Mary Junior: An (Advent) Sermon for Dec. 24, 2017

The readings for this sermon can be found here at the Lectionary Page. I focus on the Gospel reading and mention the OT reading as well.

maryAnnunciationGabrielWe’re just a few hours away from Christmas. Yet our Gospel reading for today does not place us hours before Jesus’s birth, but instead hours before his conception. We are stepping nine months back in time. If Christmas is the New Beginning for the world, then today, we hear about the beginning of the Beginning.

The angel Gabriel appears to Mary with a strange–and ridiculous–message. She will give birth to a special child, despite the fact that she is a virgin. Now, Mary is a sharp young woman, and so she explains to this over-excited angel that this just isn’t how the world works, this isn’t how babies normally come into the world. What the angel is suggesting is impossible.

Then Gabriel responds to Mary: it may well be impossible for humans, but it’s not necessarily impossible for God. This is no normal situation, and her child will be no normal human being. Something truly new is about to happen. So Mary is left with a choice: having heard that impossibility is no barrier to God’s action, what will she do? I think this is the crux of our story today. It all comes down to this: how will Mary respond now? Well, she simply says “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She signs on to God’s crazy, impossible, ridiculous mission.

Now, some people have speculated that perhaps Mary wasn’t the first woman Gabriel approached that night. Maybe God had spoken to a dozen, two dozen women before her, but each had said “No!” to God’s crazy plan. Perhaps Mary wasn’t the first woman visited that night, perhaps she was just the first woman to say “Yes!” to God, to agree to this ridiculous mission. Of course, such stories are not a part of our canon of Scripture. But I think they make something very important clear: Mary had to choose to take on this mission. God was calling her to an important work, but wasn’t going to force it on her. She had a decision to make.

This reminds me of some other stories from the Gospels. Over the coming weeks and months, as you listen to the Gospel proclaimed here in Church, or as you read the Gospels at home, I invite you to pay particular attention to the stories of Jesus healing people. Almost every time, after he has healed someone, Jesus says, “your faith has made you well.” Your faith has made you well. Jesus doesn’t say that he, Jesus, made them well, or that the Holy Spirit made them well. Their faith made them well. Even with the physical presence of God Incarnate standing before them, they could only be healed if they turned and chose to receive God’s gift of healing.

This means that we humans have an incredible power in in our choices. But of course, that power also means we have great responsibility: we have to have the faith and courage to hear God’s call, turn, and accept God’s mission for us. And that’s what we hear in our story about Mary today. Here was a woman with the faith and courage to accept God’s crazy and ridiculous mission. If the faith of those individuals allowed them to be healed by Jesus’s presence, then we can truly say that the whole world, the whole universe, is healed because of Mary’s faith. Through her faith, the Incarnate Word was able to enter the world. By her faith, we are made well.

Now, in our Old Testament story today, we hear about a very different divine-human encounter. King David has just united the twelve tribes of Israel, and he makes a public announcement that he will build a temple for God. The king is ashamed that while he sits in his palace, and his people are building home for themselves, God has no house. But through the prophet Nathan, God speaks to David, and tells him that he’s got it all wrong, he doesn’t understand: God has no more need for a house than God has need for food or water. In truth, wherever there are faithful people, God truly lives. Moving forward many centuries, Mary’s story is the culmination of Nathan’s prophecy. In her, God truly dwelt as the Incarnate Word.

Through the decision of one humble–but faithful and courageous–woman, God was able to act; through her faith and action, God came to heal and save the world. We Christians today have a lot to learn from Mary’s example. Like her, we should choose to become vessels of God’s love in the world. Like her, we should sign on to God’s crazy, ridiculous, impossible mission: a mission where, somehow, love defeats hate, and life defeats death.

So my hope and prayer for us, in these last few hours of Advent, with Christmas on the horizon, is that each one of us will choose to be little Mary Juniors, that we will choose to take on this mission, and bear the image of Incarnate Word in this world.


