With Arms Wide Open

December 20, 2015

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA
The 4th Sunday in Advent 
Micah 5:2-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-55

(Gospel text is provided at the bottom of this post)

photo 1 - cropThree years ago I preached on this same passage from Luke’s gospel. I had just been ordained to the Transitional Diaconate a week earlier, and was back in Houston for Christmas break. I had been invited to serve as Deacon – for the first time – at St. Andrew’s, the parish that helped me on my vocational journey. I was a bit nervous and also thrilled to finally be doing what God had called me to do.

That day three years ago had begun three years before that. That’s when I made the decision to leave all that was familiar; to leave mother and father, brother and sisters and the rest of my family and friends. I left places of comfort, including the parish of St. Andrews, to embark on a new thing, in an unfamiliar place, where “what’s next” couldn’t be fully grasped.

St. Andrew's Episcopal

St. Andrew’s Episcopal

So, to return to a familiar place after being ordained, surrounded by loved ones, those who supported me from afar, and to serve at that familiar altar – it was pretty surreal. I’m guessing Gretchen has some of these same feelings today, and I’m excited to see what the future holds for her.

Somehow it seemed appropriate, though more than a little trepidatious, to preach Mary’s story that day. You see, Mary has always been a little hard for me to wrap my head around. The whole virgin-birth thing is tricky, though when you think about it, if we embrace the resurrection of Christ why is the virgin birth such a challenge?

Nonetheless, earlier this week I went back and reread the sermon I preached three years ago. In it I talked about how God has continually called people – ordinary people like you and me – to do God’s work in the world. And these ordinary people responded: “Here I Am.”

902257_10200239657546857_320041530_oMary’s courage was demonstrated by her willingness to embark on something wholly unknown, in response to God’s call to her. She would give birth to a baby, and that child would bring God in-fleshed into the world. Jesus’ message would broaden our understanding of God’s love, mercy and grace, making it available to all people.

As I prepared for today’s sermon, something else struck me about the story – I call that a “Holy Spirit moment.” Mary, having just said Here I Am to God, was transformed – something changed in her.

Today’s lesson picks up immediately after Mary said “Yes” to the Angel Gabriel. She then heads out to see her cousin Elizabeth, who is 6 months pregnant with John. Mary enters the house and upon greeting Elizabeth, we’re told that the child leaped in Elizabeth’s womb. Then it says that

“Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb… For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy…”

As soon as she heard the sound of Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth knew that Mary was different. Mary was so different, even John in the womb knew it and leapt with joy!

What do you suppose that greeting looked and sounded like to be so revealing?

If she were four years old, it might look a lot like little Louisa running up to you with arms wide open, a huge smile on her face, barreling toward you hoping you’ll sweep her up into your arms! I’ve had the joy of being on the receiving end of that kind of greeting many times, the most memorable while standing at the altar during Holy Communion a few weeks ago.

12391847_10208626412084777_5635715647619422331_nAnd I have to admit, I thought that kind of welcome from Louisa was reserved for me. So, wasn’t I surprised when Ceci, during last week’s staff meeting, told me that Louisa gave a similar greeting to David just the other day when she saw him… and then she turned right around and gave it to Ceci, too! My pride wants it all to myself, but knowing how good it makes me feel, it’s great to know that greeting is available to all!

Now, I doubt that Mary greeted Elizabeth in quite that same way, but it’s clear from Elizabeth’s reaction, that something in Mary had changed. It was palpable.

And then we hear the familiar words of the Magnificat.

Now, at the risk of embarrassing myself, for a long time I have misunderstood the word Magnificat. I could use the excuse that I never took Latin, which is true. I just guessed at the meaning and assumed that it meant “Magnificent.”

But the opening line of Mary’s song reveals the truth… so plainly now, that I shake my head for not getting it sooner – but better late than never. It begins:

“My soul magnifies the Lord…”

Magnificat… To Magnify… of course.

Elizabeth’s reaction to Mary’s greeting made it clear to Mary that she is seen differently now. That something has changed and that this change has made God conspicuous to others. God is magnified. God is seen more clearly; is a bigger part of what is seen in Mary.

Mary’s “Here I Am” results in God being magnified in Mary.

Last week, when nine teenagers from Christ Church stood up at the Cathedral for their Confirmation, they claimed for themselves their Baptismal Vows. Bishop2-c&cThey said “Here I Am” and through this act and those that follow, God is and will be magnified.

In a few minutes, when we witness the Baptism of Louisa, as part of this sacrament we will reaffirm our own Baptismal Vows. Each time we do this, we are saying “Here I Am” to God. Through this, God is magnified in us.

Our greeting to others; how we walk through our life; what we do, the choices we make, and who we are reveals God in a bigger way.

God looks with favor on all of us – even an ordinary, poor, young girl named Mary. This is what we celebrate in Mary’s familiar song. God lifts high those who were previously considered unworthy. God affirms, embraces and calls to do God’s work, those who society has previously shamed. God fills those who are hungry with generous hearts and kind spirits. God shares unbounded mercy with all people!

Mary learned through Elizabeth’s reaction that Mary’s “Here I Am” has become evident to others. Her greeting alone conveyed that.

And while that greeting may not look like the outstretched arms, exuberant smile and bounding joy that Louisa offers – because if we all did that, passing the peace would be a little over the top – we can at least keep the arms of our heart wide open.

This is what Jesus came into this world to do. To show us the full expanse of God’s love and mercy for each of us.

I was reminded in our staff meeting that Dennis Marks, a long time parishioner who left this earthly life too soon just a couple of years ago, had at the end of his e-mail signature a reference to the song “With Arms Wide Open” sung by Creed.

It’s a song of new life – about a man who just learned that he and his wife would have a child. It’s a song of change; a song of joyful expectation. And, this last verse reveals a hope for a better way forward…


Arms wide openIf I had just one wish

Only one demand

I hope he’s not like me

I hope he understands

That he can take this life

And hold it by the hand

And he can greet the world

With arms wide open

 

With arms wide open

Under the sunlight

Welcome to this place

I’ll show you everything

With arms wide open

Now everything has changed

I’ll show you love

I’ll show you everything

With arms wide open [i]

 

Wide open to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.

Wide open to see and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.

Wide open to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

And wide open to the possibilities of what God would have each of us do to magnify God’s love in the world.

Here I Am, Lord, with arms wide open.

IMG_3998

 

[i] CREED, “With Arms Wide Open” Songwriters: Mark Tremonti and Scott Stapp, released April 2000.

Gospel Text:

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:39-55)

I invite your thoughts and insights.

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