Monday, December 19, 2011

The cloak of Mary

A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Delray Beach, Florida

4 Advent – Year B – December 17/18, 2011
2 Samuel 7:1 – 11,16;  Luke 1:26 – 38
Preacher:  The Reverend  Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

The Cloak of Mary

“Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”  Luke 1:28

            Three years ago, just days before Thanksgiving, the 13 year-old daughter of one of Susan’s cousins died unexpectedly and tragically.  In my 20 years of pastoral ministry, I have come to understand that there is no greater grief than the grief of a parent who experiences the death of a child; no matter what age that death occurs….It is doubly grievous when the child is young.  
            It is unclear whether Susan’s cousin’s child took her own life or whether a dangerous behavior went wrong and ended disastrously. Sadly, in either circumstance, this is not an uncommon occurrence in our society. 
            It needs to be said to our young people, and especially those in their teen-years, life is precious; you are precious.  You must be careful.  Don’t do reckless things.  It may seem to you, you are immortal, indestructible; as though nothing can hurt or harm you; but it can.  There is no reset button in life.  
            As adults we need to be reminded:  Too often, our young people are hurting and especially teenagers; we must pay careful attention to them, be in caring conversations with them; we must look carefully at what they are doing, how they interact with their friends and classmates, what they are doing on-line.  Too often in today’s world they are isolated and alone, disconnected, even when they are connected on-line. Parents, grandparents, other caring adults, if you think something is wrong in the life of a young adult you know, go with your instincts, follow-up on it.  Don’t ignore it. We must meddle in their lives.  
            I’m not suggesting that there was any fault or negligence in the instance of Susan’s cousin’s child….They were a dedicated, loving family and very conscientious parents.  It’s just that in this past year, I’ve had to minister to the families and friends of two young men who died from self-inflicted injuries.  I am deeply concerned about the state of our young people.  Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in the United States for people age 15 – 24.   
            The daughter of Susan’s cousin was a beautiful child and her parents adored her.  She was their miracle child.  She was conceived after her parents had been told they would be unable to have children.  Susan and I went up to New York for the wake and the funeral to be with them, to love them and suffer with them, to join in their grief. “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep,” St. Paul enjoins us.  We went to weep.  The mother of the 13 year old girl, Susan’s cousin, had been a bridesmaid at our wedding. 
            It was, as you can imagine, a heartrending experience…We celebrated the life of this child, this dancer, who loved pets and her friends, and above all, her family.  We celebrated her life and we grieved her tragic death.  This is a very devout and faithful Roman Catholic family.  The child had attended Catholic school.  The funeral mass was held at the church connected to the school.  All her classmates attended.  During the mass, an essay she had written just weeks before was read.  It was about Christmas and family and how vitally important being with family at Christmas was to her and how much she loved them. 
            At the luncheon following the service, another of Susan’s cousins sat with us; the child’s aunt; the mother’s older sister.  We have been close over the years.  She shared with us some of the excruciating experiences of the previous days.  The child had been discovered in critical condition and had been taken to the hospital and placed on life-support in an ICU.  It soon became clear that she would not recover.  After a couple of days and countless prayers, when all hope for a miracle had been exhausted, the decision had to be made to remove her from life support.  It was an anguishing decision only her parents could make.  They were not alone, however.
            This older sister telling us the story and her other sister were present in the ICU, standing on by the side of their younger sister, the child’s mother, ….They were holding onto her, holding her up as she looked at her daughter lying in the bed with tubes all over the place and a machine breathing for her.  “How am I going to do this? the grief stricken mother sobbed aloud….Her sister hugged her tightly and said to her, “You’re going to wrap yourself in the cloak of Mary.”  “You’re going to wrap yourself in the cloak of Mary...”  
            It was a sensitive, faithful, perfect evocation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. And, being a very faithful person herself, her younger sister knew precisely what she meant and did precisely that:  She wrapped herself in the cloak of Mary; and she and her husband made the awful, painful, heart-breaking decisions they had to make and released their daughter to the arms and loving mercy of God.
            Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee;
            Blessed are thou among women; and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus
            Holy Mary, mother of God; pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,

