What is Faith? Part two: Keep the Faith.

This morning I’m continuing a series I started last week. I’m asking the question: What is faith?

As I said last week, the nature of the church seems to be changing, as is the nature of our question. Faith used to be a given. It’s changing some places faster than others. Down South, people still often ask you WHERE you go to church. They don’t ask IF you go to church. The question has been, and this used to be true across quite a bit of our country: “Where do you go to church?” It was roughly equivalent to the St. Louis question. “Where’d you go to High School.” Church was a given, and where you went to church said something about your social location. I grew up out West, and then I lived for a long time in California. Out there people don’t ask “Where do you go to church” Instead they ask, surprised, “Wait, you go to church?” Question mark.

Faith is not a given anymore. Questioning your faith doesn’t make you a pariah the way it used to. Now, as a professional preacher, I probably shouldn’t say this, but I think the decline of “given” faith might be a good thing. Questioning your faith, that can be a very good thing. If you have doubts, hold on to them. Don’t let go to quickly. Doubts are important. Doubts cause us to ask questions. I don’t think God wants us to simply swallow the faith we’ve been handed. God wants us to wrestle. We are created with the capacity for reason. If you have doubts, embrace them, work them over, ask why. The view of God and the world that emerges, the faith that comes, through wrestling doubts is often subtler, more durable, and more useful in a crisis.

The Gospel this morning is heavy for a summer morning. Really all the readings are quite tough, but the Gospel is particularly hard. Jesus is angry. “Do you think I have come to bring peace? No, I tell you, but rather division! (Exclamation point). It’s a strong statement. I think Jesus is trying to wake people up. Do you think this is simple? Do you think God, in your lifetime, is just going to clean up all of the messes? Jesus needs you to doubt that kind of simplistic faith.

The Unitarian minister and abolitionist Theodore Parker coined the phrase that Dr. King often quoted and refined while he worked for Civil Rights:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

God’s work can sometimes feel painstakingly slow. The work of liberation often takes much longer than it should. Faith is for the difficult times. Faith is for the hard slogs. There’s a reason our Presiding Bishop’s favorite tag line is “keep the faith.” Often we need reminding.

Then there are moments of breakthrough. Moments after climbing out of the pool this week, Simone Manuel looked at a camera and said, “All glory to God.” She is the first African-American woman ever to win an Individual Gold medal in swimming. Now, when athletes express religion on TV, I always get a little nervous. Tim Tebow used to make my eyes cross. Faith in athletics usually seems to come when the touchdown is scored or the game is one. Faith, it seems, is for the victors. The kind of religion that is most often displayed during professional sports doesn’t leave a lot of room for doubt.

But Simone Manuel both praised God and questioned the status quo. She later went on to say that her medal meant a lot, “with what is going on in the world today, some of the issues of police brutality. This win hopefully brings hope and change to some of the issues that are going on. My color just comes with the territory.” See, a few years ago, Simone wouldn’t have been allowed in a public pool in St. Louis. She wouldn’t have been allowed to train. There’s an old stereotype that African Americans can’t swim. Well, it’s hard to learn when you’re not allowed in the pool.

But little black girls in swim classes today have a role model, a now multiple medalist.  You know what, it’s not just little black girls who can look up to her. She’s a champion for all God’s children to admire. To swim that well, given what she’s faced took faith. It took guts.

Now, stay with me. I’m going to turn now. I want to spend some time this morning talking about the faith of another woman of color. Tomorrow is the Feast Day of St. Mary the Virgin. (It also happens to be Ellis and my anniversary of our legal wedding, on the Feast of St. Mary the Virgin, which always makes me giggle.) St. Mary the Virgin, the mother of Jesus.

Now don’t worry. I used to preach about Mary in a historic Episcopal Church in Washington DC. On the outside of our early American building were six inch tall letters that proclaimed that we were “PROTESTANT.” I know that some of you believe yourselves to be an a Protestant Episcopal Church. I still preach about Mary. I love Mary. She is an amazing example of faith.

Somehow in the aftermath of the Reformation, the Romans ended up with Mary. Catholics are supposed to adore Mary, and Protestants are supposed to be suspicious about her. Have you seen the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun?” The scene where Diane Lane’s character talks about Mary? She buys this big villa in Tuscany, and in the master bedroom, the headboard of her bed includes a giant icon of the Virgin Mary. At first she’s not thrilled about Mary standing watch over her bed. She’s newly single. Who needs a judgy Mary in your headboard? But then one night Lane’s character is woken by a violent thunderstorm, and finds herself grateful for Mary standing with her, “knowing full well I’m not a Catholic.”

So, if you find yourself drawn to Mary that is okay. Really.  You don’t have to start praying the rosary if you don’t want to.   But if you want to, let’s talk. I think Mary is one of the most helpful images of what it means to have faith. Mary helps us understand that real faith takes risks. Somehow a pregnant teenage girl, a girl who could have been stoned to death because she was not yet married and was pregnant, somehow this young girl kept the faith. In the midst of it all, Mary found a way to proclaim the greatness of the Lord, to allow her spirit to rejoice. Mary had a faith that wasn’t easy, it wasn’t simple.  Her faith was deep enough that she knew, she knew that the socially unacceptable child she would birth would knock the mighty from their thrones and lift up the humble and the poor.

