Advent 4(B): Everyday Annunciations

Advent 4(B): Everyday Annunciations

Luke 1:26-38

The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

Several years ago I came across Denise Levertov’s stunning poem, Annunciation. You can read the full poem here. Her portrayal of Mary struck a deep chord in me, mostly because the vision of Mary that I was raised with was very different. In the circles I grew up in, Mary’s name was synonymous with the “ideal woman”—one who was soft-spoken, submissive, meek. In all the Sunday school lessons on the Nativity or studies about women of the Bible, never did I resonate with Mary as a model for my own womanhood, perhaps because I tend to be headstrong, opinionated, independent. Far from the “ideal,” I had little hope of ever being like Mary. Meek obedience wasn’t for me.

But to think of Mary as a model of “unparalleled courage” is far more intriguing. There really was nothing special about Mary, nothing to mark her as particularly worthy of God’s notice or favor. In fact, she was rather ordinary—a young girl about to be married to a mere carpenter, living in an insignificant town in a backwater province. Nothing about her life suggested that she would play an integral role in God’s plan for salvation. Yet Mary’s very ordinariness, rather than being a discouragement, is encouraging. Luke’s Gospel is distinct in its insistence that God invites ordinary people to do extraordinary things. Few people can live up to an “ideal,” but everyone can make a choice. Mary’s courage, her choice to say yes to God’s call, opened her to a life utterly illumined by God’s grace.

God’s grace in Mary’s life was a strange kind of blessing. Gabriel greets her as “highly favored” and yet, by our standards, her life is anything but. None of the goals we associate with favor—namely, social stature and wealth—came her way. Instead, she faced shame, dishonor, and public disgrace as she bore a child out of wedlock (Mt. 1:19). As a child, Simeon warns her that Jesus will bring judgment and division, and that a sword will pierce her own soul, too—she too will know the pain of rejection and division (Lk. 2:34-35). She will be forced to flee her home and live as a refugee (Mt. 2:13-23). She bears the gossip and stigma of speculations about Jesus’s mental sanity as he begins his ministry (Mk. 3:21). Ultimately, she will see her son executed as a criminal (Jn. 19). But, as R. Alan Culpepper so aptly reminds us, “acceptability, prosperity, and comfort have never been the essence of God’s blessing.” Were they so, Mary may have despaired. Her life was not marked by these things. The promise of the great king to come did not turn out as Mary may have initially expected. But over and over again we see the same courage that marked her first “yes” as she steadfastly faces disruption, discouragement, and pain throughout her life. She trusts in God’s promise. Her obedience stems from that trust, and her blessing came from the fellowship shared with God as a partner in God’s mission of redemption.

Levertov’s question makes me wonder: Aren’t there annunciations of one sort or another in most lives? Moments when roads of light and storm open from darkness in a man or woman? Moments when God invites us to partner in God’s mission of redemption, to partner in building up God’s kingdom? The poet suggests that more often those moments are turned away from in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair and with relief. Ordinary lives continue. But I wonder: is ordinary life not the place where we see the greatest courage at work?

I think of the people who embody the courage of Mary, who embody the hope and trust in God’s promise of redemption despite the everyday suffering of life that would seem to belay that promise. I think of the survivor of sexual assault who refuses to give in to despair at the horror she has lived through and instead asks what she can do to minister to others. I think of the young adult who lives her days lobbying for refugee relief and support, despite overwhelming odds against her cause. I think of the man who lost his job, ended up on the streets, wound up in prison, and as a last ditch effort went to a nonprofit hiring agency where he discovered ordinary people who reminded him that he was valuable, a person of great worth, and how he now works every day to bring the same hope to others in the situation he found himself in. I think of the wives, husbands, sons, and daughters who care every day for loved ones experiencing illness and disease, for whom there is no cure in sight, who give the gift of dignity at the end of life. I think of the social workers, and teachers, and guardians ad litem who give their time, effort, and energy to care and advocate for children who have no one who cares for them. I think of all those who offer their time and ability to take care of the “least of these.” I think of the people in our congregations who are willing to risk entering into relationship with someone who is completely unlike them, in order to share the love of God. I think of ordinary people who are willing to obey God’s claim on their lives, who say yes to the seemingly impossible, who open themselves to a life utterly illumined and undergirded by God’s own grace.

