Servant of the Lord – December 24, 2017

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Sermon Preached by the Reverend Louise Kalemkerian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 24, 2017

In the name of our God Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.  AMEN.

Every year on the 4th Sunday of Advent we get a Gospel about Mary. Today it’s about her visit from the angel Gabriel. It’s always a challenge to preach about Mary because there is so much in the lore and teaching of the Church that is… well, hard to talk about. What I mean is Mary is not all she is made up to be.

The Church has taught that she was meek, mild, and submissive, and then has held up that as a role model for women of every generation.  That we were all supposed to be like Mary, pure, obedient, self-effacing, submissive, docile, the “model” Christian believer. Doctrines have been written around this picture of her to subjugate women, to remind us that we were less than the male half of creation, and in some traditions to keep us from leadership roles.  Thanks be to God not in the Episcopal Church. As a matter of fact church doctrines have been written to say that Mary was perpetually a virgin and born without sin.  Which of course would remove her from the realm of ordinary women, like half of us here,

We celebrate and honor Mary because she was an ordinary, though amazingly special woman. Luke’s is the only gospel in which Mary’s story appears, and in his account there is nothing submissive nor immature about her. Luke is telling us this extraordinary story not for its historical accuracy but rather to explain who God is and how God relates to human beings and how human beings relate to God.

According to Luke, the Angel approached her with words of great honor:  Hail Mary, full of grace, or as our text puts it, Greetings, favored one! Many artists paint the angel kneeling, in recognition of the honor given to her. The angel is explicit; the honor, the favor, is for the grace that is distinctly hers.

It is Mary’s grace that has attracted God’s attention. And what is this grace? It is what Luke shows us in her conversation and her actions – courage, boldness, grit, ringing convictions about justice. Not submissive meekness.  Grace is not submission.  And the power of God is never meek.

Yes, she is startled by the presence of the angel.  So were Gideon, Jacob, Jonah, and the shepherds of Bethlehem, to name a few, who, like Mary, questioned the angel in wonder, doubt, and even resistance.  They are noted for their reluctance.  Why not she?  What sort of greeting is this? she asked. And the angel obliged her with an explanation. Later, she challenged the angel: How shall this happen to me, when I have no husband? God chose a spunky woman.[1]

Mary’s 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 as she contemplated whether she was really having a vision or her imagination was playing tricks on her.  The Gospel account says that she easily assented to Gabriel’s pronouncement, with only one question. You think? Only one? 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.

And, as the saying goes, the rest is history. I don’t know how, and greater minds than mine haven’t explained it either. Yet, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” the angel is quoted saying. This is the only explanation we’re given about how she conceived. Mary went on to become the mother of Jesus; we’ll tell the story of the baby’s birth later today.  A mother like every other mother, who loved and nurtured and raised her child to the best of her abilities.  All the other honorifics the Church has given her, BVM, Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, are just titles.

For me she first is Jesus’ mom, the woman who heard his first words, taught him his Aleph, Beit, Gimel , who packed his lunchbox and sent him to school. Most importantly Mary taught him to love and serve God and love and honor others, to seek out those on the margins, to respect and include women, to empower the disempowered, to speak truth to power, to forgive, to accept, to include. These were the most important lessons Jesus learned. From his mother. Surely the experience was a mixed one for Mary herself. I believe that saying “yes” to God did indeed bring joy to Mary, but that “yes” was also the beginning of terrible responsibility and heartache for her, heartache that would extend all the way to Good Friday.[2]

Mary is the woman who sang the Magnificat, and taught it to her son, a political statement in the tradition of the OT prophets.  It is none other than a manifesto, calling for the upheaval of the social order, delivered fairly publicly, in the home Zechariah, a temple priest, who is married to her cousin Elizabeth, who is also pregnant, with John the Baptist. In Mary’s manifesto there is evidence of deep thought, strong conviction, and a good deal of political savvy.

What a sad irony:  as we hear Mary’s song today, our Congress passed a tax overhaul this week that reinforces just the opposite of what Mary’s song and the gospels envision. Let’s be clear. In this country we can have any political beliefs we want, even those that hold to a prosperity Gospel, even political views that decrease taxes on the wealthy while shrinking relief programs for the poor. But no one should think that those beliefs are truths and opinions of Jesus. From the prophets which informed the Jesus story, from the birth narratives to the parables and beyond, there is a single witness about poverty and those left out of the mainstream. God has a preference for the poor, the marginalized, the refugee, the weakest among us. They are to be honored, not vilified.[3] Mary knew that. Her song tells us so.  And you and I are called to pay attention.

In its entirety, the great mystery of this amazing Christmas story we’re hearing these days is that it makes us more human. In this story God enters the ordinariness of human life to make it extraordinary. God’s coming close enhances the genuine humanness for which we were born—not to make us other worldly, as religion is sometimes accused of doing, but to show us how to transform this world.

Which is what the whole of Scripture is telling us.  That God loves us so much that God comes to us, each of us, and invites us into relationship.  God has loved us, each of us, from the time God “knit us together in our mother’s womb.”[4] Whether we’ve responded to God or not, God has loved us, and continues to love us, and will never stop loving us. This is the message of Mary, this is the message of Jesus, this is what the Good News of God in Christ is all about.

And God works through each of us, no matter our concerns or questions or doubts.  God works with us and in us, as we are today, not as we should be or promise to be or try to be but as we are in this moment. God loves us and will never let us go. In the words of 13th c. German mystic Meister Eckhart, like Mary we are all called to be mothers of God – for God is always waiting to be born.  May we join with Mary and respond, Here am I, the servant of the Lord; l

[1] Nancy Rockwell, “No More Lying About Mary,” December 15, 2015.

[2] Elizabeth DeSimone, Waiting for God.  Quoted in Synthesis, December 19, 2017.

[3] Melissa Bane Sevier, “Mary’s Song and the Tax Plan,” Christian Century blogs, December 15, 2017.

[4] Psalm 139.

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