Sermon for The Solemnity of the Annunciation – Fr Peter McGeary
The Annunciation of the Lord
To have been preached at All Saints Margaret Street, 25 March 2020, were it not for a virus
We are rather too good at using words, we Christians, and often they can be empty words, noise to fill the nervousness we feel at the apparent silence of God, or else window dressing to impress others. I think those of us who take Mary seriously can’t do that. Mary doesn’t talk much in the Gospels; she is very quiet. What she does do is trust God a lot: by obedience to his call, no matter how odd that call may be, and by steadfastness in his service.
And yet what does that mean? Maybe I can see that more immediately in the context where I live and serve, in the East End of London, in a little enclave of powerlessness and poverty, surround by the unimaginable wealth of others. Partly, of course, that has to do with the far from monochrome composition of my congregation and the parish as a whole. The sheer variety of expression and history represented among the Christian minority population can be bewildering – it’s certainly never boring – and means, paradoxically, that if the Church of England there is authentically to do its job – love and serve the people of the parish – then it must be prepared to be less and less Anglican in its assumptions and its practise. What that all really means is a daily puzzle!
This is a strange place, something the poet Emily Dickinson describes as ‘a not precisely knowing, and a not precisely knowing not / a beautiful but bleak condition.’ It is often hard to know what to do. The needs can be overwhelming, and it is dangerously easy to collapse into paralysis or despair. Our angels now come in strange guises, so it can be easy to miss them.
In August 1856 a young priest was invited to become the head of a mission at the heart of the London Docks, just down the road from where I live, a mission that was eventually to become the parish of St Peter’s London Docks. His name was Charles Lowder. He died on 9 September 1880, probably from overwork, and for the last few years the Church of England has commemorated him on this date.
The church of St Peter’s London Docks, like its founder, stood and stands for the values of the anglo-catholic movement: the use of ritual and colour to communicate something of the glory and transcendence of God, coupled with service of the poor and the needy. The mission Lowder headed did its best to provide basic education, a refuge for prostitutes, a hostel for homeless girls, night classes, parish clubs, coal for the poor, an insurance scheme for dockers, and so on.
Charles Lowder himself seems to have been quite a shy man. He was not the greatest of preachers, and the first years of his ministry in the London Docks seem to have been hard and unrewarding. It is possible that his parishioners mistook his shyness for disinterest or aloofness; we do not know. What we do know is that in July 1866, an apparently trivial event happened that became the stuff of legend. The day after the new church of St Peter was consecrated, cholera was discovered in the parish. Walking back down Wapping Lane to the clergy house after a long day in the parish, Lowder came across a sick young girl lying in the gutter. He picked her up in his arms, and carried her a mile or so to what was then called the London Hospital in Whitechapel, to receive treatment.
And the word got round. By that one simple act, Lowder converted his parish. Of course they did not all suddenly come to church on Sunday – that was and is a ludicrous expectation – but all of a sudden, the Church, the established Church of England, had credibility. The Church really cared, it did not just talk about caring. And from then on Charles Lowder was addressed as ‘Father Lowder’, becoming the first Church of England priest to be so addressed. And this was not because of anything to do with power or status or education, but rather humble, self-giving service. Father was called Father because he was family. The Lord had presented him with a call – in the form of a sick little girl – and he had answered.
We live in a time, ecclesiastically speaking, when we are in thrall to the latest strategy for growth or spiritual enrichment or mission – whatever that means. We speak the language of the boardroom and not the Gospels, in the hope that others will understand us more easily. And yet now of all times, what is required of us is humble, prayerful, costly service.
Maybe Mary, with her simplicity and her clarity, can speak to us again today, gently puncturing our pride and our cant and our self-delusion, reminding us of the importance of the small, the apparently inconsequential, challenging us to a rediscovery of first principles of the Gospel, of the primacy of love and service; and warning us against too much investment in the latest idea or strategy for growth or improvement, which can all too often cloak a subtle kind of pride or self-will.
Much modern reflection on Mary has focussed on her as ‘Mother of the Church’, which is a rather grand way of saying that she is an example to us all. We, like her, are called to trust in God. We, like her, are called to ‘give birth’ to Jesus, to make him present in some way by who we are and what we do. We may not end up carrying little children to hospital like Fr Lowder (although that is of course always possible), but we are called to service wherever we are, not because it makes us feel better or because it pays the diocesan quota, but because it’s the right thing to do under God.
We believe in a God who can work in and through human beings if they let him. And we look to Mary the Mother of Jesus in wonder, that in this young woman we are given an almost perfect example of human co-operation with divine grace. And we are thereby filled with hope, that human beings might be capable of such a thing. And as we sing our praises to God in her honour, we rededicate ourselves to his service.
And while we are doing that, may Mary, blessed among women, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.