Monday, May 12, 2014

Mary Ponders: God-Bearer, Woman of Faith

A Liturgical Sermon
The Rev. Dr. Leah Schade
May 11, 2014

Kenda Dean and Ron Foster wrote a book called The Godbearing Life (Upper Room Books, Nashville, TN, 1998).  In one of the chapters (pp. 43-53), they talk about Mary the Mother of Jesus as being a “God-bearer.”  The Eastern Orthodox call her TheotokosTheo meaning God, tokos meaning carrying.  
On this Sunday when we celebrate women of faith, we will be looking at Mary as one example of a faithful woman bearing God into the world.  But we’re not going to focus on Mary just as a mother.  We’re going to look at who she was and what characteristics she exhibited that made her the kind of person God would entrust with bringing Christ into the world.  

Reading – Luke 1:26-38 (The Annunciation)

Mary ponders.  Did you catch that?  In verse 29 after hearing the startling announcement that she, a teenage girl engaged to be married, has found favor with God, Mary stops to think about that.  We’re told that she is perplexed and ponders what’s going on here.  The Greek word means that she is turning things over in her mind.  She’s thinking.  She’s not a vacant field in which God will plant the seed of the Messiah.  She’s not a servant to be ordered around.  She’s a thinking, feeling, turning-things-over-in-her-mind kind of gal.  I like that in a woman.  Apparently God likes that, too.  Because that is the kind of person Mary is, and that’s who God chooses to be the Theotokos, the Godbearer. 
Henry Ossawa Turner, The Annunciation
Of course, the menfolk in her day would likely not have noticed, nor much cared much about Mary’s capacity for wondering.  All most of them wanted from a woman was for her to be a vacant field or a servant.  God would have known that, too.  No man or women for that matter would have expected God to choose a young female of limited means and with no social stature to be the one chosen to help God save the world.  But what matters most is that God has claimed her and given her identity.  She is the Favored One.  And she is to be the Theotokos, the Godbearer.

As we heard in the children’s sermon, women can have many different identities over time, and even at any one time in their lives.  And a woman is often expected or pressured to take on the roles that best suit those who rely on her for what they need.   We need women to be mothers, because they are the only ones who can bear children.  But that biological need brings with it an incredible array of other roles that may or may not suit each woman:  house-cleaner, cook, scheduling supervisor, chauffer, nurse, and yes, even servant.

In Mary’s day women were not given a choice as to whether they would take on these roles.  But when Gabriel the angel comes with God’s message, it is not an order by fiat.  After Gabriel’s grand invitation in verse 37, the next verse records Mary’s response.  I would imagine there was a pregnant pause in the space in between Gabriel’s message and Mary’s answer.  The fact that the Bible records her as even having an answer indicates that Mary has a choice in the matter, a say as to whether or not she will enter into this covenant with God.  We don’t know how long it took for her to ponder, to turn all this around in her mind.  Maybe a few seconds.  Maybe a few hours.  Maybe even a few days.  But when she gives her answer she gives her body, her life, her womb of her own free will.  God gives her that choice, respects her body, respects her womb, respects her as a woman and as a human being.  I like that about God.  Apparently Mary likes that, too.  Because what comes next is one of the most beautiful songs in all of the Bible.

Reading:  Luke 1:46-55 (The Magnificat)

“My soul doth magnify the Lord.” That’s one of the most astounding lines I’ve ever heard in Scripture.  What does a magnifying glass do?  It makes things look bigger than they are.  How odd that a young pregnant unwed teenager has the capacity for magnifying God—making God appear even bigger than God already is!  A magnifier allows us to see something up close and in more exact detail.  So what details about God does Mary enable us to see? 

First, God’s presence brings joy.  But it’s not just your run-of-the-mill happiness.  This is the kind of joy that comes from someone who has lived all her life under the thumb of others, and is suddenly liberated and able to breath deep enough to sing aloud her newfound song.  It is joy that comes from seeing others experience the same kind of liberation.  Others who, like Mary’s people, have labored as second-class citizens, been treated with less respect than they deserve, now lifted by the mighty arm of God to a high place with plenty to eat, when before they fed only on the crumbs that fell from the tables of the rich. 

It is the kind of joy that comes from waiting faithfully and hopefully for a promise to be fulfilled, and suddenly realizing that the fulfillment is happening through you, inside of you.  That’s what was happening for Mary.  Her body was being transformed by the pregnancy, but the world was being transformed even more.  And just as a child grows slowly and secretly in a dark, protected place, so too does God’s promise grow slowly and secretly just out of sight.

How many women even now are filled with joy because they are serving as God-bearers in the world?  Not just women pregnant with new life, but women who incubate cells and treatments for diseases that will help heal the world.  Women who conspire together to make peace amongst themselves, even while the world is waging war all around them.  Women who meet in government offices to plan a strategy for moving a country forward toward helping its people, even while other doors are slammed shut around them.  Women of different faiths who meet together over coffee to plan interfaith service events to inspire hope in their communities, even while other voices shout angry threatening words around them.

Mary magnifies God and shows us that God is at work, knitting together new ideas, conceiving new friendships, weaving threads of community, lifting up the lowly, feeding the hungry, saving the world.  Each woman, and indeed, each man and child, has this same capacity for magnifying the Lord.  How does your life, how do the actions you take, the decisions you make, the way you treat others, the way you spend your money, the career you choose for yourself, the way you interact with children—how do all of these things serve as a magnifying glass for others to see what God is up to, what God is doing in out-of-the-way places, how God is shaking things up in the highest places, who God is lifting up from the lowly places?

