I was home last week in Nevada for the first time in months. It was a quiet spring evening, and I went to bed early and slept soundly. I was awakened out of a deep sleep by a bird singing – loudly. It took a while, but I finally opened my eyes and took a look at the clock – it was 1:50 in the morning. What was this crazy bird doing? It wasn’t making a distress call; it was a spring song that belongs to the daylight, not the middle of the night. I heard it on and off, for hours, and it was still singing at dawn. I continue to puzzle over that demented bird’s middle of the night song.
Mary heard an unusual and untimely call as well. It certainly caused her puzzlement and undoubtedly a good deal of wondering. This winged creature shows up and says, “hello, favored one, God is with you.” Today, we’d hear it as something like, “hi sweetheart, God sent me!” And whether it was the middle of the night or broad daylight, she takes this greeting with a grain of salt. Luke says, “she was much perplexed and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” The angel continues, with a lot more clarity about just what the invitation is about: “you are going to be pregnant and your child will be a king.” She is being asked to say yes to something that is likely to bring her embarrassment and difficulty – and she recognizes it: “how can this be?” It gets even stranger, “the Spirit of God will do this, and your child will be called holy. And in case you don’t believe me, your elderly cousin is now 6 months pregnant, too!” She is eventually persuaded, however, and claims this vocation, saying, “yes, I will. I am here to serve.”
Later, when the child is born, the angels come again, this time to shepherds tending their flocks at midnight. One tells the same story to them, that this child has been born and is messiah. And then a whole flock of angels continue with the same kind of greeting the angel had for Mary – they say, ‘peace, favored ones’ [Luke 2:14]. The shepherds go and find her, Joseph, and the child, and repeat what the angels have said. Luke tells us that she “treasured these words and pondered them in her heart.” [Luke 2:19]
Surprising words, spoken to a favored one, that bring an invitation to conversation and engagement. This is a regular occurrence – that’s what was going on in the conversation between Ahaz and the prophet Isaiah, but Ahaz declines the invitation. God makes good on the promise anyway. Similar words are spoken to Jesus at his baptism, “you are my beloved son, in you I am well pleased.” [Luke 3:22]. Jesus is invited to answer God’s favor and invitation, and to become a cosmic Answer in the process.
The gift of the spirit at Pentecost starts a similar relationship, inviting diverse peoples and nationalities into conversation with God – and they respond in the same way Mary did, they “were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” [Acts 1:12]
As blessed and beloved creatures of God, we are invited into a similar conversation at baptism. The conversation of our lives is about God’s promise of favor and love, and our response.
Today’s celebration is about a century long conversation between God and God’s people in this place. God planted an invitation in the heart of Bishop Johnson, a newly minted priest named Noel Porter, and a small band of disciples in this city of angels. It is just possible that the diversity of St. James today has some roots in Porter’s history, for he was born in India to an English father and a mother from the West Indies. He did go to USC, which was enough to make this immigrant an honorary Californian and an Angeleno – and the tradition of welcome into this community continues!
This congregation has been much favored in its history, growing and thriving over its first several decades. And then some other angels came into this community and began to stir things up with surprising words and deeds. Friendship with St. Mary’s Mariposa invited a conversation that endured through the evils of wartime internment and disrespect for human dignity. Nat King Cole seems to have been a particularly beloved angel in this place, inviting this favored community to look around and see what it might become. That invitation has continued, with schools for children, meals for the hungry, and a table open to all God’s favored and beloved people, from many families, languages, tribes, and nations. You have responded to the surprising challenges your visitors have brought, by growing in your ability and responsiveness, to serve all sorts and conditions of people, here and across the world.
The ability to answer the surprising messenger is grounded in hope. When this community has been well-rooted in hope, it has grown wings and opened its heart, like Mary. Emily Dickinson put it well, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul…” Hope must have been a central part of what Mary pondered in her heart.
When we know ourselves favored, loved, blessed, that hope has begun to grow. That is the first gift of all those heavenly messengers – they often begin by saying, ‘fear not’ which is the necessary starting place for hope. We have to have a bit of peace and fearlessness to find a perching place for hope. As in Mary’s encounter, those angels say, ‘favored one’ and to the shepherds, “peace to God’s favored ones.”
There are a couple of real challenges in our response – letting go of the fear, and of the sense that this favor is only for me or those like me. Confidence that I am beloved helps the work of recognizing that others are also blessed, beloved, favored. It is a word spoken to each of God’s creatures, but it is a word that more earthly angels can pronounce as well. Sometimes it is the words in action that offer a meal to the hungry or a bed to the wandering or a seat at the table to the excluded. That word is also spoken and taught in the life of this community – in forming children and adults for the ministry of living each and every day. When a six year old is assured that he or she can learn to read, or a ten year old is entrusted with leading a church procession, or a new immigrant finds a warm and gracious welcome here, hope is planted, favor pronounced, and blessing received.
Jesus is the answer to God’s invitation to be hope and blessing for the world. This community is invited into the same conversation his mother had with the angel. Will you say yes to God’s favor? Will you let hope be planted in your heart, and in turn share it with the world? Will you invite others into a community of love and hope?
What kind of conversation are feathered visitors beginning in this community?
I finally realized that that crazy bird in the middle of the night was simply singing hope – hope for what the dawn would bring. May we do the same!