Dear Working Preacher,
I want to ask you a question, and I suspect that much of your success as a preacher hangs on how you answer it. Nervous? :) Don't be; it's really quite simple: "Do you believe that God is still active in the world?"
See, that wasn't that complicated. Or is it? A few months ago, Walter Bruegemann, said something at our annual Celebration of Biblical Preaching that I haven't been able to forget. "Few of our people," he said, "imagine God to be an active character in the story of their lives." And I suspect he's right. Don't get me wrong. It's not that our people don't believe in God. It's more that, day in and day out, God seems to most of them (and perhaps to us) as fairly passive; you know, that if God is doing anything, it's pretty much hanging out in the background, watching, waiting, being supportive, encouraging. Kind of like the refrain of the Bette Midler song of a few years back, "God is watching us, God is watching us, God is watching us...from a distance."
That's not, of course, the biblical picture of God. Sure, God watches. But God also gets involved - God does things, all kinds of things -- great and small, mighty, mundane, or miraculous, God is constantly at work. More than that, God regularly uses other people to point out and tell about what God is doing. Take today's Gospel reading, for instance, where the angel Gabriel bursts unexpectedly into the life of an unsuspecting teenage girl named Mary to tell her that she has found favor of God and will conceive, carry, and bear the Son of God. Whew -- talk about news!
While our default when reading this passage is to focus on Mary's faithful response, there is, as my colleague Karoline Lewis says in her commentary,
a lot of important homiletical ground laying between Gabriel's "Greetings, favored one," and Mary's "Let it be according to your word." Mary is, by turns, perplexed, confused and perhaps troubled by the angel's words. And how could she not be? She is, as she protests, still a virgin. Morever, she is common, ordinary, of little account in her world and definitely not the stuff of legends...and she knows it. Only after expressing her wonder and dismay, and then hearing again Gabriel's affirmation and promise, does she manage to summon the courage to believe that God has indeed favoring her by working in her and through her for the health of the world.
And here's where I want to go back to my opening question. Do we think God is done interrupting people's lives to use them for the health of the world, 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. Perhaps not conceive and bear the Son of God, but so what -- that one's been done already anyway! But think how many other wonderful things there are that God wants to accomplish through us, so many that you and I couldn't begin to count them all. And yet our people are in all kinds of places and positions to do those wonderful things.
Now here's the thing. They will also be, by turns, perplexed, confused, and perhaps troubled by your proclamation that God has noticed them, that God favors them, and that God has wondrous things to accomplish through them. So give them time and space to let this sink in before you expect a similarly faithful, "Here am I, a servant of the Lord." In fact, you might help them to work through some of these emotions by guiding them through a brief exercise. What I want is to invite our people to take a moment to contemplate that God is at work in them and through them. 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.
You can certainly figure out a way to do this in your congregational setting, but if it helps, feel free to put together and print out half sheets with the following lines and blank spaces:
I am favored by God. Indeed, God wants to do great things through me.
One of those things may be:
Because the God of Mary and Jesus is still active, I believe God is still at work in the world, even through me. Therefore, though I do not always understand how and why God is at work, I can still answer, "Here am I, a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your world."
After folks have had time to complete these sheets -- don't forget to have an adequate number of pencils on hand -- you might even re-enact the scene from today's Gospel with you playing Gabriel (pretty fitting, given that angelos means "messenger"!) and your congregation Mary. Here's what it might sound like:
You: "Greetings, favored ones. The Lord is with you and intends to do great things through you.
Congregation: "How can this be? We are ordinary, everyday people."
You: "Yet you have found favor through God, and the Holy Spirit will come upon you, guide you, and work through you to care for this world and people God loves so much. For nothing is impossible with God.
Congregation: "Here am I, a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word."
It's an incredible thing to be noticed, to be called favored, to be invited into meaning work. This is the gift we can give our people this week, Working Preacher. Thank you for playing your part as God's holy messenger, this week and always.
Yours in Christ,