Wednesday, December 18, 2013

“Hail, Mary” - December 15, 2013

Text: Luke 1:26-38

If you are even a casual football fan, you are probably familiar with the “Hail Mary.”  Your team is behind, there are only seconds remaining in the game, you have maybe 40 or 50 yards to go or more and there is only time for one desperate play, so your quarterback heaves the ball into the end zone, if he can throw it that far, and you pray that somebody on your team catches the ball and wins the game.

Sometimes it works.  The most famous Hail Mary was probably the Boston College vs. Miami game a number of years ago when in a high-scoring back and forth game, Doug Flutie threw the ball into the end zone as time expired and his teammate brought down the pass to win the game for Boston College.  That pass led to what college admissions counselors called the Flutie Effect, as there was a huge increase in college applications to Boston College the next year.

Every football team will practice the Hail Mary play, and seeing as though the Cyclones have frequently been in desperate situations late in the game, I have no doubt that ISU spends time practicing this play.

Well, why call it a Hail Mary?  Essentially, the pass is a prayer.  For years, Notre Dame had used what it called Hail Mary plays, but the term was popularized when Roger Staubach of the Dallas Cowboys threw a desperation, game-winning pass.  Staubach was hit as he threw the ball and had no idea that Drew Pearson had made a miraculous catch and won the game.  Talking about it afterwards, Staubach, a devout Catholic, said that he threw it and said a Hail Mary.

Now the term is so common that if you google Hail Mary, the football play comes up before the Hail Mary prayer.  I’m not kidding.

But for many more people, and for centuries before football was even invented, “Hail Mary” is a prayer.  The Hail Mary is the best known prayer of Catholic devotion, but it is not what we generally expect to hear in a Baptist church on a Sunday morning.  The fact is, Protestants in general aren’t sure what to do with Mary.

Peter Gomes, who died almost two years ago now, was the minister at the Memorial Church at Harvard.  He told a story about Dean William Ralph Inge, whom he said was known as the “gloomy dean” of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  (This has nothing to do with the story, but how would you like to be known as the “gloomy dean?”  It would be like saying that I am the gloomy pastor, which I guess would make Susan the cheerful pastor.)

Anyway, according to the story, when Inge died, he was ushered into the presence of God.  Jesus came down from God’s right hand and said, “Ah, Mr. Dean, welcome to heaven.  I know you have met my father, but I don’t believe you have met my mother.”

We don’t always pay much attention to Mary.  It might be obvious, but without Mary, there is no birth.  Without her, there is no Christmas. 

Hail, Mary.  The Hail Mary, or Ave Maria, is the best known Catholic devotional prayer.  “Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”  The prayer is based on scripture from Luke chapter 1.  In our reading, the angel appears to Mary and says, “Greetings, favored one!”  Or in another translation, “Hail, thou who art full of grace.”  And then later in the chapter, when Mary visits her older cousin Elizabeth, who is also with child, Elizabeth says to Mary, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

As we think about “The Cast of Christmas” - the various people who had a part in the events surrounding the birth of Jesus and the announcement of that birth - we can hardly go without considering Mary. 

The angel Gabriel - a messenger sent from God – appears to Mary and delivers a message.  He says, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.  You will conceive and give birth to a son and he will be the savior of the world.  He will reign forever and his kingdom will never end.”

This sort of thing does not happen just every day.  Or ever.  Can you imagine what this experience must have been like?

It isn’t easy to be confronted with a message from God.  We know from Mary’s words and from the angel Gabriel’s response to her that she was perplexed and afraid.  And that is probably Luke’s very understated way of putting it.

We do not have a record of Mary’s thoughts as this conversation was going on, but I can imagine some of the questions she had.

First – "Am I hallucinating?  Is this real?  Is this a dream?" 

And then, "This is making no sense.  Why me?  Of all people, how did I get chosen?  Are you sure you have the right address?  Are you sure you have the right town?  I’m sure there must be some huge mistake."

But the question she asks out loud to the angel is a very practical, and very reasonable question.  Mary is a young girl, maybe 13 or 14, scholars say.  She is young, she is not sophisticated, she is not experienced with angels or men or  the ways of the world, but she knows enough to understand basic biology and she knows that there is no way, that it would be impossible for her to have a child.

But the angel tells her that this will be the work of the Holy Spirit, and that nothing is impossible for God.

There are no doubt other thoughts and questions, and there will be plenty more.  Like, "Will Joseph stick around, will my parents still love me, will I be dragged into town and stoned for sleeping around?  And you say the child will be the king of Israel, but what about me?  Will the pregnancy go alright, will there be someone there to help me when the time comes, will I survive the birth?"

There were a great number of unknowns, but the one near-certainty was that this would not be easy.  Nevertheless, Mary says Yes.  “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

There are those who have characterized Mary here as quiet, submissive, and obedient, and not in a good way.  There are those who read this and see Mary as being passive through the whole experience.  Some have a hard time making Mary a role model because girls need to learn to be active and engaged.  They need to learn to be leaders, to take charge.  The vibe that you can get from Mary is kind of backward, too meek, too deferential.  One could draw the conclusion that being faithful means being passively submissive.

