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How do we rebuild a broken land?
But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
4 Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
5 Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
6 I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth—
7 everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.” – Isaiah 43:1-7
Today’s passage from Isaiah is a beautiful piece of poetry. If I didn’t know this was from Isaiah, I might think it is from one of the Psalms, with the images offered and the way the lyrics flow – even though we aren’t reading them in the original language.
Isaiah is one of the prophets, but prophetic voice is not about predicting the future or fortune-telling. The prophetic voice is about speaking truth to power.
This passage in particular explores the power that fear and uncertainty can have over us.
So – let’s set the scene for this text. Jerusalem had been destroyed three generations earlier, and the majority of the Hebrew people taken away in exile to the Babylonian Empire. And at this point, a small remnant of the people is allowed to return to Jerusalem – to resettle and rebuild.
Now I say “return” – but most the people who returned had actually been born in exile, more than a thousand miles from this homeland they had only known in stories and other people’s memories.
And what did they find when they entered the area of Jerusalem? The Temple was mostly destroyed, and the city was mostly in ruins. It is important to note that there were people living there – the Samaritans – which might give you some insight about how Samaritans were treated during the time of Jesus.
And so today’s text – it’s one of promise and comfort during uncertain times. This return to Jerusalem was fraught with danger and uncertainty. It was absolutely a scary time – the people had no idea how things would turn out.
How do you rebuild a broken land?
I think many of us have thought these same words this past week, as we marked the one year anniversary of January 6 – a day that armed militants stormed the Capitol – a violent and deadly attack, unlike anything we could have ever imagined.
In the days after the attack last year, one article that stayed with me was about New Jersey Rep. Ted Lieu, an Asian American man. Rep. Lieu went out to the Rotunda once it was safe – around midnight. He saw the mass devastation. While still dressed in his suit, he quietly got down on his hands and knees, putting the wreckage into trash bags. He worked for an hour and a half, until the House was back in Session at 3am to certify the election.
Lieu didn’t tell anyone what he did, but a journalist captured a photo – not realizing this was a member of Congress. Lieu was soon recognized in the photo, and people asked why he was doing that – especially when he still had work to do as an elected official. He replied that he wanted to do something to help repair the damage that has been done.
How do you rebuild a broken land?
Today’s text is focused on reassurance for people trying to rebuild a broken land. We can think about children when they get scared. When my daughter was little, she seriously did not like clowns or people in costumes, like a mascot at a ball game. If one came near, I’d hold her while she turned her head away and cry. I’d tell her I loved her and that things would be alright. That’s what we do when a child is scared or uncertain.
That’s essentially what today’s poem is doing – letting the people know that things will be alright. God is with them and will guide them.
The first verse lets us know that God “created” and “formed” us – the Hebrew words for created and formed are the same ones used in the creation narratives in Genesis. God created humanity in God’s own image, and declared that it was good!
Let’s remember that when Isaiah is talking about creating and forming – it wasn’t just individuals. The community is also created and formed by God!
Isaiah continues to say that the people should not be afraid, because God has redeemed them. Here in the Bible Belt, people often associate “redemption” with eradicating sin. That’s not really what this Hebrew word means – It’s about being freed from a debt.
What kind of things do we want to be freed from? What is weighing us down, causing us to live in fear? What keeps us from rebuilding a broken land?
The scripture not only says that the people are “redeemed” – freed – but also “called.” We are God’s children, called for purpose in this world. People often talk about a “calling” – a way of being in that we know there is something beyond ourselves – a mission. The people who heard these words when they were spoken and written – they knew God had called them to go to a homeland they had never known, and to rebuild the Temple and the city around it.
A calling isn’t usually easy, and oftentimes there are moments we don’t want to answer the call. For those of us in the ministry, we often talk about “call” – God has called us for this work in our lives. And we can’t find peace unless we answer that call.
But this scripture lets us know that God’s calling is a good thing – God has redeemed us – freed us from fear – and we were created and formed as God’s own beloved children. God is always with us.
Cleaning up a terrible mess isn’t easy. The Jewish people of this time period knew that. I have read words by Rep. Ted Lieu in recent days – that he has spent the last year trying to clean up in a variety of ways.
How do we rebuild a broken land?
I don’t have all the answers for that – whether it is our country or brokenness in our own lives. But I do know that God is always with us – loving, guiding, supporting. God journeys with us. Rebuild….
