The Blessed Virgin Mary - a model of good religion

A sermon preached in the United Benefice on 8 September by the Revd Dr James Heard, Priest-in-Charge

When a new priest arrives, it is natural to wonder what his or her vision for the parish might be. It’s a fair question, but it’s a difficult question, because it is impossible to really know what the vision for the parish is going to be without actually being here, without spending time getting to know people, without living here and visiting shops, schools, restaurants, businesses - perhaps also conducting a thorough and extensive tour of the pubs (I’ve already begun this ministry) - essentially, by being here and listening to the concerns, anxieties, hopes, opportunities. So a vision for this community has to be profoundly contextual... and for it to have any traction, for a vision to be owned, it has to come from the whole community, not just the priest. We’ll be thinking about MAP in the coming year.

However, with that proviso, there is a vision one might more generally have of church. And I do most certainly have a passionate commitment for what I believe the church is called to be. And that is a vision for church to be a place of good religion, good faith, healthy faith.

I’ve met, again and again, people who have been burned and hurt and excluded by bad religion. One young lady (in a civil partnership) I met said, with her eyes full of tears, that all her life, her experience of church had only ever been one of exclusion. She started coming to the parent/ carer and toddler group - she then joined a nurture course and was confirmed a year ago. She discovered that church could be a place of love and acceptance and inclusion.

But her experience reminded me that there is an awful lot of bad religion around. Here are some of the features of bad religion - the sort of faith that is solely based on authority (you believe because the priest tells you so or the Bible tell you so). Bad religion is based on pressure or coercion. You only have to go to a football match to experience the power of large tribal groups - and religious revivalist groups, among others, have harnessed this power to produce ‘converts’. Such religion can be highly manipulative and coercive.

Bad faith is based on control and fear, fear of going to hell - unless you believe of behave in a certain way - an eternal torment awaits you. Throughout the centuries the church has often used this fear as a system of control. Such faith is toxic.

Bad faith is arrogant and unteachable.

By contrast, good religion, healthy faith, is different. It honours the difficult questions, its not afraid of doubt, it’s not fearful of other Christian views or other religious views - in fact, its actively open to learning from those who are different.

Good religion is, like children, inquisitive - my son has just started the stage where he asks the ‘why’ questions. Good religion is keen to explore and learn and discover.

This invitation to learn, to grow, to take a risk, was offered to Mary, whose feast we celebrate today. I generally like very much Pre-Ralphelite art - exhibition at the Tate Britain was wonderful. However, Mary is often depicted in a particular idealised way - usually as a rather passive figure. Its something that feminist theologians have been concerned about - the view of Mary as a submissive figure, someone to be imposed upon, of a passive acceptance of whatever is declared God’s will.

That is not what we find in the Biblical account. The angel Gabriel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and that she will give birth to a holy child, who will be named the ‘Son of God’. Mary responds with a resounding ‘Yes!’ ‘I am the Lord’s maid, the Lord’s servant. Be done… be done to me according to your will. Let it be with me just as you say’ (Luke 1.38). This isn’t about simple submission...and certainly not passive resignation.

The point being is the Incarnation didn’t happen without Mary’s ‘Yes’. And Mary’s ‘yes’ is very significant. Firstly, it contrasts with the disobedience of the first female figure, Eve. Second, Mary’s response has become the model of obedient acceptance of God’s will.

This tells us something about what God is like. The Holy Spirit doesn’t come to dominate or impose God’s will on unsuspecting and reluctant humans. The characteristic word used of the Spirit’s engagement with us is ‘fellowship’. It’s one of relationship, dialogue, partnership. This partnership respects who we are, but it also recognises that we need the help and the perspective and the power of God if we are to grow as human beings, through whom God can work to bring about the healing of the world. Far from threatening who we are, the Spirit enables us to be more fully ourselves. Far from impinging on our freedom, it’s the Spirit who enables us to be free (Mike Lloyd).

Mary’s response to this is a hymn of praise, ‘the Magnificat’. It is rich in OT imagery and language and may have been used as a song by the early Jewish Christian community, seeing as they did their Christian faith in complete continuity with the faith of their forbearers. Mary’s song moves from the celebration of what God has done for all those who fear him, to a God who is on the side of the poor, a prominent theme in Luke.

Mary’s ‘yes’ to God’s invitation is a model for our relationship, our partnership with God. God continues to act in the world in and through the partnership of those who are faithful. With Mary, God invites us into relationship with him, to bring renewal, hope, growth, love, worship and transformation. This is at the heart of what it means to be Christian, and how we are to be as the Church. And this all depends upon our openness to dance with triune God, and as Mary did, responding to God’s grace with a resounding ‘yes’.
Holland Park Benefice