Thoughts Between Sundays

Some of what crosses my mind between Sundays

Leave a comment

Sermon: Luke 1:26-38 Mary Answers the Angel

Mary Answers the Angel
Luke 1:26-38
Preached at First Presbyterian Church, Cartersville, GA
Rev. Julie Jensen

The Annunication

The Annunciation (from the Metropolitan Museum of Art) Artist: South Netherlandish Painter (ca. 1460) Medium: Oil on wood, gold ground Dimensions: 39 x 37 in. (99.1 x 94 cm) Classification: Paintings Credit Line: The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931 Accession Number: 32.100.38

Hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a painting of a teenage girl being visited by angels.  She leans against a tree, looking resigned, worried, stoic, and resolved to do what she is being called to do.  In her face is a mix of determination and fear.  Behind her are 2 angelic figures, looking very ephemeral and blending into the background.  The painting is large  -almost 8 feet by 9 feet – and the girl seems lifelike – looking as if she will walk off the canvas and into her future.  The painting is called Joan of Arc, painted in 1879 by French artist Jules Bastien-Lepage.[1]  In it I see what I imagine was also in Mary’s face the day she was visited by the Angel Gabriel.  Resolution, fear, wonder, awe, and determination.

Most of the artistic depictions of the annunciation have a few things in common.  Mary is dressed in blue, obviously pregnant, with a book in hand, and is looking over at the angel quite calmly.  In the depiction I like the best by a Netherlands painter, Mary has her hands raised and an expression of “what will be will be”.[2]  The painter has not given her a look of resignation or excitement or joy but of bemused acceptance.

Whether she looked like the painting of Joan of Arc or the way the painter from the Netherlands portrayed her, one thing is evident – -Mary certainly was caught off guard, and no artist can capture that exact moment.  Here was a young teenage girl, engaged to be married, which is the happy way to say she was property ready to be transferred to her husband, trying to figure out her future.  She probably could not read and write, and was certainly not expecting the news she was about to receive on this day.  So imagine her surprise when one day Gabriel appears, and says “Greetings, favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  Surprise may be putting it mildly.  How about shock, fear, or confusion?  We may have responded with the words “who are you and why are you in my house?  I’m calling the police.”  But there was no 911 for Mary, and so she ponders the greeting.  Gabriel must have figured out she was more than a little nervous, for he gets to the heart of the matter quite quickly.

Have you ever noticed that Angels do not enter quietly, they usually cause a fuss, and they always have to tell people not to be afraid? They know their arrival is going to change things, going to toss the world upside down a little bit, and so they begin by reminding the person they are visiting that God is with them.  The angels come to make announcements from God that topple kingdoms and make us open tombs looking for those who are not there.  They come and deliver news that we did not expect, and often are not excited to hear.  These are not the cherubs from Greeting cards  – they are forces to be reckoned with.  Gabriel has been busy.  Before he visited Mary, he visited Elizabeth to tell her the good news that she would bear a son, even though she was past the age of this being possible.  Gabriel has already begun to deliver the news of God that will shake up the world.  His presence announces that God is bringing salvation and redemption, and not in the way we most expect it.  Angels come and things change.

Mary is still recovering from the shock of Gabriel telling her God is with her, when he tells her the big news, “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.” And then everything changed.  For you see, it can be argued that Mary had a choice.  She was not pregnant yet – -the reading says “ in the sixth month” referring to Elizabeth’s pregnancy, not hers.  Mary can still say no, theoretically.  How you say no to the angel Gabriel is a question I can’t answer.  How you say “no” to God, –  well, usually when we say “No”, God gets God’s way someway or another.  I know lots of second career pastors who can tell that story better than I can.  When she asks her question “how can that be, for I am a virgin” we hear her begin to make up her mind.  Gabriel explains to her about Elizabeth becoming pregnant and tells her that nothing is impossible with God, and Mary gives her answer.  “”Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.

