A Disrupted Advent: A Homily for Advent 4B, 2020

It’s a familiar story. They are words we’ve heard many times year after year. A story depicted in countless paintings; gestures and words mimicked in devotional practices. It has settled into our memory like other stories that have shaped us—stories told in our families that seem to capture something of the essence of who we are and where we came from; stories of our nation, mythic stories that define us. Such stories are often so familiar, so beloved, their meaning so fixed in our memory that we rarely explore them more deeply.

There’s so much we don’t know about this story; so much more we want to know. We don’t know who Mary was, not really. We don’t know how old she was, although it’s likely she was a teenager. In first century Palestinian Judaism, girls were often betrothed at age 12 or so, and married no later than 19 or 20. We don’t know, can’t imagine, what this encounter, this new reality did to her. The gospels are largely silent about what she does later in life, about her response to her son. John tells us that she was present at the crucifixion; Luke says she was among the group of disciples that gathered in Jerusalem after the ascension, and presumably right through to Pentecost. Tradition has filled out the story. Theological reflection and devotional creativity have answered questions raised by Christians for 2000 years.

We have this story. A young woman, her life suddenly disrupted by the appearance of an angel; her world shattered and remade by events out of her control. That we know something about. So many of our certainties, so much of our lives have been disrupted over the last nine months; who could have imagined back in March that we would be here, the pandemic still raging, our lives on hold, fear, and weariness, and anger, still overwhelming us? Exhausted, fearful, the lives we led, the world we lived in nine months ago seem distant memories, faint whisps of dream we once had, with no connection to reality in which now live. Our hopes for the future cling by a slender thread. Oh, yes, we know what disrupted worlds and lives are like.

An angel came to Mary, saying “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Her world upended, first by the very appearance of an angel.. And then came more, that she would bear a child who would be the Savior of the world.  

I’m always fascinated by her response to the angel. First, when he appears to her and greets her, Luke she was perplexed and wondered what sort of greeting this might be—perplexed and wondering, not by the appearance of the angel to her, which would no doubt shock and surprise us, but by his greeting, by him calling her “Favored one.” And then when told the rest, she asks the question, “How can this be?” 

The tradition of devotion and theology, and perhaps going back to Luke himself, has tended to portray Mary as a passive recipient of God’s grace and favor, as someone who accepted her fate quietly, submissively. Often she has served as a role model for passive, submissive femininity, and certainly in Luke’s gospel, she functions as something of the ideal disciple, one who follows meekly and obediently.

But here we see something else. Surprise, wonder, questions. Mary’s faith is not that passive, unquestioning faith. She wants to know more, she wants to understand. And then, in the midst of her disrupted world and disrupted life, something else. We know the scandal of unplanned, unwanted pregnancies, of teenaged mothers left on their own with no resources, forced to struggle to provide for themselves and their little ones. We can imagine how hard it would have been for a teenager in first-century Palestine, with all of the shame and stigma, traces of which remain in the accounts of Joseph’s response to the news of Mary’s pregnancy. We can, I think, imagine the fear, the future she imagined as she heard the angel’s words.

But can we imagine also the hope? In the middle of this disruption to her world and to her life, Mary visits her elderly cousin and during that visit, sings a song that has echoed throughout history down to our day:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior 

He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

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.

And while it has become a song of pious devotion, it is a profound prophecy of God’s power, justice, and mercy. It is a song of hope in the midst of fear, hope for justice in the midst of oppression, a cry of resistance against the forces of evil and inequality.

Mary is an example for us. In the midst of our disrupted and upended lives and world, nothing seems the same, and our wishes for a return to normalcy, to turn the clock back nine months or a year, or simply an exhausted desire to ignore what’s happening around us and get on with our lives, when we are beaten down, Mary is an example for us.

We can’t know what her life was like, what she thought or felt. But we know her faith, her hope. We know the God in whom she trusted. And the words she sang can become our own as we hope for a new world, a better future, for ourselves, our nation and world. 

Into our disrupted world, into our disrupted lives, Christ is coming. The angel’s greeting comes to us and in that greeting, in Mary’s song, we may find strength and hope for the coming months. The world being brought into being by Christ’s coming, is a world disrupted by God’s justice and mercy, where the mighty have fallen, the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty. 

Mary sings of and shows us the world as God intends it, a just and equitable world, not the old world of wishful thinking and faint memories. Mary points us toward the future, a future full of hope, a future where God reigns. May we raise our voices with Mary, in hope and faith that God is with us now and reigns in justice and mercy.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones: A Sermon for 4 Advent, 2018

 I’ve been reading W. H. Auden’s great poem: “For the Time Being” this Advent. Published in 1944, it very much reflects the mood of the time, the great struggle of good and evil that was playing out in World War II. It also reflects the struggles in the poet’s personal life. And yet, it is also universal and speaks to our situation, our world. It is a poem, meant to be an oratorio, of Advent and Christmas, of Incarnation.

It begins on a somber, dark note. And even if we haven’t felt blasts of cold winter air or snowstorms yet this year, we do know the darkness of the season. I’m grateful for a sunny day today but it’s not just that Friday was the shortest day of the year, it seems like we’ve had more overcast days this December than usual and the gloom outside can be oppressive. We are also aware of all of the suffering in the world. Auden writes:

The prophet’s lantern is out

And gone the boundary stone,

Cold the heart and cold the stove,

Ice condenses on the bone:

Winter completes an age.

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Genealogies, illegitimate births, and God with us. A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent 2016.

