This past Sunday, I preached on the Annunciation at Hamline Church. The gist of it: Mary the Mother of God, Nadia Boltz-Weber, #blacklivesmatter–and finally, to have faith like Mary is to believe that we already are who God says we are, already enough to wade into the storm in our world.
In my father’s church, sort of near the back on the eastern side, is a window depicting the Virgin Mary.
She is standing straight and tall, and she looks young and serene, but serious—powerful, wearing a bejeweled, golden crown. She holds the infant Jesus just in front of her chest. He holds his arms out as if blessing the Eucharist, matching her stance of power and grace.
In this window Mary isn’t dressed in her usual royal blue—She’s robed in bright, ruby red. And she’s not looking down in adoration, or up in prayer. This Mary is looking out at you. This Mary makes eye contact with you. And on her lips is a serene, strong smile. Her gaze envelops the onlooker with a loving and honest strength.
When the sun rises in the east, her robe glows a fiery red color that is comparable to nothing else. She watches that whole church, and radiates a supreme sense of motherly strength and safety.
Every time I visit my father, I sit in that church with her, just for a little while, and bask in her light. There is something about her image, glowing red, that connects me to her story of faith and awe, something in that gaze that makes me believe that I am being cared for in the name of an intense, vital hope.
Advent is my favorite season of the church year—and no small part of my love for this season is the ever-present story of Mary, the mother of God.
I think sometimes we take this amazing little woman for granted.
Her story is so familiar to us. We know it word for word. We bring her out at Christmas as a talisman of the wonder and magic of the season, and then we put her away again at Epiphany. She is so closely wed with pageants, presents, and Christmas tree ornaments, that I think the intensity and courage of her story is lost. I don’t think we stop often enough to really pay attention to who she is as a model for our faith.
Luke tells us that Mary is from a back water town called Nazareth, and that she was a virgin engaged to a man who was of the house of David.
Marriagable age in ancient Rome was twelve for a girl, and fourteen for a boy, and Jewish traditions at the time were comparable. So, if Mary was engaged but not yet married, she was probably twelve or thirteen.
Girls in these villages, much like girls in the villages of developing countries today, were the workhorses of their families. They produced food and preserved it. They cared for children. They cooked and cleaned. They hauled water long distances between home and the well.
They weren’t considered a candidate for any kind of education, and so Mary probably never learned to read. What she knew of her religion and her God, she would have learned through the practices of the women in her life, through her relatives like her mother and her older cousin Elizabeth.
Perhaps the irony of the Mary window I love so much–the irony of it is that it depicts her as the exact opposite of who she really was.
She was not a regal queen, clothed in glowing red. She was no one with nothing, dressed in brown. Even her name is repetitious and doesn’t stand out—every woman in her generation seems to have the same name.
And then without any warning, the angel Gabriel appears to her and says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God”.
And then he tells this nobody from nowhere with nothing that she is to conceive and bear a son, who will be called Son of the Most High, who will reign over the House of David forever, whose kingdom will have no end.
Now, in regards to this preposterous statement, Mary has a brief logistical question—but after that gets sorted out, she has the audacity to say—okay. Bring it on. “Let it be with me according to your word.”
For many people who struggle with Christianity for reasons of logic—this story of the biggest sticking points. The miracle of the virgin birth is pretty hard to swallow, even for many modern theologians. But we don’t pause to consider the other, perhaps even more important miracle of this exchange.
Pastor Nadia Boltz-Weber, in her book Accidental Saints, says that the miracle of Mary is not the virgin birth, but rather—truly believing that she has found favor with God. For her,
“Mary is what it looks like to believe that we already are who God says we are.” (p. 70)
This is why I love that window so much. Mary’s face in that window is full of confidence. She believes that God loves her, that God is with her, that God has chosen her for something preposterous and terrifying—but that same God holds her and says—do not be afraid, Mariam. You have found favor with God.
Mary’s radical act of faith is believing that she is already enough. Images of her remind us of God’s favor—images of her tell us that we too are already enough. We too are already who God says we are.
And how essential is that belief, knowing how broken our world is today?
On Friday afternoon, a white man opened fire in a Planned Parenthood clinic, and killed three people—two civilians and a police officer, wounding several others. The authorities captured him alive, and hold him now.
On Monday evening, four white supremacists opened fire into a black lives matter protest in North Minneapolis, injuring five men. Four suspects were captured alive.
On November 15th, police responded to a disturbance call in North Minneapolis and when things got messy, the suspect was shot and killed, a twenty-four year old black man named Jamar Clark.
This week, a video was released of a Chicago PD officer shooting a seventeen year old boy, Laquan McDonald, sixteen times in the back, as he ran way.
And outside our borders, the refugee crisis surges onward, and governors across the nation still say no to Syrians in their states—and our own internal terrorism runs rampant, though it is easier for us to blame an outside ideology than our own.
This Advent and Christmas, we at Hamline Church chose to focus on simplicity, on recognizing the presence of God not in the pomp and circumstance of Christmas cheer, but in the simple truths made known to us in this time of preparation.
It might seem inappropriate to talk about simplifying when the world seems to be disintegrating into a series of overcomplicated problems.
But when we light that candle of hope, and rest in that simple, quiet ritual of Advent—in that simple power of hope, we can find the strength to walk on.
We must resist the desire to overcomplicate the troubles wracking our nation now. Overcomplicating these problems is a way of absolving ourselves from them. Overcomplicating these problems is a way of saying that we could never be enough to wade into this mess.
The world tells us that the Jamar Clark shooting, or the Syrian War, the refugee crisis, the gun violence problem in this country is too complicated, and if we believe this then we are saying that we aren’t enough to stand up against it.
But, we are enough.
God has already called us, already told us, already brought us to the doorstep of a major crux in our history as a nation.
To follow in Mary’s footsteps—to have faith like Mary does, is to believe that we already are the people who can stand in this storm. We already are the people that God says we are.
It is not with complacency that I say we are already enough—it is with fear, almost, because on many days I cannot possibly imagine that I have what it takes to do what God calls me to do.
There is a reason that God says “Do not fear” so many times in the Bible—when God asks us to do something, those things are almost always frightening. They are almost always going to completely turn our lives upside down. But God says “Do not fear” because we are already the people for this call, and God is with us now.
And so, when I say that we are already enough—I do not mean that our work is over. When God says to us ‘Greetings, favored one!” it doesn’t mean that we can rest, comfortably, in the lives that we are already living.
Mary certainly doesn’t—she immediately goes to her cousin and begins to prophesy—wild and radical claims about scattering the mighty, and filling the hungry with good things.
Our God loves us enough to call us out of complacency and into favor, into beloved community.
We too have found favor in the eyes of God, and we too are already enough, already the people we need to be in order to take on the task God has set before us.