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May 2017 Archive for Bishop's Message

RSS By: Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo

The Rev. Dr. Robert Rimbo shares regular thoughts and reflections about our life together.

Learning from Mary

May 13, 2017
Bishop Rimbo preached this sermon during our 2017 Synod Assembly in Tarrytown, NY on May 13, 2017.
 

Luke 1:46-55

Mary said,
"My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
REW_20170513_914
 

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

Theologians call the paradoxes "coincidences of opposites." And Mary’s Magnificat is filled with them.

 

And for good cause, apparently, according to Martin Luther who was the champion of coincidences of opposites, the prince of paradoxes.

 

Martin Luther’s amazing Commentary on the Magnificat was composed amid the stormy days of the spring and summer of 1521. The writing and the publishing were interrupted when Luther was summoned to the Diet of Worms. It’s a "deet of vorms, by the way, which has nothing to do with food. At the Diet, you’ll recall, Luther gave his famous "Here I stand" speech and really got himself in hot water which led to his forced exile at the Wartburg Castle. Eventually, while he was dealing with his own demons, the turbulence which he caused with those infamous 95 Theses, the less-than- successful meeting in Worms, and the depression brought on

by being stuck in the Wartburg Castle, he finished the devotional commentary on the Magnificat.

 

It is an exegetical commentary and a devotional classic. But frankly, it is also a guideline, even a manifesto, on how the person to whom it is dedicated, Prince John Frederick, Duke of Saxony and a whole lot of other places in Germany, should behave as a ruler.

 

It is largely about how to be a political leader. Last Friday we had a group of diaconal leaders from Germany visit us in our office. It was the day after the "triumph" in the House of Representatives of what appears to be an ill-fated health care plan. The Germans asked: "What kind of influence do you Lutherans have on your government?" I hemmed and hawed for a bit. I should have told them I’m sending multiple copies of Luther’s Commentary on the Magnificat to Washington and Albany and City Hall.

 

See, in his cover memo to Prince John Frederick, Luther says, "when power, riches, and honor come to a human being, these form so strong an incentive to presumption and smugness, that the leader forgets God and does not care about the people. Being able to do wrong with impunity, the leader lets himself go and becomes a beast…and is a ruler in name, but a monster in deed…"

 

I know some of you are mad at me for saying this, but I’m just quoting Luther directly. You can disagree with him.

 

To counter this human tendency he feared would be the case for Prince John Frederick, Martin Luther points to Mary and "this sacred hymn of the most blessed Mother of God, which ought indeed to be learned and kept in mind by all who would rule well and be helpful…In it she really sings sweetly about the fear of God, what sort of Lord God is, and especially what God’s dealings are with those of low and high degree…this pure Virgin Mary deserves to be heard by a prince and lord as she sings her sacred, chaste, and salutary song."

 

As we come near the end of this Assembly and as we engage in this new thing of working together to help people in need in a hands-on experience today, we can learn from Mary how to sing and live to God’s glory and praise.

 

It strikes me as strange that Mary did not receive from God’s messenger any help prior to her visit to Elizabeth when she first sang this song. She did not receive any script, any kind of scenario for her life as a mother. I suspect Gabriel knew that Mary lived in Faith Not Fear. But consider this: Gabriel did not tell her any of the facts, alternate or otherwise: "Now, Mary, before you say anything, you should know what a ‘yes’ entails. Joseph will think you’ve been unfaithful and will plan to separate from you. There are no Lamaze classes in Nazareth or Bethlehem. Your baby will be born far from your home and family, and have as his first crib a feed trough for animals. To escape the rage of a mad ruler, you will have to flee with your infant to far-off Egypt. Then you will return to live in this backwater town of Nazareth and no one will give a hoot about who your son really is. You will watch your neighbors try to throw him from a cliff. Your relatives will claim he is crazy. The authorities will accuse him of blasphemy. And, on top of all that, he will not outlive you, not die of natural causes. He will breathe his last executed like a common criminal on a bloody cross, between two bandits. But don’t worry, Mary: three days later you will see him again."

 

None of this was given to the singer of Mary’s Song. If it had been, she might have responded, "Are you crazy?" The only thing given was a promise. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, and with that alone, Mary spoke her faith-filled once-for-all yes: "Here am I, servant of the Lord. Let it be to me as you say."

 

The Magnificat is a song, a prayer, filled with memory and with hope…and an over-arching sociopolitical manifesto. Listen to this again:

 

God has shown strength with his arm;

scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;

brought down the powerful from their thrones;

lifted up the lowly;

filled the hungry with good things;

sent the rich away empty;

and helped his servant Israel.

 

No wonder Luther sent this to his Prince!

 

This is the Mary whose sights are set beyond little Nazareth, who proclaims biblical justice, not the justice of men and women or constitutions or bills of rights, but the justice of God. Mary, in this single song, takes us back to God’s mercy in the selection of a band of enslaved tribes, their exodus from Egypt, the prophetic witness. And Mary takes us forward to the hope that stems from Jesus who fulfills all justice, whose reign is a reign that will make all things new; forward to the Jesus of judgement who will separate the sheep from the goats on the basis of what we do for the least of these, and will create the ideal community envisioned in the post-Pentecost power of the book of Acts.

