The Magnificat, or Mary’s Song

Luke 1.46-55

Today, the 15th of August, is one of those times when the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church and the Church of England all celebrate a major feast, that of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

For Roman Catholics, this is the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin – a celebration of Mary being taken body and soul into God’s eternal presence as Queen of Heaven.

For Orthodox Christians, this is the Feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God – a celebration of Mary, her earthly life ended, falling sleep-like into the eternal arms of God.

We in the Church of England, however, noting that there’s no account of the end of Mary’s life in the Bible, just mark today as a general celebration of Mary.

Mary doesn’t in fact say that much in the Bible, but among the words she does say, the ones we heard in our Gospel reading have been sung, spoken and chanted for centuries.

To get a good idea of what’s going on here, we need to have some context.

Mary has learned that she is pregnant, even though she’s a virgin.

That’s a huge shock, and a scandal.

She’s also learned that her cousin, Elizabeth, is pregnant.

Elizabeth is too old to conceive, so her pregnancy is also a miracle.

Mary visits Elizabeth. When Elizabeth sees Mary, the baby inside Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy.

Elizabeth says, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”.

Imagine how overwhelmed Mary must be by all of this.

Our Gospel for today is her amazing response.

It is beautiful, prophetic poetry, containing strong emotions.

He has shown strength with his arm.

He has scattered … who?  The proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down … who? The powerful from their thrones.

And lifted up … who? The lowly.

He has filled … who?

The hungry with good things.

And sent… who? The rich away empty.

What’s going on here?

It seems like God loves … who? The lowly and the hungry.

How does God feel about the arrogant, the powerful and the rich?

Not so good.

This is the point at which rich and powerful people start to squirm.

And it raises the question, does God hate rich and powerful people?

Let’s see what’s going on here.

God scatters the proud because he hates arrogance and loves humility.

God brings down the powerful because they use their power to oppress others.

God sends the rich away empty because they keep things to themselves while others suffer.

It seems that the issue here is not our level of wealth or how much power we have but rather how we deal with them.

God’s main concern is not with the size of our bank account but with what we do with the money we have.

Do we selfishly hoard our treasures, or do we have generous hearts and a desire to help those with less?

Do our money and possessions make us feel that we’re better than others, or do we see them as generous gifts from God to be used for the good of all?

God doesn’t say that person is powerful, let’s pull him down a peg or two.

Rather, he wants to see power used responsibly, with care for others, with justice and with mercy.

Is power just for our benefit, so we can get what we want, or does it come with a responsibility to use our position to do good?

I think we can safely say that God doesn’t hate rich people.

Rather, God hates arrogance, selfishness and oppression.

God doesn’t hate powerful people.

God hates injustice and misuse of power.

And on the other side, God doesn’t love poor people because they are poor.

God hates it when people are mistreated and will always stand to defend the weak.

The climate report this week highlighted the threat to some of the poorest people in our world, some of whose countries may disappear completely under the sea.

We also heard the horrific news from Portsmouth, including the tragic death of a young girl.

Surely God cares about these things and these people, and will bring about justice for the weak and the poor?

Not, though, so that the lowly can lord it over the mighty in some sort of twisted justice.

Rather, God’s aim is to remind us that each human being is a beautiful creation of God, and we are all equal in his eyes.

God’s work of salvation involves restoring proper relationships not only between God and humanity but also between people.

Mary understood this, and so she sang of God’s new world order, one in which all have value, all are loved, all are cared for and protected, and each person looks out for the good of others.

Much has been said about Mary during the Church’s history, and she’s been exalted in the minds and hearts of some to a degree I’m not altogether comfortable with.

But she did catch a wonderful vision of what God’s salvation means for our world, and for that we can thank her and God.

Being Rich & The Kingdom of God

Bit late but here is my sermon from yesterday on the grounds of “better late than never”!

 

Mark 10.17-31

When I think about the man in today’s gospel reading I imagine a rather earnest, conscientious person who worries about doing what’s right.

He’s a good Jew who not only knows what he’s supposed to do but strives hard to actually live out his faith.

And as a good 1st century Jew he would’ve been firmly of the opinion that being rich was a sign of God’s blessing.

