The Adventure Continues: Nazareth (and Newtown)
A sermon by Rev. Aaron Fulp-Eickstaedt
At Immanuel Presbyterian Church, McLean VA
On December 16th, 2012
Our passage for this evening comes from the first chapter of Luke, beginning with the 26th verse. This is the familiar story of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel is sent by God to announce to a young woman named Mary that she will bear the son of God into the world. The encounter happens in a small town called Nazareth. As I read the scripture, listen carefully for how the interchange between Gabriel and Mary unfolds.
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.
Tonight we move to a new place on our Advent adventure.
We started two weeks ago in Jerusalem, with words from Jesus about how that seat of religious and political power would fall apart. In addition to being a geographical place, Jerusalem can be a metaphor for how things that seem settled and secure can crumble. In the midst of those times, we can stand up and raise our heads, because redemption draws near when we realize what finally lasts when all is said and done (and when we realize that we can ask for help and be of help).
Last Sunday, we found ourselves in the wilderness of Judea with John the Baptist, who called out, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” We reflected on the wildernesses we’ve visited and on how wilderness can be a metaphor for times in life when it feels like there are no sign posts, times when you’re off the beaten path, in uncharted territory. In the wilderness sound and silence seems more pronounced. In our wilderness times, we can get quiet enough to begin to hear the call to prepare the way. We face ourselves, we come up against the rugged realities of life, and we move deeper in our relationship and reliance upon God.
Tonight our adventure takes us to Nazareth. The tiny town of Nazareth, up in the northern part of Israel, fairly close to the Sea of Galilee.
Nazareth looks like a pretty big town on that map there (pointing to map). Actually, it is a fairly good-sized city now days: about 200,000 people live in and around Nazareth. But back in Jesus’ day, most scholars think it was, at best, 1 percent of that size. And a number think it was much smaller than that. Archeological digs in the area suggest that perhaps as few as 200 to 400 people lived in Nazareth during Jesus’ day. It would have been a tiny speck on the map, one you’d need a magnifying glass to see. Nazareth was some distance from the main road, in a backwater region to begin with, and there were no tourist attractions to draw people there. You would have to either be lost or want to be going to Nazareth to get to that sleepy little village. And it didn’t have much of a reputation. In the Gospel of John, Nathaniel says about Jesus, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
Yet Nazareth is a stop on our Advent adventure. Why? Because Nazareth, common, ordinary, out of the way Nazareth, is the place where God sends the angel Gabriel to a peasant girl named Mary, to tell her that she is going to bear the Son of God into the world.
The Greek Orthodox tradition calls Mary the Theotokos, the God-Bearer. However, the role of bearing God into the world is not restricted to her. Despite the fact that she did play a unique part in the story (“But his Mother only, in her maiden bliss, worshiped the beloved with a holy kiss.”), we all have the opportunity to bear God’s love into the world.
We all have our Nazareths—places where God comes to us—regular, ordinary us—in the form of some messenger, human or divine, or some event we experience which reaches us with the knowledge that we are gifted and called; that we, too, have a role to play in bringing healing to the world.
Frederick Buechner was speaking of such times and places when he wrote, “Listen to your life. Listen to what happens to you, because it is through what happens to you that God speaks. It’s in a language that’s not always easy to decipher, but it’s there powerfully, memorably, unforgettably.”
It is in our Nazareths that we hear some variant of what Gabriel told Mary, “Greetings, favored one, the Lord is with you.” And then, when we pause – like Mary, a little unsure what that sort of greeting might mean – we hear, “Fear not,” and then, “There’s work for you to do.”
Maybe it’s the voice on the other end of the phone saying, “I’m calling from the Nominating Committee and after prayerful deliberation, your name came up. We think you’d be a great spiritual leader for this congregation. Would you be willing to be an elder?” Or perhaps it’s a call from Hunt Howell, asking if you’d be a worship leader, or an appeal from someone to get involved in a committee—or to help with this evening service!
Or maybe it’s some situation in the world that grabs you. You read Half the Sky with a number of the rest of us and you said to yourself, “I can’t do everything. But I could help in this one area. I’d be willing to give my time and money to the cause of educating women in Kenya, or helping women in the Third World through microfinance.”
Or perhaps you’re at school, or at work, or in the grocery store and you watch something happening that tugs at you: someone being mistreated, something unethical happening. And you know that you just have to speak up.
Nazareth might be the moment you realized you were called to be a teacher, or a preacher, or to dedicate your career to working in international development, or you name it.
A preacher friend of mine told me this week about a Nazareth moment she had, back when she was a girl in the 1960s. She was going through her confirmation class, and a few days before she was to be confirmed, she told her parents that she couldn’t go through with it. She wasn’t sure she believed all the stuff you were supposed to believe.
So her parents called the pastor up. “Bill, would you please talk to Debbie?” And they took Debbie to Bill’s office, and she told him about her doubts. Then the wise pastor drew a large, imaginary circle on the floor with his finger. “Let’s imagine this is a circle containing all that we believe about God,” he told her. “Do you think you could put part of yourself in that circle? Maybe you can’t get all the way inside of it. But do you think you could just even touch the rim of it with your toe?” She replied, “Well, yes – yes, I think I can.” He looked at her and told her, “I think we can confirm you then.” Debbie left delighted, because she really wanted to wear that white dress and join that Sunday.
