Surprised by God, Advent 4 – December 24, 2017

[RCL] 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

 Mary was not expecting visitors, and she certainly was not expecting a visit from the Angel Gabriel. But there he was, with the afterglow of divine light fresh on his robes standing before her. “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you!” Not your typical greeting. Who says stuff like that? Is he trying to impress someone? Mary is a nobody, in a village filled with nobodies, no need to waste grand angelic pronouncements on her.  Gabriel’s presence is more than enough to impress.

“Do not be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God.” Do not be afraid? How can Mary not be afraid? Angels don’t come to Nazareth and they most certainly don’t come to poor peasant girls like Mary. God doesn’t find favor with the likes of her. The angel must be mistaken. Perhaps he is lost. Maybe he is looking for a different Mary. But he keeps talking. Mary is perplexed and afraid.

“And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” Surprise! How can this be? No great ruler has ever come out of Nazareth. And yet here is the angel, speaking of ancestors, and throne and kingdoms. It makes no sense. Why choose a barely engaged teenager to carry God’s son? Why not? If Elizabeth, like Sarah before her, could bear a son in her old age there is nothing impossible with God. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary’s surprise is our surprise. Thousands of years later God’s call still mystifies us, still has the power to provoke us to wonder and awe. The news from God is frequently too good to be true and messengers are often wholly unexpected and astonishing, but the message remains the same: God will always surprise us.

God is in the business of surprising us over and over and over again. Scripture is filled with God showing up in the most unlooked-for places and the unlikeliest of people.  People have encountered the God of wonder in bushes that burn, donkeys that talk, raging whirlwinds, pillars of fire, and under starry night skies. God has a way of amazing us on the tops of mountains, at wells in the noonday sun, and strangers bearing gifts. No matter how often we look for God in the familiar places, God will somehow be revealed in the unexpected, the unlooked-for, and the unpredicted.

Jesus’ birth to an unwed teenaged mother, in a backwater town a little north of nowhere, was perhaps God’s biggest surprise of all. No great kings or rulers to welcome the Messiah—instead, the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast attended the birth of God made flesh. No fanfare, fireworks or finery for the Prince of Peace, just a manger bed on an average night, punctuated by the message of the angels and the bewilderment of shepherds. God surprised the world in the extraordinarily ordinary birth of Jesus.

As we make our way once more with the shepherds and angels towards Bethlehem, we celebrate God’s favor for the last, the lowest, and the least. At Christmas, we rejoice with Mary that Jesus is God’s biggest surprise. With this tiny helpless child in Mary’s arms, we see God making the common holy, the mundane mighty, and the everyday extraordinary. We are called to revel in God’s continued choice of the unexpected.

This is the good news at Christmas and beyond: that God is found not in a mansion but in a manger, not in a palace but in a poor house. The Good News about Jesus that we, as the Church, here, now, today are called to preach, is that we will be surprised at who God chooses to deliver the message of hope. Yet still we look for God in the halls of power and privilege. But that is not the message of the God of the universe and it is not the message of the angel.

In a world filled with wars and rumors of war, injustices, and violence, we need the message of the angel. For those who are searching and seeking a different way, God finds us in our need and raises us up. Our world is desperate for Good News.

The neglected, forgotten, and the left out are in need of the message of hope found in Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the son of Mary.  For us as a church to be relevant, we need to be bearers of the Good News that God stands with the left out, the lonely, and the lost. Our world is in need of God’s mystery and awe and surprise. But too often, we as the church find comfort in the known, the recognized, and the familiar. We like safe, we like certain, we like stability, but with God, we are never safe, or certain, or stable.

As we turn our gaze towards Christmas, the question we who look for and follow Jesus must ask ourselves is this: Have we heard the stories so often that we fail to see or share the surprise? Have we drained so much of the mystery from the world that we are no longer able to be startled by the workings of God? Have we failed to recognize Jesus in the passing touch of a hand, the fleeting beauty of a smile, the gentleness of a word of encouragement? Our lives, our communities, and our world are filled with God’s surprise if we stop long enough to recognize it.

