Sunday, November 27, 2011

There's Something About Mary


Invited to preach on the First Sunday of Advent at Palo Alto United Methodist Church, I offered Five Lessons of Mary of Nazareth on her Willingness to wait for the world to Change:


I.  The Annunciation (1:26-38)--"There's something about Mary"
Luke's account of the Annunciation (1:26-27), tells us a number of things about Mary: 
"In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee with a bad reputation ("Can anything good come out of Nazareth?)

"to a  virgin named Mary," a peasant girl, probably about 13 years old, betrothed but not yet married. 

The angel "sent" from God is Gabriel, archangel and chief messenger fearsome to behold, with the announcement six months after Elizabeth (family member) becomes pregnant with John the Baptist (Jesus' older cousin?). 
Mary is to be married to a man named Joseph, a direct descendant of King David.  Mary's ancestry is more complex and lowly. 


LESSON No. 1--God calls ordinary people, young people, in the most unlikely times and places.  And calls them to do extra-ordinary things.
II.  Mary's Fear and Alarm (1:28-30)
"The angel went to her and said, 'Hail Mary, full of grace, there Lord is with thee..." A formal greeting from the Angel, preserved in the 'Hail Mary' prayer of Roman Catholics.  

If you were a young teen and heard an angel speak these words to you, about you, how would you feel?  perplexed, confused? scared spitless? 
Luke says: "Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. "
LESSON No. 2--Fear is our first response to what God may asking us to do.   "Get of here!"  No way!"  
"But the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.'" (1:28-30) Gabriel counters Mary's understandable fear with the simple words "Be not be afraid" and Mary accepted the angel's "Fear not" at face value, and held her fear and alarm in check.  [What a courageous young woman of faith!]
"'You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.' (1:31-34)

III.  Mary's Fear and Alarm turns to Utter Amazement at God's Power (1:34)
Mary's head was spinning by this time. 'How will this be,' Mary asked the angel, 'since I am a virgin?'" (1:34) How will God accomplish this, since I have not been with a man? 
Some people say we shouldn't question God, but Mary did. She asked "How?" Questions cause us to grow and learn. Questions stretch our minds and hearts and increase our understanding.
The angel responded to her question by elaborating a bit on the "how":  
"The angel answered, 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.'" (1:35)

Behold the Miracle of Advent.
Behold the Mystery of the Incarnation.  
Mary of Nazareth, humble servant, becomes the Mother of the Son of God: Theotokis--God-bearer.  Co-Redemptrix in RC.   Miracle of the Virgin Birth for Protestants. 
Lesson 3-- Nothing is Impossible with God (1:36-37)
After explaining that Mary's Child would be Holy and Divine, the angel lets Mary know that "even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, a miracle baby.  For nothing is impossible with God." (1:36-37)
God, however, does not do miracles alone; 'nothing is impossible with God' if God and we act together!  (synergy)
Mary, if you will loan your womb to God, if you will make yourself available for divine action, if you are willing, God can do the impossible and make you the mother of God, blessed among women, prophet of the Most High. 
IV. Mary's Willingness is the key for God's power to work her life, in our lives. (1:38)
"'Here I am, the servant of the Lord," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her." (1:38)

Exercise in willingness:  Repeat Mary's words as a mantra:   

"Here I am (Here I am)
the servant of the Lord. (the servant of the Lord.)
May it be to me as you have said." (May it be to me as you have said.)"   Three times.

Here is a teenager facing misunderstanding and rejection from her family, her betrothed, and her townspeople. For a betrothed woman to bear a child out of wedlock to someone not her husband could potentially even result in stoning (Deuteronomy 22:22-24). And yet she agrees. "I am the Lord's servant…" 

No wonder the Church holds her in highest esteem to this day. 
Mary's response of faith is what actualizes faith-in-action: "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said."(Luke 1:38)
May you and I be ready to respond with that same submitted willingness when God calls us to do something extraordinary for him.
Lesson No. 4--Willingness is the Key
Example of Willingness from AA:   occurs 31 times in the Big Book.  
  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.
Until my friend, Susan (pastor's wife and mother of five), reached rock bottom, and came to a point of willingness to a Power greater than herself restore her to sanity and wholeness, she could not recover from her addictions.  Thank God she did, and now she's an incredible woman of faith and daring; able to be used by God in powerful ways. 
Describing the 12 Steps  in the Big Book
"There is only one key, and it is called willingness."
Belief in the power of God, plus enough willingness, honesty and humility to establish and maintain the new order of things, were the essential requirements. [of recovery). --Bill's story
Once we have placed the key of willingness in the lock and have the door ever so slightly open, we find that we can always open it some more.
We grow by our willingness to face and rectify errors and convert them into assets.
An honest regret for harms done, a genuine gratitude for blessings received, and a willingness to try for better things tomorrow will be the permanent assets we shall seek. (Step 10)

The key of Willingness unlocks hidden assets and makes them available for the common good.


