Sermon preached at Evensong on the Sunday of the Blessed Virgin Mary (8 September 2019) by the Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain

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Sermon preached at Evensong on the Sunday of the Blessed Virgin Mary (8 September 2019) by the Revd Helen O'Sullivan, Chaplain

The Chaplain reflects on the idea of obedience, considering the writings of theologian John Henry Newman and looking to the Blessed Virgin Mary as an example of this.


You may be more familiar with celebrating this day the 8th September as the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary but here at St Paul’s we wrap up all the feasts of Our Lady into one. Recognising perhaps a certain ambivalence in the Church of England in relation to the place or position of Mary amongst the saints in general but also, nevertheless, holding onto the honour and esteem in which Mary is universally held. 

Because when we think about the saints commemorated throughout the year we will I think feel more or less interested in any of the other named saints. We may or we may not for example feel a particular sympathy with the apostles Thomas or Peter; or a connection with the saint your old school, college or own church is dedicated to, but Mary, as the mother of our Lord, plays a pivotal role in the story of our salvation and for that she is rightly remembered and honoured.

I have to say though that as a young woman I had more than an ambivalence towards Our Lady. If I was looking for a role model, then the picture of Mary with which I was presented by the Church was not one that spoke to me. Mary demure, and submissive. And the language (which we still use as you can see from the order of service) of lowly handmaid, of obedient and humble servant, has been - and still can be and is - used to subjugate and coerce. And this language certainly felt designed to keep me in my place - and, as my colleagues and my family can tell you, that just isn’t my style.

The Gospel that I had been given as a child (mainly by my mum and dad because we learn everything by example, and this was the example they gave me) the Gospel is liberating not constraining. 

And yet who can deny that obedience is at the heart of that Gospel. Mary is obedient, ‘be it unto me according to you will’ (Luke 1:38) and Jesus is ‘obedient unto death even death on the cross’ (Phil 2:8).

Obedience to God’s will seems to be self-evidently then the natural and proper response for us to make as followers of Christ. And Mary is perhaps the model, next to Christ, of this virtue, demonstrated by her acceptance of God’s will that she should bear his Son. But this language needs to be used and interpreted carefully because it can so easily be misunderstood and misused. How then can we understand the notion of obedience as liberation rather than as constraint?

John Henry Newman, one of our great English theologians (and soon to be saint) wrote a good deal on obedience and I found, in my struggle to come to terms with obedience as a virtue, that his work spoke to me both plainly and profoundly about its nature and its value. 

In his sermon Faith and Obedience Newman considers what Jesus means when he says in the Gospel of Matthew (19:17), ‘If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.’ 

Obedience to God’s will is the way to life (Newman says) not because doing what we are told gets us brownie points (justification by works rather than by faith) but because obedience is ‘of the heart’, the natural response of love to love, and in this way it is simply the other face of faith. 

To quote from the sermon:
‘To believe [to have faith] is to look beyond this world to God, and to obey is to look beyond this world to God; to believe is of the heart, and to obey is of the heart; 

to believe is not a solitary act, but a consistent habit of trust; 
and to obey is not a solitary act, but a consistent habit of doing our duty in all things. 

I do not say that faith and obedience do not stand for separate ideas in our minds, but … they are not divided one from the other in fact. They are but one thing viewed differently.’

Obedience then is to be seen as the natural expression of faith in action. Not blind obedience, not adhering to a particular set of rules, but rather the striving in all things to seek God. It is the ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’

So what about humility, another of the so called ‘virtues’ which might leave us with a lurking suspicion that we are being chastised for being independently minded. In this same sermon, Newman helps us to better appreciate another of the virtues for which Mary is renowned. He is actually speaking directly about pride but in doing so shows us what true humility is and where it is to be found.

He says; ‘a man may be obedient and yet proud of being so… without having faith, 

I would maintain, on the other hand, that in matter of fact a man is proud, or (what is sometimes called) self-righteous, not when obedient, but in proportion to his disobedience. To be proud is to rest on one's-self… but a really obedient mind is necessarily dissatisfied with itself, and looks out of itself for help.’

Humility is then simply the essential virtue of recognizing our dependence on God, and the gratitude that arises out of the knowledge of God’s covenant of love and mercy towards us, gained though Jesus’ obedience to the Father. The wonder of this mystery draws us deeper into obedience, the natural response to His perfect will for us. This is the service, which is perfect freedom. 

Obedience and humility then, rather than being the tools of oppression are properly the fullest response one can make to the love of God. 

And it is not hard, actually, to spot the difference because wherever true humility and obedience are found there is always a sense of thanksgiving, that Magnificat moment where God’s grace abounds, and there is a sense of the kingdom come.

The other way in which I have come to deeply appreciate Our Lady is as a Mother. 

Like mother, like son, to misquote Ezekiel (16:44), Mary is an example of the love that ‘bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things’ (1Cor. 13:7). And so for me, Mary (like her son, but even more helpfully because she is not Jesus) is the model of patient endurance which, even through the most daunting and costly and painful calling, finds fulfilment and grace. 

And so when all seems lost, or hopeless, or too painful or just too much Mary our Mother is the one to whom we can turn for reassurance. And the God in whom she trusted, is the one who gives us strength.

So as we give thanks for Mary’s willingness to go along with God even to the foot of the cross, we pray that we might have her courage to seek God’s will in the service which brings perfect freedom.