When we domesticate the divine and muzzle the mysterious we leave little room for God to work in and through us. When the mystery of God is regimented, regulated, and relegated to be contained within four walls on any given Sunday, we have ceased to seek the surprise of God’s in-breaking into our world. And yet, God still finds a way to get our attention and fill us with surprise.

As people of God, as God’s beloved, we are called like Mary to fall into the uncertainty of God. We are called to let our lives, our hearts, and our eyes be open for glimpses of the divine so that we may follow in the way that Jesus has led.

To be amazed by God means that in Christ Jesus there is no work, no ministry, no person beyond our compassionate reach. If we are to be interrupted by God, we like Mary and Joseph must risk stepping out on faith into an uncertain future, knowing that God is out there waiting with just one more surprise.

When we are surprised by God, our hearts are set free, our burdens are lifted and our fear fades. Like Mary, when we encounter the divine mystery, we can only respond in joyful song. As we journey to the manger once more, may we seek once again to be surprised by a God who finds favor in us, who has lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things. May we in our lives and our living magnify the Holy One, may we be messengers of God who seek the divine in the midst of the ordinary and may we in joyful song proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Amen.

A priest, a parent, and a (recovering) perfectionist, the Rev. Deon K. Johnson is a native of Barbados who has questioned Michigan winters in his eleven years as rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brighton, Mich. Deon’s passion for inclusion, welcome, and worship geekiness has led him to be trained as a Liturgical Consultant, helping communities of faith re-envision their worship and worship spaces to better reflect the beauty, mystery, and all-around awesomeness of following Jesus. Deon graduated from Case Western Reserve University and the General Theological Seminary. When he isn’t ruing temperatures below fifty degrees, Deon enjoys traveling, biking, hiking, and spending time with his family.

Download the sermon for Advent 4(B).

Greetings, Favored Ones!, 4 Advent (B) – 2014

December 21, 2014

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16;  Canticle 15; Romans 16:25-27Luke 1:26-38

We always celebrate some aspect of the Annunciation on this Fourth Sunday of Advent. Each year, we hear a different part of the great story involving the Angel Gabriel, Joseph, Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. And all of this foretells the imminent birth of the Savior.

In today’s story, the angel says to Mary, “Greetings, O favored one! Our God is with you.”

Luke tells us that Mary was much perplexed – greatly troubled – by these words, and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. And no wonder: She was a peasant girl, at the dawn of what we now call the first century, in Nazareth. You remember Nazareth: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” It was perhaps the equivalent of the worst slums of our age, a place from which no one expected much of anything.

And Mary has just become accustomed to the idea of her engagement to a carpenter. Steady income and honest work, carpentry. And her marriage to Joseph probably represented a great improvement in her social location.

Then along comes Gabriel, who greets her with these astonishing words: “Greetings, O favored one! Our God is with you.”

Not just appearing as a man, with whom she is forbidden to speak. Women were not ordinarily allowed to have casual conversations with strangers, you see. And not just any old low-ranking angel, but the Archangel Gabriel.

And this angel guy doesn’t demand a drink from the well, or the washing of his feet, or even directions to the nearest inn. He really came to speak with her. And he greets her not as a slave, or a woman, or even as an equal – but as the favored one of God.

What must it have been like for her to confront the messenger of the Lord God of power and might in this way? It makes sense that she must have been quite startled – “much perplexed” as scripture tells us. We cannot help but leap to the conclusion that these words sound as strange to us as they did to Mary.

We may find these words strange. We may not like them. We may ponder in our hearts what sort of greeting this might be. But we hear these words, and perhaps come to rejoice in them.

Greetings, favored one! There is good news here for everyone.

Those who lean toward the more Catholic can revel in the veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Those who prefer the Protestant end can take comfort in Gabriel’s word of grace. Feminists note that the willing assent of a women was necessary for the whole plan of salvation. Those who are more fond of patriarchy insist that the angel – who appeared as a male, after all – set the whole thing in notion. Humanists delight that a human vessel could contain God. Believers claim authority for the divinity of Christ. Skeptics repeat the words, “How can this be?” Optimists find hope in the phrase “Nothing will be impossible with God.” And all of us are invited to accept our call to vocation, proclaiming, “Here am I, the servant of God.”

