This is the sermon I preached this morning at Trinity Lutheran Church in North Bethesda, Maryland for the Feast of Mary, Mother of Our Lord.
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
In order to get to the seminary in Gettysburg, I drive up Rt. 15, a pretty drive through farmland and over the Catoctin Mountains. About 40 minutes into my drive, I usually reach Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, Maryland just before crossing over the border into Pennsylvania. For those of you who haven’t been out that way, behind the University on a hill and reaching over the trees on an 80-foot tall bell tower is a gleaming gold statue of the Virgin Mary with her arms in a welcoming gesture. Each morning, I can’t help but look up at this statue to see how the sun is hitting it or how the morning fog is drifting around the mountains. Looking at this gorgeous golden statue, it’s almost hard to imagine Mary’s earthly life.
Mary’s own words in the Magnificat, our Gospel reading for today, sum up her life best: she sings that God looked on the “lowliness of his servant.” Mary was a poor, young Jewish girl, recently engaged to Joseph when she received the unexpected and life-changing news that she was to bear a son. This was not just any son either, but, as the angel Gabriel explained, a holy child, a child who would be known as the “Son of the Most High” and the “Son of God,” whose kingdom would have no end. Mary bears the son who shows us that God is indeed with us.
In her song, Mary sings exuberantly about the great deeds of God – actions affecting both the world and her own personal life. In fact, it is due to God’s work in her life that she declares that all generations will call her blessed. This is very odd considering that God’s work in her life almost certainly would have caused people to whisper about and look down on this pregnant, unmarried girl. Yet, even with these thoughts, Mary recognized that what God was doing in her was important and that she was chosen for a great task, and she joyfully responded to God’s call, trusting Gabriel’s message that “nothing will be impossible with God.”
Instead of choosing the rich or powerful, the ones society esteems, God calls and raises up the ordinary. Again and again, God’s stunning and gracious theme of lifting up the lowly is repeated in Scripture. Joseph, once a slave and prisoner in Egypt, is given tremendous power in the Pharaoh’s court. The shepherd boy David crushes the mighty Goliath and becomes a king who will be honored throughout time. God selects a poor, young woman from Nazareth to bring about the incarnation. And it is in the shame and humiliation of the cross that God’s incredible love for all of humanity, each and every one of us, is made visible.
As Mary sings, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” In the Magnificat, Mary sings about the God who cares for the poor and hungry, once more giving them a name and a place in society. In the early church, Mary was given the name “Theotokos” a word which literally means “God-bearer.” While Mary’s specific calling was to physically bear God to the world, amazingly enough, God has also called us to be God-bearers – those who share the love of God with the world.
Our lives bear witness to the God who has been at work in them. Think about it – the word “Christian” indicates that we are to share Christ with one another and with the world. This title we carry is a sign, pointing to the one we follow. Like a sort of holy graffiti spelling out “God is here,” our lives should proclaim the work of the living and active God. But how do we bear the love of Christ to others?
This task may seem too big for us. I know some days it certainly feels that way to me! We say, “I can’t do what God is calling me to do. I’m not good enough” or “I don’t have the skills needed” or “I’m too afraid” or “what will I say?” But Mary, a young girl, uneducated and of low-ranking status in society, shows us that God doesn’t necessarily call those we would choose. Instead, God calls each one of us to be a part of the extraordinary work God is doing – to be a part of the kingdom of God, already here and still not quite fully realized.
Sadly, instead of following Mary’s example, we often construct barriers and walls to keep God out, when all God asks is that we become open to hearing how God is calling us. As Martin Luther pointed out when discussing the three miracles of Christmas, “the virgin birth is a mere trifle for God; that God should become man is a greater miracle; but most amazing of all is that this maiden should credit the announcement that she, rather than some other virgin, had been chosen to be mother of God. She held fast to the word of the angel because she had become a new creature. Even so must we be transformed and renewed in heart from day-to-day. Otherwise, Christ is born in vain.”
Just like Mary, the mother of our Lord, God asks us to be receptive to the work God longs to do in us and through us. Moreover, we must actually believe that God can and will do what God promises. Otherwise, as Luther argued, what is the point of Jesus coming into the world if we are not transformed by his love or refuse to heed his call or to share his love with those around us? In those moments when we believe and hold fast to the promises of God and allow God to work through us, we become God-bearers to those around us, even if we can’t always see the fruits of our labor.
This summer, I was a chaplain during my Clinical Pastoral Education internship. When I first began, I had this nervous feeling that people would be asking difficult theological questions of me – maybe even questions I wasn’t prepared to answer. Talk about intimidated! However, after a few weeks of visits, I realized, much to my surprise, that, more than anything, people wanted someone to listen, someone to whom they could explain their sorrows, fears, hope and dreams. Yes, above all, people wanted a compassionate ear, someone who would patiently and empathetically listen.
