Tag Archive: Compassion


Sermon from June 28 at Community Lutheran Church in Sterling, VA.

Imana ishyimwe! Praise God! Our mission trip to Rwanda was a incredibly eye-opening and moving journey. On the one hand, I learned up close about the depth of human hatred and depravity. On the other, I left feeling like I had never encountered such a depth of joy in all my travels. How could both of these things be present in the same place and even among the same people? As I reflect and try to understand, I can only think that it is because we were able to glimpse both death and resurrection.

During the genocide in 1994, men were both disproportionately the perpetrators and victims. Afterward, some 70 percent of the country was women. Many of whom had been abused, raped, wounded, and widowed. Or whose families had perpetrated crimes against others and were now in prison. How would they be able to go on after such a horrific tragedy? Men had been breadwinners and now the world had been shaken to the core. Those who were left were hurting, sick, suffering from PTSD, dealing with poverty, and finding it nearly impossible to build trust or community.

I think about the woman in the lesson this morning. She had suffered with hemorrhages for twelve agonizing years. No one could help her. And because of her disease, she was unclean and isolated from society. She must have felt so completely cut off from everything she once knew and enjoyed. Perhaps she had once loved life in her village, but now it was a place of isolation, loneliness, hurt and distrust. How could there be hope for a future?

After the woman in the Gospel quietly touches Jesus’ clothes to receive healing, she is unable to hide any longer. She tells him her whole story about all the doctors, the years of suffering, the feelings of isolation, loneliness, and shame, and how she knew she would be better if she could only touch even his clothes. Jesus looks at her and says gently, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

I hear this story and I think about those Rwandan women after the genocide, and what they must have gone through. They, too, struggled to find hope and a future. They, too, must have felt relegated to the land of the dead as opposed to the land of the living. They, too, must have felt shame for what they suffered or what they or others had done.

But slowly, things began to change. Women began to realize that in order to move forward, they needed to work together. They gathered to talk and weave. Hutu and Tutsi women began sitting together, side-by-side, weaving peace baskets, which nest to show how intricate and how long a process the road to peace and reconciliation is. All over Rwanda, co-ops have formed. People have come together across ethnic lines to begin building, or weaving, a future for their country and for their children.

We were blessed to experience this healing and resurrection in many places on our trip, but particularly in the villages of Gitarama and Nyange. In Gitarama, we participated in Azizi Life, an experience shadowing Rwandan women for the day, learning about their lives, and having the amazing opportunity to share cross-culturally.

While there, we helped prepare lunch, we harvested and planted sweet potatoes, we collected water by walking to the spring with jerry cans, we cut elephant grass and balanced it on our heads to take to the cow, we ate lunch together, prayed, sang and danced, and learned how to make earrings and bracelets from banana leaves. It was incredible. Together, these women have a co-op and they make beautiful handicrafts to sell around the world. They receive a fair wage and are able to support themselves and their families.

Sitting on Our Host's Front Porch Making Jewelry (Azizi Life)

Sitting on Our Host’s Front Porch Making Jewelry (Azizi Life)

DSCN9905

With Pauline who Taught Me (Errr… tried to teach me!) How to Make Banana Leaf Earrings and a Bracelet

I found myself sitting on the front porch of our host’s home filled with joy – not wanting the moment to end. We had been so warmly embraced by these women. Their smiles and laughter made me overflow with joy. So much so that when I went to say goodbye and thank you to our host, I found myself tearing up with gratitude. How could this come from the unfathomable depth of suffering of the genocide?

In Nyange, we sat with the village elders with whom Pr. John, Robin’s husband, has been working. They are rebuilding their community by working together to decide what is important for them as a whole. Together, they have decided that they are most in need of new roofs. And in the process, Pr. John has been coaching and encouraging them so that they can put together an action plan, hold meetings, make presentations to government officials, and reflect on their project and its effectiveness. I asked them what has changed as a result of this and one woman said, “We used to not even want to wash our clothes. We were ashamed and we didn’t want to interact with one another. Now we want to take care of ourselves. We are even discussing family planning. We can make presentations to people without being afraid.” Each one of them mentioned how their confidence had increased – how they are once again able to look others in the eye.

