Tag Archives: Advent

We are all called to be mothers of God

Preached at Trinity Wall Street the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the Annunciation seemed like an appropriate time to share with the parish that Jay and I are expecting our first child.
The night before I preached, two police officers in Brooklyn were murdered–I could not ignore it.

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Luke 1:26-38
Watch it here.

Greetings, favored ones! The Lord is with you. Amen.

There’s a term church-types like to throw around. “Hermeneutics.” Perhaps you’ve heard it? It’s basically a fancy word for a “lens” or “perspective,” and it acknowledges the idea that we all bring something to the text when we read scripture. All of us have been shaped by life experiences that in turn shape our reading and hearing of scripture. And what a gift that is! Indeed, part of the reason scripture is living and active is because we come to it as living and active human beings who grow and change and learn constantly.

I find this helpful because as a preacher it is inevitable that you will preach on the same text many times in your life, but you never want to preach the same sermon. Even if the last sermon on said text was a hum dinger—you’re always looking for new or deeper insights to take in and then share.

Case in point—I preached this text two years ago. I was visiting my childhood parish in Lexington, Virginia, and I was so excited to be preaching on a text that was already so meaningful to me. I mean, I’ve had a framed print of Fra Angelico’s Annunciation hanging on my wall since college, always hoping to be inspired by Mary’s courageous statement: Let it be. This was my jam! And other than the fact that I had no voice and had to whisper into the microphone, that sermon was a great one.

In the two years since I preached this text, I have graduated from seminary, been ordained a deacon, started my first ordained call here at Trinity church, and discovered that Jay and I are due to have our first child this summer. These are the kinds of life events that can adjust your lens slightly this way or that, opening up the scriptures in new ways that keep our reading of them living and active. I can tell you it has made for an interesting Advent.

But here’s the thing. As much as I marvel at the miracle and weirdness of having a human being growing inside me—and how much more miraculous and weird for Mary to experience the same with the very Son of God… and sure I smile whenever we sing “My soul magnifies the Lord,” thinking of Mary’s magnified belly while touching my own slightly magnified version… at the end of the day, that Mary became as we call her in Greek theotokos, the container of God, really says more about God than about Mary.

What makes Mary remarkable is her response.

The actual gestation of God as a fetus, nursing of God as a baby, caring for God as a child—even when that child became a grown man, that really points to the remarkable mystery of God. The same God that laughed at David’s suggestion in our Old Testament reading today that God would want a proper house—that God chose a womb of a lowly unwed maiden. No wonder we call Jesus “Emmanuel”—God is with us—you can’t get much more “with” humanity than to take up residence inside a human being and grow there for nine months. And thus Gabriel says to Mary, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

But lets get back to what makes Mary remarkable—because she’s today’s example of how to live as faithful disciples of Christ.

First, note that Mary’s gut response upon seeing Gabriel is to be perplexed. She’s wondering to herself, ‘What could this guy possibly want from me?’ Certainty is not a requirement of faithfulness. Mary teaches us that one can be perplexed and pondering and still be faithful to God’s call.

Second, after Gabriel explains that which is to come—which is really less of an explanation and more of an exultations of God’s love and power—Mary wrestles with what she has just heard, saying, “But how can this be?”

And after Gabriel speaks of the Holy Spirit’s presence with Mary, proclaiming “Nothing will be impossible with God,” Mary responds: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Notice she doesn’t say, “Oh, now I get it—that makes perfect sense!” My guess is she’s still perplexed, pondering, and wrestling. But Mary doesn’t have to have all the answers to know that God is requiring something of her in this moment and in her lifetime. I say “requiring” because Gabriel doesn’t proclaim his message in the form of a question. He does not come to Mary saying, “God would like you to bear God’s son—the savior of the world. Are you cool with that?” Rather Gabriel speaks the truth of what is to come in a more definitive manner. Mary acknowledges this requirement when she says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” And “servant” is really a soft translation of the Greek word doulos—Mary is calling herself a slave to God—which reinforces the fact that she has no choice in the matter. And yet—and this is what I LOVE about Mary—the young, lowly, unwed, perplexed servant or slave exercises courage and agency even in her obedience by saying, “Let it be with me according to your word.” Mary responds—and she responds as one who believes.

It is Mary’s response and faithfulness that is praised again and again in Luke’s gospel. The scripture immediately following today’s passage tells us of Mary’s journey to see her cousin Elizabeth, also pregnant despite her old age. As soon as Elizabeth sets eyes on Mary, she begins praising her: “Blessed are you among women—blessed is the fruit of your womb—blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Blessed is she who believed.