When the movie Doubt premiered, lead actresses Meryl Streep and Amy Adams were interviewed by the ABC News film critic.  One of the questions he asked was “what are you sure of, and what are you not sure of?”  He was asking them what they were certain of in themselves, and what they doubted about themselves.  The tension was palpable, as neither actress was going to admit her insecurities about herself on national television.  But Meryl Streep said something interesting.  She said actors live with constant uncertainty, about themselves and about when they will next work again; or where their next job is coming from.  She still wonders when one project finishes, what the next one will be and who will offer it to her.  This woman that seems so secure, has doubts.  I wonder if we asked Mary the same question, what she would have said.  Mary, of what are you certain, and what do you doubt?

Mary was certain of one thing – -that nothing is impossible with God.  She would have clung to that certainty as she dealt with the aftermath of Gabriel’s visit.  In her time, unwed mothers were stuff of stonings and complete exile from the community and all that you knew.  You were outcast and disowned, if you were lucky, dead if you weren’t.  Mary knew all of this.  I imagine her trekking to see Elizabeth, the only one who might possibly understand, muttering to herself over and over again “nothing is impossible with God.”  I imagine that as the days drew near for her to deliver that she had doubts that many first time parents have – doubts about her readiness, her ability to deliver, in her case, doubts about where she would be physically.  But instead of focusing on them, she praises God, using some of the words Miriam used.  “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”  Mary’s response to the angel shattering her world as she knew it was to say yes and praise God.

Anne Lawson, in the Iona Community Book Hay and Stardust has some different questions for Mary, questions that I imagine many of us ask.  Listen to the beginning of her poem:

Is this what you had in mind Mary?

Is this what you dreamed of,

idly planned and chattered of with the girls in Nazareth?

Did you dream that your first child would be

born out of wedlock

of an unknown father?

Born miles from home

in a place fit only for animals?

Is this the birth you dreamed of for your first child?

Did you dream your firstborn son would be

greeted by strangers?

Greeted by shepherds,

Outcasts of society?

Greeted by wise men

from strange far-off countries?

Greeted by the host of angels?

Is this the welcome you dreamed of for your son?

Did you dream of this life for your firstborn son?

A birth in a stable?

A desperate flight for safety?

A life as a refugee?

A peripatetic life?

A life in which other women cared for him?

A life with no wife, no family?

A life lived in the shadow of hostility?

A life ending in a criminal’s death?

A horrific death?

Is this the life you dreamed of for your son?

Did you dream of your own life?

A happy marriage?

A growing family?

Sons and daughters to care for you in your old age?

Did you dream of this for your own life?

And if you had known, in those days of idle teenage chatter,

as a girl in Nazareth,

what you know now,

would you have said “yes” to God’s angel so quickly?

I am not sure Mary knew what all was in store for her son.  I am not sure she knew he was going to have the life he did, the death he did.  She knew that she was favored by God, and she was chosen to bear the son of God into this world.  Mary knew that through her God would come and be Emmanuel – -God with us.  Mary knew nothing was impossible with God, and that with God she would bear this child.  Mary knew that the appearance of the Angel Gabriel had changed her life, and changed the world.

I am sure though that God has not finished, not even close.  God continues to break into our world, to make annunciations and proclamations, and to be with us.  There may not be appearances of Gabriel or virgin births, but God did not stop working with the birth of our savior and redeemer.  God did not stop working when we reached the cross, and God did not stop working at the tomb.  I am sure that one of the messages of Advent is for us to continue to look for God at work in the world, to continue to be alert for the Kingdom of God that will come, to continue to watch for opportunities to say, “here am I, servant of the Lord” and to hear that “nothing is impossible with God.”  This advent is quickly coming to a close – -I can hear the bells and see the angels waiting to deliver the news, just on the horizon.  The cattle are getting restless and Mary and Joseph approach Bethlehem, wondering what will happen next, wondering what this birth will look like, and if they are ready.  Do they know the angels will appear again proclaiming the birth of their son, and that the world will never, ever be the same?  Do they know what this all means?  A teenage mother and her husband are getting ready to witness the birth of our salvation – -do they know?  How could they truly grasp what is about to happen?  They probably are not certain about much but this – God is with them, and with God all things are possible.  And for now, that is more than enough.




