Monday, December 12, 2016

Watching for Joy:
The Virgin Who Said No
A Sermon on Luke 1:46-55
For the Community of First Austin: 
a baptist community of faith
On the Third Sunday of Advent
December 11, 2016

Jeanne Murray Walker has written a poem that finds it’s way back to my soul each Advent. It’s a true masterpiece. It’s simply titled “A Portrait of the Virgin Who Said No to Gabriel”

This is the one Giotto never painted.

She looked up from baking that morning, hearing
his feathers settle and his voice scatter like gold coins
on the floor. He told her, his forehead sweaty
from the long trip. Me? she breathed, Oh sure!

But after he walked away, she couldn’t forget his look,
the strange way his feet rang like horseshoes on the stones.
What she’d been wanting before he interrupted
was not the Bach Magnificat, I can tell you, not stained
glass. Nothing risky. Just to keep her good name.

Small as she was, how could she keep in her heart
those centuries of praise? But I praise her,
anyway, for wanting a decent wedding
with napkins folded like hats and a good Italian wine.
I praise her name, Lenora. I praise the way

she would practice carefully, making the L
like a little porch, where she could imagine standing
to throw a red ball to some children she loved.
I praise the way, year by year, she let herself see
who that visitor was. Think of her collecting

belief slowly, the way a bird builds her nest
in an olive tree. Then finally how one year,
after the leaves fell, she was an old woman
looking at the truth, outlined against
the salmon sky, knowing it was true.

For not despising her own caution then, I praise her.
For never feeling envy. And for the way, once,
she stepped past her fear to hand a cup of water
to a thirsty carpenter fainting by her door.

In every room of this gallery I think I see her picture.

Is it heresy to wonder if just possibly Mary was not the first woman to be asked to carry the Christ child? Because that is a big ask of someone, especially a young person… Are you willing to risk, possibly ruin, your reputation? Are you willing to put your future and all your plans on hold? Are you willing to possibly risk your very life so that you can be part of the next big thing God is doing?

So to me it is not out of the realm of possibility that maybe a few other young ladies were asked and turned this request down… and maybe that is why this poem speaks to my heart so powerfully.

It tells us of a God who asks, not demands. It tells us of a God with intense respect for our decisions. It tells of a God who never gives up on God’s plan. It tells of a God who never gives up on us.

It tells us of someone we can relate to, because if we are honest, we all know the Lenora from this poem, we know her well. It’s Mary we don’t quite understand. Or at least it is for me.

Because there have been times in my life where I have firmly felt God asking something of me… Griff you need to listen to that search committee from the small town you have never heard of, Griff that little boy in Nicaragua who you met on a mission trip- he’s supposed to be part of your family, Griff this is the sermon I need you to preach this week even if it seems heretical, Griff I need you to befriend that person who drives everyone crazy and you really can’t stand.

And my reaction has been No. “No, God I have a plan, I want to preach in a big steeple church where people will know my name and that small town church is not part of the plan that I have put together… God, our house is already pretty full and I don’t know that we have the funds or the patience to adopt a child right now…. God preaching that sermon, this sermon, might get me in trouble with certain members of the congregation…. God, that person, I can’t befriend them because it will ruin my reputation and on top of that, I really can’t stand them.”

This morning if we can be honest (which surely is all we can be in church), I think we all can say that we know Lenora, we all understand the Virgin who said No because we have all said no.

No God we don’t want to give you 10% of our income- we have way better ideas on how to handle our money than you do….. No God we don’t want to forgive and reconcile- we want to hang on to this until we get some revenge….. No God we don’t want to commit all to church- our time is too valuable to get too involved in that community….. No God I don’t want to get involved in the homeless ministry because that seems messy and I don’t know if I can “fix” it… No God I don’t want to give money to Advent Conspiracy, what will washers and dryers for the homeless really fix, I need that money for presents…. No God I don’t want to take a stand for that issue because although I really believe it, not all of my friends would support me on that…. No God I don’t want to write/ paint/ sing, those are not jobs that pay the bills and there is no security in that, I will following those callings later.

We all understand Lenora because there are times in our lives where each of us have clearly said no to God.