His friends and neighbours would’ve agreed with him, as well, for everyone knew that if you were a righteous person God would bless you with money and possessions.

This of course also meant that if you were poor you were not so blessed by God and were probably not so righteous.

This is not very far from those who preach the so-called prosperity gospel today, claiming that if only you do what God commands you’ll be blessed with incredible wealth.

But, going back to the rich man in our reading, for all his wealth and his confidence that he keeps God’s law, he seems to feel that there’s something lacking, something that Jesus can supply, so he comes to ask, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’.

 

And Jesus looks at him and loves him.

 

This is the only time in Mark’s gospel when Jesus is said to have loved someone.

Jesus showed his love for many people but in this direct statement Mark is, I think, drawing our attention to the fact that everything Jesus says to the rich man next is out of loving concern for him.

And what Jesus says next is hard and challenging.

He tells the man to sell everything he has and give the money to the poor.

There’s no well, how about if you spend less on luxuries, give some money away, increase your offerings to the Temple.

It’s an uncompromising command that seems to cut to the heart of the rich man because he goes away in a state of shock and grief, and we don’t know if he eventually does what Jesus says or not.

Then, Jesus also confuses and shocks his disciples by telling them that it’s as impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

They, don’t forget, also believe that righteousness and wealth go together, hence their shocked exclamation ‘Then who can be saved?’.

This may also be uncomfortable for us, as the link between being a good person and being wealthy hasn’t disappeared from our society.

Just think about how people on benefits are sometimes portrayed as lazy scroungers who waste their money on cigarettes and big TVs.

We also might be aware that, despite all the years of austerity and recession that we’ve had in this country, most of us are in fact incredibly rich compared to much of the world.

 

The temptation here throughout the centuries has been to try to soften Jesus’s words.

So, for example, in the 9th century someone came up with the idea that the eye of the needle was in fact a gate in Jerusalem that camels could only get through if they were unloaded first.

But sadly there never was such a gate.

Jesus is clear: just as large animals can’t get through tiny gaps, the rich don’t fit in the kingdom of God.

 

But why is this?

Is it because wealth leads to the temptation to believe that we’re self-sufficient, with no need to depend on anyone else, and by extension no need of God?

Wealth can lead to arrogance and a feeling of entitlement, and the temptation to think that anyone less wealthy just isn’t trying hard enough, replacing love for our neighbour with a feeling of superiority.

And wealth can cause us to cut ourselves off from other people, becoming cynical about their motives and thinking we don’t need anyone else, and making us hard and closed to human relationships.

This reminds me of a recent storyline in the soap Neighbours, where a long-lost sister of the doctor turned up who was very rich and was constantly pushing people away, including her children.

This was because she’d become so caught up in her wealth and suspicious of other people’s motives that she thought everyone was only after her money – even her 4-year-old grandchild.

 

Or do the rich not fit in God’s kingdom because they hold on to what they have at the expense of others?

Is it that a focus on always having more and better ignores the need to feed and clothe those in need, to ensure justice for the powerless, to protect the weak and vulnerable, to strive to make sure that everyone has enough to live on?

 

I suspect that it’s a combination of these things: the way wealth cuts us off from those around us, and the way it makes us focused on ourselves at the expense of others.

 

Yet, don’t forget, Jesus looked at the rich man and loved him.

Yes, the man was called to a costly discipleship in which he was to give up what he held most dear.

And he had his ideas about righteousness and blessing turned upside down – but it wasn’t some cruel whim.

Rather, Jesus was aiming to reset his priorities and get him into the kingdom.

And if the rich man had stayed long enough he might’ve been encouraged by Jesus saying that even though in human terms a rich person can’t get into God’s kingdom, for God all things are possible.

For Jesus isn’t in the business of making us feel bad about ourselves and just leaving us to it.

In fact, in the Bible making people feel guilty and doing nothing to help is the devil’s job.

Jesus is instead in the business of rescuing people who can’t save themselves.

We often think of this in terms of obvious sins, and bringing justice and help for the poor and vulnerable, because these are strong themes in the Bible.

But Jesus also loves the rich person who’s trapped by wealth in ways they might not even realise, and he comes to save them, and us, as well.

For Jesus looks at all of us and loves all of us enough to challenge us to our core.

