Daily Devotions from the United Reformed Church
Service for Sunday 15th August
Photo Credit: Rafik Wahba, Unsplash
The Rev’d Andy Braunston
Thinking About Mary
Hello. My name is Andy Braunston, I work with four URC congregations in and around Glasgow in Scotland’s Central Belt. I also co-ordinate the Daily Devotions from the URC. Today much of the Christian Church thinks about Mary, the mother of Jesus and celebrates either the end of her life (in Orthodox churches) or, in Catholic Churches her assumption into heaven. Most Protestants only pay attention to Mary at Christmas – where she plays a central place in the narrative. Today we’re going to think a little more about her and her part in Jesus’ life. So let’s start our service.
Call to Worship
Come before the Lord with joyful songs, because God is good and generous, because we lack nothing. Let us enter God’s gates with thanksgiving and God’s courts with praise.
Serve the Lord with gladness, because of God’s greatness and justice,
because God puts an end to war, and to all forms of violence. Let us enter God’s gates with thanksgiving and God’s courts with praise.
Come before the Lord with joy because God is a faithful promises keeper;
God’s Word is eternal. Let us enter God’s gates with thanksgiving and God’s courts with praise.
Know that the Lord is God, and we are God’s own people, a community, the family of God. Let us enter God’s gates with thanksgiving and God’s courts with praise.
It is God who has made us to the praise of the Holy Name, and therefore today, in the same spirit, we have a festival to celebrate God’s peace. Let us enter God’s gates with thanksgiving and God’s courts with praise.
Hymn Tell Out My Soul
Timothy Dudley-Smith (born 1926) BBC Songs of Praise
Tell out, my soul,
the greatness of the Lord!
give my spirit voice;
tender to me
the promise of his word –
in God my Saviour
shall my heart rejoice.
2: Tell out, my soul,
the greatness of his name!
Make known his might,
the deeds his arm has done;
his mercy sure,
from age to age the same –
his holy name:
the Lord, the Mighty One.
3: Tell out, my soul,
the greatness of his might!
Powers and dominions
lay their glory by;
proud hearts and
stubborn wills are put to flight,
the hungry fed,
the humble lifted high.
4: Tell out, my soul,
the glories of his word!
Firm is his promise,
and his mercy sure:
tell out, my soul,
the greatness of the Lord
to children’s children
and for evermore!
Prayers of Approach, Confession, and Forgiveness
O God, from all eternity you chose your people to be a light to the nations, to proclaim your justice, to show humanity a better way.
From them you chose Mary to bear, nurture and raise Jesus, to protect him when he was in danger, to teach him to pray, to tend him as he grew, and to show a mother’s tender love.
O God from all eternity you chose us, to be a light to others, to embody your justice, to show love and care to all creation. You call us to care for and nurture our world, our children and those who are in need of love and care. Help us to show a motherly tender love.
And yet, O God, often we ignore You. Often we love evil not justice, often we turn away from the good towards the convenient, and fail to protect those in danger. Forgive us, O God, remind us of your better way, and give us time to change. Amen.
The Lord is merciful, and full of compassion, in Jesus Christ He came to us to show us the way, and to call us to turn away from sin. Know that we are forgiven, so have the courage to forgive yourselves. Amen.
A Little About Mary
I suspect most of us don’t think much about Mary – our churches don’t have statues of her – or if they do they are part of a nativity set! We don’t sing many hymns about her, apart from at Christmas or, maybe at Easter. We know she is central to the story but other than in the Christmas narratives or in John’s Passion narrative often read on Good Friday we really don’t think much about her. Catholic and Orthodox Christians, and many Anglicans, pay more attention to Mary in ways that, sometimes, make Reformed types quite nervous. Pope John XXXIII famously said the Madonna is not happy when put above her son in an attempt to moderate some Catholic excesses but perhaps we go too far the other way and ignore her part in the story. After all her obedience led to the Incarnation. It was with her and Joseph that Jesus sought asylum in Egypt, it was at her knee that he learned his faith and how to pray. Her song, labelled by the Church as the Magnificat, is radical and clearly influenced Jesus’ own politics. In the Gospels she was snubbed by Jesus yet stood by Him as he died on the Cross when he, concerned for her, asked His beloved disciple to care for her. In Acts she is mentioned as part of the group of apostles who had seen Jesus ascend to heaven and there’s an implication she was with the apostles at Pentecost. Many people think the woman in Revelation clothed with the sun, standing on the moon with a crown of stars was Mary as she brought forth a child who was to rule over the nations. Though it’s hard to know what the writer of Revelation had in mind. The Catholic emphasis on Mary led the Reformers to be suspicious of any attention paid to her which has left us a little impoverished as we can ignore a powerful woman at the heart of the narrative.
