SCRIPTURE AND READINGS
Sometimes I wondered if I had any faith. And when I had had enough of that, I got up and went on my way. And that – the getting up and going – was faith. ~ M. J. Irion
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not yet seen. By faith, our ancestors received confidence. By faith we understand that all things came into being by the creative Spirit of God, so that what is seen was born from what is not seen. By faith, Abraham and Sarah journeyed from their homeland and, in their old age, received the gift of a child. By faith, Moses was saved by his mother, hidden after his birth because she had the courage to disobey Pharaoh. By faith, the Hebrews followed Moses and Miriam through the Sea of Reeds, escaping from Egypt. All of these ancestors and more, who are remembered for their faith, did not receive everything they had been promised, but by their faith, from a distance saw and greeted the future. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us also put aside every weight that distracts us, and run with perseverance the race that is ahead of us. ~ from Hebrews 11 and 12 as translated by John Philip Newell
Some days there aren’t any trumpets, just lots of dragons. Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the voice at the end of the day that says I’ll try again tomorrow. ~ Mary Anne Radmacher
SERMON – This Lenten season, I’ve thought a lot about the foundational under- standings of my life and my values, the Credo I live by. One through-line in my faith journey is 1st Corinthians 13: “If I speak in the tongues of humans and angels, if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, if I have faith that can remove mountains, but I have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.”
Those words have followed me since they were highlighted in the Bible I received when I was 9 years old; those words were chosen by my pastor as my confirmation scripture passage when I joined St. Luke Lutheran church in 8th grade. I have heard and I have read these words countless times in weddings and memorial services. This was one of the scripture passages I chose for my own ordination service. It is my credo: what I do without love becomes hollow, what I do with love becomes a blessing.
Some foundational understandings I grew up with have changed over the years. My maternal great-grandfather, Alexander Thomas Stuart, was an Irish Catholic, who married Minnie Morrison, a West Virginia Methodist. They quickly had ten children. Minnie somehow prevailed in terms of their religious upbringing, raising them all in the Methodist church. My grandmother later married a staunch Presbyterian. My maternal family’s most repeated credo was the resounding affirmation that we each have direct access to God and don’t need all those saints and surrogates like Mary to pray to or to pray for us. Those statues and images and rosary beads, I was told, were for Catholics, not for us.
As an adult, I realized that the Bible is very slim on women’s stories, and many of the women who are mentioned in the Bible are unnamed. Mary is one of the few named Biblical women whom we encounter more than once during her life’s journey. Even then, she speaks only seven times in the entire Christian scriptures, and what we know of her is hauntingly scarce, so, over time, much has been projected onto Mary.
A few years ago, in a Mother’s Day sermon, I used the image of Mary from Michelangelo’s Pieta, the sculpture of Mary cradling the body of Jesus after his death as the eternal image of a mother holding her child in a time of tragedy. Then, in an Advent sermon, I recounted the story of Mary as the young Jewish girl who is told by the angel Gabriel that she will bear a child and name him Immanuel. The Christian scriptures link Jesus’ birth to Isaiah’s promised Messiah in the Hebrew scriptures, particularly Isaiah 7:14 which says “a young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.” The later Greek translation of Isaiah, used by the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, translates the Hebrew word “young woman” as “virgin.” 1 As soon as I said that in my sermon, a visitor sitting on the aisle toward the back got up, walked out and didn’t come back. Hmm, I thought, coincidence? Then the same thing happened at the exact same moment in the sermon during the 11:00 service. A woman visitor sitting about four rows from the back on the other side aisle stood up, along with her male companion, and walked out, not to be seen again. So I bring up Mary a bit cautiously this morning.
My experience in writing those two sermons, was one of empathy for Mary, beyond the stereotypes I had been taught as a child, seeing her as a young pregnant woman and seeing her as a faithful mother. Certainly, I thought, those two sermons covered the essence of what was important about Mary. However, I realized recently that Mary – yes Mary – has been quietly following me around for the several years.
When we traveled to Italy a few years ago, Mary was everywhere, of course, especially in the small beautiful candlelit side chapels of every church and cathedral. In Assisi, I bought a lovely small plaque of Mary and the baby that hangs on my bedroom wall. The year I retired, I was invited to be the worship leader at an Icon painting retreat, and there was Mary again, this time as the saint. Seeing her image emerge in color as I painted her icon was inexplicably meaningful. From time to time since then, I notice pictures of her, magazine articles that mention her, various reminders of Mary.
Then for my birthday this summer, Larry’s sister Jane sent me two novels about Mary. Jane hadn’t read them; she had just liked the reviews. I was skeptical, to say the least. Didn’t I already know what I needed to know about Mary? The novels sat on my shelf unopened for three months until I needed something to read on our camping trip in October. At the last minute, I picked up the one entitled Our Lady of the Lost and Found.
As I began reading the book, I kept forgetting that it was a novel. I constantly looked back at the author’s notes to reassure myself that it was fiction rather than a waking life encounter. I even underlined the sentence that clearly said “the story of Mary’s visit to the narrator is fictional.”
The narrator tells the story in a low key ordinary way, in the first person, as “I.” One morning, she goes into her living room to water her plants. Standing there in front of a small potted fig tree is a middle-aged woman, brown hair streaked with silver, wearing a navy blue trench coat, running shoes and a white shawl draped over her head, carrying a large leather purse in one hand and the handle of a small suitcase in the other hand. “Fear not,” says the woman. Sound familiar? “Fear not – it’s me, Mary – uh, Mary, the mother of God.” Mary, it seems, is weary, in need of a week’s respite, and she asks if she can stay in the narrator’s home.
