Sermon from December 23, 2018, Mary Sunday, Fourth Sunday of Advent

Blessed Is She Who Believed There Would Be a Fulfillment
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
December 23, 2018      
Fourth Sunday of Advent, Sunday of Love, Mary Sunday
Luke 1:26-55

William Sloane Coffin quoted a Yale student who advised him, “When you say something that is both true and painful, say it softly.”  Bill added, “Say it in other words to heal and not to hurt.  Say it in love.” (Credo p. 152)  I think Mary, the mother of Jesus, was following that advice when she said her Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).

She was responding to her cousin, Elizabeth, who said, “Blessed is she who believed there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by God.”  Then Mary launched into her true and painful message, with the strength and boldness of Christ-like love yet speaking softly and humbly to heal and not to hurt.

We are all Mary now.  The Angel Gabriel is standing before each of us today telling us that the Holy Spirit has something of Christ for us to bear into this world, the light of love, a work of justice, mercy and peace.  We are all Mary, and God is waiting, hoping to hear us say as she did, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.”

Imagine Mary as an ordinary fifteen-year-old girl made extraordinary by the faith and courage to say yes to the Holy Spirit moving within her.  She could have been a public outcast for being pregnant and unmarried.  She was a homeless refugee when she gave birth, the victim of a heartless empire’s whims inflicted on people it taxed and oppressed by military force.  She saw her firstborn son, the kindest, most compassionate, spiritually deep, healing and helping young man, arrested, tortured and nailed to a cross by that empire just because its violent, greedy ways were threatened by his insistence on love and justice.

We need to hear the Magnificat as a true and painful political statement against that empire.  Mary says of God, “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  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.”

Those are revolutionary words, no matter how softly she said them.  This social and political revolution is what the mother of Jesus foresaw that the Holy Spirit wanted to do through her, as weak as she seemed to be in the face of that empire.

Is the Holy Spirit’s revolution over?

Or is the child of Mary, the Body of Christ, called to confront a proud empire today?  Is there a tyrant on a throne that needs to be pulled down, and a world the empire is oppressing that needs to be lifted and saved?

I am trying to speak softly, to heal and not to hurt, to say this in love.

Let’s imagine the richest, most powerful empire the world has ever seen:

  • a tyrant that blasts the tops off of mountains and buries villages and poisons wells with the rubble;
  • a power that drills deep into the ocean floor and ravages fragile ecosystems, spilling the bile of the earth by the millions of gallons, killing multitudes of creatures;
  • a throne that makes a tiny elite obscenely wealthy by stealing a livable earth from generations to come;
  • a tyrant that spews toxins into the atmosphere changing the climate, melting ancient icepacks, flooding crowded coastlands, unleashing killer storms and fires;
  • a power that renders extinct thousands of species and cares not that it endangers its own children;
  • a throne whose greed fosters racism, poverty and militarism and undermines democracy and drives millions of refugees from their homes;
  • a tyrant whose thoughts are so proud it thinks it can get away with pretending not to know that it is destroying God’s precious earth, so it spends millions of dollars on campaigns full of distortions and lies even though the truth is clear for all to see.

Let’s imagine that such an empire exists, and we are humble people far from the halls of power, and here comes the Holy Spirit recruiting us to be part of its revolution, saying “for God so loves this world that God is going to do everything possible to save it”—and the saving needs to happen through us with God’s power of love and light flowing through us each individually as a Mary, and all together as the Body of Christ.

I am speaking as softly as I can this painful truth.  God is asking us today to bring that massive empire down from its throne and lift up all that it is oppressing and at last create the realm of God’s love and justice and mercy on earth.

What do we want to say to the angel standing before us telling us that the Holy Spirit is ready to work through us?  I imagine that part of us, like part of Mary, is full of hesitation.  Part of us fears how our lives may change, and part of us doubts, asking how can this be?

Yet God needs us to believe as Mary did that there will be a fulfillment, that the creator of the universe wants life on earth to survive.  We need to believe that God evolved human consciousness to be a blessing to the earth, not a curse, that God gave us hearts and minds capable of becoming the heart and mind of Christ.

We need to believe like Mary because it was her faith that enabled her to say yes to what the Spirit asked of her.

Another of Bill Coffin’s favorite sayings was, “I love the recklessness of faith.  First you leap, and then you grow wings.”  Bill would point out that courage is the first virtue because it makes all the others possible.

We need courageous faith because like Mary, we need to leap into the unknown, and that feels like death.  I believe it is no accident that the lost ancient Christian contemplative path has been rediscovered in our time.  Contemplative spirituality is all about what the Sufi poet Rumi calls “dying before you die.”  We hear echoing back from the early church Greek words like kenosis and metanoia, kenosis meaning the kind of emptying of self that Mary did in order to bear Christ, and metanoia meaning the way her heart and mind and soul were transformed by her saying yes to the Spirit.

Contemporary contemplative teachers are showing us the way to be Mary in our time.  The first was Thomas Merton, who said that Mary’s greatest glory was that she “in no way resisted [God’s] love and [God’s] will… She was free from every taint of selfishness that might obscure God’s light in her being…, as pure as the glass of a very clean window that has no other function than to admit the light of the sun.”

Thomas Keating said, “The effectiveness of action depends on the source from which it springs.  If it is coming out of the false self…it is severely limited.  If it is coming out of a person who is immersed in God, it is extremely effective.  The contemplative state, like the vocation of [Mary], brings Christ into the world.”

Another contemplative teacher, Richard Rohr, observes that “Loss precedes all renewal; emptiness makes way for every new infilling; every transformation in the universe requires the surrendering of a previous ‘form.’”

These teachings are well grounded.  Jesus said, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  And, “Unless a grain of wheat falls in the ground and dies, it will remain a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

Another Christian contemplative, Cynthia Bourgeault, tells about people who have leapt or fallen through fearful hesitation and found transformation on the other side of self-emptying and dying-before-they-die.

She tells a story about a woman alone in a broken-down car late on a freezing day in the middle of the Maine wilderness, and how her acceptance and saying yes to her life-threatening situation brought her peace, opened her eyes to God’s presence and saved her even before her miraculous rescue.  Bourgeault tells about a man who was fighting cancer as if he could overpower death, who then shifted, died before he died and became a source of life-changing light and love for those around him in his remaining days.

Things did not look good for Mary, she looked likely to be crushed by the empire if she tried to pull it down, and yet she believed that there would be a fulfillment of what God had spoken.  Her belief became a blessing not only for her but for the whole world as she gave birth to the love and light of Christ.

Things may not look so good for us, either.  We may not be able to imagine how we are going to bring about the urgent transformation of human civilization into the realm of God on earth.  But it is crucial that we believe that there will be a fulfillment if we empty ourselves enough to let God do a new thing through us.  It is crucial that we believe that we can be part of the fulfillment of what Mary began.  We cannot know what that fulfillment will look like or what we will be called to do, but we know that whatever it is, it begins with our saying yes.

Let us pray in silence…


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