Prayer of Illumination
Open our hearts and minds, O God, that we as we hear the reading and sermon, we may, within them, discern your word for us, that we may listen, understand, and change. Amen.
Reading St Luke 1: 39 – 56
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.
Hymn Sing of A Girl
Br Damian Lundy (1944-1997) Choir of SS Peter, Paul Wantage from Oxon, England
from the Album Walsingham Way
Sing of a girl
in the ripening wheat,
flow’rs in her hand,
the sun in her hair.
All the world
will run to her feet
for the child
that mother will bear.
2: Sing of a girl
that the angels surround,
dust in her hand,
and straw in her hair.
Kings and their crowns
will fall to the ground
before the child
that mother will bear.
3: Sing of a girl
on a hillside alone,
blood on her hand,
and grey in her hair.
Sing of a body
broken and torn.
Oh, the child
that mother will bear!
4: Sing of the girl
that a new man will meet,
hand in his hand,
the wind in her hair.
Joy will rise
as golden as wheat
with the child
that mother will bear.
5: Sing of a girl
in a circle of love,
fire on her head,
the light in her hair.
Sing of the hearts
the Spirit will move
to love the child
that mother will bear!
6: Sing of a girl
who will never grow old,
joy in her eyes
and gold in her hair.
Through the ages
we will be told
of the child
that mother will bear.
Religious art has always been a feature of Christianity. For much of our history we’ve not been troubled too much by the commandment about graven images – in the Eastern Church this is interpreted as not making statues instead icons abound. Even in Reformed Churches we might have art or, at Christmas, some statues come out for the nativity scene. The wonderful thing about art is that a variety of images of a person or scene can be created which can enrich our understanding of a story or person – we all remember nativity plays after all; yet, at the same time, art can limited those understandings.
Art which tries to depict Mary, the mother of Jesus often follows a familiar line. With downcast eyes Mary is made to look meek, her hands are often enfolded in the safety of prayer, milky white skin – with a few Black Madonna exceptions make Mary look like she was more likely to come from Kent than Palestine. Even the way that Mary is referred to is often problematic, the titles ‘The Virgin Mary’ or ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary’ focuses only on one part of the story. It’s never ‘The Widow Mary’, ‘Valiant Mary’, ‘Brave Mary’, and never ever ‘Mary, Mother of the Revolution’. The Church has through art and naming made Mary safe. In part it has done this to try and point to good doctrine.
In the earliest Church the first believers had to reconcile the fact that as good Jews they believed God is one and there is only one God. Unlike Roman and Greek society, Jews were monotheistic. They did not take part in the imperial cult with the myriad number of different gods and goddesses. Alone in the Roman controlled ancient world the Jews were allowed to practice their faith without any compromise with Roman ideas. Yet the first Christians also believed that Jesus was Lord, Jesus was God made flesh. This put them outside of the protection afforded to Jews and outside the Jewish faith. As the years passed the way to assert this specialness of Jesus was bound up in Mary conceiving Jesus through divine intervention. Mary’s virginity came to be bound up with Jesus’ divinity and so the emphasis turned to the specialness of Mary in order to support Jesus’ uniqueness. Of focussing on just one aspect of Mary’s story made her memory easier to control.
Today’s reading from the first Chapter of St Luke gives us an insight into how Mary was seen by the earliest Christians. Her song echoes that of Hannah, the mother of Samuel, in the Old Testament – a song Mary would have been familiar with – and is deeply radical. Having said yes to God Mary had endangered herself. Women who fell pregnant outside marriage could have been stoned to death – she’d been betrothed to Joseph so any pregnancy that he didn’t own would be seen as adultery. By saying yes to God she risked not only Joseph’s wrath but shame and mortal danger. Even if he had divorced her quietly she’d have had to live with the shame and who knows if her parents would have thrown her out onto the streets. Saying yes to God could have cost Mary everything and in today’s reading we see her mettle.
She sees her lowliness – a humble girl in Palestine chosen by the Almighty to bear the long promised Messiah – yet knows that all generations will call her blessed. Then she reflects on what she knows of God – the God who shows forth both strength and mercy, the one who scatters the proud, who brings down the powerful from their thrones and raises up the lowly. Remember Mary saw herself as lowly so she saw herself as being lifted by God over the powerful! She knows the God who fills the hungry with good things yet sends the rich away empty. This is the God that Mary praised, the God who had made good on the ancient promises made to her forebears.
