Mary One Tough Mother
December 22, 2019
Luke 2:19; Luke 1:30-38
The title for this sermon, “One Tough Mother” comes from my friend Michael Usey who delights in being salty and pious at the same time. Members of his church did an outreach effort for the homeless with mostly secular organizations (The Rotary, The Lion’s Club, various college fraternities and sororities) down the Bible belt in North Carolina where he serves. Michael had T Shirts made up for the team to distinguish them from the Evangelicals Church people that people might confuse them with. The T-Shirts read “Non-Asshole Christians”.
Mary really is “one tough Mother” and I suspect that is why she has been so universally revered in the Christian tradition and why people direct their most fervent petitions to her in their hour of gravest need. She gets us because she has been through it.
In the Gospels she is never actually singled out as an example to follow. But if you thread together all of the passages that refer to her, she stands as a model of faith that you would hope your children might live.
The leitmotif is developed right up front in the passage that I just read. The Angels come to her with this news that she will bear a child. Keep in mind that 2000 years ago, this was a child having a child. A young teenager with no idea about what the world held or what she was really getting into.
She gets this mysterious greeting that she believes came from God. And the gospel of Luke does some rare psychological exploration of her mindset. It says, “She wondered what sort of greeting this might be”. Good thing, bad thing, just don’t know.
But then, in the long history of the human experience, I would suppose that this is the most regularly recurring reaction to the news, “I’m pregnant”. Joy filled, sure. But who doesn’t immediately stop and wonder silently to themselves, ‘what the hell am I getting myself into.’
You have just opened this door to a huge, life defining, open ended quest, the parameters of which you can’t possibly imagine from here. Almost all of us wonder, “Eeehhhh”.
But the life of faith is always like that is it not? If it was easy, if were certain, we wouldn’t need faith. We got married at 22 and 23. Kate looked like a stunning bride. But I remember going to see her just before the wedding began, like right before it began, and her hands were shaking.
It was not a real vote of confidence. I was not shaking, but I should have been, looking back. Like a lot of couples, one of us had enough worry for the both of us.
Mary, in her one little line, has the most eloquent and profound expression of faith recorded in scripture. She says, “I am a follower of God… let it be unto me as you say”. She is quoting Isaiah 6:8, a passage where God is looking for someone to do the right thing, someone who will take the harder, more difficult path to unlock the more profound way of being in the world and the response of faith that we should aspire to says, “Here I am; send me”
God is waiting patiently for you, for you, for you… to respond in our lives by saying to God, “Here I am; send me”. “Let it be unto me” for I am trusting in faith that this will be a good thing, that it will all work out. Because right now, I don’t know; I can’t imagine; I can’t see that far. I’m stepping out in faith. I’m scared as hell. But let’s do this… come what may.”
It is what we say. And the most profound junctures of our life just come to us like that. We have to act without enough information to really know, without any safety net, without any assurances that this will be okay. We have to just step out there and trust.
And make no mistake, this is a prayer you will return to many times in your life. I love the story in Luke, right on this point. Because the Angels come and tell Mary, her cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant and she gets some confirmation from her cousin that this is a blessing.
At the birth, Mary is visited by this ‘heavenly host’, the skies light up with a divine chorus; Shepherds mysteriously come to bless her and the baby. Wise men from countries far, far away come in search of a star that leads them to her. A whole lot of miraculous confirmation out there. They all go.
And the story concludes, again with the very rare psychological insight. The gospel of Luke says, “She pondered all these things wondering what they might mean.” She had her doubts. Faith, real faith, always has its doubts. You are never sure and yet you are sure. You never really know, even when you know. This is the human experience.
Leonardo Da Vinci captured this sentiment so well in one of his lesser known paintings, “The Madonna with child and spindle” (slide 1). Leonardo captures the captures the warm humanity that young mothers have with their children, the delight that they share, the warm love that gives them that ‘glow’. The baby is playing in her lap. The baby Jesus is playing with one of the most ordinary items in an Italian household in the 1500’s, a spindle that women used to spin wool or thread that they would use to sew back in the day when we had to hand sew all of the clothes that we wore.
The baby just happens to turn the spindle at just the right angle that it happens to make a cross. The baby has no idea what fate holds for him. Mary has no idea what tragedy awaits her in the future. We never do. We never will. It is the profundity of our life lived in faith. We don’t know. We can’t be sure.
We only have two stories recorded about Mary during the youth of Jesus and both of them suggest she had to put up with the same parenting issues we all go through.
