Sermon at Bolling Air Force Base, Washington DC
Iâve started twitching. Iâm not used to being addressed as âmaâm,â even though when I talk to people I donât know on the phone, they often call me âsir.â I know itâs an important sign of recognizing authority in military culture, but it startles me every time I hear it â Iâm usually turning around looking for my grandmother.
What happens when authority calls?
David, the military general, is now king, and thinks itâs time to end the military campaign. David has been able to settle down, and act like peace really has come. Heâs even built himself a great palace, with pillars and beams made from those great cedars of Lebanon. So why should Godâs ark still be in a tent? Heâs acting with authority in that scene from 2 Samuel, and Nathan agrees with his strategy. Until Nathan has a dream that night. That dream reminds them both who is the ultimate authority and strategist, the one with a view from above. God basically says, âno thanks. Iâve been wandering around with this people from the very beginning; Iâm not going to stop now. But I will build you a house, David â a dynasty that will last.â
What happens when authority calls on Mary? Her encounter with the angelic messenger starts in an odd way. The usual opening line of an angel is, âFear not!â but this one begins with the salutation, âgreetings, favored one.â It could also be translated, ârejoice, blessed one.â The angel might even be saying, âI salute you.â Sheâs startled by this unconventional opening, and it says she âpondered what sort of greeting this might be.â Whatâs going on here? This isnât a normal encounter between angel and mortal, and itâs not a normal encounter between superior and subordinate. The angelâs not saying, âdonât be afraid, the cavalryâs on its wayâ nor is the angel saying, âAtten-hut! here are your orders.â The angelâs opening a conversation â as if between equals.
The angelâs message is about orders, but in a rather different sense than you and I think about them. This isnât a military order, a command that expects immediate and almost unquestioning obedience. I know that military orders can be refused, if the recipient believes them to be unlawful, but I also know that the consequences are pretty unpleasant, and you canât expect to use a defense of illegal orders and get off scot-free. There is absolutely no sense of forcible compulsion about the angelâs order.
This conversation between Gabriel and Mary is about sharing a vision, the kind of perspective a general might have. The strategy of a strategos, the general who climbs up the hill to survey the battlefield. Gabriel is offering a big picture and asking if Mary will cooperate. Sort of like the old Mission Impossible opener, âyour mission, should you choose to accept itâ¦â â it is a choice that can be accepted or not. The strategos has other options if the answer is no.
Maryâs first response is, âsorry, unable, the equipmentâs not ready.â And Gabriel responds by saying, âdoesnât matter. Elizabeth thought the same thing. And sheâs six months into this deployment.â
Maryâs next response is remarkable. She says, âhere I am, ready to serve.â And then, whatâs usually translated as âlet it be with me according to your wordâ actually starts out the same way a command does, âlet it be done.â In Latin, itâs âfiat.â She claims the authority offered her. She commands, in full cooperation with the one who has asked. She claims authority, and responds with authority.
The letter to the Romans suggests what kind of an order this is, âthe obedience of faith.â This is a hearing, responding, and claiming, not mindlessly following orders or only because a gunâs to your head, but out of a deep conviction that this is Godâs call. This is what is sometimes called submission to God â putting yourself under orders out of faithfulness to Godâs larger mission.
Iâm going to make a connection here that may challenge you, but itâs an important link to Godâs larger mission. Mary is also revered by Muslims, who recognize her as a righteous woman, and deeply value her example of submission to the will of God. Muslims do not see her son as divine, but they do believe he was born to a virgin. The Quran actually mentions Mary more often than the New Testament does. The word Islam means submission to God, and Mary is revered because she is such an important example of what that looks like. That word Islam has the same root as shalom and salaam, words usually translated as peace. Godâs mission, the mission of the Prince of Peace, is about reconciling the world. The Christian story of that reconciling work begins with Mary.
In a very real sense, Mary is the first human being to make a Christian response. Her cooperation with that larger mission is at the root of Christianity. Faith in divine authority and claiming oneâs own authority to partner with God the strategos is part of our Christian life.
Weâre all people under authority. Clergy â deacons, priests, and bishops â are called âordainedâ because we have taken vows to live a disciplined life, obeying the pastoral authority of others. All the baptized are under authority â at baptism we make solemn vows to give our hearts to God and live in particular ways that build up the body, both the body of our own existence and our existence in the community called the Body of Christ. Living an ordered existence is about discipline, practice, and askesis â a Greek word that means athletic training.
The ascetic practices of our faith tradition are about training for mission, Godâs mission to heal this world, to build a world of peace, with justice, for all. Thatâs what all that prophetic language about building straight roads in the desert is about. Thatâs what God has in mind for David and his dynasty â to build a society where no one goes to war anymore, where there isnât any more poverty or the violence that results, where everyone has the opportunity for meaningful work, and no one stays sick because he canât afford medical care. Thatâs what the song of Mary is about â the one she sings after the angel visits: âmy soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. The almighty has done great things for me; he has mercy on those who fear him, he has scattered the proud, cast down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has fed the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.â
Maryâs âyesâ is a choice to participate in Godâs work of healing the world. Itâs the same choice you and I get every day â to say âyesâ to the free and open invitation to cooperate and co-create as part of the healing, redeeming work of God in Christ. Itâs not about taking orders simply because they are written down, or spoken, or demanded. It is about a careful and thoughtful and whole-hearted decision to participate. It is about claiming the authority God has given us.
âLet it be with me according to your word.â âI choose the orders God spoke at the beginning of creation, the word spoken again in Jesus, who comes among us to make creation new.â
Whatâs your response going to be the next time you hear God calling?