Mariya uMama weThemba Monastery, Grahamstown, South Africa
Br. John Forbis, OHC
RCL - Advent 4 B - Sunday 21 December 2008
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16
Romans 16: 25-27
Luke 1: 26-38
For me, this is a nail-biting morning. This season, all the Scripture readings, even the great theological events afterward seem to hinge on this morning. God through Nathan plants the seed of a promise to David of what will the future of his line will be. It is not necessarily about kings enthroned in great palaces but it will be about a lasting dynasty. The Benediction in Romans, possibly not even written by Paul, talks about a mystery that has been kept secret for all this time being revealed, something building up and kept under cover because it is so risky and powerful, everything that all the prophets have been speaking about, all that the Jews have longed for and now broken wide open for the Gentiles, not necessarily the “chosen” ones. All this points toward a young woman probably not older than her teens in a remote village of no account in Galilee called Nazareth. Nothing particularly remarkable about her. She is betrothed to a carpenter. But so much hinges on her actions this morning, even what she says. And under even the most difficult state of affairs – if she were to become pregnant, how could she possibly explain such a situation? who would believe such an outrageous story?
If she came to us today in person and told us this story herself, we would think she were touched, as my mother would politely say, or just plain delusional and possibly even a real threat to herself and society. Even she asks, “How can this be? Why me?” And Gabriel’s answer is even more confounding and astonishing than the initial announcement of her pregnancy. All of the genealogy, the prophesying depends on this -- a nonsensical dialogue between an angel and Mary? And then, Mary agrees to such a strange proposition? Yes, this is rather a delusional season.
Somehow it all seems safer to have me read it to you from a big book from a lectern and then have me to explain to you what I think the passage may mean to us. But I don’t think God wants us to feel that safe this morning. God wants us to be delusional like Mary, even like God himself.
At this time of year, every year, we come back to this story and every year at this time, we have the same violence, the same propping up of our fragile, decrepit, crumbling structures of greed and corruption at the expense of millions dying of war, poverty, disease and starvation. Dictators are still given free reign and lies and hypocrisies abound. Everybody is vying to make claims on something, land, money, power, and they think they are due this, they are entitled to it, they are chosen. And so who’s delusional now?
Mary is not “chosen” by God because she has a claim on something or for any seeming power or importance or entitlement on her part. Here in this village of Nazareth a young woman is visited by an angel and is offered a risky, scandalous, dangerous proposition. As Nathaniel later asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
She is chosen to be the bearer of the Son of the Most High not before she says “Yes, here am I. ” Her Yes makes all things possible. Her Yes allows for something new to happen. The echoes resound in the remotest corners of the earth and 2,000 years into the future. Her Yes creates rumblings and vibrations through the centuries of violence and death into now Mumbai, the Middle East, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Guantanamo Bay, the US, South Africa, even Grahamstown and even right here in this church. Because her yes means life and that life will not be overwhelmed, it resounds against the death around us.
It’s easy for me to say I can’t do anything about the world, I can’t make any change happen, but Mary’s yes quakes through my whole living space of 50 hectares and my brief portion of the last 44 years of those 2000 years and a whole new horizon opens up. With God all things will be possible even when I come so close to despair.
Sure my heart gets broken. I am devastated by what I see in this world, what we human beings are capable of destroying. I am tired of reading and hearing about the dearth of compassion and plenitude of self-interest. And I am tired and grieved of the ways I exhibit the same behaviours, my own violence, my own hypocrisy, my own selfishness and self-righteousness. All of this can surround me so much that I feel trapped and can’t act or respond. It becomes my isolation from the world. Despair is just another way of saying No.
But Mary’s Yes can even reach me. And suddenly God takes on form, substance in a womb. God becomes real. God becomes human. God is incarnate in this world. God is surely with us.
I am to live and to believe in the impossible. I could become pregnant with Christ and birth him forth into the world. But God also grants me the freedom to respond one way or the other. God will not do this without my participation. God will even risk my saying No to grant me that freedom.
And perhaps there is the true power of our yes. It comes from within our own heart changed by a God who so desires our free participation in God’s creative delusion or should I say vision.
Among many of Mary’s accolades, she is known as the mother of monks. She teaches us in the assertion of her freedom, no matter how uncertain it may be, how we can surrender to God. She exemplifies our three vows, stability, obedience and conversion to the monastic way of life. Even in the midst of incredible fear, she stays put, listens and allows God to enter into her so that she can bring forth something new, something changed, the Incarnation. But I also look to her for another reason. She does it with such humanity. Even if she doesn’t have all the answers, she is willing to become involved in possibility, in growth, in something which of its outcome no one could possibly imagine. That is what God holds out for all of us as well. Maybe not safe, but certainly life-giving because that is what is promised to us from the prophets even to now.
So here am I, a naïve, flaky white man from Carlisle, Pennsylvania, itself a rather small dorp in the US, trying to live like a monk in Grahamstown, South Africa. Can anything good come out of Carlisle? Can anything good come out of Grahamstown, South Africa? Can anything good come out of me or you?