On this beautiful December morning I greet you with a greeting that is as old as the Church itself, “Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord, Jesus Christ.” Let us pray.
Breathe on me breath of God till I am wholly thine. Till all this earthy part of me glows with your fire devine. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable unto you, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. Amen.
The angel Gabriel evidently was from Chicago because his opening remarks to Mary was a line that was as old as any line a gentleman could share with a woman: “Oh how beautiful you are.” And I’m sure Mary said, “Sure, sure.” But her response was also a response of holy boldness. A response that was born out of who she was, and the molding and shaping that was hers to receive, recognizing that she was female in the house where she lived.
She was holy in the sense that she loved God, and she understood her relationship to God. For she is quoted as saying, “Behold I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.” Her love grew out of the first and great commandment. She was demonstrating in fleshing the words of Deuteronomy 6:5: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with your all your soul and with all your might.” The heart in her time was the recepient of one’s mind and will. Her soul held the self and her vital being. And her might expresses the idea of loving God with the full assurance of her devotion. “I am the servant of the Lord,” she said. Or as one translator puts it, “Yes, I see it now. I am the Lord’s maid, ready the serve. Let it be with me just as you say.”
Mary’s boldness was that she agreed to what the angel Gabriel had suggested. What was to happen to her she willingly bought into. She knew the law. She knew the risk. I mean the risk to be found with child and engaged to a man who would not be the father of the child. She would be ostracized or even murdered. She understood the possible outcomes of her action, the social stigma. She would be forced to go to the Galilean bureaucratic red tape of the Department of Human Resources. She would apply for food stamps and would be involved in the WIC program as good as those programs may be.
However, I believe that she said yes because she listened with her heart and heard these words. “You shall call his name ‘Jesus,’ which means God Saves. He will be great. He will be called Son of the Most High. The Lord will give him the throne of his father David. He will rule Jacob’s House forever. No end ever to his kingdom!” A Jewish mother’s dream.
Ha, my son, the doctor! Or maybe even, my son, the lawyer! But, the penultimate? My son, the Savior! The child to be born will be called the Son of God. Should this not be the dream of every mother? My child, a child of God.
However, most of us know that more than 80 percent of the children of the world are born into poverty, living in squalor and in the backwash of the castoffs of the privileged 20 percent. The scandal of the twentieth century will probably be that in spite of our wealth and our technology and our compassionate, sometimes conservative, sometimes liberal political stances, the children of the world will not be doctor, or lawyer, or even worker in the economic scheme of things.
If that is the scandal with the possibility that for the first time in history there is sufficient wealth and technology, there is sufficient wisdom and power and monetary resources to cure every childhood disease, to feed the nations of the world abundantly. We hold back. Especially we hold back our care for the children. Oh, I know we do marvelous things, especially at this time of the year. Katie Kurick on The Today Show with Matt Lower announced the other morning that they had collected 90,000 toys for the children of this nation. And they were pushing for to reach 100,000 toys brought by those not-so-quiet visitors to the NBC square for The Today Show.
And you see the signs “Toys for Tots,” and every social service agency known to humankind is busy this week collecting and distributing toys and clothes and food. It’s wonderful!
But what will happen when the blush of Christmas is gone? And the cold days of January set upon us in this northern hemisphere? The energy and enthusiasm that moves us to be so generous during this Advent season must also be the same energy and spirit that will take us into the next year, caring for the children. Sandy Thurman who is President Clinton’s lead person to deal with HIV/AIDS around the world gathered twenty of us and took us off to a nine-stop tour of Central and Southern Africa during Holy Week. And there I saw her in a hospital in Durban, South Africa, holding one of hundreds of children in the hospital and thousands upon thousands of children in South Africa who are infected with HIV/AIDS. It’s only the tip of the iceberg, and when she held the child close to breast it was an awesome sight of mother and child. It was not her child, but it was God’s child. Moved with compassion the twenty of us representing a microcosm of this great nation, black, white, political, apolitical, rich, not so rich, pressing to see on tip toe what it is that we could do to bring wholeness and healing to that continent. Children living in comfort and wealth and vast numbers of children living in poverty. Into the world Mary would bring this baby, and his name, Jesus, to save.
It would be just a good piece of literature, even a good piece of fiction if it were not for the fact that the spirit of Christ does live and reign in this universe. And that spirit invades the lives of men and women in unusual and wonderful ways that in spite of ourselves we are lifted up to do something about the horrors that we see and experience and know will consume us unless we do something about it.
