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Friday, 14 August 2009


Yesterday, in some parts of the Christian Church, was a major festival in the Church’s calendar. It’s what’s called the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and celebrates the belief that her body, as well as her soul, was taken to heaven after she’d died. Or possibly even before, it’s not clear. Either way, it’s a very old tradition, going right back to the early years of Christianity, even though there’s nothing about it in Scripture. And even those Christians, like us, who don’t necessarily subscribe to that doctrine, do still consider 15 August one of the Festivals of Saint Mary.

And even though we Protestants don’t really think about Mary much, the fact that she’s such an important figure in so much of Christianity means she’s probably worth thinking about from time to time.

So what do we actually know about her from the Bible, as opposed to tradition? She first appears in our Bibles when Gabriel comes to her to ask her if she will bear Jesus, and, of course, as we all know, she said she would, and Joseph agreed to marry her despite her being pregnant with a baby he knew he wasn’t responsible for. I do rather love Luke’s stories about Mary – how one of the things the angel had said to her was that her relation, Elisabeth, was pregnant after all those years. And, as we heard in our reading, Mary rushes off to visit her. Was this to reassure herself that the angel was telling the truth? Or to congratulate Elisabeth? Or just to get away for a bit of space, do you suppose? We aren’t told. But Elisabeth recognises Mary as the mother-to-be of the promised Saviour, and Mary’s response is that great song that we now call the “Magnificat”. Or if it wasn’t exactly that – that may well be Luke putting down what she ought to have said, like Shakespeare giving Henry V that great speech before Agincourt – it was probably words to that effect! I think she was very, very relieved to find the angel had been speaking the truth, and probably did explode in an outpouring of praise and joy!

And later, in Bethlehem, when the shepherds come to visit her, we are told that she “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”

The next time we see Mary is when Jesus is twelve and gets separated from them in the Temple. I spent a lot of time with that story when Emily was a teenager – how Mary and Joseph say to Jesus, “But why did you stay behind? Didn’t you realise we’d be worried about you?” and Jesus goes, “Oh, you don’t understand!” – typical teenager!

We don’t see Joseph again after this – tradition has it that he was a lot older than Mary, and, of course, he had a very physical job. It wasn’t just a carpenter as we know it – the Greek word is “technion”, which is the same root as our “technician”; if it had to do with houses, Joseph did it, from designing them, to building them, to making the furniture that went in them! And tradition has it that sometime between Jesus’ 12th birthday, and when we next see him, Joseph has died.

But we see a lot more of Mary. She is there at the wedding at Cana, and indeed, it’s she who goes to Jesus when they’ve run out of wine. And Jesus says, at first, “Um, no – my time has not yet come!” but Mary knew. And she told the servants to “Do whatever he tells you”, and, sure enough, the water is turned into wine.

There’s a glimpse of her at one point when Jesus is teaching, and he’s told his mother and brother are outside waiting for him, but he refuses to be diverted from what he’s doing. And, of course, it could have been that it was just random people who said they were his relations to try to get closer to him.

We see Mary, of course, weeping at the Cross – something no mother should ever have to do. And Jesus commending her into the care of the “beloved disciple” John. And, finally, we see her in the Upper Room in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came.

That’s really all we know about her from the Bible, but other early traditions and writings, including some of what’s called the apocryphal gospels – they’re the ones that didn’t make the cut into the New Testament as we know it – tell us a bit more. They tell us that her mother was called Anne and her father was called Joachim, and that she was only about 16 when Gabriel came to her. One source has it that Anne couldn’t have babies, and when Mary finally arrived, she was given to be reared in the Temple, like Samuel. And traditional sources also tell us that she went to live in Ephesus, probably with John, and died somewhere between 3 and 15 years after the Crucifixion, surrounded by all the apostles. And that her body was taken up to heaven, which is where we came in!

Well, so far, so good, but how did they get from there to the veneration of her, not to say worship in some cases, that we see today? This may be something you find difficult to understand – I certainly do – and that’s okay. We aren’t required to do more than honour her as the Mother of our dear Lord; we mention her when we say the Creed, of course, and there are lots of churches dedicated to her. My parents’ church in Clapham – some of you have been there – is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin, as are loads of other churches around the world.

But we do not think of her as quasi-divine in some way. We do believe that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by ordinary human means, but that this was something that happened in time, not in eternity! She became the Mother of God – she was not the Mother of God before Jesus was born.

It’s been fascinating, reading up on all the various Marian theologies to prepare this sermon. I don’t propose to go into them now – I don’t understand some of them at all, and anyway, it would take too long. It would appear, though, that while veneration of Mary is very ancient indeed, the theological study of her is comparatively recent. Actually, theology isn’t quite the right word, given that that is the study of God - I think the technical term is “Mariology”. And when it spins over into giving Mary that worship that properly belongs to God alone, it becomes “Mariolatry”.

