Mary Moments – The Rev. Michelle Meech
December 20, 2020
A sermon preached to the online community of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Kingston, NY on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 20, 2020. You can read today’s scripture here. Click the play button above to listen along.
I was so moved by Deacon Sue’s sermon last week, bearing witness to her own journey of struggle with the call to prison ministry. As she realized that, in that one decision to reach out to a person on death row and write them letters, she knew her own life would never be the same. She was giving herself over to something that God was calling her to. She was saying yes to the birth of Love in her heart and, in so doing, enabling a birth of love in Roddy’s heart – for Sue and, in accepting her love, a birth of love for himself as well. And in her leadership here at St. John’s, stretching all of our hearts to include someone we probably would have, otherwise, never decided to care about.
The Annunciation, our story from Luke’s Gospel this week, is a story about Mary, the mother of Jesus. Who, because she was called to a task that she knew would change her life, we celebrate as the epitome of what the season of Advent is truly about. Mary didn’t know exactly what was coming her way in deciding to carry that particular child in her womb. What she would be required to give. She didn’t know what kind of heartbreak she would experience as she watched her son risk himself, stand up to corruption and immorality, and then be murdered by the state, under the approving gaze of the religious authorities.
And she had no idea what all this would really mean to the millions and millions of people who would eventually come to learn about her child. Who he was. What he did. How he opened our hearts to God. Even if we believe that Gabriel’s message was that detailed and complete, Mary really had no idea. She only knew her life would change forever.
The fear that our lives will change is something that we all struggle with. Even if we don’t particularly enjoy all aspects of our lives, the fear we feel at the prospect of our entire life being changed is a significant part of who we are as humans.
It’s built into our very flesh. The human body always seeks equilibrium – a sense of stasis. We feel more comfortable when we are doing habitual things – even if they are bad for us. It’s why smokers have a hard time breaking the habit. It’s why our bodies hurt when we first start exercising, even though it’s good for us. It’s why we still crave sugar and junk food when we start eating healthier, even though the nutrients in vegetables are better for our bodies. It’s why we sleep in the same position every night and sometimes keep ourselves in relationships that are not healthy for us. And it’s a part of why we meet the question of opening our lives to someone who is very different from us with a “maybe” or a “no” rather than an enthusiastic “yes” most of the time.
The other part of the equation, in this case, is privilege. When we have the ability to say no to others, when we have the capacity to choose whether or not we will allow our lives to be affected by the suffering of others, or, in our financial comfort, to even allow them on our radar screen, that’s privilege.
Each one of us has had Mary moments – times in our lives when we were invited to say yes to something, someone, that would change our lives. Not forced to say yes, for we had the full authority to say no. But we were invited to say yes. This is a Mary moment.
Not moments of self-improvement, like a new job or starting a new school… but moments where we knew that this decision was going to require a sacrifice of our comfort, a sacrifice of our preferences, a sacrifice of our privilege… in order to be there for someone else.
Because the first commandment is Love God. And the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. We love God by loving our neighbor – the flesh that is a child of God.
Mary moments seem like they are about us, personally. Something we choose to do based on our faith. But they also come to us as a society, as a people.
Moments when the people who have privilege decide that they are willing to put their own comfort at risk in order to make room for another, in order to make room for Love: The toppling of the Berlin Wall in Germany in the 1980’s. The government of South Africa ending the cruel system of apartheid in the 1990’s. The granting of marriage rights to LGBTQ members of our society here in the US beginning in the early 2000’s.
In all these instances, we know that not everyone in the society was ready to embrace change. But, on the whole, a society comes to a point of awareness – and I say awareness because privilege enables us to be unaware of so much – a society comes to a point of awareness and it decides that it wants to be different, that the lives of all of us would be better if we made space for more people at the table. So, it’s time to change. Eyes are opened and the angel Gabriel confronts us in some moment, enlightening us and announcing God’s call to us: It’s time to say yes. It’s time to take a step closer to Christ, to becoming the Beloved Community.
In December of 1865, 155 years ago this month, the United States proclaimed an end to chattel slavery in this country in the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. We know all too well that this decision was not embraced by every US citizen. We can believe that it was about economics, but that’s just a cover for the real issue. And the real issue was, and still is, fear of the other.
Human beings simply cannot treat other human beings that cruelly unless they are firmly convinced that the “other” is not human. And, by 1865, the end of the Civil War, black people had become “othered” by people of privilege for several centuries, in the carefully crafted rhetoric of those privileged few who stood to gain from the slave trade, convincing just about every person of European decent that chattel slavery was just and, despicably enough, even righteous. Because, as the rhetoric said, they were creatures who were sub-human.
I say that the real issue “still is” fear of the other, because 155 years later, we are still dealing with the gruesome legacy of this sin in so many insidious and deadly ways.
In November, at our Diocesan Convention this year, we passed a resolution put forth by the Reparations Committee to designate either the third or fourth Sunday of Advent as a thanksgiving for the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December of 1865 that brought an end to chattel slavery, and as an invitation for us to look to Mary as our guide as we intentionally continue the work of antiracism. To continue to unwind ourselves from the evil of white supremacy. To continue to liberate ourselves from the unconscious grasp it has on our society. To say yes to God, expanding our own hearts and sacrificing our own comfort to make room for more people at the table.
So, today, as a part of the prayers, we will honor Mary by offering our thanksgiving for the work that has been done so far, as well as confessing our need for continued awareness and liberation from the sin of white supremacy. And then we will ask for healing from this and from all the other traumas and sorrows we carry so that we may make room for what God has in store for us. To make room for the Love that is awaiting us.
May Mary inspire us to listen to Gabriel’s messages in all their forms. May we trust enough that God will be with us as we risk our comfort and make room at the table. And may Mary’s yes become our yes – the preparation we are called to make for the coming of Love in our midst.