For those who missed it this morning, and those who were sleeping, here is the sermon I preached at Old Saint Paul’s this morning for the Feast of Mary, Mother of God.
Almost three years ago, I was ordained deacon and a week or two later, with much fear and trembling, gave my first sermon as Assistant Curate here at Old Saint Paul’s. Two years ago, I was priested and celebrated my first mass on this great feast day, the Feast of Mary, Mother of God. A year ago, I was preparing for a trip to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories with the World Mission Council of the Church of Scotland. And now, because that visit had such an impact upon me that I am about to return there to serve for the next five years, I stand here before you to preach my final sermon as Assistant Curate.
As Our Lady herself discovered, God is indeed the God of surprises — surprises both joyful and costly.
My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
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.
We just heard the great Song of Mary, the song she proclaimed once the news had sunk in that she was to give birth to the Messiah, the song we say at evening prayer every night here, and hear sung at Evensong on Sundays.
Regardless of how many times we say them, and whether we say them out of devotion or habit, the words contain a powerful vision of how the world should be, the mighty acts of God set in motion on that day the angel Gabriel paid her a visit.
This morning, as we may find ourselves tempted to rest in the beauty of Mary’s song, I’d like the share the song of another woman, another Palestinian mother, who lives today in the city of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, not all that far from Mary’s town of Nazareth.
This is Maya Abu Al-Hayat’s poem ‘Children’, translated by Liz Lochhead:
Whenever I see an image of a child’s hand
sticking out of the rubble of a collapsed building
I check the hands of my three children
I count the fingers of their hands, the toes on their feet,
I check the numbers of teeth in their mouths, every
last hair in each finely-marked wee eyebrow
Whenever a child goes silent in Al Yarmuk Camp
I turn up the volume on the TV, the songs on the radio,
I pinch my three children
to make them cry and squirm with life
Whenever my sore heart gets hungry
at Qalandia checkpoint
I comfort-eat, I
emotionally over-eat, craving excessive salt
as if I could then somehow say: enough, block out
the salt spark of the tears everyone around me is crying.
Of course, we do not need a poem to tell us that the proud are still proud, the mighty still mighty and the rich still rich. We do not need a poem to remind us that even today, the lowly are making their exodus across dangerous waters in search of a land which will provide safety, or the exiles are wandering starving in the desert. We do not need a poem to remind us that people gather in a flimsy ramshackle tent church at the migrant camp at Calais to pray that God may once again show the strength of his arm.
Checkpoints and immigration ports, occupying powers and weak governments…. It would seem little has changed since Mary’s day. We do not need a poem to tell us that.
But in the words of Oscar Romero which I have used before: ‘there are many things in this world that can only be seen through eyes that have cried’, and poems like Al Hayat’s take their shape through tears of terror and confusion which, instead of blurring the world beyond, illuminate and magnify its injustices with sharp clarity.
I confess I find it easier to read Mary’s Song through the lens of Al Hayat’s tears than the other way around. When we find ourselves living in that time of tension and incompleteness between the promise made and its fulfilment, the distance between reality and promise often looms large.
But we are called to not lose sight of the promise, to hold it alongside the reality of the world we live in. And I can’t help but think that the Magnificat was born through Mary’s own tears of terror and confusion … as well as tears of joy. ‘My soul magnifies the Lord’, she sings. Only a soul which has been confronted with the imperfection of humanity, the very real fear of alienation and abandonment, the hunger and lowliness of poverty and shame and single motherhood, and in the midst of all of that, known the impossible promises of God — only that soul can sing such words. Only eyes which have viewed the world through the tears of fear and love for self and another, more vulnerable being can place hope in the power of a creator God whose own fear and love for creation means that the divine creativity is not yet done.
The truth is, eyes you will look into over coffee after the service here, the eyes you avoid when you’re walking down the street, the familiar eyes that stare back at you when you look in the mirror — all are eyes which have cried. All are eyes whose tears magnify the world’s pain and joy, all are eyes which are windows into souls which hold the potential to magnify the Lord — not only to praise, but to extend and expand and amplify the Lord’s creative power.
And if this is the case, it is not only our calling to keep God’s promise firmly in sight and to speak with Mary’s prophetic voice. But, in the words of the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, we are all of us called to be mothers of God, to give birth to God’s nurturing power and love. Ours are to be the strong arms which we extend to the weak to lift them out of the dust, ours the hands that caress the faces of those who suffer, ours the bodies that nourish the hungry.