A Thrill of Hope: Mary

This sermon was preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek, MI on December 20th, 2020. Listen along here, starting around the 24:00 mark: https://fb.watch/2wwaCGf0jM/

I speak in the name of the Crucified and Risen One. Amen.

So, although 2020 has been a challenging year for many, if not all of us, it is not the year that, for me, holds the dubious title of “worst year of my life.” For me, that was 2010.

At the time I was caught up in a culture of hyper-masculine, edgy, Reformed Christianity that had very little room for gentleness, grace, or femininity. If you haven’t been an evangelical at all, you might have successfully avoided a lot of this, but for those of you who know what I’m talking about know that stripe of Christianity to be deeply troubling.

I fell into that particular brand of Christianity because I wanted safety. I wanted certainty. I wanted to know that I was okay. I wanted to feel protected, to feel at peace with my own masculinity, to belong, to check all the boxes of “good father” and a good partner. Of course, throughout this time there was a bass-note desire to turn off those troubling feelings, which told me that I was not okay, that something was wrong with me. 

But it happened that the further I got into this hyper-masculine brand of Christianity, the worse my life got. Circumstance showed me how very little I knew about the way God’s love works in the world and in my own soul. (By the way, I was already in my second year of seminary at this point.)

I’ll spare you all the details, but suffice to say that it was not a peak time for me, and 2010 Nate would definitely have been cancelled on all the social media platforms. And yet, as always, there was grace to be found.

In the fall of 2010, I began listening to some new music by one of my favorite composers, John Adams, and one of the pieces of music was the song Mel just sang, from Adams’ Christmas oratorio, El Niño. That was the first encounter I had with Mary. 

As 2010 was drawing to a close, the church I was working at (a job which was not going well in the least) had a Christmas craft bazaar. One of the vendors was a dealer of olive wood souvenirs, made by a family in Bethlehem. They had the usual spread: various figurines, crosses, Nativity scenes, and so on… and they also had rosaries. Just a few, since this was a Methodist church, after all, but nevertheless, there were a couple of olive wood and cord rosaries. 

Something in me said that I needed to buy one. 

I snuck it into my office and kept it in my desk drawer. Every so often, I’d steal a few moments away from work to try to pray with it. Fear, salaciousness, even shame… keeping it hidden from anyone who knew me at the time. Fumbling over the prayers, feeling weird, feeling different, but also feeling right. 

Two years later: I felt the same feelings, the salaciousness, the shame, the undeniable rightness of it, as I learned how to move through the world in my first faltering steps as an out gay man, fumbling over the dynamics of faith and friendship and family as my world was upended in the strangeness and rightness of that time. 

And, as it happened, the last crumbling pillars of the hyper-masculine faith I had been constructing for myself finally collapsed under the weight of its own absurdity. It wasn’t that I lost my faith; I simply discovered that it was hardly a “faith” at all. I needed to re-learn how to pray, and I needed the feminine to teach me. So I learned to pray again with a rosary, with Mary as my guide.

The personalities we encounter in Scripture are not just characters in a story; these are real personalities with whom we can be in a relationship, from the perspective of consciousness. And one of the reasons I love Mary, this particular personality, is that I don’t believe I would be able to follow the Jesus Way in good faith without her.

I.

One of the reasons Mary became such a cultural phenomenon, especially in patriarchal cultures, is that she can become a container for all of the feminine aspects of God that Catholics and Orthodox Christians aren’t comfortable ascribing to the God whom they can only imagine as male (despite the clear feminine imagery used for God throughout the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, but, that’s another sermon). Such is the wreckage of the patriarchy.

So she becomes this container for many of the features that men (because of patriarchy) are unwilling to integrate within themselves: the instinct to nurture, to gather, to soothe, to be endlessly self-sacrificing… it’s all Mom stuff. All of us have a biological mother, and so all of us have some kind of Mom stuff. It’s all of the stuff that the hyper-masculine, ‘roided up Christianity of my adolescence rejected and pushed to the side. 

As the psychoanalyst C.G. Jung would argue, if we do not integrate our Mom stuff, and those of us who are male, if we do not integrate and allow our feminine side to find full expression, we invariably project it outward onto others: sometimes through obsession, sometimes through violence, sometimes through simple dismissal of women and female-bodied people. Ask me where the word “hysterical” comes from sometime.

II.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, in other ways, we reacted against Mary’s stupefying ordinariness, just like we reacted against the ordinariness of her son. She did something special, so she couldn’t possibly be ordinary. 

