Minister's Sermon - Friday 21st December 2018
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenFriday 21st December 2018

Luke 1:39-45 

As soon as the angel Gabriel leaves, Mary runs, “with haste.” The newly pregnant teenager makes for the hills, not slowing down until she reaches the home of Elizabeth, her also-pregnant cousin. Almost as soon as Elizabeth welcomes her, she bursts into song, a song so subversive that at various times since, governments have banned it. It was forbidden to sing it in churches when the British ruled India. And during the “Dirty War” in Argentina, the mothers of disappeared children posted the words of the Magnificat in the city centre, and the military junta banned all public displays of the song. This morning, ‘though, before I say anything about her song, I want to speak about the women.

This is one of my favourite Gospel stories. In it, Mary appears as a real person, “without sentimentality.” Debie Thomas reminds us that “This is no small achievement, because we (the Church) have buried Mary under so many layers of theology, piety, and politics, she's nearly impossible to excavate.” (1) Many of the conventional images of her are unhelpful. Art, poetry and the religious tradition, portrays a perfect, passive young woman. She’s usually either demure in the face of these challenging events or she looks so disturbed that I’m reminded of pictures in child abuse campaigns. But she accepts what’s happening to her. Because that’s what women were expected to do in times gone past and in many cultures today.

Sometimes she’s painted in stark contrast to another Mary in the Gospel. Mary Magdalene who is assumed to be a prostitute. And the contrast between them leaves women torn between the impossible purity of being a virgin, or an earthiness, for which women need to repent. It’s a caricature of course, but caricatures usually contain, a grain of truth. And it results in simplistic biblical role models for women when they’re compared to the more nuanced ones we find for the male disciples. ‘Though that’s probably not surprising, since men, not women, have been the public interpreters of Mary for centuries. So, I’m glad of more contemporary images of Mary, that show her as an ordinary woman.

And I especially like these by Dinah Roe Kendal.

But there are others too that challenge the image of Mary being very different from ordinary women, and depict strong, equal and joyous relationships between the two women.

For me, it’s really important that we have images of biblical women, that aren’t passive, compliant or verging on the abusive. I was fortunate to have had strong women role models in my life - women who were neither passive nor perfect – and from an early age. They were the nuns at church and school. Some were my teachers. Some were family friends. And from an early age I wanted to be like them - ‘though my mother firmly squashed my idea that I might be a nun! They provided models of what it meant for women to be engaged in the life of the world, as Jesus’ disciples, and I suspect they’ve shaped my image of Mary. As someone who trusted “God’s word…[and so does] nothing more or less than… any believer, male or female.” (2)

Mary and Elizabeth are often identified with poor, ordinary, lowly people. But I think it’s important to distinguish them from victims of oppression – whether through poverty, violence or power. I don’t think they were victims. They were comfortable with their humanity. Even if Mary was poor and her decision to say yes to God brought her shame. And even if Elizabeth was talked about because she had been barren and was now having her child at a great age. And that “being comfortable” with themselves gives them an attractive humility. They trust God for their future and find their security in God. Richard Rohr suggests Mary could do this because of the way she saw herself. The clue is in the words of Mary’s song. She sings, “…my spirit rejoices with God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant…” “…for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant…”

Rohr suggests, that if we wish to be a disciple like Mary, we need to answer this question. “Can you let God ‘look upon you in your lowliness,’ (or ordinariness) … without waiting for some future moment when you believe you are worthy?” (3) Can we let God look at us as we are, without thinking God won’t love us, until we sort our lives out? Can we let God gaze on us if we’re not perfect? Can we let God love us while we struggle to love ourselves? Many people find this hard, and when we’re uncomfortable with some of our thoughts, feelings and instincts, so hide them from ourselves and from God. If this is true for you, you are invited need to learn to, “Love what God loves in you.” You are invited to discover that even if you cannot accept yourself - God does. And the good news is – that it’s possible to learn this with practice.

Ignatius of Loyola was born in the 15th century and he created a series of Spiritual Exercises to help people deepen their relationship with God and become more faithful disciples of Jesus. Early on in the Exercises, he suggests that as we begin to pray, we “stand for the length of an Our Father, raising our minds above and considering how God our Lord is looking at us …” (#75) He suggests, we stand in God’s presence - or sitting in an attentive manner if standing is too much - to discover that God does indeed love us, just as we are. I wonder whether it occurs to you to wonder how God is looking at you?! We need to know that God looks at us with compassion, mercy and love, and that even if we’ve lost sight of God, God has not lost sight of us. We might no longer be able to believe. We might have lost confidence in those things that helped us to make sense of our lives in the past. Yet God still seeks us and calls us and waits for us until we can trust in the God who believes in us.

Mary’s words are the words of someone who trusts God to look upon her with love. And will accept her just as she is without worrying about her flaws and imperfections. (I don’t believe she didn’t have any!) When Elizabeth acclaims her as a blessed woman, I’m sure that this is one aspect, of being blessed. When we’re able to allow God to see us as we are. The mercy and compassion, with which God looks at us, begins to reshape our lives. God’s looking at us with love and compassion begins to direct the way we look at others. And when we can begin to see others as God sees them, all sorts of change can happen in our lives and the world around us. We begin to glimpse God’s kingdom on earth as in heaven as the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are fed, and those in need find help. But there are no short cuts. Waiting, standing, preparing cannot be bypassed. For these enable us to discover that our broken humanity is acceptable to God. And then it becomes possible to let go and just be. For it’s in allowing ourselves time and space to “just be” that our hearts, minds and vision are transformed and we are enabled to make the sort of choice Mary made. Amen.

Sue Keegan von Allmen

Texts for Preaching Year C ed Cousar, Gaventa, McCann and Newsome (Westminster John Knox Press Louisville, Kentucky) 1994, 38

Richard Rohr, The Naked Now, The Crossroad Pub Co, New York, 2009, 142