14th August 2022. St Mary’s Cathedral – Lifting up the Lowly (The Assumption)
Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 1.46-55
Three weeks ago, Clare and I were sent off, from this Cathedral church, with prayers and blessings for the experience that lay ahead of us. We were to attend the Lambeth Conference, a gathering of bishops and spouses from the Anglican Communion, which stretches across 165 countries and speaks many many languages. There were about 1000 people in all, gathered at the University of Kent in Canterbury. It had been 14 years since the Conference had last taken place.
We left Edinburgh with some trepidation, not sure what was in store for us, we return enlarged by an experience in which God really was magnified, ‘bigged-up’, given glory – sharing more completely Mary’s great vision of God’s purposes for this world, in which the lowly are lifted up and the hungry filled with good things.
Before we left, I met with some younger members of this congregation and I asked them what I should bear in mind as I attended the conference. One young man wished that we could make worship less boring. Perhaps the crucifer might throw the cross high in the air and catch it during the procession, or perhaps we might introduce interval entertainment during our services. There was none of that in Canterbury, I confess, but I think he might have enjoyed the quality of the music on offer, including a group of Zimbabwean singers chanting, dancing and drumming as they led us in praise.
Other young members underlined the need for our church to take the climate crisis more seriously, to address racial injustices and the consequences of British colonialism, to find ways of resolving economic inequalities, reconciling conflicts and embracing diversity, not least around sexuality. I’m pleased to say that we made progress in all these areas and whilst words are not the same as actions, I really believe that everyone returned home with a clearer sense of how they and their churches might work with God to transform this world.
But change can be costly, even within a Christian communion celebrating its oneness in Christ. What some might embrace as a sign of God’s new creation, others may see as betokening a church led astray from the true gospel. The majority of churches in the Anglican Communion, for example, hold that only a man and a woman may marry in God’s sight. But some provinces, including the Scottish Episcopal Church, contain those convinced that God has led us to discover that a covenanted, faithful, lifelong marriage between people of the same gender may also be holy and God-given. Several countries were absent from Lambeth because they took exception to this, and the bishops of South Sudan, whilst very much present, refused to take communion at the daily Eucharist.
Costly. At the concluding Eucharist in Canterbury Cathedral, I returned to my seat and found one bishop who had resolutely remained in his place. I reached out my hand. Our hands clasped, our eyes met, ‘Peace be with you,’ I said. It was a deeply emotional moment, certainly for me and I imagine for him too. He had felt excluded (or excluded himself, it doesn’t matter which) because of something I (and my part of God’s church) had done. We who should have been united in Christ, who over 10 days had enjoyed so much together, were unable to approach the table of Christ side by side. We who so longed to be faithful to Christ had divided Christ. That God holds us still in unity is not in doubt, but we can’t pretend that such unity is easily won; it is costly to Christ and, therefore, costly to Christ’s people.
Mary’s song was sung in joy that God had chosen her, a lowly and obscure young woman, to give birth to hope for the world. But she soon learned that such hope can pierce one’s soul, and thirty years later, or so, she discovered that God’s promise to turn the world upside down can demand everything of us. At Lambeth, surrounded by our sisters and brothers of the ‘two-thirds world’, where faith somehow flourishes in the face of daily persecution, grinding poverty, almost unimaginable hardship, rejection and exile we found ourselves called to account by Mary and her Magnificat.
It is true, you know, God does lift up the lowly. I think of Daniel, one of the ‘lost boys’ of Sudan, stolen from his family and never returned, escaping to refuge in Ethiopia only to be exiled again, finding his way after much hardship to a refugee camp in Kenya. In all this, God was very present to him. He was ordained in that camp, met Rachael, herself separated from her family by the civil war, and they married. Further exile to Australia, where Rachael earns a living as a cleaner to care for their seven children, and now Daniel is a bishop in his home country, South Sudan, a land of terror and political corruption, and thankful to be reunited with Rachael for a while at a university campus in Kent.
At Lambeth every day we celebrated such stories of fortitude, faithfulness, Godly blessings showered on the lowly, and we Westerners, so secure in our wealth, found ourselves wondering where we fitted into Mary’s song – amongst the lowly, or the rich who are sent empty away. There is an unavoidable poignancy to St Paul’s words (in our first reading), telling us that we are no longer slaves but children, redeemed by God’s Son, born of a woman, when those words are heard in company with people whose countries still suffer the economic consequences of the slave trade.
This isn’t about wallowing in guilt. Guilt, important though it is as a moral barometer, is most often an unproductive emotion. We are who we are, and we are faced with living faithfully in the culture we have inherited. I suppose what I’m saying is that two weeks in a global gathering has taught me all over again what it means to be connected, to be part of one human race. And whilst we, certainly, have monetary riches and these riches can be transformative when shared with those living in abject poverty, in the end it is only money. And the riches we receive in return from our brothers and sisters serving God in the church, in our church, in places far distant from us, are immeasurable – riches stored up in heaven where moth and rust, inflation and interest rates cannot destroy.
This feast of St Mary is often described as the Assumption. Some parts of the church hold that Mary was lifted up body and soul into heaven at her departure from this world. We don’t need to believe that, however, to recognize that in the mother of our Lord we see the lowly lifted up, we see the intimations of the glory that awaits us all. Glory that even now we glimpse, even in this broken and breaking world, even in our disunity and our negligence of God’s gifts. Glory Clare and I were privileged to encounter at the Lambeth Conference, in meal queues and bible studies, and in the touch and the glance of those with whom we disagreed. Glory all of us encounter every day, if our eyes are open to see, glory in our gathering here, glory in the bread we share, glory in the music and laughter, the art and drama of this festival city, glory in the exuberance of a child, glory in the slow passing of life in the dying.
Hard won glory sometimes, costly glory, but glory nonetheless for, as Mary understood, in all this we may discern and proclaim the greatness of God.