Monday, December 4, 2017

12-3-17 “I Believe in the Sun” - The “I Believe, Even When…” Series

12-3-17  “I Believe in the Sun” - The “I Believe, Even When…” Series

   PBS is broadcasting a new documentary film from Ron Howard about the Beatles, called “Eight Days a Week: The Touring Years.” We saw it a couple of weeks ago, and I have to say, as a lifelong Beatles fan, it’s one of the best if not THE best Beatles documentary I’ve ever seen. If you haven’t caught it yet on PBS look for it - if you’re a fan at all you’ll enjoy it. 
   Among the the more poignant images in the film is to see how Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr have aged while John Lennon and George Harrison, both of whom died fairly early, remain eternally young. I remember reading in a Beatles fan magazine as a teenager a piece titled “When I’m 64” which offered artists’ renderings of how the Fab Four might look at that age. 
We’ll never know with John and George, but for Ringo and Paul, as I recall, it was pretty spot on. 
Especially for Paul.
   When you see Paul he’s clearly aged, but aged well, 
I think. He has developed jowls that were only hinted at earlier, he has crows feet around his eyes, and his hair 
is thinning and graying - but whose isn’t. 
But the so-called “cute Beatle” is 75 years old now. 
He can’t always hit the high notes in his songs anymore, but you know what he can do? He can still sell out stadium concerts in mere minutes.

   I got to thinking about Paul McCartney and the Beatles after seeing that documentary, but also as I was studying today’s scripture. That was a long reading today - the entire first chapter of the gospel of Luke- and there’s a lot in there to consider. Thanks to our readers for making it come alive for us. But think about the key things that happen in Luke 1:
  • There are two angel visitations in the first chapter. 
  • Two very different responses to those visitations. 
  • There’s the subject of barrenness -  introduced in our last series with Sarah that is revisited with Elizabeth this time. 
  • There’s Zacharias’ loss of his voice in the midst of performing the service in the Temple that he has trained for, waited for, his entire professional life - which could suggest a message on being heard, or who in our society isn’t being heard or has had their voice taken? There’s some really good stuff here. 
   Then there’s the whole shame issue at play with both Elizabeth and Mary - the one because she is old and has never been able to conceive a child - a sign that she has lost favor with or has even been cursed by God - and the other shamed because she is a teen age girl, unmarried but engaged, who is pregnant but Joseph ain’t the daddy! But it’s Mary's response, framed by Luke in the gospel as a song, that I want us to consider today. And what does she say? Let it be. Let it be with me according to your word. Let it be. 
McCartney put it this way:

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom,
"Let it be."
And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom,
"Let it be."

   So, amidst the cornucopia of potential messages in 
this passage, I want us to think about Mary today. Mary is venerated, that is, not worshiped but given a reverential respect by many Christians, especially by our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. Conversely, many Protestants and Evangelicals act as if she doesn’t exist - you NEVER hear about her. But the truth is, Mary is the first disciple, displaying radical faith and trust in God. 

   Marcia McFee invites us to think about it this way. Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “‘dark night of the soul,’ “a phrase often used to describe moments in our lives when light, understanding, and hope seems to elude us.” 
Well McFee points out that Mary, maybe fourteen years old at most, is “a young woman barely out of childhood [who] receives the message that she would bear a son out of wedlock - something that could have doomed her circumstances for her entire life.”  And we should remember, that angel didn’t come to her to ask her if this would be okay, the angel came to pronounce, fancy word for “tell” her that this was going to happen - the same thing the angel did with Zacharias. This wasn’t a consult, there was no negotiation. The only “negotiable” here, if you will, was how Mary would respond. And we see that she didn’t have a lot of time to think about it either. She didn’t get sleep on it, it was just there. Which makes her response all the more incredible, and genuine. The way she responds to this call of God on her life reflects who she was, and how she was. 
   And McFee suggests that it pushes this question onto us: 
“When things that seem irreparable happen in our lives, how can we turn perceived doom into a belief in an opportunity for rebirth?” More than “making lemonade out of life’s lemons,” or looking at the glass as “half full,” we’re talking about a kind of death and resurrection here. How do we allow God to transform the difficult, even unthinkable things that happen to us in that dark night, the consequences of our actions or decisions, or just life in general, into something that goes beyond us, something bigger than us, something that brings new life and new hope out of some kind of death or despair? 
How do we find the faith to go forward in the midst of life-altering circumstances?

