Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Mary, Blessed Among Women

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Luke 1:26-45:

There was an event that happened this week here in Albuquerque, that I thought was sort of appropriate as we celebrate Mother’s Day.  Some of you may have seen it on the news, and maybe some of you were even impacted by it, but somehow a dog made her way onto I-40, and decided, well maybe decided is the wrong word, but was forced to deliver her puppies on the side of the road, and so people were slowing down and causing a back-up and then someone called the city and animal control and the police showed up to make sure she and the puppies were safe, and everything worked out well, except for the fact that the police felt the need to issue a ticket to the dog for littering.

Today we continue in our series looking at the story of some of the women in the Bible, and if you missed any of those I encourage you to pick up a CD as you leave today, or listen to them on our Facebook or YouTube pages.  But as I was putting this series together I was asking my wife Linda, and the wonderful mother to my own children, about the order I should do things and to help me narrow down some of the stories.  As I listed off some of the women I thought we might cover today, I didn’t have Mary, the mother of Jesus on the list.  And Linda’s response was “It’s mother’s day, don’t you think you should do something about Mary?”  To which I foolishly responded something along the lines of “well I could, but I don’t have to.  I think there are other women I could discuss and give a message that also applied.”  And she said, “Its mother’s day, you should talk about Mary.”  And quickly realizing that I was not going to win this argument, and since I had already dismissed the idea that women should listen to their husbands, I did the prudent and smart thing and said “yes dear,” and so today we look at Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Now in the Protestant tradition, we haven’t really done a lot with Mary as a figure.  For those who grew up Roman Catholic or Orthodox, you heard a lot more about Mary and did a lot more with her than we Protestants do.  The primary reason for that is because at the time of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther sought to return to a scriptural basis for everything the church did.  By scripture alone became one of the rallying cries, and much of what the tradition holds about Mary is not found in scripture, and so her story was predominantly removed.  Now there were some other reasons as well, but that was one them, because in Mary is simply not talked about all that much in scripture.

Luke, who we just heard from, mentions her the most.  She is named 12 times in Luke, but all of these are in his infancy narrative.  She appears in two other stories in Luke, but is not named in those.  In Matthew, she is named 5 times.  Four of those times are in his infancy narrative, and then she is talked about two other times, being named once, although it’s a reference to her, not something directly involving her.  In Mark, she is named only once, and like in Matthew it is simple a reference of a crowd saying that Mary is Jesus’ mother, and then there is one story in which she is not named.  In John she is not named at all, but there are two stories make reference two her.  And that is all that we have in the gospels.  Not really a lot to go on.

So here is what we do know from scripture, with a little guessing and a little post-scriptural tradition thrown in.  The first, of which there is no doubt, is that Mary is the mother of Jesus.  She was more than likely a young teenager when she became pregnant.  By Jewish law, girls as young as 12 could be married, and it was even younger than that by Roman law, but normally when they were old enough to have children, they would be formally engaged usually to a much older man, and then would be married sometime after that.  And we are told that is what is happening here.  Mary is engaged to Joseph, but not yet married, when she becomes pregnant.  Now this would have been a scary and troubling thing for a young girl.  First, because the penalty for becoming pregnant outside of marriage, unless it is with your betrothed, is to be stoned to death.  Secondly, because even if she isn’t killed, Joseph could break off the engagement, which we are told is what he initially wants to do, leaving Mary as a teenage mother with a child, not an ideal situation at any time.

We are told that she becomes pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit.  And because I’m sort of a nerd about such things, I just want to clear up something.  Mary becoming pregnant is not the Immaculate Conception, which for the men has nothing to do with the immaculate reception involving the Pittsburg Steelers’ Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris.  The immaculate conception, instead involves the birth of Mary herself, so as to remove the stain of original sin from Mary, so that she could then give birth to Jesus without passing that sin on, which then also leads into the idea of her perpetual virginity.  But, we can say all that while also saying that the Protestant tradition rejects these two later ideas because they are not scriptural.

