Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary 2014
15 August 2014 at 17:00 pm
The Reverend Tony Kyriakides, Chaplain
Let's say you are God. Who would you choose to change the world: a powerful woman, a world leader like Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, or Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the Prime Minister of Denmark, or Sheikh Hasina Wajed, the Bangladeshi Prime Minister?
Or would you choose Claudette Colvin?
Colvin was a fifteen-year-old black American student in Montgomery, Alabama, when, on 2nd March 1955, she was sitting in the segregated 'coloureds' section of the bus as she returned home from school. The bus was crowded and all the 'white' seats were taken. The law was clear: if a white person was going to have to stand, African Americans were the ones who had to give up their seats and stand at the back of the bus. When a white woman got on the bus and had to stand, the bus driver ordered Colvin, along with two other black passengers, to give up their seats. She refused and was arrested by two police officers who handcuffed her and removed her from the bus.
What I find particularly interesting is that this took place in March 1955, nine months before the better known Rosa Parks incident. Perhaps you recall that it was Rosa Parks who refused to give up her seat on a bus which sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Rosa Parks's act of defiance became the all-important symbol of the modern American Civil Rights Movement.
Of course, it didn't just happen by chance. Lawyers had been waiting for a test case to challenge bus segregation and so the question I find interesting is this: Why did they choose Parks and not Colvin? Was it because Parks was forty-two and a civil rights activist, not a girl of fifteen? Or was it because that, soon after her arrest, Colvin became pregnant by a much older, married man, an event which, later, she described as 'statutory rape, but back then it was just the kind of thing that happened'.
Local black leaders considered Colvin's pregnancy a moral transgression that would scandalize the deeply religious black community and make Colvin suspect in the eyes of sympathetic whites. They believed that the white press would manipulate Colvin's illegitimate pregnancy as a means of undermining both her victim status and any subsequent boycott of the bus company. Or was it simply that the civil rights leaders were predominantly middle class and uneasy with Colvin's working class background?
In 1956, Colvin gave birth to a son, Raymond. She never married and her son died at thirty-seven.
A teenage pregnancy and a son who dies in his thirties: perhaps that sounds familiar.
When God decides to change the world, he starts with Nazareth (a town so obscure that no-one had ever written about it), in Galilee (a provincial backwater that most people ignored), and he chooses Mary, a teenager who, just like Claudette Colvin, is not the obvious person for the job. Surely God should have gone for a Rosa Parks! But that's not the way God does things. God chose Mary.
And how does she respond?
She praises God because God has noticed her despite the fact that she's a nothing, a nobody, a person of low estate. Yet in choosing her, God is doing what God has always done.
God is always looking out for the humiliated, the oppressed, the marginalised, the hungry ones who have nothing to lose. He doesn't go for the proud, the powerful, the rich. If anything, God brings them down, evicts them from their places of wealth and status and self-sufficiency because too often they display an arrogance and a misplaced self-confidence. Such people may assume that they can do without God.
God's choice of Mary is much like his choice of Abraham, a nomadic Chaldean sheepherder; a person of such insignificance that archaeologists reckon they'll probably never find any evidence that he even existed. God chose Abraham and told him that his descendants would become a nation of substance and importance. Why? Not because Abraham figured in the Time's list of the world's richest people, but because Abraham recognized his total reliance on God. Abraham approached God with awe or what is sometimes expressed as 'fear of God'.
Fear of God: that feeling of being overwhelmed by a reality greater than ourselves and greater than anything we will ever experience. The twentieth-century theologian, Rudolph Otto, called it the holy, the numinous: a power entirely removed from ordinary life; a power which evokes a profound sense of awe; and finally a power which we know intuitively to be merciful and gracious.
Fearing God is to live life with a trembling awareness that life has meaning, that the choices you and I make have consequences of ultimate significance. To 'fear' God means to hold within ourselves an awareness of the divine Presence which surrounds us at all times. When we fear God in this way we would never say, 'It doesn't matter because no one will ever know.' To live with such an awareness, this 'fear of God' is itself a profound and spiritual experience.
God chose Mary because she feared God.
And when God did that, God did exactly what God always does, and what God promises always to do. God chose then, and chooses today, the foolish, the weak, the despised, so that no-one can boast about their self-sufficiency. This is what we need to hear and to understand today.
Maybe you're feeling powerless. Maybe you're feeling foolish. Maybe you're feeling ridiculed. Maybe you're feeling you're a nobody. If that's the case, Mary would affirm you, because God chooses people like you. If you respect God, if you fear God, then God will respond with compassion and understanding. God will lift you up, God will fill you with good things. In Jesus, Mary's son, we see first-hand evidence of what this means.
But then again, maybe you don't feel like that. Maybe you're proud, maybe you're powerful, maybe you're rich. Then, for you the news isn't so good, because God scatters those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He brings down the powerful, he sends the rich away empty.
Yet don't despair. Mary's song can still speak to you because it says this: 'change'.
Come before God with fear and change! Come before God with the realization that however rich you think you are, you are bankrupt in God's sight; that however clever you think you are, you are a complete fool before God; that however powerful think you are, you are powerless before God. Recognise that and you will be ready to listen to God.
But more likely, and probably like me, you're a mixture of both. Maybe you need to hear that where you are weak God is longing to bless you and to build you up, but where you feel strong and self-sufficient, he will dismantle, demolish, and dissemble your pride in order for you to trust in him and him alone.
God chose a nobody like Mary, the Claudette Colvin of Nazareth, because she feared God.
Can the same be said of you or, for that matter, of me?