 

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”

Today, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, we hear the story of the birth of Jesus as Matthew tells the story. And I’ll bet that as you listened, you may have found it a bit strange, perhaps even unfamiliar. For it’s a very different story than the familiar one from Luke that we hear on Christmas Eve, with Bethlehem, the manger, shepherds, swaddling clothes, and all of that.

Matthew’s story seems to focus on Joseph. Mary and her pregnancy seem to be problems that need solving, and the birth itself is recounted in the sparest of terms. The focus on Joseph is odd in a way, if you think about it. It’s even odder when you put the reading we just heard back into the context of Matthew’s gospel, for these verses appear after a lengthy genealogy that relates Joseph’s ancestry back to Abraham. Thereby Matthew links Joseph not just to the ancient patriarchs and matriarchs—Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, but also to the Kings—David and Solomon.

What’s odd about this is that of course Joseph is not biologically the father of Jesus.

I’ll grant you, genealogies are fascinating, and with the rise of DNA testing, you can find out a bit about your ethnic makeup and determine whether you are in fact related to certain famous people. There’s a popular PBS show, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, the Harvard professor, that explores the genealogical background of A-list, and often not A-list celebrities. There’s also the genealogy road show, that does the same thing for genealogy that the Antiques Roadshow does for the stuff your great-aunt gave or you bought at a garage sale. We want to know where we came from, who we are, and there’s a temptation to see in genealogy, or genetics, a key to understanding ourselves.

So Matthew gives us a genealogy for Jesus, and it’s worth considering why he thought it was appropriate, or important, to do so. There’s even something more interesting in all of this, because the words he uses to introduce the genealogy at the very beginning of his gospel, and the first words we heard in today’s reading, are very similar—both make use of the Greek word genesis—and it’s likely that Matthew intends his reader to think of the first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis.

So it’s curious, isn’t it, that Matthew, after providing all of that background to the birth of Jesus, taking the time to carefully construct a genealogy that links Joseph back to Abraham, then tells the story of what basically constitutes an illegitimate birth.

The story that we heard is familiar. Joseph and Mary are engaged, or to use the traditional language, they are betrothed. It’s not just that he’s given her a ring, and they’ve begun to plan for the big day, scheduled the date and the venue, hired the caterer and the like. No, in Jewish law, the betrothal meant they were legally married, even though the marriage had not been consummated and they were not living together.

Because they were legally married, Mary’s pregnancy was not just an inconvenience. It indicated to Joseph that she had been unfaithful to him. Legally, because, as the text says, Joseph was a righteous man (in other words, he kept the law), he was obligated to divorce her publicly—something that might result in her execution for adultery. But Matthew tells us that he wanted to spare her the indignity, and perhaps himself as well, and divorce her privately.

So he’s got a huge problem on his hands, what to do. It’s likely, though Matthew doesn’t tell us, that Mary is feeling considerable anxiety and fear as well. After all, it’s in Luke’s version of the nativity that Mary is told by an angel that her pregnancy is miraculous, that she’s carrying the Son of God.

In Matthew’s story, the angel comes to Joseph to explain things to him. He does as he’s told, and almost as an afterthought, Matthew tells us that the child is born and Joseph names him Jesus. Again, to use contemporary language, Joseph adopts Jesus as his son.

Christmas, which the songs tells is the “most wonderful time of the year,” can also be a time of great sadness and struggle. We are presented with images of the perfect family or the perfect holiday celebration but so often, our own experiences of Christmas are very different. We live in a messy world, we lead messy lives. Our families can be complicated; there can be ruptures or conflicts with family members; there are all the complications of modern family life, divorce and remarriage, blended families. We want everything to be perfect, just so, and so often the reality is very different.

I think there’s something reassuring for us in the twenty-first century in the way Matthew tells this story. He wants everything to be perfect, too. He fashions a genealogy that links Joseph to Abraham, carefully constructing 14 generations from Abraham to David and 14 generations from David to the exile, 14 generations from the exile to Joseph. To put it language from American history, it would be as if Joseph were descended from the Daughters of the Revolution and the descendants of the Mayflower. But it’s not just that the link from Joseph to Jesus is tenuous—it’s that in the midst of that genealogy are prostitutes, victims of rape and incest, and foreigners like Ruth.

And in the embarrassment of Mary’s unwed pregnancy, in the embarrassment of that genealogy, is an important lesson for us today. Just as we want our celebrations to be perfect, we assume that there’s something wrong with us if things don’t live up to those expectations and we wonder whether in the midst of our struggles, we can hope for God to come to us, for God to be with us.

The story of the birth of Jesus as told by Matthew is a reminder to us that God didn’t choose the wealthy, or powerful, or the Norman Rockwell family in the Norman Rockwell New England town. God came to Mary and Joseph, to a peasant woman and her fiancé, in the outmost corner of the Roman Empire. God came to people in the midst of enormous struggle and great heartache.

The message of this story is that God is with us—here and now—no matter what our situation is, no matter what our lives are like, no matter what struggles we have, or worries, no matter what shame or guilt we might be experiencing. God comes to us. God is with us. That’s the point of this story. That’s the point of Christmas. God is with us. Here. Now. Emmanuel. God with us. Thanks be to God.

 

 

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Mary–Perplexed, Pondering, Prophetic: A Sermon for Advent 4, Year A

What comes to mind for you when you think of Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ? Do you think of a painting of her, perhaps a masterpiece from the Renaissance depicting her as a young woman, clothed in a beautiful blue dress, sitting demurely as the angel announces to her, “Hail Mary, full of grace!” Do you think of her at the foot of the cross, or holding the dead body of her son? Do you think of the theological and doctrinal debates surrounding her virginity or immaculate conception? Continue reading