Monday, June 29, 2015

June 28 Sermon: Who Was Conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
Luke 1: 31-32, 34-35, 37
31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”35The angel said to 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. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.”
I don’t really care to do sermon series very often. I really prefer the lectionary, the weekly series of readings appointed for the church, as it gives me a little more freedom to respond to the events of the week. I know many folks like sermon series for the sustained focus it gives us for several weeks, and I will admit to enjoying having the opportunity to dive deeper into topics, particularly this summer as we engage the Apostle’s Creed and talk, piece by piece, about what it is we believe.
But with all that has gone on in the world the last few weeks, I am starting to think that the universe does not like sermon series either. Here I have been trying to stick to the Apostle’ Creed and life keeps getting in the way. Last week we came together after the massacre in Charleston to heal a little bit, to pray, to affirm, together, that we wouldn’t let this moment pass by without finding new ways to live out God’s call to forgiveness, to justice. And this week, there are two places on my mind, one being the nearly empty lot down the street where the historic Scott Boulevard Baptist Church has, over the course of the last few days, been reduced to rubble by a bulldozer, to be replaced by some seven hundred apartments and mixed retail. And the second place, of course, is the Supreme Court of the United States, which on Friday ruled that there is a federal, constitutional right to marriage, for straight and gay people alike.
I have wondered why the universe doesn’t like sermon series, and yet as I have prayed about this sermon, as I have thought through all of it, recognizing that this is all dicey stuff, I have come to the realization that these events, in many ways, fit right into what we are talking about this week, the two phrases we’re focusing on, that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. After all, if Jesus Christ was conceived the Holy Spirit, that means that Jesus is part of God’s ongoing work in the world, which means that the work of God didn’t stop nearly 2,000 years ago but continues, even now. And if Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, that means Jesus was born into history as part of history, not to stand above us and wave from on high, but to be a part of our lives, of our history, of our progress, and so we ought to pay attention as people of God to that which is happening now, to the history being made now, for in it, we may well find Christ.
And so I want to talk this morning about how these two pieces of the Apostle’s Creed relate to what I suspect has been one of the most remarkable two-week periods in the history of our Republic.
Of course, it is all enough to make your head spin: the changes, the events we’ve all lived through over the past couple of weeks. If you had told me a year ago that we would be living in a world where gay people could get married and where the confederate flag was being removed from southern statehouses across the country, I would have said you were crazy. It’s the kind of speed of change that makes you want to hold on, white-knuckled, to anything, to absolutely anything that will keep you grounded, and it helps me understand just why it was that years ago, when this sanctuary was built, somebody thought to fasten the pews you are sitting on to the ground. I am starting to think we should have installed seatbelts, too! With this kind of change, whether you find it appealing change or not, we’re all liable to get so dizzy we fall over, unless we can find something to hold onto.
And so thank God for the church, the body of Jesus Christ, the one who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Thank God we can hold onto Christ when things change, that even when the world is changing, Christ remains. I need that. Do you need that? Of course you do. We all do.
But this isn’t to say that the point of holding on to Christ is to shut out the world. There is a temptation among Christians, when the world changes, to retreat, to hold on to one another for strength, and it’s a natural thing, for we even see in nature that when there is a loss, a death, a change, that members of a species will flock back toward one another, huddle up, and lick their wounds.
There’s nothing wrong with supporting one another. In fact, that is what God expects of us. But when we turn inward rather than outward, we aren’t being faithful to the God who was conceived by the same Spirit that still propels us now, nor are we being faithful to the One who was born into history, who so loved us that standing above us wasn’t enough. He had to be born, as a baby, in a stable of all places, among animals, among the particularly potent smells of life that one finds in a stable. This is the God we worship. Not a God who protects us from the world. A God who is best found within it.
And, likewise, we worship a God who calls us to engage the world, to take seriously what happens outside the doors of the church, even though it would be easier to spend every Sunday saying, Oh, just pray. Just pray and everything will be fine. Or the pastor could spend twenty or thirty minutes every Sunday speaking on some finer point of higher-order theology, as if you could understand you way to salvation, as if God said in scripture that if you will think about me a lot, you’ll get into Heaven. No, that’s not how it works. We are called to engage, to do as the theologian Karl Barth said of preachers, to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.