Meeting with the Community at Nyange

Meeting with the Community at Nyange

Meeting with the Community in Nyange

Meeting with the Community in Nyange

I hear in that an echo of the woman from the Gospel. She was healed and able to tell her story of her movement from death to life. These communities have been healed, by the grace of God at work in the world and by their faith that there could be a future. And now they are able to tell their stories – to share the joy of their resurrection with us. To point to what God can do – crossing all walls and boundaries and bringing resurrection from the darkest depths of hatred and death.

The day after our Azizi Life experience we heard about the shooting in Charleston. I was sad. I was angry. We had just visited a church in Rwanda that was the site of the killing of 10,000 people. Now here was a shooting in a church in our own backyard. Why? Why do we continue to hurt one another? Our sin runs deep. Racism, lack of compassion for those who are different, hard hearts unwilling to learn and grow and change… We have an opportunity at this moment to begin to discuss what has happened and to work together across races and ethnicities to build a better future for all people. I know that Christ can bring life out of this hurt and death – I know that more deeply after visiting Rwanda. But are we open to his working in us to do so?

Christ healed a woman on the fringes of society and brought her back into her community. He is at work in Rwanda through women and men working together to rebuild their communities. And he is at work even now, starting conversations and reconciliation among Americans in communities across the country. Might we, like the disciples, be overcome with amazement at what God is able to do. Amen.

© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

Advertisements

A Gut-moving Experience

This was the sermon I preached on June 9 on the “Widow of Nain:” Luke 7:11-17.

Jesus has just come to Nain, a village southeast of Nazareth.  He’s traveling with his disciples and a large crowd after successfully healing a centurion’s servant.  As they come up to the gate of the village, they encounter a funeral procession.  There are crowds shuffling slowly and people weeping for the man who has died and is now being carried out of the city on a bier.   In the heart of the crowd, Jesus sees this man’s mother and tells her, “do not weep.”  And without another word, he touches the bier, halting the procession in its tracks.  The widow and the crowds are waiting, silent and tense, not knowing who this man is or what he is doing.  What might he do?  Might he actually have the power to do something?

Jesus stands next to the bier and says in a clear voice, “Young man, I say to you, rise!”  Suddenly the man sits bolt upright and begins to speak!  As Jesus hands him over to his mother, the crowds begin to glorify and praise God, calling Jesus a great prophet and saying that God has looked favorably on them.  From that small village of Nain, stories of a great prophet ripple out, eventually reaching John the Baptist.

This morning’s Gospel reading is a very short story.  There’s very little dialogue and, although a man is raised from the dead, it’s not one of the better-known stories we hear in scripture!  But as I was reading this story again, I was struck by the phrase, “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her…”

Now, if there’s one thing you all should know about me, it’s that I am a huge language nerd.  Actually, I’m a huge nerd in general, but let’s just focus on the language part for now.  I love learning different languages.  I enjoy learning about where words come from and the ways in which languages reflect cultures.  So when I heard this phrase about having compassion on the widow, I thought back to Greek class.

You see, there’s a really fun Greek word for what gets translated in our Gospel reading as “to have compassion on.”  The verb used is splanchnizomai – if you’d like, I invite you to try saying it because it’s really fun!  Splanchnizomai.  This fun foreign word connects to the word for guts.  That’s right, Jesus saw her and his guts were moved.  Weird, right?  Well, in many cultures of the day, the guts were thought to be the place of deep, tender emotion.  Love, compassion and affection were not matters of the heart, but matters of the gut.  I think “I ❤ New York” works much better than “I gut New York,” but I digress.

Jesus is walking in the village and he sees a sight that hits him in the gut.  It stops him in his tracks and causes him to reach out and to address the people and the situation in front of him.  He sees not only the widow’s sorrow, but also her glaring need.  He knows perfectly well that in his culture a single woman without a husband or son to care for her would lose her place in society and would have to rely upon charity to survive.  He knows that she not only weeps for her son, but also for the dire straits she’s now in – for the uncertainty that lies ahead.  He sees this and it hits him hard.  And so he acts, speaking a word of hope and promise, telling her not to weep.  And then he raises her son with only a few words, restoring not only his life, but the widow’s as well.  Both of them are restored to life and also to their places in the community.