            It is Advent…It is Mary’s season; a season marked by joyful anticipation of the coming of Christ; but joy that is bittersweet….We know the destiny of this woman.  We know the destiny of her child.  “Mary,” from the Hebrew, Marai or Miriam -- the name means “bittersweet,” “grieved,” or “sorrowful.” It is a fitting name for this woman, the mother of our Lord…
            For many, and especially for those who are not Roman Catholic, Mary is an enigmatic figure…To be sure, most recognize her as the mother of Jesus and, at least, give her credit for that.  Many are moved by portrayals of her in masterpieces down through the ages – Raphael, Correggio; Michelangelo – but what place does she have in our faith?   How does she figure in our piety? 
            For most of its history, Protestantism has relegated Mary to a back seat and left her there.  Although the early reformers, Martin Luther and John Calvin for example,  held very positive views Mary, revered her; later Protestantism felt too much unbiblical superstition, even cultism, had attached to Mary.  Consequently, Mary was pushed into the background; brought out twice a year, of necessity; to give birth to our Lord; and to grieve over him at his death.  Other than that, generally speaking, in the Protestant world it was better not to speak of her (though the experience in Anglicanism has been somewhat different since the 19th century and the high- church Oxford Movement).  
            What are we to make of Mary today?  What is our position as a church with respect to Mary?  How should she fit into our beliefs and personal religious practices and piety? 
            In 2004, the second Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, known as ARCIC  II, the body charged with the responsibility of leading our two churches in the dialogue toward unity, issued a document often referred to as The Seattle Statement.  The actual title is “Mary – Grace and Hope in Christ.”[1]  This is an agreed statement about what the two churches hold in common about Mary.  It also makes clear where there are still differences and disagreements.  It’s a fascinating, well-thought out and very helpful 62 page document.  I commend it to you.  You can access it on-line. 
            In the Preface to the document, the Co-Chairmen of ARCIC II, Anglican Archbishop Peter Carnely of Perth, Primate of Australia and Roman Catholic Archbishop Alexander J. Brunett of Seattle write:  “Our Agreed Statement concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary as pattern of grace and hope is a powerful reflection of our efforts to seek out what we hold in common and celebrates important aspects of our common heritage. Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, stands before us as an exemplar of faithful obedience, and her "Be it to me according to your word" is the grace-filled response each of us is called to make to God, both personally and communally, as the Church, the body of Christ.[2]
            In this opening statement, the two archbishops make a clear allusion to the story of the Annunciation to Mary, our Gospel reading for today.[3]  It is a powerful story which clearly brings Mary to center stage….She is an essential actor in this drama with God….She is integral to the Incarnation – to God becoming flesh in Jesus Christ.  We cannot tell the story of the Incarnation, nor even assert the doctrine, without her.  This opening chapter of Luke’s Gospel brings her forth, puts her in center-stage, and we see at the outset that she is a remarkable; indeed a blessed, woman…
            "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." (Lk 1:28).  The word that is rendered “Greetings” in our text is actually the Greek word “Rejoice!”  Joy is not her first reaction.  The text tells us, she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.     
            The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” (Lk. 1:30)  This is hardly reassuring....It must be noted that in the Bible, those who find favor with God often find themselves in overwhelming and threatening circumstances.[4]  Mary’s story will turn out no differently….
            “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."(Lk. 1:31–33) 
            In that moment, Mary could not possibly have imagined the kind of king her son would be... This son of hers would be raised to greatness, but it was greatness by way of the cross.... She would earn her name, “Bitterness,”  “Sorrow,”  “Grieved.”
            There is great risk and great cost at being favored of God.....There is great risk and great cost to Mary in giving birth to Christ. To give birth to Jesus is to risk love, sacrificial love - self-giving love for the sake of others, for the sake of the world....Loving always entails risk....Divine loving entails even greater risk still....
            Whether or not she was aware of the price she would have to pay when she said yes to God, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to your word.”  (Lk. 1:38)  Mary took that risk and paid the price.....Mary deserves, demands, our reverence, respect and more….
            The Seattle Statement produced by the Anglican – Roman Catholic International Commission states, “Among all the saints, Mary takes her place as Theotókos [God-bearer]: alive in Christ, she abides [please note the present tense], with the one she bore still 'highly favoured' in the communion of grace and hope, the exemplar of redeemed humanity, an icon of the Church. Consequently she is believed to exercise a distinctive ministry of assisting others through her active prayer”[5] ] Again, please note the present tense].
            The statement continues, “Many [Christians]…experience a sense of empathy and solidarity with Mary, especially at key points when the account of her life echoes theirs, for example the acceptance of vocation, the scandal of her pregnancy, the improvised surroundings of her labour, giving birth, and fleeing as a refugee. Portrayals of Mary standing at the foot of the cross, and the traditional portrayal of her receiving the crucified body of Jesus (the Pietà), evoke the particular suffering of a mother at the death of her child. Anglicans and Roman Catholics alike are drawn to the mother of Christ, as a figure of tenderness and compassion.[6]
            “You’re going to wrap yourself in the cloak of Mary,” Susan’s cousin said to her young sister, grieving mother…It was beautiful and prayerful and perfect; in full keeping with the empathy and solidarity referred to in The Seattle Statement. 
             So much in our culture’s observance of Christmas is superficial and artificial…Too often, the power and poignancy of the Christmas story, the reality and truths of the Incarnation, become diluted, cheapened and robbed of their power to speak to the very depths of our souls; to reach into us and touch our hearts; to shed light into those deepest places of darkness and despair that yearn for the saving Word of God…
            On this 4th Sunday of Advent, we reflect on the powerful images of Annunciation….We are invited to wrap ourselves in the cloak of Mary; no matter what our circumstance this day -- joy or sorrow; to allow the seed of God’s Word, Jesus Christ, to be conceived in our hearts and in the wombs of our souls anew and to join our voices with Mary, the ever-blessed one, in saying “Yes….Here am I the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your Word” and with Mary, to sing out this Christmas, “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”  

