Sunday’s sermon: It Happened Anyway … In the Face of Broken Dreams

Text used – Luke 1:26-45

  • Does anyone else remember the Disney movie “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken”[1]?
    • Came out in the early 1990s
    • Film adaptation of true story of Sonora Webster Carver[2]
      • Young girl from Georgia
      • 1923: Answered an ad seeking an “Attractive young woman who can swim and dive; likes horses; desires to travel” → mother convinced her to answer the ad
      • Hired by William “Doc” Carver (organizer of Wild West shows with Buffalo Bill Cody)
      • Swiftly became one of the most famous horse divers in the world → She would stand at the top of a 40 ft. platform, and as a horse ran up a ramp and passed her, she would leap bareback onto it’s back and dive with the horse 40 ft. down into a large tank of water.
        • Traveled the country
        • Eventually became a standing act/star attraction in Atlantic City
          • Performed up to 5 times a day for crowds of thousands!
        • Suffered terrible accident → hit the water with her eyes open and suffered retinal displacement → left her suddenly, completely, and irreversibly blind
    • In horse diving, Sonora found a life and a career that brought her joy and excitement, travel and, above all, one of the things that she loved most: horses. When she had her accident, much of that was stripped away from her for a time. The plan she’d had for her life – the dreams she’d been living as well as any grander dreams that she’d been dreaming – were suddenly in jeopardy.
    • Advent sermon series this year has been all about God being born in the person of Jesus Christ anyway
      • In the face of danger and fear … God came anyway
      • In the face of our own failings … God came anyway
      • In the face of things that hold us back … God came anyway
      • We’ve been talking about how, even in the midst of all the struggles and challenges of life (especially in 2020 – one of the strangest, hardest years that has ever been … at least in many of our lifetimes) … even in the midst of all the struggles and challenges that make us think the whole world has stopped, God came. God comes. God will come to dwell among us, full of grace and truth.
        • Bringing light to our darkness
        • Bringing comfort to our pain
        • Bringing hope to our distress
    • And so we come to the last Sunday before Christmas Eve – before we celebrate the birth of that treasured and beloved Christ Child, Emmanuel, God-With-Us. And even as we prepare for that joy – for the relief that that birth will bring – we know that there are still broken parts of ourselves that make it hard to let that joy permeate all the way into our souls. Like Sonora Webster, our pasts and our hearts harbor broken dreams.
  • So there are a couple of things that we need to address before we dig into this text. The first is fairly light-hearted. The second … is not.
    • FIRST, let’s talk for just a second about the popular contemporary Christmas song “Mary, Did You Know?”[3]
      • Written by Mark Lowry and Buddy Green
      • Originally recorded and released in 1991 → instant hit
      • Covered by a lot of big names
        • Kenny Rogers and Wynonna Judd
        • CeeLo Green
        • Pentatonix (just to name a few)
      • Basis of the song: all questions asking whether Mary was aware of just who and what her “baby boy” would become
      • It’s a beautiful song with a haunting melody that lingers in your ear and in your heart … and it’s a song that is Biblically and theologically … wrong. Our text today is the exact opposite of “Mary, Did You Know?” because it’s the angel Gabriel literally giving Mary the answers to many of the questions posed by that song. With the exception of the opening line – “Mary, did you know that your baby boy would one day walk on water?” – the rest of the song really is precisely what Gabriel is telling Mary in our Scripture reading this morning – text: “Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom. … [T]he one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.”[4] → So, friends, as beautiful as the song is … as much as we may love it … yes, clearly Mary did, indeed, know.
    • SECOND thing we need to address with this text is something that can make it a particularly difficult one for a lot people this time of year for reasons that we almost never talk about (to the detriment of society and the Church): the pain and heartache that reading this text can bring for anyone struggling with fertility issues this time of year → For anyone who has lost a child, who has lost a pregnancy, who has struggled and prayed for years to become pregnant with no result, this text that we’re reading this morning presents a double whammy.
      • First we hear about Mary = literally pregnant without even trying: Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”[5]
      • Second we hear more about Elizabeth = miraculously pregnant in her old age → Elizabeth certainly isn’t the first woman in the Bible who spends nearly her whole life wishing for a child only for God to intervene and bring about a pregnancy much later in life.
        • Sarah (Abraham) → birth of Isaac[6]
        • Hannah (Elkanah) → birth of Samuel[7]
        • Today’s text (Gabriel to Mary – addressing her disbelief over her own impending pregnancy): “Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. Nothing is impossible for God.”[8] → Yes, many of us have found strength and encouragement and power in that last phrase – “nothing is impossible for God” – but I cannot read this text this morning without recognizing and naming the pain, the longing, the frustration, even the anger that it brings to a lot of women and men who dream of nothing more than being in Mary and Elizabeth’s shoes. It’s a pain I know all too well myself.
          • 4 yrs. ago today that 2nd of what would be our 3 miscarriages was confirmed
          • That Christmas Eve = the only Christmas Eve in my entire life that I wasn’t in church → Because even as a pastor, my soul could not endure a night of joy and holy expectation and a baby as I was in the throes of losing my own. And I know I am not alone in knowing the ache of that particular broken dream. So today, as we read this text, we make intentional space for that experience and that pain. [PAUSE]
  • True: this text is often read as a text of joy and devotion to God → Because, frankly, that’s what it is.
    • Just after today’s text = Magnificat – Mary’s hymn of awe and adoration to God: Mary said, “With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name. He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God. He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”[9] → I don’t think that we can deny the joy and praise in Mary’s words. But before we go there, let’s take a few steps back and think about Mary’s very first reactions a bit more.
      • Initial response = confusion tinged with fear – text: When the angel came to [Mary], he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.[10] → Gr. “confused” = perplexed but with a connotation of distress/being troubled → And we can’t really blame Mary, can we? I mean, not only has an angel suddenly appeared to her, but he has called her “favored one” and declared that the Lord is with her. That’s the kind of thing that would definitely unsettle just about anyone, I think!
        • Get another hint at Mary’s response with Gabriel’s next words: “Don’t be afraid.” → No one says, “Don’t be afraid” to someone who already isn’t afraid, right?
      • Second response (Mary’s question about how her pregnancy could possibly be real) = skepticism tinged with worry → Mary was engaged and unmarried, and at the time, for her to be visibly pregnant before marrying Joseph would have caused a great scandal. It definitely would have brought shame on her family. It could have gotten her killed. And it almost certainly would have ended her engagement to Joseph had God not intervened.
        • Story of Gabriel’s reassuring visit to Joseph in a dream comes from Matthew’s gospel[11] → not information that Luke shares with us and definitely not information that Mary would have had in this particular moment
        • Scholar emphasizes just how touchy this situation would have been: Mary’s assignment from God is an honor yoked with struggle. In her day, an unmarried woman expecting a child was cause for disgrace. Nonetheless, her neighbors’ prospective disdain does not hinder Mary’s willingness to proceed according to God’s entreaty. … Mary comprehends that her life, and not only hers, but the whole world’s, is about to be rearranged.[12]I think it’s important to recognize that when she accepted the call that God was placing before her and took up the mantle of “God’s favored one,” Mary had to let go of whatever dreams she’d initially had for her life. Because truly nothing would be the same after she said “yes” to God.
          • Read “Reflection” from Spill the Beans worship resource[13]

