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Mary, Mother of our Lord-21

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Mary, Mother of our Lord. The Queen of Heaven. Our Lady of Quadalupe. Theotokos, the God-bearer. So much is layered upon Mary. Medieval and Renaissance paintings depict her holding court, surrounded by admiring angel attendants while caring for Jesus in fine a European castle.  We must be ready to smash the icons we have of Mary if we are to reach her where we find her today in Luke chapter 1.

We must see her as she saw herself. By worldly standards, she is the most unlikely choice to become the mother of the Son of God.  No one could have been more surprised than Mary to receive the invitation of the angel Gabriel. Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is a song about surprise, amazement, and wonder.  Mary’s song opens us all to imagine the unimaginable.  Even now, even now, when so much tragedy befalls us, and so much divides us, and so much evil threatens us, could the world be about to turn?

Last week, Kari, Mehari, Leah, Russell and I hiked to Muir’s grove, which covers 215 acres in a relatively remote location of Sequoia National Park. The sequoia is the largest tree on earth. It has a lifespan of about 4,000 years. There, in the grove named for the famous naturalist and father of the National Parks, John Muir, there is a stand of twelve sequoia trees in a tight rectangular formation surrounding an area roughly the size of this courtyard. Older than the Parthenon in Athens or the Coliseum in Rome and standing taller than each of them is a cathedral of light and air to rival any wrought by human hands.  Once upon a time, each tree began with this (a sequoia pinecone). It’s hard to believe something so small could produce something so large, isn’t it?

Yet, the news that Mary sings about is even more startling!  Jesus said, the kingdom of heaven is like a Mustard seed.  Or, in other words, like this (a dandelion!) a weed, that grows into a tree so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches (Matthew 13:32). Preposterous you say?  Ridiculous. Unimaginable?  Mary’s song is an invitation to open our hearts to what God has done and has always done, to open our eyes to what God is now doing all around us. How might it change how we live if we understood the whole world was alive? How does it change our relationship to the stuff we use, the food we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe if we received them as gifts rather than commodities?

Mary’s song, the Magnificat, is so famous and familiar, we tend to think we already know all about it. Now, in the dogdays of summer, we have an opportunity to listen to what Mary has to say about the Christian message while our thoughts about Christmas are still a long way off.  Once we bring Mary out from behind the veil of Christmas and popular piety, the plain meaning of her message holds some surprises for us.

When there are so many people who would stand between you and the bible, Lord it over you, and say with bald confidence that it’s all about predicting the end times; or, this bible is all about preserving the American way of life by any means necessary; or, this bible is about becoming more affluent –it becomes even more important that Mary’s song break through again to pierce our hearts and open our eyes.  Here, the plain meaning of the gospel is hidden in plain sight.  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.”  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, her song was considered subversive and politically dangerous. “Authorities worried that it might incite the oppressed people to riot.” (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds) Mary’s song, this familiar bible song—a song of joy and faith—is a danger to the status quo.  Like the slaves of the American South before them, poor people in Latin American base communities began to read the Bible themselves in the 1980’s and heard in the Good News that God did not want their children to die of hunger and disease, or their husbands and sons to be disappeared, or their to be daughters lost in poverty.  Is it ironic, or simply tragic, that the governmental authorities of Guatemala paid more attention to the meaning of Mary’s song than do most of us as we sing our hymns or read the bible? (Kate Huey, Weekly Seeds)

Sometimes, we must be willing to smash our beloved icons if we are to receive the life-giving gospel, for Mary’s song to reach our ears and inspire us again.  A pine corn must be opened by fire to become a seed. What might Mary’s song call forth in you? Notice, Mary’s revolutionary road is not characterized by conflict, polarization, or partisanship but by solidarity, accompaniment, and partnership with outsiders and the poor.  Mary answers God’s call with a boldness that is unbelievable to most of us.  But she is no ideologue.  She doesn’t pontificate.  She ponders.  She doesn’t count her blessings as evidence of her privilege, but as evidence of God’s grace.  She celebrates the mystery and glory of God by taking each step as God’s plan unfolds without knowing where it will lead but trusting in God to work grace and power through her.

