Word of the Week


Would Mother Mary have anything to say to us today about the new tax law signed by our President today

Last Sunday, at my congregation, we skipped ahead in the lectionary (this church year being so odd with the fourth Sunday of Advent falling on Christmas Eve!) I preached on Luke 1:26-56 otherwise known as the story when pregnant Mary and Elizabeth meet for the first time and giving of the Magnificat, the song of Mary.

The scripture in its entirety (STOP go read it again now it's so good) speaks to the power of women listening to God and supporting one another in resistance.

In the story, we learn that elder Elizabeth encourages Mary right from the spot as she says over her stomach: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Unborn baby John leaps on the womb in the proximity to cousin Jesus. It's a holy moment for sure.

And I tell you, there's so much to love in this beautiful text, but what has always stuck out to me is the BOLD faith of the women. For:

Though there were a thousand reasons why they could be paralyzed in fear….

Though there were a thousand unanswered questions in their stories . . .

Though the future included grave misunderstandings and hardship for those they loved dearly if they kept going. . .

On that day, Mary and Elizabeth commit together that day to STAY the COURSE.

Mary goes on to sing; “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”

And the words of Mary's faith song have a lot to say about what is and isn't close to God's heart.

Mary sings of how God exalts the most forgotten.

Mary sings of how God is in the business of bringing down the powerful.

Mary sings of how God is always with us, even the most unseen among us.

Mary tells a story that is 100% countercultural to the holiday messages so deeply intertwined into our December narratives.  For, she speaks a word against rapid consumerism and jockeying for positioning and winning at all costs.

She speaks a word against lifting up the rich so that the poor are trampled.

She speaks a word against those with the biggest positions or loudest twitter accounts.

She speaks a word against nationalism at all cost.

Mary's song blasts the culture with this message: God is not in your noise.

Mother Mary, you see leads the way for us reminding us that God is always in the unexpected places, in the unexpected voices and in the unexpected stories.

So, I've been thinking all week: what would Mother Mary be saying about this new tax law?

Besides just crying tears with us, I believe she'd remind us to keep our chins up. She'd say: Hope. Work. Resist. And pray for more of God's kingdom to come to earth.

And I believe she's remind us that God's favor is never on the side of kings, rulers or any governing body that does not "fill the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty."

She's tell us not to trust in those who say they love God with their lips but whose actions do not "lift up the lowly."

And she'd tell us that the most important moment in her life was also challenged because "a degree went out from an Emperor" but yet the light of God appeared even still.

May God have mercy on us and those that are hurt by those our laws hurt in the meantime. And may we keep singing songs like Mary's. Oh, how we need to hear them!

Excerpts of a sermon preached a Springfield Christian Church, Springfield, VA on Micah 5:2-5, Luke 1: 46-55

There’s a reason that songs like “New York, New York” and “Hollywood” are so popular. We love singing about the cities where “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere” because there’s a popular assumption in America that if anything really good happens, it will come out of a big city.

Because of these facts, it’s so easy to believe that important things happen in important towns. Period. If you don’t live in an important town, oh well. . . not much is going to go on.

But is this always the case?

When I say, Seneca Falls, NY, you know it. Why? The women’s movement.

Seneca Falls, a once sleepy town of a few families rose to prominence when Elizabeth Candy Stanton decided to organize a gathering that became THE start of a woman's right to vote.

When I say Selma, you know it. Why? The Civil Rights Movement.  

We know of Selma, a sleepy town of a few thousand residents in the middle of Alabama, because of that fateful day on March 7, 1965 Martin Luther King, Jr. and thousands of supporters dared to say segregation would no longer be tolerated.

When I say Plains, GA, you know it. Why? Because of Jimmy Carter.

Plains, a central GA town of still only 688 residents today was the birthplace and still is the homestead of Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States. Who would have thought that a peanut farmer would one day be at the center of American history both in and out of office?

You see, there are good things—often even the best things can come out of small towns, of unexpected towns, of lowly places, wouldn’t you say?

Bethlehem-The-Place-of-Jesus-BirthAnd such seems to be the message of Micah chapter 5. The prophet Micah opens the chapter he says this hopeful word about the nation of Judah’s restoration: “But you, O Bethlehem . . . who are the one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth from me one who is to rule Israel.”

