Sunday, April 8, 2018

4-8-18 - “Coming Out: Leaving Comfortable Places," 2nd in the "Emerge!" Series

4-8-18  - “Coming Out: Leaving Comfortable Places”

   I suppose one of the first “comfortable places” we need to come out of or emerge from today is the idea that this passage of scripture is exclusively an Advent reading. After all, that’s when we typically read this this story, in anticipation of Jesus’ coming at Christmas. So hearing it in the season of Easter might move our thinking into a difficult space. But let’s set aside our usual thinking on Mary’s encounter with Gabriel and approach it from a different angle.

   We often hear and understand this story as being about Mary’s faithful response to God. Mary is nearly deified in some corners as a result of her response. Songs, poems, and prayers lift her up in myriad ways. And that is not an inaccurate reading, it’s just not the only way to consider what’s going on here. 
   So I want you to notice this one thing as you think about this passage: before Mary says “yes,” she is blessed. “Rejoice, favored one,” the angel says, “The Lord is with you.” And then just a moment later Gabriel adds, “God is honoring you!” In three different ways, the angel of God imparts to Mary the fact that she is blessed by God. Why is this important, you might ask? Because it not only reveals Mary’s important role in this Gospel story, but it also reveals a central dynamic of the Christian faith that is often lost or overlooked.

   So let’s first consider Mary. As David Lose reminds us, “Mary is hailed as a model of faith for her acceptance of the role God invites her to play as the mother of Jesus. And for good reason. Throughout Luke’s Gospel, the willingness to trust the promises of God is the mark of discipleship. And so Elizabeth believes that in her old age she will nevertheless bear John, and the disciples believe they will fish for people, and the repentant thief believes Jesus is innocent and asks his blessing and so on. Similarly, Mary also believes God’s promises.”

   But here’s the key to understanding what’s happening here by way of a different lens than that through which we’re used to looking at this passage. 
What is it that Mary believes? Well, she clearly believes, or comes to believe, what the angel says will happen - that she will bear a child even though she has never slept with a man. 
But even before she arrives at that point, she believes that God noticed her, that God favors her, that God has blessed her, and that God has great plans for her. She not only hears it, but she believes it. 
   And this is what I think leads us to the central dynamic of not only the Gospel, but of the Christian life itself: the first, and in some ways most important, thing we are called to believe is that, in much the same way, God notices, favors, and blesses us. 
And once we believe that, we can do incredible things.

   Blessing, you see, is a powerful thing, in both the biblical literature and in contemporary life. But, unfortunately, it’s also a rare thing. We live in a world that seems geared toward rewards and punishments, and this is even more pronounced in the church where our ideas of right and wrong, of sin and righteousness, are shaped by the concept of “original sin,” that suggests we’re all born sinners, that sin is our natural state of being, and that the only way to overcome that state is to repent and be saved. But in giving “original sin” so much sway over our lives, we abdicate the role of blessing, we forget that before sin is introduced into the Adam and Eve storyline, for that matter, before Adam and Eve are introduced into the story line, there is “original blessing.” As God spoke into existence each component of creation, God declared them “good.” When Creation was completed God pronounced it all “very good.” God imparted blessing on all of creation; blessedness was that state of existence well before sin was introduced. The state of God’s blessing precedes and transcends any identification with sinfulness. Nothing, not even sin, can separate us from the love, the blessing, of God.

   But because our culture has, for centuries, put so much emphasis on reward and punishment based on behavior deemed either good or bad, worthy or unworthy, whether at work, school, church, or even home, we’ve been conditioned to expect people to give us only what we deserve. That kind of “stinking thinking” has become a “comfortable place” in our lives, whether we like it or not. In fact, we engage in that same kind of dualistic judgment of others ourselves. 
But that’s not how blessing works. Blessing is never deserved, it’s always a gift. Blessings intrude, interrupt, and ultimately disrupt our comfortable quid pro quo world to announce that someone sees us as worthy and special apart from anything we’ve done.