Mary says Yes to God, and that entails many No’s.  Mary surrenders to God’s authority, not by becoming a tiresome, self-righteous, religious snob, but through receiving life as a gift.  Grace transforms Mary as each of us is called to be transformed.  Faith in God makes her a true friend.  She is filled with joy, not deadly seriousness. As Mother Teressa once said, “One filled with joy preaches without preaching.”  The gospel, according to Mary, is a song to be sung.  Faith is a dance that involves us completely—mind, body, and soul.

A Blessing Called Sanctuary -—by Jan Richardson, from Circle of Grace

You hardly knew

how hungry you were

to be gathered in,

to receive the welcome

that invited you to enter

entirely—

nothing of you

found foreign or strange,

nothing of your life

that you were asked

to leave behind

or to carry in silence

or in shame.

 

Tentative steps

became settling in,

leaning into the blessing

that enfolded you,

taking your place

in the circle

that stunned you

with its unimagined grace.

 

You began to breathe again,

to move without fear,

to speak with abandon

the words you carried

in your bones,

that echoed in your being.

 

You learned to sing.

 

But the deal with this blessing

is that it will not leave you alone,

will not let you linger

in safety,

in stasis.

 

The time will come

when this blessing

will ask you to leave,

not because it has tired of you

but because it desires for you

to become the sanctuary

that you have found—

to speak your word

into the world,

to tell what you have heard

with your own ears,

seen with your own eyes,

known in your own heart:

 

that you are beloved,

precious child of God,

beautiful to behold,*

and you are welcome

and more than welcome

here.

4th Sunday of Advent
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

As I sit here the little light next to the built-in camera on my laptop is shining green. I can see many of you, although not all of you, on a large external monitor. I have on my clergy shirt. I’m wearing my blue stole for the Advent season. I’ve lighted all four candles on my Advent wreath. So, I have the feeling, I can be pretty sure, today is Sunday.

Some mornings, I admit, I’m a bit confused. Compost gets picked up on Wednesdays. Trash goes on Thursdays. Worship is on Sunday. Otherwise, the days seem pretty much the same. Pandemic days blur together.

Biblical scholar Karoline Lewis, writing for the Living Lutheran magazine comments, “The time in which we find ourselves—as individuals, communities, a nation, a world and a church—is much more than unprecedented. It’s unnerving, unsettling. Upending and upheaving—suspended in that in-between space caused by pandemic and protest, by disbelief and dystopia, by resistance and revolution. But as Christians, we know this time well—the time between the already and the not yet of the kingdom of heaven. The time between God so loved the world and waiting for it to come true. The kind of time that Mary understood. The kind of time coiled with the tension between “How can this be?” and “Nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:34, 37). (Karoline M. Lewis, Living in Mary’s Time, The Living Lutheran, 12/11/20).

After all, the life of a young peasant girl living in poverty in a backwater town of ancient Palestine was likely even more monotonous and people-starved than our own. Mary’s question “How can this be?” resonates within our own weariness. Could there yet be some magic of grace hidden behind the four walls of our quarantine, or the unending sameness of our days?

Or perhaps, Mary was simply incredulous at being pregnant. “How can I possibly be carrying a child when I am a virgin?” Or perhaps, Gabriel’s message had filled her mind with a swarm of questions: “What am I supposed to tell my family?” Or “Who is going to be there during labor?” Or “How will I protect myself from the rocks and stones my friends and neighbors will throw?” Or “How am I supposed to raise a baby by myself?” Or “Who am I for God to choose me?” (Karoline Lewis)
The angel Gabriel anticipates her layered fear: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33). To which Mary replied, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (vs. 38). Mary shows us how to live with the tension between ‘How can this be?’ and “Let it be.”

