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Mary, Mother of our Lord

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“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 (Luke 1.39-40). A newly pregnant teenager makes for the hills. She doesn’t slow down until she reaches the home of her also-pregnant cousin.  She flees toward her kinswoman, toward refuge. She finds solidarity and sanctuary.

‘On a well-swept doorstep, two women meet to share the ancient, womanly experience of being with child. Mary and Elizabeth are two ordinary, pregnant women in the most extraordinary time and circumstances, on the brink of greatness, but first attending to their relationship with each other and with God. Motherhood is daunting for every woman, especially the first time, and these two women found themselves pregnant under most unusual and unexpected terms: one past the age to conceive, and the other unmarried. So, like women in every place and time, they spend time together, keeping each other company, learning and praying and perhaps laughing together, as they faced first-time childbirth and motherhood’ (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds).  

In his book, The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey, Henri Nouwen asks what must have gone through Mary’s mind?  “Who could ever understand? Who could ever believe it? Who could ever let it happen? The Angel’s proposed plan was preposterous and dangerous, but Mary said “yes!”  When her kinswoman welcomes her, she bursts into song — a song so subversive, governments twenty centuries later will ban its public recitation. According to scripture, Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, or until John after was born. Then returned home to an uncertain future with Joseph in Nazareth (Luke 1: 56).

John the Baptist proclaimed of Jesus, “His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:17). We must pause a moment to acknowledge the tragic and painful ways the beautiful story of Mary has been weaponized by the church against women. When the history of all the words said of Mary is laid before Jesus, a whole lot of unquenchable fire will be required to burn away the layers of misogyny and theological malpractice heaped upon Mary to obscure, nullify, and outright contradict her story.  How many women throughout history and across cultures have been bludgeoned with the cudgel of religious shame into self-loathing for failing to live up to the impossible standard of being both a virgin and a mother at the same time?

Yet, the self-righteous, the self-interested, the liars, bullies and Christmas marketing people could not steal the gospel from us. For them, Mary’s message contains surprises that will not be quiet. Mary’s spirit rejoices, not because Joseph bought her the perfect Christmas gift— but because “…[God] has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52b)  Mary’s song is essentially about social justice.

New Testament scholar Scott McKnight points out that in the 1980s, the government of Guatemala banned singing of Mary’s Magnificat for Christmas because, unlike Away in a Manger, this song was considered subversive and politically dangerous. “Authorities worried that it might incite the oppressed people to riot.” (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds)

The Magnificat was excluded from evening prayer in churches run by the British East India Company in colonial India. Years later, on the final day of imperial rule in India, Mahatma Gandhi requested Mary’s song be read everywhere the British flag was being lowered. The junta in Argentina forbade the singing of Mary’s song after the Mothers of the Disappeared displayed its words on placards in the capital plaza. And during the 1980s, the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador prohibited any public recitation of the song.

What made Mary’s song so dangerous?  Mary’s song of joy and faith is anthem of solidarity with the poor. “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:52a).  Mary and Elizabeth, like people of faith of every generation, expanded the powerful bond of their kinship with one another for belonging in the ever-widening circle of the kin-dom of God.  They shifted their allegiances and loyalties.  They went from living in an “us versus them” world, to a world of love, mercy, forgiveness, and grace for all.  That is why we celebrate Mary (and Elizabeth) today.  They are heroes of faith who show us the way to walk toward transformation and renewal by the way of the cross. 

Mary and Elizabeth afforded one another safety and strength through the gift of sanctuary.  Can we, like them, grow in our stated mission, striving to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace?  This month, our church, at its national Churchwide Assembly, voted to become a sanctuary denomination.  By this, the ELCA has publicly declared that walking alongside immigrants and refugees is a matter of faith. They affirmed that we are called to use our hands and voices in obedience to Jesus’ command to welcome the most vulnerable.  Specifically, the Churchwide Assembly’s resolution challenges us to seek for ways that we may provide concrete resources to respond to the needs of our human family who are suffering now—especially immigrants and asylum seekers.  This national resolution has drawn criticism for being too radical. Yet, in substance, how is it any different than Mary’s song? Mary’s song is a lullaby conjuring dreams of new worlds as we sleep.

This week, August 23-25, our nation commemorates the 400th anniversary of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  Most of us learned about the arrival of 102 passengers on the Mayflower in 1620. What you didn’t learn in history class was that a year earlier, August of 1619, 20 enslaved Africans from the Kingdom of Ndongo in Angola landed at Point Comfort (now in Virginia) on the White Lion, a 160-ton English privateer slave ship.  The transatlantic slave trade was the biggest forced migration of people in world history.

The Mother of Exiles, the Statue of Liberty has a broken shackle and chain laying at her feet as she walks forward, to commemorate the national abolition of slavery in 1865.  Could Mary’s song of solidarity be the cure that alludes us? Can we finally stand with the children of those who never knew welcome to our shores, as members of one wonderfully diverse human family? In 1992, Toni Morrison told the Guardian newspaper: “In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” When can our allegiances and loyalties shift? When will our national story expand to become part of the universal story—of the ever-widening circle of the kin-dom of God? Listening to Mary’s song will end the fever of racism animating the irrational, tragic, and self-defeating anger against people of color and immigrants today. 

