13 June 2016

Sometimes in Church

It is sort of a joke that when American's come to visit in a local church, they always say something like "It is such an honor to be with you."  Even though we mean the sentiment, it still sounds funny to local ears.  Maybe it is the repetition.  

Nonetheless, I am honored by the invitation to preach here and there.  At a beautiful congregation in Kosice where I preach monthly, I am taking a look at women as models of faith.  This past Sunday we looked at Mary the mother of Jesus.  I knew this was a sensitive subject because of the Slovak religious context.  I think I pressed the pastor/translator and congregation just a bit, but not too hard.

12 June 2016 - Kosice

Today we continue to learn about our faith from the women – the moms, sisters, aunts, cousins, and neighbors – who have so much to teach us about faith in God and a life with Jesus.  Already we have heard from Ruth and from Sarah.  Last month we considered the examples of Lois and Eunice.  And though everyone has probably memorized my sermon from April on Mary of Bethany, today we will consider another Mary.  Of the six or seven women in the New Testament named Mary, today’s sermon will focus on perhaps the most well-known:  Mary, the mother of Jesus.

I have to be careful with this sermon because of the context of religious life here in Slovakia.  We are not in Levoča or Spišsky Podhradie, so worship of Mary is not as strong in Košice as it is in Spiš.  Still, there is reason to be careful.  Protestants want to make sure we are different – and certainly more self-confident about our faith – than Catholics, so we insist that we honor Mary but would never worship her.  Sometimes we do such a good job of NOT worshiping Mary that we avoid mentioning how important she is.  Most Catholics insist that they do not worship Mary, but honor her as Blessed Mother . . . and Protestants lose interest immediately.  However, we should not be so afraid of Mary-worship that we lose her as a model of faithfulness, of holiness, and as an example of Christianity.  

While we do not pray TO Mary it is a shame if we do not pray WITH Mary.  For example:
Luke 1:46-55
And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful    of the humble state of his servant.From now on all generations will call me blessed,     for the Mighty One has done great things for me—    holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him,    from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;    he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones    but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things    but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel,    remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever,    just as he promised our ancestors.”

It is in the Gospel of Luke that we see Mary’s influence.  Luke focuses on Mary in the story of Jesus’ birth.  I am certain that you remember that when I preached on Sarah, I told you that Sarah was the first person to permanently reside in the Promised Land (after her death when Abraham purchased land and Sarah was buried there); In the same way, we can see in the confession of Mary in Luke 1:38 “May your word to me be fulfilled” that she becomes the first and model Disciple in Luke’s Gospel (Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament, 229-232).  Jesus tells us in 8:21, even though it can be seen that Mary and the rest of Jesus’ family were not living up to the standard of Disciples in that moment, “My mother and brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice.”

So we see that Mary is a model for our prayers.  Mary also offers for us a model of discipleship.  I am convinced that Mary is an example of Christian compassion . . . perhaps even pastoral care. We see these qualities in her as she lived her everyday life, just as we do in the lives of each other.  Compassion and charity are not qualities we can simply claim we have.  For example, if I show no interest or compassion for others as they are without expectation of what I can get from them, can I say I have a pastor’s heart?  If I treat you like a stranger, then can I call you my friend?  If I only give to others so that my gift will bring me praise, then can I say that I am generous?  

What we do and how we treat others reveals our character.  It is not necessary to claim that we have great qualities; we must live with the character of Christ.  What we say means little compared to what we do.  What Mary did speaks clearly to us even today.

Mary was a refugee.  Matthew 2:13-23 tells us about the Angel of the Lord appearing to Jozef and warning about Herod’s desire to kill Jesus.  Mary and Jozef and the baby Jesus became refugees as they fled from their home in Israel.  They were refugees in Egypt.  Europe continues to struggle with a refugee crisis.  Last week there were several articles about life for refugees living in Greece.  Hundreds of them live inside the buildings of an abandoned airport outside of Athens.  Life for refugees is difficult and getting worse.  The stories last week were about how young men were selling their bodies on the streets of Athens just so they could buy food.  Two thousand years ago on the streets in Egypt, Jozef and Mary searched for a place to live – an abandoned house or maybe a tent where they could escape certain death.  Maybe Jozef was able to work as a carpenter and make enough money to afford enough food.  Or maybe Mary with the infant Jesus has to sit in the sun by the side of the busy roads and beg for food . . . maybe just a few coins so they could survive another day.  Even when the Angel of the Lord spoke again to Jozef that they could return home, fear kept them away.  They moved to Nazareth where Mary and Jozef found a way for their family to survive. 

Mary was a mom.  The next time we see the family, Jesus – now about the same age as Gabika’s Timko – was running about the temple getting into trouble.  It is hard on kids when mom’s keep an eye on them in church.  Then, in the blink of eye, Jesus is grown.  You wonder about the years in between – what kind of child was Jesus?  How did Mary keep to herself all the promises that the Angel had told her about her son?  Did she ever whisper to him, "Don't you know what you are to be?"

We know that Jesus’ first miracle, according to John 2, was at Cana when Mary showed what great faith she had in her son by asking him to keep the wedding family from being shamed.  How many other weddings did Mary keep a close eye on the young Jesus?  Was he dancing too wildly?  Did he get his close wet with soup?  Watching Gabika yesterday with Timothy, I was filled with joy thinking about Mary following Jesus.  Moms know what their children are doing even in a crowd of thousands . . . and nothing can block their vision when they are looking out for their children.  

When Mary had to look up at her boy from the foot of the cross, elevated in shame and ridicule by those who wanted him dead, she could do nothing but watch.  And Jesus saw his mom and had compassion on her.  He entrusted the woman who raised him into the care of his beloved disciple John.   Mary, the first disciple entrusted to John, the beloved disciple.

“In Jewish law (Mary, as a woman) was not a person, but a thing; she was entirely at the disposal of her father or her husband.  She was forbidden to learn the law; to instruct a woman in the law was to cast pearls before swine” writes one commentator (William Barclay quoted in Trull, Putting Women in their Place, 72-73).  Women were religiously inferior in Jewish and Greek religions of the time.  So why does Scripture present such a positive picture of Mary? 

Because in Christianity, thanks in part to Mary, transformed the position of women.  Women are people; not, “in the traditional Jewish morning prayer, (when) a man offered thanks that God had not made him ‘a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.” (Trull, 73)  So Mary has something to teach us all –about showing compassion, about survival, but most of all about being a disciple.  May we honor her example.