I wonder, though, just how it happened that veneration of Mary became such a thing among Roman Catholic Christians. Orthodox Christianity also venerate her, but make it quite clear that she is not divine – the distinction, sometimes, among Catholics gets a bit blurred. One theory I have heard put forward is that she gives a female aspect to Christianity, which may or may not be lacking from the Trinity. Well, if that is so, how come Protestant women have managed without for so many generations? (I added something here which I only thought of the night before I preached about goddess-worship, and maybe it carried over - people were used to worshipping a Mother goddess).

We Protestants, of course, do have a choice – there is a tradition of venerating Mary in some parts of the Protestant Church, but it is far from compulsory. We honour her as the Mother of our dear Lord – and we honour her, too, for her bravery in saying “Yes” to God like that. After all, had Joseph repudiated her for carrying someone else’s child, she could have ended up on the streets!

As for the Assumption – well, who knows? Some Catholics think she was still alive when that happened, but the official position is unclear. The Orthodox call it the Dormition, or falling-asleep, and celebrate her death, but they, too, believe her body was carried up to heaven. But I am amused to learn that in Italy, the day is called “Ferragosto”, and is far older than Christianity – it was originally a festival of the goddess Diana, and became a public holiday during the reign of the Emperor Augustus! We Christians do like to take a pagan festival and turn it into something else, don’t we?! (And goddess-worship, perhaps!)

But what, then, can we learn from Mary? We don’t tend to think of her very much, at least, I don’t. But there is that incredible bravery that said “Yes” to God – and remember, she didn’t know the end of the story, not at that stage! There are times I wonder what she must think of it all! But she was totally submitted to God in a way that very few people can claim to be.

And, of course, there is what she said to the servants at that wedding in Cana - “Do whatever He tells you”. And that’s not a bad motto to live by, either: Do whatever Jesus tells you. Amen.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Commissioning Service, 9 August 2009

A was commissioned as a Local Preacher on Sunday 9 August, and asked me to preach at the service, which I was delighted to do.

From Deuteronomy chapter 33 and verse 27: “Underneath are the everlasting arms”. “Underneath are the everlasting arms.”

I think this verse is one of the loveliest in the Bible, particularly on an occasion like this. For while we as a circuit are rejoicing in the admission of a new local preacher – something that really doesn’t happen very often, according to our Plan the last time was in 1997, so you see, it is very special – I expect A has rather mixed feelings. Joyful, yes, certainly, but who could blame her if she also felt rather scared? I know I did, when I was accredited all those years ago. Quite apart from the practical considerations – I remember worrying about how on earth I was going to say “With God’s help I will” several times without sounding like a complete plonker? – those promises? Am I ever going to be able to keep them? For the rest of my life? Okay, one can resign as a local preacher, but few of us do; we are aware that this call is for life. Whether or not we go on to ordained ministry, as some of us do, or whether we stay ministers of the Word, our calling as one of Mr Wesley’s preachers – I like that description of us – is for life! That’s scary. And then there’s that sneaky feeling we all get – at least, I get, and I’m sure I’m not the only one – that somehow or another They, whoever They are, will discover I’m nothing but a great fraud!

Well, of course I am. We all are. If you think preachers, or even ministers, are anything other than ordinary people with ordinary emotions who get just as cross and tired and fed up as you do, think again! We’re exactly the same, it’s just that this is the work God has given us to do, whereas you will have been called to do something different. It’s like that great myth we perpetuate on our children that there is a such a thing as a grown-up! We go on feeling exactly the same inside as we did when we were 12.

But the thing is, whatever it is we are called to do, whether that is preaching, or teaching Sunday School, or being on the Church Council, or doing flowers, or whatever, we can only do it with God’s help. Actually, really, even though we might make a pretty good job of being human by ourselves, if we are to be fully and truly the people God designed us to be, we need God’s help to be that.

About ten days ago I went up to Trafalgar Square. You might know that there is a project going on at the moment where ordinary people spend one hour on the Fourth Plinth, doing whatever they like up there. I went up because a Methodist minister planned to celebrate Communion that day, which duly happened and was very moving. But the point is, because people are standing up on that plinth for an hour at a time, day in and day out for several months, they have put a safety-net round it. And when I saw it, I thought, “Underneath are the everlasting arms!” If a person were unlucky enough to fall off the plinth, he or she wouldn’t fall far, because of the safety net. And it’s the same, I find, for me as a preacher, and I’m sure A will find the same, too. She probably already has found it!