   Unlike Zacharias, who, make no mistake, is a good 
and faithful man, Mary doesn’t express doubt. She never suggests that she doesn’t believe the angel in this annunciation like Zacharias does. She only asks the question, “how can this be?” And as Ken Carter puts it,  “The call of God is to an ordinary woman, and yet the call is to do something extraordinary. God chose an ordinary human being—Mary—to be the vessel through which the Son of God would be born.” And when the angel tells her, reminds her, assures her that nothing is impossible for God, her response is the purest, most honest profession of faith that, perhaps, has ever been spoken, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.”
Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be.
Whisper words of wisdom,
“Let it be.”

   As a result of this trust in God, Mary became a very special person in the life of the church. But in the moment, in the time leading up to this annunciation, Mary was just a normal person, going about her everyday life, doing the things that normal people did in that day. So in this busy time of the year, when we and others like us scurry about to get done the normal things that life brings to us at this time of year, it’s important to gain some clarity about what this message means for us. God calls, God uses normal everyday people, to accomplish God’s desires in the world, people like you and me. This is how God has always worked.

   In Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth he talks about this, saying, 
“Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But . . . God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (1 Corinthians 1:26-28).
   Or consider the series we just completed, about how God provides a way out of no way. God calls Abraham and Sarah, an elderly childless couple, to be the parents of a nation. Nobody saw that coming! 
Or Moses, who when called by God responded more like Zacharias than Mary, suggesting he was not a good public speaker and that his brother would be better candidate. And we find this throughout scripture, not just in our passage today. God calls ordinary, everyday people - Mary, you, me  - and makes extraordinary things happen when we respond in faith.
   Mary’s response is exactly that, a response of faith in the midst of almost tragic uncertainty. She understands, “I am an ordinary person. I am not perfect.” 

As Ken Carter says, 
“The good news of the gospel is that when God begins 
to search for us, God is not seeking perfection. 
God chooses the ordinary. God loves the unlovable. 
In fact, God reverses just about every expectation we might have of how the Lord would enter into this world and save it. 
Does God flatter the proud? No, God scatters the proud. 
Does God seek an invitation from the throne? No, God brings those from thrones down, and lifts up the lowly. Does God hang out at the finest restaurants? No, God throws a banquet for the poor. Does God choose a queen or a princess to be the mother of Jesus? No, God chooses [an unwed teenager,] Mary. Does God choose the wise, the noble, and the powerful in this world to accomplish the divine will? No, God chooses [murderers, adulterers, fishermen, tax collectors] you, and me. Does God love those who are lovable? Yes, and God loves the unlovable; God forgives the imperfect; God reaches out to the lost. Christmas is really all about this attribute of God, who loves us, who reaches out, down to us, who stoops to our weakness.” Who becomes one of us.

“And when the brokenhearted people
Living in the world agree
There will be an answer,
Let it be.
And though they may be parted
There is still a chance that they will see
There will be an answer,
Let it be.”

   In the first chapter of his gospel, Luke retells the ongoing unfolding of God’s salvation history with the world, but he does it with both “drama and simplicity,” as Travis Franklin referred to it. “In a nutshell,” he offers, “God acts in life. Humans are encouraged to listen, question, seek understanding, and dialogue, but ultimately respond with trust and faith to what it is God is seeking to do.”

   And so in Advent, as we make our annual journey to the manger this story invites us to respond to God’s call once again. God comes to us, maybe not with the flash and flurry of the angel Gabriel, but in other ways that, if we are open and present to them, we will recognize. How does God come to us? Maybe it’s in a message like this, or in a song, or at Christ’s table. Perhaps God’s angel is the homeless person we meet on the street, or while serving at the free store, or in the food panty. Or maybe God’s angel is the person in the car in front of us that we honked at because they didn’t go fast enough when the light turned green. Maybe God intrudes on your life through a book or a movie or a poem. Or maybe God’s call to faith comes in the midst of a tough diagnosis, or when you’ve just learned that you’re going to be laid off, or when tragedy visits you or your family. Such intrusions by the God who is always present with us often catch us off guard in these moments, when we’ve been trained to look for mighty angels or chubby cherubs with wings and trumpets making bold proclamations. Still, such intrusions into life, even when hidden in the still small voice of God, always call for a response from us. 

   These moments in life, depending on how we respond, can strengthen us in our faith, or they can destroy us. When Lynn’s brother Bob and his wife Louann died in their accident three years ago, it would have been very easy to get lost in anger or worse towards the young man whose carelessness led to their death. 
Sadly, that’s how many on Louann’s side of the family have responded. And we can all understand that reaction to some degree because that seems like the response that our culture, our society, often breeds. Lynn’s side of the family, though, realizing early that hating this young man would only hold them captive but do nothing to him, chose to respond with a grace born of their faith. Was it challenging? Absolutely it was. But even as it took little time for them to get there - it was a natural ultimate response for them because that’s how they are.