There are annunciations of one sort or another in most lives. The grace of God, and the ability to partner with God, is offered to us in everyday moments, in everyday situations. Like Mary, we are each offered the choice integral to humanness. May we be as courageous as Mary in our response to God’s call: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

 

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The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff

The Rev. Chana Tetzlaff is Priest-in-Charge of Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Wilmington, North Carolina. Her greatest joy as a priest is walking with people who seek and follow Christ in deep relationship with each other. Chana believes that God’s grace is extended to all, and that nothing is impossible when we truly seek and attend to God’s call to us! In her spare time, Chana can be found dancing Lindy Hop and teaching basic swing, enjoying conversation and caffeine at a coffee house, or exploring local attractions and foodie hangouts. Chana, her husband, TJ, and their two dogs, Molly and Momo, live in Wilmington.

Christmas Eve (B): Living Christmas

Christmas Eve (B): Living Christmas

Luke 2:1-20

By: The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

Tonight, the Church dispersed throughout the world gathers in vigil and prayer, emerging from weeks of expectant and hope-filled Advent waiting. The faithful do what Christians have done for millennia—singing joyful songs and carols, praying prayers of thanksgiving, and hearing again the age-old story from Bethlehem. God’s incarnate Son, born this night, bringing peace, joy, and love into the world!

The story of this night is perhaps the best-known story of all time.

We sing our songs and say our prayers and tell our stories, and we are assured that since that marvelous night all those years ago in which God came down to Earth and took on our humanity, our universe—our very existence—has been changed forever! But once our singing and praying and storytelling is over tonight, we’ll all go home. Although many will continue the Christmas celebration in the coming days, eventually, business-as-usual will return. The Christmas decorations will come down, the cards will get recycled, and all of that delicious food will get eaten.

And then, reality sets in.

Wars still rage, violence still plagues our streets, hunger and poverty still ravages our communities, and atrocities are still committed by supposed people of faith. So I can’t help but wonder: is it really Christmas or are we still in Advent? Has Christ really come or are we still waiting?

I live in a small town in rural Western North Carolina—the Eastern edge of Appalachia. Last month at our small local hospital, 18 infants were born addicted to opioids. 97.6% of students at our neighborhood elementary school are at or below the poverty line. My county—far from the largest county in the state—ranks third in North Carolina in the rate of drug overdoses. All of that is to say nothing of our social and political realities, where new peaks of “shocking” and “unprecedented” are reached with each passing week. Misunderstandings and misdeeds cause neighbor to fight neighbor. Spouses are suspicious of one another, siblings despise one another, and the political mantra of our time seems to be, “I’m gonna get mine.”

I see all of that and wonder: is this it? Is this the reign of peace and joy and love that Jesus was talking about? In all of our festive worshipping and singing and storytelling, have we missed something?

The 20th century German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner wasn’t afraid to ask tough questions of Christ or his followers. In his essay, “The Divine Dawning,” he asks of God, “Is your humble human existence from Bethlehem to Calvary really the coming that was to redeem wretched humanity from its misery? Is our grief taken from us, simply because you wept too? Is our surrender to finiteness no longer a terrible act of despair, simply because you also capitulated? Does our road, which doesn’t want to end, have a happy ending despite itself, just because you are traveling with us?”[1]

These are hard questions for us to hear—especially on Christmas Eve. But you know, the more I think about it, the more I have come to believe that we may be getting Christmas wrong. Instead of celebrating Christmas—recalling what happened so long ago—perhaps we are called to live Christmas as something that began long ago, but continues today.

