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Reclaiming Mary – Favor

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Rev. Bart Smith
The Second Sunday of Advent (December 10, 2017)
Luke 1:26-38 – “Reclaiming Mary – Favor”

We continue with our joint Sanctuary Arts and sermon series on the figure of Mary. Today, again, we read from the beginning of Luke’s gospel a story tradition calls the Annunciation, where and when Mary learns she will give birth to the Messiah. Last Sunday we explored Mary’s “yes,” thinking about how tradition has often rendered her meek and passive, but how she was actually anything but—a full, free participant in this mystery. Mary’s yes was a free, courageous yes. It’s a yes that each of us is called to emulate whenever the Holy comes crashing into our lives.

Today we’ll think about Mary’s favor. Let’s listen for God’s wisdom and word in Luke…

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Then the angel departed from her.

When Gabriel startled Mary with this news, beginning with “Greetings, favored one” and told her not to be afraid, saying “You have found favor with God,” what sort of favor did the angel mean?

I think it’s worth listening to the stories of people who know Mary better than we do. What I mean is, as Presbyterians or Protestants, we can learn something from the lives of people who connect personally with the story and presence of Mary about the favor she receives… and shares.

Since moving to the Borderlands, I’ve done a lot more thinking about Mary, and not just during Advent and Christmas. One kind of has to if you’re paying attention to the religious landscape or the visual arts scene around Baja Arizona. La Virgen de Guadalupe is a representation of Mary I’ve come to appreciate, even though she comes from someone else’s culture. I admit that we “borrow” her, humbly and with gratitude. There’s an image of her at the center of a red heart, surrounded by milagros, hanging right above our kitchen counter at home. I’ve seen figures of her in many of your homes, too.

There’s also a sticker of her on the back of my laptop, which a classmate of mine noticed when I was at Seattle University two summers ago. Luzmindo Flores is my classmate’s name. Father Luz is a Catholic priest who is originally from the Philippines but lives outside Anchorage, Alaska now. During the turbulent Marcos regime, he served as a pastor to both guerilla fighters and government soldiers, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg for the incredible work this man has done. As I said, Luz noticed the sticker on the back of my laptop and that sparked a conversation between us.

“Ah… he said, “The Virgin of Guadalupe. Do Presbyterians pray to her?”

“Most of us don’t,” I said, although we see much of her in southern Arizona.

“While we’re on the subject, Luz, there’s something I’ve often wondered about how Catholics pray to Mary. Help me understand. When you pray to her you’re assuming she hears you, right?”

“That’s right,” he said.

“So if she can hear your prayers, doesn’t that mean she’s all-knowing, right?”

“Maybe,” he said.

“And if she’s all-knowing, that’s pretty much like God, right? So in a way isn’t she just a feminine representation of God?”

“You’re overthinking it, Bart,” Luz said.

“Presbyterian ministers tend to do that,” I said, “Because Presbyterians tend to be a rather… eh, cerebral bunch.”

He said, “We call her Mama Mary in the Philippines.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

Luz said, very seriously, “Because she’s for us.”

“She is for us.”

What a wonderful way to understand Mary of Nazareth. What a wonderful way to understand God. I imagine for people who venerate her, who pray to her, that it’s comforting to have an ally in heaven. If the one who gave birth to, nurtured, and followed Jesus most closely is on your side, you could face pretty much any challenge.

Do you all know Margo Cowan? Margo is a public defender, an attorney who is rather famous around Arizona for her work on behalf of immigrants. She was Rose Robles Loreto’s attorney—Rosa who lived in Sanctuary at Southside Presbyterian. I’ve had the honor of working with Margo on some community organizing efforts lately and have seen her in action many times. I asked her once, “How do you stay so strong, Margo? How do you keep, how have you kept up ‘the good fight’ for so many years in the midst of all this hostility and opposition?”

“Easy,” she said, “La Virgen is my law partner.”

“She is for us.” Folks like this, people like Mary of Nazareth, can teach us a lot about God’s favor, too.

But who does God favor? “Everybody,” would seem to be the logical answer, which is true in the larger sense. But in a particular way God’s favor doesn’t always rest on those whom the systems of the world favor. It’s hard to read this passage, or all of Luke’s gospel, or even the Bible as a whole, really, if you’re looking for God’s favor to be value-neutral.

Whom is God for?

That word that Gabriel speaks to Mary—“Favored one… you have found favor with God”—shares a root with the other words the New Testament uses for grace (charis, charitoo). The word has different shades of meaning: blessedness, giving gifts, bestowing favor, being honored. “Being honored” is a good translation, “Greetings, honored one,” Gabriel says. What’s striking about Mary being addressed as “honored one,” is that in her day and time she was anything but honored. At that time, to be an unwed adolescent peasant “with child” meant the penalty of death, or possibly worse, living with your own personal shame and the shame of your entire family. This is who God honors by enlisting her as God’s partner; Mary receives God’s presence, but also a mission from God.

We get clues about God’s favor, God’s priorities, by paying attention to where Mary was not. She was not at Herod’s court in Jerusalem, but in a hut out in the country. As someone young, poor, illiterate, Mary was not among the affluent or at the center of power, but in a village in the backwaters of the Roman Empire. This is who God honors—the least, the marginalized, the vulnerable. This is where God locates God’s self.

Mary’s favor stands in stark contrast with who the world favored then and who the world still favors now. And in this country, our political leaders are no longer even trying to hide their lackey-like favor toward the wealthy and the powerful. To hear many talk these days about divine favor (I’m thinking of prosperity gospel here) you would think that God is there to make us even wealthier, healthier, and happier and perhaps even more powerful, even when Mary points us in the opposite direction.

Year after year we hear this story at some point during Advent. In the midst of whatever political crisis is at hand, or of the frenetic pace of the holiday season for us personally, or of our annual consumeristic mad dash, Mary reminds us where God is found.

Journalist Finely Peter Dunne was the one who originally wrote, “The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” That’s true for Mary’s story, as well: she comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. So if you find yourself this morning feeling dis-honor, if you are alone or frightened or broke or sidelined, Mary brings you the good news of God’s favor—God is with you in that. If you find yourself wealthy and powerful and are wondering where, in the midst of this chaotic life, where to encounter the Holy, it is not in the midst of power and comfort.

A book by Ernesto Cardenal…

“records the discussions of Gospel readings that were held among campesinos, farmers and fisherfolk who lived in the country around Lake Nicaragua. In this text they hear Gabriel’s greeting of favor extending not only to Mary, but also to them, for according to this angel, this savior, this liberator, is going to be born among them, the people who were poor. ‘It’s not the rich but the poor who need liberation,’ says one. ‘The rich and the poor will be liberated,’ says another. ‘Us poor people are going to be liberated from the rich. The rich are going to be liberated from themselves, that is, from their wealth. Because they’re more slaves than we are.’” [1]

Mama Mary, La Virgen, Mary reminds us that God’s love, while for everyone, goes where it is most needed.

And so should we.

[1] The Gospel in Solentiname, vol. 1, trans. Donald D. Walsh, cited by Kimberly Bracken Long in a commentary on this text in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1, p. 95.

Featured image: He Qi “Annunciation”