December 15, 2002
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Luke 1:39-55
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.”

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Sermon: Black and Beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem

When you pick up the paper in the morning or watch the news in the evening, do you ever think there is a divine plan that is being worked out in the course of human events? How about in your own life or the life of those you love – do you see the times of gain and loss, the achievements and setbacks, the successes and failures as revealing some plan of God for you or those close to you?

The Christian faith expresses a belief that our God is a God with a plan. We don’t believe that every personal or historical event is evidence of this plan; in fact, we know that many things which take place are contrary to the plan and evidence of a force within us and without us that is resistant to the plan. But we believe that the plan prevails and God will save his people.

Advent is a season when the church looks back to see how God’s plan of salvation has been present in human history; how the plan reached a critical point with the birth of the baby Jesus, and how the plan will be fulfilled when the risen, glorious Christ will come again at the end of time.

There are some key players in this story, and this morning in our scripture and in the lighting of our advent candle we met the key, key player – Mary, mother of Jesus, or as she is known in the Orthodox Church, Theotokos: Mother of God.

Mary is a mother of many names. When Mary introduced herself this morning she said “I am also known as the Star of the Sea.” If you’ve ever lived near the ocean, especially in California, you’d be familiar with “Star of the Sea” as a popular name for Catholic churches. Mary was given this name by the church to connect her with the struggles of faithful people to keep their hope alive in difficult times. The connection of Mary with a story from the Old Testament gives us an idea of how the early church reinterpreted the whole history of Israel through the lens of the Gospel.

Centuries earlier the people of Israel were under the rule of an evil King, Ahab. A prophet was raised up by God named Elijah. The land was suffering a terrible drought, and the people had turned to an idol named Baal seeking relief. Ahab encouraged this because his wife Jezebel was also an idol worshipper. Elijah prayed to the God of Israel for rain, and the first sign of the coming rain was nothing more than a little cloud on the horizon over the sea. But that was the beginning of the end of the drought, the first sign of God’s presence and power.

Later the church saw this as evidence of how God’s plan would be worked out through the witness of Mary – she was the first sign on the horizon that God would save his people. The cloud that announced the coming of the rain was a type, a foretelling, of the role of Mary. Combine that with the star of the nativity and you get Mary, Star of the Sea.

Another place that the church saw the foretelling of Mary was in the Old Testament book Song of Solomon, which is a collection of poems that celebrate love. We use selections from this book mostly at weddings. One passage reads: Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame.

The church interpreted the poems of this book as a dialogue between Christ, the bridegroom, and his bride, the church or the human soul – and Mary represents both the church and the soul. So the words and themes of the book become themes of devotion for Mary, the unwed woman of low estate who accepts the announcement that she has been chosen by God to bear the Messiah with simple obedience saying: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

In the traditional Roman Catholic liturgy some of the opening verses of the Song are applied to Mary:

I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon.

As Americans we hear this in the context of our racial struggles, but for the ancients it was more about class than race. Dark skinned people were those who worked in the sun, and the fair skinned were those who lived in palaces and could linger in the shade of the garden.

The idea that a person of leisure would linger in the sun seeking a tan is relatively new – in fact I’ve read that we can blame it on the golfer Walter Hagan who at the beginning of the Roaring ‘20s single-handedly changed the image of the rugged tan from a mark of poverty to a sign of wealth. But for all who went before, fair skin meant easy living, and easy living was only for the privileged few. Mary was not a member of that leisure class.

The book Song of Solomon is part of a tradition of Biblical literature called Wisdom writings. In this tradition you’d find books like Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. It is the identification of Mary with the biblical figure of Wisdom that elevates Mary to an almost divine status.

Wisdom, in the book of Proverbs, is personified as a woman and as God’s partner in creation, the first born of all God’s creatures.

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth; then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

Church theology has always placed Mary as second in importance to her son, but that has not always been the case with popular devotion. For many the mother figure is the one they turn to in times of need – the mother offers spiritual comfort that an Almighty God or a glorified Son do not. Identifying Mary with Wisdom is a way to elevate her stature and expand her role in God’s saving work.

