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How Can This Be?

Updated: Jul 31, 2022

Advent 7: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

The Rev. Cameron Partridge

December 20, 2020

Good morning, St. Aidan’s, and welcome to the final Sunday in our extended, seven-week Advent journey.[1] During these nearly two months, our readings have rooted us in a peculiar location in time between or amid the already and not yet, as I shared with you on the fourth Sunday three weeks ago. Already and not yet has Christ come among us, dwelling in our midst. Early in Advent, this odd perspective on time came to us by way of what is sometimes called the Second Advent, via readings that announce the coming of the Son of Humanity in the clouds, and the deeply awe-ful, hopeful, drawing of all things to their completion. Then, through the witness of John the Baptist, via the wilderness, we began to shift from the Second Advent to the First. The Advent, or in Greek the Parousia, the arrival we anticipate is now shared with us through the perspective of Mary, the young woman who brought Jesus to birth. Today we are given Mary’s question, “how can this be?” We are invited to let it resound in our lives, to ask it not only in relation to Mary’s life, but in ours, in our community, in our world. And further, we are invited today to observe and embrace Mary’s Magnificat, her declaration, “my soul proclaims the greatness of God” as an example of that deeply hopeful orientation to God’s time.

Our passage from the Gospel of Luke, in which the angel Gabriel appears to Mary, is iconic, so much so that its familiarity can wash over us, its otherworldliness potentially inuring us to its strangeness and its humanity. First, I find it helpful to remember that an angel is literally a messenger. Gabriel was sent to bring a message to Mary, a young woman who was betrothed to a man named Joseph. “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you” he said. I love the description of Mary’s perplexity, and especially the comment that she “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” What kind of portent might this be? Presumably not of doom, given the title, “favored one.” Yet favored how exactly? We do not hear that Mary was afraid, yet just in case, Gabriel entreats her not to be and repeats the declaration of divine favor. Out of that favor, he explains, Mary would bear a son to be named Jesus. Jesus would be great and would grow up to sit on the throne of “his ancestor David,” a pointed line of continuity with Mary’s husband Joseph, who had earlier been described as “of the house of David.” Mary’s reaction to this surreal vision is to ask, “how can this be?” How can this be? The apple cart of her life was about to be completely overturned in this moment. And out of this utter disruption was to come not only a vision of hope and possibility, but an actual concrete baby who would grow up to be an actual, physical, grown-up human being who would impact her world, her community’s world, our world in ways she could not even begin to glimpse. If all of this seemed impossible to Mary, or perhaps more fundamentally, completely overwhelming, Gabriel shared with her news of her cousin Elizabeth. Against all odds, Elizabeth who had been assumed unable to carry a child, due to age, was at that very moment six months pregnant. How could this be? Nothing will be impossible with God.

Our gospel passage concludes with Mary’s initial response to this angelic interruption: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” There is a radical openness to this reply, a kind of letting go, the beginnings of a journeying into this strange and unexpected life chapter. Beyond the conclusion of our passage, Mary indeed makes a journey to see her cousin about whose pregnancy Gabriel had alerted her. Just as Gabriel had greeted Mary, now she greeted her cousin. At its very sound, Elizabeth reports, “the child in my womb leapt for joy.” And then Elizabeth pronounces, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” There is a strength building in this exchange, an expression of unshakable agency even in the midst of circumstances beyond their control, a spirit of deep collaboration with God. And now Mary would declare the heart of God’s vision and God’s history, a song in which we have joined earlier in this service, and will sing over again twice more before this service comes to a close today: “my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Mary’s is not an acquiescing soul. Hers is a soul that proclaims. And the God she proclaims is a Great One who acts. God acts, more specifically, in mercy for those who fear God, who reverence God, from generation to generation. Mary is locating herself in a web of generations, in the midst of the already and the not yet. As one thus embedded she can proclaim fiercely how God has acted in justice: “[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;” God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;” God “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” God has remembered the promise made long ago to Israel, a promise of mercy. Mary had asked, how can this be? And then she had stepped into a journey, embracing an agency located in the promise and mystery of the already and not yet, opening her heart to the promise of mercy and justice.

