How it all started


Sermon for March 25th, 2021


She was a young woman really. Now, we don’t know Mary’s exact age when she was greeted by the angelic visitor, but we can assume that she was probably in her teens; marrying age in the ancient world. She was already espoused or promised, but not yet married, to a man named Joseph. He was a good man, and it was probably a good match, but I doubt Mary had much say in the matter. Women typically didn’t back then. There were some notable women in the world that had great power and influence, sometimes on their own, sometimes through their husbands. One thinks naturally of Cleopatra or Livia, Augustine’s wife, famous for their power in the Roman Empire; and of course, there are quite a few strong women in scripture: Deborah the judge, Hannah the prophetess, Esther. But these women are really exceptions, aren’t they? The average woman in the ancient world going to the well for water would not have had much say over her own life. She would not have had power or influence. But if there is anything that our scriptures make incredibly clear, it is that when God is looking for someone that he can use to do amazing things in this world, he does not judge people the way we do. God does not see power the way that we see power.

We humans we look for external beauty; we look for strength; we look for youth, but not like real youth, not child-like youth; we look for supposedly prime-of-your-life youth, you know, mid to late twenties. Those are the people that we want to make heroes and superstars.

 I think it is remarkable that they are still making James Bond movies with Daniel Craig. He’s over 50 years old! By pop culture standards he’s a relic; but fortunately for him, he’s really strong, he’s really attractive, he’s really talented and he’s really a man. He’s not young anymore, but he ticks all the other boxes so he can be a hero. 

But when God is looking for a hero or a heroine, the scriptures make it very clear that God is not looking for the same things we are looking for. There is a power and a character inside of people, that is more important than muscles or money. Time and time again in our scriptures, God finds favor with people that the world doesn’t really have much use for, including a young, humble, unmarried Jewish girl from Palestine.

That was the angel’s message: Greetings favored one! God saw something in her that the rest of the world didn’t…at least, not yet. Of course Mary was terrified. She had every reason to be. Who would believe her story? What would happen to her? But as much as Mary was frightened by the angel’s message, it must have also been a powerful revelation to her. It was a revelation that in God’s eyes she was favored. In God’s eyes, she was important and powerful and gifted. The world gave Mary very little, but God was willing to give her everything. Everything. His own life. What a revelation that must have been. With all the rich and powerful and strong and influential people in the world, God wants me. God favors me. God wants to use me.

I imagine that Mary never forgot that moment of the Annunciation. Who could? Mary had felt the power of the angel’s message. Mary would have remembered how it felt, to be a young woman, insignificant in the world’s eyes, and to be told by a heavenly visitor that God wants you. The world may not see your value, but that doesn’t matter, because God does. God wants you. God favors you. God has a task for you. Mary knew exactly how it felt to be a young woman and to be given a message from God. 

So maybe it shouldn’t be a great surprise to us, that other young women, through Mary, would experience something similar. 

In the year 1061, a Saxon woman, a young widow by the name of Richeldis de Faverches, living in the region of Norfolk, England, had a vision. It was more than a vision really, because Richeldis didn’t just see the Virgin Mary, Mary transported Richeldis to her home in Nazareth where the Annunciation happened; to see the very home where our Lord was raised. Then Mary asked Richeldis to do something astounding. Build me a home here, she said. Build a copy of this holy house in England. And that is exactly what Richeldis did. In Walsingham, England, she built a replica of the house she had seen in her vision. Her son Geoffrey, would eventually have a priory built there. Pilgrims started coming, first just a handful and then by the thousands. It became one of the most important religious shrines in England, and it all started with a message from a heavenly visitor to a young woman. 

I don’t need to detail here the desecration that happened to Walsingham. King Henry’s commissioners did their worst; the shrine was torn down and the image of our Lady that had been an aid to devotion for so many, was either lost or destroyed. But we know that God, will not be so easily hindered. Stories and symbols are more durable than the wood and stone that they are carved into. After centuries of neglect, Walsingham, the shrine, the image and the story were all revived. The image of Our Lady of Walsingham now graces many churches, Anglican and Roman Catholic, and serves as an aid to devotion and a reminder of a sacred story; two sacred stories really: the story of Richeldis, and the story we tell tonight; the story of God using a faithful young woman to save the world. 

 Many of you know that the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham here in our shrine was brought back from Walsingham by pilgrims from this parish in 2015. She’s more than just wood and paint you know. Yes, I know that we don’t worship statues as God; that is idolatry. God is not contained in this little statue, we know that; but when I look at her, or when I touch her to move her, I feel connected to all those people who have come before me, like Richeldis, like the pilgrims that traveled to her shrine; I feel connected to all those who have heard the story about how God uses the most unlikely people to work his wonders in the world; I feel connected to those who had the faith to believe in heavenly messages when they are given. We are a part of that story too.

Do you think these miraculous things only happen in the ancient world? Are these stories just about medieval knights and damsels? Are they just fairy tales? No. The God that sent the angel to the Virgin Mary, the God that inspired the lady Richeldis to build a replica of Mary’s house, that God is still alive and well in the world, even today. We may look for ways to dismiss his messages and his mysteries; we may think that we no longer need God, but God is still speaking. Time and time again, humans have tried to drown out God’s voice. We have torn down churches and temples; we have tried to dismiss these religious experiences as superstition or hallucinations, but like the crocuses in the garden that are coming up anew, these heavenly visitors, these experiences of divine revelation, they keep coming back. God will not be so easily hindered by the unbelief of man. 

You know, we Anglicans talk a lot about the destruction that happened with the English reformation, with the monasteries being suppressed, shrines like Walsingham being torn down, and massive disruption in the life of the church. But England isn’t the only place that happened you know. In France, during the French Revolution, the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was desecrated and rededicated to the “cult of reason.” Church property was confiscated, monasteries were closed, and the government set about trying to remove this superstition called Christianity from the land. But God will not be so easily hindered. God finds power in the most unexpected and unlikely places. 

On the 11th of February in the year 1858, a 14-year-old peasant girl named Bernadette Soubirous was out gathering firewood with her sisters near their village in the South of France. Just on the other side of the river, in what was then the town dump, Bernadette had a vision. Behind a wild rose growing in this stone grotto in the side of the hill, she saw a bright light and a figure dressed in white…a lady. The lady asked her to pray, which of course she did. The lady asked her to come back, which Bernadette did. The lady asked her to dig a spring and to drink the water from it; Bernadette did that too. Bernadette saw the lady many times. Others began to join Bernadette in her prayers, first a few, then many, many more. The Lady asked Bernadette to go to the priests and ask them to come and build a chapel there. Bernadette did that too. Today it is one of the most visited and popular shrines in the world, and it all started with a message from a heavenly visitor to a young woman. Today, the sick go to bathe in the waters from the same spring that Bernadette dug, the faithful gather in the same grotto to pray where Bernadette prayed, mass is said in the same glorious chapel built on the hill that the lady asked Bernadette to have built. How many lives have been touched by those two little hands that the world thought were barely good enough to fetch firewood? Bernadette went to that grotto looking for something to light a fire, and did she ever find it! Only it wasn’t a bunch of dried wood; it was a story and a message. And every day, every day thousands of people, of every language and nationality gather there, in that spot with flames in their hands, and the words they sing tell the story of how it all started with a message from a heavenly visitor to a young woman: Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.