In this, Christian people everywhere imagine themselves ready to let go and take the plunge, like Mary – responding to God’s messenger with the only words we can utter that help carry out the plan of salvation: “Let it be.”

This very text reminds us that God loves us, all of us. God has a message for each one of us. We are – all of us – the favored ones of God.

And God has a plan for us – each and every one of us: to help bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly; to fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty.

Those are the words from the Song of Mary, the Magnificat. And that is what follows immediately after today’s story in Luke’s gospel.

It may seem rather odd to you that much of the time we hear the Magnificat it is sung by a very civilized and expensive-to-run choir in, say, a very historic cathedral in a perfectly staged liturgy by clergy of the upper-middle class. Have you ever been to one of the great English cathedrals for Evensong? Or perhaps one on these shores? The liturgy is so beautiful, so lovely, and so very odd.

Evensong can be gorgeous, but the message of the angel and Mary’s glad song in response are seditious, politically charged and highly volatile – even today.

God will bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, send the rich away empty, and scatter the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

Now, there are some of us who don’t much care for delving into things political in sermons. And don’t worry: There won’t be any specifics mentioned today. But how can we hear these texts from the gospel we hold so dear and not engage with the political realm?

Because poverty is a religious issue. Oppression, too. And hunger, injustice and untruth. Not to mention war.

And God is enlisting us in the cosmic struggle for good over evil, to help make the world a better place for all his children.

Because the God we worship is not a far-off, distant judge. Not someone who punishes bad behavior from a lofty paradise by sending down thunderbolts. And not the sort of deity who must simply imagine what it is to be human.

No, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. In Jesus, God has become fully a human being, with flesh and bones – one who hurts and cries and laughs and sings. No longer are we separated from God, pleading for mercy from an omnipotent judge.

Our God is among us, “with us,” Emmanuel – and God knows what it is like for us.

What it is like to feel the power of the attraction to light in the darkness.

What it is like to be drawn by glittering images.

And what it is like to struggle to resist temptation, or even to recognize the difference between divine light and the alluring glow that grows out of wickedness.

This is the message of the angels, really: God understands us, God forgives us, God loves us.

And perhaps our inability to accept the message fully, to believe we really are the favored ones of God – perhaps this accounts for our unwillingness to cooperate sometimes with God’s plan for us.

It is far easier for us to store up treasure for ourselves than it is to ensure that all human beings have their rightful share in the earth’s bounty.

It is far easier to command armies to annihilate those whom we believe to be evil than it is to weed out the roots of injustice.

It is far easier to engage in a bit of “retail therapy” than it is to confront the painful possibility that we may be the rich who God will send away empty.

And so, our God has given us a sign. A young woman is with child, and shall bear a son, and shall name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David.

And he shall be Emmanuel – “God with us.” For nothing will be impossible with God.

And this great Good News begins anew this season by putting our faith in mere words. This Christmas, may we hear the words of the angel and know in our hearts that they are intended for each and every one of us: “Greetings, O favored one! Our God is with you.”

 

— The Rev. Barrie Bates currently serves as interim pastor of Zion Lutheran Church on Staten Island, New York.

Mary sings the Good News, 4 Advent (B) – 2011

December 18, 2011

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Canticle 3 or Canticle 15 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

“He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly.”

Mary sings the Good News of the Incarnation to break into our Advent anticipation with a description of the coming Reign of God. In the angel Gabriel’s visit to lowly Mary, and then in Mary’s beautiful hymn of praise, the Magnificat, we begin to hear what Kingdom of God is like; it is a world turned upside down.

Mary prophetically sings of God’s kingdom as if it is an accomplished fact, rather than a coming reality breaking into the here and now. The song uses an amazing number of past-tense verbs. Everything is already accomplished for Mary. At first, this not so surprising. God has already looked with favor on his lowly servant Mary. The almighty already has done great things for her.