We can imagine how it offends patriarchal and imperial sensibilities that God would choose, not just a woman, but an ordinary woman at the fringes to be a vehicle for something so tremendous as giving birth to the promised Messiah. So of course Mary had to be immaculately conceived. Of course Mary had to be a supreme example of holiness before God could admit having found favor in her.

I beg to differ.

In Luke’s telling of the Advent story—well, really, all of them, but especially Luke’s—the main voices are given not to men, but to women. Zechariah, the priestly father of John the Baptist, is literally dumb-stricken and can’t offer any commentary on the situation from his position of privilege. Instead, the people we hear speaking, for the most part, are the women: Mary, and her relative Elizabeth.

But consider the broader context, too: the Advent story, as told by the four witnesses, gives voice to the Other. Luke gives voice to the women, Matthew gives voice to a wild man shouting in the desert, Matthew gives voice to to curious astrologers greeting a strange star, to shepherds quaking with fright, to divine messengers hollering over the fields, to a menagerie of random people at the margins of society. 

The light of the world seeps in through any crack it can find in our carefully constructed realities.

And what’s remarkable about Mary is that she is not only given voice in Luke’s gospel, but she’s given voice critically in, one, being offered the opportunity to consent: “let it be to me according to your word,” and two, as a visionary prophetess of what God is doing in the world: “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree.”

Mary is divine in the same way that you and I are divine. In that, she’s nothing special, but she’s actually incredibly special because, if you allow her story to resonate long enough in your heart, you realize that you actually have the same capacity to say “yes” that she did. You can say “yes” to love. You can consent to being a doorway for love to enter into this world anew, and you too can be a visionary prophet, telling the world in word and song and deed that Love triumphs finally.

III.

But for those of us at the comfortable center of society, there’s an inherent risk here. The risk is that we end up  fetishising the marginality of these individuals and turning them into something we can hold up as a banner to baptize our own comfort. “Well, Mary did it, so I don’t have to.” To excuse ourselves is to miss the point entirely.

No; as much as Mary shows us that God is most readily found at the margins of society, that’s where God becomes manifest, even more than that, Mary shows us the posture of how each of us can receive the gift when troubling messengers inevitably show up on our doorstep. Saying “yes” to Love means saying “yes” to hard things.

What makes Mary truly remarkable is her willingness to go along with this. She’s not stupid. She knows what it will cost. She knows that she will be slut-shamed by her family and community. She knows that her partner Joseph will be a laughingstock. She knows that her son will be, for all intents and purposes, a bastard. “Yeshua bin Miryam,” they’ll call him, “Mary’s boy.” 

But nevertheless, she has been given a child, which in and of itself is a call to love.

As our faith tradition proclaims, it is through Mary that God finally and decisively says “yes” to humanity by becoming one of us. And here’s an important reality: God becoming one of us wasn’t a back-up plan to deal with human sinfulness: becoming one with creation was God’s plan all along.

Mary’s way is the way of saying “yes” to Love despite what it will cost us. Saying “yes” to God is what takes us to the margins. It’s what marginalizes us. How can that be?

To say “yes” to love is to say “yes” to seeing our enemies not as a problem to solve but as people, divinely human just as we are, with whom we are called to be in right relationship. It means letting go of what our vision for our own future is and allowing Love Supreme to be the director of an unfolding drama that causes the fruit of love to spring up in every footprint we leave on the way to the bottom of society. It means allowing our own stories to be caught up in the greater story that a Love Supreme has been weaving out of the knit and purl of love acting in history. 

Yes, it means allowing Christ to be born in this world anew through us today.

IV.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but the entirety of 2010 was, for me, an angelic visitation. A distressing visitor, interrupting my reality, and challenging me to say “yes” to a broader, deeper way of loving, one that makes space for a grand “yes” to God in all of God’s distressing disguises.

I wonder if we can look at 2020 like I looked at 2010: a sudden visitor with distressing news and a divine calling. I wonder what the calling might actually be for us as individuals and for this congregation. For, as it happens most of the time in scripture, whenever an angel shows up, they usually have a big ask to make. 

But with that request is always a reminder: “do not be afraid, for God is with us.” God is with us even in the difficulties of embodied life. God is with us as we are immersed in and weighed down by the social realities of our own time. Love has been with us throughout this year, and I think we would be foolish not to acknowledge that.

So perhaps we might begin to hear the voice of 2020 anew, now that this year is passing into memory, now that the heavens have turned ever so slightly toward the light: “hey, you! You gracious, divine, ordinary, messy people, trying to live out love in the ways you know best, trying to live a life full of grace: God is with you.
And your “yes” to God is never in vain. Amen.

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