Mercy Me!?!

Dec 23, 2018 by

Sermon for Advent 4 by Bob Bond

Gospel Reading:                  Luke 1:39-55

The first movement of our reflections, this morning, must be to acknowledge the strength and intelligence of the women front-and-centre in this morning’s Gospel reading.  Concerning Mary we may have to rethink a few things.  Particularly on account of the Greek word concerning her, ‘parthenos’, generally translated simply ‘virgin’; it has been taken to suggest youth, but scholarly criticism sheds a different light.  “Parthenos” means one who has not yet born a child[1].  It says nothing about age, or for that matter sexual innocence; it is singularly about the state of the uterus.  While that information sinks in, let us also recognize how Luke paints a picture of Mary’s character strength.  When the angel Gabriel comes to Mary, in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, he approaches with words of great honour, “Hail, Mary, full of grace!”  Classical artists rendering this scene often have Gabriel on his knees.  Luke is explicit: it is Mary’s grace that requires such honour.   We see her grace in action as Mary in today’s reading bravely travels alone to visit Elizabeth, and later (nine months pregnant) will trek to Bethlehem, then as she moves (tells Matthew) as a refugee to Egypt and back, surely as she journeys to Jerusalem when Jesus is crucified there.  We hear this great grace in the manifesto Mary sings – the Magnificat – with savvy and guts equalling any prophet before her.  Such boldness and clarity in her convictions about justice!  And looking just two days ahead to the festival in our time, quoting the commentator Nancy Rockwell, “[Mary] gives birth in a barn, lies down with animals, and welcomes weathered shepherds in the middle of the night.  She is determined, not domestic; free, not foolish; holy, not helpless; strong, not submissive.  She beckons women everywhere to speak out for God’s justice, which is waiting to be born into this world.”  Such is Mary’s grace, causing the likes of Gabriel to bow before her.

Elizabeth too is wondrous to behold.  A descendant of Aaron, which is to say her lineage is priestly just as her husband’s lineage is priestly, she has lived out her life in that time-and-place bearing the stigma of ‘forgotten by God’.  There, where a woman’s primary purpose was to bear children, her infertility has meant she was – in the eyes of her society – a failure.  But today’s story shows the grace with which she has upheld herself as well as that cruelly judgmental society.  Luke chronicles her as the first prophet of the New Testament era:  Upon Mary’s arrival and unrecorded “Hello”, the baby John leaps in utero and Elizabeth – filled by the Holy Spirit – declares what is not yet visible to the eye nor was told by Mary:  Mary is pregnant, and her child is acknowledged by Elizabeth as her Lord.

Such confident insight is but the surface layer of Elizabeth’s grace.  The therapist and the theologian in me has decided to flesh out this point by doing a little population survey right now.  Many of you will recall the spiritual exercise-and-discipline called meditatio, which we have considered in our shared reflections on other occasions.  It is that way (from ancient times) of reading a biblical story where you go over and over it until you’ve got it pretty much nailed down in your head, then you close the text, pick one character at a time, and observantly move yourself through the story as that one character followed by another, by another, until you’ve experienced the story from every vantage point.  Today’s Gospel story, if treated this way, and if we are bluntly honest with ourselves, yields – I would suggest – some interesting results.  Playing it through as Elizabeth:  When Mary arrives, says “Hello”, in-utero John has his jump, and I-as-Elizabeth get the picture Mary is pregnant, where I go next is: “Oh, this isn’t good.  She’s unwed.  The talk around Nazareth is going to be brutal.  Probably that’s why she’s come here.  But being away from there in this early stage isn’t good either – people are going to wonder if someone over here got her pregnant.  And what about Joseph?  Is he the father?  What will he do, if he is?  What will he do, if he isn’t?”

People, this reaction is from the same part of me that reacts with worry, concern, upset and judgment when I see an impoverished household go out and buy a family pet dog; or when I see a young man out walking with his young partner and their child, his temper flaring full volume; or – in the hospital setting – when yet another teenager comes through the ambulance bay door “Vital Signs Absent” after injecting that last street drug they got a hold of.  Now I’ve confessed to you before that, among the particular personality profile possibilities of being either a Perceiver or a Judger, I am a Judger.  Odds are that half of the rest of you are too.  But even the Perceivers in the crowd may feel disconnected from the grace, the overwhelmingly joyous, affirming, welcoming grace that Elizabeth floods over Mary, exclaiming with a loud cry (which is to say that all the neighbours for several blocks heard it), “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”

It quite probably was the case that – back in Nazareth – there would have been no one joyously affirming and welcoming Mary’s pregnancy.  More likely there would have been shaming and ostracism.  But all of us who can imagine this; even more-so, those of us who have our many-and-various internal reactions going somewhat in that direction, in this story come up short as we recognize it is Jesus’ mother, and Jesus himself, that we are disparaging.

