by Kathleen D. Billman
John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry: Pastoral Theology, Director of the Master of Divinity Program
Sometimes in our community's worship life a number of events converge, and this is one of those days. We are looking forward to hearing Dr. Oswald Bayer give the Lutheran Heritage lecture at 11:30. Now that we are about nine months from the celebration of Jesus' birth, this is also the day on the liturgical calendar to commemorate the Annunciation—the visitation of the angel Gabriel to Mary, which is why our Gospel today is from the Gospel of Luke. And today we are invited to participate in a healing service that welcomes us all to arise and pray for God's healing mercies for others and for ourselves. This service of healing emerged out of conversations about domestic violence and sexual abuse sponsored by SURRJ, Seminarians for Urban Restoration, Reconciliation, and Justice. We remember today all victims and survivors who seek healing and abundant life, and pray for all who suffer in this way.
Given all this, perhaps you will understand—and be comforted to know—that despite all that could be said today I am thinking of this sermon as a “homilette”!
So what can be said when only a little can be said? For just a few moments this morning, as we open ourselves to the Gospel text appointed for this day, I will approach the text as one seeking to proclaim good news to people who have known what it is like to be overpowered by someone stronger; who have experienced what it is like to have their bodies violated and their cries dismissed or unheard.
As I approach Luke's account of the visitation of the angel to Mary, I am painfully aware, from my experiences of pastoral ministry and conversations with survivors of violence and abuse over the years, that there are aspects of biblical stories that can raise profound questions about God; that can even be frightening to those who hear them. As is the case for all of us, we hear Scripture texts in the context of our life experiences and the interpretations our faith traditions and culture have offered us. That is one reason why it is so humbling to dare to proclaim the living Word of God—we who preach can never be sure, unless we ask, how that Word is heard and received by the various people who gather in the hope of words of life; of saving grace. In the familiar story of the Annunciation, perhaps some of us have grown comfortable with a Most High God whose power “overshadows,” whose will can suddenly change the direction of a life; who sends a messenger to announce what is going to take place. We may have also become used to hearing about this young girl, Mary, who is so often remembered above all for her humble submission to the divine will, whose responsive and obedient “let it be with me according to your word” is a model for Christian piety. And there are life-giving messages that might be preached on just such a theme.
But this morning I simply want to remember with you that this text is part of a larger story of how Luke describes the context and meaning of Mary's obedience. In this larger frame, Mary's obedience is a response to good news about what God is doing in the world—a mission to which she has been chosen to actively participate. It is inspiring to read Mary's “Yes!” in the light of the song she sings just short verses later, in the wake of her visit with Elizabeth…
“for the Mighty One has done great things for me…has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts… has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” In this “yes,” Mary expresses a sense of being lifted up, gifted, and called into a purpose that touches the deepest longings of her subjugated people and her own faith in God.
“The Mighty One has lifted up the lowly.” Seen in the light of this song of hope, the good news of this Gospel text to those who have experienced powerlessness and violation is that the power of God, embodied in Jesus Christ, is a power that cares for and lifts up the lowly. The Mighty One's power does not bring low or keep low those who have already been brought low. The Mighty One's power lifts up the lowly, raises downcast eyes, strengthens humbled voices, and calls the lowly to new life and hope.
We are in the season of the church year when we encounter Jesus on his way to a place of the most profound disempowerment and violence—to place himself where so many of the “lowly” are—at the mercy of the principalities and powers—to resist the despair and hopelessness that fears these powers will prevail by standing right there, where hopelessness and defeat seem to carry the day, with God's yes to abundant life for all. Jesus is on his way there now. We stumble along after him, not as we ought, perhaps, but as we are able—longing and hoping for the day of Jesus' rising again, when all the lowly will arise, and all Creation will be healed and fully free to sing and shout our praise.