Christ’s coming as a child in Bethlehem, his life and ministry on earth, and even his death on a cross at Calvary, are only the beginning of the great drama of our life as faithful servants of the Most High God! Novelist Nancy Mairs was right when she wrote, “God is not a White Knight who charges into the world to pluck us like distressed damsels from the jaws of dragons, or diseases. God chooses to become present to and through us.”[2]

So while we gather here to remember the birth of Christ, recalling stables and angels and shepherds, let us leave this place knowing that Christ’s birth is not the end of the story…

If we truly want to live Christmas, then the birth of Christ must take place within us.

But first, we must create a place within our hearts for Christ to dwell. For as long as we cling tightly to our wealth or our status or our power or anything that re-enforces the misguided notion that we can somehow save ourselves, there is no place for Christ.

No, it is only when we do as the Blessed Virgin Mary did and surrender ourselves to a strength that is not our own—a strength that works in us and shines through us, bringing the bright light of God’s love to the desperate and waiting world!

So what will your story be?

Will it be one of forgiveness?

Perhaps a story of generosity…

Maybe a story of hope…

Whatever it is, may you find a place in your heart so that Christ can be born in you this Christmas; and may you share the miracle of His Divine birth with all whom you meet.

Merry Christmas!

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The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly

The Rev. Marshall A. Jolly is Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Morganton, North Carolina, and is the editor of ModernMetanoia.org. Marshall is also an amateur runner, a voracious reader, and a budding chef. He holds degrees from Transylvania University (BA, American Studies) and Emory University’s Candler School of Theology (Master of Divinity), where he is  also completing doctoral work. Most important and life-giving of all, he’s Elizabeth’s husband.

 

 

 

[1] Karl Rahner, “The Divine Dawning” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2014), 67-75.

[2] Nancy Mairs, Ordinary Time: Cycles in Marriage, Faith, and Renewal (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994).

Thanksgiving Day (A): Living the “Thank You”

Thanksgiving Day (A): Living the “Thank You”

Luke 17:11-19

By: The Rev. Ben Day

As a child, whenever I received a gift, I was not allowed to play with it until a thank you note was written, signed, addressed, and mailed. My parents wanted to instill in my siblings and me the practice of expressing gratitude to those who offered something to us, and it has served me well throughout my adult life and ministry. I am grateful for this practice that my parents instilled.

That was not always true, though. Around the second grade, I was not yet reading, so my parents had me tested by an educational psychologist and discovered that I am dyslexic. There are degrees of dyslexia which gauge the severity of one’s learning disability, and on the scale used at the time, I was a 6 of a possible 7 on the scale. The psychologist told my parents I would be functionally illiterate unless they intervened immediately. Even with intensive intervention and a plethora of supplemental resources and instruction time, I spent most of my primary and secondary education trying to “catch up” to my grade level in reading and writing skills.

On Christmas or after a birthday party, as I opened gifts, with every rip into the wrapping paper, I dreaded the thank you notes that must follow. My family’s tradition back then was to open all the gifts together, and then immediately retire to a table or comfortable chair with a hard-bound book in our laps to write out all the necessary thank you notes.

Sometimes it would take me 20 minutes to get through one note because I had to keep stopping to ask my family how to spell words like “grateful” or “lovely” or “sincerely.”

My family always tried to be cheerful in helping me. But it got on their nerves, I am sure—especially my older siblings. I found out just a few years ago that they were threatened within an inch of their lives by our parents if there were ever caught teasing me about my dyslexia, or refusing to help when I asked. Despite their coerced but helpful attitudes, it was a struggle and embarrassment nonetheless. I wanted not to need so much help. I wanted to be “normal.”

That brings us to the gospel appointed for Thanksgiving. St. Luke’s gospel tells the story of ten lepers who begged for mercy and were made clean of their ailment, but only one returns to show gratitude to Jesus after realizing the miracle of his healing.

Often we hear this text preached as a call to gratitude and praise for the gifts of our lives. Those include the the primary gifts for sustaining life: food, shelter, clothing; along with other material gifts: cars, homes, and boats; and even the sentimental gifts: family, friends, and loved ones. In sermons like these, we are usually led to consider some active application of the text like how to “live thanksgiving every day” or “embrace gratitude as a new spiritual praxis,” or maybe something even more saccharine or cliché.