And how does Mary respond to Elizbeth’s blessing? By praising God with the very words we sang earlier, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior!” She receives the blessing by pointing to the one she is faithful to.

Later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is a grown man preaching and teaching when his brothers and Mary try to reach him through the crowds. When Jesus is told they are waiting outside, he responds, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” While some take this as a harsh response—it’s true! Mary is often referred to as the ideal disciple precisely because she heard God’s message and responded in faithful obedience.

And again when Jesus is teaching towards the end of Luke’s gospel, a woman in the crowd calls out to him and says, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” And Jesus corrects her: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” Jesus does not deny Mary’s blessedness, but clarifies the nature of it.

That God lived in a womb and nursed as a babe tells us something about God and God’s longing to be with us.

That Mary believed in the face of perplexing truths and responded in faithful willingness, “Here am I—let it be,” tells us something about what is means to be blessed.

Meister Eckhart, a 13th Century German mystic once said, “We are all called to be mothers of God—for God is always waiting to be born.” I love that image. It’s one I can relate to. We are all called to be mothers of God—for God is always waiting to be born. But you don’t have to have a womb to be a mother of God. And you don’t even have to be certain of every aspect of God’s nature. You can be young or old, rich or poor, male or female, perplexed, pondering, wrestling—and yet hear God’s call on your life (crazy as it may seem at the time) and respond in faith and obedience: Here am I—let it be.

And when people see the fruits of God’s call manifest in your life, you—like Mary—can point to God and say, “Yeah—look at all God has done. Isn’t God amazing?”

That’s what’s remarkable about Mary. And it’s in that kind of response that each of us can be remarkable too.

Here am I. Let it be. My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my savior. Amen.

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whisper words of wisdom

This was my first time preaching in the parish I grew up in as a teenager.  It was especially meaningful to see so many familiar faces, as many people are already home for Christmas.  It was also a perk to see my college New Testament professor on the front row, which reminded me that I once wrote an exegesis on this same passage for her class… and got a bad grade.  She challenged me to look for something more–and I am grateful!  Only downside was my lack of voice.  Despite being the first to bed Saturday night, cups and cups of tea, and lots of TLC… I could barely get out a whisper.  The Rev. Tom Crittenden could not have been a more gracious host, especially under the quiet circumstances.  I hope to come back–next time in “voz alta!”

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Preached at R. E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church, Lexington, VA

Micah 5:2-5a   *  Hebrews 10:5-10  *  Luke 1:39-55

Oh Lord, uphold thou me that I may uplift thee.  Amen. 

Several weeks ago, when I peaked at the lectionary for the fourth Sunday of Advent to see what I might be preaching on in my childhood parish, I could not help but sing as I opened to Luke’s Gospel.  “My soul doth magnify the Lord…” You see, where I live and worship at seminary, this is a text we sing every evening in chapel.

Immediately, I started thinking of all the cool things I could say about Mary.  How Mary has been depicted in art—from the most grandiose of stained glass windows, to the simplest of roadside shrines.  How Mary has been depicted in music—from Bach’s Magnificat to The Beatle’s Let it be.  All the many ways we encounter Mary in our day-to-day life, and how or why that is.

But then I paused, and realized I was getting carried away.  For if we look at Mary’s words in Luke’s gospel today, we see that every note she sings points not to herself, but to God.  And if we consider that we are a mere two days away from celebrating the birth of Christ, and a mere nine days away from the bloodshed of innocent children and teachers in Sandy Hook—what then do the words in today’s scripture offer us in this moment, now.

We started this morning with words from Micah—a prophet before Jesus’ time.  He says of the coming ruler: “he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord…and they shall live secure… and he shall be the one of peace.”  Is this not what we are longing for in this season of Advent and in this time of grief and bewilderment?  Do we not long to be fed, to be strengthened, to be secure—do we not long for peace?  Indeed I believe this to be the cry of our hearts, even as we have cried real tears this week.

And yet, do we believe in this “one of peace” that Micah promises?  We see the word “believe” a lot this time of year.  “Believe” is written across Christmas cards and even across the Macy’s building in New York City.  Depending on whom you ask, the word could be used to describe our desired relationship with Jesus, Santa or both.  Believe.

This is where Mary comes in.  This is where she speaks to us.  It is her response that teaches us how to respond to the events of our lives and to the coming Christ.

