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Advent 4   Leave a comment

The following is a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on the morning of 24 December 2017.
Scripture: Romans 16:25-27
Luke 1:26-38
Canticle: Luke 1:46-55

Today’s Gospel lesson, known in the Church as The Annunciation of Gabriel to Mary, or simply The Annunciation, is my favorite Bible story. And it’s one of the most influential stories in terms of art; I would encourage you when you go home this afternoon to do a Google image search on The Annunciation. You’ll find hundreds of paintings over the centuries, from ancient murals and icons to John Collier’s very modern take. Even if you can’t call to mind any images of the Annunciation at this moment, some of the pictures you find will undoubtedly be familiar to you. (Your search may reveal a few early images in which Mary is wearing a chasuble and stole—the vestments of a priest).

The story has inspired hymns and spiritual songs, perhaps most notably Hymn #265, which we often sing at this time of year as well as on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25th. And three words of Mary’s response inspired Paul McCartney to write one of the Beatles’ most celebrated songs.

If you pray the Rosary, or grew up praying it, you know that the first line of the Hail Mary, “Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee,” comes from Gabriel’s greeting here.

All this familiarity with The Annunciation can desensitize us to its revolutionary nature: this is one of the most subversive stories in the Bible.

Let’s quickly address Mary’s virginity: the Church and our culture have developed an unfortunate fixation over the centuries on Mary’s sex life, and it has had an unhealthy effect on our broader conversations around sexuality, with some devastating consequences, particularly for young women.

Mary’s sexual innocence is not the point, and the message is definitely not that virgins have found favor with God and those who aren’t virgins are out of God’s favor.

The point—as Gabriel explicitly says—is that God can do what should be biologically impossible. This is God saying, “I know the parameters of human reproduction; I created those parameters; and I can transcend those parameters.”

Because what’s about to happen will change everything.

Mary accepts the strange news that follows the strange greeting, and says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” That “Here am I, the servant of the Lord” echoes the response of God’s faithful servants over generations to God’s call; look through the Bible and you will see those words again and again. They’re good words to have in mind if God should ever call you to anything.

And when Mary says, “Let it be with me according to your word,” Mary becomes three things: one, she becomes a mother.

Two, she becomes in essence the first Christian priest, consecrating with her word the body and blood of Christ—a fact curiously overlooked or excused by two millennia of male church leaders opposed to the ordination of women, despite Mary being depicted in priestly vestments in liturgical art for nearly that whole time.

Three, she becomes Theotokos: the Mother of God. Now, I recognize that may be a controversial term for some of you. Calling Mary the Mother of God isn’t to worship Mary, or to say that Mary is greater than or equal to God or Jesus; it is acknowledging and showing reverence for her special role and place—as Gabriel clearly acknowledges in the text—as the mother of the incarnate God, the one who was chosen for and accepted this role—risking her impending marriage, her reputation, and in a time of both high childbirth mortality and the stoning of unmarried mothers, risking even her life—and gave birth to Jesus and raised him.

So Mary is special. And yet, very much human, and very much an example for all of us: for each one of us is called to echo her response: Here am I; let it be with me according to your word.

Every day, in every moment, God calls you and me and The Church to do as Mary did, and give birth to the incarnation of God in the world.

Most of you know that Erica and I are expecting our first child in April. And we have had countless friends and relatives telling us, “Your lives are about to completely change forever. You can’t even imagine how much everything is about to change.” And it’s something I don’t mind hearing over and over, because I know it’s true: I know that no matter how much I can intellectually grasp how profound an experience becoming a parent is, I won’t really know until I experience it first hand. Neither books nor movies, nor having nieces and nephews and the children of close friends in my life can prepare me: the experience is beyond my comprehension.

So is this true of the Incarnation. What we will celebrate tonight, what St. Paul calls “the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed,” was foretold for generations as the coming of a king and liberator of a great kingdom—and yet turns out to be not a king and kingdom in an earthly sense, but a helpless baby born to a family of marginalized ethnicity in a time of occupation and oppression, and a spiritual kingdom whose citizens strive to live in marked distinction from the values of the kingdom they physically inhabit. Even the Prophets couldn’t grasp the astonishing thing they were foretelling. But they knew that everything would change.

Shortly after the Annunciation, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who is unexpectedly pregnant with John who will become the Baptist, and Mary sings the canticle we call The Magnificat, which took the place of a Psalm for us in today’s liturgy. This Song of Mary hearkens back to the Song of Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel—another unexpected pregnancy—and it is perhaps even more subversive and insurgent than The Annunciation.

