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Are you ready? Do you have everything together? You must. You have time for church today. Most folks are saving their church time for tomorrow. So maybe this crowd is the calm, the cool, the collected. Maybe not. The fourth week of Advent is really short this year. The last candle won’t burn very long, but before the season is over, we will spend some time with Mary. Mary spends three months with her cousin Elizabeth, and we don’t have that kind of time, but I think it is important we spend some time with Mary, in light of all that is going on in our world.
We have some baggage about Mary, so let’s unpack that for a minute. We Protestants tend to get spooked by the Mother of Jesus, because well, isn’t she a Catholic? Incidentally, one of my favorite things to look for when I visit a Roman Catholic church is the statue of Mary, particularly in Latin America. Almost invariably she has her hands folded in prayer, and almost always someone has draped a rosary over her hands. The idea of Mary praying the rosary just makes me giggle. Can you hear her? “Hail me, full of grace, the Lord is with Me. Blessed am I among women…” I always get a chuckle out of that. So for you who are suspicious of Mary on theological grounds, I want to assure you that the Gospel of Luke was written a long time before Mary converted to Catholicism. We can talk about Mary in the Episcopal church.
What I really want to unpack about Mary comes from the Gospel of Luke.. Of the Gospel writers, Luke is really the Walt Disney. Luke is the Gospel we read at Christmas, because Luke gives us the shepherds and the angels, he gives us the manger and the flocks by night. Luke gives us the good story, the Disney version Mary is sort of the Disney princess of the first chapters of Luke’s Gospel. Think about it. She even bursts into song in today’s Gospel. The Mary we get in Luke is probably about as close to the Mary of history as Disney’s Pocahantas was to her real life counterpart.
Disney is great when you’re a little kid in a pageant. But Luke was writing 90-100 years after the story occurred, and Luke cleaned up the story. I think is important to move beyond the Disney princess Mary. We have to read between the lines in Luke’s story if we’re going to get a clearer picture of Mary, Jesus’ mother. The Mary of history is very different from the traditions that have grown up around her.
From what we know, Mary was young: 12 or 14. Mary was poor. This was an inopportune time to find out she was pregnant. We can understand why Mary would run, with haste, to her cousin Elizabeth. After she finds out she’s pregnant, she doesn’t run to Joseph. How can she tell her fiance she is pregnant? He thinks she is a Virgin. So she runs away. Mary is a scared teenage girl who runs away, far off to a town in the hills of Judea, to her favorite cousin’s house. She spends three months getting herself together. Elizabeth reassures her. She has a sense that all will be well. Her own child kicked when Mary showed up, surely that is a sign. God is with them.
For me, the lesson Mary learns over those three months with is really captured in the third line of her song. “God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” Mary is feeling low. She is scared and frustrated and so she runs off to the Judean hill country. But there in those three months, Mary learned to see her situation as a blessing. Mary began to believe that God could work in and through this incredibly difficult situation. Mary found faith in a God who could bring blessing out of pain.
Mary learned the hard lesson of the spiritual life. Faith is not about having your life all together. Faith is not about having answers. In fact, if you have all the answers, if you have it all together, you can’t have faith. You don’t need faith if you have everything all together, if you have all the answers. Faith is for the confused and the frustrated. Faith is for the downtrodden and the brokenhearted. Faith is for people who don’t have the answers. Faith is for all of us human beings struggling to make sense of life.
Faith is for those of us struggling to make sense of what is happening in our world. I have to tell you that my experience of the past week, and what has gone on in Newtown Connecticut has a particular slant. I went to a charter school just a few miles from Columbine High, and I was in my sophomore English class on the afternoon of April 20, 1999 when I heard what happened. Kids I had known since kindergarten hid under tables in the cafeteria as their classmates perpetrated that terrible school shooting.
I hate that Columbine did not spell the end of violence in schools. In light of the events of Newtown, I join the Bishop of Washington in calling for better overall gun control with specific bans on assault weapons. I join the Bishop in calling for better access to mental health care. There is a time for prayer, and there is a time for action. This is a time for both. We need new policies about guns and mental health in this country, and we have needed them for a long long time, too long.
These policies need to focus on the health of all of our communities, ALL. The events in Newtown were particularly tragic, but they are also, tragically, not unique. Children die as a result of violence far too often in this city and in this country. I remember people saying about Columbine, “if it could happen here, it could happen anywhere.” Let’s be honest, Columbine was not a racially diverse school, it was not an economically diverse school. Columbine received magnified attention because people were surprised that violence was happening at an upper-middle-class white suburban high school. We don’t always hear as much from the media. We have come to expect violence in certain neighborhoods and communities. This is wrong. God dreams for more for us than EXPECTING VIOLENCE.
I think we need to spend some time with Mary, the real Mary, not the Disney-fied Mary, because she helps us understand what it means to be a person of faith in a dark time. I believe in Mary, a scared teenage girl who ran away when she found out she was pregnant. I believe she felt humiliated and frustrated. I believe she felt like her world was coming to an end.
I believe God met Mary, in those frightening three months, like God meets us. I believe God comes to us in what can seem like the darkest moments of our life. In the midst of terror, in the midst of frustration, when we are at our wit’s end, that is when we need God. Faith is for the frustrated. Faith is for those who don’t have the answers. Faith is for people who need some help. Faith is for people who dream of a better world.
Something happened to Mary between the lines of our Gospel reading this morning. She changed from the scared girl who ran away into the Mother of Jesus, strong enough to bear with God through humiliating circumstances. Mary’s most ancient title is theokotos, the God bearer. It is one of the difficult and beautiful teachings of the Christian faith. Mary, that scared teenage girl, brings God’s presence into the world. God chooses to be born in the midst of suffering. That girl who ran away somehow, through faith, becomes the one who brings God’s presence into the world.