Micah is writing around 760 BC a time the nation of Judah is living under siege from the the Assyrians. They’d invaded the region and their military prowess was bar none—so weren’t going away anytime soon. You can imagine that folks feared for their safety and their security in the future.

And this was the word of the LORD: a new ruler is going to come out of Bethlehem.

I can image the disbelief of those who heard this prophetic message. “You’ve got to be kidding me! Why not Jerusalem or at least some other town . . . Not tiny Bethlehem! Times are hard. We’ve got to do better than that!”

Even though Bethlehem was the the hometown of David, and historically they’d already been through this before--- when Samuel was told by the LORD to go there to anoint the next king of Israel from among the sons of Jesse—the fact in Micah’s time was UNBELIEVABLE as well.

So hope from “one of the little clans of Judah?” Not exactly a New York or LA kind of dream . . .

For the work of the gospel is this: God is in the business of lifting up the lowly.

In Luke's gospel two cousins, Mary and Elizabeth meet up. Filled with wonder of their unexpected and unlikely pregnancies, maryandelizabeth2they both knew one thing: God was with them. And in Mary’s case quite literally.

For as soon as Elizabeth saw her with child cousin, we are told the Christ child leap in her womb. And in response, not only did Elizabeth exclaim about Mary, “Blessed is the fruit of your womb” but Mary is so overcome with thanksgiving she begins to sing. Saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

And the song, known in our Christian tradition as the Magnificat, is the original radical Advent carol.

Hear these words of Mary: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. . . . [God] has shown strength with [God’s] arm; 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.”

For as Mary sees it, God had no respect for the persons of so-called power in her world.

I’m not sure Mary would be impressed with our modern-day celebrity figures, presidential candidates or even Barbara Walter’s list of “The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2015” Nope. She speaks of how God has “filled the hungry with good things.”

Famed Episcopal preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor says this about Mary in her book, Home by Another Way: Mary sings, “for every son and daughter who thought God has forgotten the promise to be with them forever, to love them forever, to give them fresh and endless life.”

Mary’s song is the theme of the hopeless!

And it’s like the songs lifted up throughout the pages of scripture by other “lowly ones” come before her.

Such as ones by Miriam, Moses’ sister who sings of the “horse and the rider being thrown into the sea” as the LORD delivers the children of Israel from Egypt.

Ones like from Hannah, barren and without any status from her family or cultural system, sings when she learns she’s pregnant of how “the bows of the mighty are broken but the feeble grid on strength.”

Ones from the unknown Psalmist of number 146 which speak this: “The LORD watches over the strangers, upholds the orphan and the widow.” (7-9).

These songs are resistant songs, much like Mary’s carol. Songs which beat with the sound of God’s heart for those who we’d never expect to get to know! The world may forget, but God does not!

Are you seeing the picture?

God lifts up the lowly. God exalts the lowly place. God comes in sleepy and forgotten towns. Places in our world where nobody would think God would be.

IMG_3475This weekend, my husband and I were a part of a mission in Honduras. As we celebrated Christmas with a group of boys at orphanage each boy received a Christmas present. It’s not an unusual tradition for it now happens every year, but for a couple of the two youngest boys new to the center, it was completely new.

One of them, I'll call him Luis, recently came to the center because his other brothers all died in gang shoot out. His mother was afraid for his life and took him to the country’s social services to ask for him to be placed in a home where he wouldn’t be killed by the men in the gangs too. She could not bear to lose one more son. His adjustment to life without his mom and his brothers hasn’t been easy but slowly Luis is finding his place in his new safe home.

During the Christmas celebration Luis’s name was called to come forward and receive his present. And in his package he found a remote control toy car. After returning to his seat, we later learned that Luis bowed his head, closed his eyes and prayed:

“Thank you God for my first Christmas present.”

The look of joy, his teacher said, on his face beamed with pride! A dream come true for this 9 year old happened!

This to me, was a picture of what lifting up the lowly is all about. A child in a Honduran orphanage who thanked God for his first Christmas present!

For when I see God come in my life, I most assuredly see God in the faces of kids like Luis.

This is what I most want to offer you today when God comes—God not only keeps God’s promises and sends messengers and gathers us together but God lifts up the lowly.

The only question is will we see our Lord this Christmas? Will we make room for this great surprise?

