Sunday, December 15, 2013

Full of Grace

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a 6 foot 1 inch, tattoo-covered stand up comedian turned Evangelical Lutheran pastor—or Pastrix, as she calls her recent memoir. 21 years clean and sober, she is the founding pastor of the House of All Sinners and Saints, which meets in the parish hall of an Episcopal church in Denver. This week on her blog, “Sarcastic Lutheran: The cranky spirituality of a postmodern Gal,” she wrote about Mary, Jesus' mom. She was reading the part of Luke where the angel Gabriel says to Mary, “Greetings, favored one!” And Pastrix Nadia noticed something: “...what the text seemed silent on is what exactly she did to earn God's favor.” Think about it. What do we know about Mary before this that would make her, out of all the women on earth, the perfect candidate to carry God's son in her womb. And the answer is: Nothing! We know nothing about her before this major event. The Bible does not say that she was especially religious or smart or given to good works or of a sweet disposition or righteous or compassionate or even that she had a perfect attendance pin from Sabbath School. The Bible tells us nothing—nada, zip, zilch, zero. We have absolutely no idea of God's criteria for choosing Mary.

And that bothered some early Christians. And so they reasoned that there must have been something special about Mary. Eventually this led to the dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception. That is, God made sure that Mary was conceived without original sin. So, being sinless, she was fit to be the mother of Jesus. But there's nothing in the Bible to that effect. And indeed Thomas Aquinas and other notable Christian thinkers rejected the idea.

Which means Pastrix Nadia is in good company. What she says is this: “I think God looked upon her with favor because it is God's nature to look upon young peasant girls and prostitutes and tax collectors and adulterous kings and lawyers and princes and fishermen with favor. Because God's just like that. Read the book!”

In other words, God's choosing Mary wasn't about merit but about grace. It wasn't that Mary was perfect or a paragon of virtue or that she earned it in any way. The word translated “favor” is charis, the same Greek word that is translated “grace” throughout the New Testament. The source of Mary's favor is God. God graciously chose her. Mary was not chosen because she was special; she was special because God chose her.

The world tends to seek out those it considers worthy and offers them jobs and tasks. Movies are so expensive in part because the lead actors can demand $20 million to appear. Superstar CEOs are hired to save companies by offering them salaries, stock options and perks that are 380 times what their average employee makes.

It's even become part of entry level job descriptions. When I was hired as a nurse at a major hospital in St. Louis, I was given a 2 week orientation. Nowadays you're lucky if you get 2 days. Because generally speaking, previous experience doing the very same job built into most companies' job descriptions. They don't want to train anyone if they can help it. They don't want to take a chance on training anyone who might turn out to not be up to the job after all. The days where someone says, “You're a bright young thing; I bet you could learn this job” are over.

And for some jobs, even experience alone is not sufficient. It doesn't even matter if for years you filled in for your boss at times and did his job in his absence. You need a degree in that specific field to go from Acting Whatitz to Official Whatitz. I'm all for education but I have worked under people with advanced degrees who don't know how to do the basic tasks of their job. They had a lot of theoretical knowledge and had taken a lot of management classes but had absolutely no common sense or feel for the job they must actually perform. On the other hand, I have worked with sharp people who had watched and learned how to do stuff on the job and to whom, despite their lesser official status, you would go to in a heartbeat with a question before you would ask someone with an MBA. Secretaries, for instance, often know more about how their department really works than their bosses do. Nurses know more about how a patient is actually faring than many doctors. Old fashioned nursing school RNs have more practical know-how than more academically-trained BSNs. It reminds me of the scene in the Wizard of Oz when he says to the scarecrow, “I know people with no more brains than you do. But they have one thing you haven't got: a diploma.”

But that's the problem, isn't it? God couldn't very well send Gabriel out to do interviews for the job of bearing the Son of the Most High. He couldn't advertise for girls with previous experience in caring for divine infants or with degrees in God raising. This was a unique situation.

So what criteria would God use to chose? We could speculate endlessly on this but I think Pastrix Bolz-Weber has nailed it. She said when dealing with the annunciation story, we concentrate on how Mary reacted to the angel telling her she would bear God's son. “....but this week I started to wonder, were I in her place, which would be harder for me to believe, that part or the part where the angel said I was favored? If an angel came to me and said, 'Greetings, favored one'--I'd be like, you've got the wrong girl.”

