Monday, January 10, 2011

The Joy of God-Bearing

Sermon as prepared for delivery at Newark Valley UCC in Newark Valley, NY on 12/12/10
Gospel text: Luke 1:39-55
Advent 3A

          Here we are on the third Sunday of Advent, in the midst of a season of waiting, introspection, anticipation and longing. It is the pregnant pause, where we expectantly wait for God to break through with something new. It seems we do this every year… we come hoping that this will be the year when transformation will really happen in our lives - in our church  – in our world. We tell the story every year as if we don’t know the ending, because we’re hoping that this will be the year.
          The people of Israel did the same thing, year after year, hoping for a new ending. They had a story to tell, of God’s faithfulness and deliverance throughout their history, and every year they told this story in hopes that this year would bring a bigger and greater transformation than they had ever imagined.
          And so a young woman – a teenager, really, finds her place in the story of God’s people. As you know, the angel Gabriel had revealed to a young woman named Mary that she would give birth to a holy child, the Son of God. Listen to the story of Mary’s visit with Elizabeth, from the gospel of Luke:
“Within a few days Mary set out and hurried to the hill country to a town of Judah, where she entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why am I so favored that the mother of my Lord should come to me? The moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who believed that what our God said to her would be accomplished!”
          And Mary sang:
“My soul proclaims your greatness, O God,
and my spirit rejoices in you, my Savior.
For you have looked with favor
upon your lowly servant,
and from this day forward
all generations will call me blessed.
For you, the Almighty, have done great things for me,
and holy is your Name.
Your mercy reaches from age to age
for those who fear you.
You have shown strength with your arm;
you have scattered the proud in their conceit;
you have deposed the mighty from their thrones
and raised the lowly to high places.
You have filled the hungry with good things,
while you have sent the rich away empty.
You have come to the aid of Israel your servant,
mindful of your mercy –
the promise you made to our ancestors –
to Sarah and Abraham
and their descendants forever.”

          This is the week in Advent when we join in singing with Mary, letting our inner joy bubble up and spill over. But let’s take a step back for a moment and look at this text in its context. The gospel of Luke is only half of a 2-part work: Luke, which tells the story of Jesus Christ, and Acts, which tells the story of the beginnings of the Body of Christ, the church.
          Mary’s Magnificat, or song of praise, holds up several themes that are important throughout Luke and Acts: the presence of God’s Spirit, the abundance of food and resources for all, and God’s cosmic table-turning, making the last first and the first, last. But these themes are not unique to Luke-Acts. They are persistent themes throughout Hebrew scripture, and Mary’s song comes out of this deep soul knowledge, bred in her through her religious and cultural upbringing.  Mary is able to sing about what God will do because of what God has already done. Looking back over her own history and the history of her people gives her hope that God’s promised renewal will come.
          Now, things were not easy for Mary. She was unmarried, probably a teenager, in a small town, where everyone knew everyone else’s scandals, and gossip could take on a life of its own. Who knows what kind of stories people told about her?
          When I was in high school, a teenage girl in my church became pregnant. When people talked about her, they would get that sort of whisper people do when they’re saying something scandalous. (whispering) “Did you hear that she is pregnant?” “That would never happen in my family.” Can you imagine Mary hearing the whispers on the street? “I heard that’s not Joseph’s baby. Do the math.” “She’s got such good parents. I would have expected more from her.”