The great grace of Elizabeth is her hospitality.  Arms wide open, eyes warm with love, heart overflowing with affirmation, voice resounding with joy, Mary is blessed, celebrated, brought into safety and love for as long as she needs it.  Certainly it speaks to me and my reception [it is a slap-on-the-side-of-my-head’s perception!] of the street drug user in the E.R., the young stressed family on the street, and the marginalized household seeking to love a pet of their own.

And it’s not just the meditatio exercise upon this Lukan story that does so.  Consider for a moment how “hospitality” acts like the litmus test for ‘getting things right’ all across the birth stories of John and Jesus.  First there is Zechariah who – in the holiest spot on earth he’ll ever access – is told – by the holiest messenger he’ll ever encounter – that God is about to answer his prayers for a son, a son “great in the sight of the Lord”, the sought-for Elijah to God’s people, and all Zechariah can do is judge it impossible.  He flunks the test!, and so his voice is silenced until after the baby is eight days old and rightly named John.  How different from Mary, who – when visited by the same angel Gabriel and told how she shall be God’s instrument – opens up to receive:  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  (Elizabeth, in prophet mode, nailed the truth about Mary’s hospitality: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord”!)

Behind the scenes, Joseph’s magnanimous hospitality is discerned in that we next see him taking pregnant, unwed Mary to Bethlehem, his people’s town, as he is enrolled there in Augustus’s census.  We watch the Inn-Keeper almost falter, but then come up with at least a stable for the birthing to have some shelter.  We watch Mary and Joseph receive the starry-eyed shepherds (… by the way, the Judger in me certainly sees that whole bottom-rung-of-the-ladder lot as highly undesirable in a delivery room!).

But in all of this review we do disservice if we don’t retrace and see where this hospitality – this grace – has its New Testament start:  Of course you’ll say it is from God but it has its human models in this day’s two women:  Mary the New Testament prototype of inner grace-and-strength, and Elizabeth the prototype of hospitality-towards-the other.

For any here, like me, who recognize it is a hard-to-fathom stretch to get ourselves into an inner frame like Mary’s, and a relational frame like Elizabeth’s, it is wondrously the case that Mary gives voice to the solution.  It comes to me, and you, as yet another spiritual discipline, a practice that – yes! – must intentionally be brought out and intentionally exercised (intentionally put to use), because it is the corrective to our judgments that get all caught up in the circumstances (the messy layered complexities) and there neglect to see and truly perceive the people, the uniquely made and too often wounded-and-left-broken people, who are our neighbours and whom we are actually expected – in Christ – to love, as we love ourselves.  Mary sings it out: the key is mercy.  She knows it is so because of God’s mercy to her.  She proclaims it is because of God remembering His mercy that Israel gets the help, the salvation, that she needs.  People, if God has to work at remembering mercy, how much clearer a signal or signpost is needed for us, in our practices (our self-disciplines) to do likewise?: to train ourselves by disciplined remembering to have our second thought (following any initial judgment) to be mercy for whomever and whatever is before us, and then to act on that second thought.

Mercy is so rare these days that perhaps I had better give you its definition, to remind you:  Says Merriam-Webster, mercy is (1) “kind or forgiving treatment of someone who could be treated harshly;” (2) “it is kindness or help given to people who are in a very bad or desperate situation.”

Can you even recall a time ‘out in the world’ when you’ve been “dealt with” with mercy?  Do you remember what being merciful down to the core of you feels like?

Elizabeth was Mercy-Incarnate toward Mary when Mary came knocking.  Mary was the mouthpiece of God’s history, present and future of Mercy as she sings her response.  We, if we are to be the love for our world that this Sunday of Advent enjoins us to be, must take our cue from these two blessed women of God.

Let me close by bringing you into an experience of this mercy, this hospitality, this grace, through the art of Jan Richardson’s poetry focused on that moment in today’s Gospel reading when Mary is pulled close and safe by her cousin Elizabeth — the poem entitled, “A Blessing Called Sanctuary”.

You hardly knew

how hungry you were

to be gathered in,

to receive the welcome

that invited you to enter

entirely—

nothing of you

found foreign or strange,

nothing of your life

that you were asked

to leave behind

or to carry in silence

or in shame.

Tentative steps

became settling in,

leaning into the blessing

that enfolded you,

taking your place

in the circle

that stunned you

with its unimagined grace.