 

Mary’s Song pushes us beyond our comfort zones, beyond our boundaries, beyond what we think the Church is supposed to do, to where God wants us to be. It causes us to work together for issues right in front of us that are killing people. We live in a country that is discouragingly deaf to the cries of the enslaved poor, its abused women and homeless men, its sick who have no access to health-care and must choose between food and medicine, its millions of youngsters sleeping on its streets each night, its elderly rummaging for food in dumpsters, its prisoners on death row. Mary’s Song opens our eyes to see thousands of infants living in poverty who will not see their first birthday, and opens our ears to the prophetic witness of Micah calling us ‘to do justice, to love mercy, to walk humbly with God.’

 

Mary calls us to live the mission of her Son, Jesus: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free."

 

Now, this afternoon, we will engage in fairly simple activities of caring. We will also, I hope, put our names on the line to work for God’s justice. And in the next months, it is my hope and intent that our synod will continue to bear witness in efforts at advocacy and bold service for the life of the world, all of us together.

 

Martin Luther’s friend Mary appears also in a single sentence in the Book of Acts where it declares "The apostles were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the Mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers."  (Acts 1:14) One word sums this up: community. We cannot be Christians alone. Mary is seen sharing food and conversation, prayer and memories with Jesus’ closest friends, with women and men who had shared his hopes and his fears, his travel and his travail, his agonies and his ecstasies, his life and his love. 

 

Sisters and Brothers, we are called to that same community now, as we come to this Holy Communion where we will be nourished so we may bring Faith, not Fear, to our world.

 

For, Alleluia! Christ is risen!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

 

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

 

Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo

Metropolitan New York Synod

Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Mary, Martin, and Us: Bearing God to the World

May 12, 2017
Bishop Rimbo prepared this Bible Study for our 2017 Synod Assembly.
 

IMG_3095"Intersectionality" is an important word these days. We seem to be looking at and for connections.

 

Today, in this time of some theological meditation on a particular passage from Galatians, I want to focus on the coming of Christ among us, what we call The Incarnation.

 

I want to look at a specific passage from Galatians as a place of intersection between the Song of Mary – The Magnificat and this year of commemorating the 500th Anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses of Martin Luther and our shared ministry as bearers of God to the world for such a time as this.

 

It’s a specific passage with which I have spent hardly any time until preparing for this time with you. So the intersection now is between Luther’s Commentary on Galatians (a masterpiece of biblical exegesis blended with devotional commentary) that reflects his devotion to Mary, the Theotokos – "God-Bearer" – and what that could mean for us.

 

So look with me now at this single, loaded passage from Galatians, 4:

 

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

 

First, I’ll tell you what I know about Galatians.

 

It’s called the Magna Charta of Christian liberty. It deals, primarily, with whether Gentiles must become Jews before they can become Christians. Certain Judaizing teachers had infiltrated the churches of Galatia in central Asia Minor, which Paul had previously founded (Acts 16:6), declaring that in addition to having faith in Jesus Christ a Christian was obligated the keep the Mosaic Law which in the case of about half of the people meant a surgical procedure which I don’t want to get into.

 

Paul, on the contrary, insists that a person becomes right with God only by faith in Christ and not by the performance of good works, ritual observances, and the like (2:16; 3:24-25; 5:16:12-15).

 

At the very beginning of the Letter, Paul asserts the authority of his teaching. He asserts his gospel against James in Jerusalem and even against Peter.

 

The central part of the Letter is an exposition of the doctrine of justification by faith alone (3:1-4:31) – the part of the Letter on which Luther commented most extensively, of course – but Paul also concludes with certain practical applications of his teaching (5:1-6, 18) because he wanted to be clear that Christians do have obligations to behave according to the moral code. Such behavior does not justify but is a product of our being justified.

 

The importance of this letter is hard to overestimate. Written around A. D.55, it sets forth the true function of the Mosaic Law and its relation to God’s grace manifested in Christ.

 

Which brings us to why I chose to focus on this passage.

 

It’s a simple assertion, really. The Son of God was "born of a woman" which can be said of all of us, I guess.

 

"Thick Words."

There are words and phrases in the Christian theological tradition that are so "thick," so full of meaning, that we can meditate on them in great depth and they can yield a whole range of meanings.

 

Think of this word: grace. Or let’s try this word: cross. Or how about this one: disciple.

 

These are words from which spring up: power, resonance, thickness, and depth - words that will never find their full meaning in terms of a dictionary definition. They contain a surplus of meaning.

 

Which leads me to a word about Mary that is an ancient name for her, and, I propose, is a name for each one of us: THEOTOKOS. 

 

It means, simply "God-Bearer," the one who bore God into the world.

 

Note: it doesn’t say "Christ-Bearer". That’s because our ancestors in the faith understood clearly that words have consequences. There were enough heretics in the early Church to make even us blush. So our ancestors wanted to be clear that Mary brought forth God, a person who possessed both a human and a divine nature.