After all we have things planned out nice and orderly. There is a direction and a structure for us. We have it all planned out and we know where we are headed and how we are going to get there. We know what belongs and what does not belong. We want God to ask something of us that will further our plans, that will enhance the future we are already creating, that will give us more secure bank accounts, that will make us more likable and something that fits in the narrative we have so carefully created.  And if God could ask something that did those things, well then our answer would be “Let it be.”

But God, don’t ask something too big of us. Don’t ask something too risky of us. Don’t ask something that is going to break out hearts. Don’t ask something that does not come with a pain free promise. Don’t ask something that might get us in trouble.

Which just shows you how short sighted we truly are, how blind we are to the way of the Lord, how closed our eyes are during this season of Vigil. And it shows you how we often mistake temporary meaning and satisfaction for true meaning and satisfaction… we can be so short sighted.

I’ve been reading a brilliant new book The Book of Joy which is an extended conversation between His Holiness the Dali Lama and the Archbishop Desmund Tutu on the meaning of joy. It’s an excellent book worth your time, I highly recommend it. The book begins with a simple question: in our world where we have so very much, why are we not a more joyous people? And it’s largely because we have confused happiness with joy.

In the words of Desmund Tutu: “It’s wonderful to discover that what we want is not actually happiness. It’s not actually what I would speak of, I would speak of joy. Joy subsumes happiness. Joy is the far greater thing. Think of a mother who is going to give birth. Almost all of us want to escape pain. And mothers know they are going to have pain, the great pain of giving birth. But they accept it. And even after the most painful labor, once the baby is out, you can’t measure the woman’s joy. It’s one of those incredible things that joy comes from suffering.”

Over and over this book teaches that joy is not pain free, in fact it’s often just the opposite. Joy is often found through the process of pain, because the things that matter most in life are rarely free, however they are worth the cost.

Safety is happiness and it’s temporary, whereas risk is joy and it’s eternal.

Joy comes from being like Mother Mary and saying let it be, even when that scares us to death, when it does not fit into our plans of where we want to leave and how we have it all figure out. It means taking a huge risk, and it calls for us to put something on the line.

Joy is Mary thinking through her decision and knowing that this will likely cause people to talk about her, maybe even people wanting to stone her, it will likely cause Joseph to leave her and her family to desert her. This will likely give her a lesser place in society and will affect everything about her future. And even with all of that, still saying yes to God. It’s knowing all of that and saying yes to a bold adventurous obedience with Jesus Christ.

Joy is Mary loudly singing a song about God overthrowing the social order of the day and the religious order of the land, a song about feeding the hungry and sending the rich away empty handed, a song about a sword that will one day pierce even her own soul.

Joy is Mary believing she can bring a King into the world. Joy is Mary knowing that God favors her (think about that… joy is knowing God favors you and me) and joy is Mary knowing that God wants her to play a role in the story of Love coming to earth.

Joy is trust in that God.

It’s taking the risk of something big for something good. It’s saying yes to God’s big risks.

Joy is the result of surrender and obedience… let it be.

It’s Desmund Tutu again: “Discovering more joy does not save us from the inevitability of hardship and heart break. In fact, we may cry more easily but we will laugh more easily too. Perhaps we are just more alive. Yet as we discover more joy, we can face suffering in a way that ennobles rather than embitters. We have hardship without becoming hard. We have heartbreak without being broken.”

Joy is found in the contentment of being part of something big, joy is knowing you have played a role in something that matters

And we need to understand that because in our world today where hate, racism, misogyny and power and ego have once again become the norm and are ever present everywhere we look- in a world that seems to be trying to regress back instead of progress forward, God is going to ask some big risks of us, as individual and as a church (and I believe this with everything in me). And the salvation of this world depends on us saying, “Yes, let it be.”

And with that yes will come true joy.

Joy that knows the light because it’s been through the dark.

Joy that can laugh fully because it’s also wept fully.

Joy that has danced with risk and found life in that dance.

Joy when we say “Yes let it be and let me be part of your story” instead of “no this does not fit into my narrative right now.”

Joy is the woman boldly singing her song of revolution because she is part of God’s story. And joy is the angels dancing and singing around her, “Gloria in excelsis deo!”

May our joy begin with the words: “Let it be”.

Amen and amen. 


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