(sermon preached on January 9, 2022)
Christmas, Community, and Connection
My recent Christmas message…
I’ve been interested in synchronicities for a number of years. The spiritual formation training I’ve undertaken is grounded in Carl Jung’s work, and his understanding of synchronicity is an an important part of that.
A synchronicity is essentially a meaningful coincidence. People of faith might refer to them as messages from the Spirit or from the Universe.
A deep awareness of synchronicity will reward us in a multitude of ways.
As we have returned to campus this semester after far too much time away from each other, and as we have welcomed many new members of the Salem family – I noticed one word kept popping up continually.
I kept running across it in the course I taught this semester – Nature, Spirituality, and Ecofeminism.
Students kept talking about connection in our conversations around campus.
Alums mentioned connections as we journeyed from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania earlier this Fall.
It came up in movies I watched – whether it was the Marvel Universe, or a documentary on Pauli Murray.
Guest speakers on campus discussed connection.
This word might be more important to us now than in years before.
We have spent close to 2 years in a global pandemic.
We are always aware of social distancing.
We “connect” through screens more than we ever imagined we would.
Political divides seem larger than ever.
I’ve read a number of articles in recent months about the loneliness and isolation so many people in our society feel in the midst of everything going on. One NPR article referenced how hard it is to make friends in this world today.
Now I am talking about true, deep friendships – not just acquaintances, or peers, or colleagues. A deep friendship is not about expecting a benefit – like networking does – but about the sheer joy of truly seeing another person, and being real and open about who we are with someone else. It is encountering another person with integrity and genuine humanity.
Our souls long for connection.
The Christmas story that we celebrate today is all about CONNECTION.
Jesus – as a Jewish man – was connected with the long legacy of his people. He used stories of faith and culture, and expanded on the Jewish law – as any good Rabbi would do.
So – Jesus was connected and grounded in his faith and culture, and the ancestors who had gone before him.
And based upon his Jewish faith, Jesus taught about connecting with others. The last scripture reading today is considered the core of his teaching. What were the two greatest commandments, taken straight from the Hebrew Scriptures?
Love God with all your heart and mind and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself.
When we truly connect with another person, we see the Divine Light in that person – across any perceived lines of difference. Jesus focused his ministry on caring for the outcasts and forgotten of society – he included and welcomed them, and even sent them forth as preachers and leaders of his movement.
The Christmas story itself is about diversity and inclusivity. We have wealthy people from a very different land with the presence of the Magi. We have shepherds from the field – people who lived on the fringes of society, some of the essential workers of their day. We have angels – representations of a mysterious spiritual realm. We have animals – representing our connection to all life.
And at the center of this story, we have a teenage girl – not yet married – giving birth in some kind of shed with the animals and her fiancé. A family in poverty, soon forced to flee as political refugees.
The book All We Can Save, edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson, offers a collection of essays, research, letters, stories, art, and poetry as a way to explore how we can save our planet during this climate crisis. One article relates how Christine Nieves Rodriguez founded a grass-roots nonprofit and advocacy organization in Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the devastating Hurricane Maria. In the midst of challenges that seemed insurmountable, she wrote,
“When disasters happen, the person right in front of you is your best chance at survival. That’s when we understood: The times we will be facing are going to require us to recognize that the most important thing around us is community.”
Community can only be found in connection. Connection to others – the person right in front of us – connection to all creation, which surrounds everyone. Connection will enable us not only to survive the challenges of these days, but even more so to thrive and to flourish.
It is our connection to each other that will propel us forward for 2022, and for the following years. It is our connection which will not only save us, but enrich, transform, and provide the abundance that the Divine wants for us. Amen.
My father died on January 1, 2021. We finally held a memorial service last week, and below are the words I offered for the service.
I distinctly remember the first time I met Roger Rio. I was in 7th grade, and Mom took my younger brother, Jerry, and me to a small presentation in Candler. A man was giving a slide show about his recent trip to Europe. As Roger Rio was giving his presentation, I interrupted at one point to tell him one slide was actually of a different place than he said. I had read about it the week before.
Now, most grown men would have looked at this little girl whose big travel adventures had only been Orlando or Myrtle Beach – and would have informed her she was wrong. Most men would have immediately discounted me. But not Roger Rio – he checked his notes again, and then said I was right.
