Sunday, December 16, 2007

Advent 3 - Year A

I’ve noted that, if and when we move a block south, we can change our name from Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd to Our Lady of the Assumption Lutheran Church.

I notice that some of you don’t laugh at that “joke.”

I find it funny (not just because I like to laugh at my own jokes, which I do) because our bishop would pass kittens if we had a name connected to such a blatantly extra-biblical and thoroughly UN-Lutheran doctrine as the bodily assumption of Mary into heaven, after which the church Our Lady of Assumption was named.

Which begs the question: what DO we do with Mary? It’s a question that haunts me.

About 15 years ago I wondered openly if God was calling me to a monastery. I was chest deep in Thomas Merton’s writings and thought I might be hearing God calling out to me through them.

Thomas Merton, as many of you know, was a Trappist monk who lived at the Monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemane outside of Louisville, Kentucky. Like all Trappist monks, when he took his religious name, he took the name “Maria” which was abbreviated to “M” to be placed before his religious name, which was Louis. So, in the monastery, he was Father M. Louis Merton.

He wrote a small library about the spiritual life, especially about monastic spirituality. His spiritual journal The Sign of Jonas was formative in my maturing as a Christian. I was able to overlook the Mary stuff in his writings because it wasn’t in your face. Mary’s shadow lurked in the corners of his theology. Merton wrote so movingly about the spiritual life that I wondered if God was asking me to spend my life praying in a monastery.

So, like the bible says, I sought to “test the spirits” to see if they were from God or from my own feeble imagination. Being an impressionable twentysomething, folks wiser than I suggested I visit a monastery.

So I did. In fact, two of them. Holy Cross Priory, an Anglican monastery in Toronto, and the St. Augustine’s House, a Lutheran order in Oxford, Michigan. Down the road from St. Augustine’s House was a larger, Catholic, Benedictine Order of Monks who had a special relationship with their Lutheran brothers (and sisters) a block away. The two groups of monks would occasionally meet at early evening for vespers.

So, a group of us wandered down the road one night to pray with the Catholics. We arrived just before supper and were invited to stay and eat with them. So we gathered around the table to pray. I was expecting maybe a bible reading, or a psalm, or a hymn, something like we do as Lutherans.

But no. This little band of monks began a boisterous prayer to MARY, thanking HER for her provisions.

My protestant blood curdled in my veins. It wasn’t an appropriate prayer, I thought. It felt like we were putting Mary where Jesus or God should be.

On the way out the door we passed a small side-chapel where a statue of Mary spread her arms over a tiny altar. Well-worn kneelers at the foot of the altar invited the passerby to say a prayer and light a candle. Which a few people from our group did. Including the Lutheran abbot and a few Lutheran pastors.

My Lutheran innards clenched in protest. Lutherans do not kneel before anyone other than before Christ.

That’s when I realized that God probably wasn’t asking me to be a monk. Thomas Merton’s writings may have led me as far as they could. Now it was time to find another spiritual guide.

So I entered the seminary.

While in seminary I stumbled across two fat volumes of a book called “Mariology” or the theology of Mary. Considering that it’s just a couple of passages from scripture that talks about her, I wondered how the author could fill a thousand pages of Marian theology.

So I spent a mind-numbing Saturday afternoon thumbing through the book. Then, I came to the section on protestant objections to Marian theology and learned that neither Martin Luther nor John Calvin threw away their devotion to Mary, even after they were tossed from of the Roman Catholic Church. They said they were just following the bible.

My soul magnifies the Lord, Mary says, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

All generations will call her blessed. Luther said that that meant me as well. God chose Mary to play a crucial role in our salvation history. There was something special about Mary. But I still didn’t know what that meant; what I was supposed to do with her.

Then, last year in Mexico, we learned of a different Mary. Strangely enough, this Mary was hiding in the pages of scripture, beneath the words, where I must have forgotten to look. She was no bit player in God’s salvation story, but played a defining role. And I began to see Mary differently. I’ve shared this story with you before. But I’d like to share it with you again.

Then was an indigenous man by the name of Juan Diego who heard a voice singing. He followed the sound which turned out to belong to the Virgin Mary, appearing to him as a pregnant native woman. Mary asked Juan Diego to ask the bishop to build her a temple. Juan Diego agrees. After a few false starts with the bishop and a sick uncle being healed, the bishop finally listens to Juan Diego because he brought flowers to him that out of season, and in his cloak, an image of the Virgin miraculously appeared.

While my Coles Notes version looses the mysticism and charm of the original, the story is actually quite compelling. I did some reading of what this story was really about. One writer suggested that there’s more to this story than a simple tale of a Virgin’s appearance; of why she wanted the temple to be built.

“The Mother of God wants a home where all will be welcomed,” the writer says, “where all who come receive her recognition, love, and affection. Here, everyone will be heard; all will be free to speak in their own way. Her very eyes show that she recognizes the presence of the one who comes to her. Her very gaze lets those who are looking at her know she is ready and willing to listen to them. She is not cold, distant, and haughty, but tender, close, and friendly. She does not want her children threatened, she wants them protected. She does not want them humbled and dehumanized; she wants them self-confident and joyful.

“Her house is to become what every church should be: a center of recognition, listening, love, compassion, healing, and protection. This will not be a center of rules and regulations, but of flowers and songs. It will not be a sad church, but a festive one wherein the joy of God will uplift the downtrodden of the earth. The humanizing and liberating beauty of the divine experience will draw people into it freely and joyfully. Here everyone will be someone special, experiencing their inner dignity, infinite worth, and personal mission of building the temple of the new and truly egalitarian society. This is what every church should be. So her temple is to be a model of what every Christian temple should be; a model that few, even today, emulate.”

Don’t you think that sums up Mary’s song in today’s gospel reading? Isn’t that what Mary was singing about? Isn’t that what God is asking us to be?

This passage bounces around my frontal lobe when we talk about the new building. Are we looking for a new facility that will give us more space to spread out? Or are we building a mission? Are we, with God’s grace, building a new world?

I know now that our Roman Catholic friends don’t worship Mary because they understand that Mary always points beyond herself to Jesus and his message of new life. I overlooked her role in our salvation because my eyes weren’t big enough to see what God was doing. My vision was blocked by my own limited idea of what faith was about, rather than craning my neck to see what God was building.

If Mary has a message for us today I think this is it: The world needs God’s freedom, the freedom of knowing that we have received mercy, compassion, forgiveness; the freedom of seeing justice alive in an unjust world, and the freedom of faith bringing healing and comfort to broken people. God wants us to participate in what God is already doing.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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