The story doesn’t end there, however. Several years later, the pastor had another conversation with Debbie. He said to her, “I think God might be calling you to be a pastor. Have you ever considered a career in ministry?” (Remember, this was the 1960’s, and very few women had been ordained as pastors yet.) Debbie told Bill, “I’ve thought about marrying a minister, but never about being one. Women can’t be pastors.” Bill said to her, “You’re wrong. There’s a woman named Rachel Henderlite who has been ordained. I think you might make a good pastor, too.”
Now, many years of ministry later, my friend Debbie is a pastor over in Leesburg… So there’s a Nazareth moment for you. “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.”
There is another small town that’s been on a lot of our minds in the past couple of days. It also begins with an N. Newtown.
I think of the people who responded to God’s call to bear love into the world there.
The teacher who hid the children in her class in cabinets and closets and, when the gunman came in, told him that they had gone to the gym. She was killed.
The teacher who hid her children in the bathroom, stacking one of the kids on top of the toilet, telling all of them to be quiet—but also telling them that she loved them.
The principal who out of a sense of love and duty for the children in her care ran towards the sound of the gunfire rather than away from it.
The first responders who showed up, witnessed the aftermath of the carnage, and helped the survivors.
Yesterday, shaken (as all of you were), I sat down to write a letter to the Immanuel congregation about the tragedy in Newtown. I emailed it last night, so you may already have read it, but I want to share the words of that letter now….
Dear Friends and Family of Immanuel,
Tomorrow morning at our 10 a.m. service, we will have our Annual Children’s Christmas Pageant. As we watch the children of our church act out the roles of various characters in the nativity of Jesus, our spirits will be more than a little dampened by the tragedy that unfolded in Newtown, CT on Friday.
Like the rest of you, my heart is broken by the events that took place yesterday at Sandy Hook Elementary-so broken that I didn’t initially know what to say. As a colleague of mine put it, we have again come face to face with the worst that human beings are capable of doing-killing each other. Somehow it seems even more horrific and awful when children are the victims. So there are no words adequate to give voice to the grief and the anger we feel; and certainly no words that come even close to naming the anguish of those most directly affected by the massacre: those who now grieve the murder of their children, parents, siblings, family, friends and playmates; those who witnessed the horror firsthand as it was unfolding; the first-responders and all who will be involved in the next stages of counseling and care. Their lives will never be the same. Neither, I hope will ours.
In the face of this tragedy, you might be asking, “What can we do?” The first thing we can do is pray. I trust you’ve already been doing that. If anything will drive us to our knees, it is the sight of children suffering. By the way, I am convinced that God’s heart, too, is broken by the events of yesterday. As William Sloane Coffin wrote of the senseless death of his son Alex years ago, “God’s was the first of all of our hearts to break.” I believe that. I don’t believe what happened was God’s will. But I am confident in our Resurrection hope that death does not finally get the last word, either for those who were slain or for those who remain. As a hero of mine, the great Presbyterian pastor and children’s TV host, Mr. Rogers, put it: in a tragedy, look for the helpers. The helpers are where God is at work. One way to help is to pray, and in so doing to share in God’s grief; to align ourselves with God’s heart, and to inspire us to participate in God’s work of compassion, comfort, care, and action.
Faith and spirituality, if they are to mean anything at all, have to touch down and get carried out into the real world of real human problems-a world where assault rifles like the one that was used in the shooting in Connecticut are relatively easily accessible; where mental illness often goes untreated; where people have different and deeply held political points of view; and where innocent men, women, and children all too often suffer and die. In a world like that, we can’t just look the other way, resigned. A colleague of mine, Bruce Reyes-Chow, put it this way: “while the world would like us to be further driven by fear, to circle our wagons of like-mindedness and to retreat into enclaves of perceived safety . . . it is in times like this that we must be able to express our belief in God’s radical intentions for humanity: that we be a people who are driven by hope, that we extend our hearts and minds to the stranger and that we do not live to protect our own lives, but we serve out of gratitude for our very breath given by God.”
The passage I will read prior to the pageant (and preach on at our Immanuel in the Evening service tomorrow night) will be the story of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary in her tiny hometown of Nazareth, which includes her response to the news that she would be bearing God’s son into the world. “Here I am. Let it be to me according to Your word,” she said. In response to this tragedy, what would the word of Love have you do? How can you and I, like Mary, bear the love of God into the world? How can you help a child? You may come up with different answers to those questions. But think on them, pray, and act. –Aaron
Last night, my younger daughter Martha, who has been absolutely torn up about what happened in Connecticut, talked to me and Judith about what she felt she was being led to do in response to what happened in Newtown. She is going to meet with the Mission and Service Ministry Committee of Judith’s church and to ask them to approve encouraging the whole congregation to write letters to members of Congress, encouraging them to work for and approve legislation implementing reasonable restrictions on assault weapons.
I’m proud of her. Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.