[1]   Mary:  Grace and Hope in Christ  also known as “The Seattle Statement” was prepared by the Second Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC II) and released on The Feast of the Presentation – February 2, 2004.  The full version of the definitive text can be found on-line at
[2]   Mary:  Grace and Hope in Christ – The Seattle Statement  p. 2
[3]   Luke 1:26 ff.
[4]   The examples of Moses, John the Baptist and the Apostle Paul are a few examples.
[5]   Mary:  Grace and Hope in Christ p. 53
[6]   Mary:  Grace and Hope in Christ p. 53

Monday, December 05, 2011

Extry, extry read all about it!

A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Delray Beach, Florida

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – Delray Beach, Florida
2 Advent – Year B (RCL) – December 3 – 4, 2011
Isaiah 40: 1- 11; Ps. 85: 1 – 2, 8 – 13; Mark 1:1 – 8
Preacher:  The Rev. Canon William H. Stokes, Rector

“Extry, extry, read all about it…” 

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:  ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!’”  Mark: 1: 2

            Extry, extry, read all about it I can picture newsboys in the 1920s, 30s and 40s on New York street corners hawking the latest edition of The Herald Tribune, The New York Times or The Daily Post to passersby as they announce the day’s headline stories….From that ominous day in October 1929:  Extry, extry read all about it….Stocks slump $14,000,000,000 in Nation-wide stampede to unload…Bankers to Support Market Today![1]
            Or how about this one from almost exactly 70 years ago, December 7, 1941: Extry, extry. read all about it… Japan Bombs Pearl Harbor – President to Address Congress.[2] They’re haunting, aren’t they? I have images of them; those newsboys, I can hear them, see them, calling out those headlines.  I have seen enough movies and newsreels; it’s a vivid image for me. 
            Of course, the news these newsboy heralds cried out about was usually bad news – the stock market crash; the Hindenburg disaster; Pearl Harbor… Some things don’t seem to change…although…
The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; As it is written in the prophet Isaiah:  “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight!”(Mark 1:1 – 3).
            Today, both of our readings, the reading from Isaiah and the Gospel reading from Mark, are about heralds and news, Good News…In both instances, the news delivered was news people longed to hear;  yearned for….It was life-giving news!
            Imagine you are a Jew from Judah…You are 65 years old….It is the year 540 B.C. or so….47 years ago, when you were 18, you lived in Jerusalem….You were from a well-to-do family; trades people, perhaps….Life was good, though it wasn’t easy….Your country was small and had lived under oppression for centuries – first the Egyptians, then the Assyria.
            In 612 B.C. the Babylonians conquered the Assyrians and a struggle resulted between the Babylonians and Egypt.  Judah, your beloved country, was caught in the middle…In 605, the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar, defeated Neco of Egypt way up in the north, at the battle of Charcemish, in Syria….Judah came under Babylon’s control….Then King Hezekiah, your king, did something stupid, rash – he rebelled against Babylon and its king….The reaction was swift and brutal. Nebuchadnezzar invaded Judah, laid siege to Jerusalem and, in 587 B.C., destroyed the city, killing many of its inhabitants; burning many of its buildings; destroying the great Temple that had been built by Solomon.  You had been fighting, but were captured.
            The Babylonians forced you from your home, from your land, forced you on a long march to the north, through parched rock-hills and deserts – the long, barren way between Judah and Babylon.  You were settled in a ghetto and forced into labor. Each day, every day, you slog out your existence in this foreign land of Babylon…You and your people, your fellow exiles have thought long and hard about your relationship with God and what led to this; about how you ended up this way….After all, you were supposed to be God’s chosen people. 
            As you and your fellow Jews read the sacred scriptures, the Torah, and especially the confrontational words of some of the ancient prophets, words which had been carried into exile with your community, you and your people realize you had not been faithful to God for decades, even centuries. 
            Again and again, God had called you and your people into holiness and righteousness but, you had constantly turned away from him.[3]  Through the prophets, God demanded compassion, care and justice for one another; and especially for the most vulnerable, the poor, the sick, the aged, widows, orphans.[4]  Instead of compassion, care and justice, there was greed among the people in Judah and Israel; selfishness, corruption and callousness….There was disdain for the weak, for the poor.[5]  People forgot about one another….They also forgot about God; forgot about God’s ways….God receded into the background; only brought out for the occasional feast or celebration, and then only nominally.[6]
            The teachers, the rabbis in exile with you, had concluded that because of all of this, God had turned his back on Judah and your beloved Jerusalem.  God had turned his back on your people, on you; had allowed you to be delivered into the hands of your enemies as punishment.[7]  Your instincts tell you they are probably right and you and your people wonder, “How long, O Lord?  How long will the term of this punishment last?  How much longer will we have to endure this oppression?”
             One day, you are gathered with the faithful for prayers….Yes, you have questions, doubts, but you still gather with the synagogue; still listen to the sacred writings; still say your prayers….One of your number, a known prophet, [8] who had carried on the tradition of Isaiah of old[9], speaks out to the assembly….He had had a vision; the Lord had spoken to him in a dream…Hear his words:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins. In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:1 – 3).

