Jumping For Joy an Advent 4 Sermon

Jumping For Joy

December 23, 2018

First Presbyterian Church Norman

Rev. Jessica Dixon

This sermon was given on the fourth Sunday of Advent, which was also my last Sunday at First Presbyterian Church of Norman, which is reflected in the sermon.

Before beginning the sermon, and after reading Luke 1:39-46, I recited Rev. Layton E. Williams’ poem An Almost-Mother’s Song: A Christmas Poem About Mary

Those words, beautifully written, and first performed by Rev. Layton Williams at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago on December 20, 2015 say an awful lot of what Mary means to me. Rev. William’s life experience is different than mine, I did not grow up fearing impurity as a sin worth nightmares, and that I would be judged for. I do not have blood nephews, but those life details being different only serve to reinforce the point. If we are all almost-mothers as Mary once was, bearing love into the world, than the details of our experiences are vital to us, but insignificant to the point.

Today we hear a story of Mary’s journey toward being Jesus’ mother.

We see her visit her relative Elizabeth. We heard the beginning of Elizabeth’s miraculous journey with God at the Longest Night service on Thursday as her husband Zechariah is visited in the temple by an angel and made unable to speak after he questions what is to happen, for he and his wife are old, past child bearing days, and the angel tells him he will have a son, Elizabeth will give birth to their son John. At the conclusion of that story Elizabeth chooses to stay home for five months, we assume because it is so strange that she is having a child and while her husband, a respected priest, has been made unable to speak by God.  

These would not have been easy days, a husband who cannot communicate, her body changing in ways she assumed it never would, bringing life to the world when it seemed far too late.

And then Mary arrives. Mary, who was too young, who was probably getting away from her own town gossip, possibly family strife, and a fiancee who has to be convinced by an angel that she is telling the truth, goes from Nazareth into the mountains to visit her cousin/aunt. Two women, one too old and the other too young, chosen by God to bear two baby boys, and the hope of the world, meet. And in their meeting, as Mary greets Elizabeth, John, en utero and five months along, jumps for joy at her arrival and greeting. I imagine the scene taking place in the doorway of Elizabeth’s home, just as Mary is entering, and the women reacting like the art on the cover of the bulletin (Jump for Joy by Corby Eisbacher). If you do an image search on google for Mary and Elizabeth, or The Visitation, or the Magnificat- sooo much of the art that comes up has the two women seemingly standing feet apart and looking a bit more serene than I could ever imagine from the way this bit is told.

Now I know a lot of it has to do with Catholic and historical theology around the holiness of Mary and her being depicted as never being touched by other people….because apparently sin rubs off…. But if you were pregnant because God said so, at an age after you thought that was possible, and your niece showed up on your doorstep and before she could tell you anything about the strange and miraculous time she has had of late your baby jumps for joy, I cannot imagine that being a calm thing, or that these women, who already knew one another intimately and now share this huge God-reality, not touching one another at all. Many of us would reach out for assurance, for comfort, for joy, or just in greeting. So I think it’s probably a bit more like today’s cover and the joy, bewilderment, and love displayed by these two would have been palpable.

Elizabeth says to Mary “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” which have become central words to Catholic faith and familiar words of the Hail Mary and Rosary prayers. These words, and their intent are so formative as to be ingrained in the faith of our Catholic siblings in Christ. And here lies perhaps why we do not know them as well- as a part of the split, the schism between our two faith communities, broadly the Protestant tradition we are a part of and, the Catholic faith, Mary is one center of the controversy.

  • What does her holiness mean,

  • was she herself without sin or is that only Jesus,

  • what role should she play in our understanding of Jesus?

  • what would it mean to pray to her?

These are questions and disagreements that go all the way back to Martin Luther, and we still have them today, and so our Protestant tradition has not focused on Mary so much.

Another layer of these words is to think about what it means for a woman to be blessed in scripture. For instance the woman in the Hebrew scriptures described as ‘the most blessed among women’ is Jael- you know her right? She’s the one who, during a battle with the Canaanites when the commander of the Canaanite army runs away, she invites him in to her home, tucks him under a blanket, gives him a glass of milk and once he is asleep… drives a tent stake through his head, thus ensuring an end to the war. And the judge Deborah sings a song about her….So this whole being the ‘most blessed’ thing is not for the faint of heart who are not willing to go the extra mile for their faith, whether it is murdering a general, or carrying God’s self in your body and then parenting him…its a big deal.

But, whatever our traditions and theological acrobatics have told us in the two thousand years since the story was acted out, as far as we know in the story we hear today, Elizabeth is speaking with the authority of the Holy Spirit, and exclaims her joy and love for her blessed family member. It really doesn’t need to be more complicated than that, does it? Elizabeth has an all too rare moment of knowing for sure, right now, the joy of God’s truth and goodness. And so she literally shouts about it. While her husband can’t talk, she yells loudly about God’s blessings to her kins-woman.

Isn’t that great! How often are you so convicted that something is true and wonderful enough that you shout about it, right where you are- in the grocery store, in your living room, with your family gathered, here at church? How often does the spirit move you so much you just have to yell about it? For myself, I would have to say literally never.

So can we celebrate for a second that these two women, so long ago, amidst such strange, captivating circumstances, had a moment of such importance that the unborn jumped for joy and a woman felt the need to shout about it? And not worry about all the rest. God’s goodness is worth shouting about. The love we feel for one another is worth shouting about. And even in (or perhaps especially in) our staid, overly analytical tradition, we should do more shouting about our faith- and not the kind of shouting that is really fighting.

So John jumps… Elizabeth yells… and then Mary sings.

And I love her song dearly.

This is one of my favorite poems in scripture. I read it for comfort, and to challenge myself with its truth, and sometimes it helps me to not feel alone.

Mary’s beautiful words here are words of faith, of gratitude, and that describe the way that God turns the world upside down for those who love Her. They are just beautiful.

These words are also threatening-

  • God has “scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations”

  • God has “pulled the powerful down from their thrones  and lifted up the lowly”

  • God has “filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.

  • God has remembered mercy and fulfilled promises…

While I believe that it is possible to understand her words as meaning that she is grateful for the ways she, as an oppressed person- a woman, and of a faith community under occupation, and an unwed mother, has been treated by God far better than the world would treat her- it is a cop-out to think that these examples are only that. Mary means what she says, she knows God has done these things, and she is seeing the same in her life. So what does it mean for us, who are mostly citizens of a rich nation, ourselves mostly well educated and financially secure,  and in most other ways secure to affirm Mary’s song?

It means we need to listen to her, to remember that the God she sings about has indeed done these things, and will do them again. And that it is our responsibility as followers of Mary’s son to ensure-

  • that we humble our own arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations,

  • and that we help lift up the lowly,

  • and even help topple the powerful from their thrones when need be,

  • that we feed the hungry with good things

  • and not give more to the rich who do not need more…

...not comfortable words for our context or our days.

But, despite the discomfort of those parallels, we also must remember to do these things not out of fear of being the powerful to be toppled, or the “rich to be sent away empty-handed” no, we should do these things for the reason Mary sings about-

  • because like to her, God shows us mercy,

  • because along with her, we rejoice at God’s role in our lives,

  • And because just like for her, God fulfills the promises God has made to us,

And because, as Rev. Williams reminds us,

“We are all almost-mothers
like Mary once was
conceiving within us
the promise of love”

Love that goes to extremes, that turns the world over, that is both all powerful and as vulnerable as a newborn child, that gives us all hope and joy and the strength to jump….to shout….and to sing because it is ours.


Love worth singing about, love that brought me here. That makes me love this congregation, that brought me from far away to live in a strange place. Love that means that even though we journeyed through some hard times and hurt feelings, I will remember you with fondness and hope. It is also love that asks me to go now. It is time. It may not feel like time to you, I have had moments too where it felt like I Should be here with you, but I knew even in those moments that that was my fear of an unknown future and my sadness at saying goodbye, and not what is right for you or for me. We became a community together over these last two years, and we became that for a purpose and for a time. And that time has come, and so I will move on to a new role, and you all will move into a new future, a future I know will be bright, that will be strengthened by your love of one another and of God, I love you all dearly, and will keep tabs from afar. I will be sure to send updates when I know where I will serve next. And I will pray for you. I will pray that Mary’s song and yours are one- that the mercy and grace of God are palpable for you, that you know that justice and making things right is God’s work, and that, like Mary you can know joy even in the midst of confusing or difficult times.

As advent ends and new seasons begin today, May we enter them with joy and love that make you jump...and shout...and sing for their love. Amen.


Shepherding Tradition: Scottish Reformation Sunday 2017

Shepherding Tradition

First Presbyterian Church

Norman, OK

May 7, 2017

a sermon for Scottish Reformation Sunday

 

As a young pastor and one who spends much of my time in ministry with the young people of the church, I hear, and even have, a lot of skepticism about a topic or event in the church where we say ‘well, we do this because it is tradition’ I immediately have many questions-

  • who decided it was tradition?

  • how many times has it been done before?

  • Why was it first done, and are we doing it for the same reason now?

  • what about it makes it important enough to be a tradition?

  • could it still be tradition and good if we changed it in some ways?

  • who will it (upset and why) if we change a tradition

  • and who might we reach and include if we did change it?

 

And often, if I ask these questions out loud I get responses about respecting the past or the history of the church. Which, for me leads to a whole other set of questions-

 

the past of the church includes

  • the crusades,

  • slavery,

  • women as property or second class citizens,

  • the forced conversion of native people and Indian schools in the US that separated innumerable children from their families and forced them to give up their culture, language and homes

  • institutionalized practice that means people who are vulnerable in culture because of their race, gender, sexual identity, age, education level, mental or physical ability or language are further made vulnerable because the church says they are not worthy of being leaders or included at all in the church.

But our history also includes

  • moves toward equality for all people,

  • education for those who didn’t previously have access to education,

  • food, water and shelter for those who lack them,

  • the attempt to create good relationships between people of very different cultural, language, or religious backgrounds,

  • civil rights activism that makes our nation safer and more equal a place to live for all people.

  • and the eventual inclusion of peoples previously excluded from leadership in the church.

  • As well as the story and witness of Jesus Christ and those who knew him best. The only thing that really distinguishes us from other social or civic groups.

 

So in the end the core questions become which part of history am I supposed to respect, and which am I supposed to ignore or repent? And what makes something a tradition and worthy of staying a tradition? This is a fundamental question that people in the church have asked for a long time, and because it comes often from young voices or from those not primarily in leadership in the

church this is a concern that often gets disregarded as pollyanna, or shortsighted, or rabble rousing, or unaware. But these questions are also the voice of our heritage, and of the very reformers from whom we take our name as Reformed Christians.

 

Now it might sound, with this beginning that I am most worried in today’s sermon about the opportunity to change the church, and throwing tradition out the window. And that is not the case. In fact I believe that both Jesus in today’s text in John and the Scottish Reformation and the Scots Confession have things to tell us that would encourage us both to hold tradition and to be skeptical of it.

 

First when we read the story and John we hear a story about sheep, and pastures, gates and thieves. Not necessarily very relatable in our time, but when we pair it with the 23rd Psalm, familiar words in the Old Testament, we see that this language would have been very traditional in Jesus's time and faith community. Just as we read these familiar words with different images than we are accustomed to with the children this morning, images that make scripture more real to our lives and realities, so Jesus even more changed what the scripture had to say to those he ministers to. Making it more real and relevant to them.

    In the preceding passage to this one Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and to those who are his biggest denouncers, so here when he uses the vernacular of their faith tradition speaking of himself as the shepherd in the gate he's using the language they can understand because it is traditional. However he's using it in a new way. Naming himself the shepherd and the gate and saying that there are those who will try and come into his sheep pen from other ways to mislead and harm the sheep. And that he has the shepherd will protect those who are in the fold. Revolutionary language to ears who know that God alone is the shepherd and who are hearing this from a man they suspect believes he is the messiah, he is basically saying so.

 In Christian tradition the story and the further text about sheep and Jesus in the following verses are used some of the main scriptural a witness to the fact that Jesus Christ is the only way to be in God's kingdom. That is the traditional interpretation. However much of the scholarly work that I read this week in preparation for the Sermon indicates that perhaps that is a hasty and possibly even problematic way to interpret what Jesus says here. Multiple commentators I read speak of Jesus’ words here as being emphatic yes, but emphatic that those who have come before were false prophets and leaders, and that he is the true one who has come at this point. That his words here and the place they come from does not necessarily indicate that he is saying he is the only one, that comes from other parts of Jesus’ words, but instead that he is the only one right then speaking this truth and living God’s way. The thieves and the bandits in the Story might even be speaking about those Pharisees themselves from the previous chapter.

