To hear this sermon as preached, press play below.
It is difficult to imagine how Mary felt.
Do you suppose she really understood what was happening to her? Could she have even begun to imagine the pivotal role that she would play in altering the course of human history?
All that we know about Mary, the mother of Jesus, is what we can gather from the fragments of narrative that come to us from the Gospels – stories that lived for a few generations in the oral tradition of an oppressed religious community before being written down. It was during that time, perhaps, the miraculous tales that surround Christ’s birth, acquired a mythic quality – and Mary herself transformed from being a poor young woman living on the outskirts of the Roman Empire, to being an eternal symbol that represents human virtue and aspiration.
Mary’s story started small, but it became big – a big story. Over the centuries, our tendency to idolize Mary grew in direct proportion to the growing influence of her son Jesus.
And since one of the few things that she actually claimed about herself, in the first chapter of Luke, is that she was a virgin – much, as you know, has been made of that detail over the centuries.
It seems important that Mary, as the mother of Jesus Christ, must be special in some way – that she must be set apart from other women.
Her story must be a big story, in order to be a part of her son’s big story…
And the bigger the story, the more the tradition of Mary loses track of the actual person who lived. If the child is special – the logic goes – then the circumstances of the child’s birth must also be special. We don’t want our savior – or even our savior’s mom, to be just like everyone else…
When I called Carol Nass on the phone, she didn’t pick up so I assumed she was probably out and about, doing Saturday afternoon errands.
A few moments later she returned my call…
“I’m sorry” she said “I was just putting some cookies in the oven and I couldn’t get to the phone in time…”
Well! That was appropriate, wasn’t it?
You see… in anticipation of lighting the advent candle of Joy in church today, I was spending my Saturday afternoon calling around, trying to catch up with as many UCJ ladies as I could reach…
I was asking them all the same question:
What brings you joy?
And when Carol mentioned cookies, well… my own “joy” radar – “Joydar?” — started tingling, and for a moment I was distracted from my mission…
“You’re making cookies?” I asked in a hopeful kind of way…
“Yes,” she said, “You see, I’m taking my cat to the vet to get her claws done…”
Uh…. No, I did not follow this logic, and told her so…
“Oh,” she replied, laughing, “I always bring the vet cookies, and I haven’t been able to for the last few months, so I’m making them a batch now…”
Well, thought I, it must be a fine thing indeed to be Carol’s vet… and I told her so. Now that the secret is out, I can imagine all the vets in the monadnock area will be vying for the privilege!
When, at length I got around to asking her the question about joy, Carol replied without hesitation:
“My cats…” she said, and giggled.
And then she added… “You know, when it comes down to it, I’m really a caregiver. That’s who I am, and it’s my greatest source of joy. I like taking care of people.”
Now that Aunt Vi is gone, Carol has been helping her neighbor, who has some issues with mobility. She told me a bit about that too, but I have to admit, I was still thinking about the cookies.
I can’t imagine baking cookies every time I go to vet! The notion would never occur to me! I suppose I think of the vet as a business relationship – a transaction that happens in an office over there somewhere.
Carol apparently thinks of the vet as a person! A person who would appreciate some cookies…
This little story of joy tells us something important about joy.
Joy is brought about by bringing joy.
Carol’s joy is to help people know that she cares – and, this, of course, creates more joy.
This kind of joy is contagious!
Thank God in heaven…
For Contagious Joy!
Sheila Bergeron still has a bit of gravel in her voice.
“I was hit pretty hard by that respiratory bug that’s been going around,” she said, “but I’m feeling a lot better know.”
I could hear the TV in the background and, now and then someone’s voice. Saturday afternoon at Sheila’s is, I’m sure, not a quiet time. Never a dull moment!
“Well” says I “I’m sad to hear you’ve been under the weather, but glad to hear you’re on the mend!”
And having offered that amazing gem of pastoral wisdom, I asked her my question: “I am preaching about joy tomorrow, Sheila, so I’m calling you to ask you what brings you joy?”
No humming and hawing! The words were not out of my mouth before she gave me her answer:
“All of my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren…”
When I pried a little bit more, Sheila began telling me about the gingerbread men.
I just had the little ones over to make Gingerbread men – we do it every year. It all started when Andy and Kelly made gingerbread men with the sojourners down at the church. Ever since, we do it every year. It’s one of our many traditions.”
“That’s wonderful,” I say, “those kids will remember that for the rest of their lives.”
“Yes,” Sheila said. “My youngest great grandchild was too young to make one this year, but he certainly enjoyed eating one!”
