May I begin this morning by bringing the greetings of Salisbury
Cathedral in England to the National Cathedral here in Washington.
We’ve built up some strong links over the years between our two
cathedrals, including a memorable visit of your own Fabric Committee, not
long ago, and we value very much the bonds of affection which have
developed between us. Also, on behalf of my musical colleagues, let me
say a very sincere thank you for your welcome on this first weekend of
our tour of the East Coast. We’re, indeed, very grateful to be able to
share worship and fellowship with you.
Many of you will know Salisbury Cathedral because of John
Constable’s paintings which display its beauty. Done in the 1820s one
of the best of them now resides in the Frick Museum in New York. But
rather than visiting that, we hope that we might be able to encourage
you to come and see, or maybe to visit again, the real thing.
As for us, we are greatly fortunate to be able to call that
cathedral our home. It’s one of the most visible signs of Christianity
in England. Built in a single Gothic style and finished in the year
1258, you know well that the cathedrals of a nation are one of the great
resources of the Church. And in England, they have never been more
It was also our privilege a couple of years ago to have your new
dean and his family as part of our community for several months while he
was on sabbatical leave. Sam Lloyd is away on duties this weekend,
but may I say in his absence that we hold him in great affection and
esteem, and we wish you well as his new ministry begins here in three
weeks time. Be assured that as you celebrate that, we will be praying
for him and for this cathedral as you go forward together.
Well, back to this morning and to the readings we have just
heard, which themselves speak of going forward. That Gospel from Luke
was read because in fact today we begin the celebration of the Feast of
the Annunciation when Mary, as you heard, was told by Gabriel that she
was to become a mother. It has to be said, doesn’t it, that it’s rather
strange in these first days of Easter tide to be reminded that it’s only
nine months until the birth of Jesus Christ on another Christmas Day.
But given that the dedication of our cathedral is to the Blessed Virgin
Mary, it couldn’t be more appropriate.
And since this is a story about women and the way women walk with
purposeful compassion through our world, let me tell you of two women in
Salisbury: one who walked in, and one who walked out.
Dorothy was brought up to be a devout Christian. In her
childhood and young adulthood, her faith meant a great deal to her. She
trained as a nurse and eventually went to work in Beirut in the 1980s,
when Lebanon was really a war zone. You and I probably remember that
time for the Western hostages which were taken by militant groups.
But Dorothy remembers a whole nation consumed by hatred and violence,
much of it having a religious face. She went to work each day tending
to the victims of that religious enmity. She could sense the faith of
her upbringing being eroded. And then one day, a thirteen-year-old girl
was brought into her hospital. The girl was a Muslim and a Christian
Falangist gang had cut out her tongue and raped her and tied her to
the back of the car and dragged her through the streets. Despite the
best and long efforts of the medical team, she eventually died. And
Dorothy says, “as her life expired, so did my faith. As I walked away
from the operating table, I knew that my faith had gone.”
Dorothy didn’t go into a church again, except for her mother’s
funeral, for twenty years. That was, until a month ago, when she walked
into our cathedral. As it happened, I saw her on the edge of our
evening worship, and I introduced myself. And since that time several
of my colleagues have also reinforced the message that she is welcome,
that she is not going to be asked to be something or to believe
something which she can’t manage. As I talked to her again last
weekend, she was aware that a new stage of her journey had begun.
When Mary experienced an encounter with an angel, she knew that she
was hearing the call of God. And Gabriel’s message to her
couldn’t in one sense have been clearer. But what we’re told
about Mary was that she was much perplexed. I find it interesting that
exactly the same word—“much perplexed”—is used
to describe the reaction of the group of women who at the end of
Luke’s Gospel discover the empty tomb.
We know what it is like to be much perplexed, don’t we? You
don’t have to be in Beirut, or encountering angels to find life
challenging. But being perplexed doesn’t mean that we don’t know what
is true. Mary tells Elizabeth very clearly what’s happened to her. The
women who were witnesses to the Resurrection were quick to remember what
Jesus had told them, that when they try to tell the other disciples what
they’ve discovered, it seems to the men an idle tale and they didn’t
believe them. It didn’t stop the women knowing that what they had seen
No, we can recognize what is true, but still be perplexed.
