A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

“Blessed: Life and Death” Mary’s Song December 14, 2017

This sermon was preached on Wednesday Dec. 13, 2017 at Bethany Lutheran Church.

Mary and Jesus

Luke 1: 46-55  The Magnificat

What do you know about Mary? We tend to know the most about her from the birth narratives and from the passion story. We have snippets of normal mom stuff throughout, but Mary takes on multi-dimensions at Christmas and Good Friday in our church year. And these two days are inextricably linked for her, even from the beginning of her pregnancy. Mary is often portrayed as meek, mild, obedient and nurturing. I wonder about this. She was a young woman, a peasant, part of a minority religion, in an occupied territory, who was unwed and pregnant, ran away to the hills to a distant relative, who never says one word to her parents or about her parents in this whole narrative. Sounds like a head strong, defiant and stubborn teenager to me!

And then we have her song here in Luke: not a lullaby, not a sweet song of love for Joseph or her child, but a song that proclaims a political manifesto, a rearranging of the social system, a reversal of power, hope for the down trodden and a God who walks with those whom the rest of the worlds casts away. This is no ordinary birth announcement! A song of freedom that bursts forth from an ordinary young woman who would be considered a disgrace, a nobody, possibly even a problem. She has nothing and is nothing in the eyes of the world, but in her heart, she has everything-she is blessed.

When have you felt blessed? What does it mean to you to be blessed? What do you think it meant for Mary to say “from now on all generations will call me blessed?” Mary demonstrates how even in seemingly imperfect circumstances, God’s blessings abound. Mary is blessed by new purpose, relationship with God and part of God’s work of reconciliation. Mary’s purpose is not an easy road, she is taking on one of the most dangerous activities in the ancient world: childbirth. There was a very high maternal mortality rate and an even higher infant mortality rate. Life and death inextricably bound together.  Joy and grief, hope and despair. Mary would know the joy of holding her son only a few minutes alive and the soul shattering heart break of holding her son only a few minutes dead. Yet, all generations will call her blessed. Not because her life was easy or without risk or heart break, but precisely because she took this risk to be a part of what God was doing in the world, through her, and through her child even if it pierces her heart.

Mary’s song sings into our lives today with this powerful melody of blessings, not from the world’s perspective of being first, the best, and with the most but from God’s perspective of humility, self-emptying love and justice. Our lives sing like Mary’s when we live into the blessings of following God despite the risk, the blessings of pointing to God’s work in the midst of discomfort, the blessings of proclaiming God doing a new thing that is good news for the poor, the hungry and the lowly as they will be freed from injustice and the good news for the rich, the powerful and the proud as they will be freed from the oppression of being controlled by money, status and self. God’s blessings are sung in the midst of confusion and chaos by a peasant girl, by a mute prophet, by an old barren woman now pregnant, by angels, by shepherds and sheep, and by God as Jesus Christ, God with us, to save us, to heal us, to free us and to call us into the song God’s promises for us and all creation of hope, mercy and joy.

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Released and Loved John 12: 1-8 March 18, 2016

We all have what we consider priorities. Each day we juggle those priorities and the squeakiest priority will often get our attention. Family, school, work, housework, fitness, health, paying bills, volunteering at church or elsewhere, are often the needs that get our time and attention. Now, none of these are bad priorities or wrong to pay attention to in any way, but I sometimes wonder for myself, when I get caught up in thinking that something has to be attended to right now, if that is really true. Discernment around what is important in our days and weeks that seem to fly by all too quickly, seems to be a luxury, an opportunity not afforded to us or at least one that we don’t stop to take. I can be become completely engulfed in thinking that if I don’t get my laundry finished, if I don’t wrap up details on a project, if I don’t get my son to all of his activities on time, if I don’t get this sermon perfect or a list of a hundred other things that seem to demand time that I’m not good enough or I’m not really doing what I should be. Or worse yet, I’m not fulfilling my purpose and people will not see me as useful.

If we’re honest, we not only judge ourselves but we judge other people’s priorities too, don’t we? We notice the actions of people at work, at church, in our neighborhood and even in our own families and wonder how they can make the decisions that they do. Don’t they know that they are not choosing the correct action? The thing about priorities is that they are subjective. They are distracting and often not even fulfilling or life-giving to us. Priorities often come from an outside source, outside pressures, such as co-workers, family members and our society at large and are often more about how the world sees us, or what image we project than about who we really are and what we really need.