When Elizabeth greets Mary she exclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  Elizabeth explains her proclamation a bit more when she says, “Blessed is she who believed.”

You all know the story that directly precedes this exchange.  There was young Mary, minding her own business, when the angel of the Lord, Gabriel, came to her and said, “Surprise!  You have found favor with the Lord, and you’re going to have a son, and you’re going to name him Jesus, and he’s going to be the Son of God.”

And blessed, lowly, young Mary responded: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Wow.  Wow!  Blessed is she who believed indeed!  Here am I.  Let it be.  Quite possibly the bravest words ever spoken by a young girl.

You know my favorite thing about these words?  That they were spoken at all.  Mary is a self-proclaimed servant of the Lord.  The Greek word for servant used here is ἡ δούλη and can also be translated as handmaid or slave.  In other words, Mary didn’t have to say anything at all.  You could argue that she had no choice but to be obedient.  But Mary speaks!  She responds.  She asserts her own agency in the Christmas story.  Here I am, let it be.  Simple, yet powerful words.

Now that we’ve reviewed why it is that Elizabeth calls Mary blessed, let’s see what we can learn from Mary’s song that follows.

Mary exclaims, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” The words used for soul and spirit, ψυχή and πνεῦμά are used interchangeably throughout the bible and both derive their meaning from the idea of moving air, like breathing. ψυχή and πνεῦμά are not used to connote different parts of our being, but the whole of our being. That which animates us and makes us ourselves is that which rejoices within Mary.

It is the same beingness in Mary that magnifies the Lord.  To magnify is to exult or make great. It is as if Mary’s soul, Mary’s being, is making God bigger. And indeed as Mary’s belly grows with the gestating Son of God, one cannot help but acknowledge the magnification.

While Mary realizes that all generations shall call her blessed, she immediately points to God as the cause of blessing: “for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” It is God’s might, God’s deeds, God’s mercy, and God’s strength that Mary exults.  This points to Mary’s humility, contrary to “the proud in the imagination of their hearts” that God scatters. If anyone could “imagine” herself proud, surely it would be the mother of God.  And yet Mary says, no, it is God who deserves the glory.

So how do Mary’s responses of “Here I am… Let it be… Glory to God…” how do they inform our response in this very strange and special moment we find ourselves in?

I think the “Here I am” calls us to be in the present.  It’s not a “Wait just a sec…” or “Were you saying something?” or “I’ll be right with you…” but I’m here.  Right here.  And I’m listening.

The “Let it be” may sound a bit passive, but it’s not.  It would be passive to say nothing at all.  The “Let it be” calls us to believe.  It calls us to acknowledge that which seems crazy and foolish and indescribable and unbelievable—to realize the absurdity of God making Godself a vulnerable, nursing child—to realize the absurdity of a maimed and broken King rising to victory over death—to realize the absurdity of God seeking out the lowly, seeking out us, to make God’s presence bigger and magnified in the world—to look at all of that together and say “Let it be…” I believe.

To believe is a tall order.  And it’s Mary’s “Glory to God” that shows us how to bridge the gap between knowledge and faith.  Mary looks on her own lowliness and seems to say, “I know it’s crazy… but look at God.  Look at all God has done and is doing.”

Did you notice all of Mary’s acclamations are in the past tense?  She’s already living into the promises—God has done great things, God has shown strength, God has scattered the proud and lifted up the lowly, God has fed the hungry.  Not “God will” but “God has.”  The God Mary points to is not far off in the distance, but right there with her.  Because Mary knows she needs God to be with her if she is to have the courage to believe, and we need the same.  Emmanuel.  God with us.

For nine days we have mourned the nonsense of lost little ones.  In two days we’ll celebrate the nonsense of God with skin on.  The vulnerability of these two moments is not lost on us.  And it’s hard to know how to respond.

But we look to Mary today, and we hear her response.  And it is my prayer that we will find in Mary’s song the courage to sing our own song of: Here I am… Let it be… Glory to God.

Amen.

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Beginning at the End: Jesus in Reverse

First Sunday of Advent, Preached at St. Matthew & St. Timothy Church, New York City

Jeremiah 33:14-16  *  Psalm 25:1-10  *  1 Thessalonians 3:9-13  *  Luke 21:25-26

It’s here!  It’s here!  It’s finally here!  The season we’ve all been longing for—the season, in fact, of longing.  Here we are in the first Sunday of Advent, the start of a new church year.  You might think our Gospel reading would say something along the lines of: get ready—a baby is about to be born who is going to change the world!  Instead we have Jesus speaking, as a grown man, about the end of times.  Why are we starting at the end?  It’s like reading the last page of a book before even looking at Chapter 1.

