December 18, 2011 - Fourth Sunday in Advent - Janice Hicks

posted Dec 19, 2011, 10:03 AM by Linda Heaney   [ updated Dec 19, 2011, 10:05 AM by Terry Brady ]

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.

“Breathe on us breath of God, Fill us with life anew, That we may love what Thou dost love, And do what Thou wouldst do.” (from the hymn In the name of God, our Creator, Redeemer and Giver of Life.)  Amen.

You guys may not know this, but whenever we women go for an x-ray, the technician asks “is there any chance you could be pregnant?” Every time I’m asked that, the story of today’s gospel goes through my mind. I’m a scientist and I take questions literally. Thinking of Mary’s predicament - “Well, there’s some slight chance, I guess.”

Once a friend told me that when she was a little girl, she used to pray to God that no miracle would occur to her. What seems poignant to me is the image of my friend as the little girl with enough faith to pray earnestly to God for something, yet at the same time having very human doubts, pulling back from REALLY wanting a STARRING role (like Mary’s) that will change EVERYTHING.

I. I am no scholar of Mary, but I’ve heard that today’s gospel is one of the most luminous passages about her in the Bible. Between our services today, our children will enact this story for us as part of the much anticipated St. Margarets nativity play! What does today’s story of angels and lowly handmaids and immaculate conception mean for us?

God gets Mary’s attention through a miracle - the vision of the angel Gabriel. Despite the fear that that experience must have evoked in this young woman, Mary manages to hang on and to have the wherewithal to respond with great faith - “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She echoes many in the Bible who responded in a similar way - “Samuel ran to Eli and said, "Here I am; you called me." (1 Samuel 3:5) In Isaiah - “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I. Send me!" (Isaiah 6:8)

To me today’s story asks the question – when do we say “Here am I Lord?” Is our faith just a thread that holds us together when things get rough? Or is it something we live out every day in every act that we do? How much would it take for us to do this? What would God have to do to us to get our attention to the point where we would do this?

I’m reminded of the song by Joan Osborne where she asks a question about how receptive we are to letting God in – “If God had a face what would it look like, and would you want to see, if seeing meant that you would have to believe in things like heaven and in Jesus and the saints and all the prophets?”

II. Mary, as brave as she must have been, must have also felt so alone at times, even with Joseph and Elizabeth and a few other understanding souls around. Here she was, a teenager, impoverished, pregnant, having had a vision of an angel. Who would believe her? If it happened to you, do you think people would believe you? Recall Anne-Marie’s sermon last year at this time, when she was at this pulpit and her cell phone rang, and she picked it up and it was Joseph… trying to explain the situation with Mary. And we could all see how ludicrous it sounded, in the context of normal day-to-day life, including Joseph’s dream from which he became convinced that Mary’s conception was by the Holy Spirit.

We can relate to Mary and Joseph being in a predicament that sets them apart from others and finds them alone, for example, when they first arrive at the nativity scene and there is no room for them and they are pushed aside to the manger.

Each week we pray “for the sick… and those who are alone.” What does it mean, in this crowded city where we are all so interdependent, in this day of the internet and facebook and twitter and cell phones, to be alone?

I always think, well, I live alone, many of us here live alone, are we praying for us? But I don’t feel alone. I recently learned in a management training that there is a metric for involvement, and I learned that I am pretty much off the charts on that one. Ah so that explains it. I do get involved in things and maybe that’s why I don’t feel alone. Recall Lucy’s advice to Charlie Brown in “A Charlie Brown Christmas”: “Charlie Brown: Actually, Lucy, my trouble is Christmas. I just don't understand it. Instead of feeling happy, I feel sort of let down.
Lucy: You need involvement. You'll need to get involved in some real Christmas project. How would you like to be the director of our Christmas play?” (hats off to Jenny et al.) or we could say, “how would you like to bring some food for coffee hour?”

My mom who has severe Alzheimer’s sometimes appears to me to be alone. She is often tapping her feet, humming a tune, sometimes she will break out in song, in her own world. I have no idea what she is experiencing, but most of the time she seems content. It has been a very long road – 18 years and along the way there has been much time for grieving. By now, we feel grateful for each day with Mom – being able to still hear her laugh (she has the same good sense of humor) and being able to still hold her hand. She doesn’t pull away when I brush her hair or give her a hug, even though she doesn’t recognize me as her daughter. One time she turned away from me and with classic comic timing, said aloud, “Why is she calling me Mom?” (I had to laugh!) Mom comments on clouds, on colors that strike her as beautiful, even if it is just a coffee cup sitting in front of her. She is my Zen teacher – from time to time she senses the Divine in the most ordinary experiences of daily life.

Mom lives in a place called “Stella Maris” which translated means “star of the sea” and has come to mean “a female protector or guiding spirit at sea.” It is a title sometimes given to the Virgin Mary. It seems a propos to Mom’s situation – and to us all really – to have a guide like Mary when we are figuratively lost at sea.

Mom does not seem lonely, although by our standards, her condition might seem to be the epitome of alone-ness. I don’t see her as alone. She loves still, and she is loved, and while the disease is disastrous, one can take from the experience that reduced to our essentials, love is all you need.

Who then is alone? Is “alone” or “loneliness” just a feeling? We all feel lonely sometimes. It can be particularly hard around the holidays, when there are high expectations for joyfulness that we may not readily feel, and when we ache for those who are gone whose Christmas memories are dear to us. We all have our Charlie Brown moments during the holidays.

III.Sharon Salzberg a Buddhist teacher leads a meditation that grounds one in connectedness. It starts with noticing one instance of unconditional connection to another – for some a partner, a family member, a teacher; for some, their dog. After expanding out relationships with people, the next step is to look at the things in our lives – for example our food – who grew it, who harvested it, who transported it, who sold it to us, who made the wrapping, who did the research on the wrapping, who made the grocery bag, who takes care of getting rid of the trash, and on and on. We may realize how interdependent we are even if we are alone. We are woven into a vast fabric, a vast net. One hymn says “one family with a billion names.” We are social creatures, woven with the Holy Spirit, and we hearken back to our first mother Mary. No matter who our mother is, we are all connected through the love expressed through Mary for her son.

Feeling the connection may be how Mary got through the incredible experiences with Jesus. Later in her life, she sees her firstborn turned over to soldiers and witnesses his brutal death. Mary becomes one of the faithful, as it says in Acts Chapter 1, assembling in rooms where they “joined in continuous prayer,” waiting for Jesus’s miraculous return. In a book “Spiritual Writings on Mary,” Mary Ford-Grabowsky writes, “Praying with the incipient spiritual community that will become the church, Mary exhibits unconditional openness and receptivity to the Divine, as she did in her youth when she said yes to becoming the mother of Christ.”

In the end, Mary (and we) may be lonely, but we are not alone, she (and we) are with the community of the faithful. Before He dies on the cross Jesus says to his mother, “ Woman this is your son” meaning the disciple John. And to John He said, “ This is your mother.” And, as it says in John chapter 19, from that moment, the disciple made a place for her in his home. Such a touching and loving example of what we mean by community.

Let us pray:  May we like John make a place for Mary in our home. May we like Mary receive God’s breath upon us, and be filled by God with life anew. And may we, each in our own way, experience Mary’s “unconditional openness and receptivity to the Divine.”