Monday, January 2, 2012

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

“With fear or an embrace?”
Luke 1:26-38
The Reverend Patricia M. Grace
December 18, 2011                St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

Last year, on the fourth Sunday of Advent,
            one of my parishioners, a woman well-known to me,
                        with whom I shared deep affection,                    
strode up to me after Sunday services
                        in a way that suggested hand-on-hips exasperation.,
“Just when was it, and why” she demanded,
 “did the Episcopal church
                                    decide to completely ignore Mary?”

At first, I didn’t understand the question…
“Mary, who?” I asked.
“Mary, the mother of God” she replied,
clearly, now, even more infuriated by my ignorance.
Like me, she’d been raised in the Roman Catholic tradition,
which not only does not ignore Mary, the mother of the son of God,
            but, depending on how you look at it,
 has elevated her to a status,
                                    a little higher than the angels.
During my childhood,
            I often heard Mary referred to as
                        “co-redemptor”  -
one who redeems along with Jesus…
            …And as “mediatrix” – the never failing go-to person,
the one you asked to intervene
when you wanted something from that same son of God.

The crafters of the Reformation,
            especially Martin Luther and John Calvin,
                        rejected these notions as heretical
as, indeed they are.
There is no scriptural evidence that Mary was conceived without sin,
            that she was a perpetual virgin,
                        or that she had any special powers.
Scripture, tradition and reason teach us
that there is only one redeemer, who is Christ the Lord;
and, we need no mediator to intervene for us Him …
            we can go to Jesus directly
and ask for anything in His name,
                        just as we are.

The Episcopal church, the child of the English reformation,
            has always displayed that traditional Anglican schizophrenia…
                        that “middle way” approach to Mary…
For those who find the Anglo-Catholic expression
of our faith tradition more appealing,
Mary is a prominent figure …
congregations are named for her,
the pink or rose candle in the Advent wreath is often
cited as a reminder of her piety and fidelity,
and her role as God-bearer, theotokos,
is emphasized …
emphasized as central to our salvation
and giving to her, if not divine or supernatural powers,
perhaps super human qualities
that are worthy of contemplation and imitation.   
But for those who feel more connected
through the Protestant thread of Anglicanism,
            there is a deep aversion to the cult of Mary…
deep fear that devotion and admiration
will turn, instead to idolatry.
Hence the suppression of her as a significant image or figure
in worship and teaching.

To my mind, both approaches hold the danger of
            throwing the mother of the baby out with the bath water…
the story and person of Mary holds much for us to consider….
            much to inspire and challenge us…
but the inspiration and challenge she offers us
is in her absolute and everyday humanness
in her willingness to grow into the person God calls her to be.
Mary offers us something
that a deified superwoman cannot…
the notion that we, too,
every day human beings,
can be called to do great things by God…
            for whom, nothing is impossible…
and that we always have a choice in how we respond.
Mary teaches us that everyday people    
            are essential to accomplishing
God’s extraordinary dreams for the world …
and that God invites each and every one of us,
            in our unique and particular situations,
            to be part of God’s purposes.
We have the choice to respond
to God’s favor …
and we can respond in fear or with an embrace…
The poet Denise Levertov, puts it this way:

Aren’t there annunciations of
One sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies…
enact them in sullen pride,

More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman
are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

Levertov suggests that most of us
have experiences of being invited by God          
                        into God’s dreams, God’s big plans for the world…
annunciations of some sort or another occur to all of us,
albeit, infrequently accompanied
by the grandeur of angel Gabriel’s massive wing span…
But there are moments,
            in her words,
            when roads do open – a beckoning wave is sensed…
 God’s invitations always include both opportunity and risk…
and often, we turn away…
                        in dread, weakness or despair…and for sure, with relief.
But God does not smite us…does not forsake us..
            although it’s true,
that moment passes..
the moment when we might have responded with an embrace.
rather than in fear…
when we might have, foolishly, according to the standards of the world,
 taken on something that felt impossible
                        with only trust and hope that God could make it so…
I’d add that many of those moments remain unresponded to
because we are not paying attention…
because we do not expect to be interrupted      
            by angelic visitations and astounding invitations from God.