Finally there is one attribute of Mary that makes her more approachable than any other Biblical figure – and that is her broken heart. Mary is the mother who suffers.

When we speak of the plan of God for history or the plan of God for our lives, the question of the meaning of suffering always presents the deepest challenge to our faith. I would never want to give an easy answer to that question – I can only say that it is a question for me as well and there have been times when I see some redemptive purpose to suffering and times when it seems beyond redemption.

There is the suffering of childbirth which is overcome with joy, but there is also the suffering of child loss which is perhaps the hardest to bear – Mary knew both these occasions of suffering, and so becomes a source of contemplation of the darkest mysteries life can hand us.

The rosary is a series of prayers that mediate on mysteries of faith exemplified by events in the life of Mary and Jesus. The Pope has recently called for a renewal of the Rosary and the adding of five new events, luminous mysteries he calls them, to the prayers, but traditionally there were fifteen mysteries of salvation – five for sorrow, and ten for joy.

I don’t know whether that is an expression of God’s plan for salvation or it is simply a reflection of life as we live it, but certainly life comes to us as a mixture of sorrow and joy, and somehow we must make sense of it and when we can’t make sense we must find strength to struggle on.

A number of years ago a teacher of mine wrote an article entitled: Confession of a Secondary Sufferer. It was about the hard spiritual journey he and his wife were forced to walk when their son was stricken with deadly cancer. He was not stricken with cancer, his wife was well, and yet they suffered; they suffered for their son, they suffered with their son. In they end, they were survivors, but they did not emerge un-scarred.

This is Mary. She does not carry the cross, and yet the weight of that cross is on her shoulders too. She is the mother who must witness the suffering of her son, a suffering he has obediently chosen to undertake, but over which she has no control. She is the survivor, the secondary sufferer, and the prayers of her heart are the prayers of all mothers, fathers, spouses and lovers who must witness the suffering of their beloved and find solace only in their faith and their intercessions.

God has a plan, a plan for history, a plan for you and me. We may not understand the plan, but we know that through the willing obedience of Mary God is with us, God gives us signs of hope, glimpses of wisdom, and prayers to sustain our souls through the darkest night. That is the lesson of Advent and the witness of Mary, Star of the Sea, lowly servant of the Lord, black and beautiful, Theotokos: Mary, Mother of God.

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Let us pray:

God of history and God of our lives, we have gathered here in this season of Advent to draw close to you in worship, praise, and prayer.

We offer you our worship in acknowledgment that all of life flows from the well-spring of your being, that creation itself is a mighty testament to your glory, that we live and move and have our being as a gift of your grace.

We offer you our worship as seekers after your will and purpose for us, open to the revelations of your holy word. Teach us your ways, O Lord, and guide us in your wisdom.

We offer you our worship as people in need of reconciliation, healing, hope, and forgiveness. As we put aside all distractions and fears, may we receive the gift of knowing that you are always near and ready to save.

We offer you our worship in the name of Jesus Christ, who was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, descended into hell and on the third day he rose again from the dead, ascended into heaven and now pours out his life giving spirit upon believers of every nation, race, and tongue. We thank you for the blessing of his peace and the gift of his spirit to those called to witness and service in his name.

We offer you our worship in confidence that you hear our prayers, and we lift up before you our concerns for our community, our neighbors, and our world.

Give Peace, O Lord, to all the world; guide us in a way of justice and mercy; Let not the needy be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor be taken away. Create in us clean hearts, O God, and sustain us with your holy spirit.

Gracious God, you see the suffering, injustice, and misery which abound in this world. Look mercifully, we pray, on all who are burdened with pain or sorrow, all who struggle with illness, all who draw near to death or mourn the death of those they love.

Fill our hearts with your compassion, and give us strength to serve those we pray for in their need.

May the power of your spirit touch our lives, kindling in us the fire of your love and strengthening us for service in your Kingdom. Through Christ our Lord we pray.