The Blessed Virgin Mary - An unlikely calling

A sermon preached on the Festival of the Blessed Virgin Mary, by Martin Carr, 9 September 2012

God has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.

In the back streets of the inner city, a removal van has pulled up. Neighbours peer inquisitively from behind their curtains. In the street, some children and a dog gather to watch. Eve is moving house.
The story began many years ago. Eve’s parents separated when she was a child. Eventually her mother remarried. At first things seemed normal, but then Eve’s nightmare began. One day when Eve came home from school, her stepfather took her upstairs in their comfortable middle-class house. There he took her clothes off and raped her. She was 10 years old. Over the next years Eve was repeatedly a victim of this man she had been told to trust, and several of his friends.

Traumatised by her ordeal Eve entered a life of prostitution, which was to last 15 years. Then a miracle began to occur. An unusual event called a poverty hearing was being held in the city. Eve, who had been helped by a church project to help prostituted women, was asked to speak.

What she had to say was so powerful she was invited to London to address the National Poverty Hearing. In the audience were Cardinal Basil Hume and Archbishop George Carey. Eve’s story of life on the streets stunned her listeners. ‘Prostitution is not about fulfilling sexual fantasies’ she told them, ‘it is about abuse. Next time you see a prostitute, you do not see a whore – you see a survivor.’ When she had finished Cardinal Hume stood up and spoke: ‘That courageous woman is my sister’.

After the hearing Eve talked with the Archbishop. Going home, she reflected on what had happened. She had been listened to with respect by two of the most senior of church leaders. Soon she started a project for vulnerable children in her own neighbourhood. And an amazing idea developed. Eve went to see her vicar: ‘I think I am being called to the priesthood’, she said. She waited for the laughter but there was none. ‘Yes, I’ve had the same thought’ said the vicar.

The idea seemed impossible. It might be true to the Gospel with its stories of Christ’s love for the poor and the outcast, but you do not expect the gospel to happen in real life.

Some months later Eve went to see the bishop. He was a stern, grey-haired patrician, academic and dignified. What, thought Eve, could they possibly have in common. Yet confronted by this courageous and articulate woman, whose childhood had been a living nightmare and whose adult life was far from average, their mutual trust and love for God forged a bond. The bishop had a hard choice to make, should he send her to train at college to be a priest? He said yes. That is why the removal van has come, and Eve is setting off to begin the life to which God has called her.

Today’s gospel reading forms part of a quite unique episode. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is spoken at the conclusion of her encounter with her cousin Elizabeth, who is heavily pregnant with John the Baptist. I cannot think of any other instance in the Bible where two women are in dialogue, and men are notably absent. Pedants might point out that both Jesus and John are present, as yet unborn, in the story, but Luke lets women’s voices elucidate for us the significance of these momentous events. They bear the gospel, literally in their womb, but also through their proclamation. And what kind of women are Mary and Elizabeth? As in Eve’s story, both fall under the shadow of sexual irregularity. For Elizabeth, the issue is her age. Luke informs us earlier in chapter 1 that she was thought to be barren and past childbearing age. For Jews in the first century, her childless situation would have been seen as God’s judgment against her. And for Mary, she is an unmarried teenager, and her pregnancy has nothing to do with Joseph. This point is important and is about the only point on which Luke manages to agree with Matthew, the other evangelist who tells us of Jesus’ birth. It is clear that Mary’s pregnancy was suspect and demanded explanation. An old woman and an unmarried teenage girl – what on earth was God thinking of?

In November this year the Church of England will, God willing, admit women to the office of bishop in our Church. It is not quite as high a calling as mother of God, but nonetheless the journey to this point has been arduous. If God chose Mary and Elizabeth as bearers of his word, why does the Church, even now, resist? The truth is that for 2000 years the Church has privileged men as God’s earthly representatives. And among the most ardent opponents of women’s ministry are many Christians who would describe themselves as Bible-believing. Might a closer reading of St Luke show that God works in a different way? Might God have had good reason for choosing an old woman and an unmarried but pregnant teenager to announce the world’s salvation? Yes, God might, because throughout the Hebrew Scriptures God prefers the small, the weak, the humble, the outcast, the other. Human weakness, not power, reveals God’s will. Why else choose Moses, a stuttering fugitive, to lead Israel? Why choose an insignificant shepherd boy, David, to found a royal dynasty? Elsewhere the prophet Micah says, ‘But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.’ It is from this insignificant, tiny clan that God was to raise up Jesus, born to a Galilean peasant girl.

It can be illuminating to imagine what we would make of God’s actions 2,000 years ago, were they to happen in our own day. How would the tabloid press react to Mary’s teenage pregnancy? Would the Church hierarchy respond with suspicion to her unmarried status? Could God be so silly as to actually be born as a human being to such an unlikely couple as Mary and her carpenter boyfriend? Well, is it any more silly than calling a prostitute to become a priest, or a woman to become a bishop? The German philosopher Nietzsche decried Christianity for exalting weakness and humility above strength and self-determination. Yet it is precisely in this exaltation and celebration of lowliness that our faith speaks prophetically to a world obsessed with power and celebrity. Mary, like Eve,  is a model of true strength, not the sort gained by wealth or trampling on others until she reaches the top, but by simple faith and trust in God.

In her response to Elizabeth’s greeting Mary utters the famous song now best known by its Latin title, Magnificat, our gospel today. Weaving together prophetic themes from the books of Samuel and Job, Mary rejoices in the paradoxical nature of God’s salvation. ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.’ Her words are fulfilled of course in the ministry of Jesus, who ministers not principally to the powerful and religious, but to tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes and those on the margins. It is precisely in weak human beings that the Christian God is made known. God takes risks where often we would run a mile, daring to embrace the untouchables and make the poor the heirs of the kingdom. In Jesus, God takes the greatest risk of all. Jesus, the word made flesh, is born in squalor, is soon fleeing Herod’s persecution, and as an adult faces opposition, plotting, and finally a painful and humiliating death.

In our story Eve walks in the footsteps of this suffering God, enduring humiliation and brutality but eventually fulfilling her call to proclaim the gospel. Mary too must suffer the agony of seeing her child die as part of her vocation, yet the prophetic words of the Magnificat indicate her trust in God’s ultimate justice for the oppressed. And God will, in God’s own time, call someone to Holland Park to become our new priest and continue building God’s kingdom among us. It may be someone we least expect, but we must trust God to make the right choice, and pray for wisdom for those who will discern God’s desire for us.

Sisters and brothers, on this great festival of the Blessed Virgin, as we reflect on God’s risk in choosing Mary and Elizabeth to proclaim the gospel, is it worth asking what risk we need to take for God? Is there someone we still need to forgive? Are there situations where we are called to love, when indifference would be easier? Is it perhaps to accept the call of the Christ, when we know he will also summon us to follow the way of the cross? Today, as the Paralympic Games come to a conclusion, can we reflect on the dedication of the athletes to live out their callings as human beings, rather than simply to give up when life gets hard.

Mary and Elizabeth said yes to God. So did Eve, however crazy it seemed. Perhaps sometimes we need to let go of what might seem reasonable, and listen instead to God’s call, which summons us beyond our comfort zones but ultimately into a fulfilment and love we dare not hope for. This is our risk, but also God’s gift, and God is faithful. Amen.
Holland Park Benefice