Here’s the thing about Advent.  We are preparing the way of the Lord.  We are singing, Oh Come, Oh Come, Emmanuel.  We are checking our advent calendars in expectation of the coming of Christ (I prefer the kind with different chocolate shapes to eat each day).  But the best way to prepare for the coming of Christ, whether it’s the first coming or the second, is to be present.  Jesus tells us in Luke’s Gospel to live in the present—and those words ring just as true as we prepare for Christmas as they do in preparation for the end of time.

What exactly is this “end of times” notion?  When Jesus says, “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” Jesus is speaking of a certain kind of world.  Not just the world in general—the Greek word for that is kosmos.  But the Greek word used here is ouikoumene, which refers more specifically to the economic and political world.  Gosh, you’d almost think that Jesus was right here in this room speaking to us today.  Jesus isn’t shouting, “It’s the end of the world!”  He’s saying, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.”

In Jesus’ time, Rome was the oppressor everyone longed to be free from.  Our reading from Jeremiah likewise points to the various powers of oppression that ruled over Jerusalem.  What is it that oppresses us?  What is it that we long to be freed from?  Is it economic hardship and political unrest, like in Jesus and Jeremiah’s day?  Sure.  What else do we long for?  Social justice and equality?  Healing in our world, church, and bodies?  Restored relationships and love?  Or do we long for something as simple as an extra hour of sleep or a few days to catch up on life and work?

The funny thing about longing is that it never goes away.  Even if we attain what it is we long for, another idea or person or thing soon captures our longing once again.  Two years ago I was preaching during Advent, and I mentioned how I was longing for my boyfriend at the time to ask my hand in marriage.  Well he did, and I went from longing to be engaged to longing to me married.  And now that we’re married I long to have kids.  It’s always something, isn’t it?

It’s hard to be present when there is so much to long for.  Jesus gets that.

Advent is a season of longing.  True.  And we start that season off today with Jesus’ words: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life… Be alert at all times.”  Prepare for tomorrow by paying attention today.  Don’t let your longing for the coming of Christ get in the way of you seeing Christ’s presence in the here and now.

Jesus tells us that the coming of the Lord will be plain as day.  That no one will have to point it out to us, but that we will recognize it for ourselves, just as surely as we know that the buds on the trees signify the coming summer, and the leaves falling off the trees signify the coming winter.

Well… do you? Do you see the signs of Christ present in your life?  Do you see glimpses of the kingdom of God in your every day world?  Or does our longing for what is to come keep us from seeing that which is already here?

That is what Advent is really about.  We are preparing for the end of times even as we prepare for the birth of Christ because we live in that space in between—we live in the tension that spans what has been and what is yet to come.  We live in the present.  And Jesus reminds us and teaches us and exhorts us to live in the present so that we do not miss that which we hope and long for.

You want to be ready?  Well then, “stand up and raise your heads,” Jesus says, “ because your redemption is drawing near.”  Don’t sit there and day dream—stand up and raise your heads.

Have you seen how some of the crosswalks in the city, usually ones on a wider street with a bike path, some of them have the word “LOOK” painted right there in the stripes as you’re stepping off the curb?  Well I imagine these words are meant to grab the attention of people looking down, perhaps texting on their phones as they walk, oblivious of what they might run into or what might run into them.  But I find that the word “LOOK” painted on the crosswalk has the opposite effect on me.  One such crosswalk happens to be on First Avenue, right out in front of Bellevue Hospital where I worked this summer.  On more than one occasion I was nearly hit by a turning car or a cyclist simply because the word “LOOK” grabbed my attention, so that I forgot to actually look up.

Jesus says, “stand up and raise your heads.”  He says,  “you can see for yourselves.”  He says, “be alert at all times.”

Jesus says, “when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.”  The kingdom of God is near!  The kingdom of God was present when God became incarnate in the person of Jesus over 2000 years ago.  And the kingdom of God will reign when the world as we know it comes to an end—whenever that will be.  But the kingdom of God is not just way back there in the past or way up there in the future—the kingdom of God is near.  It is right here in the present, right here with us, caught between what has been and what is to come.

We know the beginning of the story—we know the end of the story.  We live in the tension in between, we live in the present, and we live in hope.  Stand up!  Raise your heads! The kingdom of God is near.

Amen.

[Spanish Translation]

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