Oh yes, yes, yes!
This little story of joy tells us something enduring about joy.
Joy can be a tradition – a tradition that makes memories!
Joy makes memories!
Thank God in heaven…
For memories of joy!
I think Linda Wilson was dozing off when the phone rang, but she forgave me. When I asked her how she was doing she said that she was “alright for an old lady…” and when I asked her what brings her joy, she answered, quite honestly, that that was kind of a hard question. The whole summer, the inground pool was only used three times, and not by her, because she doesn’t have a swimsuit that fits her anymore!
Eventually, though, we got to talking about her grandson Evan, and this was promising! Evan, who plays football at his high school, had been left on the bench for the first half a recent game. At halftime the team was losing, and during the second half, apparently the coach finally wised-up and put Evan in. Evan promptly scored two touchdowns and led the team to victory! A picture of the young hero holding a trophy in the air found its way into the local paper. That moment of glory, captured in newsprint, is now affixed to the front of Linda’s fridge.
I don’t know if any of you were sports heroes in your youth, or if any of you made the local paper for having a blue-ribbon rutabaga at the county fair, or for winning the spelling bee, or maybe giving the valedictorian speech at high school graduation – but if, by chance any of you were honored in such a way, I submit to you, this morning, that there is no greater honor, than to show up on your grandmother’s fridge. Even though very few people will ever see you there, it is the best place to be. You have brought your grandmother great joy, and that, dear friends, is about as good as it gets.
This little story of joy tells us something wonderful about joy.
Joy is a tale of generations…
Thank God in heaven for football heroes, and grandmother’s refrigerator doors.
This is what Joy is made of.
When I asked her about joy, Cynthia Hamilton, gave a sigh, and after a moment she said:
“You know, Mark, I just love watching the sun rise from my bedroom.”
I pictured Cynthia, up before dawn, standing at her window looking east
toward town as the sun rises through the winter trees. It was such a quiet, peaceful vision.
There was a little more to the story…
“All my life,” she said, “I’ve been able to look out my window and enjoy the stars in the night sky, and then, in the morning, watch the sun coming up – it has been one of the best things about living in this house. But recently, with heat bills getting so high, I felt that I needed to put in some heavy drapes to help keep in the heat. So I had some young people come and install these heavy drapes. They do a nice job insulating the room, but I hate that they cover up the night. Every morning, I just can’t wait to get up and pull aside those drapes so that I can watch the sun rise.
This little story of joy tells us something about beauty and joy.
As many days and nights as there have been, for Cynthia, there has never been a time when that joy in beauty has not been there, to fill her heart.
We are creatures of the sky and of the ground, and our soul’s shimmer as the day breaks over the land…
Thank God in heaven for the joy we find in creation…
We are one… in joy.
When Mary, the woman who is to become the mother of Jesus, accepts her role as the one who will bring God’s child into the world, she says:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,”
And thus begins an epic tale that will change the course of history forever.
So these words “My soul magnifies the Lord,” have a kind of majesty to them – as if they are the kind of words that happen once every thousand years.
But I submit to you, this morning, that these are not just “big story” words. These words also resound within all of the little talks of joy that I have told this morning.
They can also be heard in Liz Littlefield’s voice, when she told me about how joyous it is to watch her granddaughters discover things for the first time. “The first time they see a deer in the field, or a flower blooming,” she said, “they are filled with wonder. And when I see there wonder, I get to experience the incredible beauty of those things too – even though I’ve seen them a million times.”
The souls of Liz’s grandchildren magnify the Lord.
And in her joy, Liz too, magnifies the Lord.
Gwen Niskala magnifies the Lord, when she tells me of her joy:
“I love seeing adults and children together,” she told me. “And I especially love it when adults listen carefully to what children are saying. That brings me great joy.”
Deb Weissman magnifies the Lord when she tells me about her granddaughter Luna: “I love the way Luna laughs with her whole body!” She says. “She does everything with her whole body – but I love it best when she laughs. That brings me the greatest Joy.”
And Helen Coll tells me, over the phone, about two kinds of Joy. The joy of her great grandchildren running toward her with open arms, ready to be caught up in her embrace. She also tells me of the melancholy joy of sitting quietly, listening to the pellet stove, and remembering the long life of love that she shared with her beloved Archie.
Today, we celebrate all the great joys of these, our beloved ladies of the United Church of Christ.
Women, who, in all of their integrity and beauty, and in their great capacity for joy…
Magnify the Lord with their souls…