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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 14, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Acts 17:16-31and Matthew 28:1-10
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Paul was on the run.  Well, maybe not on the run, but he was at least on the walk.  Paul was basically “hiding out” in Athens.  In the prior chapters, he has attempted to share the Gospel in Thessalonica and Berea and – well, things did not go well.   Basically, Paul was on the lam.  He was hiding out.

And he couldn’t keep his mouth shut.

We come into the story in the midst of one of his evangelical journeys, traveling around the Mediterranean world, starting new churches and encouraging the converts to this new way, this new religion of Jesus-followers.  Silas and Timothy have stayed behind at their last stop and Paul has gone on ahead to Athens. Paul had some time waiting for the others to catch up, and, in his wanderings around Athens, he got upset.  He noticed that the city was full of idols, and as a good Jew, this was upsetting.  Upsetting enough that Paul had to say something.

So every day, he would go somewhere where there were people – the synagogue, the marketplace – and he would talk about God and Jesus and the resurrection.  He got into arguments with Epicureans, who believed that the gods did not intervene in daily life.[1]  He got into arguments with Stoics, who suppressed passions and focused on behavior over beliefs.[2]  Based on who he argued with, it appears that Paul thought that what you believed mattered, that you should believe in one God (Yahweh) who is active in daily life, and that there are reasons to be passionate.

The Areopagus

Some of the people who he got into discussion with took Paul out to the Areopagus, known as Mars Hill by the Romans, for further discussion.  In classical times, the Areopagus was the seat of the Athenian court of appeals, a place of justice and judgment.[3]  By this time, the author of Acts seems to say that it had become a place of much more common conversation:  “the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new,” is how the New Revised Standard Version translates the description.[4]  The more vernacular paraphrase, The Message, translates the description, “There were always people hanging around, natives and tourists alike, waiting for the latest tidbit on most anything.”[5]

Paul used this as another opportunity to share his story.  “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’  What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”[6]

In his travels around Athens, Paul not only found the upsetting altars and idols, he also found an altar to “an unknown god.” I guess the Athenians were covering all the bases.  Paul found the opening he needed to share his story.  He used this “unknown god” as a vehicle to tell his story about Yahweh and Jesus (though, interestingly, Paul doesn’t specifically name Jesus).

Paul tells them that the uncontainable God is the creator of the universe and gives us life.  “From one ancestor,” Paul says, “[Yahweh] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and … allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for … and find [God] – though indeed [God] is not far from each one of us.”[7]

Paul makes an interesting assumption here – one that I agree with:  Human beings long for a connection with the intimately transcendent, with holy-ness, with the ultimate within which we live and move and have out being.  Human beings long for God.  And since God made us, we can’t make God.  This God we long for can’t be limited to altars and shrines and idols.

Paul’s “doxology about the wonder of creation turns into a summons to repent.  Only late in the paragraph of Paul’s speech in Acts is Jesus mentioned, and this only by allusion to ‘a man whom [God] has appointed’ (Acts 17: 31).  The speech culminates with reference to Jesus about whom Paul makes this affirmation:  First, Jesus is raised from the dead.  Second, his resurrection is a promise that all will be judged in righteousness.”[8]  The One who made us calls us to repent from our ignorance and from our unrighteousness.

When I saw that this as one of the scripture readings recommended for this year’s pledge campaign, I thought, “We’ve got to use it.”  I love how Paul can’t keep his mouth shut.  He has a story to tell.  He wants to tell it.  And he is wise enough to find his opening.

I imagine Paul wandering the streets of Athens, Noticing the altar to an unknown God, and thinking, “I can use that.  I was looking for an opening and there it is. That’s my door to sharing my story.”

As I studied this scripture more carefully I noticed that Paul had more than his story and this opening.  Looking carefully at the story, I see he had five things.

First, he had his story to share.  Paul was an upholder of the purity of Judaism when he had an experience, an encounter with the resurrected Christ.  His life was transformed.  He had a whole new purpose – letting people know about what God was doing in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  That’s what he knew in his life and it’s what he had to share.

Second, he had a reason for sharing it.  He probably had reasons (plural) for sharing it. Here in Athens, we read that his reason was how upset he was by seeing all the altars to false gods and idols.  The people of the city didn’t even know who the real God was, let alone anything about Jesus.

Third, he had people to share it with.  People gathered in the synagogue and in the market place. They liked to talk, to gossip.  They liked to argue philosophy.

Fourth, he had an opening – the altar to an unknown god.

And fifth, he had the persistence to keep sharing it until someone started to listen.  He went to the synagogue.  He went to the market place.  He went to that Areopagus.  And eventually, some people listened and were convinced and joined this movement of Jesus-followers.

Now, I don’t want you to lose track of all five of these things.  I assume you have all five of them as well.  But having a reason for sharing your story, having people to share it with, having an opening to share it, and having the persistence to keep sharing it really don’t matter if you don’t know what your story is.