Instead, Mary becoming pregnant is known as the incarnation, so that Jesus is both 100% human and 100% divine.   But anyways, she becomes pregnant, Joseph decides to marry her, and they have a baby.  Depending on which gospel story you are reading, they either live in Bethlehem where Jesus is born, then flee to Egypt to escape persecution and then come back to Nazareth to live.  Or they are from Nazareth and go to Bethlehem for the birth, never go to Egypt, and return to Nazareth after Jesus is born.  We know that Mary and Joseph are devout Jews because they do all the things required by Jewish law.  They go to Jerusalem following the birth of a Jesus to make an offering on his behalf, and this also tells us that they are poor because they make the smaller offering stipulated for those who cannot make the normal offering.  And they also make pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the proper festivals.

It is at one of these festivals, when Jesus is twelve, that Mary and Joseph accidently leave Jesus behind, a story which shoots terror into every parent, because I think all of us have lost at least one child for a little while. But Mary and Joseph only discover he is not there after they had been walking for a day, then rush back to Jerusalem and search for him for three days in the city, which is really at least day 4 or 5 since he went missing, can you imagine, and then they find him in the Temple.  Mary in a scene of utmost control doesn’t smack him upside the head as we would probably want to do, but instead says why have you given us such great anxiety.  But the word translated as great anxiety is actually used one other time in scripture and it is in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, and we are told that the rich man has been sent into torment in hell, and it is that word, so really Mary is saying “why have you put us through hell,” or perhaps, “why did you scare the hell out of us,” another thing with which all parents can identify, especially parents of teenager.

Later when Jesus has begun his ministry, Matthew, Mark and Luke all record Mary showing up with his brothers to try and get Jesus to come home, or to talk with him depending on the story.  But Jesus rejects her, saying “who is my mother and my brothers?”  And then he says whoever does the will of my father is my brother and my mother.  And then we don’t hear about Mary again in the Synoptic gospels, which are Matthew, Mark and Luke because they all give the same synopsis.  In John, it is Mary, although she is not named, who encourages Jesus to turn the water into wine at the wedding in Cana, and then she is standing at the foot of the cross, and Jesus says to the beloved disciple standing next to her, “Here is your mother”, and he says to Mary, again not named, “here is you son,” and we are told that they take care of each from that day.

The only mention we have of Mary beyond that, and from any other New Testament works, comes in the first chapter in the Book of Acts, when immediately after Jesus ascends into heaven, we are told that Mary and Jesus’ brothers, presumably including James who will become the first bishop of the church, are living with the disciples.  Roman Catholic tradition holds that Mary never died, but was instead assumed in bodily form up into heaven, just like Elijah, and this happened because she was without original sin and therefore was subject to death.  But the orthodox tradition holds that Mary did indeed die, but was raised from the dead on the 3rd day so that she could rejoin her son in heaven.  None of that is scriptural, so again is generally rejected by the Protestant tradition.

How do we know that Jesus was Jewish?  Because he lived with his parents until he was 30, he followed in his father’s profession, and his mother thought he was God.

There are three things from Mary’s life that I think we can learn and remember on this day that we honor our mothers and the other women significant in our lives.  The first is from the beginning portion of the passage that we heard this morning, when Mary is visited by the angel in what is known as the annunciation.  There are several striking things that take place.  The first is that in the birth narratives, all the people who have an angel visit them are told not to be afraid, but only for two of them are we not told that they were afraid to begin with.  The first is Joseph, and guesses on the second?  That’s right Mary.  But it’s her response to the angel’s announcement that also stands out, especially when we consider it against someone else who has a somewhat miraculous birth, and that is Sarah, from Genesis, the wife of Abraham.