Laurie Gudim, a lay Episcopalian from Fort Collins, Colorado wrote a few years ago on a blog I sometimes follow, the Daily Episcopalian, about Mary. She wrote out of frustration about the passive, submissive vision of Mary we so often hear.  We don’t need that fake Mary, she wrote:

We need the real Mary. We need her guts, her willingness to turn aside from everything her family had planned for her….We need the Mary who went on to live a multidimensional life: being a wife and raising children in the home of her spouse, a man who also listened well to God. We need to envision her having bad days and screaming at the kids, being terrified and mortified, feeling powerless and enraged. And then we need to envision her moments of wild, exuberant joy… how she hummed as she baked bread early in the morning, how she laughed with her girlfriends and cousins – and how she raised Jesus and his siblings in a boisterous Jewish household, teaching Jesus what she could about love.

Mary lived what was in many ways a very ordinary, very difficult life. In the midst of that life, her faith allowed her to see God’s hand at work. For Mary, Jesus was not some benign smiling shepherd. Jesus was gritty. She knew. She changed his diapers.  She was there when they executed him. I think we need the faith of Mary, gritty faith. Real faith. Faith that sees you through the difficult and ugly moments of life.

The letter to the Hebrews this morning finishes a long section on the faith of our ancestors. It includes that great phrase, “we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses.”  Our faith is the faith of Mary, the gritty faith of a young unwed mother. Our faith is the faith of Simone Manuel, who overcame history and the odds and won gold. Our faith is the faith of Oscar Romero, the faith of Desmond Tutu, the faith of Dorothy Stang, a nun murdered by Brazilian ranchers for her activism to save the Amazon. Our faith has been shared by countless saints and sinners, remembered and hidden, who have kept faith in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Our faith is shared by countless women and men who have changed the course of history, who left behind a world that was a little more loving, more peaceful, more just.

When he described faith as “the opiate of the masses” Karl Marx was not describing these folks. The saints of God are gritty.  Their faith is real. As St. Augustine said, it should not seem small that we consider ourselves part of one body with people of faith like these. As theologian Elizabeth Johnson wrote, “their adventure of faith opens a way for us.”  We are surrounded by the faithful lives of so many who gave not less than everything.

Jesus’ words this morning are not simply the grumpy words of a beleaguered prophet. Jesus words remind us that faith is not only about peace and comfort. Faith often comes with doubts. God can handle your doubts. And faith sees you though the difficult times. Faith is for those who, with God, are bending the moral arc of the universe toward justice. Jesus’ words remind us that faith is gritty, that faith is real. Keep the faith.

Annunciation, a sermon at St. Mary the Virgin San Francisco

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.

virgin-mary-pregnancy-test-billboard

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.

PAUSE

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?”

PAUSE

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. 

Amen

Getting real with Mary

Are you ready?  Do you have everything together?  You must.  You have time for church today.  Most folks are saving their church time for tomorrow.  So maybe this crowd is the calm, the cool, the collected.  Maybe not.  The fourth week of Advent is really short this year.  The last candle won’t burn very long, but before the season is over, we will spend some time with Mary.  Mary spends three months with her cousin Elizabeth, and we don’t have that kind of time, but I think it is important we spend some time with Mary, in light of all that is going on in our world.
We have some baggage about Mary, so let’s unpack that for a minute.  We Protestants tend to get spooked by the Mother of Jesus, because well, isn’t she a Catholic?  Incidentally, one of my favorite things to look for when I visit a Roman Catholic church is the statue of Mary, particularly in Latin America.  Almost invariably she has her hands folded in prayer, and almost always someone has draped a rosary over her hands.  The idea of Mary praying the rosary just makes me giggle.  Can you hear her? “Hail me, full of grace, the Lord is with Me.  Blessed am I among women…”  I always get a chuckle out of that.  So for you who are suspicious of Mary on theological grounds, I want to assure you that the Gospel of Luke was written a long time before Mary converted to Catholicism.  We can talk about Mary in the Episcopal church.
What I really want to unpack about Mary comes from the Gospel of Luke..  Of the Gospel writers, Luke is really the Walt Disney.  Luke is the Gospel we read at Christmas, because Luke gives us the shepherds and the angels, he gives us the manger and the flocks by night.  Luke gives us the good story, the Disney version   Mary is sort of the Disney princess of the first chapters of Luke’s Gospel.  Think about it.  She even bursts into song in today’s Gospel.  The Mary we get in Luke is probably about as close to the Mary of history as Disney’s Pocahantas was to her real life counterpart.
Disney is great when you’re a little kid in a pageant.  But Luke was writing 90-100 years after the story occurred, and Luke cleaned up the story.  I think is important to move beyond the Disney princess Mary.  We have to read between the lines in Luke’s story if we’re going to get a clearer picture of Mary, Jesus’ mother.  The Mary of history is very different from the traditions that have grown up around her.
From what we know, Mary was young: 12 or 14.  Mary was poor.  This was an inopportune time to find out she was pregnant.  We can understand why Mary would run, with haste, to her cousin Elizabeth.  After she finds out she’s pregnant, she doesn’t run to Joseph.  How can she tell her fiance she is pregnant?  He thinks she is a Virgin.  So she runs away.  Mary is a scared teenage girl who runs away, far off to a town in the hills of Judea, to her favorite cousin’s house.  She spends three months getting herself together.  Elizabeth reassures her.  She has a sense that all will be well.  Her own child kicked when Mary showed up, surely that is a sign.  God is with them.