As I attempted the read the text with fresh eyes, I began to wonder about those other nine who didn’t return, more than I had before. Why didn’t they return? Were they ungrateful, or did they just not know a return to say “thanks” was an expectation? Were they careless, or were they carried away in a mad fury to show their newly healed skin to those they were separated from by that dreadful bacteria? Were they distracted by the celebration with one another? Were they ungrateful, or were they swept up in the possibility of their new lives given in healing, and maybe even forgetful?

Those questions led me to a more graceful reading of this story than I’ve heard or even proclaimed previously. Jesus’ response to the lone returner, a Samaritan “foreigner” at that, may lead the preacher to highlight how we can forget to express gratitude, even though we experience it. The power of it is not the private emotion, but the offering. We uplift the Kingdom of God and therefore the world, not in feeling grateful but by BEING grateful—expressing it!

As we enter a season filled giving and receiving, let us commit ourselves to the graceful proclamation of the power of gratitude as an expressed element. Let us avoid drawing a false dichotomy of the grateful one, versus an ungrateful nine, but instead preach the power of expressive and bold gratitude offered to one another.

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The Rev. Ben Day

The Rev. Ben Day is Rector of Christ Church Episcopal, Kennesaw, Georgia.

Transfiguration: You Are Loved

Transfiguration: You Are Loved

Luke 9:28-36

By: The Rev. Jim Dahlin

I’m the youngest of three brothers. My oldest brother and I have always looked very similar. In fact, over ten years ago I met his wife’s sister and her kids and spent the day playing with them at the beach. The youngest was about 4 at the time and he kept calling me by my brother’s name. I would correct him, but he’d just look at me like I was dumb and repeat my brother’s name. His mom later apologized and just said, “Listen. Tomorrow he’ll talk about what a great day he had with your brother. Sorry, you guys look so much alike.” And it’s true. Despite being 5 years apart, we look very similar. It’s a little eerie.

All of that changed a few years ago when my brother had surgery to correct his jaw. We all have big jaws, but his was shaped in a way that when he bit down, his back teeth would hit and his front teeth would still be about 10 millimeters apart! Try eating pizza when your front teeth stay 10 millimeters apart!?!? So, they broke his jaw and rewired it and fixed his bite. Great for him. Except, now his smile is a little different and we don’t look as similar. I’m happy for my brother, because now he’s more whole than before, and he can function more as an adult. But I kind of miss his old look. I’ve grown used to the new smile by now, it’s just different.

So, Moses climbed the mountaintop and communed with God. Moses descends the mountain with the tablets of the covenant. We tend to picture Charlton Heston stoically walking with Roman numeral clad, ten-commandment tablets. Instead, a more accurate picture is Moses walking to the people with physical evidence of God’s covenant with the people. In the Old Testament, one of the major themes is that God is revealed to one person and through one is revealed to the many. We see this with Noah, then Abraham, and eventually Moses becomes a central figure in this theme. Another theme before Moses is that the covenants God made with the people were one-sided. After the flood, God puts the rainbow in the sky as a covenant that God would never again destroy all humanity. This covenant depended on God’s action and did not depend on human action. Similarly, God chose Abraham to be the father of God’s chosen people. Abraham didn’t really have to do much to fulfill this covenant (perhaps a little procreation). All of this changes with Moses.

As Moses descends the mountain with the tablets, God has made a covenant with the people, but the people make a covenant with God to remember to be God’s people. Part of that includes re-reading the covenant every year and re-promising to be God’s people. Included in this covenant is a bit of an ‘or else’, whereby God says, “I will be your God and you will be my people as long as…” This is a significant moment in human history as God’s revelation is taken to a new level. God chooses an entire people and leads them from slavery and into the Promised Land. In this moment, this encounter with God to receive the covenant, this encounter changes Moses life and his appearance. After the encounter with God, Moses’ face is transformed and the people are afraid. Moses has experienced the Glory of God in a way no human had since Adam and Eve. If we think about it, a glowing face seems a fitting response after such a supernatural experience!