These are revolutionary words hidden in plain sight in the Bible. Of course the Church has helped hide them by having them sung every evening in monastic houses and in parish churches. Singing them can obscure their meaning if the tunes aren’t very gripping. Reciting the words can lose their power if the translation is archaic. Familiarity can turn the words into simple repetition. It suits the powerful to hide these revolutionary words in plain sight – after all these words weren’t proclaimed in their interests! These words are a rallying cry to the poor, the dispossessed, the lowly, those whom the world ignores. This passage has the longest speech recorded of Mary and gives an insight into how she might have taught Jesus. No wonder he was so welcoming of the outcast, no wonder he noticed and spent time with women seeing their dignity and worth, no wonder he was moved with pity by the woman the men wanted to kill for adultery. With a mother like this we can see the ideas that Mary brought out from Scripture as she taught Jesus.
Later in the Gospels we have a glimpse of worried Mary when Jesus had been missed when their group of pilgrims returned home and they found him in the Temple. We have a vision of a very human mother who was probably, if only momentarily, furious with Jesus. Later again we have Jesus being very abrupt when Mary and Jesus siblings try to see him when he’s busy teaching. We see Mary again at the end of Jesus’ life when she stands at the Cross – an image again depicted in art as she watches him slowly die, helpless, eaten with grief. We’re not sure if “the other Mary” mentioned by Matthew as being a witness of the resurrection is Jesus’ mother yet Luke mentions Mary as being present at the Ascension and implies she was present at Pentecost.
So what can we do with these Biblical stories of Mary?
First, we need to see Mary as she really was – feisty, able to conquer her fears, unafraid to say ‘yes’ to God. We could use her example to inform our own discipleship. Are we feisty? Are we able to say ‘yes’ to God regardless of the cost as Mary was?
Second, we need to remove the patriarchal crown which has made her safe and reduced her to merely being a womb which bore Jesus. In doing so we challenge the way the Church has, all too often, reduced all women to a biological function. If Mary is deemed to be meek and obedient then other women were frequently told to follow her example. Instead we should be encouraging our younger women (and older ones too!) to challenge the status quo, to remember how God turns the tables, and proclaim a different world where those deemed lowly are lifted up.
Third, we might use her example to see how love remains constant despite tough times. I wonder how Mary felt when Jesus cut her and his siblings when they came to see him. I wonder what strength Mary had as she stood at the Cross watching Him die. How do we call forth such love when we are in our darkest hours? How do we stand by those who journey through Hell when there is nothing else we can do? In this Mary’s example is one for us to follow.
And, finally, how do we live those revolutionary words of Mary – not just sing them (to either dull or lively tunes) but to truly live them. How do we live as if the hungry are filled with good things whilst the rich are sent empty away? How do we live as if the powerful are removed from their thrones whilst the poor and lowly are lifted up? Of course we support the foodbanks. Of course we rejoice when tyrants and despots fall. I wonder how uncomfortable we get when the Church seeks the fall of despots, when the Church speaks out against hunger and oppression, when the Church demands we act? Perhaps there are reasons, after all, why Mary has been kept safe for so long. Will you pray with me?
Holy One, you chose Mary to be your bearer; you knew her strength, her anger, and her determination, yet over the years we’ve ignored her example, her words, and her grit, help us to live as if her words are true, help us to feed the poor, remind us the rich will be sent empty away, help us drive tyrants from their thrones, and to use our privilege to bring about the change which your mother sung about, for the world is about to change. Amen.
Hymn: Canticle of the Turning
Rory Cooney © 1990, GIA Publications, Inc. Sung by Gary Daigle, Rory Cooney & Theresa Donohoo from the album “Safety Harbor”.
that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings
of the wondrous things
that you bring
to the ones who wait.
You fixed your sight
on your servant’s plight,
and my weakness
you did not spurn,
So from east to west
shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?
2. Though I am small,
my God, my all,
you work great things in me,
And your mercy will last
from the depths of the past
to the end of the age to be.
Your very name
puts the proud to shame,
and to those
who would for you yearn,
You will show your might,
put the strong to flight,
for the world is about to turn.
My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
and the world is about to turn!
to the fortress tower,
not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware
for your justice tears
ev’ry tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor
shall weep no more,
for the food
they can never earn;
There are tables spread,
ev’ry mouth be fed,
for the world is about to turn.
4. Though the nations rage
from age to age,
we remember who holds us fast:
God’s mercy must deliver us
from the conqueror’s
His saving word
that our forebears heard
is the promise
which holds us bound,
‘Til the spear and rod
can be crushed by God,
who is turning the world around.