Mary billboard from St. Matthew's Anglican Church in Auckland, NZ
Mary billboard from St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Auckland, NZ

For me, the lesson Mary learns over those three months with is really captured in the third line of her song.  “God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”  Mary is feeling low.  She is scared and frustrated and so she runs off to the Judean hill country.   But there in those three months, Mary learned to see her situation as a blessing.  Mary began to believe that God could work in and through this incredibly difficult situation.  Mary found faith in a God who could bring blessing out of pain.
Mary learned the hard lesson of the spiritual life.  Faith is not about having your life all together.  Faith is not about having answers.  In fact, if you have all the answers, if you have it all together, you can’t have faith.  You don’t need faith if you have everything all together, if you have all the answers.  Faith is for the confused and the frustrated.  Faith is for the downtrodden and the brokenhearted.  Faith is for people who don’t have the answers.  Faith is for all of us human beings struggling to make sense of life.
Faith is for those of us struggling to make sense of what is happening in our world.  I have to tell you that my experience of the past week, and what has gone on in Newtown Connecticut has a particular slant.  I went to a charter school just a few miles from Columbine High, and I was in my sophomore English class on the afternoon of April 20, 1999 when I heard what happened.  Kids I had known since kindergarten hid under tables in the cafeteria as their classmates perpetrated that terrible school shooting.
I hate that Columbine did not spell the end of violence in schools.  In light of the events of Newtown, I join the Bishop of Washington in calling for better overall gun control with specific bans on assault weapons.  I join the Bishop in calling for better access to mental health care.  There is a time for prayer, and there is a time for action.  This is a time for both.  We need new policies about guns and mental health in this country, and we have needed them for a long long time, too long.

These policies need to focus on the health of all of our communities, ALL.  The events in Newtown were particularly tragic, but they are also, tragically, not unique.  Children die as a result of violence far too often in this city and in this country.  I remember people saying about Columbine, “if it could happen here, it could happen anywhere.”  Let’s be honest, Columbine was not a racially diverse school, it was not an economically diverse school.  Columbine received magnified attention because people were surprised that violence was happening at an upper-middle-class white suburban high school.  We don’t always hear as much from the media.  We have come to expect violence in certain neighborhoods and communities.  This is wrong.  God dreams for more for us than EXPECTING VIOLENCE.
I think we need to spend some time with Mary, the real Mary, not the Disney-fied Mary, because she helps us understand what it means to be a person of faith in a dark time.  I believe in Mary, a scared teenage girl who ran away when she found out she was pregnant.  I believe she felt humiliated and frustrated.  I believe she felt like her world was coming to an end.

I believe God met Mary, in those frightening three months, like God meets us.  I believe God comes to us in what can seem like the darkest moments of our life.  In the midst of terror, in the midst of frustration, when we are at our wit’s end, that is when we need God.  Faith is for the frustrated.  Faith is for those who don’t have the answers.  Faith is for people who need some help.  Faith is for people who dream of a better world.

Something happened to Mary between the lines of our Gospel reading this morning.  She changed from the scared girl who ran away into the Mother of Jesus, strong enough to bear with God through humiliating circumstances.  Mary’s most ancient title is theokotos, the God bearer.  It is one of the difficult and beautiful teachings of the Christian faith.  Mary, that scared teenage girl, brings God’s presence into the world.  God chooses to be born in the midst of suffering.  That girl who ran away somehow, through faith, becomes the one who brings God’s presence into the world.

We are, all of us, bearers of God, like Mary.  In little, humble, simple, ways we all help God to be born in each others lives.  Giving birth to God’s presence isn’t easy.  Bearing God means learning to have faith in the midst of pain.  Bearing God means facing derision, means facing suffering.  But our world needs us to bear God.  We can be bearers of God in the way we legislate.  We can be bearers of God in the way we do business.  We can be bearers in God in the way we forgive one another.  We can be bearers of God in the way we shape our communities.  We can be bearers of God in the way we laugh, and cry together.  All of our souls can magnify the Lord.  This Christmas are you ready? Will you bear God to this broken and yet beautiful world?