How could Mary sing such a song of praise
when responding to God’s call
meant that she was ostracised by her community,
shunned by her peers,
the subject of gossip and slander?

 How could Mary sing such a song of praise
when responding to God’s call
brought isolation, anxiety and overwhelming responsibility?

 How could Mary sing such a song of praise
when responding to God’s call
brought a swollen belly
and the pain of labour and childbirth?

 How could Mary sing: “My soul magnifies the Lord”
as her body changed
and weariness settled in her bones.

 Could it be that the peace in her heart,
the knowledge of responding to God,
of making God’s will her own
was so momentous
that joy overrode apprehension
and love overcame fear
giving way to the knowledge
of true blessedness.

 Mary, mother of God,
blessed art thou among women.

  • Remember Sonora Webster Carver? → following her accident, Sonora’s words: “After considering the matter from every angle, I decided that the best strategy I could adopt would be to treat my blindness as if it were a minor detail rather than a major catastrophe. The show must go on.”[14]
    • Returned to horse diving less than a year after her injury → continued diving for 11 yrs. until her show was permanently shut down in 1942 shortly after the U.S. entered WWII
    • After the end of her performing career, Webster worked as a Braille typist for the Lighthouse for the Blind and became an activist for those who are visually impaired
    • Friends, sometimes God’s call for us – God’s new dream for us – means letting go of other dreams, maybe even breaking other dreams. It doesn’t mean that there was anything wrong with those other dreams. It doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with God’s dream for us. And it doesn’t mean that we can feel conflicted, challenged, even a little broken as we make one choice over another. But it also doesn’t mean that there isn’t blessing that can come out of that brokenness. And it certainly doesn’t mean that God doesn’t sit with us in the midst of our broken dreams, enfolding us with love and grace, hope and call. Amen.

[1] Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken, directed by Steve Miner (Walt Disney Pictures, 1991).

[2] https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/sonora-webster-carver-daredevil-horse-diver-gygmrx/15128/.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary,_Did_You_Know%3F.

[4] Lk 1:31-33, 35b.

[5] Lk 1:34.

[6] Gen 21.

[7] 1 Sam 1-2.

[8] Lk 1:36-37.

[9] Lk 1:46-55.

[10] Lk 1:28-29.

[11] Mt 1:18-25.

[12] Ashely Cook Cleere. “Fourth Sunday of Advent: Luke 1:26-38 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 96.

[13] “Advent 4: Sunday 18 December 2016 – Reflection” in Spill the Beans: Worship and Learning Resources for All Ages, iss. 21. (Scotland: Sleepless Nights Productions, 2016), 38.

[14] “Unladylike 2020: Unsung Women Who Changed America – Sonora Webster Carver: Daredevil Performer and Advocate for the Blind” from the American Masters series, produced by Thirteen for the Public Broadcasting Service. Premiered July 15, 2020, viewed Dec. 19, 2020.

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