 The return home…to Jerusalem….God will make the way…You feel the hope rising in your heart….Can it be?

Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 40:4 – 5).  
The voice speaks to the people through the prophet:

 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion…Be a herald…Be a herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!" (Isaiah 40:9).  

            Shout it out!  Announce my presence, announce my return from the mountain top! See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.   He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep (Isaiah 40: 10 – 11).   
            Imagine you are that one in exile; who has lived under the yoke of oppression in a foreign land for 47 years… This is the news you have been waiting for yearned for, ached for, it is life giving news to you in exile; you sob in bittersweet joy.  The day of deliverance is at hand…You long for home.
            Just so you know, the  prophet’s words were fulfilled….In 539 BC, Babylon was defeated by the Persians…Not too long after that, Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jews, the exiles of Judah to return to their homeland; to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple.  Can you imagine being among those exiles, being part of that group to return home…The prophet heralded Good News indeed!  Éxtry, extry read all about it!
            There is more to this story:  It appears, at least to us who are Christian, that Isaiah of the Exile’s prophetic words were fulfilled in more than one way….We glean this from today’s Gospel reading:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight!'" (Mark 1:1 – 3).

Mark is a herald speaking of a herald.  What do I mean by that?
            Mark, the author of the oldest of our canonical Gospels, has something important to say, Good News to offer…. The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…. (Mark 1:1) He is a herald, a newsboy, with a Gospel, Good News message….It is the Gospel, Good News message about Jesus Christ and his kingdom and, like the Isaiah whom he quotes, he knows he is speaking to people in exile.
            It’s not the same kind of exile as that which was experienced by the Jews in Babylon….It’s more of a spiritual exile….It is, perhaps, the exile of Jewish Christians in Palestine, feeling the direct threat of the Roman empire just before the fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent destruction of the Temple, painfully echoing the destruction nearly 600 years earlier by the Babylonians.[10]  It is, perhaps, the exile the Gentile Christian minority in Rome experiencing the persecution and cruelty of Emperor Nero.[11]  Yes, in both instances, the hearers of Mark’s Gospel are exiles.  They are isolated, alienated and oppressed….They are anxious and fearful about much:  violence, brutality and persecution; wars and rumors of wars; poverty, famine, disaster and disease….They are human, just as human as we are… They often wonder where God is, what God is doing…..
            That’s’ certainly how those Jews felt who went down to the Jordan River to hear the piercing message of that wily preacher - prophet John the Baptist who all four Gospels link with Isaiah of the exile.[12]  For Mark, for the Church, John the Baptist, with his rough clothing and strange diet, with his intense, wild personality, has come to prepare the way….He also is a herald; a newsboy; a mouthpiece crying out God’s message of deliverance to people who are suffering; who are hurting; who are broken and sinful; who are exiles.  John sets the stage for deliverance, just as Isaiah of the exile had set the stage for deliverance 500 plus years before.   Extry, extry, read all about it….
            Now here’s something remarkable….The voices of these heralds – Isaiah, John the Baptist, the writer of the Gospel of Mark -- are sounding forth once again…They are sounding forth once again to people who are suffering; to people who are in exile, too often lonely, isolated, alienated and afraid. 
