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An unexpected call…

March 20, 2011

Lent 2
Genesis 12:1-4a; Luke 1:26-38

At the age of sixteen, he was kidnapped and taken to Ireland.  He was sold as a slave and forced to herd livestock.  After six years of slavery, he escaped to his native Britain.  Because he saw the hand of God in his captivity and deliverance, he devoted his life to ministry.  He returned to Ireland in 432—not to seek revenge for injustice but to seek reconciliation and to spread his faith.  Over the next thirty years, he established churches and monastic communities across Ireland.  He was known for his life of prayer in places of solitude and retreat.  This is the story of St. Patrick.

God’s call comes in unexpected ways…from unexpected places…

For Abram and Sarai it began as a call to leave home–voluntarily.  They begin to journey with God to a place not yet known.  Along the way they face challenges.  When they arrive at the Negeb there is famine in the land.  Abram and Sarai decide to cross the border into Egypt where there is food—opportunity (Gen. 12:9-19).

When you cross borders as aliens sometimes you are fearful.  You worry about how you will be treated.  Abram has fears.  Sarai is a beautiful woman.  He imagines that the Egyptians will see her and want to have her.  He imagines they will kill him to get to her.  So he schemes.  He will say that Sarai is his sister.

It turns out Abram’s fears are not unfounded.  As they are crossing the border the Egyptian officials take notice of Sarai.  She is taken into Pharaoh’s house.  Eventually the plan unravels.  The truth comes out and Abram is called before Pharaoh.  Why did you tell me she was your sister?  Why did you let me take her for my wife?  Here, take your wife and be gone.

This is the way God’s salvation story begins in history—with the naked vulnerability of a great patriarch of Israel.  When we respond to God’s unexpected call, we bring along our humanity.

God’s salvation story is often told through a patriarchal lens.  But when we read closely, we see it also depends on the active participation of women.  Sarai had a little skin in the game and when Exodus continues the salvation narrative a few generations later, the account begins with the story of two Hebrew midwives.

The setting once again is Egypt.  The political situation has changed and the descendents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are now slaves.  Their favored status during the time of Joseph fades as they are driven to make bricks and mortar by ruthless Egyptian taskmasters.

Weary days turn into months…years.  Hope for liberation grows dim.  Nevertheless, the Egyptians are fearful of the Israelites.  The word comes down from the Pharaoh to Shiphrah and Puah (the two Hebrew midwives).  If a baby boy is born in the births you are attending…kill him (Exodus 1:15-16).

The midwives fear God.  They defy the orders of the king and put their own lives at risk.  As in the tradition of Br’er Rabbit during the time of black slavery, Shiphrah and Puah come up with a subversive tale.  Their lives are spared and their disobedience saves the life of Moses.  As the exodus tradition is being recorded, it will be remembered that even before God acted through Moses to liberate the people, God acted through two courageous midwives to bring about deliverance.

God’s call comes to unexpected people…

Our gospel reading is not assigned by the lectionary this week.  It may seem a bit out of place to be reading an Advent text during Lent—on this first day of spring.  Actually, there is a reason why it is fitting.  Tradition has chosen December 25 as the day when we celebrate the birth of Jesus.  Assuming that Jesus was a full-term baby, we find that nine months earlier is March 25.  This date is celebrated as the Feast of the Annunciation—that time when Mary receives an unexpected call.  A call to be the mother of God.

What might we see if we read this text through the eyes of Mary?

We might see the light of an earlier March, when Mary has heard neither the angel’s greeting nor the prophet’s warning.  We might see a young girl, living an ordinary life.  We might see a young girl going about her daily business—undergoing a hidden preparation.  It is days before the unexpected call…before the incarnation in her womb and three decades and a month before the cross and the empty tomb. (Carol Zaleski, CC, Jan 31, 2011)

Yet, because Mary is open to God’s unexpected call, Incarnation happens.  Mary’s yes opens up a space for God to be incarnated in the human story.  Mary’s yes opens up the possibility for the wall of hostility to be torn down between Jew and Gentile, between slave and free, between women and men (Gal 3:28).

Jesus will break down these walls in many ways.  There is one account in the gospels (Luke 11:27) of a woman who raises her voice from a crowd and says to Jesus, Blessed is the mother who birthed you and nursed you. Jesus replies, Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!

What are we to make of this exchange?  Does Jesus mean to put down the idea of woman as child-bearer?  Is he demeaning her function as fetus-carrier and baby-suckler?   We remember that in Jesus’ day a woman was honored only if she had children, and preferably boys.  We remember that her worth in society was based on her fertility.  Could it be that with this response, Jesus is rejecting this commonly accepted justification for the existence of women.

Perhaps Jesus is saying to this woman and to all women:  You are not just a reproductive being.  You are one who can hear the will of God and do it.

Mary is a model not just for women, but for all who desire to be a part of God’s salvation story.  She is an example of what it means to offer a life in humble service to God’s unexpected call.  So that Jesus can be incarnated in the world.     

How might these biblical stories offer a word to us on this day when we are credentialing Jean as licensed toward ordination?

Perhaps the word is that God’s unexpected call continues to come in surprising ways to surprising people.  It even comes to the daughters of Mennonite tobacco farmers from Lancaster County.

It is a call that is formed in the hidden preparation of years of depression—desolation.  It is a call that gestates at a kitchen table—in the consolation of a journey of healing.  It is a call that is patched together with the scraps of ordinary life—a life of family, work and walking with God’s people.

The call begins to kick and there are the first tentative steps of trying to find out what it is.  CPE.  Courses at LTS.  The heartbeat of the call continues to grow stronger as the family blesses the decision to commute to Virginia.  EMS becomes a place where the community listens with you for the shape of the call.  The call is nourished even as Sara Wenger Shenk’s question anticipates the beginnings of labor pains:  What will you do with this call?

Labor pains…during an internship at Sunnyside.  Labor pains…as you are invited to deploy your gifts as part of a reconfigured pastoral team at SMC.  The shaping of this call has continued as you have helped us tend to the life of the soul—as a congregation…as individuals.

You have sat with us in places of desolation and consolation.  You have helped us gather scattered pieces, the hopes we carry, fractured or whole.  You have invited us into the place of silence where we can be more attentive to the movement of God in us and around us.  Like Shiphrah and Puah, with courage and compassion you have attended to something hopeful being born in our midst.  Something of the Spirit.

The birthing process is not easy.  It involves intense work.  We have been exhausted at times and uncertain.  There have been moments of pondering the mystery of God’s calling—days when we ask how can this be?   But we have also sensed that we are in a good place—an authentic place of healing and life.

So today we give thanks for the grace of the Spirit that has accompanied us on this journey.  Jean, as you remember this day, may you hold it with a deep sense of joy and wonder in your heart.  May you remember that on this day we said together with you, the broader church… and with Mary—let it be.  AMEN

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