Sermon Series: Is it I, Lord? Stories of following God's lead
“Mary: A Perplexing Call ”
We are doing a series of talks right now on call stories from the Bible. Today it is Mary. I swear to God that I did not know this sermon would fall on Mothers’ Day when I planned this series months ago. Had I known, I would have changed the schedule.
Here’s my assumption about the story of Mary’s call: I don’t think the Gospel writers knew anything about Jesus birth, really. I think the stories about Jesus birth which appear in only two of the four gospels -- Matthew and Luke -- and which do not agree much with each other are theological narratives that appeared well after Jesus’ death and resurrection. I think they lose much of their power if we read them as news reports or objective historical accounts.
In fact, I don’t think the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are really much about Mary or Mary and Joseph. I don’t think Mary’s call story is about Mary.
I think that Mary in Mary’s call story is really the people who composed the stories. I think Mary is the early church – the first generation of Christians.
From pretty early on Mary was a symbol of the church but, even if her call story precedes this symbolism, I think the early church was talking about itself -- the first Christians were talking about themselves -- when they developed this beautiful and powerful story of Mary’s call.
There are three motifs in the story that I think were really about the first generations of Christians, the early church.
“Greetings, favored one”
The angel Gabriel came to Mary and said, “Greetings, favored one…” And then a few seconds later, he said: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
One of the themes of the Mary call story is God’s favor. I think the first Christians felt amazing lucky to be living in the time and place they lived. I think they believed that God was showing them great favor -- God was doing them a great favor -- by using them to be the means by which Christ was being born into the world.
The early church was Mary -- the one through whom Christ was being born into the world -- and they considered themselves amazingly and remarkably lucky and privileged.
God loves everybody fully, so God loves everybody equally. Equally is actually an inadequate term to describe the love of God. In the paper I wrote for godparents when we do baptism here, one of the things I said that baptism communicates is that God doesn’t just love everyone equally, God loves each one as though he or she were the only one. So God loves everyone fully. There is no more that anyone could be loved than the degree to which God loves them. This is a theological axiom we believe.
God loves everyone fully and thus, in a sense equally, but God favors different people in different ways. At least the Bible suggests this is true.
I am pretty confident God favors different times in history differently. I think God has favored my generation amazingly. The generation I am part of has been greatly favored by God. I feel very, very lucky to live during the time in which I live.
When I was a kid I lived during the Civil Rights movement, which was not just an American movement but a global movement. I have lived during the time when the hold of white colonialism on the world was broken. It may not be over, but it is broken. I got to grow up during this time in history. How lucky is that?
Then I got to live through the heart of the Women’s Movement, which is a global movement as well. I got to witness the Women’s Movement, and -- within the church -- I got to see some of the first women ordained. How lucky is that?
Now, I am getting to live during the movement for gay inclusion and equality.
I can’t remember if I ever told you about the conference my mentor Art Brandenbury organized 20 years ago now on GLBT inclusion in the church. He invited one of the more reactionary Methodist pastors in the area to speak. Art was very strategic.
The pastor got up and said that he thought all this started with Martin Luther King Jr. First, he said, black people wanted to be equal, and that was okay, he quickly said.
But then, he said, women wanted to be equal, and that was okay, he quickly added.
And now, he said, gay people want to be equal. Has it occurred to anyone, he asked, that if this continues, everybody is going to want to be equal?
How amazing is it to live in one lifetime when somebody could say something like that – three major movements that make people afraid that it is going to end with everyone being equal? How lucky am I?
This is the way the early church felt. How could we be so favored as to be the ones to birth Christ into the world?
In telling the story of Mary’s call, the early Christians were saying how favored by God they felt themselves to be. God loves everyone fully, but there seem to be times and places God favors by the movement of God’s spirit in powerful ways. Some of us get to be part of times when the Spirit of God moves in powerful ways…Christ is born into the world through us.
But she was much perplexed…
The second motif in the Mary call story is the miracle of it. People have drawn lots of implications from the idea of the virgin birth; lots of them are not helpful because they tend to communicate the idea that sex is sinful.
When I was a pastor in downtown Philadelphia we had a bulletin board outside the church that we tried to put a thoughtful quotation on every week. It was my job to come up with the quotes and lots of weeks that was harder than coming up with a sermon. The quote that probably got the most attention – a photo of it made it into the Philadelphia Inquirer – was a quote from Fred Buechner that said “Sex isn’t sin but then its not salvation either.”
The idea of the Virgin Birth wasn’t about sex being bad so Jesus had to be the product of a sexless pregnancy. The idea of the Virgin Birth was how God made something out of nothing. The idea of the Virgin Birth was about how God had done something totally unprecedented and inexplicable. The idea was that what God was doing through them was something that they couldn’t make happen and couldn’t take credit for.
Miraculous things happen when the time is right.
The call story in Luke points out three times that Mary was a virgin and says that when the angel Gabriel told her she was going to become the mother of Jesus, she said, “How can this be?” She was perplexed. She was confused. She was amazed.
This is how the early church felt. Something was happening through them that made no sense the way we humans think. A movement of powerless and poor people was exploding in a way that made no sense. It was perplexing, confusing, and amazing. It was miraculous.
There was nothing that happened to the early church, and some bad stuff happened, but there was nothing that happened that did not result in Christianity spreading. Christianity just could not be stopped. Nero got drunk and burned down half of Rome; he needed a scapegoat to blame; he blamed the Christians. Christians fled Rome to escape his persecution and Christianity spread everywhere Christians went and started new congregations.
Big conflicts exploded within the early church. There was jealousy between preachers. There were theological differences. But the more Christians had conflict, the more energized the church became and the more Christianity spread.
Christian leaders, like the Apostle Paul, are arrested and imprisoned and as a result members of Caesar’s army hear about Christ and become Christians.
It is perplexing, confusing, amazing…and, it can be frightening.
“Let it be …”
The third motif in the story is trust.
Then Mary said: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be …”
Mary trusted. The early church told this story because they wanted to inspire each other to trust. When it got hard, they told this story because they wanted to remind each other they were lucky.
Living in favored times as God’s favored ones is sometimes frightening. It was frightening for Mary. Women got engaged at 13 in those days. The marriage was customarily consummated at 14. Mary was a 13-year-old girl told she would become pregnant without being married. The penalty for this was stoning to death.
There was sometimes a price to be paid for being a part of the church. Birth is not easy or comfortable or without danger.
But if it is a God thing, we can say, “Let it be …” We can even say, “Let it be with me according to your word.”
We really don’t know what happened at Jesus’ birth. We do know what happened when Christ was born into the world through the first generations of Christians. There was turmoil and conflict and resistance and opposition.
Whenever we are favored by God there will be pregnancy and labor, turmoil and resistance and perhaps some danger, but – if it is a God – thing being born into the world through us – just let it be. Let it be.