So, I like to take credit for Mom and Dad getting connected 🙂 Now I do know he saw an intelligent, independent, and attractive woman who was an excellent mother – so how could he not be interested? When I was in 8th grade, Mom and Dad got married – I was legally adopted, and I’ve been Amy Rio ever since.
One fun thing Dad shared with me was a love for cars. When he moved into our house in Candler, he brought with him a late ‘60s Jaguar he was restoring. I was convinced that would be my car when I turned 16, and I quickly learned from Dad that “real” drivers drove manual transmissions – something he was proud to teach me with my driving lessons. Now some of you know that Dad had different cars he was “restoring” over the years. None of them ever actually ran :). It just kept his engineering brain going! Dad and I talked cars a lot over the years, and I have great memories of watching BBC’s Top Gear and calling Dad to laugh about the crazy things the presenters did on the show.
Dad was always confidently unique.
I remember in high school that my classmates would complain to me if they got caught behind Dad’s red ’78 Vega on the tiny mountain road. Dad knew what was a safe speed and appropriate way to drive, and he didn’t care how many teenagers were late for the tardy bell!
And some people from our church growing up still talk about when Dad came to worship literally wearing 5 different shades of green. They were convinced he was trying to get a laugh – but Mom and I both knew he really thought he just looked good!
The confidence and kindness he always displayed were incredible influences for this teen girl.
Now I know I was not the easiest teenager – I took individuating quite seriously. But Dad was eternally patient with me. I knew sometimes he did not understand my moods, but he always supported me – no matter what. He really didn’t understand what one could do as a religion major in college – and that certainly can be debated – but he supported me all through college and Divinity school and was always so proud of me.
I was fortunate to witness a major turning point in Dad’s life. Mom and Dad came back to the hospital room about an hour after my son Caleb was born – they had been in the waiting room for many hours, because Caleb was taking his time to arrive. Mom held Caleb first, and then handed him to Dad. I will never forget the look on Dad’s face – it was really indescribable. Part of him came to life in a way known of us had known before. This same type of love greeted Ava when we arrived home from China with our new baby.
Dad had a special love for his two grandchildren. There was absolutely nothing in the world he would not do for them.
The one word that keeps coming to mind the past few months since Dad has been gone is unmoored. Most of you know me – and have known me for many years. I am my mother’s daughter – capable, independent, intelligent. I can handle what comes my way. But a few years back, when it was all I could do to get up each morning and go to work and try to get through my day and take care of my children – Dad was the rock I needed.
I remember coming to Black Mountain for a visit during that time, and walking by Flat Creek with Dad. He never pried, but he was asking how things were going. At one point he stopped, and said quite firmly – “Amy, you don’t need to worry about anything. If there is anything you need, we will take care of it.” Dad guaranteed me the safety I needed that day. He didn’t always know the perfect words to say – and who of us does – but he did when I most needed it.
I had the honor to sit up with Dad throughout his last night so Mom could get a few hours’ sleep. He was in the Hospice bed in the small bedroom. I sat in his favorite rocker and played Singers and Swing music on the cable tv music station. By late afternoon, I had been calling people to tell them that things were happening quickly. I held the phone up to Dad so he could hear them. And one thing he kept responding – “Wonderful.” It was wonderful that family and loved ones were reaching out, and we all knew Dad had left nothing on the table. He lived a truly good life – doing everything he could for others whenever he could.
I learned so much from my Dad – more than I could possibly say today. But Dad always liked lists, and so I thought I would close by sharing a list of a just a few things I learned from him –
- One is never too old to always be learning new things (even if you initially call an email address a “handle”)
- Press on regardless – one of his favorite sayings
- Find joy in the little things – like the perfect Bocce roll
- Always be good to others – even if you don’t understand their decisions or actions
- Have a plan how to go about your day – write things down so you don’t forget them (like walking up to the church to pick up sticks after the last rainstorm)
- Be proud of being quirky and different
- Celebrate being a nerd
- Old things can always have new life
- Build things to last past your own lifetime
- Be very generous
- Life is wonderful
One’s Deep Calling & #TheBigShift
A few days ago, the people at #LinkedIn reached out to ask if I would write about the shifts in jobs and careers in light of the pandemic. Here is the article.
