a blog of writing and wandering

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While reflecting on this week’s readings, I was struck by something… Something was jumping out from the pages and capturing my attention. Something was nagging at my brain that it was there… there was something to be said, something that I needed to preach today.

The problem, of course, is that I had no idea what this “something” was. It was at the back of my mind, but it hadn’t taken shape yet. So, being an English major, I turned to those tools to bring this something to light. In literary studies, we often look at something called “voice”… examining how the author is speaking, and whether the words they are saying are enhanced or distracted by the way that they say it. And so reading the Magnificat, looking for Mary’s voice, I found it in her verbs. I found it in the way that she talks about God versus talking about herself. Most importantly, I found that she doesn’t talk about herself. The only mentions of Mary in the Magnificat… in the beautiful text that we acclaim her for… are framed in the context of God.

A mentor recently gave me advice on a document that I would need to fill out for my discernment process—she said: “don’t use passive voice. As you write, use active voice… because you are a part of your own story. You’re not sitting back in a chair watching as these events take place. Own it. Own your story.”

Here in the Magnificat, is the ultimate example of owning your story. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s Mary who barely speaks of herself, and her place in this story. Instead, the person whose story it is, is the one whom she talks about. She is giving us a message that this is not her story. It’s God’s.

And that is a good thing… If it was hers, solely her story, the news that she is unwed and pregnant in a culture that rewarded this situation with death would be catastrophic. If she did not have such absolute faith that this story was God’s, and not hers, then her Magnificat would sound quite different from the one we hear today. But because she knows who the owner of this story is, she knows that it’s not about her. Surely if God can bless a virgin with a child, then he can work through the other issues too.

Hence, the Magnificat as we hear it today, is about God’s story. Indeed, the only actions that she attributes to herself in this retelling, refashioning of the otherwise devastating news are those of praise. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

I wonder if Mary, who is so selfless, so confident in God’s power to change lives, would like the way that we have so often talked about her. “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us now and at the hour of our death, amen”. I fear sometimes that there is such a focus on Mary that we forget something that Mary is trying to tell us. We forget that, although she is certainly worthy of honor in our tradition, some of the only words we hear her speak are ones where her “soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord”. She acknowledges that “all generations will call me blessed”, but then goes on to say that it’s not because of her. It’s not because of her power, or her work that she is worthy of this praise. Instead, she is saying that “all generations will call me blessed” because of what God has done through me. It’s about God, the creator, and owner of this story.

And the part of this story that God has revealed to us is that “when the fulfillment of the time came, God sent his Son, born through a woman, and born under the Law. This was so that he could redeem those under the Law so that we could be adopted. Because you are sons and daughters, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’ Therefore, you are no longer a slave but a son or daughter, and if you are his child, then you are also an heir through God.” This is the Good News of Jesus Christ, accomplished through a young woman named Mary who knew that God was the creator and owner of this story that encompasses all of ours.

I’m reminded of the song called Bless the Broken Road… sung by either Selah or Rascal Flatts, depending on which radio station you listen to. The singer says “this much I know is true, that God blessed the broken road and led me straight to you. It’s all part of a grand new plan, that is coming true”. The song acknowledges that it’s hard to write our own stories. The roads we travel on are broken, the stories we write are half-finished and messy. But, the song goes on to acknowledge that, we’re part of something bigger. God’s doing something else… he’s not leaving our stories fragmented.

You see, our stories are all part of this larger story that God laid out before the beginning of time. And all of us are called to acknowledge, like Mary, that ultimately, our stories do not just belong to us. We create them together, in community with one another. All because of our God, who loves us so much that he wants to redeem our stories, to redeem us from the burden of having to write our own broken histories. God wants to make our stories whole… but that can only be accomplished through the person of Jesus Christ, who took on our form, who was born under the Law, so that he could redeem those of us under the law.

God wants to redeem us. He wants to make our stories, our lives whole. Mary knew this, which was why she spent so many verses in the Magnificat talking about God’s story. You see, she knew that the secret to writing her own story was to focus on God’s. And it worked. We still talk about Mary today, we tell our children about her life, and the Annunciation is a prominent part of the Nativity story. Mary made history by allowing her life story to become part of God’s bigger picture.

May we have the courage to do the same. To do the things that are hard, to follow God’s commandments, and to remember that we live in communities and spaces with our neighbors—the neighbors that God asks us to love as ourselves, to remember that they also are living within God’s all-encompassing story. May we, like Mary, proclaim the greatness of the God… the creator and owner of all stories, and lover of our souls.

(Preached on 8/22/2016–transferred feast day celebration)

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When I was much younger, I would sit in church listening to readings and sermons about Abraham, and to me, he always seemed like this great patriarch, who was somehow magical in his ability to have faith in God. I mean, that’s why the nation of Israel was descended from him, right? Because he was able to have enough faith in God to move to another country, to trust that he and Sarah would have a child even though he was old, to be willing to sacrifice Isaac at God’s will. Abraham was always intimidating, because to me, his faith was something absolutely impossible for me to achieve. Ever.

So while it would be really easy to echo these sermons that I absorbed as a child about Abraham’s great faith and God’s everlasting promises, I think there’s something else here that’s worth exploring.

You see, as a child, I was convinced that to be like Abraham was like having a superpower. “Yes God—I want faith to be MY superpower.” But as an adult, I’m beginning to wonder if Abraham isn’t a little bit more like the rest of us. Maybe Abraham is actually human, like us.

