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Looking for a New Way of Being Religious

San Williams

December 18, 2011
Luke 1:26-38

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Last Sunday in the Faith and Life Class, Cindy Rigby mentioned an article that appeared on the front page of the New York Times.  I read the article, by Eric Weiner, in which he expresses dismay at the sad state of our national conversation about God.  The writer contends that the conversation has been co-opted by the True-Believers on the one hand, and Angry Atheists on the other.  By True Believers, Weiner means those vocal, hard-line Christians who allow no space for questions, for doubt, for humor, or for humility.  The other strong voice in our conversation about God comes from angry atheists, who denounce all religion as stupid and flat wrong.  Weiner speaks for a growing number of Americans who don’t identify with either camp—the multitude of Americans who are not looking for a new religion, but rather a new way of being religious. Well, our scripture reading today focuses on the person of Mary. Mary offers a way of being religious that just might get the attention of Weiner, and for that matter, the attention of all of us who are troubled by the way religion us being expressed today.

Granted, Protestants like us typically don’t pay a lot of attention to Mary. Some years ago, a vandal attacked Michelangelo’ Pieta with a hammer, seriously damaging the face and arm of the figure of Mary. Following the incident, a magazine article suggested that the act was a parable of the violence done Mary by the church—by Roman Catholics, who have idolized her and by Protestants, who have ignored her. While Roman Catholic and Protestant views on Mary vary widely, there is a broad consensus on at least one point. Namely, that Luke intends us to view Mary as the first disciple.  As such, Luke holds her up as a role model for all of us, In his definitive work on the birth stories in Matthew and Luke, Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown declares, “I have suggested that discipleship is the key to the interpretation of Mary in the New Testament.”   So focusing on Mary as the first disciple, what does her way of being religious have to say, especially to those of us who can’t identify with either the True Believers or the angry atheists.

In the first place, consider why God bestows favor on Mary.  “Greeting, favored one!” declares the angel Gabriel to a startled Mary.  “Do not be afraid, Mary,” the angel says, “for you have found favor with God.”  In poplar piety it is often assumed that God’s favor is earned by good behavior, so we imagine that God favored Mary because she was exceptionally worthy, virtuous, pious and so on.  Yet others have pointed out that there was nothing exceptional about Mary.  In fact, she was notable for her ordinariness.  She was a young girl in a society that valued men and maturity.  She was poor, a village girl with no social standing.  Mary was not a person who would have been noticed or honored according to any human measurement at all.  So if Mary is the model, then we can conclude that God’s favor is not restricted, confined or bestowed only on the worthy and the deserving.

The new way of being religious that Weiner and so many others are looking for today might start with an appreciation for the surprising generosity of God—God who bestows favor on the just and the unjust, the deserving and the undeserving, True Believers and angry atheists alike!

And notice how Mary’s way of being religious doesn’t eliminate questions and doubt. Mary is sometimes depicted as passive, a completely demure vessel in the divine drama, but Luke pictures her otherwise.  In Luke’s story, Mary is greatly troubled, perplexed, afraid, hesitant and full of questions: “How can this be?” she cries.

In his article, Wiener points to one thing that turns many people away from organized religion: it’s the perception that questions are not allowed and doubts are not accepted.  He writes that he longs for “a religious space that celebrates doubt and encourages experimentation.”   Well, Mary offers that space. Like so many of the Biblical characters before her, Mary didn’t shy away from honest engagement with God.  She models for us a way of being religious that allows for dialogue, debate, and even argument.  An honest faith that doesn’t require certainty is precisely the kind of faith—and the kind of church—that so many people today yearn to find.

Or again, Mary models discipleship in that she reminds us that God is active in our lives and world.  She helps us re-imagine God as Emmanuel (God-with-us).  My hunch is that many people, maybe most people, still think of God as a distant deity, far removed from our world and daily lives, but who on occasion will swoop down and intervene in some way, and then go back to wherever God dwells.  But Mary’s experience of God was consistent with the God who from the beginning of creation has sought to draw near–in blessing Abraham and Sarah, in empowering Moses, liberating the oppressed, accompanying the Hebrews in the wilderness, answering the prayers of Hannah, arousing the prophets, coming among us as a baby in a stable.  In short, Mary engaged not with a distant, uninvolved God, but rather a God who is always with us, and who sometimes does the impossible.

Historically, Christians have debated the virgin birth ad nauseam. But today’s seekers, like Weiner, don’t seem interested in abstract debates. They want to know how religion can change lives and better the world. In one of his Christmas sermons, Meister Eckhart, a 13th-Century Christian theologian and preacher, spoke of the virgin birth as something that happens within us.  That is, it tells of how the life of God is always yearning to be born in us. Unless I’m mistaken, the people whom Weiner represents are longing for a way of being religious that celebrates a near-at-hand God, a divine presence who transforms us from “virgins” into creative agents who, like Mary, are able to bear the life of God in the world.

That means that Mary’s way of being religious is the way of active service.  In the verses that follow today’s reading, Mary sings of her role in God’s kingdom that is turning the world upside down–lifting up the downtrodden, bringing down the mighty, filling the hungry with good things. For all her questions, doubts and hesitations, Mary submits to God’s larger purpose of transforming the world and she agreed to do her part.  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your Word.” Mary models a way of being religious that gives us a mission in life, claims us for service of God’s kingdom and uses us to further God’s purpose of peace and justice.

Eric Weiner, like many moderns today, is a rationalist.  Yet he longs for a way to transcend a one dimensional life that is devoid of mystery, a life that has no purpose higher than self. Mary shows us a way of being religious that puts our lives in the service of God with whom nothing is impossible.

Friends, Weiner ends his article by suggesting that what Christianity needs today is a Steve Jobs of religion—some creative, innovative, entrepreneurial personality who can show us a new way of being religious. Maybe he’s right. But Luke suggests that we don’t need to wait for a future disciple to show us how to be religious. What we need to do is to emulate the first disciple.