Jesus’ response to the situation – the compassion he feels upon seeing this sad sight – isn’t just a miracle story.  It helps the people of Nain, the people hearing Luke’s Gospel, and us, today, to identify Jesus with God.  Throughout the Hebrew Bible, God is described as being a God of mercy, compassion and faithfulness.  God’s character is one of love and justice – of caring for the poor, the orphan, the widow and all of those who have been marginalized.  Jesus’ compassion on the widow signals that he is connected with God.  Through Jesus’ movement of love to the very center of death and the miracle of raising this young man, the villagers identify him as a great prophet, as someone who is bringing God’s favor and mercy to them.  God has visited them and all of them have in some way experienced not only God’s favor, but new life.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus’ encounter with the funeral procession.  They were on their way, participating in a difficult part of every day life, when they were stopped.  They were interrupted by God enfleshed.  But even Jesus was powerfully impacted by what he encountered.  His compassionate, divine gut told him to get involved and to act.

I know there have been times in my life when I have seen situations and felt compelled to reach out.  But I also know there are just as many times I’ve ignored these promptings.  How often do we go through life, checking off things on our “to do” lists, moving along and doing our own thing, ignoring, intentionally or not, the widows around us?  Ignoring those in need of tender care and also justice?  What does it take for something to hit us in the guts and cause us to sit up and pay attention?  Do the situations we see around us or in the larger world – the poverty, problems with bullying, lack of clean water, malaria, violence – move us with compassion to do something?  Or do we walk on by?

A few weeks ago, a photo posted online hit me in the gut and stopped me cold.  It was a picture of a couple embracing in the rubble of the garment factory that had collapsed in Bangladesh in April.  It was a shocking picture because they looked peaceful, like a couple in love with the backdrop of a horrific tragedy.   It was a picture that saddened me, but also made me upset that so many, 1,100 people, died due to unsafe working conditions.  It was also a picture that made me uncomfortable because the garments made there could easily be the ones on my back.  As I was looking at the photo of the couple buried in the rubble and now thinking about the gospel for today, I wonder, how might God be calling me to respond?  Might God be calling me to a greater awareness of the high price of my clothes? Might God be calling me to speak up for better working conditions at garment factories?

“A Final Embrace” photographed by Taslima Akhter on April 25, 2013

Like the widow and the crowds in Nain, God through the Holy Spirit interrupts us along our way, inviting us to participate in what God is up to in the world.  The difficult thing is being open to being interrupted – letting ourselves be moved by compassion to do something that maybe was never on our radar screen.  Letting ourselves be moved by the Spirit to take risks for the sake of the gospel.  Letting ourselves be moved out of our comfort zones and beyond our fears to follow Christ, the one who gives abundant life.

The young man in this story is not the only one who has died and been brought back to life for a second chance.  In some ways, we may be dead to what is going on around us in the world, hesitant to get involved because we fear we do not have the skills necessary, or because we wonder what others might say if we stepped outside of the box.  Maybe we doubt that we could even make a difference.  But just as Jesus brought the young man back to life, he stands before us, beckoning us to rise and to live in the fullness of the life he longs to give to us.

Every day we can remember that, in baptism, we too, have died with Christ and been raised to new life in him.  We have been marked with the cross and gifted with the Holy Spirit.  We have been given the incredible opportunity to go out, led by the Spirit, to participate in the work of sharing life and hope with others, especially those in need like the widow of Nain.

And one of the fantastic gifts we’ve been given is that we’re never in this alone!  We have the community of faith to help us discern how God may be leading us individually, as a congregation, and as a larger church to respond to those stirrings of mercy and compassion we feel.

With stories of violence in the news or the recent tornadoes in Oklahoma we know all too well that we will see and hear difficult or even downright awful things in the world that hit us in the gut and move us.  The question is, how is God calling us to respond? Is it with prayer? Is it with donations of clothing, food, water or money? Is it by giving of our time? Is it by learning more about the situations and discerning with the community how to respond?

Christ has given us new life through his death and resurrection.  And we have been generously invited to share that gift of life with others in his name.  What an amazing opportunity!  May the Holy Spirit continue to interrupt our lives, to shake us up and stir in us, moving us with compassion and driving us to actively participate in God’s work in the world.  Let’s just say I’ve got a good gut feeling about it.  AMEN.

© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.

With Open Arms

This was yesterday’s sermon on the parable of the prodigal son, delivered at Christ Lutheran Church, Washington, DC.

Luke 15:1–3, 11b–32
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3So he told them this parable: 11b“There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ‘ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32
But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.'”

The story we just heard this morning is one of the most beloved stories in the Bible.  And for good reason!  I mean who hasn’t identified at some point in their life as the younger son who goes out, makes a big mistake and needs forgiveness or redemption?  Or who hasn’t felt like the older son who is rightfully irritated that his father is throwing a party for his irresponsible brother while he’s been working hard?  Who hasn’t felt like the father who waits expectantly for his beloved son to return, and is so overjoyed that he can’t help but throw a party?  Yes, this is a classic story.  And I think the more we read it, ask questions of it and experience similar moments in our lives, the more we appreciate it.

But today, I want to focus specifically on the father.  I would say that of the three main characters we hear about in Jesus’ story, this is the hardest one to relate to.  When the younger son comes to his dad asking for his share of the property, it’s equivalent to wishing his father dead.  And yet the father gives him the inheritance money and allows him to go off to a distant country.  Then, to make matters worse, this kid goes off and wastes all his money, lands on hard times, and is forced to take a job working for a Gentile pig farmer.  All of this has got to reflect poorly on dear old dad.  After all, what will the neighbors say?

After a while of this rough life, the younger son realizes that he’s hungry and his dad’s hired hands have always had enough to eat.  “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’”  What’s interesting is that we don’t know if he is actually remorseful, or if he’s just figuring out that being at home is better off than being among the pigs! So he heads home, hoping beyond hope that things will work out.

Then we have this really beautiful line that has jumped out at me in rereading this story: “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”  The image of this father, running as fast as he can toward his son is so moving to me.  He’s been waiting, heart aching as he hears rumors about what his son has been up to.  He’s been sad knowing that his son has had to hire himself out to a Gentile in order to survive.  He’s been watching the horizon, day after day, praying that his beloved son would come walking back down that dirt road.  And then he sees him!  And all his aches and pains can’t stop him from setting off at a dead run to embrace the son who he thought he might never see again.

He doesn’t even listen to the son’s apology because he’s too busy shouting to the slaves: “’Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’”

This father is quite the character.  What are the neighbors going to say?  Is he going to be laughed at for his extravagant welcome of his wayward son?  They might say, “He’s a fool!  He’s a sucker!  He’s a sap!”  But what if God is, too?

And I think that’s Jesus point in telling this story.  Jesus is sitting there speaking and he’s got quite a crowd.  This isn’t a polite group listening to a theology lecture.  No, this crowd includes all the tax collectors who have been working for the Roman oppressors and squeezing the Jewish people for every dime they have.  There are also sinners in this group – people whose actions disrupt the fabric of society.  It’s a seedy and unpopular bunch, basically the prodigal sons and daughters of the day, and so, it’s no wonder that people are grumbling about how “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  Jesus is hanging out with the wrong crowd.

Listening to the song “Painted Red” by one of my favorite artists, JJ Heller, helped to put this into perspective for me.  She sings: “Hope means holding on to you…Grace means you’re holding me too.”  The younger son was ready to go back and beg his father for forgiveness, hoping that all would work out.  He hoped that he would indeed be forgiven or that, at the very least, he’d have food and shelter.

But what he actually receives is far greater.  Instead, there’s this incredible grace.  The father bolts from his waiting place and takes on shame and foolishness to embrace his sinful son, not even knowing the son’s true intentions.

When I think about God, I imagine open arms, like that of the father in the parable.  Arms that welcome and embrace us as we are.  Arms that welcome us to the waters of baptism and invite us to the table.  Arms outstretched in the epitome of love on the cross.  This God of grace and open arms is the opposite of the judgmental and condemnatory God we so often hear spoken about.  Instead of a finger pointing at us in condemnation, we receive the loving embrace of our Heavenly parent.

But in case we forget, there’s still the older son.  I imagine the older brother standing with his arms crossed, closed off to the possibilities, refusing to go to the welcome home party.  What do our arms look like? Are they extravagantly open to others? Or are they firmly crossed, refusing to show grace, compassion and love?

