Sermons

Expect Something New: From Impossible to Possible

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Lesson: Luke 1:26-38

I saw a Roz Chast cartoon this week with the caption, “Obsessive-Compulsive Santa,” showing Santa singing, “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, but the margins are crooked so he’s writing it again. And he’s checking it again, and he’s checking it once more, but somehow he misspelled ‘Laura’ so he’s crossing it out. …. ” and so on.[1] I think I find this Santa funny because it hits pretty close to home for me, this time of year, as my colleagues will attest. So I hope your sense of neatness and order isn’t thrown off too much by the fact that, this morning, we take a step backwards in Luke’s gospel to hear what came before the story we heard last week. Last week we heard Vivaldi’s Magnificat, sung so beautifully by our choir. The Magnificat is the song Mary sings in Luke’s gospel after her cousin Elizabeth recognizes that Mary has been chosen to give birth to Jesus. This morning’s passage, a few paragraphs earlier, is our first encounter with Mary in Luke. The angel Gabriel visits her, and tells her she is going to give birth to the Son of God.

This is a story that gives some people fits, one way or another, and so I treat questions about the virgin birth seriously. First of all, please don’t get hung up on it. People disagree about it and apparently always have and the church has survived. Neither Mark nor John’s gospel nor the apostle Paul in all his letters thought it was important enough even to mention the virgin birth, or any birth, for that matter, and this tells us that different communities of believers were able to preach and write about Jesus without making the virgin birth an article of faith about him.[2] I love the way Frederick Buechner sums it up: “If you believe God was somehow in Christ, it shouldn’t make much difference to you how he got there. If you don’t believe, it should make less difference still. In either case, life is complicated enough without confusing theology and gynecology.”[3]

It’s only during Advent and Christmas that we Protestants pay much attention to Mary. Besides the virgin birth, there are a couple thousand years worth of theology, piety, and politics layered over Mary and it’s nearly impossible to dig her out from under it all. Some Christians pray to her. Others ignore her on principle. John Knox, the reformer who started the first truly “presbyterian” church, the Church of Scotland, not only condemned making her an object of worship but pretty well omitted Mary from his theology all together.[4] Some Christians call her “Theotokos,” the Mother of God. For others, she represents a troubling model of pious femininity — ever sinless, ever virgin, ever mother.[5]

I think the most extraordinary thing about Mary is how ordinary she was.

In this special season, this special holiday celebrating this Special Baby born to this Special Woman, it’s easy to start thinking Christmas is all about extraordinariness. But, on the contrary, if it’s about anything, it’s about the power of the ordinary to bring about God’s purposes. The power of the ordinary to bring about God’s purposes. Mary was not chosen to be the mother of Jesus because she was special. She was chosen because she was the epitome of ordinary. A young girl of marriageable age, living an ordinary life in an ordinary town in an ordinary country. What a spit in the eye that was to the folks in power in Rome and Jerusalem.

Mary says, “Yes,” of course, “Let it be; here am I, a servant of the Lord,” but before that, she says something we often skip over. When the angel announces what’s coming, Mary says, “How will this happen?”

We know these words. We’ve said these words. Maybe prefaced by “Whoa,” or “uh-oh,” or maybe something less delicate. We know that feeling: “How is this going to work out? How can this work out? What’s going to happen now?” It’s a confession of vulnerability. It’s admitting, “I don’t know how to do this. I don’t know how to be in this place.”[6] Mary’s got to be thinking, “There is no way I can pull this off. Me? Who am I? It’s impossible.”

And Mary speaks up about that – she shows up with her authenticity as well as her disbelief and asks her very reasonable question; asks it right to the face of that angel from God, for crying out loud, and that’s the first good lesson we get from Mary. She shows us the ordinary courage of speaking up. What I mean by “ordinary courage” is that the root of the word courage is the Latin word for heart, and courage originally meant “To speak one’s mind by telling one’s heart.” Over time courage became synonymous with heroics, but ordinary courage – speaking one’s mind by telling one’s heart – means putting your vulnerability on the line and in our world, that can be pretty extraordinary.[7]

The angel Gabriel doesn’t try to talk her out of her questions; he doesn’t tell her she can do anything she wants if she just tries hard enough or wants it enough. He doesn’t tell her that if she believes it enough she can make it come true.

He says, “Nothing is impossible with God.”

This point is driven home in the way Mary’s story is surrounded by the impossible made possible. Her cousin Elizabeth, an older, barren woman, has conceived a child. Mary is from a backwater town, far, far from the seats of power; she’s an absolute nobody. A nobody, visited by an angel, chosen by God. We’re so used to this story that we don’t recognize that the virgin birth is only one small piece of the impossibility here.

Mary listens, and then answers, “Let it be.” It doesn’t do Mary justice to assume this was merely acquiescence, that when she said, “Let it be,” what she really meant was “Whatever.” That’s a popular assumption and it’s served the purposes of people in power, people who would prefer the ideal Mary and by extension ideal women in general to be compliant and above all, keep their mouths shut. For starters, this view can’t be reconciled with the other nine stories in which Mary appears in the New Testament.[8] Mary shows up again and again as a woman with gumption, and we see it for the first time right here in this story. She says, “Yes.” Maybe saying yes is the most extraordinary thing about Mary. There were probably hundreds of other ordinary, nobody girls who could easily have taken Mary’s place.[9] One writer poses the provocative but fascinating question: “What if Mary wasn’t God’s first choice? Imagine… a whole string of Marys who said, ‘No way.’”[10] And far from being, “Whatever,” I believe Mary’s “Let it be” is much more powerful, much closer to the words of one of my favorite “Star Trek” characters, Captain Jean-Luc Picard: “Make it so.”

Our Advent theme this year is “Expect Something New.” We are constantly being faced with something new – new technology, new cultural trends, new ways of being church, new challenges as followers of Jesus. Here is our Advent challenge for this morning: Do we believe God’s purpose is unfolding in a new way we might not only not expect, but can’t conceive? Do we think God is done interrupting people’s lives to use them for the healing of the world, for doing things that still remain impossible for us, on our own? Or might we imagine that God is still doing things just like this, doing something new? Might we look around at the ordinary people in this sanctuary, our congregation, and see ourselves as those persons who are also favored by God and through whom God plans to do marvelous things? Perhaps not conceive and bear the Son of God, but, then, Mary did that already! But think how many other wonderful things there are that God wants to accomplish through us, so many that we couldn’t begin to count them all. And we ordinary folks are in all kinds of places and positions to do those wonderful things;[11] for God to do those wonderful, new, impossible things through us, and we need only the ordinary courage to show up.

I heard a story about ordinary courage this week and I trust God was at work doing something very new. Last Monday, a lone, armed terrorist entered a café in Sydney, Australia, and took a number of employees and customers hostage. Early in the crisis, the police confirmed reports that the hostage-taker was an Iranian-born man who called himself Sheikh Haron. As news of the siege unfolded, a woman named Rachel was on a commuter train on her way to work, scrolling through the updates on her smart phone to see if anyone in her family was close to the danger. At that point, Rachel saw a woman on the train, apparently Muslim, start to fiddle with her headscarf, start to unpin it to take it off.

Rachel said she felt tears come to her eyes, feelings of anger and sadness, and she decided to speak up about the victims of the siege who were not in the café, the victims who were the ordinary, law-abiding Muslims living in Sydney and going about their business.[12] She posted a Facebook status update that said, “and the (presumably) Muslim woman sitting next to me on the train silently removes her hijab. I ran after her at the train station. I said, ‘put it back on. I’ll walk with u.’ [The woman] started to cry and hugged me for about a minute and then walked off alone.”

A couple of people responded to this post quickly. One said, “This is what good people do.” Another tweeted (which means posted on the social media platform Twitter) – the person tweeted, “If you reg[ularly] take the #373 bus [between] Coogee [and] Martin Place, wear religious attire, & don’t feel safe alone: I’ll ride with you. @ me for schedule.” And then someone else tweeted, “Maybe start a hashtag?” And he suggested “#illridewithyou.” Creating a hashtag, using the symbol that many of us would call a pound sign, allows other people to follow your tweets, your Twitter posts – to see them and be notified of updates and other comments.

And so it snowballed from there. In just 12 hours there were more than 150,000 tweets with the hashtag #illridewithyou. A woman posted a photo of herself with a blue scarf tied around her wrist: “I’m a semi regular commuter on the #mandurah line. If you see me #illridewithyou. I’ll be wearing this scarf.” Another tweeted, “If you wear religious attire, & need to get from #Adelaide’s west suburbs to the city on Tues[day] but don’t want to travel alone #illridewithyou.” A man posted a photo of a sticker he’d put on his briefcase that said, “I’ll ride with you.” He tweeted: “Practical thing: I’ve made a temporary sticker for my bag so people who need me can spot me #illridewithyou.”[13]

A new way to respond to terrorism. Ordinary people doing God’s work. My friends, expect something new. Expect that God’s purpose is unfolding in a way we might not only not expect, but can’t conceive. Expect that we, too, might be perplexed, confused, and perhaps troubled that God has noticed us, that God favors us, and that God has wondrous things to accomplish through us. And expect God will give you the ordinary courage you need to show up.

Now, this might be pretty hard to get our heads around so I’m going to give you a few minutes to think about it. That’s why the little blue piece of paper is in your bulletins, along with the flyer for the Christmas Joy Offering. I invite you to take that blue piece of paper and think about the seemingly impossible truth that you are a favored one of God. And indeed, God wants to do great things through you. Please take a moment to let that sink in and using one of the pencils in the pew racks or your own pen or pencil, write down what one of those things may be.

I’d like to close with the litany on that same sheet. Please join me in the litany:

One:    Greetings, favored ones. The Lord is with you and intends to do great things through you.

Many: How can this be? We are ordinary, everyday people.

One:    Yet you have found favor through God, and the Holy Spirit will come upon you, guide you, and work through you to care for this world and people God loves so much. For nothing is impossible with God.

Many: Here am I, a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.[14]

Let us pray: God of Advent, we await the impossible. Make it so. Amen.

© Joanne Whitt 2014 all rights reserved.

 

[1] Roz Chast, The New Yorker, December 13, 2010.

[2] Mary Hinkle Shore, Fourth Sunday of Advent, in New Proclamation, Year A, 2007-2008 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), p. 29.

[3] Frederick Buechner, “Annunciation,” in The Magnificent Defeat (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1966), p. 60.

[4] Gabriel Torretta OP, “Our Lady Reconsidered: John Knox and the Virgin Mary,” in the Scottish Journal of Theology / Volume 67 / Issue 02 / May 2014, pp. 165-177, http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=9221941.

[5] Debie Thomas, “The Pause Before Yes,” December 15, 2014, http://www.journeywithjesus.net/Essays/20141215JJ.shtml.

[6] Emory Gillespie, http://pastoremory.wordpress.com/2014/12/12/valleys-humming/

[7] Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010), pp. 12-13.

[8] The other nine stories are known as the Visitation, Nativity, Presentation, flight into Egypt, losing Jesus in the Temple, going to bring Jesus home from his public ministry, the wedding feast at Cana, being at the foot of the Cross and Pentecost.

[9] John van de Laar, “The Myth of the Extraordinary,” December 13, 2011, http://sacredise.com/blog/?p=1096

[10] Lia Scholl, “Mary, Actualized, Mature, and with Agency,” December 15, 2014, http://www.questionthetext.org/2014/12/15/mary-actualized-mature-and-with-agency/

[11] David Lose, “Favored Ones,” December 11, 2011, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1611.

[12] Rachel Jacobs, “How #illridewithyou Began with Rachael Jacobs’ Experience on a Brisbane Train,” December 16, 2014, http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/queensland/how-illridewithyou-began-with-rachael-jacobs-experience-on-a-brisbane-train-20141216-128205.html.

[13] Jordan Valinsky, “Australians Just Showed the World Exactly How to Respond to Terrorism With #IllRideWithYou,” December 15, 2014, http://mic.com/articles/106442/australians-show-the-world-exactly-how-to-respond-to-terrorism-with-ill-ride-with-you.

[14] David Lose, ibid.

Expect Something New: Joy (The Vivaldi Magnificat)

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Lessons: Luke 1:46b-55

Our Advent theme this year invites us to expect something new, and today, in particular, we are invited to expect new joy. It might seem an odd invitation given both the stories in the news lately and the losses we’ve experienced here in our congregation. Joy might seem in short supply. But that means it’s the perfect time for a song. Not because singing helps us forget or plasters over the rough parts of life but because songs are powerful.

In Luke’s gospel, Mary learns she is pregnant and then runs to see her older cousin, Elizabeth, for consolation, wisdom, or maybe even protection. Elizabeth recognizes that Mary carries the One who will fulfill God’s promises. We don’t know that Mary is less fearful, but she’s certainly less alone, and more sure of God’s promises, and so she sings.