But as Mary continues to praise God for what God is doing in becoming human, she moves beyond what God has done for her, broadening to include the whole world. Even then, she sings of things to come as if they were accomplished facts. Mary, taking a page from her unborn son’s ministry, proclaims that the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Listen to these words of Mary’s song and ask yourself if the changes in the way the world works have even yet occurred more 2,000 years later:

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

There are few kings in the world today, but the seats of power still belong to the mighty. The lowly rarely, if ever, get lifted up. The hungry often continue to go hungry, while those who have seem to get more. Yet, Mary speaks of lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things in the past tense.

It is impossible to see Mary’s song as merely naïve. No Jew living in Roman-occupied Israel could think the lowly were being lifted up. Instead, Mary has come to see that what God is doing through her is a sign that all of God’s promises are as good as fulfilled. God is faithful, and the old way of doing things is as good as gone now that God is becoming human through her child Jesus. God’s kingdom is breaking into our world in a new and marvelous way that makes it clear that the lowly are as good as lifted up and the hungry are as good as filled with good things.

Mary’s way of looking at the world in her song shows a Biblical view of how this age – the time we live in – relates to the afterlife, the age to come. First, we have this age, our present time, which includes all time, from creation until this day. Alongside that, we can place the age to come. Until Jesus comes in power and glory to usher in the end of the age, the only way to pass from this age to the age to come is death.

All time is working its way toward the end of this age and the ushering-in of the age to come. There is a forward trajectory pushing us toward eternity, but the two ages seem separate. In the Magnificat, Mary points to the reality that there may be a way in which these two ages intersect. The age to come may break into our present age. The age to come is not present in our own time in its fullness, but as a foreshadowing of what is coming.

Mary knows that the birth of the Messiah to her, a lowly Jewish peasant, is an important sign of what God’s kingdom looks like. It is in the Incarnation that we get our clearest picture of the age to come. God became flesh, not in the person of Julius Caesar or a great Egyptian Pharaoh. God became flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the son of peasant woman in an occupied land. Without the mighty getting wind of it, they were as good as cast down from their thrones. If the newlywed wife of a carpenter is to give birth to God’s son, then the hungry are as good as having their bellies filled, for God is not only ready and willing to bring about the age to come; God is in fact already breaking the age to come into our world in acting counter to the ways of this present age.

Mary goes on to sing that this is not some new thing God is doing, but it is in fulfillment of all that God has promised Israel. The God of Israel is now acting in human history in such a way that it will not just break the kingdom of God into this age for the Jews, but for all humanity.

As he begins his ministry, Jesus will affirm the very things his mother now sings. Jesus continually reminded his disciples in different ways that the last would be first, and the first would be last. He preached that those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Jesus said blessed are the poor, the hungry, and those who weep, for God will give them the kingdom, fill them with food, and exchange their tears for laughter. Jesus told his followers that he came to serve, and those who follow him must also be servants. Jesus’ whole ministry lived out the words his mother sang, showing how God’s kingdom is radically different from our present age.

In Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, we see in hymn form that the kingdom of God has broken into our present age. Yes, it is still a fallen and flawed world. The powerful still crush the lowly. More times than not, the rich get richer at the expense of the poor. Those with food have more than enough, while others go hungry.

Yet, because of the ways God has broken into human history, we have had glimpses of a different world. Through the life of Jesus, and rarely through his followers, great saints through the ages, we have seen how wonderful the upside-down world of the gospel really can be. No one is too lowly, too weak, or too undesirable for God. There are no outcasts in God’s kingdom. God does not look to the outward signs of status and success, but rather God looks at the content of your heart.

Use this last week of Advent to make more room in your life for God. The more we allow God into our hearts and lives, the more we will find ourselves loving those whom God loves. Every time we reach out to others to share God’s love, we bring the age to come to life into the here and now.

As Mary responded, “Here am I,” to the angel Gabriel, we too are to respond to the gospel and say, “Yes,” to living into our faith, with changed hearts and lives. This is not as a theory to which we give assent, but a life lived in response to the gospel.