We are, all of us, bearers of God, like Mary. In little, humble, simple, ways we all help God to be born in each others lives. Giving birth to God’s presence isn’t easy. Bearing God means learning to have faith in the midst of pain. Bearing God means facing derision, means facing suffering. But our world needs us to bear God. We can be bearers of God in the way we legislate. We can be bearers of God in the way we do business. We can be bearers in God in the way we forgive one another. We can be bearers of God in the way we shape our communities. We can be bearers of God in the way we laugh, and cry together. All of our souls can magnify the Lord. This Christmas are you ready? Will you bear God to this broken and yet beautiful world?
The final Sunday of Advent, in the gospel we hear from St. Luke, we learn Farrelly brothers had it, at least partially, right: there IS Something about Mary.
I don’t know if you have heard about a billboard that was put up by St. Matthew’s Anglican Church this Advent in Auckland, New Zealand. The billboard has received a lot of international attention. In many ways the billboard portrait of Mary fits our traditional picture. Mary is surrounded with just enough flowing green and red robe to evoke the Renaissance paintings. She is blonde, and has that certain otherworldly glow. In many ways the billboard is like all of the other images we have of Mary. But this billboard is different. Mary’s eyes are scared and she covers her mouth with one hand. In the other hand, she holds a home pregnancy test, with two little blue lines.
The image had caused no small amount of ire from traditionalists, but the vicar of St. Matthew’s defends the work, as an invitation, an invitation to reconsider the story of Mary, the story we hear today.
From what we know, Mary was young: 12 to 14. Mary was still unmarried, though things were going well with Joe, the carpenter. Mary was poor. This was an inopportune time to find out she was pregnant. Luke’s version, written 90-100 years after the fact, probably, I am guessing, improves on the situation. The Gospel writer wasn’t there, recording the conversation verbatim. St. Luke was not writing history, the way we think of history. Luke’s genre was Gospel, “Good News,” so we should not be surprised if he has cleaned the story up a bit. It should surprise no one in Washington to hear that the news, even the Good News, always comes with a little bit of spin.
When you read the Bible, I really encourage you to take your time. Any student of the Bible, like any student of literature, or history, or psychology knows that you have to listen as much for what is NOT said, as for what is said. Today’s Gospel story, the story of Mary, is a great example. If you want the full story, you have to pause and listen for what is being said between the lines:
And the angel came to her and said “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words, and wondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Remember, Mary is 12 or 13. How many 12 or 13 year old girls do you know? How seriously do they take greetings? How seriously do they take ANYTHING? I used to work summer camps largely with early teenagers. Twelve and thirteen year old girls have a great deal of perplexity, a great deal of wonder, and they come with a great deal of eye-rolling.
But what the Angel tells her next is the frightening part. The billboard has her fear right. She will conceive and bear a son. Mary’s question: “How Can this be?”
Don’t mistake it, this story in many ways is a story of loss. The angel’s announcement, the awareness of her unplanned pregnancy, it changes the game. Mary had it planned out. She would marry Joseph. They would by that condo in Nazareth; he made pretty good money after all. Maybe in a couple of years they would have a couple of kids. The schools were pretty good in the neighborhood. I’m reading in between the lines here, but you have to a bit. Mary would have had plans for her life. She was a bride-to-be. Mary, had some plans. And Mary had to lay those plans down. There was a moment, even if it was only a moment, recorded even by Luke, when the Incarnation did not seem like good news to Mary.
Mary’s question is so often our question when faced with loss: “How can this be?”
“How can this be?” is the question of parents who hear their child has been born with severe autism.
“How can this be?” is the question of the worker who is “downsized” after twenty years service to a business.
“How can this be?” is the question of the high school senior who had always planned to go to her dream college, and receives a letter that begins “we regret to inform you.”
“How can this be?” is a very human question, the question so many of us ask when we face loss in our lives.
BUT the story does not end there.
The story does not end with loss. In fact, the loss is only a moment, an important moment, a game-changing moment, but only a moment. The words of the Angel ring true. “Nothing is impossible with God.” If you take anything home this Advent. If you take anything home from church ever, let it be the words of the angel: “nothing is impossible with God.”
Still I wonder how long it took Mary to respond. It only takes until the next sentence in Luke’s Gospel, but I doubt it was ACTUALLY that instantaneous. The loss of a dream takes time to accept. I wonder how many minutes, days, weeks, even months, it took Mary. I wonder how long it took Mary to utter her line, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
The Good News, for us, is that Mary does utter her line. Mary becomes a paradigm for Christians facing the loss of their dreams. Mary is known, especially in the Eastern Church, as the God-bearer, the Theotokos. Mary reminds us to bear with God, to bear with God even through the pain of loss. Mary becomes the paradigm of looking for God’s good news, even when your own life is not going as planned. The image of Mary on that billboard in New Zealand invites us to see this side of Mary, an important side for all of us who share the human condition, a condition that often comes with the frustration of our dreams, the perplexity of grief and loss.
Next week we will celebrate the birth of Christ, the one who comes into the world, but that celebration would be impossible without Mary’s acceptance, without Mary’s decision to bear with God through the confusing and frustrating.
I want to finish this sermon by reading a few lines from a poem by John of the Cross, who I think captures Mary and Advent so well:
If you want
the Virgin will come walking down the road
pregnant with the holy,
“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart,
my time is so close.”
as she grasps your hand for help, for each of us
is the midwife of God, each of us.
as God grasps our arms for help; for each of us is
His beloved servant
If you want, the Virgin will come walking
down the street pregnant
with Light and sing …
If you want.
May God be with you as God was with Mary. May God help you bear through the difficulties of life. May God be with you as you prepare for God’s coming into your life. Amen.