Mary sings the song we call the Magnificat. The version we’ll hear today is the most famous of several settings of the Magnificat composed by Italian Baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi. This version, set in g minor, is referred to as RV 610, and was composed some time around 1717. Many of his compositions were written for the female music ensemble of the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphange in Venice. Vivaldi, who had been ordained as a Catholic priest, was employed at the orphanage as the violin master for about 30 years. It isn’t known whether he composed this Magnificat during his tenure there, but it was composed near that time. I was interested to learn that while Vivaldi was relatively popular during his own lifetime, his work was mostly forgotten after his death, and then rediscovered in the early twentieth century.

The Magnificat is a song of God’s mercy, promising that God lifts up the lonely, the downtrodden, and the oppressed, not just of Mary’s day, but of our own as well. According to Luke, when Mary sang, she entered into God’s promises. Notice, for instance, that the verbs in Mary’s song are all in the past tense. The past tense in this case doesn’t so much mean that everything Mary sings about has been accomplished, but rather that Mary is now included in God’s history of redemption. That is what makes a song so powerful.

And so it is with us, when we sing.   When we give our voices over to “The Canticle of the Turning,” the hymn we’ll sing at the close of worship, a fabulous adaptation of Mary’s song, we sense that, indeed, the world has begun to turn and we feel ourselves invited into that turning. Singing doesn’t just help us to name things; it draws us into the actual experience and reality we voice. God has promised to change the world, and in singing these promises we enter into that work.

So this morning, as we do a couple of times a year, I will limit my spoken words to make room for sung ones. The Vivaldi Magnificat.

Expect Something New: Prepare

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Lessons: Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8

Our theme for Advent this year is “Expect Something New,” but when it comes to Christmas traditions, “new” is probably not what most people have in mind. A list of America’s 25 favorite Christmas songs[1] shows all the old carols at the top of the list, and only a handful of more contemporary songs. “Contemporary” should be in quotation marks because the newer songs on the list, like “The Little Drummer Boy”[2] and “White Christmas,”[3] come from the middle of the last century. And when it comes to family Christmas traditions, well, the word “tradition” says it all. I celebrated Christmas several times with a family whose tradition was to serve Welsh cheese soup for breakfast on Christmas morning. The dad’s family came from Wales, and apparently that’s what you do in Wales. I don’t know if the mom, who was not Welsh, just didn’t know how to make it correctly or if it’s just an awful dish no matter what you do to it, but it was awful, and everybody knew it, and everybody made the traditional Christmas morning jokes about how awful it was while eating Welsh cheese soup Christmas after Christmas. It was their tradition, and traditions are comforting. And who doesn’t need a little comforting, especially this time of year – and especially this year?

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Expect Something New: Do Not Be Afraid

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Lesson: I Corinthians 1:3-9

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I want to share with you a sentiment I found online this week: “There are things you do because they feel right & they may make no sense & they may make no money & it may be the real reason we are here: to love each other & to eat each other’s cooking & say it was good.”[i] Another poem that caught my eye is called, “God’s World,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay.

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough! . . .
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour! . . .
Lord, I do fear
Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year.

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Doxology

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Lesson: Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23

For about a century, week in and week out, the people of this congregation have sung the Doxology at some point in Sunday morning worship.

Praise God from whom all blessing flow.

Praise God all creatures here below.

Praise God above ye heavenly hosts. …

And here’s where folks break into two or three different versions: Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; Creator, Son and Holy Ghost; or Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost. They’re all fine. Thanks to our lovely church history, published to celebrate our centennial in 1997, we know that the Doxology has been part of the regular Sunday worship service since about 1913.[1]

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Whom Will We Serve?

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Lesson: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

We call this morning Together We Serve Sunday. This coming Friday, November 14th, is this congregation’s 117th anniversary, and “together we serve” is our congregation’s motto, adopted by the whole church after one of our members, Johnny Holm, began using it a couple of decades ago to close church correspondence instead of “respectfully yours” or “regards.” It just fit. In emails, many of us shorten it to TWS.  For a number of years we have celebrated with an all-church dinner and talent show, as we will tonight. Among the acts tonight will be the Kensingtones, our girl group, and tonight we’ll be singing, “One Fine Day.”[1] I mention this not as a bald-faced commercial for the Kensingtones – led and choreographed by the talented former rock musician Beverly Rodgers, artistic director, and accompanied by the incomparable Patty Sempell – I mention it because it occurred to me that if you switch the word “God” for the word “girl” in “One Fine Day,” which we do not, by the way, but if you switch the word “God” for the word “girl,” you end up with, “One fine day, you’re going to want me for your God.” And instead of being a song about a somewhat pathetic teenager longing wistfully for her no good boyfriend to take her back, you have a song about the God who waits for us and even pursues us even when we are the kind who want to run around, as the song puts it. It describes the God we meet again and again in Scripture, the God whose love will not let us go.