Advent 2

Luke 1:39-56

Around mid-December, it’s so easy to want to rush on through, say Christmas is here, and let’s pack up the decorations, open up the gifts, eat another turkey and move on. I know for several of you who attended and participated in the choir concert yesterday—feel as though the joy of that event has made it seem like Christmas has already come and passed. Wasn't it just a wonderful afternoon?

But thank goodness scripture, as we read it together every week in worship, wants to slow us down. Thank goodness scripture wants us to savor every moment of this season. Thank goodness scripture helps us see clearly that the journey of Christmas was not just about the destination birth, but about the journey to get there. And, we’ve got several more weeks left to wait and see what we uncover as we’re intentional about our waiting.

As we continue our Advent series this morning on waiting for Christmas—today, waiting with Jesus’ mother, Mary—it is important to remember what a radical perspective we have before us.

Luke’s gospel, where our lection for today comes from, is the only book of the Bible to narrate from the perspective of or to include women as main characters. For example, Mark’s gospel doesn’t mention Mary and skips the birth story of Jesus altogether. Matthew’s gospel assigns Mary the obvious role of birthing Jesus, but gives her no speaking parts.  The apostle Paul speaks only of Jesus being “born of a woman,” never giving this woman a name. Yet, thank goodness for Luke or we’d never know much about this Mary, the beloved center of our Christmas readings.

But, what was going on?

maryandelizabeth2Previously, Mary had just gotten some life changing news. Not only was she pregnant, but she was pregnant with, wait for it, the son of God. No small news at all. Yet, even as the angel Gabriel has foretold the great news to Mary about the coming of Christ, she still had to wait. Pregnancy, as we know, is a nine month sentence to waiting.

And, from this narration, we get to ask the question: “What did Mary do as she waited?” Obviously, her body began to change, morning sickness found her, new aches and pains found their way to her back and ankles. Her belly grew. Beyond this, what did she do? How did she cope with the joy, the fear and the anticipation of this life altering news?

Well, verse 39 of Luke 1, takes us right in the middle of the action. Mary would not sit at home and be idle in her waiting. Nor would she move into her betrothed husband’s home, Joseph and cry about all the humiliation that might come to her as a new unmarried mother. She would not stay in the past trying to savor every last-minute of her childhood with her parents. Instead, scripture tells us that she “set out and went with hast to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” Elizabeth was Mary’s cousin, though many years older.

If we study our Biblical geography, we know that from Mary’s home in Galilee to Judea, it was at least 70 miles of a trip—and most likely longer if she avoided the direct route through Samaria, as most Jews undoubtedly did due to political tensions.  A long tedious, and potentially dangerous trip was this, taking several days. We are given no indication that Mary traveled with others (though the protective side of me as a reader really hoped that she did!).

Above all, Mary risked the familiar of home to wait in pursuit of the fulfillment of God’s plans for her. Her bravery and courage to go be with a family member she thought might be supportive shows us what it is like to actively wait. Sometimes we’ve got to simply move from point A to point B. And Mary’s long trip was worth it, Elizabeth and Zechariah proved to be perfect waiting partners.

How so? Because it had already happened to them! Zechariah and Elizabeth had also been told they’d have a son too, who would help prepare the way for the one who was now growing in Mary’s belly.

And like Mary, Zachariah and Elizabeth knew what it might be like to trust God with all their might. They knew what it was like to have their friends call them wacko. They knew what it felt to know the God of Israel personally as the word of the Lord had come to them too.

In the arms of her cousins, Mary found two dear ones who truly understood who she might be feeling.

In the same way, when we find ourselves in situations requiring our patience and most of all waiting—who we wait with is very important. The voices echoing our life has a lot to do with how we stick to the paths that God has laid out for us.

When we want to go to college again to study for a vocation that we think might serve others and our parents think that is stupid—we might find ourselves dropping out before we’re done.

When we hear about a well-paying job that seems like a great opportunity but our gut says, “That’s company is trouble” and all our close associates say, “Go for it” we might just find ourselves accepting trouble we could have avoided.

When faced with how to go about cancer treatment and we want to add in holistic practices of herbs and meditation, but our spouse things it’s a complete waste of time, we might find ourselves rushing through traditional treatment at a furious pace, not as we’d desired.