A Baccalaureate Message
Below is the message I gave this morning for Salem Academy Baccalaureate…
It is such an honor to be here with you today, in this beautiful setting of the May Dell. It is wonderful to look at the faces of our seniors before me, and to know how strong, creative, brilliant, kind, and compassionate all of you are. None of us could have imagined a time like these past 15 months, and yet here you are – having accomplished more than anyone could have expected, under the most challenging circumstances. You have not only done your academic work – you have continued to do all the wonderful extra-curricular things that really make Salem Academy special.
Our clubs are strong and healthy.
Our plays are vibrant and creative.
Our younger students have been mentored and cared for.
You have created mutual forms of support, lifting each other up on difficult days.
And – you have even offered support and kind words for those of us who are fortunate enough to work here – and on behalf of all of us, thank you!
Now the traditional Baccalaureate message normally talks about accomplishments, and success, and how to be even more successful when one goes off to the greater world.
This morning, I’d like to reflect on what “success” truly is. I remember back in ancient times, when I was in high school – we had senior superlatives – and they were the superficial things from the 1980s than any John Hughes movie could highlight more fully.
I did very well academically in high school – was a leader in various clubs – very active in my church and the community – in short, I did all the things one needed to do to be successful. And the one thing I really wanted was to get the Senior Superlative for “Most Likely to Succeed.”
Now I am certain all of you can guess how this great desire of mine ended. I lost out to a rather quiet young woman whose brother had won “Most Likely to Succeed” a couple years previously. And yes – I was bitter. And I was so immature that when I ran into her 7 years later, as I was finishing a Masters at Duke and had a good job waiting on me – I remember smugly thinking “I’m more successful than she is.”
I am not proud of that!
I hope and pray that all of you are more mature and grounded that I was at age 18 or age 25. In fact, I know you are!
I bought into what society told me success was –
A big name school
A “good” job
Connections with important people
Having influence in the world
Receiving awards & accolades
Having the appearance of someone who had power and “had it all together”
Now I am not standing here before you saying that any of these things are bad – not at all – but what I am saying is that if we strive for these things because we believe that is what society expects of us – then we have lost sight of what it truly means to be successful.
One good thing that has come about the past 15 months is that many people are rethinking how they want to live in the world – what success means for them. Does it mean spending most our time on things that really do not have value? Does it mean filling our homes with possessions? Does it mean that we are so focused on how we appear in the world, that we rarely connect to others in deep, meaningful ways?
All of us have dealt with real trauma in the last 15 months – and in a variety of ways. The pandemic, growing awareness of racial injustice, mass divisions in our country, economic challenges, growing environmental devastation, isolation, loneliness, grief…
What is the best way for us to live in this world? Especially in the midst of such challenges?
The most important thing for any of us is connection.
Connection to our deepest selves – who we truly are and we who want to be
Connection to each other – our closest circle of loved ones, others in our society and the world
Connection to creation – to the gift of nature around us – the very ground of our being
To be successful means that we are connected.
Now all of you have done a fair amount of mindfulness activities with me during your time at Salem. The core of a mindful practice is to be connected to ourselves, to others, and to creation.
One of the true gifts of Salem Academy is the connection each of you has to each other. Sophie very graciously sang an old song I requested for today – Carole King’s You’ve Got a Friend. Now I know that many of you heard that and thought, “Wow – that’s the Gilmore Girls theme.”
Yes,it is – but many years before that – it was a thought-provoking song from the 1970s about what it means to be a friend.
What it means to be connected to another person – when you are down and troubled, a true friend is there with you, brightening up even the darkest night.
Our sacred readings which Emma read for us today all focus on connection – how we are connected to another.
We are to love one another as we love ourselves. And please note that says we can’t truly love others unless we love ourselves first.
We are to be in community with others with kindness, compassion, a humility of spirit, an understanding heart.
Now – this isn’t always easy – and sometimes it’s really hard. And on those days when it’s not easy to be in community with others – even those we truly love – then it’s time to work more on loving ourselves and be connected to the most important part of ourselves – so that we can love others.
So – for this Baccalaureate message today, I wish each one of you success. And not success as the world defines it – but success as the deep spirit of the world defines it.
I wish for each of you continued deep friendships and love.
I wish for each of you compassion and wisdom.
I wish for each of you the deepest of connection – to yourselves, to creation, and to others.
