December 20, 2015
Congratulations! I hear you are all expecting! That’s a wondrous thing!
What? You’re surprised? You weren’t expecting to be expecting? Unattached? Think you are too old? Think you are too young? Imagine Elizabeth’s surprise! Mary’s surprise! Think it’s biologically impossible? Imagine Joseph’s surprise! Today’s Gospel lesson is filled with people who never guessed they would be expecting.
Elizabeth was the elderly wife of an elderly priest. She and Zechariah had probably resigned themselves long ago to the whisperings about which one of them had the problem, she or her husband, that they remained childless. In a society that valued women for their progeny, she was highly suspect—not highly regarded. But today in our Gospel lesson, we see her expecting a child who will be named John and who will be the prophet who announces the long-anticipated arrival of the Messiah.
And Mary, this other expectant mother who wasn’t expecting to expect? She was an adolescent female—probably around the age of one of our acolytes—living under an occupying government. Not the wife of a high priest, nor even the daughter of a high priest. Though Scripture tends to be very interested in who begat whom, Mary’s parents are never mentioned—which probably tells us all we need to know about them. Never mind that you may have heard stories about Mary’s mother Anne, who conceived her immaculately. The Church made her up centuries ago to address this very concern: that Mary was no one special—just a “lowly maiden,” as she calls herself.
There is no indication that Mary has any remarkable spiritual attributes or is particularly emotionally mature or religiously devout or in any other way warrants a visit from God. And yet it is to her that God’s message is delivered: “Rejoice, highly favored. God is with you.” Gabriel’s message to Mary begins with her identity—not the one her community gives her or even the one she sees in the mirror, but her real self, the core of who she is: a precious part of God’s creation. When Gabriel says, “Rejoice, highly favored, God is with you,” the angel affirms her place in God’s family. The one thing that makes Mary a candidate for helping God save the world is that God delights in her. God created her and then sat back and said, “It is GOOD! It is VERY GOOD!”
Which is also what God said when God created you. And you. And you. You are a highly favored part of God’s good creation, whatever doubts you have when you look in the mirror or hear other people suggest you are somehow less than OK. You may imagine that someone who is highly favored has a nice flat stomach, perfectly-behaved children, an immaculately clean home where the checkbook always balances and no one ever loses their temper.
But whether or not you remember it or believe it, when you were born, the angels sang. And when you were baptized, you were marked with the cross of Christ and called into God’s family forever. You matter. Again, I say to you, “Rejoice, highly favored! God is with you!”
Which may make you wonder, “If we are called by God, are we then required to serve God? Do we have to believe and obey?” African American churches often say, “God does not call the qualified; God qualifies the called.” But does that mean God can just send an angel swooping in to make us do things that God wants to have done? What about free will?
Consider again our Gospel lesson. Elizabeth and Zechariah were praying for a child, but as far as we know, Mary wasn’t. Mary and Elizabeth are called by God for reasons beyond their understanding and ours. Was God just like all the other powerful figures in the world, using an elderly woman and a young unmarried woman because it was convenient, because they had no resources with which to fight back? Did God take advantage of Mary because she was a poor girl with no connections? Did God assign her the formidable task of birthing God’s child without any consideration of what a tricky place it put her in? If anyone in that society was more despised than an old woman who didn’t have children, it was an unmarried young one who did.
Didn’t God realize that when Joseph and his family found out Mary was pregnant—and that the child wasn’t Joseph’s—they could’ve had her stoned to death in the public square? Knowing what could happen to her, was Mary forced her to accept her task? Could she have said no? For all we know, hers may not have been the first door Gabriel knocked on. Maybe others had refused when asked to risk everything to bear God’s love into the world.
When I was in junior high, long before there was any such thing as texting, when you wanted to find out if the person you liked liked you back, you wrote a note that said, “I like you. Do you like me?” Then you drew 2 boxes to check: “yes,” or “no.” You never delivered this note directly to the intended recipient. Usually two or three people were required to pass the note from the sender to the recipient. That’s what’s going on here, I think. Gabriel the intermediary between God the lover and Mary the beloved, hands Mary a note from God that says, “I love you. I want you to help me change the world. Will you? Check box “yes” or “no.”
After Mary has some time to digest what Gabriel has asked on God’s behalf, she responds with a beautiful love song back to God that we now call “The Magnificat.” Mary’s love note explains, “Since you are a God who notices the elderly and couples who have been unable to conceive, I say YES to all God asks of me. Since you are a God wants the hungry to be fed, the forgotten to be remembered, and the lowly to raise up their heads….I say YES! Since you are a God wants to console those who weep and to reassure the guilty they are forgiven…then YES. I don’t know why God chose me over a million more suitable candidates, but since this is the God you are and these are the things you want to do, then my answer is YES YES YES!”
It doesn’t sound to me like the annunciation is a rape story. It sounds to me like a story of lovers wooing and being wooed. This is not a case of God entering a young woman without her consent. It is a love story of beautiful and extraordinary consequences.
Echoing Gabriel’s words to her—that with God nothing is impossible—Mary’s song is a song of trust that God can do mighty things. This is not a God who reinforces the already powerful, but a God who builds up those who don’t have anything to lose. Mary doesn’t think God is taking advantage of her or of Elizabeth or of the poor and downtrodden, but rather elevating them and giving them dignity.
The love story began in that way, and it is still not over. It’s open ended. Today God has sent me with a love note for you. The message that God has sent me to deliver is this: “Rejoice, highly favored. God is with you. Do not be afraid. God would like you to bring Christ into our messy, violent, depressed and wildly unfair, unjust world. Are you willing to be a God-bearer? Will you carry God’s love inside of you and to push it out into the world?”
You don’t have to. You can check the “no” box. Whether you say yes or no, God will keep on singing to all the weary world that we are highly favored; we matter to God. But if we say yes, as Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor puts it in her book Gospel Medicine, “You can take part in a thrilling and dangerous scheme with no script and no guarantees. You can agree to smuggle God into the world inside your own body.” How’s THAT for an invitation!? YOU are invited to bear God’s unending mercy and redeeming love into all the world in your own body!
Remember, of course, that saying YES has consequences. The cost of bearing great love is enduring great sorrow. How do you think Elizabeth felt when her beloved son John was beheaded for telling truth to power? Or how Mary felt when her beautiful boy was spat on and mocked and crucified? Like them, if we say yes to God’s request, our hearts will break again and again as the darkness threatens to crowd out all the light.
But this is the Good News: God will never call us to a task without also promising to empower us and nurture us along the way to complete it. Even as we bear God to the world, we are fed with God’s own self to strengthen us for the task. Rejoice, highly favored ones! God is with us! Amen!
~Pastor Susan Schneider