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”?

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Sermon for September 4, 2016

Preached at the Church of St John the Divine, Victoria BC

Text: Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Psalm 139

Audio here

 

Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words…

But before we go: Put down whatever you are working on – the dishes can wait until later, and that TV show is already on Netflix.  Put down whatever you are thinking about, whatever is distracting you – the shopping list can be put together later, and there will be plenty of time after church to plan the rest of the long-weekend. Because together we have been asked to step out of our home, step out of our office, step out of our comfortable pew, and go for a short walk.

We are going down to the potter’s house – perhaps it is an unfamiliar place, because we’re more likely to pick up a new piece of pottery at the mall or at the market than we are to visit the potter’s home studio… But maybe in this unfamiliar place we might be better able to hear and see and smell the words of God.

The potter’s house is just over there – around that corner. Watch out for the step and mind your head as we duck through the door. It feels a little close inside, but don’t worry, there is plenty of room for us all. God has invited us here to hear her words.

As we listen for the word of God, look around you, see and smell and hear the sights and smells and sounds of the potter at work – the whirr of the wheel, the smell of fresh clay, the cool splashes of water used to work the clay, and the bright colours of already glazed and fired vessels on the shelf on the far side of the room. There is such a difference between the two: this malleable clay being moved around on the wheel by the potter’s firm but gentle hands – compared with the brightly painted, gleaming, hard vessels lining the shelf, waiting to be sold and used.

As we watch, the potter pulls the clay off of the wheel, reshapes it, and begins again. And as we see the new vessel emerge out of the hands of the potter from the lump of clay on the wheel, it occurs to you that this transformation would no longer be possible with those brightly glazed vessels over on the shelf.  This clay held lovingly in the potter’s hands has not yet been fired. And unlike fired clay that has dried and shrunk, hardened into a permanent structure and shape, and become rigid and brittle; this unfired clay is plastic and moldable. It can be shaped and reshaped over and over again. It is flexible and responsive. It is a material of possibility.

Not moldable so that the potter can do whatever they desire with the clay, but left unfired so that it can constantly be worked and reworked – as flaws are found in the clay, they can be removed. As strengths are found, they can be built on. The hands of the potter are so sensitive that they can feel all of these strong points and weak points in the clay with the tenderest of touches…

 

Lord, you have searched me out and known me, you know my sitting down and my rising up, you discern my thoughts from afar.
You press upon me behind and before and lay your hand upon me.
Where can I go from your spirit? 
For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I will thank you because I am marvellously made; your works are wonderful and I know it well.
My body was not hidden from you, while I was being made in secret and woven in the depths of the earth…

And then you remember those creation stories: God scooped up clay, scooped up dust from the earth and formed it to become a person. As the Creator leaned over the clay, shaping it, the air and water that makes up breath was breathed into the clay, giving it life.  Not to become dry, rigid, brittle vessels, but flexible, responsive vessels – every pore of the unfired clay still filled with the Living Water that continues to give life day after day after day

And those individually formed, intricately knit, wonderful human bodies come together to create an even bigger living vessel that we see here today: the church. Not a hard or rigid structure – beautiful and shiny, but only good for one or two things and certainly not flexible – though some days our physical plant may feel hard and inflexible – but a living, breathing, flexible, responsive vessel that is continually being shaped and reshaped as strong points and weak points are found: building on the strong and reshaping to shore up the weak. Changing and responsively reshaping over and over as more living water is added to the clay.

Not so that the potter can have their way with the clay, arbitrarily making it into whatever they desire – plucking up, breaking down, building, or planting at will, but a mutual responsiveness : as the clay responds to the potter and the potter to the clay, so we respond to God and God to us.

Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words

Rather the words we hear is this analogy we see in the potter’s house:  God did not shape us – as individuals, as a community – once and for all: we have not been fired in the kiln and set on the shelf waiting our one single, specialized purpose. We are clay that has not yet been fired. God’s plans for our community, this church, as we hear from Jeremiah, are not fixed or hardened in clay.  God says to Jeremiah that God’s plan to build up a people may be thwarted by their choice not to go along with that.  On the other hand, we hear that God’s plan to pull down a kingdom that has become strong by taking advantage of the poor and marginalized may not happen if the people turn from that behaviour. God responds to us responding to God…

God cannot and will not make us do anything. We have gifts here in this place – oh so many gifts and talents – but God will not make us use them if we do not choose to.  The shape of our lives and the shape of our life together in this community is not fixed. Like unfired clay, we remain supple. We become formed into our particular shape through living and worshipping together… Because unfired clay has endless possibilities… Education, common practices, the gifts we have and choose to use and share – they shape us and form us into what we are.

But in it all, God announces her desire for us to return to communion with each other and with God – that we might be formed into the image and likeness of God as we respond to the potter’s tender hand.

Sermon for August 14, 2016

Preached at the Church of St John the Divine, Victoria BC

Text: Luke 12:49-56

Audio here

 

It is one of those weeks when curates and associates across the country have a few words to say to their rectors who have taken today off and left us to preach on this particularly challenging set of readings.

Take our gospel reading this morning, for instance, what do we do when Jesus seems to contradict himself? Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!

