Keep on Living — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Friends, I’m going to talk about suicide. If that causes you distress, then please stop reading and be good to yourself. If you want to continue, please know that I have what I hope are some encouraging words here. Because of the topic, I would not preach this sermon at a worship service, since people present would not have the freedom to stop listening if they needed to do so. Thus, this is one of those sermons that can be written but perhaps not spoken.

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I have always opposed the death penalty. Except for myself.

I have sometimes viewed failure as a capital offense — for me. When I look back at the first time I seriously considered ending my life, it was at a moment of big personal failure. I had clearly demonstrated — at least to myself — that I was a useless, worthless, piece of refuse. The reasonable response, my befuddled brain told me, was to put an end to the stupidity and spare the world the burden of dealing with me.

I can smile now at the melodrama and grandiosity, the self-absorption and self-pity, that I know was part of such a moment. But I cannot discount the life and death reality of that moment, clouded as it is in the mists of memory. Whether I was being “realistic” or not was hardly the point. I came far closer to ending my existence than is safe for anyone to consider.

This comes to mind for several reasons. I am finishing my tenth annual “death march” from the anniversary of my first spouse’s untimely death on November 20th to my own birthday on December 19th. I have become accustomed to morbid reflections on my mortality and am not nearly as put off by them as I once was. But I am also reminded that convicting and sentencing myself for the capital crimes of personal failure was not a one-off event.

I didn’t realize until I went through it just how common are thoughts of suicide in the community of those who lose a close loved one. I did indeed feel the pull to join Anne in moving to the New Life. I did wonder what precisely might be left for me now that life as I knew it was over. I did long for a way out of the pain and suffering of bereavement. Once someone that close to me had died, death was less of a stranger and more of a companion, a sort of friend of a friend.

Most of all, I was sure I had failed her — all consoling counter-assertions notwithstanding. I couldn’t reconcile my continued life with her sudden death. I had not kept her alive, so why should I keep me alive? My failure was fatal to her, why not to me as well?

I didn’t live with those thoughts every waking moment. The fantasies of self-annihilation were usually fleeting. But there were enough episodes of concrete plans and opportunities, of near misses and false starts, that I knew I had to be very careful for a while. And I had to refocus on another path back to life.

While my situations hardly mirrored those of Mary at the Annunciation, I am in awe of her response. I think that I might not have been so willing and able to choose to live in the new reality that faced her. Yes, there was all that happy talk about a son who would be the Savior. But there was going to be one hell of a shitstorm, to adopt the current vernacular, for Mary along the way. Whether she had failed or not, that’s how she would be viewed. I might have thought that sufficient grounds to carry out my self-execution.

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But not Mary — “Let it be to me according to your word.” Mary did not merely choose life. Mary chose to keep living in the new reality not of her own choosing. Her response to “failure” (and let me be clear, she did not “fail” but would have been treated as if she did) was to keep on living — for her child, for her people, and for the world.

I just listened to the latest episode of the On Being podcast. Krista Tippett talked with Jennifer Michael Hecht under the title, “We Believe Each Other into Being.” I remember Hecht and her work on doubt from nearly two decades ago. You can listen to that conversation here: Be sure to listen to the end as she reads two beautiful and poignant poems that deal with suicide.

“Your staying alive means so much more than you really know or that anyone is aware of at this moment,” Hecht says during the conversation. “But we’re in it together in this profound way, and you can take some strength from that.” She argues that people can be reminded in healthy ways of the communitarian impact of taking one’s own life and that this can be a curb to reduce such self-fatal responses.

In addition, she pleads with the self in pain to consider and respect the future self who will never have a chance to live if one ends it all. The conversation caused me to reverse that thought. I want to express my gratitude to my earlier selves (and all who supported them) who chose to keep on living in those dark hours of despair. I am especially grateful to that troubled young man who stepped back from the precipice and stumbled through the disasters he had created. I don’t want to punish him now. I want to thank him for letting me live.

That’s true for all those other men (who were me, and the people who supported them) who have made similar choices for me in the last forty-odd years. Of course, I differ with Jennifer Michael Hecht in how those choices came about. I was rescued repeatedly by the interventions of a compassionate God who either spoke to me directly or sent people with the message.