   And perhaps because it’s so rare, we also find it hard to believe. We’re skeptical of this notion of blessedness, bordering even on being cynical. 
Mary is certainly skeptical - she has her doubts about this whole idea of being favored by God. "What have I done,” Mary may wonder, “to merit God’s notice and favor.” But that’s just what blessing is – unmerited and undeserved regard and favor.
 And as the blessing sinks in, Mary is able to open herself to the work of the Holy Spirit to use her to bless the whole world through her willingness to carry Jesus. Which is why it’s important that we notice that before Mary says “yes,” she is blessed.
   And here’s why that is important: I think most people have a hard time believing that God favors, or even notices them, too. Now, that’s not the case with Sundays - most of us figure God notices us on Sundays, if only to see if we’ll make it to church. But we wonder if God even notices us, let alone favors us, the rest of the week. Work, school, our home life – these can seem like such mundane things and hardly worth God’s attention. And yet in this story we hear about God noticing and blessing someone, an unwed teenage girl, who by all accounts is a nobody in the ancient world. 
And when this nobody young girl believes God’s blessing and accepts God’s favor, the world begins to turn.

   But what happens often times, at least in our heads, is that in looking backwards 2,000 years through a lens of historic Christianity, we ascribe to Mary a kind of “specialness” that diminishes what this story is telling us - thinking “she’s not REALLY, a normal, everyday teen. There’s something special about her, that why God chose her…or Abraham, or Moses, or Elijah, or whoever. If we deny what I would call their “pre-emergent nothingness,” if you will, then the story, all of the stories, lose their meaning. If Mary is somehow more “special” than others before the angel addresses her, then what’s the big deal? 
Scripture makes the point throughout that God uses every day, normal, nobodies to do God’s work. When we refuse to accept their “nobody-ness” in order to excuse ourselves, we deny the Gospel. And that is one reason this passage is so important to be understood in a new way, not because it lifts up Mary as some kind of exception, but rather because it identifies her as an example of what can happen when you believe that God notices, favors, and blesses you, regardless of who you are: because God, through you, may just change the world!

   So there are two things I invite you to do, and both are very easy. First, just look around the congregation. Take a moment, look from row to row, face to face, and see the people who are gathered here today. Each of these are persons who, like you, are favored by God and through whom God plans to do marvelous things. Perhaps not conceive and bear the Son of God, but so what -- that one's been done already anyway! But think how many other wonderful things there are that God wants to accomplish through us, so many that you and I couldn't begin to count them all. 
And yet each person here is in all kinds of places and positions to do those wonderful things.That is, if we are willing to come out of the comfortable place that we and our culture have built for us that tell us that God doesn’t notice us, that God doesn’t care about us, that we don’t deserve God’s blessing, that we’re not worthy of God’s love. 

   And the second thing I want you do is simply this. Close your eyes for a moment and just think about the week that lies ahead for you. Starting from when you leave here today, think about what you will be doing this afternoon, this evening. Think about who you will be with. Think about what Monday holds for you, and Tuesday, and so on. Consider the things you will be doing, the places you’ll go, what people you will encounter. And think about how in each of these circumstances God is noticing you and blessing you so that you might be a blessing to the world. It might take a while for you to see this, to believe this. After all, so many of the voices in our lives and culture conspire to make us feel worthless and alone. But in time, if we can say it again and again, it may just sink in that God has noticed, favored, and blessed us so that we might in turn bless and change the world.

   You know, it has been suggested to me that I preach love too much, that I don’t talk about rewards and punishment enough. And that’s an accusation I can live with. But I have never denied that there are consequences to the choices we make - there certainly are. I just don’t think living in fear is what God desires for us. The world will tell us over and over again that we mean nothing, that we’re all garbage or sinners or that we’re rotten to the core but that they, whoever “they” are can fix us. But the gospel tells us otherwise. The gospel tells us that God loves us, and blesses us. The gospel tells us that first and foremost, before we are anything else, we are beloved children of God. In the hour or so I have on Sunday mornings to relay to you the gospel, you don’t need me to repeat the world’s condemning mantra that we are all slugs - you need to hear, and I believe God wants you to hear, that you are loved by the God who created you and blessed you to be a blessing to others, and that there is nothing you can do about that. And if that makes you squirm, then I invite you to come out of that comfortable but destructive place, to emerge and embrace the blessing that is yours through the God who loves you more than you will ever know, not because of who or what you are or have done, but because that’s who God is.

   So in closing today, I invite you to join me in Mary’s litany of blessing:

Greetings, favored ones. The Lord is with you and plans to do great things through you. 
How can this be?
Whether at work or school, whether at home or in the world, the Holy Spirit is with you and will guide you in all you do and say so that you may be a blessing to the world.
Let it be according to your word.


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