Selections from Luke 1 The Empowering ‘Yes’ December 19, 2011
As Advent prepares us for Christmas, Mary appears on the stage with two stories of being faithful, even when God surprises us with unexpected news. Sometimes called the Annunciation and the Magnificat (the Song of Mary), these stories tell us of Mary’s faithful “yes” when asked to bear the Christ Child and as she sings a song celebrating God’s work in the world. Retold through countless works of art, artists strive to capture this moving moment of the young woman initially frightened by the angelic messenger yet confidently saying “yes!” to what is being proposed. In turn, the song of Mary has inspired many works of music and literature, celebrating the soaring faith of the gospel just about to unfold. Here, we see Luke the storyteller giving us a glimpse of what happens when people say ‘yes to God’ and follow the way of Jesus.
Such euphoria might be hard to take to heart, with Luke’s nativity seeming too idealistic to be true. In the midst of these songs and prayers of praise, we are also a people journeying through the end of a calendar year, trying to get last minute details done for work or holiday gatherings. The frantic pace of the holidays looms large, and we still find ourselves behind, trying to get the house together, ensuring our kids stay healthy, and most of all, staying somehow ahead as the days ‘til Christmas or New Year’s Eve count down. A prayer more likely said this week is, “Dear Lord, send me some little elves to finish the shopping for me, or at least to clean the house so that I can finish the shopping. And, Lord, if you can throw in sending somebody to work in my place this week at all my jobs, even better. AMEN.”
Somehow each year as we harbor the suspicion (fear?) that the holidays just get more hectic each year, Advent shows up to be the voice of reason among Christian believers, a voice that says, “Slow down”. At worship, there is a weekly invitation awaiting us that somehow through the hymns, prayers and Scriptures, we might find time to recharge our drained energies, rekindle our faith and look beyond the hustle and bustle to get at the heart of faith.
If we let this season enter into our lives, we might find the stress, the ever growing list of “things to do” and even the grief that some carry through this season from loss recent or lingering, Advent might just help us get ourselves refocused for the wonder and awe that the celebration of Christmas is about: welcoming the Christ child and the fullness of what the Christian story holds for us, our households and our world.
I imagine Mary being in the midst of laundry when the angel of the Lord shows up. She has put in a full day’s work and it is only midday. Lunch needs to be sorted out, yet somehow her thoughts about what to fix has evaporated as she sees the angel in her kitchen. In an otherwise ordinary day, Mary finds God’s messenger standing there, trying not to knock over the jars on the table with his wings and Mary too frightened to say anything other than a stammering hello. In the moment of the normal and the “out of left field” colliding together, the angel says what Luke will have said a number of times: “Fear not.”
Mary is asked to bear a child who shall be the Son of God, the one through whom God will bring great good to the world. It is a grand promise, made even more so by the angel delivering it. While some would remain in fright or ask questions, Mary responds with a very confident affirmation. She opens herself to the possibilities of saying ‘yes’ to God, taking a remarkable word to heart and daring to see what happens next. Hence in the Catholic tradition, it is said Mary is the first disciple of Jesus or a model for the type of faith Jesus calls us to keep. Indeed, throughout Luke’s gospel, we will encounter characters galore who dare to do the same. Later in the gospel of Luke, Jesus will say such people like his mother are “those who hear God’s word and do it” (Luke 8:21).
Such faith is not without its challenges. The Baptist New Testament scholar Alan Culpepper reminds us to read the story of Mary with due caution. There is a scandal inherent in Jesus’ origins: conceived by means that defy expectations, born into humble means and no great claim to status. The Son of God appears in the world in a corn crib, not a royal palace. Culpepper suggests Mary raises this child with a completely different take on being “blessed”: a life lived in fidelity to God, not needing the measure of greatness found among those of great means or power. Together with Joseph, Mary raises the child as many mothers around the world raise daughters and sons: with great dedication, determination and sacrifice.
In responding to God, Mary’s “yes” becomes a long-term commitment, one shaping the way her life plays out. She hears God’s word and cannot do anything other. The “yes” to God just keeps going on and on. The laundry kept piling up, meals still had to be prepared, yet in the routine and the hustle and bustle of the world just spinning around from week to week, year to year, Mary, the mother of Jesus, kept her faithful promise.