There, an angel tells Sarah that she will become pregnant and bear a child, and not only does she not believe it, but what is her actual response?  She laughs.  She basically laughs in God’s face, because she is so incredulous, but that of course is what happens.  Mary’s reaction, however, is very different.  She is a little incredulous because, as she says, she still a virgin, but when she is told how it will happen, her response is “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  She doesn’t doubt it, or even really fight it, she accepts what God is doing, and says she will live with it, even with all of the things that we already talked about for a young girl to be pregnant outside of marriage.  She accepts the will of God in her life, although I don’t think she quite feels so blessed, at least not yet.

Normally when we think of blessings, it has to do with stuff or with people around us, but good things.  We look at our lives and say we are so blessed, and we wonder how we can be a blessing to others, who perhaps don’t have so much stuff.  Blessed to be a blessing, as they say.  And we should be a blessing to others, but that understanding of blessed is not really what is always talked about in scripture, instead there is that sense that we have to be told we blessed because otherwise we would be convinced we were cursed.  Blessed are the poor, blessed are those who are hungry, blessed are those who thirst, blessed are those who weep and mourn.  That really is the blessing that Mary receives.  She is scared teenager, pregnant outside of marriage, she gives birth to a child, probably without her family there, forced to react to powers outside of her control, and she is mother in fear for her child, fleeing persecution with her son, becoming an illegal immigrant.  She once literally loses her son for 5 days, she has her son talk back to her and acts as if she isn’t important, until he realizes how important she is, and then she watches as her son is arrested and executed, and becomes a mother who has lost a child.  I think Mary in fact represents every mother. She may not seem blessed, and yet she is because she knows that God is with her, no matter what, and that the third day always comes.  I think that’s going to be the title of my Easter sermon next year, the third day always comes.  She has God and the hope and blessings that come from that.

Which leads us to the second portion of the story, in which Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, also pregnant with a child, who will become John the Baptist, and again Elizabeth accepts the word of the angel that in her advanced age she will have a child, and thanks God for looking favorably on her, but her husband, Zechariah, doesn’t believe it can happen, and he is struck mute until John is born.  Something I think many pregnant women wish for, especially in those last few months when everything we guys say seems to be the wrong thing.

But Mary rushes off to Elizabeth after the announcement.  It doesn’t appear as if Mary tells anyone else she is pregnant, although maybe she told her parents and they kicked her out, which is the reason she rushes to Elizabeth, but that is only huge speculation on my part.  But she arrives more than likely scared and anxious and worried and apprehensive, and what happens?  First we are told that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, an act normally reserved for prophets, and she says to Mary “Blessed are you among women.”  She commiserates with Mary in what she is feeling, comforting her and telling her that everything is going to be okay.  That while what is happening in the moment may feel like a curse or a mistake, but instead a blessing.  In fact, Elizabeth says this is a blessing three times.

Elizabeth helps Mary to rethink the situation, to see it with a different set of eyes, and she simply loves on her for who she is and where she is.  Elizabeth, in other words, plays the role of mother to Mary. Which leads us to the story of the cross, and Jesus asking his beloved disciple to take Mary as his mother, and for Mary to become a mother to him.  We certainly honor our own mothers, but we also appreciate all those who have been mothers to us, sometimes maybe because they had to be, but usually because they wanted to be, because they couldn’t imagine anything else.  We all need people like Elizabeth in our lives.  Who is your Elizabeth?  Someone you can go to for comfort and support and advice, regardless of what’s going on, someone who is going to love on you and support you, even if things are going wrong, even if you might have messed up?  Name your Elizabeth, and they can even be men, and then go out and thank them.  And the flipside of that is, who are you being an Elizabeth to?  Who have you adopted, who are you mentoring, who are you supporting to pass on some of the love and support that you received onto someone else?

Mary is the mother of the faith, the one who gave birth to Jesus and the one who was there for his entire life, and was there for his death.  Mary represents for us all the steps of our faith lives the good and the bad, and she represents the women who bless our lives, our birth mothers, and those who mothered us along the way, who loved us and cared for us, and so on this day we remember and honor all those women who blessed us, our mothers and those who were mothers to us, so let us not forget to give thanks to all of them, and because we have been blessed may we go forth to be a blessing.  I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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