Title: “…born of Mary”
Date: Nov 2, 2008
Texts: Rev 7:9-17, Matt 5:1-12
Author: Isaac Villegas
We said the Apostle’s Creed a few moments ago. I asked that it be included in our worship service. Like any good Mennonite, I will admit that there are problems with the Creed. The biggest problem is that it ignores the life of Jesus—it goes from “born of the Virgin Mary” to “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” There’s a tiny coma where Jesus’ life should be. That’s bad.
But despite its shortcomings, I think it is fitting to confess the Apostle’s Creed on All Saints’ Sunday. It’s fitting because the Apostle’s Creed has sustained the faith of saints throughout the ages. It’s likely that this Creed goes back to the first couple centuries of the early church. They probably used it as a baptismal confession. That’s why it’s spoken in the first person—“I believe…” Candidates for baptism would make this confession before they became members of the church.
When we confess this Creed, our words echo with the voices of the dead. We speak with the words of the martyrs. We speak with the gift of their foreign tongues. All Saints Sunday is a time for us to remember the dead who make our faith possible. Our faith is a gift, passed on through people’s lives of faithfulness. On All Saints’ Sunday we remember that we are not alone. God has sustained the communion of saints throughout history, and that same God sustains us as well.
Our passage from Revelation chapter 7 gives us a heavenly vision of the great crowd of saints. We see a multitude gathered around the throne of God—“from every nation, tribe, people, and language” (v 9). An elder tells us that these are the people “who have come out of the great tribulation” (v 14).
There are many complicated readings of this stuff in Revelation. People come up with theories about what exactly this tribulation is about, and when it’s supposed to happen, and if there’s a rapture before the great tribulation. Well, I’m a simple man. I drink my coffee without milk and sugar (most of the time). All those end-time theories make my head hurt. Very complicated interpretations of Revelation. I think they try to say too much about the future.
I’d rather go for a straightforward meaning of our passage from Revelation. This is a passage meant to encourage the church. This vision in chapter 7 of the multitude in heaven is a display of solidarity for the church on earth. It’s a way of showing Christians who live in troubling times that they are not alone. The tribulations, the troubles, the persecutions they face on earth have been faced before. And God always sustains the faithful. The heavenly vision is a promise that God will be faithful to the church: “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst… And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (v 16-17).
So, when we say, in the Creed, that we believe in “the communion of saints,” we are saying that we believe the heavenly vision in Revelation 7. We trust that God is at work sustaining our lives, God is at work in our midst, God will never leave us nor forsake us. Through Christ, we are part of that communion of saints, the people made holy by the Spirit of God.
That may be an important point of clarification. The communion of saints isn’t some select club of very special people. It means the church—the people who commune with God and one another. We, you and I, are part of that communion of saints that stretches across time and space.
But what about those other kinds of saints?—people like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Theresa of Avila? The Roman Catholics have plenty of them. Now, while I don’t pray to saints, I think they are important. They are important because they are examples of faithfulness. And we can always use more examples. Lives always speak louder than words.
So, let me tell you a story of a saint. The Roman Catholics, nor any other church, would recognizer her as a saint. And she would scold me for calling her a saint. But that’s a classic mark of a saint: they don’t think they should be called one. Let me tell you her story. It’s very simple, a simple life. Quite ordinary. It takes place in Manizales, Colombia—where my dad is from.
Her name is Fannie. She is my dad’s aunt. Fannie’s dream for the future was quite strange, not something I’d expect. She wanted to be a nun. From what I’ve been told, that’s all she ever talked about. So, when she turned 18, she went to the convent in Manizales and asked if they would receive her. They did. She was ecstatic. But was there for only a few years.
One day her sister, my grandmother Ruby, came to visit her and discovered that the mother superior was not treating Fannie very well. She had basically become the convent slave. She did all the work so that the other nuns didn’t have to do any. This time Ruby visited and saw the whole thing. Fannie was scrubbing the floors even though he knees were bleeding. Ruby stormed in to see the mother superior and demanded better treatment for her sister. It was like talking to a wall. No response. So Ruby went back down to her sister and told her that this was not how God wanted her to be treated.
Ruby made her an offer. “You keep your vows, but live at my house.” So Fannie did. She left the convent and moved into an isolated room in my grandmother’s house. The room was in the back of the house, at the top of a long staircase. No one was allowed up those stairs. My dad tells me that he would sneak up there sometimes and look in Fannie’s room. He said it looked like a mini-Catholic church—icons, incense, candles, prayer books. But simple nonetheless.