          And Mary is not just any teenage mother. She is the one chosen to give birth to the Messiah, the anointed one. Mary knew that if she and her child survived childbirth – a dangerous process in those days – there would be more pain ahead. She knew her Bible well – her scriptures didn’t say that the Messiah’s parents would be loved by all. They didn’t say that the Anointed One would be heralded and lifted up – at least not in any way that a mother would hope for her child to be lifted up. No, Mary’s Bible told her that God would turn things upside down – and that the Christ would pay the price for the renewal of the world.
          Knowing what the Bible had to say about the kind of life the Anointed One would have – what mother would want that for her child? What mother to be would be able to sing with such overflowing joy?
          To begin to understand Mary’s situation, it’s also important to know that the Israelites were an occupied people. Most, if not all of us, don’t know what that looks and feels like, but Mary knew it deep in her bones. Her quality of life was dependent on the whims of the Roman Empire. She knew that a Messiah would make a claim about God’s reign in the world – thereby making a claim that the Roman empire – or any other empire – didn’t really have any power at all.
          From her lived experience, Mary knew that Rome did not look kindly on that kind of message. She had seen people crucified and lifted up on crosses, displayed for all to see the power of Rome.
          Knowing all of this – what sane person would want to give birth to and raise God’s Anointed – God’s Christ? And yet, there is something about God-bearing – about carrying within oneself the hopes of God for the rebirth of the world – that fizzes up inside and makes us want to sing, as Mary did, about the God who takes the scandals of our lives and turns them into an opportunity for profound transformation.
          Allow me to shift into our present world, one in which it can often be hard to move past the pain and heartache and judgment of this world and find a way to join in Mary’s joy. Most of you are familiar with the “It Gets Better” project, and I saw the heartfelt video you created following J.K.’s installation as your pastor. The It Gets Better project is a response to the epidemic of suicides committed by young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning.
          I spent the past 4 years living in Fort Worth, Texas, where I went to seminary. If I asked you to make me a list of the most gay-friendly places in the United States, I’m not sure Fort Worth would be anywhere near the top of the list. But recent events have raised the visibility of the LGBT community in Fort Worth, and the city has been working hard to rectify some of the injustices that have occurred. Recently we gained even more visibility, when a brave city council representative decided to share his story.
          Joel Burns, a young man with a thick Texas accent, tearfully shared his experience of attempting suicide after being bullied and told he was going to burn in hell because he is gay. Joel spoke directly to youth to tell them that “It gets better.” In his moving speech, he says, “Yes, high school was difficult. Coming out was painful. But life got so much better for me….give yourself a chance to see just how much better life will get. And it will get better….You will find and you will make new friends who will understand you…Things will get easier. Please stick around to make those happy memories for yourself.”

          And my friend and seminary colleague Sam Castleberry, a young man from Conway, Arkansas, says, “When I look back over my first 23 years, they weren’t easy…the thought of having to wake up every morning and go through the day was an almost unbearable thought. But as for my life now, my life is better than anything I could have ever imagined. I am happy, I am joyous, and I am free!”
          Both of these men have taken their place in God’s story and shared their Magnificat – their song of praise – in the hopes that others will be able to find that place as well. We have all seen our share of hard times – individually and communally. And, like Mary, we know that allowing God to bring something new to birth in us might bring with it even more risk and pain.
          But, like Mary, and Joel, and Sam, we can look back at our history to see where God has been. What is your Magnificat? What has God already done – in your life and in your church – that gives you hope for what God will do?
          In finding her place in God’s story, Mary discovered that she was not alone. Joseph could have abandoned her, or worse, had her killed. Zechariah, a priest, could have refused to welcome her into his home. But she discovered that there was a community of people who loved her and would support her as God came to life in her. In the church, the Body of Christ, we provide that support for one another.
          We, too, are Godbearers. Our womb is heavy with creative possibilities – we don’t know exactly what it will look like. In fact, we never know exactly what it will look like when the divine and the human join – but when the new thing God is doing emerges from the womb, we will all cry out with joy at its beauty.
          Catholic Christians around the world join with Elizabeth every day to say, “Hail, Mary, full of grace, blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Church, let’s join in Mary’s song, knowing that someday, people will say, “blessed is the fruit of your womb, and blessed is the God who brought it to birth in you!” Let this be the year when transformation happens in our hearts, our homes, our church, and our world. Blessed are you who believe that God will do it! Amen.

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