My soul rejoices in God my Savior...

NOTE:  My worship notes for the fourth Sunday of Advent: December 21, 2014. I am grateful to the scholars at Working Preacher - particularly Mark Allan Powell and Karoline Lewis for their wisdom and insights.

For the past eight years at Advent, I have been inviting and encouraging you to reclaim the beauty and wisdom of the Blessed Virgin Mary for your lives.  Now I don’t any illusions that I have been wildly successful in this, mind you; in our historic tradition, Reformed Christians have studiously avoided Mary in both our prayers and our practices. Still I have felt called by grace to bring her back into consideration year after year. Because, you see, Mary evokes balance, beauty and truth in a world a world that is wildly out of balance. 

She embodies a feminine spirituality in an aggressively masculine world. In Luke’s gospel she poetically proclaims the mysterious presence of the Lord in canticles of praise rather than lengthy or abstract theological doctrines singing:  My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.

She is invitational when others are demanding; mystical while others are didactic. She knows how to wait and ponder rather than rush to judgment. And she celebrates a sacred silence within the harried noise of culture born of her devotion to contemplation.

Last week I saw a picture of Mary posted on Facebook next to a poem by the late Celtic artist John O’Donohue. It seems a friend was inviting others into the wisdom of Mary as this season roared past in all its frantic glory:  “To all that is chaotic in you,” it began, “let there come silence.”

Let there be a calming of the clamoring.
a stilling of the voices that have laid their claim on you
that have made their home in you
that go with you even to the holy places
but will not let you rest
will not let you hear your life with wholeness
or feel the grace that fashioned you.

Let what distracts you cease.
Let what divides you cease.
Let there come an end to what diminishes and demeans
and let depart all that keeps you in its cage.
Let there be an opening into the quiet that lies beneath the chaos
where you find the peace you did not think possible
and see what shimmers within the storm.

Such are the unique blessings Mary offers us – shelter in the storm so that we might live into the peace placed within us by the Lord since before our birth – and I don’t think there is a person alive who doesn’t yearn for such stillness.

·   What we resist, however, what we neglect, forget, discard and sometimes disparage are the simple but essential spiritual practices that nourish such peace.  I know I go brain dead rather than practice them when I’m anxious. I’ve seen some of you forsake them, too when you’re afraid. And our culture as a whole is so stubbornly ignorant of the spiritual practices that make for peace and balance that over and over again we pound our chests like mad apes insisting that we know better than the Lord.

·   I was incredulous – yet again – last week when former Vice President Dick Cheney showed up in the papers and TV news shows celebrating and excusing the use of water-boarding and other forms of torture. Lord, have mercy on us all. Such pseudo-macho arrogance not only disgraces our nation’s credibility throughout the world, but does nothing to make our world safer.

·   Thank God for the moral clarity of Senator John McCain – something I never thought I would say out loud during worship – as he spoke from out of the wisdom of his own experience. You may recall that Senator McCain spent five years as a POW in the hellhole we know as the Hanoi Hilton during the Vietnam War. “The abuse of prisoners,” he told us soberly, “not only produces more bad intelligence, but it is a betrayal of our national values.”

·   Senator McCain understands the complexity of the real world. Even when I disagree with his positions, I know him to be a person of honor and high standards – one who respects and practices our code of engagement as a sacred trust. He concluded his public remarks after the presentation of the CIA torture report last week stating:  “This isn’t about our enemies. It is about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It is about how we represent ourselves to the world.”

People of God, the witness and spirituality of the Blessed Virgin Mary offers us a clear alternative to the ugly bravado that drives so many politicians, business leaders and religious zealots. She points us towards four spiritual practices that bring discernment and inner peace to our souls and balance to our public lives. And Mary grounds us in the grace of God that is always greater than our sins, anxieties or fears.
So why are we Protestants so averse to embracing Mary?  It is a mystery to me – an ambiguity that has not helped us personally, politically or prophetically. Do you know that in St. Luke’s telling it is Mary who is the most faithful and Christ-like disciple in the gospel? Professor of New Testament at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, OH – Mark Allan Powell – notes that in today’s text, when Mary speaks to the angel Gabriel, her words parallel those of Jesus in the garden: Mary says at the beginning of the story: Let it be with me according to your word (Luke 1: 38) And what does Jesus say towards the ending as he prays to God in the garden before enduring the Cross?  Not my will but Thy will be done, right? (Luke 22:42)  Professor Powell puts it like this: In both cases, the ideal response to the challenges of live is a combination of humble trust and obedient service.

So how do we get to the place where we, too can practice humble trust and obedient service to the Lord?  Some of you may recall that when I first came to Pittsfield I regularly told you a story of a colleague from Ohio who said that most of his congregation adored Mother Theresa: they revered and honored her but they had no idea how to become LIKE her. They thought it was magic – or that she had been born with mystical powers – when, in truth, Mother Theresa became Mother Theresa through practice. 

·   Like Mary, she cultivated four essential practices that regularly opened her heart to God’s grace. And over time – and I mean God’s time not our own – the rough edges of her personality were worn down and her relentless and deep anxieties found a measure of rest. Faith.

·   Like we sang in this morning’s psalm I sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I proclaim your faithfulness to all generations. I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens. You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to my servant David: I will establish your descendants forever, and build your throne for all generations.” And so I shall always sing that you are my Lord, my Rock and my Salvation.