Affirmation of Faith
We believe in the one and only God, Eternal Trinity, from whom, through whom and for whom all created things exist. God alone we worship;
in God we put our trust.
We worship God, source and sustainer of creation, whom Jesus called Father, whose sons and daughters we are.
We worship God revealed in Jesus Christ, the eternal Word of God made flesh; who lived our human life, died for sinners on the cross; who was raised from the dead, and proclaimed by the apostles, Son of God; who lives eternally, as saviour and sovereign, coming in judgement and mercy, to bring us to eternal life.
We worship God, ever present in the Holy Spirit; who brings this Gospel to fruition, assures us of forgiveness, strengthens us to do God’s will,
and makes us sisters and brothers of Jesus, sons and daughters of God.
We believe in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, united in heaven and on earth: on earth, the Body of Christ, empowered by the Spirit to glorify God and to serve humanity; in heaven, eternally one with the power, the wisdom and the love of God in Trinity.
We believe that, in the fullness of time, God will renew and gather in one all things in heaven and on earth through Christ, and be perfectly honoured and adored.
We rejoice in God who has given us being, who shares our humanity to bring us to glory, our source of prayer and power of praise; to whom be glory, praise and adoration, now and evermore. Amen
O God, You created humanity in Your own image,
yet we often despise that which You’ve made.
Help us to cherish Your creation –
the planet with its teeming variety,
the life which sustains us,
the diversity with inspires us.
Help us, also, to love ourselves as being made in Your image,
to see our bodies as Your temple,
and to value humanity in all its diversity.
Forgive us when we’ve when we’ve colluded with sexism,
when we’ve assumed roles based on gender which cause harm
to ourselves and to others.
O God, You chose a woman to be an essential part of your saving plan,
yet all too often your people have despised women.
We’ve colluded at a lack of education and opportunity for women,
at lower pay and respect for their work,
we’ve ignored violence and abuse against them,
and blamed women when they are themselves attacked and brutalised.
Help us to work for a world where women are valued and honoured,
where poisonous patriarchy is rejected,
and where men learn a different way to be male.
O God, You taught Mary to sing for the poor,
yet all too often we ignore the poor to our own peril.
We step around them in the street,
we ignore those in peril of being made homeless,
we choose to see those on benefits as feckless,
we ignore those who flee here for safety,
and collude with oppressive policies which keep asylum seekers poor and separate from the mainstream.
Help us to follow your mother’s example,
that we may help raise up the poor
and bring down the powerful who defy your will.
Your mother foretold a changing world order,
yet we cling to the way things are preferring death to life.
Help us, O God, to see how we need to change our world,
that we may follow paths of life and not death as we pray for the kingdom to come.
We give in so many different ways – of our time, of our love, with our skills, with our prayers and, also, with our money. Let’s give thanks for all the good things that God has given us and remind ourselves to keep up with our financial giving to the charities we support and to the church.
O God, from whom all good things come, we thank you for all that is good in our lives, for the technology that lets us keep up with loved ones far and wide, and allows us to join now in worship. Bless all that we do,
bless what we give that you will continue to be glorified in our lives and in the Church. Amen.
Hymn Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones
Athelstan Riley 1906 choir of Portsmouth Cathedral, directed by Anthony Froggatt,
with David Thorne (organ)
Bright Seraphs, Cherubim
Raise the glad strain, Alleluya!
Cry out, Dominions,
Angels’ choirs, Alleluya!
2: O higher than the Cherubim,
than the Seraphim,
Lead their praises, Alleluya!
Thou Bearer of the eternal Word,
magnify the Lord,
3: Respond, ye souls in endless rest,
Ye Patriarchs and Prophets blest,
Ye holy Twelve, ye Martyrs strong,
All Saints triumphant,
raise the song, Alleluya!
4: O friends, in gladness let us sing,
Supernal anthems echoing,
To God the Father, God the Son,
And God the Spirit, Three in One,
May the One who called Mary to risk all,
who led her to sing for the poor,
and proclaim a changing world,
who stood with Jesus in his pain,
and enabled her to be filled with joy and fire,
enable you to take risks,
lead you to sing for the dispossessed,
help you change the world,
and stand by those in pain.
May that One fill you with joy and fire,
and the blessing of Almighty God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
be with you and all whom you love
now and always, Amen.
Sources and Thanks
Affirmation of Faith © The United Reformed Church. All other liturgical material by Andy Braunston. Thanks to John Young, John Cornell, Christopher Whitehead, Ruth Tompsett, the choir of Barrhead URC, Lindsey Sanderson and the people of Righead URC for recording spoken parts of the worship.