February 22, 2013

Crazy Talk

Filed under: Congregational Development,Leadership,Lectionary — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 1:43 pm

Again and again in the opening chapters of [the Gospel according to Luke], Mary is the central character. She’s neither a model virgin, nor a model woman, but a model disciple who points all disciples—men and women alike—to a deep understanding of what discipleship really means. She is a Mary who belongs in Lent as much as in Advent, a Mary who shows what it means to die and live with the crucified and risen Jesus.[i]

In the first two chapters of Blessed is She: Living Lent with Mary author Tim Perry[ii] asks us to consider the similarities and differences between Gabriel’s annunciation to Zechariah and his later annunciation to Mary. Not only are their experiences of these events very different, but their responses offer two very different—and very human—models that I believe speak to us in the joys and challenges of our time.

The conception of John the Baptizer falls into a long line of Jewish tradition around barrenness, age, and promise: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Nahoah and his wife, and Elkannah and Hannah. Though unexpected, theirs is a familiar story to the faithful of Israel in their time. It is a story of God’s unbounded power, a power so complete that it can overcome the practicalities of age and infertility. And perhaps more importantly for those who were caught up in the experience, it is a restorative power. Each of these couples is redeemed from cultural shame and judgment when their childless state is replaced with an outward and visible sign of God’s favor.

Mary’s story, on the other hand, has none of these features. Age is not a factor. Her fertility is untested. And not to put too fine a point on it, the possibility of being pregnant just isn’t in play. Mary is favored simply because she is favored—her relationship with God is neither a story of things done, nor of things undone. Gabriel appears out of nowhere and asks her to buy into the idea that God is about to do something through her that even God has never done before. Never in the history known to her, or to us for that matter, has God chosen to manifest such creative power. This is simply unprecedented.

Zechariah echoes Abram’s response in this week’s lectionary reading: How will know? How do I know you’re telling me the truth? How do I know this whole conversation isn’t some sort of hallucination? I’ll trust you after you prove yourself—that’s a rather impertinent thing to say to God, don’t you think?!

Mary’s response, on the other hand, is completely unexpected. If anybody had the right to question her own sanity, or to take Gabriel’s news kicking and screaming, it would be Mary. Never mind the socio-cultural implications…what Mary is hearing from Gabriel is just plain crazy talk. Mary has no context, no point of reference, from which to even hear this annunciation, never mind respond.

And yet she does respond. She responds calmly. Her absolute, undiluted trust in Gabriel, in her god, and in the idea that this moment is actually happening are condensed into a single, elegant statement of faith: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Of course Mary has questions. The practical questions are obvious, yet they are questions of faith, of curiosity, rather than questions of doubt. Unlike the patriarchs, unlike Zechariah, Mary’s “How is it to be so?” isn’t meant to say “Really? Prove it.” She takes it as a given that this is what God wants from her. She jumps straight to “This is all very interesting. How is it going to work?”

Zachariah and Mary both bring important voices to our lives as clergy and lay leaders as our churches face significant challenges in their financial health. In my own ministry with congregational leadership teams I can always count on both of these voices to help shape the path that a congregation will take. As I share tools and approaches that I believe would be engaging in a given situation, Zechariah will invariably ask, “This might be worth considering. How has it worked in other congregations? What sort of results are people seeing?”

Or there’s the moment when I’m going through my toolbox, waiting for something to spark, and I’m interrupted by Mary, practically bouncing out of her chair: “We have to try this! I can totally see this working for us! My mind is already zooming with ways we can use this! (Can we please finish this meeting so I can get going?)”

Zachariah and Mary are both trying to get a handle on “doing church differently.” They are both pushing against the current of “We’ve never done that before.” They are both open to crazy talk.

And to that I can only say, Thanks be to God!

[i] Perry, Tim, Blessed Is She: Living Lent with Mary; Morehouse. p. 4.

[ii] From the jacket: Tim Perry, and Anglican and professor of theology at Providence College in Ontario, specializes in the history of Marian doctrinal development for Protestants.


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