Sermon preached at St. Bartholomew’s Church, NYC,
11 AM, December 20, 2015 Advent 4, Year C
(see audio link above)
I was a good kid. I promise. But, upon occasion, my zeal for the thrill of adventure would overcome any measure of common sense I had. My parents saw it fit to give me a car, and the state of Georgia saw it fit to give me a license, at sixteen years of age. Can you imagine? I tooled around Augusta in a pea-green Pontiac Bonneville. It had plush velour seats, but, on the outside, it was a tank of a car.
One rainy day, I wanted to impress the person in the passenger seat, racing some friends to our next stop. One of my turns were too ambitious, the wheels couldn’t hold on to the slick concrete, my friend went into a fetal position, and time slowed to a churn as I couldn’t figure out whether to turn into or away from the skid. In a flash, my fender scattered into the storm the splinters of some poor person’s mailbox. We came to a halt right after that, and we started to breathe again. We assessed the damage.
Fine for the car. But, awful for the innocent, law-abiding mailbox, which would never again receive another bill or another Christmas card. We knocked at the door. No one was home. So I left a note, returning the next day to make amends, deeply embarrassed, and, now, newly cautious of how much damage I could do.
Do any of us really know how much damage we can do? We don’t even have to be driving a hunk of metal to damage people’s lives. Do we know our power? With a word we can deflate someone’s hope. With a look we can crush someone’s joy. And, oddly, with these selves that we have, we can, at times, cause damage by simply doing nothing. Sometimes, by simply keeping still, we could be at our most cruel.
The technocrats at Google have not yet applied themselves to the problem of evil. But, they are applying themselves to the problem of the flawed human being behind the wheel of a car. They, in their genius, have designed cars that drive themselves. And they work! If you haven’t already, you should see them. Google it! And you’ll see that they all have what looks like a spinning silver siren on top of the car that scans the streets with lasers for everything the computer needs to know to get you safely from home to the store and back. People will be able to sit in the car and go about their business at their leisure, chatting or reading. They won’t be able to drive if they wanted, because there is no steering wheel! And, given a decade or so, when these cars become universal, Google, and companies like it, will have saved, not only mailboxes, but thirty thousand lives in this country alone. And where will we be? We will be in a whole new world, where designated drivers, or calling shot-gun, these terms will mark you as an old-timer.
But there is a little snag that we have found. There’s a reef that must be passed before we can make it to that other shore. The University of Michigan just published a study that produced puzzling results.
The self-driving cars are two times as likely to be in an accident as human driven cars. Two times! How can this be? Well, it seems that this is absolutely not the fault of the driver-less cars. But, it is other people who crash into them, the inattentive ones on their phones, the aggressive ones who rage at the road. These drivers aren’t used to a car playing by the rules all the time. And the driver-less cars, they can do nothing but follow the letter of the law, proceeding with safety and caution in ways that no human has ever done before. Like angels among us, they can pull off the rules better than we can.
And yet, it is this very obedience to the law that has these cars being the most vulnerable. Do you see the dilemma? Once you know that these cars are more dangerous, who is going to ride in them to begin with? With twice the risk, who is going to dare to be the first, when there are so many crazy people on the road?
The great irony is that in order to establish a new world of safety, pioneering people have to be especially unsafe. Without the so-called “early-adopters,” nothing new could take root. They deserve our admiration and gratitude, these people on the frontier who put their lives on the line for the sake of all those who will come after them. These heroes: They risk death on the roads so that death on the roads may be no more. We should love these “early adopters.”
Do you know what we call “early adopters” in the Church? We call them “saints.” They are the ones who are pioneers in the ways of God, living out a life of heaven on earth, despite the risk. In various times and cultures, they said yes to the call of God, giving us so very much.
Like the ones who will first ride cars with the computer as their pilot, the saints give over the direction of their lives to, not a computer, but to God, so that a way of life may catch on, the way things were made to be, so that a new light may shine not just in one place, but in every place.
But these “early adopting” saints, so often, like the driver-less cars, they collide with the world, or should I say the world collides with them. Some suffer more than any of us could bear to fathom. Some saints fall, becoming martyrs. Not because they wished it, or God wished it, but because the world wished it. Or, perhaps, they just got in the way.
I am reminded of a saint in San Bernardino, Shannon Johnson, a man from my hometown of Augusta, actually, who during the carnage of that dreadful day this month, embraced his co-worker with the words “I got you.” He protected her, but in doing so had his life taken from him.
As Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
Shannon stands as a hero and a saint, truly. But also stands as a heartbreak. In Shannon we see the ancient pattern: every rejoicing for the saints is also intertwined with grief for them as well. It is a braided tether to God. There’s the Joy at their giving us so much. Yet there’s the sorrow at the brutal resistance that they suffered. All so that we might thrive, so that we might know God more. They magnify God for us, often at great cost, to the end that one day our broken world will be set right, the rough places made plain, and that the love of God may be all in all. That’s the goal. That’s what it’s for. That’s why they did what they did.
Today, we are remembering in our hymns and prayers one of the greatest saints in our tradition. This highly favored lady sang with great joy her magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary whoops for joy because of the blessing she has just received from her cousin, Elizabeth, the wife of the High Priest, Zechariah. It must have been such a relief for Mary to be with someone who could see the same things that she could see. Elizabeth can sense what is coming, somehow.
She is with child, as well, another unlikely birth, for she is as old as Mary is young. Her child will be John the Baptist, the great prophet. John’s perceptive powers are strong, even in utero, for he leaps within his mother at the coming of Mary, somehow sensing the greatness of the person who will be borne from her one day.
Or perhaps he was recognizing the greatness of Mary, herself? Look at what she risked for God! I can’t imagine it was easy for her to remain pregnant in her small village of Nazareth. The scorn towards her irregular and suspicious pregnancy must have been scouring. And yet she stayed true to her calling. This local pressure was a good reason to go away for a couple of months to the hills of Judea where she could find support from her sympathetic and devout cousin.
But it wasn’t just scorn that Mary risked. It was death. Taboos were deadly serious back then. If it hadn’t been for good Joseph protecting her, if it hadn’t been for him taking on some of the shame that she was enduring, sharing it with her, if it hadn’t been for that, she would have been killed. And they would have said that God wanted it that way.
Do you see how contingent it all is? How much Mary’s yes depended on the ‘yes’s of others to support her.
For Mary the risk goes even deeper. She risked exile, which would happen. She would have to live for years as a refugee, fleeing the order of extermination from her Governor, Herod. He was so fearful of someone else usurping his throne that infants gave him nightmares. She risked it all, counting on some other people willing to harbor her family.
Thanks be to God that Egypt, the very land that had enslaved her people long ago, it seems that they had turned from their evil ways, and were now willing to protect a Hebrew family, rather than take them for their own. Thankfully, Mary’s yes to God was met by Egypt’s yes to God by welcoming the refugee.
But Mary’s risk goes even deeper than that. She is a saint who says yes to God not only placing her own life at risk. But also placing her son’s life at risk, as well.
It’s one thing to lose your own life for the good of the world, but to lose a child? I think many would agree that this is the greater anguish and the greatest risk of all.
And yet, Mary said yes. She continued down the path that God had set for her. I have little doubt that, just as Mary swaddled her child, she was pivotal in shaping him into the person he would become. She sang him songs of the prophets who foretold the powerful cast down and the lowly lifted up from the dirt. She shared her vision of the hungry full and the rich empty. She told him stories of the mercies of God that have passed from generation to generation, a mercy that has been yearning, groaning, to be lived out, to be lived out to the hilt, so that that mercy may shine to the ends of the earth, not just in heaven.
She raised him up in the ways of God, risking the chance that even her own chosen people would not stomach him.
How did old Simeon in the temple put it? He said to her, “Mary, this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the hearts of many will be exposed.” And then how could she ever forget the last part of his dreadful prophecy: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” She knew the risks. And she still said yes.
Like the radiant painting that Steve Ross fashioned of Mary, knowing all of these risks, she holds out her baby to the viewer of the painting, surrounded by the stars of heaven, offering her beloved Son, so that her Lord may be magnified in all the world.
We know how her child was ultimately received. We can only grieve with her at what she lost. Or what was taken from her. And yet, somehow, that horrible, yet Good Friday was not the end, not at all. Somehow her Son is still with us. Somehow Mary is still here, holding out her Son to us, looking with those sparkling eyes, piercing our souls with her insight, enflaming our hearts with her hope, leading us, and all people, to a better life.
What will we do when we take the child into our arms, holding him close in a dark and broken world? Whose voice will we follow? What will we risk?
In the time we have, how will we magnify the Lord?