Sermons That Work

Today We Celebrate…, St. Mary the Virgin – 1996

August 15, 1996

Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, the principal feast of Mary in all branches of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic church, and indeed, in some Protestant churches as well. Because she is regarded as the greatest of the saints and the first Christian, today marks the chief saints day which the church commemorates year by year.

Today is a celebration of the grace and power of God in a human life, of what extraordinary and truly marvelous things God can do in a life that is yield to Him and receptive to His will.

It is a celebration of faith and trust — Mary’s total faith in her Lord and Saviour who was also her Son and Child. It is also a celebration of our own faith in Jesus who has promised that if we serve Him here on earth we shall reign with Him in glory.

Some years ago, I enjoyed a trip to England with a group of parishioners. Headquartered for two weeks in London, a number of us worshipped at the Church of the Annunciation, Marble Arch – Annunciation, Bryanston Square, one of the great traditionalist parishes of the Church of England. A sermon in that church began with an amusing story that bears re-telling. Fr. John Millburn was for nearly 40 years the Superior of the Society of Mary and Vicar of St. Paul’s, Brighton. He travelled all over the Anglican communion preaching the glories of Mary. The story goes that after his death, he made his way to heaven and was brought face to face with St. Peter. “Your holiness,” he said, “I am Fr. John Millburn.” As St. Peter checked his entry list there was some consternation for Fr. Millburn’s name was not to be found. Off St. Peter went to consult Our Lord Himself. “There is a priest here who wants to come in, a Fr. John Millburn.” Immediately responding Our Lord said, “Let him in! My Mother has been nagging me about him for years!”

On that trip I was in other churches and cathedrals, fascinated by the funerary monuments which often line the walls and the floors as well. In Westminster Abbey, I saw monuments to the builder, St. Edward the Confessor, Tudor figures, people of the reformation era, the Victorian period, down to the war dead as well as poets, writers, musicians, and statesmen. All the monuments have inscriptions, judgements really on the lives they led. It made me think what people will say of us one day, of myself, my parishioners, and others I have known.

With many of the saints its easy for us to see what they have left behind as their monuments. Some have left large and important religious orders, others important books and teachings. Still others a good and wholesome influence, others great charitable works and institutions.

But when you come to Mary what would you say she left as her monument? Certainly no religious order, no book, no teaching, no school or hospital. She was neither wealthy nor influential in her time. By every judgement or standard you or I would use to evaluate a person’s achievement, she was completely unremarkable. So, why is it that we gather some 1900 years after her death on another continent to remember her and to pay her honor?

Some might say that she was nothing more than a woman who simply happened to be chosen as the Mother of Jesus. I think that upon reflection not many would let it go at that.

But as we think about what monument she left us, I suggest there is a title given her which speaks very much to us and to the question. The title is “Mother of the Church,” a title used for centuries in devotional prayers asking her prayers for us and our loved ones.

It focuses on the fact that Mary was the first Christian, the first to follow Christ, the first to trust in His Way. Common sense tells us that she was chosen by God for this vocation. We, too, all have our specific vocations, callings, works – chosen by God and tailored for us in His great plan for our lives. Mary’s was to be the first Christian. God never gives anyone a job or vocation without help to do it. God did the same for Mary. The help He gives always is the grace to live up to our vocation. Since Mary was the first, extraordinary grace was given her “full of grace,” the angel declared her to be.

As the first Christian, as “Mother of the Church,” she goes before the whole Church giving us and all the baptized a perfect model of what it means to follow Jesus, to walk in His steps.

If you want to know how to be a Christian, follow Mary, listening to her Son and doing His will, even when like her, you don’t understand or even agree. She showed what it means to be faithful. Her faith was total complete.

Since she was to bear the Son of God, she received the grace of baptism at her conception that you and I have each received. This points all Christians to a deeper understanding of their own baptism; what happened to her, happens to us. She was baptized and we are baptized to do God’s will and to follow Christ. Thereafter she lived her life in Christ as we are to live our lives in Christ.

At her death, as the collect for today prays, she was taken to God to share in His glory. That collect prays that we, too, will share the same glory with the Father. That is the specific thing we celebrate today.

Her example for us and all generations is clearly set out in the New Testament. – at Cana in Galilee, she told the waiters, “whatever He says, do it.” Across the centuries she continues to say the same, her life a proof that she practiced what she preached in a life centered upon God and not herself; obedience in which she found total freedom from always trying to control everything and everyone, a freedom found in letting God be her ruler and her guide.

Then at the Cross as she shared completely in Christ’s suffering and death, she and the Beloved Disciple are committed one to another in a relationship of mutual dependence in Christ, one which Christians still have with her in Him. It came about because her life had no meaning without His, her life’s identity is caught up in her Son’s death and resurrection. Sound familiar? It should. It is the goal and purpose of our baptism. What is ours to do is to go and live it every day, in every relationship and circumstance, just as she did.

Finally, I point you to a picture of the disciples praying in the Upper Room for the Holy Spirit to come down upon them. Ancient tradition tells us that Mary was there. What she and they were doing doesn’t appear to be very much, at least by the world’s standards. It seems so very passive. Here we are reminded that prayer is of enormous importance and is a powerful action. It is placing ourselves in direct communication with the only power that is higher and greater than all of us, the only power that can deliver us. We do well to follow Mary in this.

Because she prayed, so close was she to the throne of grace that Christians have believed for 20 centuries that there is no better person anywhere and at anytime we could ask to pray for us than Mary. So, we come full circle to Fr. Millburn — I have little doubt that Mary’s prayers for him went directly to her son. She is a powerful intercessor and a reminder that prayer is a vital importance to the body and to the soul.

As Mother of Christ and Mother of the Church, in her and through her Son, we are all united as sisters and brother, sons and daughters of God.

Today we honor her. We celebrate her being taken to heaven; today we crown her with earthly honor, but ours is to crown her in our heart’s love and devotion; to walk in her ways because her ways lead to her Son, her goal and outs, now and always. Amen!!

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Christopher Sikkema


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