On Friday, I watched a Ted Talk video about a man named Jeremy Courtney.  Sitting in a café in Iraq in 2007, talking to his waiter, Jeremy became aware of a terrible problem: tons of kids were being born with fatal heart defects and there were no hospitals in the country to give the children the crucial heart surgeries they needed.  Hearing, this, Jeremy decided that he needed to do something and so he jumped in, trying to find out why so many kids had heart defects.

He found out that there were three reasons for the soaring rates of birth defects.  First, Saddam Hussein’s use of mustard gas against his own people.  Second, the US led sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s that led to the healthcare services falling apart and, as a result, the malnourishment of many pregnant women.  Third, American soldiers also noted that they had children with birth defects and the cause was found to be due to the US and British forces’ use of depleted uranium munitions which vaporized upon contact with the ground.

Jeremy was beginning to come to a new understanding of violence – the understanding that “violence unmakes the world.”  But he also believed that there was something able to stand against this destructive violence.  He called this “preemptive love.”  As Jeremy explains,  “Now, unlike a preemptive strike where I seek to get you before you get me, preemptive love is where I jump forward to love you, before you love me.  I jump forward to trust you before perhaps you’ve trusted me, because we all know that violence unmakes the world.  But preemptive love unmakes violence.  Preemptive love remakes the world through healing.”

With this hope in his heart, he created the Preemptive Love Coalition with his wife and others in order to get kids the lifesaving heart surgeries they needed.  And one of the stories that Jeremy tells in his Ted Talk is about a young boy named Shad and his father.  Shad’s father was a Kurdish taxi driver from one of the northern cities of Iraq who was willing to do anything to help his son get the help he needed.  But when Jeremy suggested that they go to neighboring Turkey to get help from the doctors there, he was a little leery.  You see, there’s a long-standing conflict between the Kurds and the Turks and so the very idea was terrifying to Shad’s father – that he should take his dear son to the enemy to seek healing.  What would his family think? And what would the neighbors say? But this was the last resort and a Turkish doctor was the only one willing to put his reputation on the line to try to save this boy’s life.

And so they took Shad and his father to Istanbul, and after a lot of diagnostic tests to see if they could or should operate, late at night they received the news that they would get the surgery.  Shad’s father and Jeremy were ecstatic! Shad went through surgery and then, after a few days he was released back to his room.  But then, a blood clot went through his artery and after a third and fourth surgery, Shad died.  Jeremy got dressed and went into the hospital to be with Shad’s father who was mourning and wondering what to do – what to say to the family back home.

And then Jeremy started to think, “oh no, the inevitable blame game will set in because a Kurdish boy has died in the hands of the Turkish enemy.  Shad’s father is going to blame the Turks and this circle of violence will again unmake everything we’ve tried to do here.”  But instead, something amazing happened.  Instead of pointing a finger in blame, Shad’s father walked around to every doctor and nurse and looked them in the eye and said “thank you.  Thank you.  I know you’re sad.  I know you didn’t want my son to die.  You gave us a chance.  Thank you.”  Jeremy spoke about how incredibly healing it was for everyone.  He realized that little by little, they were all remaking the world through preemptive love and through healing.  And after that, 35 children were able to go to Istanbul to get the life-saving surgeries they needed.

In the stories of the prodigal son and Shad’s father, we hear about two fathers who would do anything for their sons – who would bear shame, become fools, and cross boundaries to help their children.  Two fathers, choose love and grace, forgiveness and compassion, and transform the world and set forth a different way of living.

That’s the kind of God we have.  A God who foolishly chooses to welcome people who continue to fall short.  A God, who would do anything, even become human and die on a cross, for the sake of God’s beloved children.  A God with arms flung wide open, who runs to meet us, embraces us and celebrates our return lavishly.  A God who is transforming and remaking the world, showing us that there is a different way of living in the world – a way that involves embracing others, lavishing love on those we encounter, and forgiving, even if it seems foolish.  A God who calls us open our arms and our hearts in order to transform the world by sharing the outrageous love and forgiveness we’ve received.  Thanks be to God! Amen.
© 2013. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.
For those interested, here is the original TEDx Talk by Jeremy Courtney.

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.

Luke 1:46–55
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.

%d bloggers like this: