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    Dec 15, 2019

    The 3rd Sunday of Advent

    Passage: Matthew 11:2-11

    Preacher: The Rev. Canon Patricia Grace

    Series: Year C: 2019-2020

    Category: Advent

    Detail:

    “Let it be done with us, Lord, according to your word”

    The Rev. Canon Patricia M. Grace

    Advent III Year A

    Holy Trinity Church                   December 15, 2019

     

    On the third Sunday of Advent,

    in many parishes it is traditional

                       to place a pink or rose candle in the Advent wreath

                       and to wear pink or rose colored vestments –

    to remember Mary, the mother of Jesus.

     

    I’m a bit surprised

    that we don’t follow that tradition here at Holy Trinity…

    but the truth us, that since the Reformation,

    Mary has not necessarily played a large role

    in the Protestant traditions.

    Even so, I think some pondering of her story

              is in order for us – and can be inspirational

    as we pursue our own spiritual journeys.

    That is, if the story is told,

              not from the perspective we see so often…

    a saccharine portrayal of a young, immature woman….

              a mousy, mournful, Madonna –

    touted in song and story as pure and lowly,

    meek and holy, mother – immaculate, and incredibly mild.

    No, her story can have real meaning for us

    if we leave behind those romantic, contrived versions of her…

    and consider, instead, a flesh and blood person, like us….

              who, given a choice,

                       decided to do what God asked her to do,

    rather than take a more self-serving way.

    Mary’s story starts with an invitation.

    There she sits, quietly in a room…

              pondering the life that was soon to unfold before her.

    She’s engaged to be married – and he’s a good man,

              a carpenter with his own business…

    he’s kind, gentle; solid.

     

    She sits alone in the quiet, dreaming of the future –

    a well-tended house and garden, heathy children at play,

    frequent gatherings with close-knit family and friends.

              the smallest pleasures of daily life shared with her loved ones.

    She understands herself as passing over a threshold –

              a child no more, she’ll take her place in adult society…

                       a married woman.

    A contented sigh so deep, it could penetrate the universe,

              escapes from within her.

     

    “Greetings, favored one!” a voice intones from somewhere behind her.

    “The Lord is with you.”

    The young woman turns, struggling to interpret the sight before her…

    Slowly, very slowly,

              a celestial shape begins to solidify…

    “it’s an angel” she realizes, with a sharp intake of breath…

              now, she’s sure she’s actually dreaming.

    Because what the angel is saying is unintelligible – crazy, even.

              She’ll have a son, the angel says, his name is Jesus, the angel says.

    Then talk of Jacob and David and a kingdom that never ends.

     

    Now here’s where I think the writers of this passage

    must have prettied up Mary’s response…

    for in the face of this outrageous news,

    she is recorded as saying politely,

    “How might this be, sir, since I have not yet known a man?”

    It’s more likely, that her question

    was actually a series of half uttered ums, what’s and come agains?

     

    Further conversation with the angel offers little additional clarification.

    Somehow God will place a child within her – God’s child!

    “For nothing will be impossible with God” the angel adds –

              a valiant attempt to simplify the unimaginable.

     

    Now, far be it for me to question the Holy Scriptures,

    but it’s always felt like there’s something missing

    in this passage at this point of the story….

    like, a lot of something missing.

    Because without taking a breath,

              Mary say yes to the whole plan –

    “let it be done with me according to your word.”

    No request for 24 hours to think it over.

    No barrage of questions and objections the angel’s words must have raised.

     

    “Sounds good to me” Mary seems to say blithely…

              without any further if, ands or buts.

    Then the angel departed from her, the passage says.

    And Mary is left with her new reality.

    To be unmarried and pregnant in first century Nazareth

    or at any time, if we’re honest about it –

    is a difficult thing.

    Back then, her fiancé, that nice, solid carpenter

              had the right to break off their engagement

              and/or have her stoned to death and/or have her “put away” -

    the equivalent of death by shunning.

    What God was asking

    through an invitation delivered by an angel

              was impossible to accept –

    a death sentence for Mary, no matter how you sliced it.

    But yet, she said yes.

    Yet, she said yes.

    Of the whole story, that alone seems the most impossible thing to believe.

    But there it was… that moment of yes…

    Lord, be it done with me, she whispers,

    according to your word.

    The poet, Denise Levertov,

              in her poem, Annunciation, calls this

    “the moment no one speaks of, when Mary could still refuse.”[i]

    For me, that moment is the story…

    the most human part of this divine drama.

    And it seems unlikely to us, normal humans,

    that Mary would have so little trouble

    handing over her dreams for her life.

    Because that would make her wildly different than the rest of us…

    rendering hers to be a charming story, perhaps,

              but of little value to those of us who struggle with doing God’s will.

    Without that pause,

    this becomes a story of blind, even mechanical obedience…

              rather than what it truly is,

    a tale of an incredible choice and inspirational courage.

     

    Reading the rest of the story,

              we discover, that the angel did not depart until Mary had rendered her opinion…

    as Levertov puts it:

    “The engendering Spirit did not enter her without her consent.”

    “The engendering Spirit did not enter her without her consent.”

    God invited, then waited.

