A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on December 21, 2014 (Advent IV, Year B)
Step away from the kitsch. The Mary kitsch, I mean. The glow-in-the dark night-lights, the dinner plates from the Franklin Mint, the Zombie Virgin Mary cigarette case (yes, it actually exists). In order for us to really see Mary for who she is, we have to strip away all sorts of cheesy religious products right along with our preconceived notions. Because many of us do approach Mary with a lot of baggage.
If you grew up Roman Catholic — and I know many of you did — Mary may well hold a
special place in your heart. You’re certainly able to recite the Hail Mary and perhaps you can even expound on the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception or you have a prayer card extolling the Sacred Heart of Mary tucked into the sun visor of your car. Or maybe you took a u-turn and intentionally left all that Mary stuff behind when you started coming to the Episcopal Church.
If you grew up in a more Protestant tradition, maybe you’ve never given Mary much consideration beyond finding her a little “too Catholic.” Having her show up once a year in a Christmas pageant is quite enough, thank you very much. Or perhaps you’re overtly suspicious of those bathtub statues in people’s front lawns and alleged Virgin Mary sightings in everything from grilled cheese to water stains.
But wherever you are on the Mary continuum, I’m going to ask you to suspend your judgments and biases and preconceived notions so that we can truly encounter Mary. This morning we hear the story of the Annunciation, that moment when the Angel Gabriel shares the news with Mary that she will bear God’s son. Now, in case you’re doing the math, this doesn’t mean we’re fast-tracking this pregnancy. Four days from conception to birth! It’s a Christmas miracle! Yes, Gabriel proclaims that “With God all things are possible,” but this might be a stretch. The Church actually celebrates the Feast of the Annunciation on March 25 — exactly nine months before Christmas Day. But today we hear this story not just because she play an obviously integral role in the birth of Jesus but because Mary matters.
Textually speaking, in looking at the Annunciation story, in just a few short verses Mary is transformed from peasant to prophet. From “How can this be?” to “Here I am.” In the end it’s all about saying “yes” to God. Mary says yes and the world changes forever.
But I’d like to press pause on this for a moment. We tend to skip over Mary’s disbelief and shock and just barrel ahead to the manger. Yet in the text we hear that she was “perplexed,” that she “pondered,” that she was “afraid,” all of which points to her absolute incredulity. And who can blame her? From a rational perspective none of what she’s hearing makes any sense at all.
What is perfectly reasonable is Mary’s confusion. Yes, about the whole idea of giving birth but even before that by the Angel Gabriel’s words that she is “favored.” On the exterior, this young teenaged girl was anything but favored. At least societally. She was poor, she was young, she was from the other side of the tracks, and she was a she. This wasn’t exactly a recipe for power and status in the ancient world. In fact, it would be hard to find someone more marginalized than Mary.
But there’s a reason Mary is revered for her humility, thoughtfulness, and discipleship: she is so fully human in this encounter with Gabriel. There is something incredibly authentic in her uncertainty and hesitation. The range of emotions flash through her and she needs the angel’s assurance to “not be afraid” and his gentle reminder that “with God all things are possible.” But her first response is not immediate acquiescence. Rather it’s to take a step back and ponder. Hers is a thoughtful and discerning faith, not a hasty or blind one. So what gets lost in the popular image of Mary — with the statuary and the necklaces and the prayer cards — is the thing that matters most: her humanity; the very quality that makes her one of us.
Yes, giving birth to Jesus is an important part of what makes Mary so special. But I’m pretty sure God would have had a Plan B if Mary refused. Maybe we’d be talking about the Blessed Virgin Mildred or the Sacred Heart of Betty. Or, who knows? Maybe Mary was Plan B or C. But in the end it is Mary who is remembered and revered as the Theotokos, the God Bearer.
But Jesus himself commends her for something even more important. There’s a brief, often neglected interaction later in Luke’s gospel that is telling. At one point, right after Jesus has taught the disciples the Lord’s Prayer and driven out an unclean spirit, a woman in the crowd yells out, “‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!’” And instead of saying, “Yes, my mom is awesome!” Jesus contradicts her saying “‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!’”
And that is precisely what Mary did. She heard the word of God and obeyed it. Not without hesitation or discomfort or anxiety — things we can all relate to — but she said yes to God. That’s what makes her a worthy role model for each one of us. Let’s face it, none of us are ever going to give birth to the Messiah. We’re never going to be physically related to Jesus. We can’t emulate Mary that way but, like Mary, we can listen, hear, and obey the word of God.
Ultimately, the Christian family is not based on biology but faith. In other words, as a Church we’re less nuclear family and more Modern Family. We act in dysfunctional ways, our family structures aren’t always clear, we have a complicated relationship with our mother, we have a gay uncle or two. But we are all, every single one of us, God’s adopted sons and daughters. In Paul’s letter to the Romans he writes that we are all children of God through a “spirit of adoption.” And that when we cry out to God our Father it is the Spirit bearing witness that we are indeed children of God.
We are God’s children by virtue of our baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is baptism that has made us everlasting members of Jesus’ family, right along with Mary. And by our actions and through our worship we are invited to renew our family heritage on an ongoing basis.
Over the next few days, I encourage you to join Mary and ponder in your own heart the ways in which you might open yourself up to saying “yes” to God. It may mean leaving your comfort zone — it certainly did for Mary. But it may well lead you into a renewed relationship with God in ways you can’t possibly even imagine.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck