Here is Hope – Sermon for December 20, 2020

Sermon for December 20, 2020

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     Samantha Power has a heart for impoverished and beaten down people. She started her career as a war correspondent during the terrible conflict in Bosnia when innocent people were rounded up and killed—the term “ethnic cleansing” was used. She later had a career in government, and reached a cabinet post during the Obama presidency. She was the ambassador to the United Nations. In her recent memoir she described a UN meeting when the ambassador of the Central African Republic spoke and made a plea. How many of us have ever heard of this small, landlocked country? Samantha Power was shocked to hear the ambassador call his country a failed state. The country is desperately poor and that misery made much worse by religious inspired violence: Muslim against Christian, Christian against Muslim. Ambassador Power realized she knew little about that nation so she made an appointment to see the country’s representative and learn more. The office of the United States ambassador encompasses floors in the UN building with many deputies. When ambassador Power arrived at the office of the Central African Republic she was surprised at how small it was with Spartan furnishings. The ambassador had a staff of one. After exchanging formalities Ambassador Power said to her colleague, “Tell me more about your country”. The ambassador of the Central African Republic began to speak, but then he stopped suddenly. It wasn’t that he was having trouble expressing himself in English but tears began to stream down his face. When he composed himself he told Ambassador Power, “What is happening in my country is terrible—more terrible than anything that has happened to us before. By taking the time out of your busy schedule to be with us here today, you have shown us that the world’s superpower cares about what happens in our small, suffering country. My country will remember this visit forever. You have given us the first hope we have felt in a very long time. I am emotional because you are here. The United States of America is the greatest country in the world, and you, America, are here.”

In today’s gospel we heard of a visit by God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, to a small backwater town named Nazareth. The visit was through an intermediary, the angel Gabriel. Earlier in the gospel Gabriel will identify himself as one who stands in the presence of God. Gabriel came with a message for a peasant girl named Mary. All we know about Mary at this time is that she is engaged to Joseph. Joseph has an important lineage; he is from the “house of David.” In the first reading today we heard God promise David, new king over Israel, a house. This was not a pledge for a palace but a promise of an eternal kingdom. Mary, as a peasant girl in Nazareth, had no time to be thinking of her husband-to-be’s ancestry. She was no doubt very young, probably in her early teens. She had many chores. One tradition has Gabriel’s visit while Mary was gathering water at a well. She has no wealth or titles that would impress folks. God does not look at the outward appearance. We heard that when the prophet Samuel was sent to anoint David King over Israel. David was considered too young and not the likely choice, a mere shepherd looking after sheep. But God told Samuel straight out: “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

God looked into Mary’s heart. Gabriel reported to her “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Mary was enriched by her Jewish faith and she knew the Lord was with her. But now to have a heavenly visitor and being called “favored one” was certainly perplexing. She pondered this greeting and the old King James Translation is more vivid saying, “she cast it about in her mind.” She couldn’t figure it out but God’s grace and favor is not for us to figure out but only for us to accept in faith. As the holiness of this moment began to sink in Gabriel wanted to put her mind at ease saying “Do not be afraid Mary for you have found favor with God.” We hear nothing about reasons only God’s grace, God’s doing, God’s choice. Have you found favor with God? We might think of all our shortcomings and sins, all our lack and lapses in faith, and figure ‘maybe not’. The word favor means God’s grace. In spite of our sins God forgives. In spite of our shortcomings God is with us for the long-haul. In spite of our lapses and lack of faith God loves us all the more. What is important, and joyful to remember about God’s favor and choosing us to represent him, is the power of the promise “The Lord is with you.” We are not always cool, calm, and collected amid the adversities of life. It is Jesus who is cool, calm, and collected and we must truly believe he is with us, and that his touch is one of mercy. I remember a time of deep frustration and fretting fearing I was going to fail at a number of tasks. Being down on myself I happened to look up. Was Gabriel there? No but I saw a homemade plaque on the wall a parishioner gave me. The words came from the apostle Paul, certainly one acquainted with adversities: “I can do all things through him (that is Jesus) who strengthens me.”

There was good reason for Gabriel to say to Mary “Do not be afraid” when she found out what God planned to do through her: “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and he will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will rule over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” That is a lot to take in! All the talk of having a son who will be a king, who will take over the line of David, and he will be called the Son of the Most High God with an eternal kingdom. But Mary had a more practical concern: “How can this be since I am a virgin”. She was engaged to Joseph but they were not living together and the culture of the community would not condone that until after the marriage ceremony. Mary’s question certainly made sense, ‘how can this be?” Gabriel told her “The Holy Spirit will come upon you; and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy, he will be called Son of God.”

Perhaps you saw on the TV news a health care worker getting the Pfizer vaccine to inoculate against the COVID virus. She was overcome with emotion and said something that could be thought of as unscientific: “It is a miracle”. The vaccines were being given under the sign “Here is hope”. Mary’s pregnancy will be a miracle. We say so when we recite the creed ‘Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” Sometimes you see woman who are expecting a child wearing a shirt over the abdomen with words like “Baby inside”. If Mary would have worn such an outfit the words could read “Here is hope”, the child developing in her womb. Mary had many things to ponder and cast about in her mind, but Gabriel reminded her of the grace of God, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Gabriel reminded Mary of her cousin Elizabeth, six months pregnant with a boy who will be known as John the Baptist. It was felt that Elizabeth was not able to bear children, and she bore the stigma of being barren. But nothing was impossible with God, and Elizabeth rejoiced for she said “The Lord looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Interesting. People who endure disgrace from people will not have that judgment from God, for it is God’s grace that removes disgrace that we know we are beloved and favored by God. In spite of Mary’s ponderings and perplexity, she trusted God, God who was with her always leading her to say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” What a powerful expression of faith empowered by God’s favor. When Jesus calls us to follow him, these are not merely shallow words. This calling is for life: to love the neighbor, to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, visit the sick, and work against those sicknesses that weaken the nation like racial prejudice. Mary shows us how to respond to God’s favor, respond to the grace of Jesus, say “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let your word guide my life and rule in my heart. If we have our doubts remember Gabriel’s words, “For nothing is impossible with God.”

During the horrific Civil War in Syria, a war correspondent captured a photo that went viral, appearing in newspapers, magazines and online platforms. A five year old boy was injured in an aerial attack. His face was covered with white and gray dust, with rivulets of blood across his face. The world learned his name is Omran. A boy of similar age in the U.S. saw the picture and he took out his pencil and wrote to President Obama. Samantha Power shared the letter in her memoir. In part the American boy wrote about the injured Syrian boy, “Can you go get him and bring him to my house? Park in the driveway and we will be waiting for you guys with flags, flowers and balloons. We will give him a family and he will be our brother. We can all play together. We can invite him to birthday parties and he will teach us another language. Since he won’t have toys my sister will share her big blue stripy white bunny. And I will share my bike and I will teach him how to ride it….Thank you very much! I can’t wait for you to come.” Samantha Power made the observation, “It was hard to escape the thought that perhaps we would be better off with the children of the world in charge.”

The lesson today spoke of the promise of Jesus as the Son of God with the throne of his ancestor David, and rule a kingdom which has no end. It is lofty language but the rule of Jesus is very much like what that boy wrote concerning a little wounded boy in Syria. Jesus calls us to be children of God, chips off the old blessed block with heartfelt compassion welcoming refugees, putting away prejudices and thoughts of being better than others, working together, playing together, teaching one another the gifts of the various cultures of the world. We need Advent. We need Christmas. We need the rule of Jesus, the Merciful Lord and Savior, teaching us to restore and live our lives as children of God. Have faith, for nothing is impossible with God.

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