   The poem that inspires this series, written by an unknown prisoner and found on the wall of a German concentration camp in World War II, speaks to the kind of faith that carries a person through the most difficult of times, the kind of faith that Mary exhibited as a way of life: 

“I believe in the sun
even when it is not shining
And I believe in love,
even when there’s no one there.
And I believe in God,
even when he is silent.
I believe through any trial,
there is always a way.
But sometimes in this suffering
and hopeless despair
My heart cries for shelter,
to know someone’s there.
But a voice rises within me, saying hold on
my child, I’ll give you strength,
I’ll give you hope. Just stay a little while.”

   It’s this kind of faith, I believe, that leads God to Mary in the first place because God knew Mary’s heart, knew Mary’s faith. And her response is one of ultimate trust in God. She had no way of knowing what was going to happen, but she understood the stigma, the public shaming this would place on her. 
And she had to understand that this would be difficult for Joseph as well. But in order to say “yes, let it be with me as you say,” she also had to trust that God was at work in Joseph as well. 
   And the passage says that she immediately went up to the hill country to see her cousin Elizabeth, who, the angel had just told her, was also having a baby. And the Holy Spirit is present in this moment as these two mothers-to-be and these two holy children come together. And in this moment, Mary’s response takes on an even deeper meaning as she embraces what God is doing in and through her and her yet unborn child.

"My soul lifts up the Lord! 
    My spirit celebrates God, my Liberator!
    For though I’m God’s humble servant,
        God has noticed me.
    Now and forever,
        I will be considered blessed by all generations. 
    For the Mighty One has done great things for me;
        holy is God’s name!
    From generation to generation,
        God’s loving kindness endures
        for those who revere Him. 
    God’s arm has accomplished mighty deeds.
        The proud in mind and heart,
        God has sent away in disarray. 
    The rulers from their high positions of power,
        God has brought down low.
    And those who were humble and lowly,
        God has elevated with dignity.
    The hungry—God has filled with fine food.
        The rich—God has dismissed with nothing in their hands.
    To Israel, God’s servant,
        God has given help,
    As promised to our ancestors,
        remembering Abraham and his descendants in mercy forever."

   As Rev. Alan Brehm points out, “While Mary’s song is a song of hope and joy, there’s just no way to avoid the fact that there is a barb in the good news that God is working to restore the human family. That barb is this—most of us fall into the category of the “full” and the “rich” who will be sent away hungry and empty-handed. Mary’s song of hope is a joyful one for those who are lowly, humble and humiliated, the least and the last. And yet, even here there is good news—the future Mary looked forward to is a vision of hope and of the restoration of the whole human family.  She saw in the birth of her son the establishment of the justice that makes it possible for all people to thrive, to reach their God-given potential, to experience the joy and the vibrancy that God intends for us all."

  "What that means for those of us who are “full” and “rich” here and now is that the only way for us to sing Mary’s song with the same kind of joy—the joy of the “lowly” being lifted up—is if we actually engage in God’s work of restoration. The only way for us to sing Mary’s song with joy and hope is for us to work at lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, and restoring those who are disenfranchised. 
That was what Jesus came to do—to begin God’s work of making all things new, of setting right the wrongs and lifting the burdens we all carry.  That’s why we celebrate Advent and Christmas.  It is a time for us to focus our attention on God’s work in this broken world. It is a time of looking for the salvation that God has promised, and a time of singing for joy over what God is already doing among us.  It is a time to celebrate the work of restoration God is carrying out in the human family—the whole human family. And it is a time for us to join that work.”

   Mary’s faith allows her to look beyond what’s right in front of her to God’s preferred future. Her faith is such that, even if she doesn’t understand what God wants to do in and through her, she trusts implicitly in God’s goodness and faithfulness. Even when her immediate future appears cloudy she believes firmly in the God who promised to turn the world upside down. 
   The issue for us always, however, is can we, like Mary, just let it be as God desires? Often, we need to know what’s next and be in control. Can we simply let go and let God, as they say? Mary’s faithful response provides us with a living illustration of how to be as we, too, ponder the Bethlehem stable. Without seeking to control or glamorize or add or overanalyze, can we just let the story be what it is this Christmas? Can we allow God to say what needs to be said through this simple birth? 
Can we step back in awe and wonder of a child and just ponder these things in our hearts and allow God to do what God needs to do with us, in us, and through us?

 Can we, when we don’t know what the future holds, when we don’t know how God will bring about good, can we believe in the sun even when it isn’t shining? Can we just let it be? Amen.

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