The novel then follows three intermingled tracks. First there is the narrator’s story of living with Mary as her houseguest, a contemporary Mary who makes coffee, washes dishes, has a hair dryer in her suitcase, knows how to use the washing machine and even an ATM machine. “One afternoon,” writes the author, Diane Schoemperien, “Mary suggested that we take a walk around the neighborhood. We put on our shoes and went out. It was close to five o’clock and many of my neighbors were returning from work. Several houses down we stopped to let a battered brown station wagon pull into the driveway. The driver got out of the car and came toward us smiling.
‘Hi, I’m Peter,’ he said, as he turned toward Mary, putting out his hand. ‘I’m Mary,’ she said simply. They shook hands and Peter went into his house and we went on our way. But I noticed that not only could other people see Mary and hear her, but they could touch her as well. In a few minutes, we were home, went into the kitchen and began to make dinner as if it was the most ordinary thing in the world to be doing at that time of the day in this part of the world. Which, of course it was.”
The second track, interspersed with the story, includes the narrator’s reflections on history and religion, especially the strange mix of fact and story, of truth and mystery. And the third track, weaving throughout the book, recounts some of the many sightings of Mary. Over the past twenty-one centuries since the death of Jesus, Mary has appeared at least twenty thousand times, most often to more than one person. The sightings begin with the apostle James in Spain, include the sightings at Lourdes in France and our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, and continue through one you may remember.
In December of 1996, a giant image of Mary appeared in four tinted glass panels on the first and second stories of the Seminole Finance Corporation building in Clearwater, Florida. Within a month more than 450,000 people came to see this image, clearly visible day and night, even from the coastal highway. Mary has been seen on every continent except Antarctica, by people of all ages, races, classes and occupations, men and women, believers and nonbelievers alike. In the interweaving of these three tracks in the novel, the narrator says that in the course of Mary’s visit, “it soon became clear to me that the whole story, the real story, and the true story are not always the same thing.”
The novel was well written and intriguing, enough so that I recommended it to friends. I went on to read other books, went on with my life, including the awareness that I would be preaching this Sunday and the theme was Credo. Soon I was making a list of foundational things I believe, writing them all down to share with you today.
Then in mid-December, I went to the post office to buy stamps for the Christmas letter that we send to out-of-town friends. “Would you like Christmas stamps?” The clerk asked. “Sure,” I said, “and I need about 80.” “Well,” she said, “I only have one kind of Christmas stamp left, and not too many of those, so I’ll give you what I have.” She handed me 60 Christmas stamps with the image of Mary holding the baby Jesus.
Woo, I thought, what is going on here? Mary seems to be following me around. I need to think about this! So I did, and I have, and I do believe there is a message for me in these small accumulated coincidences in my life that seem like kairns which mark the path when I am hiking. What I turn to today, as Larry mentioned in his sermon several weeks ago, is not to ask how Mary appeared to all these people or what happened during these sightings, but instead to ask what do these sightings mean.
Because I can’t know, I can’t even guess, what went on in those sightings of Mary: some inspiring, some interesting, some wildly strange. But I think I have a clue as to what those sightings might mean. As the Christian church consolidated its power, it became patriarchal, excluding women from having a voice, or having leadership, or having any acceptable identity other than celibate or wife and mother. The stronger the structure of the patriarchal church became, the stronger the image of Mary became in individual lives and in seemingly irrepressible sightings and visions, both collective and private. Mary, I believe, became one archetype of the Divine Feminine. The stronger the repression of that feminine archetype in the structures of church and culture and nation, the stronger the need, the hunger, has been and is for the Divine Feminine – one example being the images, appearances, and blessings of Mary.
If you remember Carl Jung’s the good work on archetypes, we all have within our psyches the animus, the male energy and power. And we all have within our psyches the anima, the female energy and power. While these energies may present themselves in different ways in men and women, we are not whole without both. Unbridled psychic masculine energy leads to one kind of excess, as does unbridled psychic feminine energy. A combination of both, in whatever form or degree, makes us whole human beings.
My recent awareness of Mary, reminding me that Mary has been and continues to be one powerful persistent archetypal embodiment of the Divine Feminine, leads me to a fuller sense of my credo, which is more than a checklist of things I believe in. Kathleen Norris, the author of Amazing Grace, and Diane Schoemperien, the author of Our Lady of the Lost and Found, both agree that for too long the word faith has been used interchangeably with the word belief. And we have been indoctrinated into seeing the world as pairs of opposites, such as weak or strong, visible or invisible, belief or doubt. Am I a believer? Or am I a doubter? In truth, I am both. There are times I believe, and there are times I doubt, and sometimes I am in both places at the same time. I see belief and doubt, not as opposites, but as partners that walk together on the road of life, sometimes traveling more on one side, and sometimes on the other, but both informing one another.
Faith then, I think, travels between belief and doubt. Faith is what Celtic spirituality calls a thin place or what scripture says “is the assurance of things hoped for.” Faith is the uncertain territory of both/and rather than the certain land of opposites, of either/or. Faith sits with both belief and doubt, and then at times faith gathers itself up, and goes on its way, keeping on keeping on. Faith is that voice at the end of the day that says I will try again tomorrow.
I have faith in the persistent power of love. I have faith in the persistent Mystery of God. And I have faith in the persistence of the Divine Feminine. Through all the years and all the attempts to repress, revile, and revoke her energy in the past, her light, her healing, her grace have persisted, have emerged and endured. I have faith that she endures and emerges again now. And I have faith that – as she at times has seemed lost and then has been found again – so we too who feel lost can know that we are and we will be found, and we will be held and empowered in her love. May it be so.
1 Citation: On the translation of “young woman” to “virgin”: from The Woman’s Bible Commentary, the Chapter on Matthew, by Amy Jill Levine, Westminster Press