Was Jesus just having a bad day on the way to Jerusalem? How else can we reconcile what we read in today’s gospel with what we read in the rest of Luke’s gospel and in other places in the Holy Scriptures?

For example, there is Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, where the shepherds are told that Jesus’ birth is to bring peace on earth…

Or there is that passage familiar to many, interpreted by the New Testament writers to be about Jesus, where the prophet Isaiah says that the divine child to be born will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace

And what about in the gospel of John where Jesus is reported to say Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. 

Why on earth would Jesus say that he has not come to bring peace to the earth but division when – everything – else – we know – and – read about Jesus — is that he comes to bring peace?

 

In our sermon circle gathering this week, I posed the question, “Is peace the opposite of division?” That is, are peace and division opposed to each other? Can there be peace where there is division or can division exist amidst peace?

I’m not sure that we ever came to a final decision at sermon circle. Certainly, Jesus’ words seem to suggest that peace and division are opposites, but I am not convinced.

Why would Jesus say that he has not come to bring peace after all of the peace that is proclaimed by and about him throughout the Scriptures?

Let us consider peace.

We might think of peace as being merely the absence of war or conflict.

And that may be so. But I suspect there is more to it than that.

 

By way of example, let us turn our minds back in time to a small, out of the way, unimportant village in a small, out of the way province, in a big big empire.

There, the countryside is simmering with tension that threatens to boil over any day. It did a few months ago, when reports suggest that hundreds, if not thousands of people who had rebelled against the empire were brutally killed by crucifixion, their crosses lining the roads out of Sepphoris, not far chronologically or geographically from when and where Jesus grew up in Nazareth. Yet this time period, the one into which Jesus was born, is one that is often called peaceful because it existed under the Peace of Rome.

The shadow of Rome might be more accurate. Because while there is no longer any open war in the streets or countryside, it is an occupied territory and the citizens who are being occupied are not entirely happy with the situation. And so while on the surface there seems to be peace, Jesus and his disciples know full well that it is not peaceful.

So it makes sense that Jesus would not want to bring that peace, when the rulers of the land say that they have already brought peace. Because the Peace of Rome was a peace sustained through bloodshed and show of power. If Jesus had said that he was also bringing that peace, I can imagine folks around him saying, “more of the “peace” that mighty leaders bring? More deaths? More oppression? No thanks Jesus, take your “peace” elsewhere…”

 

We have peace in Canada, in Victoria, don’t we?

There is no war, no tyrannical leaders who we avoid speaking out against for fear of imprisonment. No major threats to our lives.

Sure, we might not speak up in a meeting when we think we will be the lone dissenting voice on a major commitment of the group, but it is better to keep the peace and have a false sense of unity, right?

Or we might avoid talking about certain issues with family members or friends… we might feel that remaining on “peaceful” terms with everyone is more important than calling out our brother-in-law or neighbour on their racist or sexist comments.

And of course we will never change anything in church, because we can’t if we want peaceful worship – someone might not like the change and therefore keeping the peace means no changes – right?

But in all seriousness – when did “peace” come to mean that we all have to always agree about everything? Or all be / think / act / and worship in exactly the same way for all time? Do we really think that “keeping the peace” means giving in or, the opposite of that, that “making peace” means forcing our will on everyone else so that we can all be in agreement? When did peace come to mean no divisions? Because despite all of our attempts for peace as the end of all divisions, divisions remain.

It is somewhat reassuring to hear Jesus say that there were divisions then too. Even with Jesus present day-in-day-out, the disciples still experienced division. Just a few chapters earlier in Luke, the disciples were arguing over who amongst themselves was greater!  So, division exited between the disciples.  But even while they were arguing over who was the greatest, they were discovering the difference that Jesus’ peace can bring.

And even though they were at odds with the rulers of the empire – and even their own families at times – they were at peace with following Jesus. Enough peace so that they would follow Jesus into persecution and death.

Jesus is letting those gathered around him know that following him and his way will not be easy. The gospel will not always bring harmony. Families may be torn apart. Communities may disagree.

But is the gospel about all of humanity agreeing on everything all of the time? Is the end result that we desire to have everyone holding hands around a campfire and singing kumbaya?

 

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I do not give to you as the world gives. Peace I leave with you; MY peace I give to you…

Jesus did not bring peace as Rome brought peace – the false peace of military might – but brought the peace that passes all understanding to keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ. Not that divisions might be created, but that by naming that division and discord exist, we might enter into the roots of it and discover what it really is so that we might work for Jesus’ peace rather than the world’s peace.

I wonder if that is the grace in this difficult passage: Jesus’ permission for peace and division to not necessarily be at odds with each other. That it is okay for us to disagree – that it is about how we disagree rather than that we disagree.  Do we seek God’s will as the outcome, not our own interests or the interest of “keeping the peace”?  Do we, in the words of our baptismal covenant, have as our priority seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving our neighbour as ourselves and respecting the dignity of every human being?

Because in doing so, we have the opportunity to bring peace. Not the false peace that means suppression of all around us or the promotion of ourselves. And not the peace of military might. But the peace that is, in the words of the Iona liturgy: not an easy peace, not an insignificant peace, not a half-hearted peace, but the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ that is with us now…

Amen.