The careful listener will notice, Gabriel called Mary the ‘favored one.’ Yet it is a strange blessing. Is this the special honor God bestows upon his “favored ones?” Obviously, divine favor does not equate with wealth, health, comfort, or ease. Mary’s favored status meant losing out on the blessings of normal family life to be marked with the stain of scandal, danger, and the trauma of her son’s crucifixion. God’s call was profoundly countercultural, and not the sort of thing a young girl typically dreams of. It required a steadfast commitment to God’s vision that flew in the face of everything her community expected of her. No wonder Mary fled to the safety and security of her cousin Elizabeth. How did she know Elizabeth and Zechariah would welcome her?

That moment on cousin Elizabeth’s doorstep inspired Mary’s song—the Magnificat. This gorgeous song of God’s justice is the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the entire New Testament. Notice too that Mary sang while Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, the “official” priest and spokesperson of God, endured his divine silencing. Mary’s song echoed the words and stories of long-suffering faithful women–Miriam, Hannah, Judith, and Deborah. The Magnificat is one of the Church’s oldest Advent hymns. It has inspired countless composers to set it to music. Yet it is a song so subversive that it was officially banned from being sung during British rule in India, and during the so-called ‘dirty war’ in Argentina.

In a sermon on today’s gospel, Martin Luther noticed something in Mary’s response to the Angel that is instructive about faith. Faith isn’t about knowing the facts, he said. Faith is the willingness to stake “goods, life and honor” upon the promise of God’s love and the hope that springs from it. Faith always involves at least some risk and vulnerability. (Did you write that on your list this Christmas this year?) Mary shows us faith must follow the way of the cross as we journey from belief into action, as we step across the threshold of Advent, moving from ‘How can this be?’, to ‘let it be.’

This is what’s so lovely and so terrifying about the incarnation. Faced with Mary’s choice to be God-bearers or home makers of successful, enviable Christian homes—we often choose the way of looking good rather than the way of the cross. Yet, when we make a home for grace like Mary did, or like Elizabeth did, we become wholemakers, uniting what is scattered, creating a deeper unity in love. “Christian life is a commitment to love, to give birth to God in one’s own life and to become midwives of divinity in this evolving cosmos. We are to be wholemakers of love in a world of change.” [Ilia Delio, “Love at the Heart of the Universe,” “The Perennial Tradition,” Oneing, vol. 1, no. 1 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2013), 22.]

Can we do that? In this bleak midwinter of pandemic, unrest, and upheaval can God breathe new life into being in us and fill our hearts once again with joy? How can this be? Mary gently instructs us. Say the words. Ponder them. Let them rekindle the flame of hope in your heart. “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Like Mary, our mind is filled with questions. Yet this gift of grace has power to fill our humble days with beauty and meaning. See we are standing once again upon the threshold of God’s Advent—a new birth of freedom, of justice, and of sustainability. Cast off your pandemic doldrums. What a tremendous opportunity there is within our grasp. Let it be.

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.

Easter Darkness

Alleluia! Christ is risen (Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!) Yet that first Easter morning, despite the fresh bloom of early spring, everything looked dead. Mary Magdalene and the women made their way to the tomb at early dawn.  As they did, the ribbons of color spreading through the eastern sky were not beautiful. The budding garden was not fragrant. The singing birds could not be heard. As the women went to the tomb their minds were shrouded in the grey colors of grief, their voices were hushed by the crushing weight of despair.

While the natural world throughout the Northern hemisphere testified to the promise of new life, neither these women, nor anyone else, expected anything but death. Bodies go into the ground and stay there. Springtime comes to grass, trees, and living things, not to bodies lying in the grave.

Regardless of what Jesus had told them—that he would die, and on the third day, rise again—Mary Magdalene, the women who accompanied her, and the rest of Jesus’ followers, still lived in a Good Friday world.