I’d like to end this message by asking our seniors to come forward to the table up front in just a moment. You will notice there is a big pottery bowl with small rocks there. They come from the grounds of Salem, right here at the May Dell in fact. And I want you to take one rock – to take it from this home of Salem – and to carry it with you as you go around the globe to the various places you are heading.
When you look at this rock – remember these things –
You are always connected to your Salem family
You are connected to creation, and the very literal ground of this institution
You are connected to your own inner being, and you are as strong as the rock you hold.
“The Act of Transformation”
Below is the message I gave this morning on Mark 1:14-20…
Mark 1:14-20 “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea–for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.”
Today’s text is from the very first chapter of the Gospel according to Mark. Mark begins his story of the life and ministry of Jesus – not with a birth narrative – but with Jesus being baptized by his cousin John. So we see the very beginning here. John has been arrested, and we know that he will soon be executed. But while John is in jail, Jesus wastes no time starting his work. He comes to his home turf – Galilee, and is at a major gathering place – the Sea of Galilee.
The Sea of Galilee is a large freshwater lake, 13 x 7 miles. The people who lived in this area were fairly diverse – ethnically, religiously, culturally. Even though it was part of the Roman Empire, the major Roman authorities were in Jerusalem and Caesarea. Galilee was the backwoods. And these fishermen were the essential workers of the area, barely getting by on minimum wage.
We tend to have an idealized version of the fishermen from the New Testament. In today’s world, fishing is seen as a relaxing pastime – a leisure activity which relieves stress. But this was not the case for fishermen back then. The Roman Empire controlled every economic aspect of life. People had to buy fishing licenses and continue to pay fees, just so they could fish. They had to deal with heavy taxation. Fishermen were not simply self-employed people who had freedom and lived even somewhat comfortably. They were at the lower social strata – struggling to ends meet.
And just like so many essential workers in our society – they received some of the lowest financial compensation and didn’t eat if they didn’t work. And their work was essential – fish were a staple of the diet for the people of this area. The economy, and everyone in the area, relied on these people to spend their lives fishing in challenging conditions on a sea known for its sudden storms.
The fact is – Simon and Andrew and James and John – didn’t really have that much to lose by leaving their nets and following this new rabbi.
So Jesus approaches them and says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the Good News…Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”
Let’s spend a few moments looking at the exact language here. The Greek doesn’t translate exactly to the English. The words which are translated “repent” and “believe” are interconnected, and mean more than what we might imagine. “Repent” comes from the Greek word which translates “to turn around.” It is about physically going in the opposite direction of where we were heading. It’s not just a change of mind – it’s a complete reorientation of the way we live. It is action – pure and simple. And then the word for “believe.” In English, we think of this word as an agreement to certain statements. It’s a gnostic approach to ideas around which we can wrap our heads. But “believe” in Greek is a word that is all about action. “To believe” is something our heads, our hearts, and our bodies have to follow.
As we know from the ministry of Jesus, he always taught by doing. Traditional rabbis were centered in a particular location, and disciples came to them. Jesus instead traveled, healed, taught in all sorts of places, engaged and interacted with all sorts of people. Actions speak louder than words, and we learn best by doing.
And so the scripture for today reinforces this idea of action – we repent by turning our bodies, and our hearts, and our minds – in the opposite direction. And these four disciples did just that. They dropped everything – including complying to the Roman economic system – and followed Jesus.
Now when we talk about “following” in today’s world, there are a number of things that come to mind.
We follow –
People or groups on social media
Our family’s expectations
Perhaps our own inner critic
So much of the work I have done over the years with college women is helping them deconstruct the expectations others have placed on them – expectations which dim the inner light each one of them carries. To get in touch with that Divine Light they each carry – to follow that – is to follow God, to let go of those nets and follow Jesus. So many have been taught to follow some authority outside themselves, rather than the Divine Light that shines at their very heart and soul.
And so the disciples in this story follow – and follow immediately. As we’ve already said, they didn’t have a lot to lose – but what courage they had to follow at a moment’s notice, stepping into an unknown life!
Homiletics Professor Karoline Lewis, of Luther Seminary wrote – “Epiphanies, especially of the divine nature, demand an immediate response. There’s no invitation for contemplation or reflection, but instantaneous commitment and risk. Or, to put it another way, no real choice. Naming epiphanous moments, describing those times when your response is out of your control, that might be getting close to articulating what happened with the disciples in Mark. If the heavens are ripped apart, well then, get ready for a wild ride. This can be simultaneously freeing and terrifying. Free to respond in the moment. Terrified of what beyond the moment will unfold.”
