Sermon Archives

Sunday, December 20, 2020
The Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year B)
The Reverend Walter Brownridge, Associate
The New Hope

In the name of our ever-living, ever-loving, and ever-leading God. Amen.

Of His kingdom, there will be no end. This, the fourth Sunday in Advent, as normally Christmas excitement is almost impossible to contain, this year I want us to, if you will allow me with the reading for today, the gospel reading, to paint or describe a set, in fact, three pairs of images or concepts, that may, I think, reflect how we are approaching this, yes, the fourth Sunday in Advent, but more particularly, this Christmas in 2020.

The words in the gospel, “Of His kingdom, there will be no end,” lead to me to think about first a vision and a painting paired together. Second, a challenge and a scandal, or may I say scandals. And finally, an old title that leads to a new hope.

First, a vision. The gospel describes that the heavens have been torn open. God has come down, not with mountain quaking or fire burning, but in the gentle descent of the spirit, who broods over the womb of a teenage girl, Mary of Nazareth. It’s as if in the first creation story, for life is called forth, perhaps with a big bang, perhaps with, of course, the words of God saying, “Let there be light.” Now, in this new creation, the first cell of this new creation is conceived. The Hebrews called the Shekinah, the cloud of the presence of the most high, overshadows Mary. And that is linked, of course, with the Exodus and the son of God is at home among us.

Our Advent liturgies of the word today tell us that God, that in fact, we bump into God in strange places, with the poor, in crowds, at least before social distancing became a necessity, and in history, strangest of all in this obscure village of Nazareth, one of the backwaters of the kingdom of Israel. And there, a young woman, Mary, a young, powerless female in a world ruled by males, tore in a world that is highly stratified, is to be found pregnant before she cohabits with her husband, and so obviously not carrying his child, which would validate her existence.

And yet, she would have found favor. Favor with God is a shock. It’s surprising. But you’ve got to also recognize, and this is where now the painting in contrast to this vision of God coming and overshadowing, this painting that I want to share with you even puts more context to it. The Luke biblical imagination has captured the imagination of artists throughout the centuries. With their own prophetic insight, they have set Mary in these various contexts of familiar things, a half-read book, a meal in preparation, a door opened on children and animals at play, people passing by.

But my favorite depiction is one of the more unique artistic renderings, and that is the one by Henry Ossawa Tanner, the first perhaps well-known African-American painter in the late 19th- and early 20th-century. His most famous work that you might recognize is the one called The Banjo Lessons, where an elderly Black man is teaching more likely his grandson how to play the banjo, that instrument that came over from Africa via what was known in Africa as the kora, and gets translated into the banjo in the North American continent.

Well, in Tanner’s depiction of the annunciation, this feast day that in fact, not only in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, but in Anglicanism, including the Episcopal church, we celebrate it on March 25th because naturally, March 25th is nine months to the day of Christmas. And in this depiction of the annunciation, we have Tanner, more simplified. Tanner’s depiction is a Middle Eastern-style bedroom. Mary sits enfolded in heavy drapes of bed clothes and her own robe. But her gaze is attentive. All is simple, not luxurious. There’s no winged angel. Instead, Mary’s gaze is fixed on a tall, thin pillar of white cloud at the end of her bed.

Now, perhaps Tanner, a preacher’s kid, his father being an African Methodist Episcopal minister, is remembering those scenes that his father may have preached and depicted. And so he is calling forth yes, the presence of God, the angels described in Exodus, where the angel is described as a cloud that led the Israelites into their future and would lead Mary into hers and will lead us through not only ordinary and familiar events, but dare I say, lead us as we have been led in 2020, despite the many challenges.

It is a recognition that God, through those angels, those messengers, those prophets will lead us to places where God is present. And if we would only recognize God and respond with our own, as Mary did, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to be according to your work.”

The challenge. One of the most moving things that I have enjoyed when I was dean of the cathedral in Honolulu and elsewhere where I’ve had the chance to participate is the service of blue Christmas. This recognition that this season full of joy and laughter for so many can be, for also so many, a time of pain, of sad and difficult memories. One of the most important and most beautiful moments in blue Christmas, just as when we light Advent candles on an Advent wreath, is some type of candle lighting ceremony. It is a ritual that says that light has more right to exist in our world than even the present darkness. That while this year, 2020, I want to say that it is blue Christmas for us all.

And so the ritual of lighting candles, small pieces of self-consuming wax and flame, which just says that light has more right to exist in our world than darkness, despite death from coronavirus, despite the challenges and reckoning of our racial history and present. It may be blue, but the light does shine in the darkness. And it is up to us because, you see, those ritual candles will burn out, but as the text of the gospel says, His kingdom will have no end. It is up to us who are the disciples of the light of the world to catch the fire from Christ’s mystery and to bring something of this light and fire into our own lives, and especially into those for whom this Christmas may not be a feast of joy, but a time of sadness and pain and darkness.

The fire we catch from Christ will be, if we are ready, we’ll be consumed like him into a flame of loving service to our sisters and brothers, our siblings wherever we find them, whether it’s at Carstens Elementary School or at Crossroads, or in getting gifts for a child in a home that’s not their own. You see, Jesus has often preached ... Jesus, throughout the gospel, often preaches of the imminence of the kingdom of God and calls for those with ears to hear to repent and believe. That’s what Gabriel tells Mary, that the child she will bear will be called holy, the son of God. And it is Mary’s reliance and trust in God’s word that allows the kingdom to take root in her, just as that same kingdom wishes to take root in each of us.

The scandal. There is, of course, the scandal of Mary, pregnant and without having cohabited with her betrothed, but there’s even the deeper scandal that theologians talk about around Christianity that we are saying as Christians and that this particular time, first century, in this particular place in the Levant, the Middle East, in Nazareth, and with this particular woman, Mary, God has chosen to dwell. And then there is a new scandal, if you will. Feminist theologians have noted, if you will, the seeming lack of autonomy that Mary has in this situation.

What I would say instead of dismissing such risky interpretations as not being valid at all, I would say that because of Mary’s ability to say yes ... In fact, there is a story that an earlier woman had said no. But the situation allows us to reflect upon Mary, a human being endowed with free will, says, “Let it be to me, according to your word and your will.”

The old title and the new hope. Fifth century theologian, so yes, 15, 1600 years ago, there were debates about Mary even then. And the Greeks came up with the word that they still use to describe Mary, Theotokos, Theotokos. The Theotokos we translate from the Greek into the words, “God bearer.” Theo being the word for God. And this reflects this reality that God’s entry into the womb of the Virgin Mary changes forever our understandings of God, our understandings of God as simply divine and omnipotent, but now recognizes that the divinity is also, is vulnerable.

And this is not inconsistent, that humanity and divinity co-exist, that power and vulnerability are both parts of the same being. As Christian believers, we might understand this as our new hope, to consider how God’s call does not violate ourselves as some theologians were wondering about Mary’s lack of autonomy. No. God’s call does, in fact, violate us in ways that we imagine ourselves to be, as fully autonomous, as fully able to do whatever we want, whenever we want, and the consequences are not concerned.

Instead, what we understand is that God’s call violates that if you will fall sense of ourselves and transforms us into our true and higher selves, transforms us, if you will, from virgins who are unable to bear God in the world, to become new beings, creative agents, agents for whom with God nothing is impossible.

Beloved in Christ, as we sit on the verge of another remembrance, that yearly remembrance of the word, which became flesh and dwelt among us, may it always be so. Amen.