You began to breathe again,

to move without fear,

to speak with abandon

the words you carried

in your bones,

that echoed in your being.

You learned to sing.

But the deal with this blessing

is that it will not leave you alone,

will not let you linger

in safety,

in stasis.

The time will come

when this blessing

will ask you to leave,

not because it has tired of you

but because it desires for you

to become the sanctuary

that you have found—

to speak your word

into the world,

to tell what you have heard

with your own ears,

seen with your own eyes,

known in your own heart:

that you are beloved,

precious child of God,

beautiful to behold,*

and you are welcome

and more than welcome

here.

                                      —Jan Richardson[2]

Amen.

Pastoral Prayer

God who creates, who provides, who loves, who judges, who saves and heals, God whose hospitality and mercy are our grounding, we are inspired this day by Elizabeth.  Clearly her decades of feeling other people’s judgment and shaming brought about in her a heart of pronounced insight, grace and wisdom (alongside all the grief and alienation the judgmentalism had caused).  Hers was a remarkable, loving heart in order to react to Mary with the open arms, the open door, the public declaration of affirmation and celebration which lit up that scene of Salvation History.  We can only imagine what a godsend, for Mary, her older cousin’s blessing must have been.  Even imagining it warms our hearts.

And we are inspired this day by Mary.  What grounded willingness, strength and courage, what prophetic brilliance and faithfulness, what trust and love of God and man she is seen by us to live and so to contribute to Salvation History.  Today we have heard again her Magnificat, and it hits our ears with the unmistakable recognition of just how much her son will come to sound the same.  Our minds and hearts here gain an inkling of the unrecorded story of Jesus’ formation (in that culture led by Mary) until we do see him twelve-years-old in the Temple, and then there’s really not so much surprise at what comes next.  Mary’s is a remarkable heart-and-mind-and-soul – a hospitable, righteous, loving, dazzling soul.  We bless you for the memory of her (the stories we have of her).

God, we are moved by Elizabeth and Mary to see ourselves (our relationships and our deeds) in the full light of love’s power and possibilities.  We see the times-and-places-and-relationships of judgment made by us in the living of our days, and the paths we then have taken; and we also see how full-bore mercy, love and hospitality offer different paths.  God, on this Sunday that is the darkest of the year, when we (year after year) [we] settle down and settle in to be mindful about love, work in our minds and hearts and souls to bring an ache for the hospitality, the mercy, the love which redeems everything (it frees captives, it heals diseases, it restores families and communities, it saves).  And let that ache-of-ours, in this day’s darkness, be met – now just two days hence – by the coming of the Light of Life, the arrival-on-earth of the Love of God, the birthing of the Saviour of our lives, whom we would pray to acknowledge (anew this year) by a renewed-and-disciplined determination to practice mercy, to make it the corrective ‘reset’ to the responses we make all across our lives.

God we pray for the world around us, starving for mercy.  The bald inhospitality and greed that characterize so much of the world’s dealings make it perhaps not-at-all surprising how humanity’s impact on the earth is increasingly to make the earth inhospitable toward us.  How hard, O God, it is to watch the millions-and-millions on the margins suffer, as a result.  How hard it must be for You to watch – You who have designed and provided for life lived in grand diversity and limitless love, You whose blessing and intention are for shalom / balance / healing / freedom / wholeness / peace / love.  Lord God, by mercy / with mercy / in mercy make us instruments of peace and love.

We pray for people and situations known up-close-and-personal by us, and known to be in complexity and need.  There are those whose sickness consumes most of their energy and attention; there are those whose loss and grief darkens everything; there are those whose poverty shapes every aspect of their lives; there are those whose boredom is hellish; there are those whose aloneness is crushing.  In the silence we each name names, and pray for shalom, and pray to be instruments of shalom.

We pray for the gatherings of family and friends that take place across today, tomorrow, and the twelve days of Christmas.  God, keep us from superficiality; instead let there be depth of engagement as stories are told, as relationships exercise their full grace, as hospitality is shared with abandon, as mercy and love are the fabric woven through our actions and words and worn by all, for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.

Benediction

May God, the God of peace, make you Holy in every part, and keep you sound in spirit, soul and body, without faults when our Lord Jesus Christ comes.  The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you!  [I Thessalonians 5:23,28]

 

 

 

[1] Nancy Rockwell in “No More Lying About Mary”, www.patheos.com

[2] [from Circle of Grace, found at http://adventdoor.com/2015/12/14/advent-4-a-blessing-called-sanctuary/]

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