December 20, 2020
Fourth Sunday in Advent, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
I grew up in Cincinnati, a town so Catholic that my friends often asked if Lutherans believed in Jesus. And back in those days, in our Missouri Synod conservative confirmation class, we wondered if Catholics really believed in Jesus, too—although we never said it that directly. We simply whispered, usually to other Protestant kids at school. “They pray to the saints.” “They go to confession and get assignments, like saying the Lord’s Prayer a hundred times.” But the most appalling, the most awesome and frightening, was “They pray to Mary.”
They put her in their front yards: the bathtub Madonna, Mary on the half-shell, the lawn shrine. She was on dashboards in cars. She stood in every Catholic church, sometimes with a crown of fading flowers left behind by school class. And in many churches, graced with the presence of hundreds of LatinX families, the hem of her garment often had smudges of lipstick, paint worn away through thousands of prayers.
There was something scandalous about Mary. Muscular male Christianity always worried out loud that she had absorbed the divine feminine, that she was the rebirth of Isis, that all those paintings of Madonna and child were really paganism dressed up in pretty blue Christian clothing.
Sue Monk Kidd, who wrote “The Secret Life of Bees” notes that in the early centuries of Christianity the Black Madonnas, some of the oldest statues and paintings of Mary and Jesus, were, indeed, types of the feminine divine. They were often painted or carved with Mary looking straight into your eyes—a powerful and unashamed woman, holding up the baby Jesus, as if she’s saying, “Alright, it’s your turn to hold him.” We might notice today that the oldest images of Mary were black.
Kidd says that in the Middle Ages, artists began to avert her eyes, and she became the pure, obedient, white and pale Mary, who doesn’t look at us, commanding, luring, strong, but becomes what a woman was supposed to be: subservient, docile, gentle.
It made the church squirm that God and femininity were getting mixed together. My confirmation pastor would roll over in his grave if we had said, “one God Mother of us all.” But I wonder if that’s not still the scandal of the annunciation. God favors Mary, not as an incubator, a little oven, whose job it would be to step aside when the child was born, fix her make-up, don a blue veil, and kneel next to the manger.
God favors Mary as a partner in the work of birthing a new history for the whole human race. Mary chooses to “let it be.” Her response, hardly passive, demonstrates her power to give her flesh and blood, her cells, her womb, her body to the work of God and the healing of the creation.
This morning, December 20th, we’re moving quickly toward Christmas where the lines between God and human life become blurred. God is imbedded in the wall of a young women’s womb. God and Mary grow a child together. It’s still scandalous, isn’t it?
As I was writing the sermon, I started to get nervous about all the embodied language that was beginning to flow through my own fingers. I deleted sentences that seemed too much. They were too much about blood and cycles, belly buttons and morning sickness. They were too pregnant, not angelic enough. I wondered if Pastor Lois should have preached today.
But in the end, I wonder if my nervousness was because the story was getting a little too close, beginning to imbed itself in the wall of our imagination, growing, carrying us into the divine life in a way that we aren’t sure about. How many of us are convinced that we are faithful enough to be counted as Ruth Halvorson reminded us recently in the words of Meister Eckhart, that we are “mothers of God?”
Isn’t it easier to keep God just a bit separate, a bit buried in our nostalgia, or enthroned in heaven? Church professionals, like Tim or Katie, or the two other pastors may well bear God. But us? Most of us don’t even want to say a prayer out loud at the Christmas dining room table?
A few years ago, while I was serving a congregation in Atlanta, the assisting minister, who wrote the Sunday prayers of intercession, ended each petition by saying, “We are God’s.” I heard the apostrophe because I was formed by good, old theology. I knew she meant that we belong to God. But another member missed that tiny stroke and spoke to me after church. “We’re not gods. God is God. We don’t worship ourselves. Why did she keep saying we are gods?”
I think the greeting by Gabriel, “Hail, O favored one. The Lord is with you.” is still the scandal of Christmas. It was certainly a scandal in the first century that God chose a young brown-skinned girl in Galilee, on the far edges of the Roman Empire, in a town that was the laughing stock of its neighbors: Nazareth. Many scholars believe that Luke moved the birth story to Bethlehem, the city of David, to make it sound more royal, more elevated, more believable, that God would work through an established family tree.
The scandal is that because Jesus was born, died, and was raised from the dead, we are able to see, maybe only with the eyes of faith, that every cell of creation is God-bearing. The resurrected body of Jesus is the type for all life. Mary anticipated and participates in that. We need the word wombish to describe Jesus. To be wombish is to understand embodied life as a portal between the human and the divine.
But isn’t this the miracle, good news of a great joy, that God sees us and plans for us to be wombish? We can hardly believe it. We know ourselves too well. We know our temptation to act like the old boy God who makes decrees and judgments, who stands above it all. We know our temptation to think that we’re not good enough, or to think that we’re too broken, too twisted, too wounded to take our place in the manger scene.
Maybe it’s good news to believe in Mary—to trust that God grew in her so that we can understand that God grows in us—all of us. Even to trust that God is being born in a pandemic. It shouldn’t be lost on us that Christmas comes nine months after the pandemic pangs began in earnest. History is being dilated. Perhaps a new way of being bodies in the world is crowning as tomorrow the earth turns again toward light.
It’s still a little unbelievable to say: God is embedded in the body politic; in black and brown and indigenous bodies; in lonely and failing bodies; in homeless bodies; in immigrant bodies; in conservative bodies and liberal bodies; in congressional bodies; in animal bodies and celestial bodies; in bodies of water and bodies of literature; in bodies like mine and in a body like yours.
I wish I could see your eyes right now and greet you as God greets you this morning: Hail, O Favored One. The Lord be with you.”
Your first response will likely be like my own to God’s call: How can this be? Yet, without exception the Holy Spirit comes, overshadowing all the things that stand in our way, and we’re swept into a new possibility. For with God, all things are possible.
I wish I could hear the tone and the delightful sound of your voice responding: Let it be. Let it be. Amen, and Amen.