While we greeted Easter last night and this morning with jubilation and trumpets, we are confronted here with something quieter, more mysterious, and perhaps more resonant with our own daily lives.  It is what pastor and author Frederick Buechner has called “the darkness of the resurrection itself, that morning when it was hard to be sure what you were seeing.” While the benefit of two thousand years of hindsight have informed our Easter acclamations, what we read from the Gospels is that the first disciples stumbled in the half-light on that third day after Jesus’s crucifixion, confused and afraid. Where was the stone? Were those angels standing beside them in that unlit tomb? And where was Jesus? Are they sure the tomb is really empty?

It was “…the first day of the week, at early dawn” (Luke 24:1). That’s when Easter really begins. “It begins in darkness. It begins amidst fear, bewilderment, pain, and a profound loss of certainty.” The creeds and clarifications we cherish today would come much later. What came first were variations on a theme that sound a lot as if they come from our own lives—like a woman I heard sing about Jesus last Tuesday at the Synod Chrism Mass who struggles with cancer and must carry her own oxygen—or like another woman I visit who testifies to the power of God from her sagging nursing home bed. Easter is what happens when ordinary people brush up against an extraordinary God.  Easter looks like people of a  broken, hungry humanity encounter a bizarre and inexplicable Love in the half-light of dawn. (Debie Thomas, I Have Seen the Lord, April 14, 2019)

Theologian and writer Chris Barnes reminds us what actually matters during Holy Week: “The question that Easter asks of us is not, ‘Do we believe in the doctrine of the resurrection?’ Frankly, that is not particularly hard. What the Gospels ask is not, ‘Do you believe?’ but ‘Have you encountered the risen Christ?’”

Our gospels tell the stories of individual people having profoundly individual encounters with Christ. These encounters are not identical. Last night we read when Peter saw the empty tomb, he ran away and returned to his home. When the beloved disciple saw it, he believed but did not understand When Mary saw it, she ran to tell the disciples who dismissed her words as an idle tail. In other words, we come to the empty tomb as ourselves, for better or worse. The question is not, and never was, “Why should people in general believe?” but rather, “Why doyou believe? How has the risen Christ revealed himself to you?”

Easter comes like a lamb before wolves, with a word to shatter hard won common sense. Easter comes like a dove into our Good Friday world.  It is a dog-eat-dog dog; only the strong survive; white makes right; if you want peace prepare for war world.  But here comes Easter, telling its idle tales again.  Easter promises what we heard today from the prophet Isaiah, God is doing a new thing: a new heaven and a new earth. “The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” No longer must we consume one another to survive in this new world.

Easter says hope never dies.  Easter says all your tomorrows can be different from your yesterdays.  Easter says life is stronger than death; light conquers darkness.  Here comes Easter singing a simple song about God’s grace.

Easter isn’t about one man’s death and one man’s rising.  It is a claim about the undying life we all share because of the unconditional reality and claim of God’s grace to embrace our lives and not let go.  The test of the Christian message of resurrection, therefore, is not what happened in the tomb, but is the capacity of grace to break through our Good Friday’s and with the fresh springtime of Easter.

Easter does not a return to the past but moves toward the future. When our false expectations, flawed speculations, wrong theologies, or hateful ideologies become a like a wall separating us from grace and each other, God’s Easter is going to break through that wall.

Since ancient times Christians have called Easter the “first day.” From Easter comes our practice of worshiping on Sunday morning. It is the first day of the week. It is also the first day of a new creation, sometimes called the “eighth day”, because on it Christ restored the image of God in humankind and in so doing also brought restoration and renewal to all creation. We are an Easter people. We are a new creation through the gift of God’s grace revealed to us in Christ Jesus.

Of all the things Easter promises this may be the most preposterous—that we are now members of the resurrected body of Christ.  Within you are seeds of hope to renew the hope of the whole world. The cross reveals the depths of cruelty, violence, and immorality to which we can sink, at the very same time it marks the path God has opened to the way forward. The cross is a Tree of Life offering healing for the nations.  “Now all the vault of heaven resounds in praise of love that still abounds. Christ has triumphed! He is living! Alleluia” (ELW #367).