Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Sermon by Pastor Intern Sarah Mills for November 28, 2021: The Thing With Feathers based upon Luke 1:26-38
The Birth of Jesus Foretold
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 for ever, 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.
This week, the first week of Advent, is all about hope. Hope. Something I often struggle to define, but often see and understand most clearly through poetry. Some of you may also know that I am a birder as well, so I leapt at the opportunity to include a certain poem in today’s worship. I’d like to start by sharing that poem with you all. As I said, I find that it helps me to define hope. It’s by Emily Dickinson and you may be very familiar with it already, so I hope you won’t mind hearing it again:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me.
Raise your hand if you've ever spent time with this poem before. Now raise your hand if you have always felt full of hope for what lies ahead. Even if I can't see you all, I imagine that not everybody that raised their hand the first time kept it raised for the second question. Hope is difficult to summon sometimes. When we are in our darkest places, hope can seem the furthest away. When you feel singled out when you haven’t wanted to be. Like there’s too much pressure being put on you. Like “hope” is the very last thing on your mind or in your heart. Like that gale, that storm, really might be too strong for the little bird to stay gripped to the perch in your soul.
So I’m going to ask you another question: When is the last time somebody asked you to do something for them and you thought “There's no way I could do that!”? “Why would you even ask me that? Who do you think I am? Ask somebody younger. Ask somebody smarter. Ask somebody older. Ask somebody wealthier. Ask somebody who believes that they can do it, because I sure can’t.” Or maybe you wanted to respond by saying “No, thank you. I don't have time, I don't need the added stress. My life is just fine how it is right now, so why don't you find somebody else.”
In our reading today we hear about Gabriel appearing to Mary and saying to her “Greetings favored one, the Lord is with you!”. Now if I were Mary, that's the first bit that puts me on edge. “Favored? What have I done that makes me favored? And why would somebody need to tell me that the Lord is with me, I already know that. I know the Lord is always with me, so why is this angel showing up out of nowhere telling me I am a “favored one” and needing to remind me that the Lord is with me, what is this angel about to tell me? I'm a little bit suspicious, and probably more than a little freaked out about the fact that there is an angel right in front of me.” Talk about a strong gale! It sounds like Mary had a similar response. In our reading it says she was much perplexed by these words and pondered that sort of greeting and what it might mean. You and me both, Mary!
But Gabriel goes on to say to her “Do not be afraid Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Ohhh, that’s why he called me “favored”. But I haven’t done anythi– “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.” Ok, if I were Mary, this is the point at which I want to wave my hands and say “Wow wow wow wow, what are you talking about, Gabriel?” The storm winds are a’blowin’! Luke records that Mary says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” But something tells me that was maybe about the fifth question she would have had. “Why me?” “Do you have the right person?” “Do you know who I am? I’m a nobody” “How many other people did you ask first?”
Have you thought about that? Maybe Gabriel had gone to other women first, appeared to them and said “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you.” To a wealthy woman, to a wife of a rabbi, to an older woman, to a queen. How might they have responded? “Sorry, darling, you must have the wrong house.” “What would I get out of this?” “Sorry, not today.” “No, thank you, I have enough to manage.” “No.” “Not me.” “I don’t think so.” Gabriel was left standing on those doorsteps, and thinking “Uhhh, ok. Let me try one more place. Let me visit that 15-year old girl engaged to Joseph. She doesn’t have an impressive, notable family background, she isn’t wealthy, but something tells me, she may be the one.”
It’s true, we don’t know anything about Mary’s background. Luke tells us “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.” That’s it. No genealogy for her, no mention of what tribe of Israel her family comes from, who her parents are, where they are from. Just. Nothing. That is who Gabriel appears to, that is who God has chosen to extend this honor to.
Gabriel doesn’t abandon pursuing Mary when she asks “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” He doesn’t think “Ugh, here’s another one who will close the door in my celestial face!” No! Gabriel explains to her that her relative Elizabeth (that’s the only detail we get about Mary’s family background, she is somehow related to Elizabeth) is pregnant, even in her old age, even when everyone believed her to be barren. “For nothing is impossible with God.” Nothing is impossible with God. Mary needs no other reminder. She starts feeling that flutter of wings, that thing with feathers in her soul. She feels the truth of that statement in her heart. She is moved from trepidation and fear, to hope and trust in the goodness and power of God. “Here am I,” she says, “the servant of the Lord”. How else could we consider ourselves when faced with the statement, “Nothing is impossible with God.” All I can do is say, “You are so great, I am yours,” or as Mary puts it “Let it be with me according to your word.”
Let it be. Let it be. Whisper words of wisdom. Let it be. Apologies for diverting from our Emily Dickinson poem, but I have spent the last three days watching the three-part documentary “Get Back” all about the Beatles recording the album “Let It Be”, culminating with their rooftop concert. Now, the Beatles are my favorite band, so I may be a bit biased, but I would heartily recommend checking it out if you have a spare 8 hours, because it tells a great story of hope even when things look dark and just how well music can communicate hope to us. One of the magical things you see in the series is Paul McCartney bringing “Let It Be” to the group. He has said that he dreamt of his mother appearing to him saying “It will be alright, just let it be.” A comforting sentiment at a time when Paul felt out of his depth, overwhelmed, probably struggling to find that little bird of hope. His mother had passed when he was only 14 (right around the same age of Mary in our reading from Luke) and yet his heart knew that he needed to remember his mother, Mary McCartney, at that moment. She had a message for him. Maybe not quite “Greetings favored one, the Lord is with you”, but an assurance that hope is still possible, that it will be ok. If we let it be.
The comfort Mother Mary offers in the song is offered now to us. Mary the unwed teenager has been there, she has said yes to God. She has shown hope in all that God can do. She has said “let it be”. It will be ok because I have hope. I believe in what the Lord can do. I can feel those fluttering wings perched in my soul and the breeze they are creating is real. That small beat of hope will become the heartbeat of a tiny child born into this world as we were all born. Let us let this beat of hope fill our souls and drive us on towards the birth of Christ. Towards an Advent that is filled with flutters of feathers, flurries of questions, and dreams of comforting songs that will see us through the darkest storms. Amen.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.