Indeed, it seems to me that the claims of truthfulness upon us often
themselves leave us muddled and feeling unsure of our way. No, Mary
doesn’t claim to have understood or assimilated all that she was told by
God. She simply began a new stage of her journey.
And let’s face it. Journeys aren’t very tidy affairs, are they?
You turn corners, and you find a new set of circumstances that you
weren’t expecting. And the weather goes and changes on a journey.
There’s often uncertainty about the route as well. My husband is fond
of telling of a time when I navigated him up a Greek mountain, only to
find that the road that the map promised just didn’t exist. No,
journeys across a landscape aren’t always straightforward. And human
journeys aren’t any more tidy. You certainly need truthfulness to
But let me repeat: that may not reduce your perplexity.
Mary’s perplexity meant that she asked the Angel Gabriel, “How?
How will it happen? How will I cope?” And the only answer given to
her is that God will go with her. For her part, she needs to be true.
True to herself, true to God.
Our friend Dorothy walked into Salisbury Cathedral, and now knows
that if she is ever to rediscover a faith worthy of the name of God, she has
to be true to all that she is and all that she’s been through. But we
know that’s not easy, don’t we?
And then there was the woman who walked out. I should say, she’s
always walking out, because by the main entrance to our cathedral, on
the path which leads into the city of Salisbury, we have a statue of
Mary striding purposefully away from the cathedral. She’s called “The
Walking Madonna,” and she’s the work of Elizabeth Frink, the British
sculptor, who almost exclusively produced only male figures. So our
Madonna is of particular interest in the world of fine art.
And also in the world of our cathedral. For this Mary is middle-aged
and life-sized. This isn’t the teenaged Virgin, but an older Mary who has
held her son’s dead body. Her face portrays that suffering. But it’s
not actually her features you notice. It’s her posture. She is walking
with great determination out of our building and into a wider world.
Perhaps it’s she who went looking for Dorothy. She has business to
attend to, but it’s not in the church.
Again, there’s a truthfulness here. You can tell her story is
authentic simply by looking at her. What she also communicates is her
In these last days, haven’t we all admired the tenacity of Pope John
Paul II as he’s maintained his responsibilities and his dignity in his
walk with frailty and with death? And we must pray for our Roman
Catholic brothers and sisters as now they mourn, and themselves enter a
new stage of their journey.
But tenacity is also the gift of many individuals who are quite
anonymous. For instance, women who have held themselves and their
families together in troubled times. Women of the Sudan or other
war-torn countries who maintain their communities through conflict.
Those people whom perhaps you can think of in your community who, like
the women walking away from the tomb of Jesus, stick to their story and
their convictions. As the Madonna is the embodiment of a faith
journey. When she gives the angel her reply and says, “Here am I. Let
it be with me according to your word.” That wasn’t a statement of
resignation. It’s pure tenacity. So the angel left her. For she had
all that she needed.
Do you have a sense that your experience of faith is a journey? What
are the twists and turns that have brought you to this place, and that
still lie ahead of you? They may not be as dramatic as Dorothy’s, but
they’re no less a search for an authentic faith, true to who we are and
what we know of the world.
What resources do you think you will need? In the nature of things,
you can’t carry much when you travel. But don’t worry about what you
leave behind. And don’t even worry if you occasionally feel lost or
perplexed. There will be times to stay in the place of comfort, and
there will be times when you should strive away from it. Know only that
God goes with you every step of the way. What he asks of you are the
same qualities that he illustrates through the women at the beginning
and at the end of Luke’s Gospel. Those women were much perplexed. But
there was a willingness to set out on a new journey.
So remember with us in Salisbury that Mary was a walking Madonna.
And that we walk a journey of faith, needing truthfulness and tenacity
if we are to say “yes” to God.