In that room, and in that household, Fannie spent her life. In seclusion. The only time she left the house was to go to Mass—and she did that every morning. She never drove a car or rode a bike; she only walked. Her life consisted of doing housework, praying, and sowing. My dad would pray with her every night.
This turned out to be a necessary blessing for my grandmother, Ruby. Her husband died and left her with eleven little children. So Fannie and Ruby raised the children and kept the household running. That was her life—lived in utter devotion to God and the people in that house. When she wasn’t keeping the household running, she was praying. When she wasn’t raising her sister’s kids, she was praying. And when she wasn’t praying, she was sowing. (Here’s something she made Katie and I as a wedding gift).
Fannie died last year. She knew she was dying; so the family stayed close to the house as much as possible. One afternoon she called for her sister. She said, “I’m leaving now,” and reached out for Ruby’s hand. Held it for a minute. And let go and died.
I want to call Fannie a saint, an ordinary saint. She’s an example of someone who gives up her life in order that others may have life. Hers is a life of love, self-giving love. Saints abandon everything for the sake of others. It’s a life of surrender, abandoning all attempts at importance and achievement. Instead, ordinary saints, like my great aunt Fannie, turn their lives into spaces where others can grow and thrive.
Ultimately, saints are people who turn their lives into spaces where God’s life can grow, where good news is born. Their lives show us what it looks like to let God live in this world through them. Saints show us how to be disciples. They show us that discipleship is primarily about hospitality to God, welcoming God’s love into our lives so that new life may be born in others.
That’s why Mary, the mother of Jesus, is the first saint. She is the first one in the Christian story to show us what hospitality to God looks like. The Apostle’s Creed helps us see Mary for who she is, to see Mary as our example for discipleship, to see Mary as an ordinary saint, someone who says Yes to God.
Other than Jesus, there are two people named in the Apostle’s Creed. Pontius Pilate and Mary. They show us our two options. They show us what we can be. Our lives exist in between the poles of their responses to God. Where do we find ourselves? Closer to Mary or closer to Pilate? You see, one says Yes, the other says No.
For Pilate, the life of Jesus is a threat—a threat to the good life he’s able to make for himself. He’s worked hard to get where he is. He doesn’t want to lose what he has. (Pilate isn’t so strange to our situation). So, when he’s confronted with Jesus, Pilate says no. There is no room for Jesus in the life Pilate has secured. Pilate shows us what it looks like to be inhospitable to God. He won’t be troubled. Pilate washes his hands.
But Mary, Mary says yes. Mary shows us what it looks like to extend hospitality to God, which is simply what it means to be a disciple. She makes room for God’s life within her own. She opens her life, her very body, to bring Jesus into the world. That’s what saints do. Saints are the kind of people who say Yes to God—“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord. Be it done to me according to thy word” (Lk 1:38).
Saints, like Mary and my great aunt Fannie, are guideposts, signs for the journey. They help us see what discipleship looks like. Their lives testify to the miracle of making room for God. Jesus, the good news of God’s love for the world, is born of Mary’s womb. Discipleship is our unceasing struggle to welcome, like Mary does, God into our midst, so that something unspeakably new and wonderful may be born in our world.
We are surrounded by saints, examples of discipleship for us to follow. I named one of mine, my great aunt Fannie. But I’m sure you can think of some from your life. It’s important to remember them, to pay attention to them, to see how they birth new life in our world. They are the blesséd Jesus talks about in our passage from Matthew 5—the Beatitudes. That passage helps us identify the kind of people who bear Christ’s life in our world. As I read it slowly, let your mind drift to those people who embody these characteristics. Let their lives shape your own:
Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are the meek… Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… Blessed are the merciful… Blessed are the pure in heart… Blessed are the peacemakers… Blessed are those who are persecuted…
Now, I have to take you one more step, the last step of this sermon and then I’m done. We have to take one more step because we have not plunged into the depths of the good news. The good news is that God has received us. Christ has welcomed us. We are here, as Christ’s body, because the Holy Spirit has poured God’s grace into our lives. That is the hospitality of God—that you are welcomed into Christ’s body, the loving embrace of God’s love for the world. In a sense, this church, all of you, are becoming the body of Christ, being formed by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb. The Holy Spirit is moving, resting upon us, moving through us, reconfiguring flesh and blood, reforming our bodies, stitching us together in the body of Christ.
“…born of Mary.” That’s what the Creed says. You are now being formed, transformed, into that fragile, humble, body—the body of Christ, Emmanuel, God’s presence for the world. You are God’s body, being formed by the Holy Spirit, to be God’s presence, God’s invitation for all flesh to join the communion of saints, this union, which is God’s act of hospitality. You are the hospitality of God.