“No, don’t do it! You are not a failure. You are not a useless, worthless piece of refuse.” Hearing a voice like that in the dark can peculiarly focus one’s attention. “You are beloved in the midst of the pain, sorrow, failure and fear. So keep on living, and we’ll see what we can make of this mess.” I am certain that I would not have made such a choice on my own. But I could follow instructions.

Let it be to me according to your word.” One of the few places I dare to connect with Mary is here. She responds with courage and hope. But that courage and hope have been poured into her along with the life of her child. She is pregnant not only with a baby but with expectation that the darkness cannot overcome the light. She responds to these gifts with brave faith, and I’m not at all in her league in that regard. But she knows the source of her hope and accepts the life she’s given.

Hecht and Tippett both refer to Camus’ opening line in The Myth of Sisyphus. “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem,” he wrote, “and that is suicide.” I read those words as a college sophomore, but as a typical sophomore, I didn’t finish the book. So I never got to Camus’ conclusion. He paints a picture of Sisyphean courage and even good humor in the face of life’s absurdity. Every time the boulder rolled back over the protagonist, Camus argued, he got himself up, dusted himself off, and began again.

For Camus, that was the source of meaning in life. Sisyphus was made of sterner stuff than I by far, and so was Camus. I could not find personal or communal meaning in simply asserting that life was meaningful. That seemed like trying to erect a building with no foundation. I am grateful that my younger self was not allowed to surrender at that point. I am grateful that God demanded that I would seek a foundation that works.

“Let it be to me according to your word.” That’s the foundation. Choose to keep on living another day. Do it for your future self — who will undoubtedly thank you. Do it for the community of those who find you far more valuable than you find yourself sometimes. Do it for the cosmos that needs all hands on deck in order to make sense of things. Do it, if you’re like me, because the Creator and Giver of life finds you to be of infinite worth and has plans to use you for remarkable good.

Keep on living. Thanks!

Text Study for Luke 1:26-38, Pt. 2

2. The Impossible Possibility

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With God, all things may be possible. We could easily miss the scriptural connections in this phrase. It takes us back to Genesis 18 and the story of Sarah and Abraham. The couple is visited by three men as they are camp under the oaks of Mamre. During the conversation it becomes clear that the visitors are, somehow, God.

They bring the promise that Sarah will bear a child even though “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.” Sarah perhaps finds the whole idea a bit ridiculous and laughs out loud. The men respond, “Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?” This question is rendered in the Septuagint as, “Is any promise impossible for God?” Some manuscripts of Luke pick up the echoes of this verse in a small addition to the Greek text. That scribal enthusiasm makes it clear that readers had the Old Testament story in mind as they read the Annunciation account.

Sarah, understandably, laughs at the ludicrous suggestion. Mary trusts in the promise she has heard. Nothing is too wonderful for the Lord.

Nothing, Mary hears, is impossible for God. That does not mean, however, that all things may be easy. I think we do a disservice to Mary, to our listeners, and to the Gospel when we make this a simple “trust and obey” story. The stakes for Mary here are literally life and death. She responds not only with obedience but with courage and determination.

“Mary, in the annunciation, becomes the patroness, of all who are called by God to do impossible things,” Rick Morley writes. “Of those who become embarrassments to their family and communities on behalf of God. She reminds us that the godly thing isn’t always the prim-and-proper thing. Sometimes when we answer God’s call, we become a laughingstock. Or, even worse,” he concludes. “persecuted.”

David Lose looks at how Mary’s life was utterly derailed and disrupted by this announcement and the events that followed. “Do we think God is done interrupting people’s lives to use them for the health of the world,” Lose asks, “or might we imagine that God is still doing things just like this? Further, might we look around at the people in our congregation and see them as those persons who are also favored by God and through whom God plans to do marvelous things?”

I wonder if Mary ever wished that things could “go back to normal”? Did she ever wish that she could go back to being a teenager in a no-name village in a Galilean backwater? We live in a time when people are nearly overwhelmed with the desire to “go back to normal.” We wonder that out loud at almost every turn. When will things get back to some semblance of normality?

“Back to normal” was not an option for Mary. There was no putting the toothpaste back in the tube on this one. Gabriel’s announcement to Mary has all the classic marks of gospel. It is news that will irrevocably change the world, both present and future. It has yet to be accomplished, but there’s not doubt it will happen. And the news turns the status quo upside down and inside out. Is it any wonder that Gabriel says, “Do not be afraid”?