When we live into our faith, reaching out to the lost and left out, and proclaim the Good News in both word and deed, then little by little we help turn the world upside down. When we side against the oppressor and speak up for the voiceless, we make the Kingdom proclaimed by Mary real to ourselves.

It is not that we can change whole world, but by living into the concern that Jesus taught us for the poor and the needy, we make the coming kingdom, the reign of God, real in our hearts. Then we have Mary’s eyes to see that the mighty are as good as cast down, the lowly as good as lifted up, and the hungry are as good as filled, for the Kingdom of God has come near.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Georgia.

Freedom of choice, 4 Advent (B) – 2008

December 21, 2008

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Canticle 3 or Canticle 15 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

Of today’s gospel lesson, Frederick Buechner, in his book Peculiar Treaures, wrote:

“She struck the angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he’d been entrusted with a message to give her and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, and who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. ‘You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said. And as he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great, golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl.”

The whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl. Imagine all the angels gathered around, looking down, holding their collective breath. “What will she say? Will she do it? C’mon, Mary, say yes!” Because they all know the way God works is only by allowing people freely to answer “yes.”

Freedom of choice, the exercise of free will, has always been at the top of God’s priority list when it comes to interaction with human beings. God would never force a “yes” from anyone, would never trick anyone into a response of love, would never make obedience the best choice if people didn’t truly have the option of disobedience as well.

That’s the way God has been from the beginning. God would even allow people to continue in their own disobedience, turn them over to their own ideas of how to make their own way, to get their own way, to find themselves in the prison of their own designs, hit bottom if necessary, if only to give them a firm place from which to say, “Okay, yes. Your will be done.”

God respects our freedom – has, since those days way back in the garden. If it weren’t so, God wouldn’t have to come up with new ways to reach out to people, to ask them again and again to say yes – freely say yes to God. And now those ways had culminated in this moment, when an angel stands before a girl, answering her questions, his knees knocking together, trying to keep the quiver out of his voice, as he and all the angelic host and even God wait. Will she do it? Will she say, “Yes”?

We know the answer Mary gave: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

Here am I, the servant of the Lord. With this answer, all the heavens rejoice, and the plan is set in motion that would cause a new light to shine in the darkness, new hope, new peace, new freedom. And Mary’s answer gives words for us too. These are words that change everything.

During Advent, we hear about how to prepare for the coming of the Lord, how to become more and more the disciple – the follower of Christ – you are called to be. We hear about Advent’s gifts to us: a time for self-examination, a time for repentance, for turning away from things and people and ways of life and behavior that keep us from drawing close to the God who is always rushing to meet us, whether we acknowledge that God and God’s open arms of love for us and the whole world or not. Today’s Advent gift is the gift of commitment, of turning toward God and making the commitment to offer ourselves as no less than the servants of God, to say, along with Mary, our own “yes”: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” These are words that change everything.

Mary wasn’t the first to say these words. She stands in a long line of witnesses who have been brave, or ignorant, or joyous, or adventurous, or grateful, or obedient enough to say to God’s request, “Here am I.”

Noah said, “Here am I,” and God told him to build a floating zoo and told him that he would spend the next forty days feeling seasick and wondering about God’s sense of humor in making this his reward for being righteous.

Abram said, “Here am I,” and God told him to get his wife, pack his things, and go sight unseen to a land God would show him.

The boy Samuel said, “Here am I,” and then began a long career of speaking truth to the powers that be, King Saul in particular, and being the bearer of the unpleasant news that Saul had done wrong in God’s sight. Samuel had no way of knowing if he would still have his head, let alone his job, in the morning.

And Mary, this young girl, probably just old enough to bear a child, ponders and asks and wonders, and then says the words that change everything: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

And she would give birth to the one who would make service, even service unto death, the way of life. She would give birth to the one, in the words of our Prayer Book, “in whose service is perfect freedom.” The name of Mary’s baby was Jesus. In Hebrew, his name is Yeshua, which means, “Yahweh/‘God’ liberates.” God brings freedom.

When we are willing to serve God and do what God asks of us, it is freeing. When we can stop asking, “What’s in it for me? How does this help me? What can I get out of it? What have you done for me lately?” then we will know freedom.

