Sunday, December 20, 2015

Magnificat: a sermon, Year C Advent 4 2015

Year C Advent 4, December 20, 2015
St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Richmond, VA

Johnny Lee sang with his unforgettable twang that he was “lookin’ for love in all the wrong places.”

I think we do the same thing with God.

In movies there are angels singing and lights erupting. But we see today that God arrives in the simple, in the lowly, where least expected. God arrives in Mary.

The story starts with Mary visiting her much older relative Elizabeth. Luke had already covered the miraculous pregnancy of Elizabeth and Zechariah with their son-to-be, John. The visit of Mary happened in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, soon after the Annunciation to Mary by the angel Gabriel.

The middle-eastern tradition of unbelievable hospitality remains to this day, and a guest, coming under the home’s protection is welcome while they are there. Once, while working with Palestinian refugees in Bethlehem, of all places, a grandfather fed me a chicken leg, by hand. Waiting on me, turning it after every bite. He said in broken English, “From my hand, from my heart.” We have NO CONCEPT of that type of hospitality, even here, in the land of pineapple trivets.

Mary received that same hospitality. Mary arrives, probably without notice, and immediately is greeted by Elizabeth. Remember the premise, a young, unmarried woman is arriving at her relative’s house recently having learned she is pregnant. But rather than a story of shame and regret, both Mary and Elizabeth celebrate and rejoice over the news. They both are wrapped up in the miraculous and are able to look with the eyes of faith. God’s work is at play in both their lives, and they rejoice.

This is not the only place that this story is told. Many of you may not be aware but the story of the Virgin Mary is also told by our Muslim brothers and sisters. In their holy book, the Koran, Mary is told that she will give birth to a son, Jesus, even though she is a virgin. However, instead of being driven to Elizabeth’s home, to rejoice, she is driven to the wilderness to a date tree where a spring erupts at her feet to care for her during her pregnancy. Dates and water. Mercy from God, but no rejoicing. In both accounts, Mary is portrayed as a Guest. But only in Luke is she celebrating and celebrated. This tone in Luke is not mercy, but rather Grace, and for that I am so thankful.

But Mary was more than just a Guest. So much more.

The story of Mary and Elizabeth is a favorite of mine, now. I never really appreciated it until I went to college. I was cautious around Mary. In fact, I was probably a bit skeptical from my upbringing. I knew my Catholic friends loved St. Mary, and there was even a prayer that had something to do with football that I could never figure out. In College when I took a religion class entitled Hebrew Prophets, I was surprised that one of the last lectures was on what we read today, Mary’s triumphant prayer of praise and thanksgiving we often call the Magnificat. I knew enough to know that it was in the New Testament, our Christian scriptures, so it was not in Hebrew but Greek. So with a little trepidation and a dab of curiousity I went to hear Dr. Frank Eakin, head of the religion department explain to me how Mary was a Hebrew prophet.

He did his job.

You see, this young girl who said yes, epitomized the nature, themes and approach of the best of the Hebraic prophetic tradition. What she said, and how she said it were there among the best of the old men in their robes and beards.

Luke 1: 46b- 55
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

We see in her words the personal joy in the works of God. We see her recognizing and honoring the faithfulness of God across the generations. We hear again that those who raise themselves will be laid low, and the lowly will be raised. This is a theme referred to as the Great Reversal, and it came before her, from her, and through her in the preaching of her son Jesus.

We see Mary as Guest, but without question she is a Prophet here. We have misconstrued that word so that it means one who tells the future, but in the biblical understanding, it is one who is a spokesperson for the Almighty. She here speaks of the actions and the nature of God, of a god who sides with the lowly, who uplifts the cast off. A god who would choose to come in the fragile vessel of an unwed teenage girl who would normally have been rejected at best, or stoned to death at worst.

We still look for God in all the wrong places. This simple girl who said yes, repeatedly points us to God. Mary was a Guest, Mary is a Prophet, but even more, Mary is the Fulfillment of what she is saying. She takes the prophets one step further. They spoke to what would or had happened, and she spoke to what God was doing in her.

More than from her mouth, from her very life she fulfills that God is a surprising God, whose ways are not ours, whose choices are righteous, and true and good.

Mary proclaimed:
“...he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”

And we do, “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou amongst women...:” She was the lowly being raised up. She was the reject being brought home.

Mary continues:
“He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

We see the nature of God in the choices God makes. Think on it from a biblical example. The Philistines chose Goliath, huge, monstrous, a tower of strength. The Israelites chose no one. Saul could not convince anyone to go out. But God chose David. (He had already chosen him through Samuel, unbeknownst to most.) But David was chosen and accepted God’s call. So much of a pipsqueak he could not wear King Saul’s armor, he went out with a slingshot to take on a giant with a sword and shield. But think of how the Philistines saw it, after the fact. If a mere boy of the Israelites, with nothing but a slingshot can take down our mightiest warrior, what does that say about their trained soldiers? They ran in fear. We are known by the choices we make.

In our own lives, people may judge us by our cars, our houses, our kids, our spouses, our politics, our whatever. We make choices, and others make an appraisal about our choices. God chose Mary, and in doing so, he was saying that the ways of Heaven and the ways of earth are not the same. The Wise Men sought the newborn king at the palace in Jerusalem, but were led to the stable in Bethlehem. That is like saying they came to the Governor’s mansion here in Richmond, when God was showing up beside the loading dock behind the Wal-Mart in Mechanicsville. God will constantly surprise us. He certainly did with Mary.

Some of you may have seen the news this week, that a group of Orthodox Rabbis have made a statement advocating partnership with Christians and appreciating the religious value of Christianity. Yes, I read that correctly.  A group of Orthodox Rabbis have made a statement advocating partnership with Christians and appreciating the religious value of Christianity. From the December 3 statement entitled: “To Do the Will of Our Father in Heaven: Toward a Partnership between Jews and Christians” from the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) in Israel many conclusions were made. The Rabbis said that after Vatican II, the Catholic Church’s approach to Judaism was so fundamentally different that true dialogue could happen. It was inspiring and impressive. The points that struck me hardest were these.

“We Jews and Christians have more in common than what divides us: the ethical monotheism of Abraham; the relationship with the One Creator of Heaven and Earth, Who loves and cares for all of us; Jewish Sacred Scriptures; a belief in a binding tradition; and the values of life, family, compassionate righteousness, justice, inalienable freedom, universal love and ultimate world peace…

“Our partnership in no way minimizes the ongoing differences between the two communities and two religions. We believe that God employs many messengers to reveal His truth, while we affirm the fundamental ethical obligations that all people have before God that Judaism has always taught through the universal Noahide covenant.

“In imitating God, Jews and Christians must offer models of service, unconditional love and holiness. We are all created in God’s Holy Image, and Jews and Christians will remain dedicated to the Covenant by playing an active role together in redeeming the world.”

From ORTHODOX Jewish rabbis we are being called to be missionary in our actions to redeem the world, while they are as well! From Muslim grandfathers we are reminded, “With our hands, with our hearts” we are called to serve and change the world.

God shows up where we least expect God. Truly, God was at work with Mary, two millennia ago, and God is still at work showing up in surprising and delightful ways. Thanks be to God!

Let our souls magnify the Lord, and let our spirits rejoice in God our savior! Amen.

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Blessings, Rock