Leave a comment

Unclean Spirits, Swine and Jesus

A Sermon for Luke 8:26-39

Who was Jesus expecting to find when he and the disciples finally got off of that boat?  Were they expecting a scene out of the movies – people gathered in the arrivals area of the airport with signs and flowers saying “Welcome Home!”?  Perhaps the more subtle typewritten placard with a name typewritten in all capital letters being held by the driver from the car service company.  Or, did this band of travelers look more like those tourists who stagger off overseas flights, bleary eyed from a lack of sleep looking for the baggage claim sign and directions to the train into the city center or taxi line – -all written in a language that is not their own?  When Jesus and the disciples finally reached the shore of the Sea of Galilee, they probably looked like those travelers.  This had not been a smooth crossing – – this is the same trip during which the famous “stilling of the storm” incident occurred.  So you can imagine that when they landed, Jesus and his people were tired, wet, and cranky.

And their welcoming party left a lot to be desired as well – there were no flowers or signs.  When Jesus and his disciples got off the boat, they were met by one man.  The text tells us that he was a man of the city, a man who was possessed by demons. First of all, he is naked – the demons that possess him keep tearing off his clothes.  He appears to talk to himself, when he is speaking to those who possess him.  He is probably dirty and grimy – -demons don’t like water.  He has to be shackled at night to keep him and the citizens of the town safe; when he escapes he wanders through the tombs and catacombs.  This is not someone you expect to end up as an evangelist, as a missionary, as someone who would speak to his community about the transformative power of God.

Yet, it is because of the transformative power of God that he is able to do such a thing.  This man was not always this way.  We do not know much about him.  Who were his parents, what was his childhood like?  Did he have brothers and sisters?  All we know is that somehow he became possessed by the demons – -and there were many.  His life was changed for the worse.  He was unable to hold a job, he was unable to keep his house, he was even unable to speak for himself.  The community he lived in would shackle him so that he would not hurt himself, or hurt them, and he could not be contained.  Do you think this is who Jesus expected to meet when he got off the boat that day?

Jesus and his disciples have entered into a new territory.  And as my high school English teachers would so often remind their students, where a story is set makes all the difference in the series of events.  Can you imagine if Batman were set in Arizona, or if Kevin Costner tried to build his Field of Dreams in downtown Manhattan?  The setting of today’s story is critical to understanding what happens when Jesus and his disciples disembark from the boat.  This was not a Jewish fishing village where the customs were known and the people familiar.  This was a Gentile community, a place with different norms and ideas.  Jesus was in a land where he was in the minority – he was different.  The land he is in is “opposite Galilee.”  It is opposite anything he has known, and really is a place where Jesus steps out beyond the familiar and confronts what is opposite the life found in him. He crosses the sea to show that no one is beyond the reach of God’s transformative power.  This is Luke’s only record of Jesus ministering in a place that is primarily Gentile —  a place where he is not what is expected, not what is appropriate, and ultimately, not liked.

That day he did something that was not liked by this community – -he saved a man.  The NRSV translates it as healed, but in the Greek, the word that is used is one that is translated as both healed or saved.  Jesus took this dirty, wandering, possessed man and restored him to who he was before.  He gave him back his life, and he did it with the help of some pigs.

It was the pigs that really upset them.  You see, the demons were bargaining with Jesus.  They did not want to go back into the abyss – back into the sea.  The ancient tradition and culture of this region held that if the demons went into the sea, if they went into any water, they would die.  Simply being cast out of a man and into some unclean pigs was surely not a bad compromise in their mind —  they still got to live and have power over something, they still got to demand and control and rule by fear – -just through pigs rather than people.  So when Jesus says “sure, go inhabit the pigs” it seems like a good thing.  And in Jesus’ mind probably was too.  In the Jewish tradition, the pigs were unclean.  So to cast out the demons – and there were many – into the pigs was not so bad.  It just made unclean animals, demonic unclean animals.  The pigs all rushing into the sea and drowning – that was an additional bonus.