The Task for Advent: Awakening the Already-Awake

flight_egyptThroughout my 20’s, my spiritual life was a process of asking, searching, and wondering. Around the age of 21, I realized that I was not convinced by the idea of Jesus’s divinity, and so I began to seek a spiritual community where that doctrine was not espoused, or at least not essential. I ended up worshiping with a Friends’ meeting for more than two years. But I ultimately felt that there was something still missing, and so I ended up searching farther afield–I began reading about Buddhism and Islam and attempting to practice some form of meditation, as well as integrating elements of Islamic prayer into my prayer life.

Ultimately, by the age of 27, I found myself returning to Trinitarian Christianity. After having actually studied the doctrines of the Incarnation and Trinity more closely, I came to realize that my earlier repudiation of them had been based largely on my own ignorance. I joined the Episcopal Church at the age of 28, and my spiritual and religious identity has been stable since then.

After spending the better part of a decade searching, seeking, and asking, this stability was welcome–I felt that I was finally able to really dig into the tradition I was committed to, instead of constantly gliding over the surface of various communities. Yet, over the last year or two, I have felt a sort of dis-ease in my spiritual life. Although I think there are many causes to this–the process of discerning ordination, the grind of academic life, raising a young daughter–lately I have come to recognize a new dimension to it. I think that I have begun to miss the sense of seeking and questing in my spiritual life. Throughout my 20’s, spiritual truth was this elusive quarry I was chasing, and though at the time I only wanted to end my search, now I find myself missing that chase.

Or–not missing that chase per se, but missing the sense of wonder and discovery that came with it, To accept that, somehow, in Jesus, God is revealed and present is, in one sense, to end the journey of seeking and discovering. To rest in the peace and power of Jesus Christ is to accept that no further search is going to reveal a greater or deeper truth. Of course, I might still research other faiths, both out of curiosity as well as respect towards the diverse systems of human spiritual and religious thought. But the sense of yearning, even of desperation, that drove me before, is no longer there.

This is, of course, a good thing, and yet it has also led to a stultifying of my spiritual life to some extent. Not feeling that desperate yearning, prayer and meditation now have less emotional and existential draw. Because I now have a spiritual and religious life that is intellectually satisfying and more or less complete, I don’t have the same energy behind my spiritual practice.

But reflecting on these thoughts and feelings has only revealed to me how foolish I am; even at thirty-five years of age, I am still so ignorant. Just as I showed my ignorance at 21 in rejecting doctrines I didn’t even understand, these last few years I have shown my ignorance in thinking I know and understand far more than I do. It’s one thing to say that in Jesus, God reveals Godself to me. It’s another thing to really know what this means. I can say that God is revealed and even present in Christ, but I then have to immediately add a qualifier–this revealed presence is utterly mysterious. If I utter the name of Jesus, or reflect on the Incarnation, or receive His body and blood in the Eucharist, I do not suddenly have some total conceptual clarity about what it means to call Jesus divine. I can–and do–say these things, think these things, and do these things, all without really uncovering the mystery of what it all means.

In truth, then, my sense of spiritual stability was really rather temporary. My identity as a Christian is not changing, and yet what it means to be Christian remains really beyond my comprehension. I stopped journeying, asking, seeking, and questioning, not because I had actually reached some final point of truth, but because I was both tired of the search, I think, and also because I put too much stock in my own intellectual abilities. I thought that the deepest mysteries of being, of life, of existence, were just puzzles to be solved, instead of realities beyond the horizons of human consciousness. I stopped the journey, but I was not at the destination.

So one of my tasks, I think, during this Advent, is to really accept my ignorance, to recognize the depth of the mystery of Jesus’s divinity, and to thereby rekindle my spiritual curiosity, and to reengergize my prayer, meditation, and devotional practices. Christ calls us to remain awake, aware, and vigilant. This is a call meant, I think, most of all for those of us who think we already are awake, aware, and vigilant.