I think we’ve all had at least one moment in life where we responded in the moment – our bodies and souls responded before our minds had a chance to think of all the reasons to talk ourselves out of taking said action. I’m not talking about a rash decision, but when we deeply listen to our souls – when we have an epiphany. The disciples had an epiphany that day – and they offered the only appropriate response.
Now for the last part of my message today, I want to address the more traditional Bible Belt understanding of this passage. Repentance and belief are seen as an individual actions, and being fishers of people is all about evangelism and getting people to a confession at the altar.
This kind of interpretation divorces Jesus’ words from his context. He was a rabbi who was a scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures. The metaphor of fishing for people is found in the Hebrew prophets – Amos, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Habakkuk. And the prophets were not talking about individual piety. Their call for justice – fishing for people – was about living in a just society, where the oppressed broke free from their chains, and everyone was valued and cared for. “Essential workers” were not left to do the hardest work in society, for the lowest pay.
Repentance, belief, fishing for people – these were not statements about individuals – but about the community. These words were a call for the transformation of society, so that it might better reflect the kingdom of God.
Theologian Ched Myers wrote, “Jesus is calling these disaffected workers out of an exploitive system and back to a network of “fictive kinship” that practices mutual aid and cooperation… The revered image of “fishing for people,” then, should be understood more in the sense of Dr. King’s struggle “for the soul of America” than in terms of Billy Graham’s altar calls. But as the story makes clear, we can be assured that Jesus’ summons to discipleship was both profoundly political and personal—then and now.”
We know we are struggling for the soul of America right now. The essential workers of the past year – who have made certain we have enough food to eat, who have cleaned infected workplaces and retirement communities and hospitals, – they are on the edge of poverty, and our government has been content for twenty years with a poverty level minimum wage. White supremacy is creating countless domestic terrorists, and the FBI places this group as our greatest threat. Our country has never dealt with the original sin of slavery and racism. When we sweep things under the rug, they are still there and simply rot until the rug is destroyed. Today – we are in the midst of a struggle for the soul of our country.
As we hear the calling from Jesus – to be fishers of people – let us use our hearts and our minds, and our hands to follow in the footsteps of the prophet and bring about a systemic transformation so that we might live in a more just society. This is what it means to say the kingdom of God is near, and the time is fulfilled. All will be fed, will have equal opportunity, and will not be judged by the color of their skin.
Today – let us respond as a community to be fishers of people, so that we may transform our community as we witness to the kingdom of God. Amen.
Inspired by Blessed Mary
Luke 1:26-38 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
This passage from Luke is unique. It shows up nowhere else in the Bible. You might recall that the Gospel of Mark doesn’t have a birth narrative, and the Gospel of John is much more esoteric in its approach to Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew focuses on Joseph and the Wise Men, while the Gospel of Luke focuses on Mary, Elizabeth, and the shepherds. Luke was always focused on the people society normally places on the fringe.
And thus here we are in the very first chapter of Luke, with a teenage girl from nowhere as the central character. Now let’s begin by trying to gain a fuller understanding of who this girl was. Mary was probably around 14 years old, and from a backwoods town that wasn’t really considered important at all. Even though she was young, she was considered marriageable age during this time period. And we know she was engaged to Joseph, who was probably about 20.
Marriage during this time was normally arranged between families. It was a two step process. The legal contract would be drawn up and the couple would be “engaged.” They were not formally married yet, but there was a legal commitment. For a woman to be pregnant, and not by her engaged future husband – she could be exiled from her family and community, or she could be stoned to death for adultery.
Mary full well knew her situation. And so she ponders it. Let’s reflect on the word “ponder.” Mary was a thinker. We all know people who are very thoughtful. They mull things over before speaking or taking action. And that’s a pretty good thing, isn’t it? I’m sure many of us can recall too many times in our own lives when we have spoken or acted without really thinking first!
Mary understood as much as any human could the task she was undertaking.
And this is really the exact opposite of that awful modern Christmas song – you may have already heard it on the radio – Mary, did you know? I wish I could ban that song. It falls into the diminished view of Mary that Protestants have encouraged over the centuries. In the immortal words of the 90s rock band No Doubt, Mary is just a girl – incapable of making her own decisions and just a passive recipient of whatever decisions men might make.