It was the pigs that really upset the townspeople.  The swineherds watched in disbelief as their livelihoods vanished, drowning right before their eyes, and they ran to tell the others.  Remember, this is a Gentile city.  Pigs are not unclean here.  Pigs are commodities.  They are bought and sold; they are eaten and used for all sorts of things.  They are an economic force in this community.  Without the pigs, the swineherds no longer have jobs.  Without the pigs, families have no food. When the residents of the city arrived, they saw two things: a stranger who had caused the problem, and the man who had been a known quantity in their community as someone and something different.  He was no longer possessed, he was no longer Legion.  He sat at the feet of Jesus, dressed, in his right mind, and ready to speak with them.  He has been saved and his identity returned to him.  Not everyone likes it when Jesus comes to town and shakes things up.  The good news of the restoration of one man is not good news for them all.

Jesus was feared after the healing – -feared because he had upset the norm, changed things from the way they were to something else, and then left the healed man there in the middle of it as a reminder to them all of the power of God to transform.  The man wants to go with Jesus.  He begs Jesus to let him follow him, to work with him, to proclaim the news of his restoration, and Jesus says no.  Jesus tells him to stay right where he is.  Jesus wants the healed man in this city to be a constant reminder of the transformative power of what can happen when you open yourself up to God.  Jesus wants him to stay right where he is and proclaim the good news to this community of faith that is afraid of the power of God.  The man is called to be a living, breathing, walking, talking, un-possessed testament to the redemptive saving power of Christ.  Jesus calls each of his followers to follow in a unique way.  We cannot generalize that Jesus demands each follower do exactly the same thing – -each calling from Jesus is unique.  In this case, he was called to go back to the city and remain there to witness to the Power of God.

Jesus exercised his authority over the demons, but not the people.  They ask him to leave because he has disrupted the social order.  He has changed things.  They liked it better when the man who was possessed was possessed – -they knew how the world worked that way.  They knew how to take care of him and what to do with him.  He knew his place and they knew theirs.  Life was good.  They preferred the devil they knew to the one they didn’t.  And often we do too.  What are our demons?  Not just in our own lives, but in our church life?  What do we prefer because we know it, when we are faced with the possibility of something that we don’t know?  What are the names of our demons?  What are the demons that prevent us from fully recognizing how Christ is at work among us here?

Ponder that for a minute.  Notice, I am not asking “who” but “what.”  What are our church demons?  Some of you may be sitting there thinking “surely we don’t have any!”  Some of you may be thinking “wow, she got brave today.”  Some of you may be sitting there with a list going through your mind.  It is a valid question.  For, to see the transformative work of God, sometimes you have to see what God may be starting with, what God may be working with.  In 20 years, when visitors came back to the town, did they look at the man who was once possessed and know his story, or did he have to say to them, “let me tell you about the day I was saved by Jesus.”  In thinking about this, I remembered the children’s books by Roger Hargaves – -the Little Mr. and Miss series.  Little Miss Chatterbox or Little Mr. Grumpy or Little Mr. Happy – -each emotion or character trait was given a shape – -some triangles and circles and each character had a story told about them.  Do you remember these books from when you were a child, or remember reading them to a child?  Well, what would we name our demons?  And I mean OUR – -I’m as included in this as everyone else.

I named our first demon “Mine.”  This demon exists in every church.  “Mine” like to rear its ugly head when we forget whose we are and who we serve.  “Mine” is the demon that tells us that we claim and control and own specific ministries and programs and parts of the church.  You see, this pulpit, it’s not mine – -it belongs to Jesus. The kitchen, it’s not yours individually, nor are the playground, the busses, the Bibles, the communion ware, the instruments, the specific spaces used for specific things, the programs, the classes, or anything else on, in or as a part of this building yours.  In fact, even the building does not belong to “Mine.”  It is all a part of what we have been given by God for the common work of God.  And we can all usually remember this about the physical pieces and parts, well most days anyway. “Mine” likes to come out to play when we claim ownership of a ministry or program and do not seek to find ways to hear new voices or include others who wonder if God may have different plans for us. We may say we want it, but then our actions fail to follow through. “Mine” lies to us when it says that we possess the church and a program or a ministry.  “Mine” tells us that if we cannot have it our way then we should not do it at all, or criticize others who want to do it differently.   “Mine” does not tell the truth that we all serve God here, that what we do is for the honor and glory of God, and that it is not “Mine” but God’s.  Each and every part, tangible and intangible.

