St Mary's Day

August 14, 2016
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My granddaughter was sitting on my lap when I read her a bedtime story.

From time to time, she would take her eyes off the book and reach up to touch my increasingly wrinkled neck . She was alternately stroking her own neck, then mine again. Finally she spoke up, 'Poppa, did God make you?'

'Yes, darling,' I answered, 'God made me a long time ago.'

'Oh,' She paused, 'Poppa, did God make me too?'

'Yes, indeed,' I said, 'God made you just a little while ago.'

Feeling their respective faces and neck again, my little grand daughter observed, 'God's getting better at it, isn't he?'

Out of the mouths of children!!

You know I am so blessed that I have grandchildren. They are ages 3,4 and 13 and of course I just love them to pieces [that's a funny way we put it isn't it...I reckon  I love you to pieces means that if you were broken up into a million pieces I would love every single one. Every aspect of you. Everything that makes you "you" I absolutely love.]

Jesus rebuked the disciples when they kept youngsters away from him. 'Suffer the little children to come unto me, and do not refuse them, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven'. There are few of us who are not moved, feel protective and care for the well-being of our children,. And if we don't have children of our own, nevertheless we care about others with a deep sense of protective care..

Today we honour a mother, a mother whose child was born into the most dangerous of circumstances, a young woman, likely a teenager, bearing a baby conceived out of wedlock, with all the connotations that went around that in a small village where everyone would know everyone's business [just imagine the nasty gossip that she would have had to put up with and all based on a supposed amazing revelation from an angel...was she mad?] A young woman who is so filled with the presence of God, literally, that she can proclaim one of the most revolutionary songs of praise of God's purpose and demonstration, God who is on the side of the marginalised and oppressed, the poor and all who are treated with deep injustice – such a radical song that in some South American countries it was banned!

A brave young woman who with Joseph, who rises above any doubts he might have to be the foster father of the Son of God, a woman who gives birth in a shed because either there was no room, or no one would make room for her of such disrepute, who has to flee to Egypt as a refugee. This is the mother who decides her son is mad and takes his brothers to sort him out (Mk 3:21)? This is Mary the mother who searches endlessly for the lost 12-year-old Jesus and really lays into him when she finds him and promptly bundles him back off to Nazareth.

When and if you come this evening to Ailsa''s ordination I'll be saying more about this extraordinary woman

And yet the image of Mary over the centuries has been one of Mary the meek and passive vessel. It is an image in olden times and in many places still today seeks to confirm the superiority of male authority, where women were treated as possessions. You know that the Book of Common Prayer wedding service dating back to 1662 has the line when the vicar asks ;'who givest this woman to be married to this man', and the bride's father says 'I do' and will take her hand and give it to the groom. We might have put different connotations on it in later years, but in fact this was a property transaction where a woman was passed from the ownership of one man to another. It was in such a culture that Mary lived.

We don't know, or at least I don't know what the early settlers were thinking of when they made Mary the patron of this church nearly 170 years ago. You'd have thought it would have been St Michael the archangel considering that the 29th September, Michael's feast day was the the day when the first service was held in our cathedral. But no, it was Mary they chose.

From psalm 127.

Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labour in vain.  Psalm 127.1

I suspect the settlers were thinking more of Mary's maternal qualities as nurturer and carer, the soft and vital skills of motherhood in a world where tough macho roughness reigned. Mary offered a sense of succour in this harsh world of early European settlement. Fair enough for clearly she was an exemplary mother. But certainly not meek and passive.

Gill Lovell, a priest in the diocese of Oxford in England has pondered on this and describes a striking sculpture of Mary outside Salisbury Cathedral. She says; 'It is of a peasant woman, strong with all her physical work, tough with bringing up many children and being widowed at a young age; not physically beautiful, but with a dignity which shines out from her that’s far more enduring than a pretty face. Is this closer to the real Mary? This is the sort of woman I can relate to' she says,' not a wee quiet wimp looking adoringly at a child from morning till night; but is a real mother with a tough life. We can see this woman, as the priest Simeon prophesied, being able to endure the sword that will pierce her own heart when her son is betrayed, abandoned and murdered.'

Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labour in vain.  Psalm 127.1

We are the inheritors of the traditions and the story that is embedded in the walls of our cathedral. Here over all these years the prayers and the yearnings, the tears and the laughter of countless people are soaked into the very stones. The anguish and the fear in early days, the militarism and the jingoism of empire and conquest are part of us. The marking of birth marriage and death for so many Taranaki families.

The recognition of wrong and need for restitution and reconciliation are now increasingly part of our journey, of our story.

The pain of loss, at least in the short term of our beautiful building has been tough to face. And now the determination and the resilience of this community, the delight we are finding in worshipping in this interim space with its easy closeness and slightly chaotic atmosphere is bringing us joy and refreshment, and the deep hope and trust we have in our emerging future is now driving us.

Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labour in vain.  Psalm 127.1

It is a future that will acknowledge and build on our past and with this extraordinary opportunity in this time of pause while we get our cathedral re mediated, we will seek out future purpose and roll not only as the mother church of this diocese and a strong and vibrant worshipping community, but also the place where the city comes to celebrate and grieve, where we see our responsibility with joy to engage with the issues of the city, to minister to the needs of the people of our city and province [what a wonderful care you have shown in response to June's appeal last Sunday], to be a place of welcome to people of all faiths and none. This is an iconic symbol of the birth and the growth, both good and ill, of this city and province, and it will continue to be so as we build our future.

I pray that we will gain inspiration from our patron, Mary the mother of God, and work together with grace, courage and openness to one another as we seek to be Thə people God has called us to be, and to do the things that God wants us to do.

Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labour in vain.  Psalm 127.1

Almighty God,
to whose glory we celebrate the dedication
of this house of prayer:
we praise you for the many blessings
you have given to those who worship you here:
and we pray that all who seek you in this place may find you,
and, being filled with the Holy Spirit,
may become a living temple acceptable to you;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

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