Let me summarize for you the four spiritual practices of Mary that nourished God’s
peace within her soul.  They are NOT magic. They are not reserved for only the spiritually advanced or privileged. And they are not too hard for anyone in this Sanctuary. Yes, they are ordinary, real, often demanding and sometimes boring. But they are the proven and tested way to make the wisdom of Mary our own. I like how another seminary professor, Karoline Lewis of St. Paul, MN, put it:

·   First Mary reminds us that God comes to us not the other way around. Our story is clear that Mary was favored, honored, embraced and regarded by the Lord not because she was doing anything special. She was not seeking the Lord on a spiritual retreat when the angel came to her. She was not fasting or on a vision quest. She hadn’t proven herself to be a spiritual giant. She was simply getting ready for bed. But Mary had eyes to see: she had a heart willing to recognize and honor God’s sacred presence when it arrived in the middle of her ordinary life – and she didn’t look the other way.  She didn’t avoid it, she didn’t neglect it and she did not confuse her own anxieties for special revelation. Rather, Mary noticed that God came to her because God loves us and chooses us whether we grasp this or not.

·   Second, Mary lets herself be perplexed.  She doesn’t need to understand everything right away. She isn’t so arrogant as to think she has the ability to comprehend every truth and experience all at once. She is willing to trust God and take time with her uncertainties. “Why me, Lord and why right here?” are the right questions for us to ask, too. Most of us don’t believe that God comes to us in the sacrament of an ordinary moment.  We think God has to be more concerned with big things and enormous problems rather than the mess of our own small world. So time and again, we miss the presence of the Lord in the ordinary.  Not Mary. She has eyes willing to see and a heart willing to welcome the Spirit within the ordinary because Mary is willing to wait upon the Lord even in perplexity.

·   Third, Mary ponders these perplexing things in her heart.  She doesn’t automatically accept what the angel tells her – she has questions – because questions are part of what faith is all about. And listen to this: when she faces her doubts and questions she doesn’t throw in the towel and call it quits when clarity evades her or troubles persist. Many people think that faith has to do with certainty. But Mary’s faith ponders her questions in her heart. She looks to God even when she doesn’t understand. She obeys and follows even when the evidence is not clear. And she gives God her whole life in pursuit of the peace that passes under-standing.  I think that is why the ponderings of Mary are a word of grace for you and me:  we have at least as many questions as she did, right? We rarely understand what God is asking of us in any given moment. And we aren’t always certain that the way of business or power isn’t really better than the foolishness of the Lord.  Mary’s way doesn’t discount the truth that others possess; she just puts them into balanceShe tones down their bravado and certainty telling us that if we want God’s peace, ponder your questions in your heart for a season rather than rushing for simple-minded answers.

·   And fourth, Mary speaks to us of commitment.  In her commitment she becomes an ally of the Old Testament prophets who follow God through the wilderness of the exodus, into the anguish of the exile, beyond the refreshment of the Jordan River in pursuit of the unknown Promised Land.   She trusts the love of God more than the obvious evidence of any given moment; she is open to the sacrament of each ordinary moment even while trusting that there is more love and truth and light to be revealed. In this, she offers a counter-cultural alternative to our bottom line gurus who tell us to take what we can grab now without ever considering the promises of God’s future.

To my way of thinking, Mary offers us a way of living that is faithful to the Spirit of Jesus. Some have called it a spirituality of Advent that can be lived throughout our whole lives. The four practices of Mary tell us that:

·        Every moment is sacred and filled with God’s favor

·        Every day holds questions that perplex us that we must explore

·        Every life is a holy mixture of confusion, clarity, awe, suffering and wonder

·        And person who seeks God’s peace must make a commitment to follow by faith

This can be a template for growing into a life filled with God’s presence. Professor Lewis writes: Mary shows us how to become fully human by the grace of God. As I look out at the world we inhabit this week – a world saturated with despair as well as joy, a realm of violence alongside heartfelt prayers for peace – the arrival of Chanukah and a push for Palestinian statehood, the cruel deceit of those who excuse the CIA of torture as well as those of moral clarity and courage who follow a higher calling, the hundreds of thousands of young people across our land crying out, “I can’t breathe” in a quest for true racial equality and the thousands of conscientious police officers aching to serve and protect their communities amidst gang violence, drug money corruption and almost overwhelming odds, the agony of the children and their families murdered by the Taliban as they went to school and the tender embrace of my grandson, Louie, as we put up his first Christmas tree…

…when I look at all this perplexity, I know that Mary is right to ponder it all in her heart.  We can’t yet know what all of this means – it seems too vast and too complex– so we must ponder these things in our heart if we are to give birth to what is of the Lord in these days.

·   I am of the opinion that we’ve been addicted to the way of macho, bottom line aggression for so long we can’t even imagine the peace that passes understanding. We’ve become so accustomed to terror that we’re numb and senseless. Our hearts break when a crazed gunner goes berserk in Newtown – or Pakistan – but we don’t know what to do to stop the madness.

·   Mary tells us that there is another way – a feminine way that needs to be reunited with the masculine habits of the past few hundred years – a way of quietly embracing everything that is real like a mother – the pain and the joy, the dark and the light, the horror and the blessings, the conscious and the unconscious – for then what we have separated can be made whole again by God.

When she does this – when she opens herself so that her body embraces the Spirit of the Lord – she gives birth to a love that unites the wolf and the lamb, the Arab and the Jew, the East and the West, the Black and the White, the Gay and the Straight.  Mary offers us a quiet, simple alternative to the fragmentariness that saturates us with fear, death and despair.

On so many levels I am heart-sick these days – AND – my spirit rejoices in God my savior just like the Blessed Virgin Mother:

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women 
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.


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