  Whether this other way of interpreting this text works for you or not, it speaks to the idea that even our understanding of particular scriptures changes over time, the way that we understand scripture must respond to the world that we live in, even as we use it as the primary guide toward what God needs and wants us to be and do. for much of our history as a church we did not have other faiths or Christian traditions as serious companions in the world or even as people in large numbers to interact with and now that we live in a world dominated by multiple religions and ways of being in each faith community as well as ready access to one another it is important to take what we learn about one another as God’s children in the world and apply that to how we understand what Jesus has to say to us, and apply Jesus words to how we engage with those communities. As our tradition distinctly calls us to engage the world even as we strive to allow our faith to make us, and thereby the world, new, different, and better because of what God means in our lives and what we do in the name of our faith in the world. Not throwing away tradition, or God’s Word, keeping the blessings of belief that Jesus as our God, guide and friend, but understanding that the way we read together must be dynamic and able to respond to the needs of all of God’s people. When we share and are lovingly critical of one another's understanding of things, we open space for the spirit of God to change us, to open us to who God is in the world and in our lives in new ways.

      And that is exactly how we come to celebrate the Scottish Reformation. A group of people who in the midst of great turmoil in the church and the world, knew what they believed in what God called them to say about their faith, even in the face of death and jail for saying it. This reformation happened at a time when much was in upheaval and the world and the church as they knew it was changing. The opening lines say “We confess and acknowledge one God alone, to whom alone we must cleave, whom alone we must serve, whom only we must worship, and in whom alone we put our trust.”

 

Lofty words, and formal sounding and possibly stuffy to our modern and postmodern ears, but at the time revolutionary and confrontational words. Even here with this confession that has been in one form or another a part of our Presbyterian heritage since its writing in 1560- but it was written as an affirmation of faith yes, it parallels the structure and content of the Apostle’s creed, but it also was a refutation of the rule of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots and the ongoing battles between her and the parliament of the time over what the state religion should be. It includes many things which we as Calvinists and Presbyterians still hold true today-

  • that from God alone comes salvation,

  • that Good Works do not determine our salvation but are a grateful response to the grace we cannot earn, but have in Jesus,

  • that the Church in the world is God’s and that we are sinners, unable to save ourselves no matter how hard we try.

But as a text it also includes things that we no longer believe-

  • that women who preach and lead the sacraments are evil and working for satan (at least I hope you don’t believe that),

  • that Jewish people are satan followers and not a part of God’s family,

  • that the Catholic church is corrupt and evil

  • and that all churches that either do not baptize infants, or in which a pastor does not personally examine everyone who comes to comunion ahead of time for their worthiness are not a part of God’s true church,

  • and that leaders- kings and other civil leadership, are ordained by God, and to be followed unquestioningly-

certainly not things we believe in our time and place.

This is why it is good to remember another legacy that comes to us from the time of our heritage with the Scots Confession, that we are a Reformed and always Reforming people- which in its original meaning did not mean we were always changing or throwing out tradition, but instead that we were in a constant state of self examination for what the Spirit was guiding us to do, and in fact, in its origins the cultural assumption of the re-formation was that we would return to the root of our faith, and most likely to older ways of being and living faith if we were doing this reformation well. As a fundamental part of our traditions, it means we are, or should be, always ready to change, but to do so always with God’s guidance and the voice of history as a part of how we choose to change. This Reforming tradition should probably make us all uncomfortable, just as Jesus’ words and actions often should...if we return to his guidance we hear both that he is the shepherd and the gate who will give us abundant life, but also that he has sheep in other pastures that we don’t know about, that he calls us to carry his yoke which will be light and good, but that any time we do not feed, clothe, visit, or care for one of our siblings in the world we have done so to him as well. An uncomfortable balance, we are loved but called, cared for but always meant to care for one another.

The heritage of being a follower of this Jesus, and the heritage of our Scottish roots and Reformation faith mean that we should probably always be a bit intimidated by what it means to be God’s child, that we should know that we are God’s while also knowing we fall far short of deserving that distinction, that we will inevitably get things wrong and so we must repent and try a different path when we do, and that our lives are in God’s hands to protect as a shepherd, to guide as a community within the pasture, and to lead as the one who knows where we are going.

Our reliance on scripture gives us a story to tell and a path to lead us, our history with the confessions, at it best, show us both the goodness and truth of our tradition and, at our worst, the ways that history, culture and human fallibility can lead us astray- they give us both hope and humility, and the two together make us who we are as Presbyterians, Reformed Christians, and God’s people in our particular history and context.

Both Scripture and Confessions guide us toward what story we will have to tell next, and give us the opportunity to tell it in new Confessions rooted in tradition, scripture and the guidance of God. We do not know where that will lead us, but we do know its re-formation of us as a people will be ours and God’s journey to take together. So let us continue to follow the Shepherd down this path, and see what adventures of faith it might take us on, as it took our predecessors in faith on theirs.