What is your story?

My story is not early as dramatic as Paul’s (though it’s worth pointing out that in this situation, here on Mars Hill, Paul doesn’t share the dramatic parts of his story).  I don’t have a blasted off my donkey and blinded conversion experience. My story is one of always being connected with God, though my understanding of what I mean when I say “God” is continually evolving.

Maybe I haven’t been knocked off my ass by God, but I’ve been wowed by God.  I’ve had experiences of the intimately transcendent that have taken me out of myself and into a greater wholeness.  And I’ve discovered that my life has meaning and grounding and direction because of my relationship with God – the God revealed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  I have come to realize that if I didn’t have that relationship I might still have found meaning and grounding and direction – it just would have been in one of the idols of our culture, an idol like accumulation, or greed, or even violence. Instead, I’ve found meaning, grounding, and direction in Yahweh.

But that’s not much of a story, is it?  On Mars Hill, this philosophical description might be effective.  In most of the rest of life, it’s the stories of the incidents moving me from one point to another on this journey that would be compelling.

For someone, my story of coming to terms with my sexuality and coming to terms with the reality of God fully embracing me, sexuality and all, might be the story they need to hear.

For another person, my story of how I came to be so convinced that climate change is the moral issue of our day may be the story I need to share, and for someone else, that story might turn them off.

For someone else, it might be my story of struggling to love people who seem to me to be so hateful that they need to hear.

And for someone else, my story of God’s love and power experienced in my journey through grief after my mother died might connect in a way mothering else I might say could.

Regardless, I need to bring my stories.

Someone might need to know that I believe that what you believe is much less important than how you love, though I suspect I would communicate more if I told my story about struggling when I friend I deeply respected as a progressive Christian told me her story about speaking in tongues.

And someone else might need to know that there are Christians who don’t believe in penal substitutionary atonement, though I suspect I would communicate more if I brought my story about my mom blowing my 10-year-old mind when she told me she didn’t believe in a literal hell.

And maybe I need to bring my story about how I’ve learned that without a community that is also basing its life on a relationship with the God revealed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus, my faith journey would founder.  Maybe I need to bring my story of needing and discovering a community that welcomes me on my faith journey exactly where I am and encourages me to continue the journey.

Maybe I need to bring my story of how nothing but God has managed to fill the God-shaped hole in my life.  Not diversions and lies.  Not accolades and power.  Not accumulation and possessions.  Nothing really fits, nothing really fills it the way God does.

During this pledge campaign, we’re asking the question, “What shall we bring?”  Last week I suggested that we need to bring our “yes” to God.  This week, it’s all about our stories.

Imagine if the Marys did what the angel and Jesus told them to do.  Imagine they went back to the disciples and said, “Jesus has been raised from the dead and he is going ahead of you to Galilee.  You will see him there.  Go to Galilee.”  Nothing more. Just what the angel and Jesus told them to say.

The disciples would have said something like, “Are you nuts?”

Instead, the Marys told their story.  The told the disciple something like, “First thing this morning, as the sun was coming up, we went to the tomb where we buried him. And while we were there, an angel appeared, and the earth shook, and the Roman guards collapsed with fright.  And the angel told us that Jesus is raised.

And sure enough, the tomb was empty.  Then the angel told us to tell you that he is raised and was going ahead of us to Galilee.

“We were so overcome with joy, we started running back here – and on the way, Jesus appeared to us.  That’s right, our Jesus who the Roman’s executed and who we buried in a tomb, appeared to us and told us to tell you to go to Galilee and that you would see him there.  Let’s go!”

Their story – not just their message, but their story – was so compelling, you and I are followers of Jesus.

My friends, bring your story!

Amen.

Questions for contemplation:

  1. What is you story?  (Do not go on to question 2 until you have answered question 1.)
  2. What is/are your reason/s for sharing it?
  3. With whom could you share it?
  4. What opening might there be to share it?
  5. Do you have the persistence to keep sharing it?

[1]“Epicureanism,” Wikipedia,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epicureanism(24 May 2014).

[2]“Stoicism,” Wikipedia,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stoicism(24 May 2014).

[3]“Areopagus,” Wikipedia,http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Areopagus(24 May 2014).

[4]Acts 17:21, NRSV.

[5]Acts 17:21, The Message.

[6]Acts 17:22b-23, NRSV.

[7]Acts 17:26-27, NRSV.

[8]Walter Brueggemann, “A Daring Love,” Sojourners, http://sojo.net/preaching-the-word/daring-love(24 May 2014).

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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Sunday, October 7, 2018, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scriptures:  Genesis 12:1-9 and Luke 1:26-38
Copyright © 2018 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

This past week, I’ve been thinking about the importance of ‘no,’ even though the theme for this sermon is on the importance and power of ‘yes.’  I find the Senate’s ‘yes’ to Judge Kavanaugh troublesome.  I wanted their ‘no,’ though I didn’t expect it.