Mary begins, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,” (in Latin: Magnificat anima mea Dominum, my soul magnifies the Lord) and then she tells us why; she paints a picture of a world turned upside down, a world in which God has scattered the proud in their conceit, has cast down the mighty from their thrones, has lifted up the lowly, has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty; God has come to the help of God’s servant, for God has remembered God’s promise of mercy.

The Magnificat is what love, justice, and power look like in God’s kingdom. It is the polar opposite of what love, justice, and power look like in our wounded world. It is the polar opposite of the greedy, heartless tax bill passed into law this week. It is the antithesis of the justice and power structures we see in our nation today. It is a world in which Mary’s consent is an essential element of the Incarnation, as is Joseph believing her story.

This song of subversion is part of the Church’s daily liturgy: it’s optional at morning prayer, but always part of evening prayer. If you’ve ever thought about memorizing a piece of poetry to calm yourself at stressful times, consider memorizing this canticle, and reciting it—praying it—regularly.

Note that Mary uses the past tense; these are the things that God has done. Even though Jesus is not yet born, and we may not see how justice is prevailing on Earth, it is already done, and cannot be undone. The powerful, the unjust, and the unloving just don’t know it yet.

Tonight Christmas begins. God is coming into the world through unlikely means: an impossible pregnancy through the consent of a brave and Blessed Mother.

God is coming into the world through the faith and love and justice of every person in this congregation and in the Communion of Saints—brave and blessed mothers all. And everything is about to change…

“Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a child… of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe   Leave a comment

A homily given to the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory on 27 January 2015, the Feast Day of the three saints.

Old Testament: Malachi 3:16-18: 16 Then those who revered the Lord spoke with one another. The Lordtook note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the Lord and thought on his name. 17They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them.18Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.

Epistle: Acts 16:11-1511 We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, 12and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days. 13On the sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. 14A certain woman named Lydia, a worshipper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. 15When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.’ And she prevailed upon us.

Gospel: Luke 8:1-3: 1Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, 2as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, 3and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.

When asked “how many women on the Supreme Court would be enough?” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg answered: “Nine.”

To the follow-up question: But that would be all of the justices; how does that represent fairness? She responded: “For most of the country’s history, there were nine men, and nobody thought that was unfair.”

Today we celebrate the feast of Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe, three early Christians. “Holy Women, Holy Men” calls these three women “Witnesses to the Faith;” Grace Cathedral has their figures—along with Priscilla (who has a different feast day shared with her husband Aquila)—on an altarpiece in a chapel, where they are known in the community as early Christian leaders.

We’ve just heard the story of Lydia—almost in its entirety: the end of the chapter adds a return visit by Paul & Silas to Lydia’s home, where they find a company meeting there: perhaps the beginnings of a church.

I want to remind you of what we know about Dorcas and Phoebe. First Dorcas, whose brief story is in Acts chapter 9, verses 36-42:

36 Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. 37At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. 38Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, ‘Please come to us without delay.’ 39So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. 40Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, ‘Tabitha, get up.’ Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. 41He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. 42This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord.

Phoebe doesn’t even get a story, just a shout-out toward the end of Paul’s letter to the Romans. Chapter 16, verses 1 and 2:

16 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church at Cenchreae, (sen-cree-ay) 2so that you may welcome her in the Lord as is fitting for the saints, and help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.

The Gospel lesson for this feast day is a brief mention of the presence of Mary Magdalene and some other women—Joanna and Susanna are named—in Jesus’ ministry. The message seems to be merely a note that Jesus welcomed women among his followers and patrons.

You may have noted that the three lessons are very short passages; Lydia’s story is by far the longest, and it’s only 5 verses. When the Church in its wisdom created this feast day, it seems to have struggled to produce a substantial lectionary. It is wonderful that we celebrate these women and their roles in getting the Church on its feet—but it is a shame that there is so little to celebrate.

The size of the texts is no doubt symptomatic of the ancient world’s marginalization of women. Women had very little power in that place and time. Married women had their husbands to look after them, and widows—the women for whom Dorcas wove clothing, and perhaps including Dorcas herself—were entirely disenfranchised (thus the Bible’s frequent exhortations to take care of widows and orphans). Holy Women, Holy Men notes: “As what the Jewish community called a ‘God-fearer’ [Lydia] was undoubtedly accorded respect by the Jewish community, but still would have been marginalized.” Even this wealthy, God-fearing merchant was marginalized because of her gender.