Thanks be to God.

 

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Harvest, Wealth and Generosity

Joel 2.21-27 / 1 Timothy 6.6-10 / Matthew 6.25-33

 

Harvest is an important time of year, even though many of us don’t have much to do with farming these days and live mostly unaware of its rhythms and seasons.

Harvest is important because it encourages us to be thankful for the basic necessities of life: our food and drink.

It reminds us that we depend on the seasons and the weather, on soil and small insects, all designed to work in balance by our Creator God.

It reminds us that we depend on the hard work of farmers, packers, transporters and shop workers to receive the food we pick up so casually in the supermarket.

It encourages us to stop for a moment to remember and give thanks for both God’s provision and the networks of people who make it possible for us to have what we need, both of which we can easily forget as we dash into the shop on the way home.

It’s also a time of joy as we see once again how provides for not only us but all creatures and plants on the earth, and how we’re cared for and loved.

 

But today’s readings also take us beyond this to think about our relationship with wealth and possessions.

Both our second reading from 1 Timothy and the gospel reading tell us to be content with the basics of food and clothing.

So, we might ask, does this mean that we can’t enjoy the good things in life?

Must we feel bad if we have comfort, money and nice things?

Is God a killjoy?

Well, no, not really.

The trouble here is that both readings are presented to us without their contexts.

The way passages are set for reading in church does this sometimes and it can cause some problems.

 

The verse before our reading from 1 Timothy criticises people who have followed false teachings and think that religion is ‘a means of gain’.

They are people who are focused on gaining ever more wealth and possessions, and think of religion as a means of doing this.

I guess the closest we have to this in modern terms are those TV evangelists who promise that if only you send them some money and do what they say God will make you rich beyond your wildest dreams.

We, though, are to be people who hold wealth and possessions lightly.

Our focus is to be on God, not on anxiously striving to make ourselves ever richer.

We are to free ourselves from the relentless desire to have ever more, to be rid of the love of money that is described as ‘a root of all kinds of evil’, and instead to direct our love towards God.

For although money and possessions are not wrong in themselves, they come with the danger that we might become too caught up in them.

We might not remember that they are gifts from God and instead think that we have a right to everything we want.

We might lose our sense of gratitude and joy.

And in our desire to hold on tight to wealth we might forget to focus on what really matters: loving God and our neighbours with generosity and openness.

 

In a similar way Jesus’s words in the Gospel about God giving us what we need come just after he’s pointed out that we can’t serve both God and wealth.

Here he’s contrasting being possessed by God with being possessed by our possessions.

If we focus on what we have and want and think we should get, then our lives will be ordered to reflect those priorities.

We risk spending all our energies on aiming for a better car, a better house, designer clothes, the latest gadgets – because we think these are the most important things in life.

If we focus on always having more and better we may forget about our responsibility to care for the earth, to feed and clothe those in need, to ensure justice for the powerless, to protect the weak and vulnerable.

We might become blind to the effects of greed on the environment in terms of pollution and waste.

We might close our eyes to the people who live in poverty and work in harsh conditions to provide us with what we want.

And we may find ourselves consumed by worry about whether we have enough or if it might suddenly be taken away from us through some unseen disaster.

 

But, if we can reorder our priorities and focus on God, then wealth and possessions fall into their proper place.

They become good gifts from God that we can be thankful for and enjoy without desperately holding on to them.

And they became opportunities for us to use what we have to do good, knowing that as God gives to us he calls us to give to those around us.

For there are many people in need, many people in this country who must rely on food banks and charity to feed and clothe their families.

There are people in other countries, also, for whom war, disease and poverty mean a bad harvest and starvation.

If our focus is on God and his kingdom then our desire will be to follow his example of generosity, to share wealth rather than clinging on to it, to spread God’s goodness wherever and whenever we can.

In short, to strive first for God’s kingdom.

And if we trust in God rather than in wealth then we can relax, knowing that the God who cares for the smallest birds and flowers will understand our needs and care for us even more.

So yes, we can have good things, but Harvest reminds us to give thanks to the source of all good things, to remember our God and to be generous as he is generous.

Then we can be glad and rejoice, knowing that we have a loving and generous God, and we are his people.