I could list my reasons why I find his confirmation troublesome, but I don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of our personal assessments.  I’ll leave that for a blog post I may get to before the week is out.  Today, or at least during this sermon, I invite you to use the confirmation of Judge Kavanaugh as an object lesson for my larger point:  that choosing ‘no’ and choosing ‘yes’ has impact and repercussions, not just for the people saying ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ but for others as well.

Three-and-a-half years ago, an organizational consultant named Tony Schwartz wrote an article for The New York Times about “the power of starting with ‘yes’” for business leaders and managers.  He begins with a little anecdote.  “As I write this column, my two dogs have been lying quietly near my desk.  I just conducted a little experiment with them.  First, I said a single word – ‘Yes’ – with unbridled enthusiasm.  The dogs leapt to their feet, their tails wagging, and raced over to me.  Next I said ‘No,’ firmly.  Both dogs looked down and slunk away.  I felt as bad as they did.”[1]

I suspect the dogs were responding as much to his tone of voice as the actual words.  Still, you know how empowering it feels to be told, ‘Yes.’  I’m sure Barack Obama chose “Yes, we can!” as a 2008 campaign slogan for many reasons.  One of them had to be that the slogan felt affirming and empowering as it drew people into community and common purpose.

Schwartz points out, “‘No’ is first and foremost a fear response, most useful in situations of genuine danger.  It’s something you say instinctively and protectively to a 3-year-old when he’s about to pull a lamp off a table and onto himself or to a 15-year-old who announces she’s planning to take up cliff jumping.

“In situations like those, the instinct to say ‘no’ serves us well.”[2]  It even has an evolutionary benefit.  Quoting a psychologist, Schwartz adds, “‘Organisms … attuned to bad things would have been more likely to survive threats.  Survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones.’”[3]

“There is a difference,” Schwartz points out, “between surviving and thriving.  Because our survival is no longer under constant threat, many more of us have the opportunity to focus on thriving.  The problem with ‘no’ as a starting place is that it polarizes, prompts defensiveness, and shuts down innovation, collaboration, and connection.”[4]

For an example, Schwartz points to research by the psychologist John Gottman and his colleagues, that has found that when the ratio of positive to negative interactions between a married couple falls below 5 to 1 – if it falls below five positive interactions for every one negative interaction – divorce is far more likely.[5]  Negative interactions are so powerful in a relationship that it takes five positive interactions to outweigh the impact of one negative interaction.

Starting with ‘yes,’ stepping into a situation with an attitude of ‘yes,’ is important, not simply because such an attitude is energizing and builds safety and trust, but because starting with ‘no’ is so destructive.

Imagine how different the world would be if, instead of saying, “Let it be with me just as you say,”[6] Mary had said, “Nope.  No way!”  Mary’s ‘yes’ to God changed the world.  As did Abram’s.  Though Abram’s ‘yes’ needs a little more unpacking, I think.

Abram’s story seems to start with our reading in chapter 12.  It seems to start almost out of the blue.  “Now Yahweh said to Abram …”  Of course, none of our stories start out of the blue.  We all come from somewhere.

Abram’s story starts in chapter 11, and his ancestors’ stories start even earlier.  It’s not much more than a genealogical mention in chapter 12, and I know I’m typically tempted to skip over the biblical genealogies.  But in those last verses of the genealogy in chapter 11, we learn that Abram is the son of Terah, brother of Nahor and Haran, husband of Sarai, and uncle of Lot.  And we learn that even though their family was from Ur, Terah took his family and left Ur, for reasons that are not enumerated, and headed off for the land of Canaan.

This is significant because, when God shows up in chapter 12, in today’s reading, Abram is already headed in the direction of Canaan.  True, their journey seems to have stalled at Haran (that is, the community of Haran, not to be confused with Abram’s brother Haran).  Perhaps the invitation from God acts as a kick in the pants to get them moving again.

In any event, this call from God isn’t as dramatic a “change the course of your life” call as I’ve generally thought it to be.  It is more of an invitation to continue or to get back to what had already begun.  Still, I think there is something new happening here.  I think the key to that new thing is found in the blessing God gives Abram:  “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”[7]

If you were at Tim Weible’s installation last week, you heard me preach about how tribalism in human evolution led to violence.  (It still does, as far as I can tell.)  Still, tribalism served a purpose.  In hunter/gatherer cultures, the tribe provided protection, belonging, and identity.  That is why tribes are inward-focused.

Here, in the blessing God gives Abram, God invites Abram to look outward.  Abram’s tribe, the “great nation” he will father, rather than turning inward for defense, is called to turn outward for blessing, to be a blessing.