Most stories in the Bible are about men. Sure, the Bible has a number of great female characters. But more often than not, they’re relegated to supporting roles—sometimes even in their own stories: Dorcas, for instance is a distant second to Peter in her own resurrection narrative!

But the size of the texts is also perhaps symbolic of our continued marginalization of women in our world and in the church. If the paucity of female-centric Biblical narratives is a result of the marginalization of women in the ancient world, what story does our contemporary church tell about women?

Four decades after the ordination of women in The Episcopal Church, female priests and deacons still fill far fewer pulpits than their male counterparts, and make far less money in the same positions.

I remember conversations at General Convention last summer about the lack of female candidates for Presiding Bishop. The defense was that almost no female bishops met the detailed job qualifications, such as having been a Diocesan for a certain number of years. But that’s a problem in itself! Why aren’t there more women Diocesans? We’re doing better than the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox, but it’s still not enough—by Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s standard or any other reasonable measure.

Part of our role as religious, I’ve been told many times in the past year and a half, is to stand with those on the margins of our society, to lift them up. To share our privilege—and if nothing else, all of us in this community experience the privilege of gender—to bring them closer to justice and equality. God puts opportunities into our lives every day to speak up for women, and their equality in our world and in our church. We can do this through advocacy, through asking for gender equality in our workplaces, our ministry organizations, and churches. We can step aside to give women and girls an opportunity that we might have otherwise taken to serve or lead. And often, it’s even better to not speak up, but to quietly support women as they speak for themselves.

Perhaps a larger challenge is to think about ways we can ensure that a feminine perspective exists within our all-male community! Easier in days when we shared more time and space with our sister community, no doubt. But the world wants to equate the feminine with weakness, and I know that for many of us personally the feminine has been something to shake off, to abhor. But Jesus calls us to be counter-cultural—which means embracing the feminine and being stronger for it.

All of these things are true not only for women, but for other marginalized people who get even less representation in the Bible: racial and ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, bisexual and transgender people. We can be intersectional in thinking about the marginalized.

Let’s go back to these three women and their relevance to our own lives: Lydia is a merchant in purple cloth—known historically to be difficult to make, often reserved for royalty, and very expensive. So it’s likely that Lydia was wealthy. She eagerly listens to and receives God’s message through Paul, and her first act as a newly-baptized Christian is to open her home to Paul and his companions. In her generous hospitality, she becomes literally a servant to the servants of God.

There is much scholarly debate about how closely Phoebe’s role may hew to our contemporary definition of “deacon,” but I’ll leave that debate to the scholars and hope that we can at least agree that Paul’s context makes it clear she is a leader of some kind, and that her leadership is of a servanthood nature. “…Help her in whatever she may require from you, for she has been a benefactor of many and of myself as well.” Phoebe is engaged in some work to which Paul wants the Roman church to make available its resources, and he knows that they will receive back in some greater form whatever they give to Phoebe.

Dorcas’ story is my favorite—not because of her resurrection, but because of this line: “All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them.” This puts such a wonderful image in my mind, because I don’t get the sense that the widows are showing Peter rough-hewn garments made from scraps. I picture them showing him the intricate weave of the cloth, the fine stitching and embroidery, the beauty of the completed garments. Dorcas is not merely obeying the Biblical instructions to care for widows; she is giving them fine garments worthy of display. Peter brings glory to God in raising Dorcas from the dead; Dorcas has already brought glory to God in her work.

These three women are doing what conventional wisdom might consider “women’s work,” but what is simply the very things we are called to do in our rule, the very things that Jesus calls all of us to do. They each give of their time, talent and treasure; they are caring for and serving those around them. They are dedicated to prayer, and to learning and spreading the Good News of Jesus. They are living witnesses to Christ’s love in the world. Each one is finding her own particular way of following Jesus, of spreading the Jesus Movement as it takes shape in its first century. They could be us; we could seek no better models to emulate.

Society may not have cared much about these women; the Bible may not have much to say about them… But The Lord takes note and listens, and a book of remembrance is written of those who revere The Lord and think on his name. When we remember their names and their stories, we also memorialize the countless women who have helped the church on its way but did not get a mention in the Bible. Women across two millennia who have feed the hungry, clothed the naked, and welcomed the stranger as Christ in their midst. And when we support women in their struggle for equality and justice in the Church and Society today, we are remembering Lydia, Dorcas, and Phoebe. The Lord takes note and listens.

Posted 27 January 2016 by Br. Scott Michael Pomerenk, BSG in Homilies

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