Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mary Sang and John Danced...

This sermon got its fuel through the generosity of my Twitterfriends. I started a conversation about us Protestants not knowing what to do abouot Mary, and received lots of suggestions and eye-opening guidance from Keke Pounds, Minister Bob Chapman, Rev. Heather Dethloff, and Rev. Katie Mulligan. While only Heather's quote made it into the sermon, they were all instrumental in helping me see important messages in the Lucan account of Mary and Elizabeth.

Honestly, it never ceases to amaze me, this phenomenon of social networking. This past week, the loose group that identifies itself by the #outlawpreachers hashtag on Twitter lost one of our own. Gideon Addington, whose Tillich quote helped write my sermon two weeks back, passed away. To one degree or another, many of us have been reeling from this, - shock, raqe, loss, it's all there. By all appearances Gideon should have been no more than a collection of letters in groups of 140 characters or less. Instead, I've lost a friend, somehow.

I've got no real smooth way to transition from that into the message, so I won't try. I look forward to your comments.

Luke 1:39-55
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."
And Mary said,
"My soul magnifies the LORD,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

This is the Word of the Lord.

She woke up in that breathless, shocked kind of way that says she hadn't realized she'd gone to sleep in the first place. Her mind had raced all night, replaying again and again what she had seen, what she had heard, how she had answered when the angel revealed her destiny. It had been so exciting, the thrill of being used by God to bring the Messiah into the world!

But now, in the stark light of day, she began to see the trouble ahead. A virgin with child? Yeah, right. She was barely even engaged, and now she could kiss marriage to Joseph goodbye. Her parents were going to freak when they found out!

Just then she thought about Elizabeth, about that strange story circulating about her pregnancy – Her husband had been struck mute, hadn't said a word since the day he had performed his priestly duties in the Holy of Holies.

It had gotten out that he'd seen an angel who had prophesied about Elizabeth having a child, and lo and behold she was six months along by now! And oh, how the gossip mill was grinding over that one! Surely, if anyone would know what to do, if anyone would believe her at all, it would be Elizabeth!

Her parents were more than willing to let Mary go; Elizabeth was a relative, after all, and not getting any younger, so having Mary there to help around the house made perfect sense.

I can imagine that, as she walked the road to Elizabeth's house, Mary's spirits lifted and her thoughts soared. Imagine – God chose her, a teenager from a backwater town, as the one to bring the Hope of Israel into the world! At last, after all these centuries, these thousands of years of waiting, the Messiah would enter into the world!

It seems like we Protestants only really talk about this unwed teenage mother once a year, this Sunday before Christmas. Yet there she is, kicking up the dust of the narrow country road as she hurries to Elizabeth's house – she is what Reverend Heather Morgan Dethloff calls “the first evangelist,” and her response to Elizabeth's excited and prophetic greeting – “My soul magnifies the LORD, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior...” was “her first sermon.”

But this was more than a sermon, more than a song. It was prophesy.

God had for too long been transcendent, remote, and unreachable. In many ways, it could be argued that this remoteness was something that humankind – or at least the part of humankind with voice and authority – found comfortable. A God who was appeased by sacrifices and communicated to through a professional priesthood (if at all) was in many senses a predictable, a controllable deity. If the only way to God is through a priest or some religious official, then both the people and, in some sense, God, can be kept in a manageable position.

But a God that can be controlled, predicted, limited, held at arm's length? That is no God at all.

Anyone who reads Scripture consciously can see that this transcendent God fully intended all along to be immanent, to be present with Creation, to be involved and invested and immediate! All of the sacrifices are done away with in that once-for-all sacrifice of God made flesh! The barriers to all of humankind being in direct relationship to their loving Creator are, like the Temple veil, forever torn away! And now, as Mary sings her song, as Elizabeth's son dances in her womb, that great day of Emmanuel, God-With-Us, is at hand!

At hand... but, as Mary sings and John leaps with joy, (and like so many things in our spiritual journey), not yet. Scripture tells us that Mary and Elizabeth stayed together for three months. Reverend Kate Huey quotes Henri Nouwen, saying “'For three months Mary and Elizabeth live together and encourage each other to truly accept the motherhood given to them.'” Huey goes on, “As Nouwen reads this story, neither woman had to wait alone for the extraordinary events to unfold, slowly, as pregnancies do: 'They could wait together and thus deepen in each other their faith in God, for whom nothing is impossible. Thus, God's most radical intervention into history was listened to and received in community.'”

This final week of Advent, we are reminded that we, too, wait. And like Mary and Elizabeth, we wait not as individuals, but as community – as the Body of Christ. We wait not just to celebrate the fist coming of Christ as to experience that “meteor of grace” that will be Christ's second coming! Like Mary and Elizabeth, we wait in community... supporting, guiding, and most of all praying for one another. Timothy Mulder writes, "here is a preface for Emmanuel. We humans are not meant to go through the tough or the wonderful alone. Both need to be shared.”

And we Resurrection people share not only with one another, but with the risen Christ, through that same Holy Spirit which gave the good news to Elizabeth, which gave Mary song.

Whatever gifts await us under the tree, whatever Santa brings, we share with one another that greatest of gifts – Christ has come, has died, and has risen again! And that same Christ both lives in us, unites us as His Body – and will come again!

Thanks be to God!

1 comment:

  1. John, with no disrespect for our Catholic and Orthodox bretheren intended, perhaps our ambigious treatment of Mary is a good thing. She was necessary; a wonderful, faithful woman, and deserving of mention, but how many times in a year do we really cover John The Baptist? I'd have to think the same principle applies here.

    We mention her once a year and our Catholic and Orthodox families nearly deify her. Where we err is in not hammering home the servant's heart she possessed. There isn't enough talk about servanthood in our circles.

    This critique was done without the benefit of coffee, therefore it may not be the most coherent thing I've ever wrote.