“The purpose of the blessing is to be a blessing to others.  From the very beginning, the invitation to be part of God’s people is a call to look outward to the needs of others.  The generous sharing of our gifts, financial and otherwise, is then a natural and necessary action for those of us who call ourselves the people of God.  Our blessings never stop with us.  They always flow onward to someone else.”[8]  Our blessings never stops with us.

Lee Hull Moses, who wrote a commentary on this passage I used in creating today’s sermon, shared a story that explains what I mean.  “Years ago, when my parents bought me my first used car – primarily so they could stop driving back and forth to pick me up from college – my dad included a note along with the instructions to keep the oil changed and gas tank filled:  Use this to help people.  I don’t know that I followed that advice as often as he would have liked, but it’s been a good reminder to me that the things we own are best understood as tools by which we serve our neighbors.”[9]

The things we own are best understood as tools of blessing.

That would be our ideal relationship with our stuff.  I know I’m some distance from that ideal relationship.  But I’m working on it.

I think it’s worth noting that when Abram brought his ‘yes’ to God’s invitation to continue to Canaan, he didn’t drop everything to follow.  Quite the opposite.  He packed up all his possessions, including “the persons whom they had acquired in Haran,” to set off on the journey.  And there’s no mention that he discussed the matter with Sarai.  He made a decision and off they all went.  While these aspects of the story are disturbing, it’s nice to know that God calls people who aren’t perfect.

And when Abram led his family and possessions to Canaan, they didn’t do it all at once.  The journey takes quite a while, first to Shechem, then Moreh, then Bethel, and on to the Negeb.  At each stop along the way, Abram did the same thing.  He pitched a tent and built an altar.  Then he did it again.

It’s not a bad way to structure a life:  listen for God, follow the call, set up an altar, worship, be a blessing … rinse and repeat.

As I wrote in my newsletter column (which I’m sure you all read and memorized), we hold a pledge campaign each fall for at least two reasons – one practical and one theological.  The practical reason is that it helps us create a budget.  Knowing about how much money will be coming in can help us plan our spending.

The theological reason is to encourage us to look at our stewardship.  And not just at our stewardship of our money.  This season is about our stewardship of our whole lives.  Today we are invited to consider how we are stewards of ‘yes’ and ‘no.’  And we are invited to consider how we are stewards of our listening for God’s invitations to take the next step on our journeys – our individual journeys and our congregation’s journey.

The invitation is to bring your ‘yes’ to God so that we might be a greater blessing to the world and so that we might join God in changing the world.

Amen.

Questions for contemplation:

What might God be kicking our church in the pants to continue (or start)?

What will it take to do this?

How will we show our ‘Yes’?

_______________

[1] Tony Schwartz, “The Power of Starting With ‘Yes’,” The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/18/business/dealbook/the-power-of-starting-with-yes.html (posted 17 April 2015; accessed 26 September 2018).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Schwartz, quoting Roy Baumeister, “Bad is strong than good,” link broken.

[4] Schwartz, op. cit. Oxford commas added.

[5] See, for instance, Kyle Benson, “The Magic Relationship Ratio, According to Science,” The Gottman Institute, https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-magic-relationship-ratio-according-science/ (posted 4 October 2017; accessed 6 October 2018).

[6] Luke 1:38, The Message.

[7] Genesis 12:2, The New Revised Standard Version, emphasis added.

[8] From a commentary by Lee Hull Moses that is part of the stewardship campaign materials Niles Discovery Church purchased from the Center for Faith and Giving, https://centerforfaithandgiving.org.

[9] Ibid.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on the First Sunday of Advent, December 3, 2017, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 1:26-38
Copyright © 2017 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

If you do the Facebook thing, then you have probably had the experience of seeing a graphic that you really appreciate for more than one reason.  It’s happened to me with a graphic a couple years ago.  Of course, I can’t find that graphic now.  That’s right:  Google let me down.  This diagram is close to it.

As a former mathematician, it tickles me that we’ve got some set theory at work here.  As a pastor, I love that it’s subject is one of my favorites, scriptural study.  The Venn diagram compares Matthew’s and Luke’s birth narratives.  While there are a lot of words in the center, the overlap between the two is really quite small.

One of the big differences between the two stories is who is center stage.  Mary and Joseph are both mentioned in both versions, but Joseph is center stage in Matthew’s gospel, being named 8 times, and Mary is center stage in Luke’s gospel, being named 11 times.

Sometimes Luke uses a subtle line to remind us of the importance of Mary to his story.  For instance, when we get to the birth itself, the shepherds tell the people in the stable about how the angels had directed them there.  Luke has a line, just a few words, to tell us about Mary’s (not Joseph’s) reaction.  “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

But I think it’s the story of the annunciation that really puts Mary center stage.  Gabriel may do most of the talking, but the story is about Mary.  There are several things that are established in Gabriel’s words that are important, that lay the foundation for Luke’s gospel.