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Saints Aren’t Perfect

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“There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”  Leonard Cohen, “Anthem.”

Lesson: Psalm 34:1-10, 22; Matthew 23:1-12

I lived in Texas for seven years, which was not long enough for country and western music to become “my” music, but it was long enough for it to grow on me. Country and western songs don’t shy away from honest but messy emotions or less-than-tidy lives. While I lived in Texas, David Allan Coe released a song called, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” in which he said the perfect country and western song has to say something about mama, trains, trucks, prison, and gettin’ drunk.[1]

Believe it or not, this morning’s Matthew passage is what started me thinking about country and western songs. Jesus takes on the Pharisees for praying publicly, ostentatiously, using their phylacteries and fringes. A phylactery is a small box with a long leather strap. The box contains words of scripture central to the Jewish faith. Orthodox Jewish men still use phylacteries in prayer today.[2] Fringes are the long fringes at the corners of prayer shawls, also still used by Jews all over the world.[3] There is nothing at all wrong with using these prayer aids, but these particular Pharisees apparently are doing it for show. They are trying to look all tidy when their real lives look more like a country and western song, and they judge others by a standard they are not willing to meet themselves. And when Jesus closes with, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted,”[4] it reminded me of another country and western song, perhaps the theme song of these Pharisees: “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.”[5]

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Be still…

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Intro to scripture:
Psalm 46 is written as a song. It actually has a subtitle telling us it is a song. One translation actually reads, “For the conductor, … A song for soprano voices.” There are also three indicators written in the Hebrew that suggest a pause or a breath between stanzas. There’s a verse repeated at the end of two out of the three stanzas that make up that psalm. The Bible records this repeated verse or chorus in verse seven and eleven, but it probably also belongs at the end of the first stanza, verse three. The chorus goes like this: The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge/haven. Selah

If these two names for God sound a bit odd, here is some context. The “God of hosts” refers to lots of angels – hosts of them, scores of them, an army of them at God’s disposal. (Nice.) If Jacob does not ring any bells for you, may I remind you of the stories of the brothers Jacob and Esau. Jacob is a scoundrel and cheats his brother out of his inheritance. Years later he is about to have a family reunion with Esau and Jacob wrestles with an angel all night. The angel blesses him with a new name. His new name is, “Israel.” Yes, that Israel – the one from whom the people of Israel derived their name. He ends up being a nicer guy and is remembered fondly. So our Psalmist is truly dropping some big names for God. A contemporized translation, The Message, says the chorus like this: Jacob-wrestling God fights for us, God-of-Angel-Armies protects us. Now, that sounds a bit different, doesn’t it! Sounds a bit more action-oriented and powerful. Sign me up.

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Bearing Fruit in a Season of Drought

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Lesson: Jeremiah 17:5-8

Note: Today’s sermon was preached by Rev. Kate Taber, Presbyterian Mission Agency point person in Jerusalem.

I arrived home one night in July to find a voicemail from an old friend. “Thinking of you,” she said earnestly, “and praying that you are safe.” I felt immediately sheepish, thinking of the beautiful garden patio I had just left, where I was having drinks with friends and making plans for brunch over the weekend. I was reminded again of the insane and surreal nature of our lives in Jerusalem over the summer. Fifty miles away, Israel was bombing and invading the Gaza Strip and militants there were sending out rockets. Yet, contrary to the perception of my friends and family, we were incredibly safe. Only a few rockets managed to reach as far as Jerusalem, and they were easily intercepted.

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A Quiet Mind + A Hopeful Heart = Joy

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Lesson: Philippians 4:1-9

The choir just sang, “Joyful, Joyful,” from “Sister Act.” Joyful times two. And in this morning’s passage, the Apostle Paul tells the Christians in Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”[1]  Rejoice not once, but twice.

It’s a double shot of joy, and it’s fair to say that this kind of joy set the early Christians apart. Observers at the time say it was uncanny the way they seemed to be infused with joy. Outsiders were baffled: Christians were a small minority, scattered across the Mediterranean world. They were not wealthy or powerful for the most part, and they were in constant danger of being killed. Yet they had laid hold of an inner peace that found expression in a joy that was uncontainable. Huston Smith writes, “Perhaps radiance would be a better word. Radiance is hardly the word used to characterize the average religious life, but no other word fits as well the life of these early Christians.”[2]

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