You see, all we have as preachers is words. Sometimes we’re happy with our words; we know our thoughts have lined up correctly and make sense. Perhaps we even have three points beginning with the same letter! Other times, though, we know we’re struggling. We aren’t at all sure that we have teased any sense at all out of the passage; our arguments don’t hang together. Did we start a red herring and not come back to draw it into the rest of our thoughts at the end? Isn’t it most frantically dull? I remember once that I was about to preach on the fruit of the Spirit, and it was an all age worship service, and I wasn’t any too sure about the sermon as it was. I’d bought a bowl of fruit along to act as a visual aid – and the last straw was when I sat on the banana in the vestry! I burst into tears and said “I can’t go on, I can’t do this!” but, of course, I had to. And do you know, it wasn’t that bad?! Fifteen years or so later I can laugh about it, of course, but it wasn’t funny at the time. But underneath were the everlasting arms – and God took that squashed banana, and the words of that sermon, and lifted them and did something with them, as I have to trust he does with all my sermons, and as all of us preachers have to trust he does, week after week. Underneath are the everlasting arms. My job, A’s job, is to supply the words – and to let God take care of the rest. One minister once pointed out to me that even that isn’t always the case, as God sees to it that people only ever hear what He wants them to hear, anyway! Underneath are the everlasting arms.

Like many of us, I have magnets on my fridge. Some are a bit random, but I have six butterflies that I found in one of those kitschy shops they used to have in Clapham. I like the butterflies, because they remind me of growth and change, and how scary that can be. As you know, a butterfly, like many insects, starts life as a tiny caterpillar, and then pupates and becomes something quite different, before it is born anew as a butterfly. The actual butterfly bit is a very tiny part of its life; some species last no more than a day or so, if that. Mayflies, for instance, don’t even have mouths – all that they are interested in is reproducing themselves, finding a mate, laying their eggs, if female, and then dying. And the whole cycle takes two years or so to fulfil.

And when they actually go to become a butterfly, or mayfly, or dragonfly, or whatever insect they are due to become, the caterpillar has to pupate. That isn’t just a matter of hibernating, like a dormouse or bear; they have to be completely remade. While they are in the pupa, all their bits dissolve away, and are made from scratch, from the material that is there. It’s not just a matter of rearranging what is there, it’s a matter of total breakdown and starting again. The insects are quite literally born again!

Wouldn’t it be frightening if that sort of thing were to happen to us? Of course, in one sense it will, after we die, when we’re told that we will be raised in a new body. But it’s not necessarily about death. In our Gospel reading, Jesus says “The person who loves his life will lose it, while the person who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” Now, I don’t really think that this means quite what it says on the tin – what sort of God would we serve who condemned us to lose a life we loved, but to keep one we hated? In Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, you often used very exaggerated expressions – if you wanted to say you preferred apples to pomegranates, for instance, you would say that you loved apples, and hated pomegranates. Remember how God allegedly said “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated”. Same thing – just meant Jacob was the chosen one, not Esau. And it's like that when Jesus says “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

He doesn't mean to actually hate them, of course – how could he? Not when he tells us to love one another! But the idea is to put Jesus first.

And similarly, in this passage, he doesn't mean it's wrong to be happy! We aren't meant to hate our lives and loathe ourselves – again, how could we, when we are commanded to love our neighbours as we love ourselves? It's fine to be happy, it's fine to enjoy life, it's fine to love, and to be loved. But, if we are to be Jesus’ people, we do need to keep a light hold on things. And we need to be prepared to change and grow, as God calls us. If our caterpillar never turned into a pupa, it would never turn into a butterfly, either.

Today is a major step for A along the path that God is leading her. It’s a happy, wonderful occasion. It can feel quite normal, too – you know you’re doing the right thing, the thing God wants for you. It’s normal. But at the same time, it’s a step into the unknown, a step in the dark. I remember feeling that I wasn’t ready to be launched on to Full Plan yet; I couldn’t do it all by myself. But I didn’t have to, and A won’t have to. Underneath are the everlasting arms.

Pray for A, and for me, and for the other preachers in this circuit. We need your prayers, in fact, we rely on them. We know we are doing the work God has for us, and in that we rejoice – but we are still ordinary human beings, and we still need your prayers.

My father tells a story of a man who fell down a cliff, but was lucky enough to catch on to a tree-root part of the way down. And he was stuck, and scared, and in danger. So he prays “Is anybody out there?” And the voice comes, “Yes, I am God, and I am here. Just let yourself fall, and I will catch you!”

So the man thinks about it for a few moments, and then he calls out “Is there anybody else out there?”

I imagine that for A right now this minute, it feels as though she’s about to step off a cliff! But underneath are the everlasting arms, and God will catch her, as he caught me, as he has caught so many of us. Amen.