Twice Gabriel says that the baby Mary will have will be called the Son of God.  This is not a statement about Trinitarian doctrine.  This is a title that Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and Luke’s original readers would be familiar with.  It was one of the titles that emperor Caesar August was known by when Jesus was born, a title Roman emperors claimed when Luke wrote his gospel.  Gabriel sets up the story – this Jesus we’ll be reading about, not the pretender Augustus, is the real Son of God.

Another thing that gets established in Gabriel and Mary’s dialog is that Mary is a virgin.  I think there are two reasons this is important to Luke.  First, it established that Jesus is greater than John the baptizer.  John’s birth was miraculous because Elizabeth and Zechariah had never managed to have a child and, as it’s translated in the New Revised Standard Version, “both were getting on in years.”  But Jesus’ birth is more miraculous because, though young, Mary had never had sexual intercourse.

The other reason I can identify, thanks to the work of John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, that this is important to Luke is that Mary’s virginity sets Jesus up again in opposition to Caesar Augustus.  They detail in their book The First Christmas a legend that originated roughly thirty years before the birth of Jesus about Octavian, the person who would become Caesar Augustus, about how he was conceived.

“When Atia [Octavian’s mother] had come in the middle of the night to the solemn service of Apollo, she had her litter set down in the temple and fell asleep,…  On a sudden a serpent glided up to her and shortly went away.  When she awoke, she purified herself, as if after the embraces of her husband,…  In the tenth month after that Augustus was born and was therefore regarded as the son of Apollo.”[1]

Borg and Crossan point out that legend of Octavian’s divine conception is modeled on similar, earlier legends of the conceptions of legendary Generals Alexander and the Roman general Scipio Africanus.  Augustus was to out conquer them all.  “The reason for an emphasis on [Mary’s] virginity,” according to Borg and Crossan, “is in order to exalt the divine conception of Jesus over all others – especially over that of Augustus himself.”[2]

They also note that there is a big difference in the way divine conception occurs between the story of Augustus and the story of Jesus.  “In Greco-Roman tradition, and notable in [the] Augustus story …, divine intercourse takes place in a physical manner, so that it was necessary for Atia to purify herself ‘as if after the embraces of her husband.’  Even with Greco-Roman divine conceptions, the male god engages in intercourse, so that the human mother is no longer a virgin after conception.”  They argue that the “claim that Mary remained a virgin before, during, and after conception … made her divine conception different from and greater than all others … especially over that of Caesar Augustus.”[3]

It is not surprising that a story that plays such a foundational role in Luke’s gospel is well remembered.  Luke’s telling of the story helps.  There is something that is both grittily human and mysteriously divine in his telling.  It is no wonder it has inspired so much art.

We’ve been looking at Leonardo da Vinci’s “Annunciation,” 1472-1475.  There are certain things in the image that became standard elements in artistic depictions of the annunciation in Western European art.  You’ll notice the lily that Gabriel is holding.  Mary is reading a book and she is wearing blue.  She has somehow become pretty wealthy by the looks of those clothes and house behind her.  How she became a woman of letters and means is beyond me.

This is a depiction of the annunciation by Luca Signorelli, from the late 15th century.  It has the standard elements – the lily, the book (that Mary has dropped, perhaps startled by Gabriel), and Mary is in blue.  In the upper left, you’ll see God and the heavenly host, and on a line from God to Mary’s head, you’ll see a dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit coming down to Mary to impregnate her.

This is a contemporary depiction, by John Collier.  You’ll see the lily, book, and blue dress.  He purposefully set it in American suburbia.

I love this contemporary depiction by the Chinese artist He Qi, with Gabriel sticking his head in the window.  You’ll notice the lily and the blue in Mary’s clothing, but the book is missing.

This 20th century depiction of the annunciation is by the Japanese artist Sadao Watanabi.  The blue has moved into Mary’s hair.  The book is present, subtly my Mary’s knees.  The lily is missing, but the Holy Spirit is there in the upper right.

I found this annunciation online.  It’s a contemporary piece, but I couldn’t figure out who the artist is.  The lily is present and Mary is in blue, but the book has been replaced by an MP3 player, and all we see of Gabriel is a hand.  I’m struck by the fact that one of the ear buds is pulled out, suggesting to me that maybe we need to unplug if we’re going to hear what God has to say to us.
 

This is by Simone Martini, part of a triptych altar piece, painted in 1333.  The classical elements are here.  Mary’s reading her book; the lilies are there; Mary is in blue; the Holy Spirit is right there in the wall paper.  But Mary’s body language is different from the other art we’ve seen today.  Mary is pulling away, pulling her cloak more tightly around herself.

