Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sermon for the Feast of St. Margaret of Scotland

When I first became the rector of this parish nearly fourteen years ago, I didn’t know anything about St. Margaret of Scotland. I had no idea when she lived, or what she had done, or why people thought of her as a saint. So I made it my business to find out, and the more I read about her, the more I was inspired by her story, and the more I found myself thinking, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we, as a parish, could live up to the example of the woman we are named for?”

Many of you will have heard me tell the story of Queen Margaret of Scotland in years past. Some of you, however, have joined us since the last time we did this, and many of you will have been away on this Sunday in previous years, for one reason or another. So I’m going to tell the story again today, and then draw some lessons for us as we join Margaret in following our Lord Jesus Christ.

Margaret died on November 16th 1093, nine hundred and twenty years ago yesterday. She was a member of the aristocracy, and she came into a position of great influence as Queen of Scotland, but she didn’t think she’d been given that position in order to lord it over others. Instead, she’s remembered as a person who spent her life serving others.

She was the granddaughter of the English king Edmund Ironside, but because of dynastic disputes she was born in Hungary, in the year 1047. She had one brother, Edgar, and a sister, Christian, and many people in England saw her brother Edgar as the rightful heir to the throne of England. In 1054 the parliament of Anglo-Saxon England decided to bring the family back from Hungary so that they could inherit the throne when King Edward the Confessor died, as Edward had no children. So Edgar, Christian and Margaret were brought up at the Anglo-Saxon court under the supervision of Benedictine monks and nuns, who trained the young people according to the Benedictine ideal of a life of work and prayer.

It’s hard to overstate the influence of those Benedictines in Margaret’s life. From them she learned the importance of balancing times of prayer and times of working for the good of others; this would be a good description of her later life as Queen of Scotland. We know that she learned to read the scriptures in Latin, and she also knew the teachings of the church fathers from the early Christian centuries. Her sister Christian went on to become a Benedictine nun herself.

Eventually King Edward the Confessor died, and soon afterwards William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066 and claimed the throne for himself, so Margaret’s brother Edgar didn’t get to become king after all. Edgar and his sisters were advised to go back to Hungary for their own safety, but on the way their ship was blown far off course by a fierce gale. They spent some time in northern England and then sailed up the coast to the Firth of Forth in Scotland, where King Malcolm gave them a warm welcome to his kingdom. His court at Dunfermline was undoubtedly rather primitive compared to the English court that the family had known, but I’m sure they were glad of his welcome and the hospitality and safety he offered them.

Margaret was now about twenty years old; King Malcolm was forty, and unmarried, and he soon became attracted to young Margaret. However, she took a lot of persuading; she was more inclined to become a nun, and Malcolm had a stormy temperament, despite his other virtues. It was only after long consideration that Margaret agreed to marry him, and their wedding took place in the year 1070, when she was twenty-three. In the end, although she was so much younger than him, she was the one who changed him; under her influence, he became a much wiser and godlier king.

Although Margaret was now in a high position in society, and very wealthy according to the standard of the day, she lived in the spirit of inward poverty: nothing she possessed really belonged to her, but everything was to be used for the purposes of God. As Queen, she continued to live the ordered life of prayer and work that she had learned from the Benedictine monks. She was only the wife of the king, but she came to have the leading voice in making changes that affected both the social and the spiritual life of Scotland. She had this influence because of the depth of her husband’s love for her. Malcolm didn’t share his wife’s contemplative temperament, but he was strongly influenced by her godly character, so he tended to follow her advice a lot – not only for his own life, but also for the life of the church and people in Scotland.

It’s actually quite remarkable that the Scots accepted the church reforms that this foreign queen proposed, but she herself lived such a simple and Christ-like life that they seemed to feel instinctively that her way must be a good way. Let’s think about the sort of life she lived as Queen of Scotland.

Margaret would begin each day with a prolonged time of prayer, especially praying the psalms. We’re told that after this, orphan children would be brought to her, and she would prepare their food herself and serve it to them. It also became the custom that any destitute poor people would come every morning to the royal hall; when they were seated around it, then the King and Queen entered and ‘served Christ in the person of his poor’. Before they did this, they sent out of the room all other spectators except for the chaplains and a few attendants; they didn’t want to turn it into what modern politicians would refer to as ‘a photo opportunity’.

The church in Scotland at that time looked more to the old Celtic way of Christianity than to the way of Rome. Margaret had been raised in the way of Rome, and was keen to bring Scotland into unity with the rest of the world, but she didn’t do it in an overbearing and proselytizing way. She often visited the Celtic hermits in their lonely cells, offering them gifts, and caring for their churches. But she also held many conferences with the leaders of the Church, putting forward the Roman point of view about things like the date of Lent and the proper customs for celebrating the liturgy and so on. She convinced them, not because of the strength of her argument so much as by the power of her holy life.

In those days many people in Scotland used to go on pilgrimages to see the relics of St. Andrew at the place now called ‘St. Andrew’s’. Margaret wanted to help the pilgrims, so she had little houses built on either shore of the sea that divided Lothian from Scotland, so that poor people and pilgrims could shelter there and rest after their journeys. She also provided ships to transport them across the water.