A few years ago Phyllis and I were pleased to travel to the eastern shores of the Republic of the Congo. We were there to work with the refugees streaming out of Wanda into Goma. You no doubt saw the photographs and television reports of the stream of humanity escaping massacre, moving into the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We’ve been fascinated and pushed by the Holy Spirit to be concerned about children, so when we heard there was a hospital especially for children, we adjusted our schedule in order to visit the hospital and the school started by a woman who was a doctor from France. They let us through the yard where soccer was being played and I asked where the dispensary was, and the doctor said, “It’s just around the corner and you’ll see it in just a moment.” And I was just looking for some Quonset hunts that would speak the best of medical care that France and the United States could provide in that horrendous situation. But what I saw were three sheds. I was no more than a hundred yards from it and what looked like little puppies outside of a shed were, in fact, one and a-half and two year-olds, without benefit of clothing in the mud. For there were not clothes or care for them. But inside the hut, inside the shed were cots and on the cots were children lined up like logs, the length of each cot. And each child possessing almost a different illness altogether infecting and re-infecting one another. It was a hideous sight.
The good news was that there were men and women there caring for them the best that they could. But the horror was overwhelming. So I left Zaire and traveled on our journey to Zimbabwe to speak to a group of women who had gathered for their annual prayer and study event. Some 5,000 women. After experiencing the horror of Goma, especially as it related to God’s children, I was not particularly in any episcopal mood to do anything other than to try and reflect on the experience.
My task was the give the opening Bible study. It was in the morning. It was August. It was cold. There were women seated on the ground in coats and sweaters. Some of them wrapped up in blankets. It was not an inviting arena. The glory and grandeaur of this magnificent space was no where to be found. So I struggled with unpacking a rather dry and uneventful piece of Holy Scripture. And in the midst of my teaching, the scenes of Goma came back into my mind. And as I shared my Bible study, I began to share the experience in Goma and before I could finish telling the story of the children, women began to stand up. They not only stood up; they began to move toward the chancel area that had been hastily constructed. And as they came, they took off their coats and their sweaters and began to lay them in a pile in front of the podium. First it was ten. And then twenty. And then a hundred. And then a thousand. And then it was two thousand. And before I knew it, my Bible lesson had come to an abrupt end and the coats and sweaters were piled so high that I could not see over them. The women were so moved that they wanted us to take their coats and their sweaters and sell them, so that the children might have medicine and clothes. And then in the midst of their coming they began to sing, and the joy of their expression of giving permeated the stillness and the coldness of the morning. And that was the end of my Bible lesson, but it was a demonstration of grace and a gift second to none.
The next morning I went back to do my second Bible study. And as I moved to the front I noticed that the women seated on the ground were now wrapped in paper and plastic sheeting, for they had given all that they had.
Our gift to children. A hundred thousand toys by one organized event. Or should I give to children to teach them the marvelous story of God’s redeeming acts in which the background and basis is the law of God. Mary responded affirmatively. Not because it seemed like a wonderful experience to endure, but because she truly loved God. Our task is to save the children. Yes.
But our task is also to teach the children. And we could respond with a resounding yes. One way would be to print a different commandment on a different pokeman card. That would catch their attention. But seriously, we have come to a time when we must take courage in the words of Gabriel to Mary, “With God all things are possible.”
You believe that, do you not? Would you humor me by saying it with me?
“With God all things are possible.”
I hear a little tentative. Can you do it one more time?
“With God all things are possible.”
Now, just one more time and I think we’ll have it with the right inflection.
“With God, all things are possible.”
Well, if that is the case, and you said it three times over, there are some things that we can do. It is possible, you know, to set aside public debate regarding things that bombard us day in and day out. What would it look like in the year 2000 to set aside further discussion dealing with sexual preferences and affirm the totality of human personality and function? It’s possible, you know, that we can indeed have political campaign finance reform. We can do that. It is possible in this great nation of ours to provide adequate health care for everyone, especially for children and elders. And it is possible that we can take this year of 2000 and truly make it a year of Jubilee.
To celebrate a year to proclaim a new social order is at hand. A time to acknowledge one’s sins and seek forgiveness from others, to listen quietly with our hearts and wait upon the Lord privately and in community. To give thanks to God and to respond with songs of gratitude and to make a commitment to strive for justice and freedom for all people.
Christina Rosetti wrote these words, and I would dare to add them to Mary’s marvelous words.
“What can I give him? Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb.
If I were a wise man I would do my part.
But, what I can I give him, I give him my heart.”
Mary, you’re going to have a baby. “Yes,” she said, “and he will be the Son of the Most High.”
Beloved, the children of God are born every second, every minute, every hour of the day. Mary answered with these words. Will they be yours? “Behold I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your Word.” And her son became our Savior.
Thanks be to God!