In what ways is the Holy Spirit coming upon us and disrupting our lives with the good news of Jesus? We cannot and will not “go back to normal” after the pandemic, even as we get excited about vaccine reports. We have been through too much, seen too much, lost too much. Can we look forward to what we have gained, what we have learned, what we want to keep from this Covid-time? Have we been used by the Spirit during this time in ways that are both disruptive and delightful? These are questions worth asking now.

“What I want is to invite our people to take a moment to contemplate that God is at work in them and through them,” Lose continues. “Further, I want to help them imagine one concrete place they can make a difference — where God may be at work in them — between now and Christmas. And once they’ve had a chance to contemplate all this, I want to invite them into the joy of faithful response.” This perspective can take us again, for example, to thoughts about the “obedience of faith” that Paul mentions in the second reading.

It may take some time to answer such questions – perhaps more than an hour, or a day, or a week. Along with Mary, we may need to ponder what sort of greeting this might be for us. “Mary models the kind of reaction we should have to divinity’s disturbance in our lives,” Karoline Lewis writes. “She wonders and ponders. She questions and considers. She answers in awe. And Mary’s reply to God’s call understands that fear is characteristic of our response to God when God disrupts our lives.”

How true indeed. But we see that fear is not the final response from Mary. It is worth remembering the old English proverb here. “Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered. No one was there.” Let it be to us according to the Word.

If you use the Magnificat as the psalmody for the day (or choose to read the Annunciation and Magnificat as a whole piece), the disruption moves beyond Mary’s personal situation. Her obedience of faith has social and economic dimensions. Here is a prophecy of the coming Jubilee year. Remember that Jesus declares in chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel that he is bringing that Jubilee in his proclamation and ministry. Here all the inequities of established life are upended. And (with a preview of the first lesson) all this happens because God is faithful to God’s promises “to Abraham and his children forever.

Liturgically, this is an opportunity to sing the Annunciation and Magnificat using the setting from Holden Evening Prayer. I never miss an opportunity to do that. More to the point, what happens to Mary will happen to all of us, to all the world, to all of Creation. Nothing is impossible for God. Thus, even in this time of restriction and retreat, we can and must look for the impossible possibilities the Holy Spirit is bringing about.

References and Resources

Frederick, John.

Hultgren, Arland.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge, UK.: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Lewis, Karoline.

Lewis, Karoline,

Lose, David.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Metger, Bruce. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1975.

Morley, Rick.

Powell, Mark Allan. Sigmon, Casey Thornburgh.

Text Study for Luke 1:26-38, Pt. 1

On the fourth Sunday in Advent, we prepare to “turn the corner” into the Christmas season. We hear Mary’s words of obedient faith. And we pray that the same kind of faith might come to birth in us. I think of the words of my favorite Christmas carol, “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem.”

“Oh, holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.”

That is always my Christmas prayer.

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1. The Call of Mary

We “begin” a fourth time in Advent – from the birth pangs to the gospel to the witness and now to the divine creation out of nothing –heading toward the actual birth. As Levine and Witherington note in their commentary, “The one miracle greater than that of a postmenopausal woman conceiving is that of a virgin conceiving.” When Mary wonders about the mechanism of this miracle, Gabriel’s answer in verse 35 echoes the language of Creation.

In Genesis 1, the Spirit hovers over the face of the deep and brings order out of the chaotic waters. In Luke’s writing (remember that “Luke” wrote both the gospel and the Acts of the Apostles), the Holy Spirit comes upon Mary here and to the disciples in Acts 1:8ff. In other places in Luke, the verb for “overshadow” is used to indicate the coming of judgment and the great reversal at the end of the age. Perhaps this is a nod toward the reversals mentioned in Mary’s song, historically called the Magnificat.

Malina and Rohrbaugh note that the word for “overshadow” has an additional and deeper meaning. “Further,” they write, “the Greek verb translated ‘will overshadow you’ is used in the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible to describe God shielding and protecting (Ps. 90:4; 139:7; Prov. 18:11). Mary is thus described as empowered and protected by God…” (page 288).

This text is often called the Annunciation, the announcement to Mary of the pregnancy of her cousin Elizabeth and her own entry into the family way. Commentators note, however, that this text has much more the flavor of a prophetic call story than that of a birth announcement. Levine and Witherington remind us that “Mary” is just a translation of the Hebrew name, “Miriam.” Miriam is the first of many women in the Hebrew Bible who participate actively in and then sing about God’s triumphant salvation.