Robert Linthicum writes: "It takes capacity plus ability plus willingness to act powerfully" (Empowering the People of God)  


What have you been willing to do for God lately?  (Personally, I've been willing to visit Occupy Wall Street in my clergy clothes, cross and stole in order to engage the occupiers who long for justice and shalom…)--see blog posts
The four lessons:  ordinary, fearful, amazing, willing…
But there is a fifth lesson in Mary's life of faith for us to emulate:   Prophetic imagination.
V. Mary's Prophetic Invocation of Shalom:
Will Willimon tells the story of a college student talking to him about how the virgin birth was just too incredible to believe. Willimon responded, "You think that's incredible, come back next week. Then, we will tell you that 'God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.' We'll talk about the hungry having enough to eat and the rich being sent away empty. The virgin birth? If you think you have trouble with the Christian faith now, just wait. The virgin birth is just a little miracle; the really incredible stuff is coming next week."
Well, I won't be there next week, so I want to conclude with Mary's prophetic song of peace and justice (just reading and highlighting : Read key verses):
Still a teenager, Mary overcomes her fear, steps out on faith to do impossible things.  Inspired by the spirit of prophesy, she boldly sings the song of Shalom:  
“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. (Mary knew herself to be a member of the underclass, chosen by God for  a special purpose)
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.  

His mercy extends to those who fear him, (fear can turn to amazement at God's mighty acts)
   
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
   
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones (Oh how some of the mighty have fallen this year around the world)
   
but has lifted up the humble (those who know themselves to be poor and needy on some level, dependent on God)

He has filled the hungry with good things  (like the Thankgiving turkey Glide Church shared with the Occupiers in San Francisco)

but has sent the rich away empty. (the "rich" are those who have accumulated wealth at the expense of the poor, ill-gotten gain, worship of Mammon)
(Luke 1:46-53)


"Throughout the Gospel of Luke, the proud, powerful, and rich are the opponents of Jesus.  They are portrayed as people who look to enhance their own social honor and prestige, and as people who are indifferent to those lower on the social ladder.  In Mary's child, God has intervened on behalf of the "lowly" and the "hungry."  God lifts them up, but "scattered the proud ones," and "sent the rich away empty."  
God is always on the side of those on the bottom, those who are excluded, those left out.  
Yes, God has favorites….and the list includes: “the poor, maimed, the lame, the blind, the sick and imprisoned, the hungry and homeless, the orphan and widow in their distress; the sojourner and the uninsured).  World history is a long struggle between the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor, the great and the small.  And in the struggle of survival of the fittest, God takes sides. And the side God takes is the side of the underdog, the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, and the socially-disinherited.  In liberation theology we call this “God’s preferential option for the poor.” 
Yet, God does not triumph over the rich and powerful oppressors in a vindictive act, but rather a remedial and loving way.  God wants us to change our minds and hearts, and join his mission in the world to usher in the upside-down kingdom--where the first will be last and the last first. Where the greatest will be least and the least considered greatest. (Matt 25).  God is at work in the world, visibly right now, lifting up the lowly and pulling down the proud. 'For 'every valley shall be exalted, every mountain brought down.  Crooked places will be made straight and rough places plain.  For the mouth of the Lord has spoken it through the prophets.'
Lesson No. 5--Pray, Praise and Prophesy for the Poor!   Step out and proclaim your own magnificat. 
Mary's prophesy is about justice and shalom for Israel and the poor.  Can we apply her prophetic vision to our country, our community, our church?  What would that look like?  What are the characteristics of a Just Church, a Shalom Church?  


Seven marks of a Shalom Church are 1) inclusive, 2) radically hospitable, 3) economically just, 4) caring of all creation, 5) redemptive of persons and communities, 6) focused on health, healing and wholeness, and 7) engaged in systemic change, sustainable transformation, and the mending of the creation.
(See ShalomChurch: The Body of Christ as Ministering Community by Craig L. Nessan)
"To be a mission station of Jesus Christ," according to Rober Schuller, "you have to put the needs of the un-saved a notch above the needs of the saved." Similarly, to become a ShalomChurch, you have to put the interests of the immediate community or neighborhood a notch above the needs of the church members."  That requires a willingness to identify with the poor and oppressed and make their cause your own  (e.g. Occupy WallStreet) 
Example of a ShalomChurch:  Church of the Village UMC in lower manhattan in solidarity with the poor of Occupy Wall Street…
Conclusion:  What are you personally and as a church community willing to do to become a ShalomChurch?
Five Lessons of Mary:
God chooses unlikely candidates for Greatness. 
Fear is our initial response, followed by amazement of what God is asking you to do.
"Nothing is impossible with God."  Believe, act on it.
Willingness is the key.  
And don't be afraid to pray, praise  and prophesy.  

During this Advent season, consider Mary:
AKA  Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, Prophet of the Most HIgh
Willing and Waiting for the right time and place.
Willing to occupy and be occupied.
Willing to praise and prophesy
That the Scriptures might be fulfilled:
"to bring down rulers from their thrones and lift up the lowly; feed the hungry with good things and send the rich away empty..."



Now go into a frazzeled and broken world with peace and justice,
to mend and heal and make whole again with God's Shalom!