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus ascends another mountain. He brings along Peter and John and they pray. One reason for this mountaintop prayer time is to show that Jesus fulfills the covenant with Moses. Jesus is able to hear the reading of the covenant that Moses brought down the mountain and re-promise to keep the covenant, as generations had done before him. Yet, Jesus is capable of fulfilling that covenant. Jesus hears the reading of the covenant where God says, “I will be your God and you promise to be my people.” And Jesus says, “Yes!” and the covenant is forever fulfilled—not ignored (Marcionites!), but fulfilled! So it makes sense that Jesus’ appearance, like that of Moses, is transformed. Jesus shines like the face of Moses. They are speaking of Jesus’ departure. Perhaps Jesus is making the new covenant with humanity, represented by Moses and Elijah, as they discuss Jesus’ coming death and resurrection? This new covenant seems to have Jesus saying, “I will be your God and you will be my people. And you are loved. Go and Love one another.” So, what does an encounter look like for us today?

There’s an older woman in our church, Mary. She might be one of the toughest people I’ve ever known. Mary’s also one of the best bakers I’ve ever experienced. In her mid-eighties, she still makes communion bread for us every Sunday. I love the symbolism of giving her communion each week. Here, she’s brought her gift to the church and offered it to God. The people bring her bread and the wine to the altar. Through the Eucharistic prayer, I the priest offer these gifts to God. In this great mystery, God transforms the gifts of the people. The bread that Mary has given to the congregation and the congregation has offered it to God, is now given back to the very same people, blessed and broken. This bread has encountered God on the mountaintop (well, the altar) and it will forever be different. And it’s given back to the people so they can go out into the world and love God and their neighbors, having encountered God. The people are changed.  

What do you experience when you encounter God in the Eucharist each week? What would it be like if that encounter changed our appearance and people saw us and were afraid? I’d like to think that I’d feel loved by God and empowered to love the neighbors around me. This sounds like a simple thing. It sounds so basic and Sunday School-y to say that God loves me. Yet, if I truly knew and could embody the fact that God loves me, oh what a change! For now, I keep coming back each week, encountering God in the bread that has been to the mountaintop and broken for me.

 

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The Rev. Jim Dahlin

The Rev. Jim Dahlin is Rector of St. Mary’s & St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains in Morganton, North Carolina. Despite looking like the bad guy in every World War II movie, his racially diverse, loving congregation has embraced him as they seek to faithfully worship God and figure out what it means to confess the Christian faith. Jim loves a challenging hike, a good pint of beer, riding his motorcycle and laughing. He is new to ordained ministry, but has been educated at various seminaries.

Easter 3(A): Who Better?

Easter 3(A): Who Better?

Luke 24:13-35

By: The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

The Third Sunday after Easter. We have passed the austerity of Lent, the spiritual high of Easter, and (hopefully) everyone is now back in their pew after the post-Easter slump. Now the real work of the Resurrection life can begin.

There is a lot of exegesis that could play into a study of this text, and if you go looking you are sure to find it. The third Sunday after Easter is always the Road to Emmaus. Every lectionary commentary deals with it at least three different ways and every commentary on Luke addresses the text at least once. That is to say nothing of the academic periodicals, blog posts, and preaching commentaries like this one that can be summoned from the depths of google and ATLA.

My advice to you is to resist a deep exegetical dive into this text. You may be tempted to delve into a complicated theological treatise on the divine presence of the Eucharist, but I say to you: RESIST.

People in the pews are tired after a long Lent and the exhausting ecstasy of Easter. Let deep theological explanation melt away this Sunday. Let the bread be bread. Let the fellowship be fellowship. Let the road be the road. Let the hospitality of Cleopas be hospitality. Let the Resurrection be the Resurrection. Humble yourself on Luke’s Emmaus Road; you cannot do better.

Let the text be the text, because in this story of fellowship and resurrection the specter of Good Friday is shed from the eyes of Cleopas and his companion. The road to Emmaus is about seeing God in our midst overcoming death, and the Church is preoccupied with death. Attendance, membership, and budgets have been steadily declining for 30-50 years.