Mary wonders what sort of greeting she has received. We might wonder what sort of prophet we encounter here. “The evangelist Luke does not exalt Mary as a goddess, or as a mother, or even as a woman,” Mark Allan Powell writes in his commentary. “He thinks she has a more important role, as the ideal Christian. In the Third Gospel, Mary becomes the model for Christian discipleship, the person who all people, men and women alike should emulate, especially if they wish to follow her son.”

This ideal Christian moves from terrified to incredulous to obedient – all in the span of nine verses. The word the NRSV translates as “perplexed” would be better translated as “terrified,” according to Levine and Witherington (page 34). This makes more sense of Gabriel’s words of calm and comfort to the young woman. Any prophetic call worth the bother should begin with terror at the prospect of seeing the Lord of the universe face to face. Mary finds herself in line, for example, with Isaiah and his vision in Isaiah 6.

In the middle of the text, we have both the naming of Jesus and the description of his role and mission. Jesus, the new Joshua (“Jesus” is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew/Aramaic name “Yeshua”), will lead God’s people into the promised land of God’s blessing. He will be the Son of the Most High, the Son of God. He will be king of Israel and heir of David. He will claim and fulfill the royal promises and messianic hopes of Israel, including those found in our first reading from 2 Samuel 7.

Notable as always is the title “Son of God.” Remember that the Roman emperors claim this title as their own – on coinage and statues and official proclamations. “Son of God” is not only about origin and descent. It is about authority and mission. Mary is the first, in Luke’s account, to hear the good news of Jesus and, quite literally, to bear that news to the world.

Mary assents to this prophetic and apostolic role. It’s worth looking at that assent in detail. Karoline Lewis notes this rapid transition in Mary’s vocation. “Any sermon on this text worth its weight will somehow create, expand, and eventually resolve, to a certain extent, and as much as is theologically possible, the tension between “How can this be” and “Let it be with me according to your word,” Lewis writes in her 2011 commentary.

“Here am I,” Mary says. Again, I find us in the divine throne room with the prophet Isaiah. “Here am I,” he declares, “send me.” It is conceivable (pardon the pun) that either Isaiah or Mary could have refused the call. God rarely kidnaps people into prophecy. In the face of this impossible possibility, Mary accepts her calling and opens herself to whatever may come.

“Here am I,” Mary says, “the slave of the Lord.” The NRSV translation softens the term Mary uses. It is the Greek doule, not diakone. The word literally means “female slave.” Commentators note that this text has often been used to exalt a kind of passive submission as a virtue. In this way, the assumptions of enslavement are underwritten and encouraged. In a time when more women and children are enslaved globally for the purposes of sex trafficking than ever before in human history, such a reading is troubling.

Levine and Witherington provide some help in this regard. “Alternatively, Mary’s self-designation can function as an ironic indicator of both personal freedom and complete devotion,” they write, “the only master Mary has is God, and she willingly places herself in divine hands…” To be a slave of God is to be free from every other master, which is to be truly and fully free to be what God has created us to be.

The description, they continue, also associates Mary with other “slaves of the Lord” in both the Hebrew and Christian bibles: Moses, Joshua, Samuel, Saul, David, Zerubbabel, Paul, and James. “Mary thus situates herself,” Levine and Witherington conclude, “among kings, prophets, apostles, and evangelists.” Mary is, for Luke and for us, a model of the “obedience of faith” we will find in the second reading for this Sunday.

Lewis suggests that preaching on this text “will move us from the absence of God (1:34), to the presence of God (1:35), to the fulfillment of the promises of God (1:36)….Somehow, someway,” she concludes, “a sermon on this text will negotiate the radical transformation…from peasant girl to prophet, from Mary to mother of God, from to denial to discipleship.” With God indeed all things are possible. With Mary as our model and inspiration, perhaps we too can consider our prophetic callings, no matter how humble our circumstances or spirits.

More on this text tomorrow…

References and Resources

Frederick, John.

Hultgren, Arland.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge, UK.: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Lewis, Karoline.

Lewis, Karoline,

Lose, David.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

Metger, Bruce. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. New York: United Bible Societies, 1975.

Morley, Rick.

Powell, Mark Allan. Sigmon, Casey Thornburgh.