            They are sounding forth to people who, too often, anesthetize themselves with stuff or alcohol, sex or drugs; to the young person who is wasting his or her life playing video-games, living in a virtual world instead of the real world; to the teenage girl who cries alone in the bathroom because every time she looks in the mirror she doesn’t see Kate Middleton or Rihanna…These words are sounding forth to the middle-schooler being bullied; to the 50 year old whose unemployment has run out and who has to decide whether to buy food or pay the electric bill; they are sounding forth to the mother and father of two who are in foreclosure; to the 75 year-old just diagnosed with cancer; they are sounding forth to the mother whose 20 year old child has just died in an auto wreck; they are sounding forth to the family of a father killed when he walked in on a burglary….
            The words of these heralds are sounding forth to us, each and every one of us, who sit so often in darkness, who, all too often, have become so accustomed to this darkness we don’t even know we are sitting in it….We are “strangers in a strange land” to quote Robert Heinlein’s classic title?  Too often lonely, isolated, anxious, oppressed, afraid – We are exiles.
            But thanks be to God, the heralds’ words sound forth again calling us, inviting us, urging us, to come out of the darkness and into the light:  Comfort, comfort my people, says your God ….  The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God….As it is written in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”  
            Yes, this Good News of Advent, is addressed to us who are the exiles in this world…
            There is one more thing….and is vitally important…We are called to be heralds of this news to others…. “Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of Christ” we are asked in the Baptismal Covenant (1979 Book of Common Prayer, page 305). 
            We are called to be Isaiah of the exile saying to others, Comfort, comfort my people….   We are called to be John the Baptist telling those whom we meet who are hurting; telling those who we love who are fellow exiles with us, Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  We are called to be Mark proclaiming the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God this Advent season… Extry, extry, read all about it!  It is news worth telling….It is Good News indeed!

[1]   The New York Times, October 29, 1929
[2]   From The News and Observer (Raleigh, N.C.) December 8, 1941 (slightly modified) – The original headline read:  “Japan Declares War on U.S. – Roosevelt Will Address Congress Session Today”
[3]   See Lev. 11:44, 45; 19:2; 20:26; Deut 7:6;; 14:2; Jer 2:3; Is. 4:3 
[4]   See Deut.. 16:19; Is. 1:17, Micah 6:8
[5]   See Ps. 10:2; 12:5; 109:16  Is. 3:13; 10:2, 32:6-7; Amos 4:1;5:11-12; 8:4 – 7
[6]   See Jer. 2:32; 3:21;13:25; Hos. 2:13; 8:14
[7]   See Kings 24 – 25; Jer. 7:21 – 34
[8]   The reference to this newer, “known prophet” is to the person Biblical scholarship believes is responsible for most of the material in Isaiah 40 – 55 and has designated “Second Isaiah” or “Deutero-Isaiah” or “Isaiah of the Exile.”  It is clearly a strand of tradition that is generally distinct from the material found in Isaiah 1 – 39.
[9]  The  reference to “Isaiah of old” is to the original Isaiah, son of Amoz, an 8th century B.C. prophet in Judah to whom material in Isaiah 1 – 39 is generally attributed.
[10]  The Romans invaded Jerusalem and destroyed Herod’s Temple in 70 A.D.
[11]  There was a great fire in Rome in 64 A.D.  Historians believe that Nero set the fire himself to clear out the ghettos, then blamed the Christians and persecuted them.   A considerable number of scholars believe Mark’s Gospel may have been written in Rome in the period 65 – 70 A.D.
[12]  Besides Mark 1, see Matt. 3:1 ff; Luke v3:1 ff and John 1:19 ff.