The Millennial pastor to whom this blog is aimed is in an interesting position; we have never known a year of Church growth. Sure we may be part of growing communities, but we have grown up in failing denominations. We have heard about new methods for church growth our whole lives and now our whole ministries, because the Church has not found one that works.

As contrary as it sounds, millennial preachers, pastors, and priests are in a wonderful place because MILLENIALS HAVE ONLY KNOWN CHURCH DEATH! This could be a depression inducing epiphany, however I believe that this is our generation’s greatest strength. Who better to point to life? Who better to say look at who has come out of the tomb? Who better to stand with the disciples in Emmaus and say, “Were our hearts not burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?!?!?!”[1] Life isn’t the status quo the church has been trying to hold onto, or claw back to life; true eternal life is a gift given only by and in Christ’s death and resurrection.

In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer talks about the joys and purpose of table fellowship. He says:

…The congregation of Jesus believes that its Lord will to be present when it prays for his presence. So it prays: “Come Lord Jesus, be our guest”—and thereby confess the gracious omnipresence of Jesus Christ… Christians, in their wholehearted joy in the good gifts of this physical life, acknowledge their Lord as the true giver of all good gifts; and beyond this, as the true gift: the true Bread of life itself; and finally, as the one who is calling them to the banquet of the Kingdom of God… At table they know their Lord as the one who breaks bread for them; the eyes of their faith are opened.[2]

Our gift as Christians, as the Church, is found in fellowship together. It is in fellowship that we see the resurrected Christ revealed, and realize both who has given us these gifts of life and who and what the true gift is.

For this third Sunday after Easter let Jesus confound our expectations. Emmanuel Lartey, who taught my Introduction to Pastoral Care course, said in class that the role of the pastoral caregiver is to walk into someone’s life and point to a God who is already there.[3] This Sunday, more than most, the role of the Preacher is to stand up and point to a God who is already there, to the places where God is at work, and the people who are inviting Christ into the community. We are Millennials (and folks who resonate with the Millennial generation). Who better to point to the creative, innovative, and new *gasp&shutter* ways that Christ is breaking the bread in our midst? Who better to see the new life that has been flowing all along, name it, and embrace it? Who better to see the ways that Christ has broken bread, broken death, and brought life than the very people who have only seen a church preoccupied with the power of death?

Preacher, SPEAK OF NEW LIFE! The dead will bury the dead and only the gift of Jesus Christ will raise the dead to life!

This week isn’t about deep exegesis of the text. This week is about a deep exegesis of the congregation. This week is about pointing to the moments where Christ is revealed in the lives of those in the pews. Speak of the grandparents who bring their grandkids to Church. Speak of the retiree who gives their time reading with school children during the week. Speak of the folks who staff soup kitchens, clothing closets, and homeless shelters. Speak to the creative, new, and unexpected ways that God is breaking into the world. God is already here. Speak of those who are caring for the immigrant and refugees in your community and our nation (Trust me. No matter what you think of your congregation’s politics, you will not have to look as far as you imagine). The resurrected Christ walks among us here and now. This Sunday do not let Christ get away without breaking the bread of himself and opening our eyes to the resurrection that is among us.

 

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The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord

The Rev. Jonathan Gaylord grew up in Florida and is a lifelong United Methodist. He’s a grad of Candler School of Theology. His focus is on preaching, pastoral care, and exploring the spiritual practices that connect us to God. Jonathan enjoys the outdoors, spending time fly fishing, biking, running, and hiking. He has thru hiked the Appalachian Trail, completed a triathlon, keeps chickens and bees, and ran his first half marathon in March. Jonathan is married to Keri, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. They have one dog named Nantahala (Hala for short).

[1] Luke 24:32; NRSV. Punctuation mine.

[2] Bonheoffer, Dietrich, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Faith in Community, trans. John W.Doberstein (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 67-68.

[3] Lartey, Emmanuel. “Introduction to Pastoral Care” Seminary Course, Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, GA, 2013.

