Sunday, November 19, 2017

St. Margaret', Our Servant Queen (a sermon for the Feast of St. Margaret by Brian Popp)

Many of you will have heard Tim tell the story of Queen Margaret of Scotland in years past. Some of you, however, have joined us since the last time he 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 briefly tell the story again this morning, and then I’m going to lay it beside our gospel reading for today, to 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-four years ago. She was a member of the aristocracy, and she came into a position of great influence as Queen of Scotland, but she is not remembered today because she was a person of power; rather, we remember her as a person who lived a balanced life of prayer and service to others.

Margaret 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 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.

The influence of these Benedictines was tremendously important in Margaret’s life. She learned from them 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. They taught her 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. However, the ship carrying the three young people 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 court at Dunfermline – a little more rustic, perhaps, than the English court, but I’m sure they were glad of the hospitality.

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.

Margaret was now in a high position in society, and very wealthy according to the standard of the day, but she lived in the spirit of inward poverty. She didn’t see her possessions as really belonging to her; 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 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.

We’re told by her biographer that Margaret would begin each day with a prolonged time of prayer, especially praying the psalms. 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 also held many conferences with the leaders of the Church, putting forward the Roman point of view about things. Eventually she convinced them, not because of the strength of her arguments so much as by the power of her holy life.

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.

Margaret was a servant of the Lord. She was canonized in 1250 in recognition of her personal holiness, fidelity to the Roman Catholic Church, work in ecclesiastical reform and charity. She is also venerated in the Anglican Church.

Have you ever given any thought about what it would be like to be a ruler like a king or a queen? You would be able to tell your subjects what to do or where to live. You would be famous of infamous depending upon what you did or how well your subjects accepted your commands. You would be part of aristocracy!

When Jesus started his ministry and began assembling his disciples they began to talk about what benefits they would gain from following Jesus as King in the kingdom of heaven. We read in Matthew18 the disciples asking Jesus:
“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Jesus responded:
“Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

In Chapter 19 Peter asks Jesus:
“Look we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
The twelve expected to be rewarded by Jesus for their service. Perhaps they were bent on power, position and prestige!

So what does Margaret have to say to us today? To answer this question, I want to turn to our gospel reading for today where we hear about a mother requesting that Jesus grant her two sons ”favored status” among the disciples!

Our Gospel reading this morning from Matthew 20:20-28 tells us about the mother of two of Jesus disciples who asks Jesus to “Declare that these two sons of mine will sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” She wanted her two sons to be greatly rewarded by Jesus – greater than the others!

The woman is Salome, wife of Zebedee, a Galilean fisherman, mother of James and John, two of the first disciples chosen by Jesus. My research suggests that she may be the sister of Mary-mother of Jesus. This would mean that she is Jesus aunt and James and John are his first cousins! This closeness of relationship may explain to some degree the boldness of her approaching Jesus with this request! It is not uncommon for this to happen – sometimes it’s who you know-not what you know!

Details are sketchy about James and John. James was one of the first disciples to join Jesus. He lived by the sea shore and was a fisherman like his father. He was known to have a fiery temper. He was eventually beheaded and became one of the first disciples to be martyred.

John was the youngest of the disciples and was much loved by Jesus. We learn in John 19:26-27:
“At his crucifixion when Jesus saw his mother and the disciple standing beside her, he said to his mother “woman here is your son”. Then he said to his disciple “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” John is thought to be the author of several books of the Bible. He was supposedly the only disciple to die of natural causes!

Back to our Gospel reading.

When Jesus responded to Salome’s request concerning her two sons –James and John - he said:
“You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” He is referring to his coming suffering and death on the cross. Are they prepared to go through that suffering and death with Jesus?

They respond:
“We are able” but they do not really understand what Jesus means!

Jesus then says to them:
 “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father!

This exchange troubles the other ten disciples. They are angry with James and John for asking to be treated better than the others. They would be greater than the others! Jesus finally puts an end to this long debate over some being greater than the others!

What does it mean to be greater than others? Greatness can be described as "wonderful, first rate, remarkable, exceptionally good”. Greatness, in the world’s eyes, is about material possessions and accomplishments – it is not about serving God and serving others!

He reminds them that “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” by giving his life for ours by dying on the cross for us!
A “ransom” in that world, is what someone might pay to give freedom to a slave. Jesus saw his approaching fate as the payment that would set free those who were enslaved in sin and wickedness, not least those who were in the grips of the lust for power and position – yes, people like James and John.  

I have attempted to contrast the servant life and leadership of St Margaret in my earlier discussion with the secular views initially displayed by the twelve disciples – but more importantly by James and John and their mother Salome.

Margaret was the Queen of Scotland – a member of the aristocracy – who had a spirit of inward poverty and wanted most of all to be a servant of God, serving the poor and destitute.

James and John, on the encouragement of their mother – wanted to be royalty within the kingdom of heaven – along with the pomp and circumstance that goes with secular royalty.

If you had your choice which one would it be?

One final thought:

Jesus servant life and death put into perspective the disciples concern for status among themselves and within their church. Do you exercise any responsibility within your church, workplace or your family? Pause and think about how you reflect the servant style of Jesus in the way you carry out those tasks. Then pray for grace to be consistent and humble as you continue serving just as Margaret did!


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