St. Margaret of Scotland (a sermon for Nov. 16th 2014)

Scripture referred to is Luke 10:25-42.


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 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-one years ago today. 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 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. Eventually she convinced them, not because of the strength of her arguments 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’, just north of the Firth of Forth. 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? To answer this question, I want to turn to our gospel reading, where we hear two famous stories about Jesus.

In the first story, a lawyer comes to Jesus and asks him what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus says to him, “You’ve read the Law of Moses, haven’t you? What does it say?” The lawyer replies, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself” (Luke 10:27). “That’s it”, Jesus replies; “Do that, and you’ll live”.

“But who is my neighbour?” the lawyer replies – a funny question until you realize that his focus isn’t on helping other people, but on inheriting eternal life for himself. After all, if there are fifty people in his village and it turns out that only twenty of them are actually his neighbours, why should he go to all the effort of loving the other thirty? There’s nothing in it for him!

Jesus replies with the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan, about a man who is beaten up by robbers and left for dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. A priest and a Levite pass by on the other side and refuse to help him, but a Samaritan stops to help him, binds up his wounds and arranges medical care for him. “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” Jesus asked. The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy”. Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (vv.36-37).

I find it interesting that Jesus never actually answered the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbour?” What he did instead was to teach the lawyer how to be a neighbour. It’s not complicated; it just means walking through our day with our eyes wide open, so that we actually see the people in need around us and do what we can to help them. Nowadays, of course, with modern communications technology, we can ‘see’ a lot further, and so we have far more opportunities to help, but let’s remember that this is not just about giving money; it’s about being willing to be interrupted in the course of your day, and to invest your time in helping another human being.

This is what Margaret did. Her situation was very different from ours; she was the Queen of Scotland, we’re just ordinary people, working our jobs, raising the kids and grandkids, paying the mortgage, trying to put a bit of money in our RRSPs. But no matter whether we have power and influence or not, we’re all called to invest our time and resources in helping those who are less well off than we are. And let’s remember that the right question is not ‘Who is my neighbour?’ The right question is, ‘How can I be a good neighbour to those who need me?’

So Margaret undoubtedly sets us a good example of helping the needy. But that’s not the end of today’s gospel reading. Luke goes on to tell us the well-known story of Mary and Martha. They are sisters, and we know from John’s gospel that they live in the village of Bethany, near Jerusalem. Jesus comes to visit, he’s sitting in the living room with the people who’ve come to discuss things with him – probably, in that culture, all men. Martha is the capable host, she’s out in the kitchen getting everything ready to give Jesus the kind of meal he’ll remember for the rest of his life. But what’s Mary up to? She’s invaded the men’s space! She’s in the living room, sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to what he has to say. Eventually Martha gets frustrated and asks Jesus to tell her sister to smarten up. But Jesus refuses to do that; “Mary has chosen the better part”, he says, “which will not be taken away from her” (v.42).

There’s a time for doing, and being busy, but there’s also a time for sitting quietly and listening to Jesus. The Benedictine monks and nuns taught Margaret that balance: the day should include acts of mercy to the needy, but it should also include times of meditation and prayer. Today we live in an activist world, and I’d be surprised if the average amount of time spent in prayer per day in our church was more than about five minutes per person. So we need to recover that balance.

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 read scripture together and talk about it; 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’. Our time of prayer isn’t long – probably only about twenty minutes – but it sets the tone for the whole day.

So Margaret can remind us of the important of keeping things in balance. We’re called to follow Jesus in caring for the poor and needy, but we’re also called to spend time listening to God’s word and praying. Of course, there was a third thing for her too – the work of being a wife to Malcolm and a mother to their eight children, which was no doubt a demanding job as well. These three things are all part for our lives as Christians today, too: providing for our families, caring for the poor and needy, and spending time in scripture reading and prayer.

How is that balance in your life? Does it need a little adjusting? Why not pray about that, and ask God to guide you about getting a better balance?

So let’s remember with thanksgiving today our patron saint, Margaret, a woman of prayer, a woman who lived a holy life, a woman who loved her family and 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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