When we are freed from all attempts to be self-important and self-serving, we can be truly freed – freed for service, for purpose, for meaning.

When we present ourselves as God’s servants and are open to hearing what it is God asks of us, we will take our places in a long line of faithful people who have done just that. Then we will find ourselves set free to perform both small acts of care and compassion and large ones. We will be made available for the adventures God has in store for us, for the work God needs us to do, and the work God has designed us, uniquely, to do.

That’s the beauty of it. Even though you may never have thought about what God is asking of you, it doesn’t mean that God hasn’t been preparing you to do it. Or that God doesn’t need you, and you in particular, to do it.

Mary has already taken care of giving birth to the Divine Word Incarnate, so God isn’t asking you to take that on. But don’t think the angels aren’t all holding their breath to hear your answer when God approaches you with a task. And don’t think, just because you can’t hear it, that all the heavenly hosts aren’t singing, “Alleluia!” when you say, freely, “yes.”

God works with groups this way too. God asks particular things of particular communities, gives them particular gifts and opportunities, and only asks that we answer “yes.” But don’t get distracted thinking that someone else is taking care of things. Sometimes it’s through a group like the church that you will be asked to help a group answer “yes” to God’s call.

Either way, you don’t need to find new words. These will do: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.”

 

— The Rev. Amy E. Richter is Missioner for Lifelong Christian Formation for the Diocese of Maryland.

4 Advent (B) – 2008

December 21, 2008

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Canticle 3 or Canticle 15 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

What happens when authority calls?

David, the military general, is now king, and thinks it’s time to end the military campaign. David has been able to settle down, and act like peace really has come. He’s even built himself a great palace, with pillars and beams made from those great cedars of Lebanon. So why should God’s ark still be in a tent? He’s acting with authority in that scene from 2 Samuel, and Nathan agrees with his strategy. Until Nathan has a dream that night. That dream reminds them both who is the ultimate authority and strategist, the one with a view from above. God basically says, “No thanks. I’ve been wandering around with these people from the very beginning; I’m not going to stop now. But I will build you a house, David – a dynasty that will last.”

What happens when authority calls on Mary? Her encounter with the angelic messenger starts in an odd way. The usual opening line of an angel is, “Fear not!” but this one begins with the salutation, “Greetings, favored one.” It could also be translated, “Rejoice, blessed one.” The angel might even be saying, “I salute you.” She’s startled by this unconventional opening, and it says she “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” What’s going on here? This isn’t a normal encounter between angel and mortal, and it’s not a normal encounter between superior and subordinate. The angel’s not saying, “Don’t be afraid, the cavalry’s on its way,” nor is the angel saying, “Atten-hut! here are your orders.” The angel’s opening a conversation – as if between equals.

The angel’s message is about orders, but in a rather different sense than we think about them. This isn’t a military order, a command that expects immediate and almost unquestioning obedience. Military orders can be refused, if the recipient believes them to be unlawful, but the consequences are pretty unpleasant, and you can’t expect to use a defense of illegal orders and get off scot-free. There is absolutely no sense of forcible compulsion about the angel’s order.

This conversation between Gabriel and Mary is about sharing a vision, the kind of perspective a general might have. The strategy of a strategos, the general who climbs up the hill to survey the battlefield. Gabriel is offering a big picture and asking if Mary will cooperate. Sort of like the old Mission Impossible opener, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it … .” It is a choice that can be accepted or not. The strategos has other options if the answer is no.

Mary’s first response is, “Sorry, unable. The equipment’s not ready.” And Gabriel responds by saying, “Doesn’t matter. Elizabeth thought the same thing. And she’s six months into this deployment.”

Mary’s next response is remarkable. She says, “Here I am, ready to serve.” And then, what’s usually translated as, “Let it be with me according to your word,” actually starts out the same way a command does, “Let it be done.” In Latin, it’s “fiat.” She claims the authority offered her. She commands, in full cooperation with the one who has asked. She claims authority, and responds with authority.