Annunciation: The “Yes”

Annunciation: The “Yes”

Luke 1:26-38

By: The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

In the parish I serve in Lexington, Kentucky, there is a stained glass window depicting the Annunciation located in the clerestory that rises above the nave (the part of the church where the people of God gather for worship.) On Wednesday afternoons, when the congregation of the faithful is often few in number, my seat is located directly below and across from this magnificent piece of art.

If at all possible, I try to arrive in my seat ten minutes or so prior to the start of the service—a time set aside for reflection and prayer that all too often, can go forgotten in the course of a normal week. During these moments, week after week, I continually find myself gazing at the image of the Annunciation.

The depiction is traditional in almost every way. The eventual Mother of God is devoutly kneeling, as though her noonday prayers are being interrupted by the angel who appears before her eyes. There is no resistance or hesitation; there is only adoration of the divine messenger—the one who will utter a word rendering her life, and the life of all creation, forever changed.

Bells toll from the tower and the Eucharistic liturgy must be underway. All too soon, my moment with the Blessed Virgin and the angelic visitor is over. But Mary remains, fixed in her position of consent and obedience, awaiting the next person who will pause to gaze upon her life-altering moment of divine visitation.

Annually, the Church returns to the Annunciation, nine long months prior to the mid-winter festival of the Incarnation. With each return, preachers and pew-sitters alike are faced with the question of what, if anything, this story has to offer our lives and journeys of faith.

After all, when an individual speaks of an angelic visitation, the twenty-first century impulse is more likely to make a psychiatric referral rather than record it as Gospel truth.  Yet, this story and its yearly festival remain on our calendar, with some leaving it forgotten in the confines of Lent while others mark it with great ceremony and devotion.

The angelic announcement to the eventual Mother of God is a biblical narrative in which, I believe, it is very possible to locate ourselves as twenty-first century readers and preachers and find meaning for the Christian journey in our present day. Mary’s is an unlikely tale of surprise and faithfulness that can reach beyond so many boundaries and enliven the absurdity of our common call as Christ-followers in this age.

When the angel of the Lord visits Mary, she pauses, resists even. Luke tells us that she is “perplexed by his words.” And who could blame her? The unwelcome guest has entered into her midst and is preparing to offer the most unlikely of invitations: a summons to join in God’s story of salvation for all time.

In our own time, the unwelcome guest with a life-changing message can appear in so many different forms, but rarely as an angel. One might hear the message of the angel in this passage but not be able to shake the words of the physician who has just named the spot on the X-ray as cancer. Another might envision the angel’s appearance before the youthful Mary but see only the image of a former employer announcing the terms of a layoff and a promising career taking an unexpected turn.

As Luke’s rendering of the event progresses, it is as though the teen girl is maturing into an astute woman before our eyes. Blessed Mary receives the improbable dispatch of the angel and responds with an even more astounding affirmation. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord…”

It begs the question: What divine call might we, as individuals and communities of readers, be wrestling with as this passage is proclaimed? As I write, faithful people in our nation are perplexed at how to respond to a ban on the entry of refugees into this nation. Others are pondering sustainable solutions to staggering reality of hunger in our various communities.  No doubt, other issues exist and will continue to arise.

As a preacher, I often think of my task as opening up the story and then stepping out of the way—a task easier said than done. In this passage, it is to invite a congregation to see this story for all that it is: an unlikely young woman receiving a visit from the divine messenger and offering a less than warm welcome. But, even more, it is to invite the hearer to respond to the call of the Holy One with a like fervor, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

The location of the Annunciation window in my parish is significant, far beyond the fact that the presider is offered the opportunity to gaze upon her week after week. In the clerestory where the window stands are images that are associated with each of the apostles. They work their way around the sacred hall of prayer in order, from the front to the back, left to right.

Following this path, the same pilgrimage that marks the life of Jesus on the lower level, Mary’s Annunciation experience is first among those. She is the first apostle, the first to encounter the incomparable plan of God and to respond in affirmation.

