St. Mary the Virgin
August 18, 2019
1 Corinthians 15:20-27, Luke 1:39-56
The Rev’d Charles W. Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
On Wednesday evenings, we have Evening Prayer here in the church, and inevitably, a group goes out to have a bite to eat and perhaps a drink or two. Depending on who goes, we occasionally end up talking about the liturgy in ways that 99% of the planet think are…well…a bit much. I always invite my husband Jay to come eat with us, and while he comes from time to time, I don’t blame him for yawning internally when we start debating whether we’re supposed to turn to the left or the right at the altar and how to properly hold our funny hats.
Likewise, I’m sure that most people (including most of you holy and pious men and women) would yawn and perhaps take a nap were the preacher to get into the nitty gritty’s of the theological implications of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s death. I mean, the details surrounding Mary’s death have been debated from time immemorial, especially since the Protestant Reformation. The name of today’s feast itself is controversial: the Eastern Church calls it “The Dormition [or falling asleep] of Mary” while the Roman Catholic Church calls it the Assumption of Mary. We Episcopalians, as we so often do, have chosen to be vague and simply call it “The Feast of St. Mary the Virgin.” The commonality across all of these is that today, we are commemorating her death.
What do we know of Mary’s death? Nothing from Scripture. But there’s plenty of pious legend surrounding her death from the earliest days of the Church. One account has to do with Mary’s girdle, and by girdle, I don’t mean the modern elasticized garment, I mean a cloth braided belt with a knot at the end, similar to this one. In this account, Mary’s body was assumed into heaven in the presence of all of the apostles except for Thomas who was off in India. Later, when the others told him what happened, he doubted and didn’t believe them, just as he hadn’t believed them earlier when they told him they’d seen Jesus after his resurrection. So Mary appeared to Thomas individually and dropped the girdle she wore at her Assumption down onto him to give him physical proof, just as Jesus had done when he invited Thomas to touch his wounds. Thomas saw and touched the girdle and believed. This apocryphal story presents Mary’s assumption into heaven as a mirroring of Jesus’s resurrection, which leads us to our epistle lesson from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.
The Church at Corinth was comprised mainly of Greek Christians, and the Greeks tended to think that the spirit was more important than the body. Some of this way of thinking had come into the Corinthian church, leading some to deny Jesus’s bodily resurrection. St. Paul didn’t mince words earlier in chapter 15 when he said, “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”
Paul says, “No.” Christ’s bodily resurrection not only happened, it’s essential to our faith. Death came from the Adam, the first human being who chose to be disobedient to God, and so the resurrection of the dead also comes from a human being, but this time, from one who committed no sin, Jesus Christ. Not only did was Christ raised from the dead, he will come again to hand over the kingdom to his Father, and to finally destroy evil and death. The destruction of evil and death by Christ at the last day will finally establish the Kingdom of God in its entirety, whereas now, we only experience it imperfectly. Just as Jesus has already entered into his kingdom through his resurrection, so too will we who follow him and enter the kingdom through a resurrection like his. Paul calls Jesus the first fruits of the dead, and links our resurrection to his. He was the first to be raised up, and we will follow.
And that, my friends, is the foundation of today’s feast. The Blessed Mother was not divine, she was a human being like you and me. And like us, her entry into God’s kingdom depends on Jesus’ resurrection. You and I have to wait until the Second Coming of Christ for our bodies to be raised, but Tradition says that Mary didn’t need to wait until the last day. As she was the first disciple of her Son – the first person to say “Yes” to his call – she is the first human being to follow her son in his resurrection. Her risen body is with Jesus’ risen body awaiting that day when all will be made right. Mary’s glory is a foretaste of our glory. Christ’s resurrection leads the way to our resurrection, and as our Blessed Mother was raised, so too will we be raised at the last day.
What will life be like when our bodies are raised, and God creates the new heavens and the new earth? In her song in the gospel of Luke, Mary tells us that in God’s kingdom, things are very, very different. Unlike our world, it’s not the powerful on their thrones, or the proud, or the rich who will be extolled and given a place of special honor. It’s the lowly, the humble, and the poor. In God’s kingdom, the first will be last, and the last will be first. Status won’t be measured by wealth and pride and fancy titles, but by humility, tenderness, forgiveness, and unconditional love.
While we have to wait until the last day to experience God’s kingdom in its fulness, in a moment, we will pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” as our Lord taught us. When we pray these words, we’re asking God to bring the values of his heavenly kingdom here to earth. To disrupt the value systems of this world. To bring heaven to earth. And we’re asking him to use us to accomplish this.
What does this look like for us at a parish church under the patronage of St. Mary in Kansas City in the year 2019?
Friends, we are called to proclaim the life, death, and yes…bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ in both word and deed. There is an unfortunate tendency amongst a subset of clergy in the Episcopal Church to say things like, “I believe in spiritual resurrection, but it doesn’t really matter if Jesus’s body rose from the dead.” Or, even worse, “Dead people don’t come back to life. If you believe in science, you can’t possibly believe in the resurrection.” Hear what Saint Paul saith: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.”
Like Mary, we are called to live out the incarnation of her Son by proclaiming the coming of His kingdom. And like Mary, we are not to live our lives thinking that this future kingdom of God is something we’re just twiddling our thumbs waiting for, it began to break into our world on that first Christmas night. When we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we are telling God and ourselves that we’re willing to forsake our own devices and desires and say yes to God. And praying the Lord’s Prayer means that we’re willing to trust that the Holy Spirit will give us everything we need to fill the hungry with good things and lift up the lowly.
St. Mary’s has a long history of feeding the hungry in our area via the food pantry and hot meal – a good and holy thing – but it is time that we intentionally discern how God is calling us to serve the least of these in Kansas City. To that end, our newly formed Social Justice Committee has met a couple of times and meets again in a few weeks. They’re exploring how we might engage in important issues such as prison ministry, racial reconciliation, LGBT rights, economic injustice, immigration issues, and so on. Please pray for them as they discern how God is leading our parish family to cast down the mighty and lift up the lowly in Kansas City and beyond. And then when their program is published, please pray about how God may be calling you to get involved.
Maybe next year for Mary Day, I’ll bore you to tears with the nitty gritty about whether Mary’s assumption was before or after her death and why that matters theologically. But for now, friends, let us follow the good example of the Blessed Virgin Mary in saying yes to her Son and boldly proclaiming God’s kingdom to a lost and broken world. And let us join with Christians throughout all generations in calling her blessed.
 1 Cor 15:12-14.
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!