And speaking of the newspaper: let me just lay my cards right on the altar. I am not threatened by the Supreme Court ruling on Friday. In fact, I am encouraged by it. For one thing, it does not change much of what I do professionally, at least to the extent of who I am--who I am not--authorized to marry. The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church says that I am credentialed to do weddings only for heterosexual couples. I happen to disagree with that limitation, and I continue to work and pray for the day that all people may be married in God’s church, just as all people are God’s children, all people are welcome to join the church, and be baptized, and partake of the Lord’s Supper. Whether you agree with me or not, you should know that your pastor supports full equality for people who are gay and lesbian inside as well as outside the church, but, for now, the provision keeping me from performing same-sex weddings remains, and I have promised in my ordination vows to uphold the Discipline of the church. So it’s not like I’m going to be making a lot of cash on the side running a gay wedding racket.
But while I acknowledge we’re not all in the same place on this one—and I will speak to why I think this is ok—I am not threatened by the ruling because I see it in the context of the Apostle’s Creed, as part of God’s ongoing work in the world through Jesus Christ, our savior who two thousand years ago inserted himself into our history in order to redeem it. In other words, sometimes, the Holy Spirit can even work through the Supreme Court.
And yet, I will acknowledge that it would be much easier for me not to talk about all of this, not to mention the Supreme Court decision. The only other time in my two years here that I have mentioned my own beliefs about homosexuality from the pulpit, in a sermon in which I dedicated all of four sentences to the matter, I got comments for weeks, mostly supportive, but not entirely, for we have a wide spectrum, a wide swath of beliefs present here at North Decatur United Methodist Church. I want to affirm that. I do not share my own thoughts on this matter to suggest that if you disagree with me you should leave. Please don’t! Quite the contrary. I think the church is at its best, at its most faithful when we can disagree! It is, as the apostle Paul so eloquently states in First Corinthians 12,
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.
The church is strongest when it is a diverse body in every respect, including theologically diverse, but that does not make it easy to speak of these things. There are those who think the pastor ought not weigh in on these controversial matters at all—maybe you are one of those people. I want you to know that I respect that. But I cannot escape the fact that we worship a God who was born into history. God did not simply decree these things from on high. God became flesh, as the angel appeared to the Virgin Mary and said, “You will bear a son and he will be called Immanuel, which means God is with us.”
We do not worship a God who stands above us. We worship a God firmly planted here, who is with us, whose very being was conceived by the same Holy Spirit that fills this room and propels us forward. For everything else, the birth of Christ is not something to be pulled out at Christmas, dusted off and set on the shelf as a reminder of the sweetness of it all. The conception of Jesus and his birth through Mary, the mother of God, is a powerful act, grounded in history, so that when we are talking about the God who loves us so much he became one of us, it isn’t just a sweet thought. It isn’t just a nice thing to say. It is Truth.
And because Christ was born into history, because Christ became human, we cannot pretend that simply spending our time on Sunday mornings addressing purely spiritual matters, particularly noncontroversial ones, that that sort of heady stuff does justice to the Gospel! It does not! To honor the savior who was born into the world, this world, who entered our history in order to redeem it, we must not pretend that the events of the world should be left alone, not addressed from the pulpit or engaged with scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. God calls us to more! We may be sitting in a sanctuary, but it is not a sanctuary from reality.
This is the way that the Holy Spirit works: not to protect you from the world, but to pick you up out of your pew and throw you straight into the world! And this is how Jesus Christ works, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary into a world that desperately needs his love and care.
This is why we speak of these things in church, because Christ was born into history in order to redeem it. It is why I try, when I have occasion to preach, to faithfully bring scripture to life in ways that do not rewrite the Bible, for it needs no help from me, but in ways that open it to the present age, that say, this book still matters, because God still matters. This is why we listen for the whispers of the Holy Spirit and do our best to follow.
I am going to sit down in just a minute, but it is not lost on me that the church down the way, or, should I say, the remainders of what was once the building of the church down the way, experienced the genesis of its demise during a similarly tumultuous time in which the Holy Spirit was doing a new thing. When desegregation was as common a buzzword as “marriage equality” is now, the church struggled, as all churches did, with how to faithfully respond to a new cultural norm that many people argued was not of God. A the time, they thought they were making a decision not to change, and yet the Holy Spirit blows where it will. Now it is going to be a Best Buy or whatever.
This is not to say that one ought to pattern one’s theology after that which is fashionable. We do not discern God’s truth because of the latest fad. But it is to say that we should resist getting too comfortable in our pews, in our faith, for just when we think God is through revealing God’s own self to us, we come across scripture like that which was read in your hearing this morning, that nothing is impossible with God. And if we are faithful to this teaching, perhaps even the church, that ancient body, that maddeningly institutional body, perhaps even the church will be made new, for just as Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, so, too, is the church conceived and born.

On weeks when it seems like the world is spinning so quickly as to come apart at the seams, I am comforted by this notion, that nothing is impossible with God. For it means, of course that, eventually, eventually, love wins. Love will always win. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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