This painting and the popularity of the #MeToo hashtag raise some interesting contemporary questions about this story.  As far as we know, Mary was a young woman, a teenager, a girl by today’s standards, when the archangel Gabriel visits her.  They have this conversation in which Gabriel invites her to participate in this grand plan to birth a child to transform the world.  Yes, it’s an invitation to participate, but how free was the consent?  There is a huge power differential between an angel sent by God and a teenager.  And Gabriel, on behalf of God, doesn’t explicitly ask for Mary’s consent, though she does eventually say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

It’s dangerous to read present-day cultural standards and mores into an ancient document, but given what is happening right now in American culture, I can’t ignore these issues.[4]  So, I read on in the story, in Luke’s birth narrative.  It doesn’t stop with the annunciation.  Mary goes off to her cousin Elizabeth’s home.  Elizabeth, pregnant with the child who will become John the baptizer, greets her, and Mary launches into song, a poem we know as the Magnificent.

It is a radical song.  Pay attention to the words when we sing our next hymn.  If you were unclear about what God thinks of a tax plan that, in ten years, has people making between $50,000 and $75,000 per year paying $4 billion more in taxes while people making $1,000,000 or more are paying $5.8 billion less, I think Mary’s song will clear it up for you.[5]  And it’s there in Mary’s song that any doubt I may have had about Mary’s willingness to participate in this plan of God’s is erased.  It is clear that she embraces her role in salvation history.

There’s one more picture I want to show you.

This is a reproduction of a billboard posted by a church in New Zealand in 2011.  It’s not, strictly speaking, an annunciation, but it’s awfully close to one.  And it echoes some of the musing I’ve been doing this week.

If Luke were to tell the whole story of Mary’s pregnancy, not skip over the second and third trimesters, how would the story have gone?  Would he have included the morning sickness? the need to pee all the time because her baby is kicking her bladder? the inability to find a comfortable position for sleep during those final weeks of pregnancy?

And I can’t help but wonder, did Mary ever doubt her calling?  Pretend, like the artists, that the story isn’t only a parable to set the foundation for Luke’s gospel, but that it actually happened the way Luke describes.  Did Mary ever think it was too much – too much work, too much of a burden?  And if she did, did the spirit of her grandmother come back to her,[6] or did the archangel Gabriel come back to her and offer a word to help her figure out how to carry on with her mission?

And what of Gabriel?  What was all this like for him?  He had his marching orders, so he did what he was told.  Or did he?  A friend shared Jan Richardson’s poem, “Gabriel’s Annunciation,” with me.[7]

For a moment
I hesitated
on the threshold.
For the space
of a breath
I paused,
unwilling to disturb
her last ordinary moment,
knowing that the next step
would cleave her life:
that this day
would slice her story
in two,
dividing all the days before
from all the ones
to come.

The artists would later
depict the scene:
Mary dazzled
by the archangel,
her head bowed
in humble assent,
awed by the messenger
who condescended
to leave paradise
to bestow such an honor
upon a woman, and mortal.

Yet I tell you
it was I who was dazzled,
I who found myself agape
when I came upon her –
reading, at the loom, in the kitchen,
I cannot now recall;
only that the woman before me –
blessed and full of grace
long before I called her so –
shimmered with how completely
she inhabited herself,
inhabited the space around her,
inhabited the moment
that hung between us.

I wanted to save her
from what I had been sent
to say.

Yet when the time came,
when I had stammered
the invitation
(history would not record
the sweat on my brow,
the pounding of my heart;
would not note
that I said
Do not be afraid
to myself as much as
to her)
it was she
who saved me –
her first deliverance –
her Let it be
not just declaration
to the Divine
but a word of solace,
of soothing,
of benediction

for the angel
in the doorway
who would hesitate
one last time –
just for the space
of a breath
torn from his chest –
before wrenching himself away
from her radiant consent,
her beautiful and
awful yes.

Luke’s telling of the Annunciation invites us to engage our imaginations, and to even ask ourselves:  How might we be Gabriel?  How might we be Mary?

_______________

[1] From The Lives of the Caesars, in the section The Deified Augustus, 94.4, as quoted by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in The First Christmas (New York: HarperOne, 2007), 211-212.

[2] Ibid, 212.

[3] Ibid, 212-213.

[4] Thanks to Kira Schlesinger, “Mary, #MeToo and the Question of Consent,” Ministry Matters, http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/8617/mary-metoo-and-the-question-of-consent (posted and accessed 28 November 2017) for helping me articulate this.

[5] Fareed Zakaria, “Maybe Trump knows his base better than we do,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/maybe-trump-knows-his-base-better-than-we-do/2017/11/30/b4ca2164-d60e-11e7-b62d-d9345ced896d_story.html (posted 30 November 2017; accessed 1 December 2017).

[6] The plan was to show a clip from the movie Moana (starting about 1:17 into the movie), but we had a technical glitch that prevented us from showing it.  The spirit of the grandmother line is a reference to that scene.

[7] Copied from http://adventdoor.com/2014/12/19/advent-4-gabriel-and-mary/.

A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, December 2, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Luke 1:38-55
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            Hang on just a second while I make this call.