 

I remember talking with Confirmation kids about this, especially one young mathematician who wanted percentages – "was it a fifty-fifty split between human and divine" to which I answered "Nope" – "it was a hundred percent each." An adolescent mathematician had difficulty with that.

 

It’s called a coincidence of opposites that asserts that Jesus Christ was fully human and fully divine. It’s a wonderfully Luther-an kind of understanding. We love those tensions, don’t we: catholic / protestant; saint / sinner. Luther was the prince of paradox.

 

And in this paradox, this coincidence of opposites, is a whole compressed theology relative to the person of Jesus Christ.

 

As Robert Farrar Capon says in The Fingerprints of God, the term Mother of God – or more properly, God-Bearer, "isn’t a definition that gives us answers to our questions; it’s a sudden illumination of the fact that in Mary, the images of Son, Word, God, Man, and Womb all come together in a coincidence of opposites. And if you take that paradoxical picture as a seamless whole, you absolve yourself from having to water down any of the images."

 

The fullness of time

The sending of the Son of God did not occur at any old time; it certainly did not occur "once upon a time"; it happened in time that could be measured and, more precisely, at a proper moment in time as part of the unfolding plan of God, the fullness of time, according to Paul.

 

God sent his Son

Just in case you are wondering, Paul is here reminding us that this is all about Jesus Christ, even when he is talking about Mary bearing God. A mini-paradoxical confession.

 

Born of a woman

which, of course, can be said about all of us, unless Paul understood Jesus to be someone distinguished from all other humans. This person, the 100% divine and 100% human, was born of a woman.

 

Born under the law

That is, after the giving of the law at Mount Sinai and under its reality. Christ is located in historical time generally and in the time of the revelation of God to the children of Israel in particular to see the Anointed One come from his own people.

 

The Son of God was a human with a specific history and a specific pedigree, if you will. Christ was not an angel or some kind of "power" or even a bodiless soul, like some claim, but a human being who came from a woman who was a child of Israel. He was, bluntly, a Jewish male with all that that assertion implies.

 

What are some of those implications? This is the stuff of Call the Midwife. This is real birth in real flesh at a certain time in history.

 

Paul’s assertion is the earliest reference to Mary in the Scriptures. Remember: Galatians was written around 55 so as far as we know all the other writings in the New Testament came after it.

 

Augustine uses this text from Galatians at least ten times in The Trinity for the precise reason of demonstrating the coincidence of opposites.

 

He says in Book I, "In the form of God, all things were made by him (John 1:3); in the form of a servant, he himself was "born of a woman, born under the law (Gal. 4:4)."

 

Jesus was born of a woman, Mary, the Theotokos, the God-Bearer. So Mary is the intersection between the hopes of Israel and their realization in the person of Jesus. The story of salvation is rooted in an almost outrageous particularity. While there has been some tension between Catholic and Orthodox theology, on the one hand, and Protestant theology, on the other, about whether Mary actively cooperated in salvation or merely was the passive instrument of God’s will (as opposed to Mary’s reaction, her saying OK to the angel), the one thing all traditions agree on is that Mary was the location of the historical event of the Word made flesh.

 

Martin Luther was devoted to her. She is the one person chosen from all of humanity that made real the Incarnation. I will talk about that more tomorrow, when I preach at the Eucharist, but for now let me quote Lutheran theologian Robert Jenson who puts it correctly and unapologetically: "The Son of God has a mother; there exists a theotokos. Mary became pregnant, gestated, and gave birth and the one whom she gestated and gave birth to was the sole and solitary person of the Son of God."2

 

A coincidence of opposites.

 

Annnnnd……So, What? This multi-layered, stunning passage from Galatians says it clearly:

 

in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

 

There is a very real sense in which we, too, bear God in our lives, our ministry, our witness for this time and this place.

 

Where does that happen in your life as a Christian? Where do you bear God?

 

You are a theotokos We are, together, theotokoi. And here is a point of intersection with Luther.

 

I could read extensively from Luther’s Commentary on Galatians, it is two volumes in the American Edition of Luther’s Works. Luther summarizes this new life we now have and can help us to think how we might bear God:

 

God has also sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, as Paul says here. Now Christ is completely certain that in his spirit he is pleasing to God. Since we have the same Spirit of Christ, we, too, should be certain that we are in a state of grace, on account of Christ who is certain… The external signs…are these: to enjoy hearing about Christ; to teach, give thanks, praise, and confess Christ, even at the cost of property and life; to do one’s duty according to one’s calling, in faith and joy; not to take delight in sin; not to invade someone else’s calling but to serve one’s own; to help the needy, comfort the sorrowful, etc. By these signs we are assured and confirmed… that we are in a state of grace.

 

 

Or, in short, to bear God’s life and light ourselves.

 

Each of us a theotokos, all of us, together, bearing God.

 

We rejoice that…when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.

 

 
____________________
1 Robert Farrar Capon, The Fingerprints of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), page 101.
2 Robert Jenson, "For Us…He was Made Man" in Nicene Christianity, ed. Christopher Seitz (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2002), p. 83
 
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