    God put the invitation out there

    and then waited for her to respond,

    to get to yes, if she would…if she could.

    Mary, in the words of Levertov,

              gravely, courteously took to heart

    the astounding ministry she was offered…

    the invitation to bear “an infinite weight and lightness

              in her slender vase of being…

    to bear in her narrow flesh,

              the sum of power, the sum of light.”

    …the light of Christ, himself.

    So be it done with me according to your word was her reply.

    Not a nod of blind acquiescence…

              but a choice to participate, come what may.

    So then, we celebrate her not for mindless submission –

    because although this is about self-giving, self-sacrifice –

    there’s something more.

    In that moment, in that pregnant pause,

    I wonder if Mary was able to see herself as God saw her

    …able to see that God knew her deeply,

    understood her abilities –

    and recognized those gifts in her

    that would serve to achieve God’s dreams.

    This is, then,

    less about obedience – more about giving and receiving;

    more about being filled up than of giving up,

    an embrace of something unimaginable,

    rather than a relinquishing, a giving over.  

     

    I think that is why her words,

    offered after some time for reflection,

    were more about what God was doing in her,

    than a self-congratulating pat on the back…

     

    My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,

    my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

    From this day all generations will call me blessed: because the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.

     

    I think Mary said yes out of a desire to please God, of course,

              but also out of hope and love and a recognition of her value,

    of her belovedness in the eyes of the God –

    and a desire to be part of bearing Christ into the world,

    a world where God would scatter the proud in their conceit.

    …cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lift up the lowly.

    A world in which God would fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich, for once, empty away.

     

    Now we’re getting somewhere.

    Within this story is an important kernel of truth

              about how God works in this world –

    through invitation and human flesh.

    God works by extending invitation

              and waits for our response.

    God offers all of us a role in bearing Christ to the world,

    a testimony to our belovedness,

              a vote of confidence in our abilities, our giftedness.

    But God always offers us the choice to accept that role it or not.

    There are countless “little annunciations” in our lives…

              moments of the intrusion of the divine…

    a crooking of the divine finger,

              beckoning us into a deeper engagement with God

                       and God’s dreams for the world.

    God chooses to work through our slender vases of being,

              through our narrow flesh, too –

    to bring something new to life,

              to bear Christ to the world…

    and participate in bringing the world

    closer to a reign of peace without end.

    But not without our consent.

    Not without that pregnant pause,

              in which God waits for our careful consideration,

              listens to our concerns and questions,

              offers us the chance to follow God’s will,

              and not our own.

    And whether or not we say yes,

    in Levertov’s words,

    Ordinary lives continue.                                  God does not smite us. But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.

     

    The Lord is still with us. And nothing is still impossible with God.

    But still, an opportunity is lost.

     

    Most of these little annunciations

              don’t transpire in our living rooms

    facilitated by a winged messenger –

    but there are moments of invitation from God happening all around us.

     

    God’s invitations come through encounters

    with people and experiences that inspire us,

              that startle us out of our complacency;

    through seemingly simple requests

    rendered by family, friends or trusted colleagues –

              who ask us to help on a project,

    or who notice a gift or talent

    of which we were, perhaps, previously unaware.

    Sometimes these invitations come

    through encounters with perfect strangers,

    unusual opportunities that arise

    out of unexpected turns of event that leave us wondering…

    that start us thinking in a new way.

    We might feel a kind of spiritual tap on the shoulder…

    a tug felt deep inside -

    and the whisper of a notion –

    that it is perhaps you or me,

    who are uniquely meant to do something big for God –

    that it is you or me, in particular

    that could offer something important for the sake of the world.

     

    Little annunciations happening all around us…

              often obscured by the noise of our modern world

                       and the insatiable addiction to busyness

                                 that characterizes 21st century life.

    Maybe this Advent and Christmas season

    could be the time for us to sit in quiet somewhere,

              pondering the life that God has given us –

    opening up a space for listening,

              perhaps for the rustle of angel wings.

     

    Perhaps these last shopping days of Advent,

    and the following twelve days of Christmas

    might provide an open space,

    a jumping off place to consider

    what invitations might God be extending to us –

              in a time when our world, our country, our city

              and even our congregation

    sorely need the healing power of God.

    …when we so sorely need a world

    where, through the grace of God

    and the gift of ourselves,

    the blind might regain their sight, the lame walk again,

    where lepers could be cleansed, the deaf begin to hear,

    the dead raised to new life,

    and the poor recipients of only good news.

    Could this be the time when Mary’s ancient prayer of praise

    rings out, truer and truer,

    brought to bear through our willingness to accept

    God’s faith in us, and the invitation to serve?

     

    Might we find the time and the space

              in the silent nights of this holy season

    where God waits for us,

                       where God presents us with that pause –

    and waits for us to see ourselves

    as God does.

    May God gives us the courage to consider those invitations

    and strengthen us, that we might say yes…

    and find new ways to live our lives

    that enable and prepare us to find the capacity

                                 for our own consent…

    May we find ways for her words to be our own,

    always close to our lips and burning in our hearts:

    let it be done with us, Lord, according to your word.

     

    [i] Levertov, Denise. “Annunciation” in The Stream & the Sapphire, New York: New Directions Books, 1997, p. 59