A sermon preached at Evensong at St. Mary the Virgin
San Francisco, CA
Let these words be more than words, and give us the spirit of Jesus.
Those words are probably familiar to you. They are to me too. I spent several years worshiping, and for awhile working, with Scott your rector, and hearing him start sermons with that phrase: “Let my words be more than words.” “Give us these spirit of Jesus.” I am one of several products of Scott’s conversations with parishioners. “Mike,” he would say, “let’s talk about what you’re going to do with your life.” I wasn’t alone. In my years at St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego I watched Scott help people hatch plans. One successful tax attorney left a profitable practice to work for the church. Another parishioner put a fundraising career on the back burner to help run an orphanage in Tijuana. Scott also, most notoriously, sent several of us to seminary. I am grateful, but I’m also here at St. Mary’s partially to give you fair warning. If your rector Scott Richardson wants to discuss plans for your life, you might want to start walking in the other direction.
Scott sent me to seminary, and he sent me to the good biblical seminary in Virginia, not like that smoky catholic place he went in New York. So even though I am here with you on the Feast of the Annunciation, a very catholic feast indeed, I am going to talk about the Bible. You might be wondering why we are hearing this story tonight, of the Angel Gabriel and Mary. Usually we hear this in the run up to Christmas. Well, if you think of it, on Tuesday it will be nine months until December 25th, and Mary needs to hear that she’s pregnant. I want to spend a moment with Luke’s story about the Angel Gabriel and Mary’s unexpected news. To do so though, I think we need to take a pause. We have a problem. We know this story too well. It’s easy to just think, “oh, yes, the Virgin Mary heard she was pregnant” and skip ahead to the Nativity, but I think we need to pause. We know this story to well, and so there is a danger that we miss how absurd the story is.
I don’t know if you have heard about a billboard that was put up by St. Matthew’s Anglican Church a few years ago in Auckland, New Zealand. The billboard has received a lot of international attention. In many ways the billboard portrait of Mary fits our traditional picture. Mary is surrounded with enough flowing green and red robe to evoke the Renaissance paintings. She is blonde, and has that certain otherworldly glow. In many ways the billboard is like all of the other images we have of Mary. But this billboard is different. Mary’s eyes are scared and she covers her mouth with one hand. In the other hand, she holds a home pregnancy test, with two little blue lines.
The image had caused no small amount of ire from traditionalists, but the vicar of St. Matthew’s defends the work, as an invitation, an invitation to reconsider the story of Mary, the story we hear today.
From what we know, Mary was young: 12 to 14. Mary was still unmarried, though things were going well with Joseph, the carpenter. Mary was poor. This was an inopportune time to find out she was pregnant. Luke’s version, written 90-100 years after the fact, improves on the situation. The Gospel writer wasn’t there, recording the conversation verbatim. St. Luke was not writing history, the way we think of history. Luke’s genre was Gospel, “Good News,” so we should not be surprised if he has cleaned the story up a bit.
When you read the Bible, I really encourage you to take your time. Any student of the Bible, like any student of literature, or history, or psychology knows that you have to listen as much for what is NOT said, as for what is said. Today’s Gospel story, the story of Mary, is a great example. If you want the full story, you have to pause and listen for what is being said between the lines:
And the angel came to her and said “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words, and wondered what sort of greeting this might be.
Mary is 12 or 13. How many 12 or 13 year old girls do you know? How seriously do they take greetings? How seriously do they take ANYTHING? Twelve and thirteen year old girls have a great deal of perplexity, a great deal of wonder, and they come with a great deal of eye-rolling.
But what the Angel tells her next is the frightening part. The billboard has her fear right. She will conceive and bear a son. Mary’s question: “How Can this be?”
Don’t mistake it, this story in many ways is a story of loss. The angel’s announcement, the awareness of her unplanned pregnancy, it changes the game. Mary had her life planned out. She would marry Joseph. They would by that condo in Nazareth; he made pretty good money after all. Maybe in a couple of years they would have a couple of kids. The schools were pretty good in the neighborhood. I’m riffing in between the lines here, but you get the picture. Mary would have had plans for her life. She was a bride-to-be. And Mary had to lay those plans down. There was a moment, even if it was only a moment, recorded by Luke, when the Incarnation did not seem like good news to Mary.
Mary’s question is so often our question when faced with a significant change of plans: “How can this be?”
“How can this be?” is the question of the worker who is “downsized” after twenty years service to a business.
“How can this be?” is the question of the high school senior who had always dreamed of going to that particular university, and receives a letter that begins “we regret to inform you.”
“How can this be?” is a very human question, the question so many of us ask when we face significant loss and significant change.
BUT the story does not end there.
The story does not end with loss. In fact, the loss is only a moment, an important moment, a game-changing moment, but only a moment. The words of the Angel ring true. “Nothing is impossible with God.” I wonder how long it actually took Mary to respond. It only takes until the next sentence in Luke’s Gospel, but I doubt it was really that instantaneous. The loss of a dream takes time to accept. I wonder how many minutes, days, weeks, even months, it took Mary. I wonder how many months it took Mary to utter her line, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
The Good News, for us, is that Mary does utter her line. Mary becomes a paradigm for Christians facing the loss of their dreams. Mary is known, especially in the Eastern Church, as the God-bearer, the Theotokos. Mary reminds us to bear with God, to bear with God even through the pain of loss. Mary becomes the paradigm of looking for God’s good news, even when your own life is not going as planned.
This Bible story is too quickly skipped over on the way to the manger. The story of Mary is a story of finding hope even as your plans crumble around you. I work now with the Episcopal Church’s office of young adult and campus ministries, and this may be one of the best stories for folks in their twenties and thirties. A young woman’s plans have to radically shift. She has to let go of the image she had for her life. How often does that happen to young adults? In this antic moment of Mary’s story, she finds a way to turn fear into hope.
Mary’s transition from “how can this be?” to “let it be with me” is Good News for all of us, at any stage of life. You all have the blessing of a rector who makes a habit of helping people navigate big transitions in life. Your rector has helped people hatch all sorts of new plans, but the work does not just belong to Scott. The business of the church, the church that you and I are members of, is to help the world turn from fear to hope, like Mary did.