Human beings are swayed of course, oh so easily, aren’t we by who or what we are around? Just bake chocolate chip cookies or flash the “Hot Donuts Now” sign in front of someone who recently proclaimed they’re not eating sweets anymore, and see how long their will-power lasts.

So, this is what we need to know: Mary did her part to actively wait—to make sure she was around people who understood who could be mentors in the journey to motherhood.

But not only did Mary do her part, but she allowed grace to do its part as well--

And one of those gifts of grace was just the presence of Elizabeth herself. For not only did Elizabeth, now six month pregnant with the one who would be called John, accept Mary, just as she was, but she helped Mary speak truth rightly about her life.

Look with me at verse 44. Elizabeth speaks to Mary, “For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Elizabeth is basically saying to Mary: “I know who you are. I know who your son is, my son in my womb knows too! This is something that needs to be celebrated. It just can’t wait! We’ve got to do it now”

Elizabeth helps Mary know what she knows, giving her courage to wait with confidence of all that was to come. Mary received grace through Elizabeth, I believe, enabling her to speak so confidently of what God had done for her and thus Israel too. Elizabeth’s truth telling, I believe propels Mary into speaking the beautiful Magnificat, one of the most beloved prayers of adoration in all of scripture as was just read a few moments ago.

But not only did grace come in the gift of Elizabeth, a friend for the journey, but it came simply as God worked things out, as God can only do.

You see, in the first place, there was no real reason for Mary to be waiting on God in such a special way at all.

Immaculate_Conception_2Maybe, when you think of Mary—the way our culture has exalted her, hallowed images of a beautiful skinned woman with long flowing brown hair adorned with a perfectly arranged blue headdress like in the picture come to mind. Or, maybe just the world “blessed?” For all you former Catholics in the room— “Blessed are thou among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. . . .”

But in these remembrances we forget the unusual aspects of Mary’s story.

Mary was the most unlikely of characters to be favored by God. History suggests to us that Mary was not a grown woman, but a young teenager. Mary was not from any special family. Mary was not someone in a position of power, prestige or even honor.  She was a woman in a culture that said she had no voice and only mattered when she brought forth sons that brought the family money or power.

But, yet, God was doing a work in her life that was exalting her with this great role to play. She had quite a testimony!

Mary says, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  . . . for the Mighty one has done great things for me.”

God blesses Mary. God calls her out. All I can call this is grace.

As Mary actively waited, received instruction from those sent to encourage her, God’s grace came in simply knowing that God was with her. God was working something out in her life that only God could do.

I had several conversations this week with folks wondering with me about how it is they move through difficult situations in their life. Many of these folks are waiting on life to get better. They’re waiting on life to make more sense. They’re waiting on the feeling that “this is the most wonderful time of the year” that seems to played every hour on those Christmas stations.  Yet, in their waiting, they feel stuck. They feel like God has forgotten them. They’re angry with those who are happy, wishing that they could feel the same. They’re looking for the answer to make things finally alright again.

I feel their pain. I’ve been there too. There’re nothing more difficult to be waiting for what is or is not good news. In fact it doesn’t really matter. When we’re waiting on life situations that we think are not favorable, of course we’re upset. When we’re waiting on the good to come, we psyche ourselves out often, talking ourselves into believing that the good we’re preparing for will not come, or come as we hoped it would. Waiting is hard. Really hard. I’ll say it again. Waiting can really, really stink.

But, if we are going to take our cues from Mother Mary this morning about what how we position our lives to wait with God, we know there is work to do. There’s a part for us to play in the ongoing drama of God’s work in the world—there are journeys to make, phone calls to have, emails to send, friends to invite over for dinner. Knowing that as we do what we can do—grace will meet us to do the rest. People will show up to help, distant cousins, old pals, or faithful companions. And, God will open doors—doors that may have had a big fat “NO!” on them only minutes before. God will give us grace to take the next step—even if we have no idea where we are going as we take that step.

Author Anne Lamott, who you know as one of my favorites says this about this kind of life: "Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up."

We may be in the darkness now, but the light of gospel is coming.  There’s a reason, you know that we light so many candles in worship this time of year. Hope is on its way. Wherever state you find your life in today, let us cling to hope of each other and God’s strange plans as we wait together.