This is a hearing, responding, and claiming, not mindlessly following orders or only because a gun’s to your head, but out of a deep conviction that this is God’s call. This is what is sometimes called submission to God – putting yourself under orders out of faithfulness to God’s larger mission.

Here is a connection that may challenge you, but it’s an important link to God’s larger mission. Mary is also revered by Muslims, who recognize her as a righteous woman, and deeply value her example of submission to the will of God. Muslims do not see her son as divine, but they do believe he was born to a virgin. The Quran actually mentions Mary more often than the New Testament does. The word Islam means “submission to God,” and Mary is revered because she is such an important example of what that looks like. That word Islam has the same root as shalom and salaam, words usually translated as “peace.” God’s mission, the mission of the Prince of Peace, is about reconciling the world. The Christian story of that reconciling work begins with Mary.

In a very real sense, Mary is the first human being to make a Christian response. Her cooperation with that larger mission is at the root of Christianity. Faith in divine authority and claiming one’s own authority to partner with God the strategos is part of our Christian life.

We’re all people under authority. Clergy – deacons, priests, and bishops – are called “ordained” because they have taken vows to live a disciplined life, obeying the pastoral authority of others. All the baptized are under authority – at baptism we make solemn vows to give our hearts to God and live in particular ways that build up the body, both the body of our own existence and our existence in the community called the Body of Christ. Living an ordered existence is about discipline, practice, and askesis – a Greek word that means “athletic training.”

The ascetic practices of our faith tradition are about training for mission, God’s mission to heal this world, to build a world of peace, with justice, for all. That’s what all that prophetic language about building straight roads in the desert is about. That’s what God has in mind for David and his dynasty – to build a society where no one goes to war anymore, where there isn’t any more poverty or the violence that results, where everyone has the opportunity for meaningful work, and no one stays sick because he can’t afford medical care.

That’s what the song of Mary is about – the one she sings after the angel visits:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. The almighty has done great things for me; he has mercy on those who fear him, he has scattered the proud, cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has fed the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Mary’s “yes” is a choice to participate in God’s work of healing the world. It’s the same choice you and I get every day – to say “yes” to the free and open invitation to cooperate and co-create as part of the healing, redeeming work of God in Christ. It’s not about taking orders simply because they are written down, or spoken, or demanded. It is about a careful and thoughtful and whole-hearted decision to participate. It is about claiming the authority God has given us.

“Let it be with me according to your word.”

What’s your response going to be the next time you hear God calling?

 

— The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. This sermon was originally delivered at Bolling Air Force Base on Sunday, December 21, 2008.

4 Advent (B) – 2005

December 18, 2005

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Canticle 3 or Canticle 15 or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

Everybody knows that oysters sometimes make pearls; and that fascinating reality has been used to illustrate many a point. But here’s an old truth said in a new way, a way that gives it more power. It seems pearls aren’t automatic. When an oyster – who must ordinarily have an enviably calm life lying around eating soft, pleasant food – somehow gets a bit of sand inside its shell, then one of two things will happen. The oyster will create a pearl, or it will die. The pearl, a thing of beauty and value, is the oyster’s way of staying alive after something very irritating has gotten past its shell, into its heart.

That little bit of marine biology is background for today’s Gospel – not to present any sermonic pearls; be they pearls of wisdom, or pearls of great price. Instead, let’s examine the grain of sand, a bit of irritation, something small and rough that can slip past our shells and give us all something to work on. We – and indeed the church itself, in this and every generation – need to work on this bit of sand very carefully. It will not go away; and we will either make of it a pearl, or, in one way or another, we will die.

The grit, like the oyster’s sand, is well hidden in pleasant, soft food. The Gospel we just heard is a portion of what is called the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus. It is after supper “in the night in which He was betrayed.” Jesus is praying for his disciples, and for us. He prays for our unity, for our joy, and for our safety and protection. Jesus says that we are not of the world, but that we should none the less remain in the world – for our ministry is to be in the world, and for the world.

Now remember, when Jesus says “world” here, He is not talking about the created order: rocks and trees and rabbits and things like that. He is talking about human society organized as it sees best for its own purposes.