Sitting next to “Mine” is the demon that shows up lots of other places too – this one is called “Us.”  “Us” shows up in the form of groups that do not always realize that they do not make room for others.  “Us” like to do lots of things together, but that does not mean including people who are not part of “Us.”  I figured out pretty quickly that the fastest way to find a new family on Wednesday nights is to see who is looking for a place to sit, or who is sitting at a table by themselves.  “Us” tells us that the groups we have are just fine and do not need anyone else to join them, or that someone else will make a place for visitors.  “Us” is what causes us to bristle if someone sits in our seat, rather than welcome them to worship.  Fellowship and community are good, and we can excel in those areas, but when “Us” inhabits our being, sometimes it is hard to see that there are folks who have not found that here.  When we listen to the demon named “Us” we cannot see that there are folks who have lots of different connections, or are new and have very few connections.  When we are possessed by “Us”, we exclude rather than include.

And the biggest, baddest, demon of them all? “Fear.”  “Fear” fuels all the other demons that we have, named and unnamed.  “Fear” tells us that we will not have enough and so we should hoard rather than share.  “Fear” tells us that things will not be done correctly if we do not do them ourselves, instead of asking for help.  “Fear” likes to toy with us and tell us that if things are different or new, it will be bad.  “Fear” is the loudest demon of them all.  It drowns out all the ways God calls us and challenges us and encourages us to be faithful disciples.  “Fear” is the voice that says “yeah, but….”  My sister and I used to hear about the Yeahbuts.  When we would respond to my mother with the words, “Yeah, but what about….”  Mom’s response was “Yeahbuts only come at Easter.”  “Fear” likes to talk about the Yeahbuts, and the what if’s and the we cant’s.  “Fear” likes to drive us into hiding and encourage us to draw in, rather than follow the call of God to look out.

When we listen to the voices of the demons rather than the voice of God, we forget that the transformative power of God has been at work in this church since it’s inception.  Everything we have was once new, everything we cling to was once an idea, was once a way God was speaking to us.  Did you know that this was not the first home of our church?  That we were not always called First Presbyterian Church?  Every program, ministry, building, and group we have at one point in time was new.  And now, in addition to their other functions, they serve the purpose of the man who was healed – -to remind us that God  has the power to transform us.  Think about it – every major decision of this congregation has a story behind it.  There were people who were for it, people who were against it.  “Mine” and “Us” and “Fear” all came out to play in the decision making process – -they do in any church.  Whenever Jesus is at work, things change.  And now we have ministries like a preschool and an After School Program.  We have an education building and Presbyterian Women and a youth group.  We had an amazing Vacation Bible School this week, and I imagine at some point in time, we had to deal with “Mine” “Us” and “Fear” as it developed over the years – -just as we did with all of the rest.  Yet, each of these serve the same function as the man who was healed – -they remind us that God is at work among us, calling us to trust and step out in faith.  To look to God to continue to heal us and to be at work within us as a community of faith.

It was the power of God, working through Jesus that healed the man.  We don’t hear much about what happened to the community after Jesus left.  We don’t know if the man was tormented because of his role, or if he was respected.  The good news for him was not good news for everyone at the time.  The community had to find new ways to rely on God, they had to find new ways to what they had always done.  They had to look at themselves, and perhaps name their own demons.  But, given that the ruins of the city still stand today, given that their story is still told, we know that they went on.  We do know this – – the man who was healed was told to stay and testify to those who were there about what God had done for him.  He told them what Jesus had done to him – -it is an important distinction – -he told about what he knew. He told about what he experienced.  He knew that he had been healed by Jesus.  He knew that Jesus had cast out his demons and restored his identity.  What do we know about the work of the triune God among us?  What do we testify to?  As we name our demons, we can also name how we have been healed.  As we look around, we see the reminders of how God has been, and continues to be at work among us as a church.  May we continue to seek Jesus at the shore now and always.  Amen.