Gospel lesson and Pastor Richard Pokora’s sermon from August 15, 2021
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and His Son our Lord Jesus Christ.
The church year contains a long sequence of post Pentecost Sundays that stretch from late spring through late autumn; these green Sundays occupy about half the year.
Today we interrupt that series to celebrate the feast of St. Mary the Virgin. We recognize August 15 as he feast Sunday ; Mary is the undoubtably o0ne of the most prominent saints of all.. Other feasts are connected with the life of Mary, but this one is her own special day marking the end of her earthly life.
The Orthodox churches call this feast her dormition, which means her falling asleep. Roman Catholics know it as the Assumption, reflecting the belief that she was taken up, body and soul, assumed into heaven. The Lutheran Church calls this day simply the feast of St. Mary the Virgin. In the collect we pray: “O God, you have taken to yourself the Blessed Virgin Mary, mother of your incarnate Son.” We do not claim to know, as a matter of faith, how this happened. We do, however, claim as a matter of faith that it did happen: Mary is now in heaven.
As we celebrate the life and witness of the mother of Jesus, we would do well to consider just what it is that makes her so special. For the Bible presents her as special and so does the tradition of the church.
Christian tradition carefully distinguishes the honor and respect in which we hold the angels and saints from the absolute worship which is due to God alone. The worship to which God alone is entitled is known by the word latria. The respect shown to the saints is known by the word dulia. But there is a third term as well, hyperdulia. This is the honor and respect shown to Mary as the most outstanding of the saints, preeminent among the servants of God.
How is it that Mary is respected and honored to such a degree? She is, of course, the human mother of Jesus, entrusted with caring for him in all the ways that a mother cares for her child. But there’s more to it than that. We need to look at her response to God.
Today, as we recognize the earthly life of Mary in its totality, let us look back to when she first appears in the scriptural story, at the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel announces to this teenage girl that she is to be the mother of God’s Son. What is her response?
She asks for clarification. “How can this be,” she says,“since I am a virgin?” The glorious angel tells her of how the Spirit of God will overshadow her. Mary’s response is faithful acceptance:“Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Notice what she does not say. Mary does not say, “I am not worthy.” Nor does she say,“I am worthy.” Worthiness is not the point. Somehow this young girl understands: it’s not all about her; it’s all about God. The angel’s message is continuous with all the ways God attempts to give God’s own self to people. God makes attempts to do so before the Annunciation. God makes these attempts throughout all of history. God makes attempts to give God’s own self to people even now, right here in the Quad City region..
And you know what happens, most of the time? We come up with an excuse; we refuse the gift. Oh, we’re usually polite enough about it. Our most common excuse is: “I am not worthy.” We miss the point; it’s not about worthiness. What it’s about is God doing what God likes to do, loves to do, best of all: giving away God’s own self.
Not only do we miss the point. We turn our misunderstanding into an iron cage that holds society captive and replaces authentic faith with a substitute for Christianity. We come to believe it’s about whether or not we are worthy, when what it’s about is instead that God is gracious, always attempting to give away God’s own self.
The greatness of Mary is that she is not caught up in concerns about worthiness. She neither boasts at the angel’s message, nor pulls away, claiming not to deserve it. Instead, she recognizes that message as what it is: sheer gift.
How often is our response so contrary to hers. We are caught up in timidity, low self-esteem, a focus on our shortcomings. Or we have an inflated sense of ourselves, and constantly we must work to keep this balloon inflated! Mary, on the other hand, avoids these traps, placing the emphasis not on herself, but with the God who initiates all good things. Her center is not her little ego, but the Holy One who exceeds every limit.
Jesus is our salvation, and he represents and sums up the entire mystery of how salvationis offered to us by God. Mary is for us the personification, the one who represents and sums uphow salvation is received by human beings. She is thus a stand in, an exemplar for all of us. This is why the older Christian traditions, including our own, pay her special attention, extraordinary respect.
Mary is us; and if we are to be our true selves, the ones God made us to be, we do well to follow her example. She invites us to move past obsessions with our worthiness or unworthiness, and focus instead on how each of us is here, not simply to do God’s will, but to be in a unique way God’s presence, God’s action, in this world.
Today’s feast has for its gospel the Magnificat, the Song of Mary. It’s her song, to be sure. In Luke’s Gospel, it comes forth from her lips during her pregnancy when she goes to visit her relative Elizabeth. But how soon in Mary’s song does any references to herself disappear. It’s really about the power and goodness of God. And how this teenage girl exults the Lord, raising her young voice in praise!
The same happens in our lives also. Our worthiness is not the issue. Our unworthiness is not the issue. We live in a larger realm than that, namely the kingdom of God. As Mary receives Christ at the Annunciation, so we receive Christ at the altar, that we may be God’s presence, God’s action, in the world. Go forth from this worship service today with the attitude Mary displays in our Gospel. Be ready for God to act thru you in ways we can hardly begin to imagine. Let God work in you as he did in Mary. Amen
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.