

 But first it has to change us.

 We, as followers of Jesus, as imitators of God, need to rid ourselves of the thorns and brambles of hatred and anger so we can let the flowers of peace blossom in our lives.

 But it begins with us.

 It begins with us seeing ourselves for who are—loved children of God attempting to imitate that God of love.

 So, let us be true followers of Jesus in all aspects of our lives.

 Let us strive to imitate our God of peace and love in everything we do.

 Let us, in imitating our God, also reach out and feed those who are in their own wilderness.

 Let us let peace and love reign in our hearts and in our lives.

 Let that peace and love overcome all that anger, the hatred, the frustration that seems to reign in most of the world right now.

 And when we let peace and love reign, we will find that it permeates through us.

 Everything we do is an act of peace, is an act of love to others.

 And that is what being a follower of Jesus in this world is.

 That is the sermon we preach to others.

 That is the message of God’s love that we proclaim in our very lives.

 That is true evangelism.

 And that is what each of us is not only called to do by Jesus, but commanded to do by him.

 “Live in love as Christ loved us,” Paul says to each of us.

 When we do, that love will change the world.

 Let us pray.

 Holy and loving God, help us to imitate you, to embody you in this world. Help us to embody your love and acceptance in all those we encounter in our lives. And by doing so, help us to change this world for the better. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.