Sunday, December 18, 2011

Marginal Mary

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
December 18, 2011

Year B: The Fourth Sunday of Advent
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
(Romans 16:25-27)
Luke 1:26-38

Marginal Mary

Today we begin the final week of Advent – the final week of preparation for Christmas, which ready or not, arrives a week from last night.

With time growing short, we can feel a shift in our Christmas preparation. It feels like a change in the weather.

I’m sure you’ve all got everything done but out in the world Christmas preparations are getting more frantic. The mall parking lots are packed as people scramble to cross the final items off their Christmas list. If it hasn’t started yet, soon we’ll be receiving emails from online retailers warning us that time is running out to get items purchased and shipped in time for Christmas. As usual at the end of the week I’ll finally get to the card store only to find that just about all the really nice cards are long gone.

And we can feel a shift in our preparation here in church.

It’s still Advent but this afternoon we’ll have a performance of Messiah followed by the greening of the church and a potluck supper. All week it will still be Advent yet the church will be decorated for Christmas, bathed in that wonderful evergreen scent.

And we can feel the shift in preparation in today’s gospel lesson.

For the last two Sundays the spotlight has been on John the Baptist. We’ve had “purple preparation” courtesy of the prophet who prepared the way for the Messiah through his message of repentance and forgiveness.

But now finally today we finally get to the blue preparation of hope and joy. The spotlight turns from John the Baptist to the other central Advent figure – Mary, a heartbreakingly young girl probably about 12 or 13 years old. A girl from Nazareth, a town so unimportant that it’s never even once mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Out of the four gospels it’s only Luke that has much interest in Mary. Matthew tells us about the birth of Jesus from Joseph’s perspective and Mark and John are silent about the nativity.

But, Luke is very interested in Mary. And I think Luke is interested in Mary not only because it’s a wonderful story that has enchanted and inspired people for two millennia. Luke is interested in Mary because her story tells us a lot about God and tells us a lot about us.

Luke is writing for a primarily non-Jewish Christian audience – people who were already followers of Jesus. But their Gentile friends and family would have known lots of stories about miraculous births so Luke’s story of a divine messenger appearing to a human woman telling her that she would carry the Son of God wouldn’t have raised too many pagan eyebrows.

“Oh, sure, human-divine births happen all the time. No big deal.”

What would have surprised the Gentiles was who is chosen for this awesome task of bearing God into the world: Mary of Nazareth – a nobody – a girl who lived way off at the margins of society.

Life was almost unimaginably hard for just about everyone in the ancient world – very much including the Jews in the First Century. And in a harsh time Mary would have had it tougher than just about anyone else.

She lived in Galilee – a rural backwater.

She was young in a society that valued age.

She was female in a society ruled by men.

She was poor: which meant she was almost inevitably destined for a life filled with unending backbreaking labor ended only by what we would call a shockingly premature death.

She lived in a society in which a woman gained status only through having a husband and giving birth to children. But now the angel has given her news that will end any hope having a “normal” life. Luke doesn’t tell us but obviously Mary must have known and worried that her betrothal to Joseph was at risk. And she must have known only too well that the busybodies in little Nazareth who minded everybody’s business would be gossiping about her pregnancy and the birth of her child.

In her time and place people would have looked at Mary and seen someone way off on the margins of society – nobody special at all.

But, God saw who she really was and chose marginal Mary to carry the Messiah into the world.

Look at how Luke describes marginal Mary and get a glimpse of what God saw in her. She must have been just about completely uneducated but she is deeply thoughtful. Instead of running away in fear from the angel, Mary ponders what this totally unexpected announcement means.

Marginal Mary is faithful – although she surely doesn’t understand or imagine all of what’s in store for her, she puts her trust in God. She says to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Gentiles – and Jews for that matter - would have been surprised that God chose marginal Mary to bear God into the world. Just as they would have been skeptical that her son – who was born and lived almost his whole life on the margins – could really have been the Son of God.

And even Christians have sometimes struggled with the idea that God chose a woman from the margins to be mother of the messiah.

There is a Second Century text called the Proto-Gospel of James that didn’t make it into the Bible although it was very popular for centuries and influenced a lot of Christian art. And in this very interesting text marginal Mary is given a back-story that takes her from the margins of society right into the heart of First Century Judaism.

The author of the Proto-Gospel of James tells us that when Mary was three her parents brought her to the Temple. He writes,

“And the priest of the Lord received her and gave her a kiss, blessing her and saying, ‘The Lord has made your name great for all generations. Through you will the Lord reveal his redemption to the sons of Israel at the end of time.’ He set her on the third step of the altar, and the Lord God cast his grace down upon her. She danced on her feet, and the entire house of Israel loved her.”

The Proto-Gospel claims that Mary lived in the Temple until she was twelve and betrothed to Joseph. It’s a charming story but I’m glad it didn’t make it into the Bible because it undoes Luke’s point that God has chosen the last person you’d expect, marginal Mary, for the most important task of all time.

Luke knows that God’s choice of marginal Mary tells us something important about God and about us. Luke knows that God’s choice of marginal Mary tells that God has a special love for the poor and the outcast. And Luke knows that with God’s choice of marginal Mary the world is turned downside-up. Since Luke knows all of this, he has Mary sing her great song about God:

“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

So, what does this have to do with us here in Madison today as begin our final preparations for Christmas?

Since God has a special love for the people on the margins, you and I as followers of marginal Jesus, son of marginal Mary, are called and expected to share God’s special love for our brothers and sisters on the margins of our society.

So, we’re called to have the soup kitchen sign up sheet filled out so quickly and fully that there’s a waiting list to donate food and there are so many volunteers that they’re tripping over each other to serve the hungry and the homeless.

We’re called to overflow the Food for Friends barrel with the best food we can afford, dropping off so much food that we create a temporary safety hazard in the lobby.

We’re called to visit people in nursing homes not just around Christmas or on other special days but on a random Tuesday.

We’re called to sit with the unpopular kid in the cafeteria at lunchtime or to befriend the neighbor who seems strange or who’s maybe just plain annoying.

We’re called to reach out to our friends and family members who’ve been out of work for what seems like forever even if it means confronting our own fears about our fragile security.

We’re called to reach out to people who are sick even if it means confronting our own fears about illness and death.

We’re called to give as much as we can to the people on the margins – people who can’t even dream of the kinds of lives that most of us enjoy.

And we’re called to face the maybe unsettling truth that most of us live far from the margins, far from Nazareth, far better than just about anyone else past or present.

Like a change in the weather, there’s been a shift in our Christmas preparation. With a week to go, the spotlight is on faithful, courageous, marginal Mary who said yes to God and carried marginal Jesus into the world.

Today you and I can best say yes to God, best prepare for Christmas and best honor Mary if we share our wealth, share our time and share our love with God’s beloved marginal people.