How often do we really get our priorities straight? How often do we succumb to what others tell us is a priority for the sake of appearance, harmony or simply conflict avoidance? How often are we worried that if we really lived the way our heart begs us to, we’ll be ridiculed, judged or worse yet, dismissed? Mary must have had some trepidation as she pulled out that pot of perfume that cost her everything she had. It must have felt reckless to even purchase it. How many of us would spend that kind of money, our whole year’s wages on something that is quickly used up? But buy this exotic, lavish perfume she did. Her priority wasn’t what people would think or talk about the next day, it was Jesus. The second Jesus walked through the door to her home that she shared with her siblings, priorities of worrying about tomorrow, 401K’s, retirement, social norms, gender roles, and self-dignity vanished. Mary’s priority was her relationship with the one who was all about abundant life. It didn’t matter to her that women don’t touch men to which they are not related. It didn’t matter to her that a woman didn’t allow her hair to be loose in public. It didn’t matter to her that she used up the whole jar of perfume. It didn’t matter that the dinner guests were now also permeated with the scent of this perfume. Mary’s only concern was her relationship with the one whose very presence ushered in the reality of life from death, sorrow to joy and hopelessness to hopefulness.

Judas couldn’t let her misguided priorities go without comment and correction. Where was Mary’s priority to the poor? Where was her priority of appearances? I mean, Jesus was famous or infamous now, and we can’t have the people get ahold of this kind of scandal? A year’s worth of money on perfume? How will that look? Will people stop following and giving money to their ministry and mission? Besides how much of that money would have been Judas’ take? We all know or have been at one time or another, THAT person who has to point out the error in someone else’s choices, especially if we can make ourselves look better in the process. “That money should be for the poor Jesus! Tell Mary how she didn’t use her money wisely! Tell Mary how she’s not being a good follower of you.”

I love John’s aside about Judas. You can almost hear John’s eyes rolling as he explains that Judas’ real priority was himself. He didn’t prioritize the poor or the suffering over himself. Judas’ motivation was Judas. If I love John’s aside, I love Jesus’ response even more. In our NRSV Jesus says, “Leave her alone,” but the Greek might be better translated as “Release her.” Release her Judas from your priority of keeping face. Release Mary from the oppression of gender roles in first century Palestine. Release her from your judgment of how she chooses to share her resources. Release Mary from your judgment of how she chooses to worship God.

You see, when Mary released the fragrance of that perfume from the jar, she was heralding in the promises of God. The promises of release of the captives, the promises of release from oppression, promises of release from being invisible, promises of release from hopelessness, promises of release from separation from God and community and promises of release from death. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise of release from what crushes us, the priorities of the world that don’t fill us, that take our life and don’t permeate our lives with abundance of love, grace and peace. Mary’s anointing of Jesus is active love in response of being released. When your truly free, love doesn’t have a cost, relationships aren’t steeped in obligation or the expectation of reciprocity and vulnerability is held as sacred space.

Jesus will stoop to wash the disciples’ feet just a few days later, releasing them from the old way of being, to a new way, a new commandment, “love one another as I have loved you.” Be released from worrying about who might take advantage of you and be released from what this world says about priorities of looking out for yourself and your own preferences, wishes and agendas. You are released to live in a different way, released to be who God created you to be, pure love poured out into the world for the sake of releasing others from systems of bondage. This is what we will pour out on Addison, Jamison, William and Stephanie at the 10 a.m. worship. In the water, word and promises made, they are released from the old way of sin and death to the new life and grace with God and the people of God forever.

It’s vulnerable, it’s risky this kind of release. Being released to live with our focus not only Jesus and his actions, but also on the words of Jesus to remember God’s priority that we are to include everyone in God’s promises, the poor, the rich, the outsiders, the hurting, the different from us, the ones that we will always have with us, as we are all in need of mind, body or spirit at some point each and every day. No one escapes the suffering and traumas of the broken world. But we are to remember that we all shine the light of Christ to one another and we all have an important part in the community of God’s people. We know the abundant and extravagant love and grace of God for all people, in all times and in all places. We know the release of sin, brokenness and shame to live in wholeness, vulnerability and authentic relationship with God and with one another. May the fragrance of Jesus’ love permeate us and release us. Thanks be to God.