I don’t think that’s the case.  I don’t think that is a fair reading of the text.  Is Mary’s obedience more demeaning than Jesus, when in the garden he says “Not my will, but thy will be done?”

There are those times when strength may be seen in submission.  God gives her the power to become what she was created to do and become.  Mary affirms the promise that is in her.  You could understand Mary giving birth to Jesus in the same vein as Bach writing the music he was given to write, or Rembrandt painting with the gift he was given, or Mother Teresa doing the work she was called to do.  Mary said yes to God the same as Isaiah and Elijah and John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul, and in saying yes, she discovered her life’s work.

Finals start tomorrow.  Some students will be graduating next weekend.  Other will graduate in the spring, or the next year, or the next, at least hopefully.  And the question that gets asked, and gets asked more often the closer you are to graduation, is “What’s next?”  “What are you going to do next year,” or “What are you going to do after you graduate?”

So often the response is, “I don’t know” or “I wish I knew.”  And it’s not just those finishing school; there are plenty of folks a good bit older trying to figure out what their life is about.

The notion of an angel appearing and delivering a message about your life, about your future, about your place in the big picture of God’s purposes, might scare you to death.  It would me.  But if you really think about it, it might be a good thing.  It might be a wonderful thing – to know what it is we are called to do, to know what our life is about.

In Mary’s conversation with the angel Gabriel, she discovered who she was, who she was meant to be.  She discovered her vocation and calling.  And it wasn’t so much that she passively submitted to the plans placed on her; she decided to use her life furthering God’s plan for this world, a plan of which she was a vital part.

Mary said yes.  She was the only one, the only one in the history of the world, who had that particular decision to make.  She said yes to carrying, giving birth to, and raising the Son of God. 

We are not going to be confronted with that particular decision, but our stories are not completely unlike Mary’s.  We talk a lot about all of the choices we have, but sometimes, not infrequently, our plans and visions of the future give way to the plans that life has for us.  Sudden illnesses, surprise babies, family emergencies, economic upheavals, unforeseen opportunities can overwhelm our best-laid plans and confront us with new callings. 

I have been thinking about Nelson Mandela, who died last week.  Most of you are familiar with his story: as a leader in the African National Congress, he was arrested and sentenced to life in prison by the apartheid regime in South Africa.  At his trial, he said:
I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die. 
Mandela served 27 years in prison on Robben Island.  He was finally released in 1990, days after the ANC was unbanned.  He was elected president of South Africa three years later.  And the choices he made would determine the fate of that country.

Amazingly, Mandela chose forgiveness and reconciliation.   The nation could have descended into civil war, but the care and respect he had for all people, even his former enemies, changed the nation.

Sometimes the circumstances we find ourselves in create the opportunity for greatness.  Nobody would have guessed it when he was born, but the times Mandela lived in and the extreme personal hardships he endured helped make him not only a national hero, but a world leader like no other in our time.

The same could be said of Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr.  The times we live in, the situations we face, can call forth greatness.

On paper, you wouldn’t think Mary had much going for her: young, poor, in a backwater country, not born to a family of privilege or power.  But Mary lived at the right time, a time when God chose to act in human history, and God called her.

“Greetings, favored One!” said the angel.  “The Lord is with you!”  “Hail Mary, full of grace.”  But here is the thing: Mary was not chosen because she was full of grace.  She was full of grace because God chose her.  God did not set our looking for the perfect young woman to bear Jesus.  It was more a case of because she consented to God’s call, Mary was the perfect one for the job.

The Eastern Orthodox Church calls Mary theotokos – god-bearer, the one who brings God, in Jesus, into the world. 

Meister Eckhart, a medieval mystic and theologian, wrote “we are all meant to be Mothers of God.”  It sounds weird, sounds really odd at first, but he is exactly right.  We are all called to carry into the world something of the grace and love and compassion and holiness of God which we have been given.  It’s not just Mary, and it’s not just the Nelson Mandelas of this world, it’s you and me.  We all have those times when life overtakes whatever plans we may have made, and in those moments it is for us to say yes or no to God’s call.  The way we respond – our yes or no – makes a huge difference.

Mary is an example of faith for us.  She gives birth to Jesus and is there with him all of his life.  At a wedding in Cana, the wine was running low, and Mary asked Jesus to act.  She knew what was in him, and he performed his first sign, or miracle.  Mary continued to be there for her son, through his ministry and right to the foot of the cross.

“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”  Mary’s role was unique.  But I don’t think it is too much of a stretch this morning to say,

Hail, Jenna
Hail, Pat
Hail, Emma
Hail, Dustin
Hail to each of you!
Hail, First Baptist: the Lord is with you.  And it is for us to say Yes.  Amen.

I am indebted to Peter Gomes and Barbara Brown Taylor for inspiration for this sermon.

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