A Sermon for Advent 4: Mary

The author sporting her Magnificat t-shirt

It was one of those years where the Sunday of Advent also happened to be Christmas Eve and so we had a mere 5 services at St John’s. Fortunately, I was only required to be at three of them: preaching in the morning at 10am and presiding in the evening at 7 and 11pm. I had the great idea of re-using a sermon I preached on these same readings on this same Sunday three years ago, thus giving me a little bit more brain space for all of the other things that needed to happen before Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. It was a really good sermon too, one that I was really proud of and quite happy with and was actually excited about using again. However, the Spirit had other ideas, as I alluded in my previous post. I began to feel really strongly that I needed to preach something different, something that addressed #metoo and the stories in the news of strong men being brought down by the world finally listening to the voices of vulnerable women and something that acknowledged that St John’s has had a complicated relationship with some of these issues as well. So, in a matter of hours, I sat down and this is the sermon that the Spirit gave.

Preached December 24, 2017 at St John the Divine, Victoria

Find the audio recording here:

“Yes”

The gospel of Luke tells the story of the Annunciation – the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary to ask her to bear God’s son into the world. Mary knows that this is a dangerous and subversive call, yet still says yes, giving her consent to bear God. In doing so, she is proclaiming the greatness of the Mighty One who turns the world upside down and reminding us that listening to and believing women has always been a foundational part of our our faith.

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Gentle Mary?

Gentle Mary, meek and mild. We like to sing about it every Christmas. We look at pictures of meek and retiring Mary. She always looks to pure, so innocent.

I call bullshit.

Image by Ben Wildflower. It is one of my favourite depictions of the Magnificat. I have the tshirt.

Where on earth did we get the idea that a woman who sings about God scattering the proud, who calls on God to bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the oppressed, who demands that God fill the hungry with good things and send the rich away with empty hands – where on earth did we get the idea that this woman is anything but a strong, feisty, courageous woman with agency?

When I read the gospel accounts of Mary the mother of Jesus, I do not see some mild-mannered girl quietly acquiescing to God’s demand of her to carry his son.

Rather I read about a woman who joins a long line of people throughout Scriptures and throughout history who question God. What if her “How can this be?” in Luke’s story of the Annunciation is less about doubt and more about wrestling with what God is asking of her? And what if in wrestling with it, she decides to agree to the vocation of being the mother of Christ? “Here am I.”

Just as Moses said “But suppose they do not believe me… O my Lord, I have never been eloquent” but went with God’s words.

Just as Isaiah said “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips” and then said “Here am I; send me.” And God sent him.

Just as Jeremiah said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak!” but then went and prophesied the message God gave him.

Just as Esther hesitated because of the strong possibility of death, but then spoke out at great risk and saved the Jewish people.

Just as “ordinary” folks like you and I wrestle with the tasks – big and small – and vocations that God sets before us; wondering if we are really being called, debating whether we actually want to do that, and eventually finding that God really is with us and we want to say yes.

Mary’s agency is at the heart of this story, and it is this strong and courageous woman who answered God’s call and brought God into the world.

Amen.

 

With thanks to my Young Clergy Women International (YCWI) sisters for some inspiration, and who, through our conversations on Mary and consent, provided more links for thought:

The Mary Who Said No

Mary’s Choice: What the Annunciation Story Tells Us About Moral Agency

Did Mary Say “Me Too”?

Sermon for December 21, 2014 (Advent 4)

Text Luke 1:26-38 (The Annunciation); Preached at St Andrew Memorial, London Ontario

Middle of the night phone calls or knocks on the door are always unsettling. First there is that sudden ascent into consciousness. Then there is the noise. Loud and shrill: the ring of a phone. Strong thuds: the pounding on the door in the wee hours of the morning. Noises that are destined to set the heart racing.

Blood pounds through the veins, each beat of the heart a prayer on behalf of the one who has no words.

Hello?

An unfamiliar voice, a uniformed person, “I am just calling with a message…”

***

She knows it’s a tough place to raise a kid. Especially one who can be opinionated and outspoken like this one. It just isn’t safe to stick your neck out like that here, and she has told him that more times than she can count. Last week, the priest’s dog disappeared … and everyone knows it is because the priest was too outspoken against the government, but no one has any hard evidence.

That is always the way it is. Things happen but there is never any way to assign blame.

It is just a matter of time.

She lifts her eyes up, sighing out her frequent prayer, “How long, O Lord, must your people wait in suffering and in silence.”

As if to prove her fears true, she sees a familiar figure limping down the long dirt road that runs through the village. Soon, his swollen and bloodied face comes into focus through her tears: “They said they were sending a message, mom.”