When Jesus is young, his parents are in the big city Jerusalem for Passover, and Jesus somehow disappears in the crowd. His parents are frantic, searching for him everywhere. They finally catch up to him and he gets the speech, as New Yorkers would say, “You hold my hand on the subway platform. Do not run ahead of me”. And she gets back this line, “I had to be about God’s business”. Sounds like my grandsons.
One my kids used to say, “You’re not the boss of me”. O yes, I am, you little smart aleck. We’ve all been there.
And another when Mary comes looking for Jesus after he is a young man (idealist, late 20’s) and he has started his movement. The disciples come to Jesus and say, “Hey, your mother is here. She wants to talk to you.” And Jesus responds, and this response makes it into all three gospels (Mark 3:31-35; Mt. 12:46-50; Luke 8:19-21), suggesting it was one of those stories about Jesus that has a pretty solid basis, “Who is my mother? Here are my mother and brothers, those who do the will of God.”
Spoken like a college sophomore, right? Please Jesus, we just need to know if you are going to be at dinner for the holidays. Is that too much to ask that you call your mother and let her know what your plans are? You just met these people yesterday.”
We don’t actually get Mary’s response. We don’t have to. We know what she said. “I don’t care how ‘woke’ you are, we have a family event planned.” Right? It is every generation.
And Jesus becomes a rock star. Huge crowds start to follow him, so much so that he becomes part of history. The Roman historians of the time took the time to record that “large groups came to Jesus seeking to be healed.”
We don’t have her response to all of the hoopla, the fame. The glory days, no one much remembers what Mary was doing during the run up.
But we do remember her when the soft stuff hit the fan. We remember that vividly. All of the gospels record this. The Romans come to arrest Jesus. Not good. The religious and political authorities turn against him. Mark 14:50 says, “Then everyone deserted Jesus and they All fled.”
Peter, the very man, the would be disciple, he is all of us. He pledges to Jesus at the Last Supper, “I will never forsake you.” And we can presume that he believed that. And by the end of the night, after the threat of physical violence, he slinks away into the night and denies that he ever knew Jesus, undoubtedly in front of some of the other disciples.
He was afraid. He folded. He couldn’t do it. Sometimes you just shred your integrity because you think you need to stay alive. We all hope we wouldn’t be that guy. But those of us who have actually been there know that it is pretty easy to fail, pretty easy to cave.
In the Gospel story about the crucifixion, this fleeing, is the symbol of how we break faith; we lose hope; we stop trusting in God’s goodness; We are afraid- of course we are afraid; this is the part of the journey where there is some really tough sledding and most everyone opts out who can. “I’m done.”
In the Gospel story, the lens keeps zooming tighter and tighter in the events of Holy Week until it is just Jesus alone on the cross. Utterly alone. Even Jesus cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”. Utterly alone.
Except… except for his Mother. We are told that Mary, her cousin and a friend. They were the only three who never leave. She never stops being there for him. When no one else will go get that boy in the middle of the night, she shows up. She never quits.
The worst night of her life, to have to watch your child suffer. Nothing you can do to stop it. No one should have to go through that. And she stays with him until he dies. It is so sad, so tragic, so full of pathos.
Michaelangelo captured that sentiment so profoundly in his statute that is in the Vatican, aptly titled ‘The Pieta’. Mary is a lot like God in that statute. Her lap is huge, even though you don’t really notice it at first. But her lap is huge because God’s comfort and grace is huge.
She holds the tortured, broken body of her adult son, in incredible sorrow. But it is almost like she is cradling her baby again. Her face is young, almost like she was a young mother again. And isn’t it always like that in the midst of tragic death? Mother’s just want to hold their children like babies and love them one more time, hoping against hope that somehow our love might bring them back.
Our Lady, the Queen of Heaven, she has lived through the very worst of human experience. She knows our sorrows, our frustration, how raw we can feel. She gets us.
The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth is built over the childhood home of Jesus. The Franciscans invited countries from all over the world to create Mosaics in honor of Mary. And they line the Basilica. (And you can go see them with me in February 2021 when the next pilgrimage from Christ Church will go to Jerusalem).
What strikes you is how universal Mary is in our piety, all around the world. We see ourselves in her. At an ecumenical pilgrimage site like Nazareth, you remember that Christianity is world-wide and just how many cultures there are that see themselves in the Mother who cares for us in compassion.
[Show slides of the church in Nazareth]