But I believe that all of us, each of us
are invited into such opportunities by God,
small and large.
Some can feel as momentous as an angel arriving in the front parlor…
but from my own experience,
and listening to the testimony of others,
most of the time,
that invitation feels more like an inkling,
            a gentle tug…
when I was in discernment for the ordained priesthood,
            I got this repeated sensation of bring pulled from the core…
                        a tender yank designed to draw me forward from deep inside..
Often, in my imagination,
I got an image of Jesus, with hand extended, smiling,
            His two fingers gesturing – and the words,
“come on, give it a try, you might just love it.”

Many of miss these invitations -  
            the angel sits on his hands in the parlor
                        while we busy ourselves
with multitudes of mundane tasks in the basement.
Perhaps one of the most important things
            the example of Mary can teach us
                        is to pay attention,
to nurture the secret hope
            that in so doing,
miraculous things might turn into real possibilities.
Mary’s life is an object lesson
that suggests
that when we are confronted with the invitation
                                    to do the thing we are most certain cannot ever be…
we might just stop to consider it, rather than reject it out of hand…
Mary did not dismiss her encounter with an angel
            as a day dream or hallucination…
she stopped to consider, to ponder…
to ask a key question, however impertinent, of God…
                        how can this be?
Then she waited in silence, with open ears and heart,
            for the answer.
As Levertov adds,
“gravely and courteously taking to heart the angel’s reply,
                        perceiving the astounding ministry she was offered.”

But often, we really do not want to hear
            the message brought on angel’s wings.
“Being favored by God,
says Anglican canon theologian,  Paula Gooder,
            is a much to be feared as embraced. 
It is truly wonderful she says,
“ to be beloved by God,
but with this come challenges beyond our imaginings.”
It is “… a life of honor, yoked with struggle
            says another theologian,
Piedmont College chaplain, Ashley Cook Cleere.

We share Mary’s agitation at the sight of her messenger with God
because we know at some level
that those roads that God opens up
are always roads of both light and storm…
We know that the highways chosen for us by God
will eventually lead to a glorious destiny …
            that is God’s promise,
            that is our sure and certain hope.
But we also know that those roads
            can only be successfully traversed with sacrifice,
                        and may be lined, at times, with discomfort
                          along a way that is hard won.

We just have to consider Mary’s whole life
to get confirmation on that.
But watching her,
            we can come to better understand this notion of having a choice…
and that her life was about living into the person God called her to be.

We see that her way of living was a journey
along a pathway that, did, indeed
open up, more and more,
with time and experience,
into a way of being in sync, in concert with God.

Over time, she grew more deeply into acquiescence …
“be it done to me according to your Word” she says…
                        at that first moment of invitation.
And I’ll bet – no, I’m sure,
 she had to repeat that mantra to herself
                        again and again as she made her way through life.
Mary’s life suggests that it’s okay to ponder these invitations from God…
            it’s okay to wonder and to ask, how can this be?
Mary’s life suggests we always have the choice to
            withdraw –
to say no to the invitation
whether in dread, or fear, in weakness or exhaustion, in despair…
            or in relief. 
But Mary’s life,
which was both a simple and yet profound normal human life,
suggests that when we choose to say yes,
to respond with an embrace even in the midst of our fear,
we grow more and more able to say yes,
            and we become, more and more, ourselves,
                        the person we’ve been created to be.

Her example show us that
we can grow into that positive response, over time,
getting better and better, with intention,
at saying and meaning,
be it done to us, according to your Word.

We see her, Mary, in the few brief glimpses we get in the scriptures –
an everyday, human woman.
She is, at various times,
 favored, perplexed, thoughtful, afraid,
curious, confrontative,
laden with grief and bitter, yes,
but ultimately, always faithful…
But most of all, we see her accompanied…
There – that’s the key ting…
we see that the Lord is, indeed, always with her…  
                        as He is, indeed, always with us all.
Through her example,
we can see that, in, fact, nothing is impossible,
as long as it is with God!
May we, on this fourth Sunday of Advent,
                        and each day of our everyday human lives,
consider Mary,
this ordinary woman,
no co-redeemer, but our sister in fiath.

May we learn from her  
How to live a life of expectation
that we, too, can and will be offered
amazing and impossible invitations from God.
May we learn from her how to grow more able
to embrace these opportunities
with trust in God’s love –
the thing that can always and perfectly cast out all our fears.
May we learn to live lives of astounding ministry,
            And follow with joy and hope
the roads of light and storm that God has prepared for us.

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