***

That time lag between the doctor’s call and the doctor appointment is always nerve-wracking. Every single scenario known to humankind – or the Internet – has flashed before the eyes and given that sinking feeling inside, all before a foot is even set inside the doctor’s door. And then you wait – wait with little to cling onto save that reassurance of “I will never leave you or forsake you” that is both comforting and hollow at a time like this.

Finally the impassive doctor comes into the room wearing a sterile white coat, clipboard in hand. You’ve never seen this doctor before and it is a little intimidating. The doctor clears his throat, pauses, and then opens his mouth to deliver the message.

***

She is probably minding her own business, going about her day as usual. She lives in a small, out of the way, unimportant village in a small, out of the way province, in a big empire. In this village over 2000 miles away from the centre of the empire, there aren’t many strangers that wander through town save maybe the odd soldier stationed at the garrison 30 miles down the road.

And it is probably a good thing that there aren’t many strangers. Those that run the empire aren’t always friendly to the locals. If a solider tells you to pick up and carry his gear for a mile, there really isn’t any safe way of refusing. The political government and the religious leadership don’t always get along. When they do, it is often to unite against young, vocal activists – anarchists you might call them – or martyrs – or zealots – activists who are disrupting the uneasy peace that the community has settled into.

Mind your own business, keep your head down; don’t look for trouble and trouble likely won’t look for you. That is the best way to live when it seems like God has forgotten you and your country.

***

Imagine if you will – or maybe you don’t have to imagine because it is all too real – the idea of God being silent. God hasn’t spoken to you or noticeably acted around you for years.

Decades.

Generations.

You don’t hear from God. You as a people thought you were “the chosen ones” – the ones upon whom God’s favour rested, and you had God’s king whose kingdom was going to last forever. You had God’s temple, where God lived and where you could worship God freely.

And then it all fell apart – literally. The kings were killed or deported and that line ended, the temple was destroyed and it seemed that God left the land, the people were exiled and you did not know if or where God is anymore.

Life goes on, but it is certainly not the same life that you knew before, when you had tangible evidence that you were God’s chosen people.

Songs of Lament are a regular prayer, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!” (Ps. 13)

***

And so we return to the young woman in the small, unimportant village, in the out of the way province, in the big empire. She is going about her day as a normal day. Yes, the Temple has been rebuilt in Jerusalem, but God still seems absent. There haven’t been prophets speaking God’s message the way her ancestors would have heard it. Foreigners occupy and rule the land. The wealthy landowners have gotten their wealth off of the backs of the regular person who is often forced into working as a tenant farmer while the owners head off to live the good life in the city.

Then the stranger appears in town – a stranger that the woman has never seen the like of before – not even in her dreams. Or nightmares.

“Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.”

The Lord is with you.

With five simple words everything changes.

The Lord is with you.

What sort of greeting is this?

The Lord is with you:

“You, Mary, will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.”

Mary pauses: I’m from a small town – I know how babies are made. I’ve got to tell you – that’s not happening here!

The Lord is with you, the messenger said.

The Lord is with you:

With five simple words the Word that once hovered over the waters when darkness covered the face of the deep broke its silence and announced its intention to become flesh and dwell among us.

The Lord is with you: nothing will be impossible with God.

The Lord is with me: Here I am, the servant of the Lord; Let it be with me according to your word.

The Lord is with you.

These five simple words we say each week as we gather together around the table: The Lord be with you.

Maybe they are not so simple words, after all.

What does it mean, what does it look like to say that the Lord is with us?

The Lord who was born in a manger in Bethlehem, who walked on dusty roads, who healed the sick, and fed the hungry, The Lord who walked on water and died on a cross. The Lord who, on the third day, rose from the dead: The Lord is with you.

The Lord who holds your beating heart in love when your phone rings in the middle of the night or when you awake to pounding on the door: The Lord is with you.

The Lord who is there when you wipe away tears and wash bruised and bloodied faces of those persecuted for standing up for justice – or when you simply stand in solidarity with them: The Lord is with you.

The Lord who is there, laughing when you laugh and crying when you cry: The Lord is with you.

The Lord who, as Mary sang in her joy, brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts the lowly; who fills the hungry with good things and has sent the rich away empty: The Lord is with you.

The Lord who sits with you in those times of uncertainty, who accompanies you when there is news from the doctor: The Lord is with you.

The Lord who welcomes children, who calls rough-around-the-edges working class folks, and who breaks bread with outcasts and sinners: The Lord is with you.

The Lord who walks beside you as you feed the hungry, give clothing to the naked, sit with the hurting: The Lord is with you.

The Lord who journeys beside you in the joys or in the mundane of daily life: The Lord is with you.

The Lord is with you: Not only is this our anticipation in Advent, this is our Reality every day.

The Lord is with us.

Amen.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/66c/8056372/files/2014/12/img_0527.jpg
Photo from Christ Church Cathedral, Victoria. Taken from their Facebook page.