Protestants have made Mary simply a passive vessel – the physical host for Jesus, who had no agency of her own. Our society tends to give women value if they are mothers, and especially if they have given physical birth. I have known so many women who dealt with infertility or who chose not to have biological children – and the assumption is normally made that because they are not a “mom,” that they are selfish or something is wrong with them.
Motherhood is a calling – and it is not the primary definer of a woman or her value. When we look at today’s scripture and reduce it to Mary’s acceptance of a physical pregnancy – we are missing the point!
The point is that both Mary and her older kinswoman Elizabeth were important in God’s kindom because of the love they had for God and their willingness to continue God’s work– whatever that work might be.
Mary is important – not because she was a biological mother – but because she was always willing to be a conduit for God – she supported her son’s ministry, was there when he died, and continued his work after his death (in addition to other women).
Mary is blessed because she believed the words of God and chose to actively follow – wherever that might lead.
Mary was not some meek, mild, willfully ignorant child – she was fierce. We can think of teenage girls today who will not be cowed – who are strong and fight for what is right.
Greta Thunberg– the Swedish teenager who has dedicated her life to combatting climate change, even being dismissed and verbally attacked by some of the most powerful men in the world.
Mari Copeny– sometimes called “Little Miss Flint” – a 12 year old girl from Flint, Michigan, who enlisted former Pres. Obama and others to combat the ongoing water crisis in her hometown.
Malala– the Pakastani girl who is a human rights advocate, especially for education for girls, and who received the Nobel Peace Prize at age 17
Yusra Mardini– a teenage Syrian refugee who helped save other refugees and has been an advocate for the refugee community
Kahlila Williams– a 16 year old voting rights and Black Lives Matter advocate who has had a very busy year
Sarina Krishnan– who founded a non-profit in California to help support immigrants
Melissa Khasbigan– a Texas teen who founded a non-profit which combats global illiteracy
I could list a lot more teen girls who are doing amazing things. But the main point is this –
Mary thoughtful and intentionally chose to accept this offering from God. She is not revered because she was a physical vessel – she is “favored” and lifted up in our faith because of her faith.
When people ask, Mary did you know? The scripture is plain – she knew her child would be named Jesus – a derivation of Joshua, which meant Savior. She and the rest of the Jewish people in Israel lived in an occupied land. The Roman occupiers controlled their lives, their taxes, their politics. Revolts, hoping to overthrow the Romans, had been commonplace. So – when Mary heard her son’s name – she knew what that could mean and the subsequent possibilities.
Rev. Karoline Lewis says that in the text we see Mary move from peasant girl to prophet, from Mary to Mother of God, from denial to discipleship.
She is an empowered young woman who, after thoughtful consideration, makes a conscious decision to accept Gabriel’s words. She takes action by seeking out the mentorship of her older kinswoman, and she continues to actively fulfill her calling as a prophet and disciple throughout her life.
Theologian Mark Allen Powell wrote these words about Jesus, during his ministry “Jesus is teaching a crowd or people when a woman calls out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you.” This is a colorful way of saying, “How blessed to be your mother.” This woman thinks it would be wonderful to be Jesus’ mother because Jesus is a great man and the worth of women is often determined by the quality of sons they produce. Jesus completely rejects this (sexist) ideology and declares, “Blessed rather are those who hear God’s word and obey it!”
Blessed Mary is one of the best inspirations for us today, especially as we continue to face difficult and challenging days this winter –
We might be uncertain – like Mary, feeling unprepared for the challenges of the day
We might wish someone else would deal with this
We might have lots of questions which will never be answered
We might have to deal with some kind of fear and anxiety every single day
We might be afraid of getting it wrong, thinking there is a different way we could be doing this
But just as Mary stepped forward in faith, so can we. The world around Mary – then and now – might have discounted her as a meek and mild teenage girl – but God knew the truth of her – and we know the truth. She was a strong, fierce woman who actively changed the world and brought love into this world in a new way.
Thanks be for Mary’s determined and bold faith and life, and thanks be for God who fills us in such a way that we too might follow her example. Amen.
I hope you enjoy the Salem College Christmas Candlelight service, and the message I brought this year…
All Saints Day Message
My message for Winston Salem Friends Meeting on this All Saints Day…