In saying “yes” to God, we begin finding a story to tell and a song to sing. When God calls us to keep the faith, we can choose to think “it’s all over” or “it won’t happen” when it comes to seeing the world grow closer to God’s goodness rather than the indifferent or drifting world as we tend to experience it. Just as Mary will sing of God’s mighty works, so the faith Jesus taught his disciples to live out has a healthy sense of vision, even when it is out of step with conventional wisdom.
Again, Mary models a type of discipleship to embrace. She sings of what God is doing in the world, even if it is difficult to see the fullness of her song or the teachings of Jesus becoming the “good news” to all persons. Mary sings, and we have the choice of whether or not to listen. Can we embrace her song as one we want to learn to sing and live out? Are we willing to wrestle with this sort of worldview where the ways things are is turned upside down? Are we willing to welcome the gospel into our lives in ways that make Mary’s song resound within us and through us?
This past week, St Mark's Lutheran Church in Kansas City, MO, was profiled by the local NPR affiliate, noting the church’s challenges with a very large building and only thirty-five active members. At one time in the mid-20th century, the church welcomed a thousand people. On one hand, the numbers are up from ten years ago when less than twelve attended, and among their small number, they reflect the diversity of their urban neighborhood far more than before.
In the past few years, the pastor challenged St Mark's to develop its outreach to the community, welcoming in various groups including two other churches who share the facility each week. Ten years ago, the church building was thought more likely to be in the hands of a realtor sooner than later. Now, there are some opportunities to move forward, even if the weekly worship numbers aren’t considered on the par with previous decades.
The congregation’s pastor noted that the community partnerships are revitalizing the congregation. People want to see the church continue, even if they themselves are not religious. The pastor notes church officials hear the story and think the successful partnerships developing within the church are more like a “mythological story” than “reality”. This shared vitality has helped the congregation “have this wonderful picture of what our area of the city is like. All kinds of people sharing the same space and making it sing.”
When I visited this Lutheran church a decade ago, the history of the congregation’s future seemed already written, the ink long dried. The future story read: “there’s not much time left”. At the time, an Alliance of Baptists-affiliated congregation I worked with in seminary was cost-sharing space every Sunday, using the sanctuary while the “dozen or less” Lutherans gathered in what used to be a classroom for their worship. Dust and deferred maintenance projects stretched as far as the eye could see.
Reading the article about the same church building and congregation a decade later, I marveled at what can happen, even when the handwriting seemed to be on the wall. Just as Mary did not know the full extent of what would happen with this child she was to birth and raise up, so this congregation endured through many years of ambiguity and wondering what the future held. Nonetheless, keeping the faith allowed them to reach this day, where not everything is “perfect” yet they have a sense that God is at work in their midst.
And we see this vitality as well in our congregation’s ministry and mission. This past year, we have provided short-term mission projects for persons to learn new skills or to serve others. We are revising our bylaws to allow us to look more at the mission than to ponder the maintenance. In turn, we are partnering with other faith communities to foster a greater “common good” for our local neighbors in need. Take a look at 800 Gage Street, where an old market (and most recently tanning salon) has turned into a food distribution center. Since its April start-up, The Kitchen Cupboard has registered a thousand Bennington area households who have found food for the table thanks to the hard work of people of faith and people with no faith preference, all working together to look out for others in need. If you listen closely in the midst of this interfaith work, we can hear the values shared by the many faiths, including that of the gospel. The world as the Song of Mary imagines it to be in God’s good hands harmonizes beautifully with such work!
As we reach the end of the Advent season and celebrate Christmas into our worship, our households and with our friends, would you share the good word of why Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus? We are a people who keep the faith in a world that seems without much left to believe in. The gospel is “good news” that dares to move beyond our prayers and hymns, sacred Scriptures and even the four walls of our places of worship. We are called to live it through saying “yes” to God, to hear the gospel and seek out ways to bring its values to our world. We may be persons of varying backgrounds, yet we are all called to follow faithfully the story and the way of Jesus Christ, first born of Mary.