 

All Wrapped Up Together in a Not So Neat Christmas Bow, Advent 4, Dec. 21st, 2014 December 21, 2014

Mary had been given news that invoked both fear and joy within her. I think that the fear part is obvious: pregnant, unwed mother, by the “Holy Spirit” (yeah right!) and oh, by the by, your child will be the most holy Son of God. No biggie. I guess we don’t know for sure if the thought of motherhood was joyful to her, but we can extrapolate that she would have been joyful for the pending motherhood of her relative Elizabeth, who had been unable to at this point, have a child. The impossible, a barren woman having a child, was happening, so maybe the other stuff that Gabriel said about Mary was possible too? What if the messiah was really coming through her? What if God was really about to do something amazing through a poor teenage girl and an old woman? What if the angel’s praising of God that all will be ok was true?
Some of the historians point out that Mary may have hastily gone to see Elizabeth out of fear of being stoned or burned for pregnancy out of wedlock, but know from personal experience I know that she would have had 2-3 months before that would be obvious. Luke writes that Mary stayed with Elizabeth three months, so Mary returned to her home just when would have been unable to hide her pregnancy anymore. And some of us have the experience of going to maternity clothes about 10 seconds after two blue lines appear. It’s safe to say that she went to the person with whom she could share her joy, her fears and compare notes. Would Elizabeth affirm what Gabriel had said God was doing through Mary? The instant that Elizabeth and Mary greeted one another, it was revealed for the other that God was indeed up to something new, not just in their lives, but in the world, and that they were participants, however unlikely. Neither of the women knew exactly what lay ahead for them nor their children, (did they have an inkling of their impending heartbreak of the death of both of their sons?) but they did have the sense that God had ushered them into something bigger and beyond them. In some ways, this activity of God had nothing to do with them and yet had everything to do with them. Life was changing for these two women, they didn’t understand all of the details but they would never be the same and it seemed too good to be true. But together they could praise God and dwell in the mystery of God’s work in the world no matter what was to come.
I have to admit to you that I’m not feeling very much like praising God or super excited about dwelling in the mystery of what God is doing in the world right now. And neither is much of my family. The Advent season has been one not of anticipation and waiting for new life but for death. Maybe some of you are experiencing that sentiment in the midst of the holiday season too. I know, from past experiences of God in my life, that God is present and that God IS creating the world new each and every second, and that new life is exactly what my mother in law has claimed, but I’m having a hard time recognizing it or seeing how I could possibly with my doubts and apathy be a part of that creation with God. Like Mary, I have sought out friends and family with whom to talk, who are willing to walk with me in my questioning and are not afraid to wrestle with me in the unknown of grief and yet the hope of resurrection. And these friends, like Elizabeth, have reminded me to praise God in the midst of uncertainty and change. They have listened to my questions of: How could God be doing anything through me or any of the pain and grief of the last few weeks? Really? They have offered me their own experiences, reminded me of what I know to be true and praised God for me when I just don’t have the capacity in this moment. They pull me along in our mutual faith journey with them, despite myself.
Just as Mary needed Gabriel and Elizabeth to praise God for her and with her in the face of her questions and uncertainty, Elizabeth, too, needed Mary’s words of what Mary knew to be true of the God of Israel. It seems that for everyone, even one most favored, this walk with God is messy, not linear, not one way or another but its fear, uncertainty, doubt, joy, and faith all wrapped up together in not so neat Christmas bow. It’s why Mary immediately went to Elizabeth, why we seek out companions on our journey and why we gather as often as possible as the people of God. Community, worship, and gathering are not about coming together and sharing the good news when we have it all figured out and can only praise God, it’s coming together because we don’t have it all figured out. We gather to praise God on days when we can and to allow others around us to praise God for us on the days that we can’t. We gather to be reminded that we are part of what God is doing in the world to reveal love, mercy, grace and forgiveness and that our whole lives are to reflect God’s activity. We gather to be reminded of our baptisms and to be fed at God’s table, the bread and wine that proclaims Christ’s real presence now and always. Mary proclaims to us in her song of praise what God has come to do among us and, just as she is a part of that work in the world, so are we. It’s not about us at all and yet it’s all about us as the people of God.
Our God is about relationships. God with us, Emmanuel, God incarnate in Jesus Christ is God smack dab in the midst of our messy and uncertain lives and in the midst of our doubt. God came to not only draw us to her and to proclaim that nothing will ever separate us from God no matter what, but that the coming of God draws us to one another. In our friends, family member and neighbor we see and experience the living Christ. We experience what it is to be connected to something beyond ourselves and what we can see. We live in the mystery of what God has done, is doing and will do, with pieces of that mystery and that work being revealed by and through each other. We need each other to work through what we know of God in our lives and what we might yet need to discover.
Not one of us has this completely figured out and no one can journey in faith alone. None of us know what is to come next in our lives but we can journey together. We can proclaim to one another that Christ has come, Christ is present and Christ will come again. We dwell together in the reality and the mystery of God’s presence, love, grace, and forgiveness for us and for all. We praise God together and proclaim thanks be to God!