O Oriens

I can’t remember where I first heard the sonnets of Malcolm Guite. I bought his book Sounding the Seasons earlier this year but decided to wait until the beginning of the church liturgical year before pulling it out to read. This morning over coffee I opened it for the first time.

This is from his The Great O Antiphons series for Advent.

IMG_5819_2

dawn, Easter Morning, over the Salish Sea

O Oriens
 
First light and then first lines along the east
To touch and brush a sheen of light on water,
As though behind the sky itself they traced
The shift and shimmer of another river
Flowing unbidden from its hidden source;
The Day-Spring, the eternal Prima Vera.
Blake saw it too. Dante and Beatrice
Are bathing in it now, away upstream . . .
So every trace of light begins a grace
In me, a beckoning. The smallest gleam
Is somehow a beginning and a calling:
‘Sleeper awake, the darkness was a dream
For you will see the Dayspring at your waking
Beyond your long last line the dawn is breaking.’

Advent 4


We believe that God is present in the darkness before dawn;
in the waiting and uncertainty where fear and courage join hands,
conflict and caring link arms, and the sun rises over barbed wire.

 

We believe in a with-us God who sits down in our midst to share our humanity.
We affirm a faith that takes us beyond a safe place:
into action, into vulnerability and onto the streets.

We commit ourselves to work for change and put ourselves on the line;
to bear responsibility, takes risks, live powerfully and face humiliation;
to stand with those on the edge;
to choose life and be used by the Spirit
for God’s new community of hope. Amen.

from our Affirmation of Faith this Sunday

Advent

Breathe out empty yourself: of hate, of fear, of anxiety
Breathe in fill yourself with love, with life, with mercy
Breathe out empty yourself of busyness, of selfishness of greed
Breathe in fill yourself with peace, with joy, with hope
Breathe out empty yourself of idolatry, of self worship, of false gods
Breathe in fill yourself with God, with Christ, with the Holy Spirit

from jonny baker.

Two Letters

To: The two young mums sitting in front of me at church this evening.

I know we didn’t get a chance to talk, and I regret that, but I wanted to tell you that you have some very adorable little boys. The young one sitting directly in front of me, how old was he? Two? Three? His big brown eyes were open with such wonder and his excitement at the pipe organ and candles was beautiful to see. I think that is where the phrase “wide-eyed wonder” comes from. I am guessing, from his reaction to everything, that you don’t come to church very often. I’m glad you came tonight for the Nine Lessons and Carols service! It was pretty full, there must have been 800-900 people there. I’ve been slow at getting into the “Christmas Spirit” this year, but your children reminded me of what it should be like – wide-eyed with excitement at the joy and wonder of Christmas.

I wish I had taken the opportunity to lean over during a carol and whisper to you that not all people at church are like the two old ladies sitting directly in front of you. I was happy you were there and would love to see you another Sunday if you choose to come back again. I hope you didn’t feel pushed aside when someone mentioned the soft-space for kids at the back of the sanctuary. It is more kid friendly back there and your boys probably enjoyed themselves more. Were you still able to enjoy the service from there? I wasn’t enjoying it much after you left, and I was still in my seat, close to the front, with a good view of the choir and the readers. I was troubled by how you were treated and I hope that you don’t think that is how all church people are. Most of us are loving and welcoming and would be overjoyed to have young families like both of yours join us on a regular basis.

If I ever see you at church again, I promise I will come over and talk to you and I hope you have a better second experience.

To: The two old ladies sitting two rows in front of me, directly in front of the two young mums.

Have you no idea what you did tonight? Do you really think that repeated turning around to loudly “shush” a two year old is going to make your church service better? Is cursing the toddler’s mother really the way for you or her to hear the Good News of the birth of Jesus?

I was so embarrassed for you. I wanted to take you aside after the service and humiliate you the way you humiliated them. But I didn’t. I did not think that would be the best option and since I could not think of a good way to word things, I let it be.

But I still wonder, did you listen to any of the Scripture readings tonight? What about the short paragraph before each reading. I’m talking about the parts describing the marginalized and downtrodden in society; how they were the the one’s God chose to appear to, not the high-and-mighty religious folk snug in their pews every Sunday. Sound familiar? I know that you like everything to be “just so” and that the little boy’s squeals of delight over the new sights and sounds of church were too out of the ordinary and disruptive to your comfortable little church life. Did it ever occur to you that the reason why Jesus came was to hang out with the people you just cursed? Has it occurred to you that your actions may have pushed two people and, by extension, their children, away from church? Is it any wonder that our churches are shrinking when folks like you are doing your best to scare people away?

Please, don’t ever let me catch you doing anything like that again at my church. Next time I don’t think I will be able to contain myself.