I think it’s fair to say that most people recognized as saints by the Catholic Church were monks and nuns who lived lives of celibacy, far removed from the demands of the world and the pressures of family life. Margaret, however, is remembered as having a happy family life. She had eight children, six sons and two daughters. Her oldest son Edward was killed in battle, Ethelred died young, and we’re told that Edmund didn’t turn out too well. But the three youngest, Edgar, Alexander, and David, are remembered among the best kings Scotland ever had. David I, the youngest son, had a peaceful reign of twenty-nine years in which he developed and extended the work his mother had begun. The two daughters, Matilda and Mary, were both brought up under the guidance of Margaret’s sister Christian in the Abbey of Romsey, and both went on to marry into the English royal family. All of them we’re told, were also taught to follow Christ first – although I find it a little reassuring that even a saintly parent like Margaret didn’t have a 100% success rate with her kids!

Margaret was not yet fifty when she died. As she lay dying, her son Edgar brought her the sad news that her husband and her oldest son had been killed in battle. Despite this grief, we’re told that her last words were of praise and thanksgiving to God, and her death was calm and tranquil.

So what does Margaret have to say to us today?

I know that in this parish we have varying degrees of wealth; even though we live in one of the richest parts of the city, we’re not all rich by any means. But nonetheless, when judged by the standards of the whole world, we’re pretty well off, and even when we think of some of the less fortunate people in our city, we don’t have a lot to complain about. So how do we wealthier Christians see ourselves as disciples of Jesus? What are our responsibilities to those who are poorer than we are? What’s the best way to live a life of discipleship in the sort of situation we find ourselves in?

It’s here I think that Margaret can still inspire us. When she married the King of Scotland she found herself in a position of great power and wealth, but she didn’t consider it as having been given to her for her own selfish pleasures. She was a true Benedictine, living in the spirit of inward poverty. She saw her wealth and power as having been entrusted to her to do good works for others, and so she gave her life to serving others in the spirit of Christ.

One thing we can learn from her is to balance work and prayer. The Benedictine ideal was an ordered life, with certain times of day set apart for prayer, and others spent in active work for the good of others. We see this balance in the life of Jesus, too. In Mark chapter one we read that he was healing the sick, casting out evil spirits, and teaching the people all day long, but then Mark goes on to tell us that ‘In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed’ (Mark 1:35). Luke tells us that this was Jesus’ habit: ‘But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray’ (Luke 5:16).

Is that our habit? Do we make time to pray regularly, by ourselves or with someone else? For some people, the ‘deserted place’ might be a room in their house; for other people it might a quiet office early in the morning; for others, it might be a quiet walk at some point during the day. For some it will be alone, for others it will be together with a spouse, or with the family as a whole. Those of us who care for young children will find some challenges here, and will need to support each other and think carefully about the best way to build prayer into our daily lives. Yes, it will take a bit of effort, but the lives of praying people down through the centuries have shown us that it’s well worth it.

Speaking for myself, I can say that starting each day with a time of prayer together is a real blessing for Marci and me. We use the outline of Morning Prayer as found in the Book of Alternative Services, but we do it in a pretty laid-back way, and we include our own intercessions and prayers. We pray for family and friends, for people in our church, and for those who are in special need. We bring the work of the day before the Lord before the day starts. And doing it together helps to keep us steady in prayer; when you’re committed to praying together with someone else, you’re less likely to skip it because you ‘just don’t feel like it today’.

So we can learn from Margaret’s balance of work and prayer. We can also learn from the way she was successful in her reforms because of the influence of her godly life. Even people who disagreed with her were impressed with the way she lived out her faith, despite the fact that she didn’t make a big song and dance about it. In modern elections, it seems as if people gleefully seek out all sorts of dirt about the politicians they disagree with, and they then spread it around as a way of discrediting the policies their opponents are advocating. But every now and again you find someone who we refer to as a ‘Teflon person’ – the dirt won’t stick to them! Margaret was that sort of person; people respected her because they saw Christ in her way of life.

Of course, in the Anglican world today there is an ongoing controversy over homosexuality, and people on all sides of that discussion have sometimes been, shall we say, less than Christ-like in the way they’ve acted towards each other. What if we repented of that, and resolved to treat each other more lovingly, so that people could really see the face of Christ in us, even if they disagreed with us? I think Margaret’s example can help us here, too.

A third thing we can learn from Margaret is the way she lived out what is sometimes called ‘the ministry of the basin and the towel’. This phrase refers to the story of the last supper, where Jesus ‘got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and wipe them with the towel that was tied around him’ (John 13:4-5). After he finished this job, he pointed out to his disciples that he, their teacher and master, saw no contradiction between being their lord and being their servant. ‘If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet’ (John 13:14).

This is the sort of life Margaret lived. Although she was the Queen of Scotland, she saw no contradiction between being the Queen and serving at tables for the poorest of the poor. She understood herself first of all as a servant of Christ; everything else followed from that.

So these are three things I think we need to learn from Margaret: firstly, keeping a proper balance of work and prayer in our lives, and perhaps especially praying together with others on a regular basis. Secondly, having a Christ-like spirit, even when we’re engaging in controversy, so that even our disagreements can be a witness to the world about the love of Christ. Thirdly, having a servant attitude toward everyone we meet, just as Jesus was not ashamed to fulfil the role of a servant toward his disciples.


So let us remember with thanksgiving today our patron saint, Margaret, a woman of prayer, a woman who lived a holy life, a woman who served the poor, a woman who used her influence in a Christlike way to do good for all people.  As a congregation, let us pray that God will give us the strength by his Holy Spirit to live up to the name we bear. Amen.

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