The already/not yet location of this story tethers it strongly to our world, to our uncertainties, and especially to the work of justice unfinished in our world. As I was sitting with Mary’s words, coming into this morning, I was reminded of a sermon many of us heard together over the summer at the conclusion of our reading of Bishop Barbara Harris’ book Hallelujah Anyhow.[2] Bishop Barbara, as many of you know, is known as the first woman to be consecrated a bishop in not only the Episcopal Church, but also the Anglican Communion, the family of churches around the world descended from the Church of England. At her consecration in February 1989, the Reverend Paul Washington of the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia offered the sermon. I would like to share a clip with you from that sermon.

On Saturday afternoon, September 24th I received a call from a friend, one who is very, very dear to me. She said, “Paul, guess what?” I said “what?” She said, “I just got a call from David Johnson, the bishop of Massachusetts. He said that I’ve been elected to be a Suffragan Bishop. I softly exclaimed, “what? I can’t believe it!” She continued, “I can’t believe it either. How could I have been elected to be a bishop in this church?” That news to her was as incredulous as the news was to another woman some two thousand years ago when she asked “How can this be?”
How could you have been elected to be a bishop? It is well that we ask this question. Because, first of all, you’re not a white male, you’re not a male of African descent, and you’re not a white woman. Nor do you have the academic credentials which are badges of greatness. You haven’t even been a priest for ten years. You whose progenitors were only 3/5 human, with no rights that a white man had to honor. This is the church who consecrated bishops Denbigh and Delaney as bishops for ‘colored people….’ at some point way back there, that voice was heard once again, ‘prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.’ And this diocese, Massachusetts, led the way when it elected John Burgess to be a Suffragan, not for ‘colored people’ but for the people of God.
We cannot and we must not overlook the fact that this woman who is being consecrated today is not just an American woman. She is a Black woman, called at one time a negro, called at one time colored. Stony the road you trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died. Yet with a steady beat have not our weary feet come to this place for which our fathers sighed? So I would say, as of today, that the camel has gotten through the eye of the needle.[3]

I love how Reverend Washington repeats the phrase how can this be, making the connection between Mary’s question and Bishop Barbara’s life and vocation. And I love how Bishop Barbara responds – I love how we are given a glimpse of her facial expressions, as she takes in this extraordinary moment. But what I love the most is how the work of justice, of racial justice as well as gender justice, and the intersection of the two, is evoked in this moment. God would not be thwarted, and will not be thwarted in inviting us into the transformative work of justice, that is meant to continually change the church in its institutional dimensions and its outward turning toward the world. As the Reverend Dr. Pauli Murray, pioneer of gender and racial justice in the church prior to Bishop Barbara who was ordained a priest in 1977, put it in a 1979 sermon, “as a sacramental community and a sign of the liberation of humanity and history, the church in its concrete existence should be a place of liberation that reflects in its own structure a witness to salvation whose fulfillment it announces.”[4] In the midst of the pandemics of racism, environmental crisis, and COVID-19, we as church, as community, are being invited again and again to embrace a powerful agency of hope, a hope that transforms us at the deepest level. A hope that opens us to God’s dream unfolding in our lives even in the midst of pain and uncertainty, that calls us to proclaim the greatness of a God for whom nothing is impossible. As Christmas approaches in this year of plague, may we like Mary, like Elizabeth, like Pauli Murray, like Paul Washington, like Barbara Harris, embrace a spirit of transformative, collaborative agency, gifted to the world by the God of justice and mercy, who is with us in the midst of the already and the not yet.

[1] [2] Barbara C. Harris, Hallelujah Anyhow: A Memoir (New York: Church Publishing, 2018). [3] The Rev. Paul Washington, excerpted from the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts video, Fresh Winds Blowing, 25:34-27:19. [4] Anthony Pinn, ed. Pauli Murray: Selected Sermons and Writings (Orbis Press, 2006), 135.

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