I found that as a chaplain, I was called to share the love of Christ with others by being with them in their struggles and loneliness. I came to realize that it wasn’t always in the words we say, but in how we open ourselves to receive others’ stories and to be with others that we bear God to those around us.
There is incredible good news in the lessons I learned this summer, as well as in the shining example Mary gives us. Both remind us that all are capable of bearing God to the world. It definitely doesn’t take a seminarian or a chaplain to listen or to be with others in their difficulties. Remember, Mary didn’t have any seminary training in order to be a God-bearer! Instead, Mary’s story and her song ask us to remember that each and every one of us, no matter how ordinary we think we are, has been called to show the love, mercy and compassion of God to others.
Within the church, people can respond to God’s call by being Stephen Ministers – people trained to be empathetic listeners – or by participating in other ministries. But it’s crucial to remember that God’s love is not confined inside the walls of the church. This spring, I was strengthened and encouraged in my faith by a Muslim woman. This young woman spoke of the difficulties one sometimes faces as a person of faith, but that these hardships only made her feel closer to God. This conversation reminded me that God is with us in all of our sufferings and trials and gave me energy to finish out the spring semester.
And, more recently, a friend of mine witnessed to the love of God by helping his neighbors. After hearing that they were grieving and going through a difficult time, he listened to their story, helped them bring groceries inside and offered his help if they needed it in the future. As Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and prolific spiritual writer explained, “we are called to witness, always with our lives and sometimes with our words, to the great things God has done for us.” Sometimes simple gestures of patience, compassion and kindness are all people need to break through the darkness and remind them that there are people who care and a God who loves them.
There is a song by Brandon Heath entitled “Give Me Your Eyes” which has become a moving prayer for me. The lyrics are as follows:
“Give me your eyes for just one second,
Give me your eyes so I can see,
Everything that I keep missing,
Give me your love for humanity.
Give me your arms for the broken-hearted,
The ones that are far beyond my reach,
Give me you heart for the ones forgotten,
Give me your eyes so I can see…”
If we, like Mary, are open to listening to God and to what God is calling us to, we will indeed be given everything we need to reach out to others. Just as God kept the promises made to Abraham and the promise that a Savior would be born, God will be faithful and grant us what we need to reach out in love, mercy and service to others.
And, if we keep our eyes and, most importantly, our hearts open, we will find that there are plenty of people who could use a listening ear, a kind word or a shoulder to cry on. Moreover, we, like Mary in her song, can share the joy we have in knowing God and the freedom of forgiveness with a world weary and weighed down with violence, bad news and hurt. There are so many hungry people waiting to be filled with good things, whether that means food, a safe place to stay or hope for the future. How can we share God with them so that they also might be filled with good things?
Both CPE and Mary’s story have taught me that there is a beautiful ebb and flow to all of this. Mary is open to God’s frightening call to bring a Savior into the world, even though it might have meant ridicule and persecution for her. The disciples were open to Jesus’ call to follow and were empowered to spread the news of the kingdom of God. Jesus was open to life as one of us – open to suffering and death on a cruel cross in order to bring light, forgiveness and new life to every corner of the world. What if any of them hadn’t been open to God’s call or had said “no?”
This ebb and flow is crucial in our lives as followers of Christ. Daily, we remember our baptisms in which we have died with Christ and been raised to new life in him. Week after week we gather around the Lord’s Table to receive God and be nourished so that we can be sent back into the world to witness to God’s work in our lives. We must listen to others in order to know what they are going through in their lives so we can help bear their burdens. And, we ourselves, must be able to receive assistance from friends, neighbors and even strangers, so that, once again, we may be ready to tackle the tasks we have been given.
As Albert Schweitzer, a theologian, renowned organist and philanthropist of the 20th century encouraged, “Impart as much as you can of your spiritual being to those who are on the road with you, and accept as something precious what comes back to you from them.” We must learn to give and receive in our walk with Christ. We must spend time being filled up with the Spirit of God in worship, prayer, hearing the Word, in Communion and in fellowship with others so that we might reach out in love.
Each of us has an integral and irreplaceable part to play in this holy rhythm – this sacred dance. Are we open to what God is calling us to do or where God is calling us to be? Are we open to serving those God is calling us to serve? Do we take the time to listen to the still voice of God instead of plowing forward with our own agendas? Are we, like Mary, able to trust God and the work God wants to do in our lives? And, like Mary, can we sing out in joy and thanksgiving about the great things God has done for us and all people?
Mary’s song, the Magnificat, not only reminds us of the miraculous acts of God, but it serves as a witness to us that we are also called to be “God-bearers,” to use the gifts we have been given to share the love and forgiveness of God with the world. A young girl once listened to and trusted in the call of God to give birth to a child – a child who would grow up and change the world forever. If you listen closely, what is God calling you to do? Amen.
© 2010. Annabelle Peake. All rights reserved.