Mary’s response to the divine summons, “let it be with me according to your word,” is the ‘yes’ that sets in motion the incarnation of the perfect reconciling love of God. Her ‘yes’ makes possible our ‘yes,’ our participation in the cosmic movement of redemption that is being worked out, day by day.

The Annunciation bids us all to find ourselves, individually and collectively, in the story of a young woman engaged to a man named Joseph, a girl who heard the unexpected invitation of God and said yes. Her story has the power to inspire each of us, in our own journeys, to follow in the path that she herself has traveled, a trail of faithfulness that leads us ultimately into the redeeming heart of God.

 

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The Rev. Andrew J. Hege

The Rev. Andrew J. Hege serves as the Assistant to the Rector at The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Lexington, Kentucky. Born and raised in Thomasville, North Carolina, he is a graduate of Montreat College, Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and Virginia Theological Seminary. Andrew is an ardent golfer, occasional runner, and an avid reader of historical fiction. Ordained a priest in January 2015, Andrew is married to Amanda Schroeder Hege.

Presentation: Impulsive Messiness

Presentation: Impulsive Messiness

Luke 2:22-40

By: The Rev. Ben Day

One Sunday while serving as the Curate at an urban Atlanta congregation, I was confronted by the matriarch of our parish community as she exited the nave. “You preach the same sermon every time I come to church,” she said, “try changing it up once in awhile.”

I have never been one to avoid confrontation or to shrink in the face of what I think is unjust criticism, so without missing a beat or stopping to consider what I was about to say, I responded, “Well ma’am I only preach that sermon when I see you come in the door. I will change my sermon when you change your bad attitude.”

The lady turned and glared at me, and then in a moment of pure grace, burst out laughing, as I stood shattered and humiliated by what I had just blurted out.

I would like to think that I have matured a great deal as a person and a pastor since then. But I was reminded of that moment again when I read today’s text recalling Jesus’s presentation in the Temple. The years of seminary coursework on pastoral care, all of the hours spent studying on family systems theory, the interpersonal work of CPE, learning to be a “non-anxious presence…” As I stood in the doorway of the parish, none of those things appeared in my mind or inspired grace to come from my mouth.

The gospel explains that Simeon prepared too. It was revealed to him that he would live to see the Messiah appear during his lifetime. He knew to expect it and be vigilant. But as I read his response in verses 29-32, which is sometimes called the “Song of Simeon,” I wonder whether he might have been a little caught off guard by what he holds in his arms?

We learn that he is led by the spirit to the Temple that day (v.27), but upon meeting the child, he takes him in his arms and offers an elegant but visceral description. Not just a description, but a proclamation. And not just any proclamation either, but also a prophecy. And the holy family is amazed.

The content, though, can’t be that amazing. Simeon is at least in part paraphrasing Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary (Luke 1: 32-33), and Mary proclaims as much as Simeon does in her own song, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55).  But the Holy Parents are “amazed” nonetheless. I am left to believe it must have been a scene to behold–Simeon’s offering of praise. Because what it lacks in original content must have been made up for in tone and style. An elder in the temple confirming all that you have been told, and all that you hoped and believed. A soul bearing description with pure wonder and praise – that would amaze!

Reading the lesson in this light, with a bit of theoretical imagination, I became aware of its subtle but strong connection to my own experience that day, standing in the doorway to the parish nave in Atlanta. Sometimes no amount of preparation or vigilance can prepare us to confront what stares us in the face. Our impulses and emotions are part of the journey of discovering the incarnate presence among us. Moments when we go off script and turn ourselves over to the messiness of our impulsive selves, we can discover new things concerning our relationships to God and one another. For me I discovered grace. For Simeon, I think it was wonder and praise. In a world that seems to market test and choreograph everything, including an increasing amount of its religious activity (see Megachurch culture), I am encouraged. Impulsive messiness matters.

 

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The Rev. Ben Day

The Rev. Ben Day is the Rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Kennesaw, Georgia. Married to Amanda, they have a 16mo son, a Border Collie, and a German Shepherd. Life is far from dull or boring in the Day family, or at Christ Church.