Hello.  God?  Yeah.  Gabe here.  Look, I’ve been all over Nazareth looking for this girl “Mary.”  Do have any idea how many Marys there are in Nazareth?  You do?  Yeah, I suppose you would know.

Look, this is getting pretty repetitive.  I find a girl named Mary.  I tell her, “Greetings favored one, God is with you,” and she looks at me like I’ve got drool dripping form the corner of my mouth or some spinach stuck in my teeth.  I explain that you want her to get pregnant so that she can give birth to a son who will inherit the throne of David and do really cool stuff, and before I can get to the part about her cousin who’s been barren into her old age being pregnant, too, I’m getting chased out of the house with a broom or worse.  None – I mean NONE – of these girls is interested.

I haven’t what?  I haven’t been to the right Mary yet.  Do you really think there is a Mary in this town who’s going to say, “Yes”?  I mean these other girls have been SO negative on the idea.  Maybe you need to switch strategies.

Okay, okay, I’ll try the next one on the list.  Okay.  Bye-bye.

I try to imagine the story of Mary, much of which we heard read today, from Mary’s point of view, too.  What do you say when an angel visits you?  I imagine it must be a little disturbing.  There she was, minding her own business, making some bread or doing some household chores, when she felt this presence.  I wonder how she would have described it.  I imagine seeing an angel as being like seeing light and hope and peace and joy all at once.  I imagine it would be wonderful and scary and a little overwhelming.  Okay, a lot overwhelming.

This angel speaks:  “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  Favored one?  What does that mean?  “Don’t be afraid,” the angel says.  Don’t be afraid.  Don’t think of a pick elephant.  I don’t imagine that helped.

And then the angel goes into this whole bit about having a son by the Holy Spirit of God.  What would you say?  This could get messy pretty quickly.  Sex outside of marriage was seen as a no-no.  No being a virgin at marriage was seen as a no-no.  If all this happens, Mary could be dragged away and stoned to death.  Convincing Joseph that the baby isn’t his but is his – I see guests for a future episode of the Jerry Springer show.

What does Mary say?  “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  I think the most miraculous part of this story is Mary’s “Yes.”

We are invited to identify with Mary in her pregnancy, experiencing her unborn child kicking in her womb.  By claiming her story, by claiming the birth story, we name ourselves people of possibilities.

“When we don’t want to even pick up this morning’s newspaper, when confronted with yet another death toll, when angry with our fellow citizens – we claim that there still exists a possibility for understanding, a possibility for peace and reconciliation, a possibility that today, or maybe tomorrow, good news will triumph, change will happen.

“When we see some of this darkness, violence, and apathy inside of ourselves and do battle with our responsibilities in this world – we claim that a possibility still exists for renewal, for light to enter into ourselves, a possibility that we can actually show love to others.  There exists a possibility all around us and within each of us for incarnation to occur.  The mystery and the glory of incarnation … are that we will always confront it in the region of the unexpected.”[1]

Listen to the words of Mary’s song.  Listen to her sing of her hope in what God is doing in her “yes.”

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of this servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me …  God has shown strength with his arm; God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Maybe all of this really could happen.  “Maybe people will be healed.  Maybe the poor will be fed.  Maybe all will be treated and loved as equals.  Maybe peace will reign and wars will cease. …  Maybe Word will become flesh.  Maybe God will become human, just like us. …  Maybe the dead will rise again.  Maybe the old will become new. …  Maybe God will be revealed in the beggar, the prostitute, or even the politician we wrote off years ago.”[2]

And I don’t want the sinless Mary.  I don’t want the Mary, meek and mild.  I want the Mary of the magnificat.  I want the Mary who raises a scandal with her pregnancy, who has a past, who has problems, who could have said “no” to God and had the chutzpa to say “yes.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.”[3]

That’s why it doesn’t matter if the Mary story ever happened.  What’s important is how the Mary story touches us, how it stirs us, what it moves us to do.  Will we, with our scandals and pasts and problem have the chutzpa to say “yes” to God’s call and “yes” to God’s vision?

I believe that God is at work in you and me in much the same way that God was at work in Mary.  Not that God is knocking any of us up, but that God is inviting us to carry in our bodies the blessing of God for the world.  Having the faith and vision Mary had means allowing yourself to trust how God is at work in our lives.  Mary knew about the radical social upheaval that was about to be ushered in, thanks to her faith and her vision.

“You couldn’t get much lower in those days than to be a woman in a patriarchal society, a Jew under Roman occupation, and a peasant in a land of plenty.”[4]  And that’s what the story tells us Mary was.  A poor, Jewish woman in occupied Palestine chosen by God to bear the gift for which the world longed.

“God’s promises had already become truth in her flesh.  The poor were already being exalted. …

“At the news, she went ‘with haste’ to see her cousin Elizabeth.  It was a natural response.  When afraid, go see a friend who will listen and make it all feel a little less lonely and overwhelming.

“… Mary, still trembling with the news of what was to be fulfilled in her, ran to the elderly Elizabeth and embraced her.  At Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s womb came to life, and the child ‘leaped for joy’ within her!

“The Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise and hope, flowed forth in this setting.  And two miraculously pregnant women basked in the secret of the quiet revolution that was to be accomplished through them.  Two women incarnated the truth that, with God, nothing is impossible.

“I like to imagine what their days together were like.  They must have been filled with shared secrets, laughter, a few tears, and dreams of a future unlike any they had conceived before.  They watched their wombs swell, felt their sons growing within, probably rubbed each other’s aching backs and sore feet at the end of the day.

“Elizabeth, in her experience and wisdom, had much to share with her younger cousin.  She understood the requirements of faith and the challenges of marriage.  She knew that some would point with scorn at Mary, pregnant before her wedding, just as some had spoken of her own barrenness with reproach.  She knew how to live proudly despite the whispers behind her back, and how to be grateful to God no matter what the circumstances.  She understood what it meant to be a vessel of God’s will. …

“Together they nurtured a revolution.  The tables began turning.   The thrones began crumbling.”[5]

Though I must admit that I feel like I’ve been left out of this revolution.  The lofty are brought down and the outcasts are lifted up, but what about the middle class?  Where are we in this revolution?

I think we are to sing Mary’s song and do some soul-searching to figure out where we fit in the cosmic order of God’s reign.  For instance, do we rely on God to fill us with good things?  All too often, I know that I rely on myself to fill my physical and spiritual belly with junk food.  I’ve perpetuate this bad habit of stuffing myself on commercial Christmas crap instead of figuring out a deeper place in God’s reign that moves me away from materialism and into trust.  And in singing Mary’s song, we can embrace her faith and her vision.[6]

There’s an old Slavic fable.  Once upon a time, God decided to make Godself visible to two humans – one king and the other a simple peasant.  God sent an angel to each of them with the message:  “God has condescended to reveal the Lord to you in whatever form you wish.  In what form do you want the Lord to appear?”

Seated pompously on his throne and surrounded by his awestruck subjects – not to mention basking in the glory of having been addressed in public by no lesser a personage than an Angel of God – the king proclaimed (in all his majestic pomp):  “How else would I wish to see the Lord, except in his full majesty and power?  Show the Lord to us in the full glory and majesty which is the Lord’s alone!”

And with that, there appeared a bolt of lightning that instantly incinerated the king, his throne, and the entire Court.  And there remained only the Might of God, who had appeared exactly as the King had specified.  Except that now there was none left to see.

Then the angel appeared to a peasant, who of course knew nothing of what had happened to the King.  The angel gave him the very same message as he had the king.  “God has condescended to manifest the Lord to you in whatever manner you wish.  How do you wish to see the Lord?”

The peasant scratched his head a while, and puzzled for a good while longer.  He was a simple man, but an honest and honorable one.  Finally, after long and obviously painful thought, the peasant said:  “Change me so that I can see the Lord in those things with which I am familiar.  Let me see the Lord in the earth I plow, the water I drink, and the food I eat.  Let me see the presence of the Lord in the faces of my family, my friends, and my neighbors, and – if God wishes it, and thinks it good for myself and for others – why, let me see the Lord even in my own reflection.”

And God granted the peasant’s wish.[7]

Perhaps, if we embrace Mary’s faith and vision as our own, God will grant the peasant’s wish for us as well.  Amen.


ENDNOTES

[1] Andrew J. Hoeksema, “Speaking of Maybe,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=magazine.article&issue=soj0512&article=051222&mode=sermon_prep&week=C_Advent_2 (1 December 2012).

[2] Ibid.

[3] at least according to a quote someone posted on Facebook.

[4] Joyce Hollyday, “Vacant Thrones,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_941249_CAdvent4&week=C_Advent_4 (1 December 2012).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Malinda Elizabeth Berry, “Becoming Mary’s Servants,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_061249_CAdvent4&week=C_Advent_4 (1 December 2012).

[7] I don’t remember the source of this folktale.  I probably collected it years ago when an ecumenical electronic bulletin board, a precursor to the Internet called “Ecunet,” existed.

Additional sources used:
Martin L. Smith, “A Body Prepared for Me,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_121249_CAdvent4&week=C_Advent_4 (1 December 2012).
Madia Bolz-Weber, “There’s Just Something About Mary: The Power of Yes,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=bl_111220_Bolz_Weber_Theres_Just&week=C_Christmas_1 (1 December 2012).
Richard Rohr, OFM, “Matter and Spirit,” Sojourners, http://archive.sojo.net/index.cfm?action=resources.sermon_prep&item=LTW_791249_CAdvent4&week=C_Advent_4 (1 December 2012).

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