He is talking about business as usual; about the government, the society, the culture, the various human institutions; the world in that sense, doing what it usually does.

And Jesus says of his disciples that the world has hated them because they are not of the world. This hatred is to be the fate, indeed it is to be a real, distinguishing mark, of all who follows Jesus. They are to stand out because they don’t really fit in.

The bit of grit is this: When was the last time the world hated you because you belong to Jesus and not to the world? When was the last time your faith so set you apart from business as usual that you were met with anger, ridicule, or hatred? How about a little bit of contempt? Mild dislike? How about a tiny bit of irritation?

Hey, maybe Jesus was wrong; maybe, these days, we really are of the world, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. But somehow that’s doubtful. Or maybe the Kingdom of God has arrived, and we just missed everything about it except for how convenient it is for us. But that’s doubtful too.

We need to ask whether we have become so totally caught in our culture, become so totally of the world that we have to work hard to discover if we are different, and how we are different, and what it looks like for us to be different, and whether it is worth it to be different.

In many ways it was easier for the early church. As an occasionally persecuted minority in a pagan culture, a lot of things were clear. For example, Christians couldn’t attend the public games, they couldn’t hold several types of jobs, they couldn’t join the army, and so on. The world often ridiculed or hated them – and both sides pretty much knew why.

It’s not so easy these days. Modern attempts to come up with lists of popular things Christians can’t do have usually been rather silly. And we Episcopalians have been downright smug in pointing out that we aren’t like those people (you know, the Baptists, and others) who say you can’t dance or wear make-up or go to movies.

By the way, have you ever noticed that nobody ever really nails us on that? Instead of trying to establish God’s disapproval for the waltz or bingo, they could really hit home if they responded to our self-righteous lack of lists with another question. What if they said, “OK, have your martini and go to the dance, but before you do, tell me how your faith does affect your life; show me how it makes a difference.” That is the grit for us oysters.

One way we try to get out of this pinch can cause a lot of trouble. That way is saying that it is the Church’s job to fix the world so there will be no conflicts for us to worry about. So from time to time, we rear back and try to change everything within reach so we can be both righteous and of the world at the same time. We do that in all sorts of ways, from all sorts of directions. Now, on one level, this is good. It is very important that we engage the world and try very hard to make things better. We need to do this; but we need to avoid getting confused about what that means. And we get confused easily.

It is not hard to forget that God will bring in the Kingdom, not us. And even worse, we find it very easy to begin supporting what we think is a good cause, for Christian reasons, and then to end up holding onto the cause and forgetting the Christian part of it altogether. Of course, the best way to tell whether the cause or the Christianity is more important is by looking at how we treat people who don’t agree with our cause.

And we get confused when we forget that the Lord does not call us to be powerful or effective as the world sees power and effectiveness. The Lord calls us to be faithful – to live his life, to follow his steps. Part of that involves remembering that, of the twelve disciples, Judas was the most effective at using both money and the powers that be to get what he wanted. Just trying to fix things doesn’t get rid of our problems, either.

This is grit, not pearls. We don’t have a list of rules telling us how not to be of the world because we know that it isn’t that simple. Still, we do know, and we must never forget, that the way we treat each other, and the way we treat our bodies, and our time, and our money, and the things we call “mine” – these are and will remain very important. And our Lord has something to say about them. We also know that all the good works, reforms, and changes we make, as important as they are, will not take away the problem, either. This side of the Kingdom, the world as Jesus spoke of it of business as usual, this will always, in one or another, be the alternative to faithfulness, and not the means to it.

We need to make our own pearls, or we will die. We need to look honestly at the world, at the culture around us, and at we are – and who the Lord would have us be. We must always make choices. We may even discover that Jesus was right, and that, in one way or another, the world will hate us. But the Lord continues to pray for us, we are promised all of the help we need. And pearls come from the oddest places.

— The Rev. Ken Kesselus, author of John E. Hines: Granite on Fire, the biography of our controversial 22nd Presiding Bishop, and current member of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church, lives in semi-retirement with his wife Toni in Bastrop, Texas, a small town near Austin.