Sermon preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday of Advent – December 21, 2014
In the name of our God of endless possibilities, who is Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Amen.
Today, on this last Sunday of Advent we get the story of the Annunciation, the announcement to Mary. Our text renders the angel’s salutation as “greetings, favored one”. That’s not as striking as the more common, “Hail Mary, full of grace” that is known by many of us. And besides, it doesn’t rhyme with my favorite prayer, “Hail Mary, full of grace, help me find a parking space.” Maybe you know that prayer too.
I am very fond of the BVM, a/k/a the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, and a host of other titles and honorifics that the Church has given her. I’m devoted to her for a number of reasons, the first of which is that she’s a woman, and there aren’t a whole lot of women who are honored in Scripture. And she has a hugely important place in our salvation history.
I like Mary because she is strong, a woman of courage and audacity, a woman who speaks truth to power, who exudes self-confidence even in what was a very scary situation, who encourages and supports her cousin Elizabeth, and is a really good mom. I’d like to be all of the above, at least most of the time. Meanwhile, by societal standards, Mary was a non-person, a female child, who wasn’t allowed to make any decisions for herself, but had to have those made by her parents, or her betrothed.
It is not a coincidence that each year on the 4th Sunday of Advent the Church places Mary before us in the Gospel lesson and says to us, “there’s something to be learned here.” So what is it that Mary is teaching us?
Of course there’s the standard line about Mary being obedient to God’s will. And being the icon of obedience in our lives. This is the position of the patriarchal church. Mary was not a shrinking violet. Mary was active, dynamic, and the song she sang was explicitly revolutionary, envisioning a world where the proud and arrogant are sent packing, where the influential are toppled from their thrones and seats of power, where the poor are lifted up and the rich are sent away empty. These are anti-empire words, anti-power words, anti-affluence words, words that imagine a new social and political order, words that imagine a radical leveling of the playing field.
Mary’s ready acceptance of the angel Gabriel’s announcement was probably not as straightforward as Luke’s Gospel portrays it. Perhaps there was little bit of hesitation, like the thoughts flashing through her mind of what her parents or Joseph would say, or wondering whether she was really having a vision or her imagination was playing tricks on her. The Gospel account, which, by the way, was written 70 years later, says that she easily assented to Gabriel’s pronouncement, with only one question. You think? Gabriel tells Mary about her relative Elizabeth’s old-age pregnancy, as proof that “nothing will be impossible with God.” And then Gabriel waits for Mary’s response. Maybe she told Gabriel, “I’ll have to get back to you on this.”
And Mary did. Whatever her immediate reaction, in the end, Mary chooses to take the risk. Mary says Yes to Gabriel. Mary says Yes to God. Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.
There was something in her nature that allowed her to trust God, even if what she was hearing made no sense at all. She heard the angel’s request as God’s dream, and she agreed.
What do you suppose God dreams of today? I think God dreams about peace and racial reconciliation and gun control and marriage equality, about an end to poverty and Ebola and cancer, about an end to homophobia and patriarchy, about a world where all persons live in harmony with one another. I think God dreams about a world where children are valued and educated and not murdered or used as pawns as we saw in Pakistan this week. I think God dreams about a world where swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber. I think God dreams of a world where Mary’s song becomes a reality. Mary’s son Jesus called this the Kingdom of God.
Are these impossible dreams? Mary didn’t think so. Elizabeth didn’t think so. Mary was open to God and trusted that she was loved by God, and so was willing to be available to live out God’s dream. Certainly she had no idea how hard it would be, and even knowing the prospective disapproval of her family and friends, she was ready to do what God needed to be done. Emergent Church leader Brian McLaren says, “Perhaps the actual point of these pregnancy stories… is a challenge to us all: dare to hope, like Elizabeth and Mary, that the seemingly impossible is possible.”
How often does God surprise us? The Bible is filled with stories of God doing surprising, wondrous, seemingly impossible things: Isaac being born to Sarah, manna raining down from heaven to sustain the Israelites, Mary and Elizabeth giving birth to miraculous babies. All of these stories should remind us that with God all things are possible.
Yet when God does the seemingly impossible in our own lives, we are still surprised. When God heals our emotional wounds, bridges gaps and renews relationships, opens our eyes to new possibilities, we are caught off guard. How would our everyday lives change if we started expecting the unexpected, if we expected God to work in mysterious, wonderful, and awesome ways? Our God is not a God of the mundane and every day. Our God is a marvelous and awesome God of surprises. Our challenge is to start to believe in our heart of hearts that, with God, truly all things are possible and that God loves us beyond our wildest imaginations and wants wholeness for us all.
Recently a memory of mine surfaced, one that had lain dormant for about a hundred years, a memory of myself as a child, maybe 5 or so, playing, pretending, I was a priest. Children play all kinds of pretend games. And you have to know that I came out of a tradition that still does not ordain women. I recall standing in our living room, standing on a little box, with a blanket around my shoulders mimicking the chasuble Armenian Orthodox priests wear, singing hymns from the liturgy and preaching. There were family members in the room, and I guess they all thought it was cute. My family humored me, believing that it was just childish play. Because then as now women couldn’t be priests. This memory resurfaced this week as I was reading this lesson. Here I am all these years later, a priest, because nothing is impossible with God.
This Annunciation Sunday reminds us that Mary stood in the tradition of prophets of Israel, who envisioned and called their people to a new order, a new way of doing business, God’s way, where those on the margins were brought to the center. And we might say, like mother, like son, for Jesus was about affirming and including and upholding those whom the culture and society had marginalized, the sick, the poor, outsiders, prostitutes and lepers, the utterly powerless.
Mary teaches us is that God uses ordinary persons to accomplish extraordinary things. Mary follows in a long line of unimportant folk whom God raises us and empowers to do important things.
Mary teaches us that God can— and does—break into our lives in ways we can’t imagine, and when we least expect it. We can choose to cooperate, to go along with the divine plan, even when it seems impossible or scandalous. Or we can choose to say, No thanks.
Hope is the heart of this story, and the truth of this story. God’s hope for the world, borne into the world by a young peasant woman who said Yes to God.
God’s hope for the world continues to be borne into the world, in seemingly impossible circumstances, every time any of us says Yes to God.
When any of us says Yes to God, Christmas comes—not all sweetness and ease, but firmly, steadily, shining through bleakness and struggle.
Greetings, favored ones. God loves us.
The Lord is with us.
Do not be afraid.
Let it be with us according to God’s word.