Your soul doth magnify the Lord.  You, like Mary, are the magnifying glass for others to see God in greater detail, to help others see God in an even bigger way.  And God is filling you with joy that causes you to stand and sing aloud your newfound song. . .

HYMN:  “My Soul Proclaims Your Greatness” ELW 251

Again, Mary is pondering.  She has endured an incredibly difficult journey during the last month of her pregnancy when she should have been relaxing and having her swollen feet massaged.  She has given birth for the first time, not at home surrounded by her female kin and a familiar midwife, but in a stable surrounded by animals.  Her first visitors are not her male kin come to congratulate her husband and gaze admiringly at her son, but strangers—shepherds from the nearby fields.  
And they come with a message that is strangely reminiscent of the one she received nine months ago.  These sheep herders were also visited by an angel—most likely Gabriel—and told that the Messiah had been born that very night in this very place.

Mary, being the turning-things-over-in-her-mind kind of gal that she is, remembers how the angel had told her nine months ago what her son’s name was to be:  Yeshua, which means “God will save.”  And what were the shepherds told?  “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Just as she sang with full voice after the Anunciation, so, too, the shepherds return to the fields singing the song they heard echoing across the heavens, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace to God’s people.”  But no doubt exhausted from her labor and delivery, Mary does not sing this time.  She simply takes what the shepherds have told her and treasures and ponders them in her heart.  The words are syntero, meaning to keep, to remember; and symballo, meaning  to bring things together in one’s mind.

Once again, it is not just her body that has brought together heaven and earth, but her mind.  She is taking mental notes, making connections in her brain that will serve her and her child at some time in the future.  Little does she know that, twelve years later, she will once again be reminded of the purpose of her son’s birth.  But as so often happens between parents and their children, it often takes a moment of conflict or discord to remind us why we are here, and what God’s calling is for our lives . . .

READING:  Luke 2:41-57 (The Boy Jesus in the Temple)

How many of you remember a time when your parents were so mad at you, and you just could not understand what the big deal was?  And how many parents can recall a time when their kids did something that made you so angry you wanted to ground them until they were thirty?  I know my own mother could tell you a few stories about me doing to that to her!

Does it make you feel better that even Jesus had conflicts with his parents?  That even Jesus was a preteen who made his parents sick with worry?

It was a simple misunderstanding.  How could Jesus have known that his parents wouldn’t remember who he was and where he belonged?  How could Mary have known that her son, her baby boy, was destined to confer with rabbis before he had even reached manhood?
boy Jesus images
How can any of us understand what we put our parents through, until we become adults ourselves?  How can any parent grasp what path God has called their children to follow until we look back years later and . . . ponder.

And that’s just what Mary does.  Jesus, likely not much younger than Mary herself when she became betrothed to Joseph, is a chip off the old block.  He, too, is using his mind, turning things over in his brain, making connections, gaining wisdom, collecting insights.  She shouldn’t be surprised, really, to see her son doing exactly what she had done at his age.  It’s part of the reason she was favored in the first place.  Of course the Godbearer makes her own imprint on the child she births and raises.  All mothers, all women, in their Godbearing, make their own imprint on the people around them, even as the power of God leads us to destinies we can scarcely imagine.  How could Mary have known the destiny that lay ahead for her son?

MUSICAL REFLECTION:  “Mary Did You Know?” words and music by mark Lowry and Buddy Greene

On Friday evening we held a Daughters’ Banquet hosted by the men of the congregation, and we had about 90 women gathered in our fellowship hall downstairs.  At one point I just stood looking at all of them, thinking about the women of this congregation and the way they bear Christ in this world, whether or not they have born children.

I think about how women and men alike in this congregation have helped to parent my children, taking an interest in them, listening to them, shepherding them when they are in need of guidance, and just laughing and being playful with them.  I think of Kay Hilkert following Benjamin into the Sunday School room last week to listen to him practice his piece on the piano because he wanted her to hear his music.  I think of the girls who have babysat my children – Aliena and Brooke, Rikki and Carli, Krista, Kelsey and Alli.  Each of them teens, like Mary, helping to care for my children, knowing I could trust them with my little ones.

I think of Vivian Marsh putting together the Quiet Bags every week, filling them with activities to keep our children engaged during services.  And I remember back to Christmas time when she oversaw a project of making sun-catchers during the youth lock-in, which were given out on Holy Humor Sunday.

And I think of the women on our Rich Huff Fund Committee working so hard on the fundraiser that brought in over $5000 for children and families in our area.  Countless hours spent laboring in love to bear Christ into the lives of those kids in need.

All women have the capacity to be “God-bearers.”  In fact, all people—women and men, children and elders alike—each of us is Theotokos, bearing Christ into the world.  
On this day when we celebrate women of faith, especially focusing on Mary, we can join her in pondering, treasuring all these things in our hearts.  God’s Holy Spirit enters into us, incarnates in us, and brings Christ’s life- and world-changing grace into the world.  God gives you that choice, respects your body, engages your mind, opens your heart, and loves you as the fragile, courageous, creative, sinful and redeemed human being that you are.  I like that about God.  I’ll be you like that about God too. Amen.


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