I think the writer of Hebrews is considering this as well, when they write that “they confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland”. Abraham acknowledges that he is a foreigner in the many places in which he camps. He spends a lot of his life moving about as a nomad, which seems a bit strange for the patriarch of a great nation. And Sarah, for all the flack she normally gets for doubting God, is at least very realistic about her humanity when she says that “I am too old to have a child”.

Abraham and Sarah are very human, and they spend a lot of time talking about why they’re not the right people for what God has said he will make happen through them. “They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth.”

Ronald Dahl once wrote that we should “above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places.”

The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Or, as we find in Genesis with Abraham, the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely people. Abraham is a foreigner, a nomad, with a barren wife and a lot of years under his belt. He’s not really the person that you would pick out of a crowd and say “yes, yes, this person will be the father of a nation of people.”

But God does, surprisingly, just that. He picks a person who’s a lot like us. Who’s very human. And says that yes, “I’ve called you to do great things”.

I’m in the middle of rereading The Chronicles of Narnia, which I’ve read a hundred times before, but doesn’t really get old, at least for me. (If you haven’t read it, you should probably put it on your reading list.) One thing that struck me this week is that most of the children who stumble into Narnia from our world don’t really have a lot of confidence in themselves to effect any significant change in Narnia. In a film adaptation of the first book, Peter and Susan protest the idea that they might be fulfilling a Narnian prophesy by saying “but we’re from Finchley!” We’re nothing special. We’re not heroes.

We’re nothing special. We’re not heroes! That sounds like something that Abraham and Sarah would say. We’re foreigners. We’re old. We can’t have a baby now.

And yet they do. You see, God’s response to their excuses is “okay—see these stars? You’ll have so many descendants you won’t be able to count them” “you’re too old to have a son? I’m God, I can do anything”.

The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely people. You and I. Each and every one of you sitting in these pews, is called to faith and to help carry out God’s work. You might be sitting there saying “but I’m not great like Abraham” or “God can’t really mean me”. It’s tempting to think that okay, that’s awesome. But maybe He means Grant more than me… I mean, Grant’s a priest, he wears a collar, he’s been to seminary! Or ______, s/he’s definitely more faithful than I am! God can’t mean me. I’m not the kind of person who can do things like that.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples “don’t be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom”. He doesn’t say “little flock over the age of 30” or “little flock with an income of 40k or more” or “little flock with a seminary education”. He simply says “little flock”. You, me, all of us—it is our Father’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom.

So what do we do with all of that? Okay, God… you want to give us the kingdom? We’re called, like Abraham?

You see, the thing about Abraham is that even though he makes all of these excuses, even though he says, I’m nothing special, you can’t mean me? God still calls him. And Abraham ultimately trusts that God will do all the things He has promised to do through Abraham. And because Abraham trusts… has faith… that God has called him, even though he’s not sure why, “the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness”.

God doesn’t choose people to carry out His work who we would think are “qualified”. He chooses us. All of us. And you and I may have our doubts about whether we’re the best person for the job. But faith is being able to say, like Abraham, that we trust God enough to do what He asks of us, despite our doubts.

It is that trust that allows us to actually begin doing God’s work.

What is God’s work, we ask? Why should we keep doing it when the world seems to have gone crazy? We’re not Abraham in Israel, thousands of years ago. It’s the 21st century–when people are killed without reason? When our world seems to exist in a state of constant chaos? When the very communities that we hold dear are disrespected by others?

What can we do? What can we do–we can’t fix all of this? Jesus tells his disciples to “make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys”. He’s not telling us to amass wealth here on earth, to start a nonprofit to fix the world’s problems, to take political power in order to bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth… No. Jesus didn’t try to overthrow Roman rule as his disciples thought he would do… he spent a lot of time talking to people no one else would talk to, healing the sick, and caring for people that society didn’t value.

In many ways, when Jesus says that the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour, he’s also talking about the way that He is unexpected. He’s not the Savior who is going to kick out the Romans. Instead, he’s telling his disciples to sell their possessions and give to others. That’s not the Messiah that Jews were expecting.

The greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely people. The most unlikely places. The most unlikely actions.

Writer Anne Lamott said in response to the recent wave of violence that “we must respond with a show of force equal to the violence and tragedies, with love force. Mercy force. Un-negotiated compassion force. Crazy care-giving to the poor and suffering, including ourselves. Patience with a deeply irritating provocative mother. Two dollar bills to the extremely annoying guy at the intersection who you think maybe could be working, or is going to spend your money on beer. Jesus didn’t ask the blind man what he was going to look at after He restored the man’s sight. He just gave hope and sight; He just healed.”

Just like Abraham and Sarah, like the children in Narnia, we may not think that we’re capable of doing the work of God. We’re too old, too young, too poor, too rich, too busy, too new to the area, too caught-up-in-our-own-lives, too busy making excuses to realize that we’ve been called to do God’s work in little, unexpected acts of kindness. Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.

May we have faith in God’s call to us, and may we—unlikely people though we are–carry that out into the world into unlikely places, through small, unexpected acts of love. May we have confidence in our calling through our Savior Jesus Christ, who shows us how we may, with faith, impact the world around us.

(Preached on 8/7/16. Hear a recording here.)