In a world that longs for a gentle peace, a generous sharing of the goods of the earth, a time of quiet joy and healing, Mary points the way to becoming expectant with hope and filled to the brim with joy. See, even now we are being filled with joy and delight in God’s grace so that the song of our lives may give praise to God and our souls magnify God’s grace.

Proper 14C-19

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).

Perhaps, it is part of the unfortunate legacy of the piety many of us grew up with we are apt to hear many reasons to judge ourselves reading today’s gospel. We list them out: “Do not be afraid…” “Sell your possessions…” “You must be ready…,” but miss the graceful promise. It is God’s great pleasure to give you treasure. There is no waiting. In fact, God has already done this. All that remains is the search. Except of course, we’d rather not search.  Who has time or energy to play games? Give us faith now.

Is it with wry humor that Jesus describes faith in this way? Scripture doesn’t say.  We remember how God poked fun at Jonah’s self-pity and discomfort as he lay beneath the withered broom tree.  Like Jonah, we protest. It’s so awful. Do you not see what is happening, how the land suffers, how hate walks the land, how people are at each other’s throats, how people are forced from their homes and lands by war, climate, famine, racism and injustice?  And now, I don’t even recognize my own country. We are entitled to feel weary. Yet as with Jonah, and all the faithful generations before us, God answers our complaints and self-doubting with a strange, excited non-sequitur: come and see! Take up your mat and walk! Have faith.

Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:34) He seems to consider that having faith is like accepting an invitation to undertake a great adventure, like a thrilling a hunt for buried treasure.  This illusive gift of faith aligns our hearts and minds, our striving and desire, with God’s promise to bring in the Kingdom. (The mission, should you accept it, is in building a neighborhood of God like the one our children imagined and created for us behind me.)  This faith, hidden in plain sight, clears our mind from fever dreams of conquest and control. It is God’s desire is to give us all these good things through faith.

Having faith is like hunting for treasure. It’s something we do, rather than something to possess. The hunt for treasure surely is a powerful lure. As a motivation it has few rivals in human history. Vacationing in New Mexico last week, we saw plenty of evidence of how the dream of literal and spiritual treasure carried Spanish priests and explorers of the 17thcentury over the ocean and across the desert plains throughout the American southwest within decades after Columbus. Many of us can testify how the dream of a better life inspired our immigrant ancestors to brave hardships and risk many dangers for the sake of the same hope. The same dream calls to immigrants and asylum seekers today.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). The faithful shall ‘be dressed for action and have [their] lamps lit.’ (Luke 12:35). To be faithful is to be restless, like those searching for a better life. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke writes that to have faith is to “Believe in a love that is being stored up for you like an inheritance, and have faith that in this love there is a strength and a blessing so large that you can travel as far as you wish without having to step outside it.”(Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 20th century)

Mircea Eliade, the late professor of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago, Divinity School, used to tell a story about a Polish rabbi from Kraców named Eisik.  Eisik had a recurring dream. In this dream he was told to travel more than 300 miles to Prague. There, under the bridge leading to the royal castle, he would find hidden treasure.  The dream repeated itself three times, and he decided to go.  In Prague he found the bridge, but it was guarded by soldiers. As he loitered nearby, one of the soldiers noticed him and asked him what he was doing.  The rabbi told his dream and the soldier burst into laughter. “Poor man,” the soldier said, “have you worn out your shoes coming all this way simply because of a dream?”  “I too, once had a dream,” said the soldier, “It spoke to me of Kraców, ordered me to go there and look for a treasure in the house of a rabbi named Eisik. The treasure was to be found in a dusty old corner behind the stove.”  “But,” said the soldier, “being a reasonable man and not trusting in dreams, I decided not to go.” The rabbi thanked the soldier, returned to Kraców, dug behind the stove, found the treasure, and put an end to his poverty.”

Being reasonable and not trusting has been the cause of premature death before the grave for countless human lives. Life presents us with a choice. We can be like the Rabbi or the soldier. To have life is to have faith and to have faith is to search, as one does for buried treasure. Like it or not, the essential ingredient to faith is human effort.

Like the rabbi, pursuing your faith dreams can be thrilling, surprising, even miraculous—even if as in today’s gospel—the only money Jesus talks about comes from your own pocket. Faith fills our hearts to overflowing. The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is complacency, apathy, resignation, and cynicism. As with the soldier, and like Jonah, life without faith predictably becomes self-pitying.

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Jesus invites us on a hunt for buried treasure—and God must have a sense of humor because the gospel tells us to dig—right under our nose! The unfailing treasure of grace is always found in the present moment even though it is also true that finding this treasure may require a kind of quest. Yet ultimately, as St. Teresa of Avila once said, “The truth is that the treasure lies within our very selves.”

When Rome was overthrown in 410 C.E., the great Christian theologian, Augustine, was asked why it was that Christians were so badly treated.  If God is so great, why didn’t God protect them?  Augustine’s answer was that the difference between people is not what happens to them, but in how they respond to what happens to them.

Faith means we need not fear the future.  Faith means we need not mourn the past. Our lives are difficult, but God is good.  Like Abraham and Sarah, our destiny is clothed in God’s abundance, our reward is cast as wide and deep and numerous as sand beside the sea, or the number of stars in the sky.