Pastrix Nadia goes on to say, “But here's where Mary has some real chops. Mary trusted this word from the angel. And maybe that is what made her favored....I cannot speak to the worthiness of Mary before that night the angel visited her. But what I know is that she is a truster of God's word. Knowing what little I do about the Bible and how God chooses to operate and who God chooses to operate through, I have to say that I think it was God's word to her that she was worthy that made her worthy. Her response to the angel was not I will do everything in my power to be who God wants me to be. It was let it be with me according to God's word. I trust that I am who God says that I am.”

But Mary is not the only person God does this to. Abraham is a nomad to whom God says, “I will make you a great nation and the world will be blessed through you.” Moses was a stuttering fugitive to whom God says, “You will lead my enslaved people out of Egypt.” David is a shepherd to whom God says, “You will be the king over my people.” Peter is a mercurial hotheaded fisherman to whom Jesus says, “You are the rock on which I will be my church.” Paul is a zealous ultra-orthodox Jew to whom God says, “You will be my apostle to the Gentiles.” None of these people had resumes that would lead you to think they were fit to do these things. God said to each, “You are the person to do this” and they were. In some cases they even tried to get out of it. Even Mary said, “How can this be?” But all of them eventually accepted what God said about them. And then succeeded at what they were told to do.

We are all in the same boat. In the Bible, Christians are called “saints.” Not just certain special, spectacular Christians. All of us. But how can that be?

Well, it's our usage that turned the word “saint” into what it means today: someone who is so good that you feel like a moral worm in comparison. But at its root the word for “saint” means anyone sanctified by God, anyone made holy by him, anyone set aside for his purposes. Think of it this way: To take communion into the jail I had to get clear plastic containers. So I went to the drug store and got a set approved by the TSA for taking on planes with your conditioner or hand lotion. I chose one to carry the wafers, one for grape juice (no wine in jail), another to use drink from and one for a swab impregnated with oil of healing for anointing the sick. The rest I can use to carry my shampoo through airport security. The containers do not chose what to carry; I choose which to use for what. Once I set a container aside as the one which will hold the consecrated host, it becomes my ciborium. It is not made any differently than the ones I use for grooming. It becomes what I choose it to become.

When God comes to us in Christ, we become what he chooses us to become. It is not because we are made from better stuff than other people. It is his choice. It is grace. When we realize that we can stop looking down on others because of what God made us
and we can stop looking up to others simply because of what he made them. We are all part of the same body of Christ. We all have our gifts and our roles to play.

They may not be the roles we thought we had been assigned. I was in a production of Fiddler on the Roof and we came to the second to last scene, the one where the Jews learn that the Russians are making them leave their little village and indeed the country. The curtain opens and the stage is empty for a second. The actors are in the wings waiting for one actor to run onstage yelling for Golde and asking if she has seen Tevye, her husband. The minute he leaves the wings, the rest of us stream in from both sides, anxious over the news. It was a small part but it was necessary to get the scene going. One night the actor who was to lead things off and say the first line wasn't there. (It turned out he was outside smoking and missed the cue.) So two groups of actors were hiding in the wings looking at each other over an empty stage and frantically wondering where that actor was. Then it occurred to me that it didn't matter which of us ran onstage first and said the line, as long as someone did and got the scene rolling. So I ran out, said the line, everyone else came out and the play went on. It wasn't my part. But it had to be done. And it seemed to me on that night, while we were all standing around asking ourselves who would start the scene, that the only reasonable answer was “anybody.” And I was as good an anybody as anyone else.

A lot of following God is just listening for him and saying “yes” to what he asks us to do. It may be to speak to someone. Or just to listen to and comfort them. It may be set up a homeless shelter. Or to work in one. It may be to go into medicine. Or into music. It may be to go into the ordained ministry. Or to be a teacher. It may be to work with the poor. Or to raise funds for charity. It may be to go into public office. Or to hold those in public office to account. God wants people to represent him and do his work everywhere in the world and at all levels of society. But we don't know until we ask him. And we won't hear his answer unless we learn how to listen.

Not all of us have angels presenting the choice to us verbally, as Mary did. It might come through something a friend says. It might come from reading something that stimulates your curiosity, or seeing something that stirs a deep desire to rectify or improve a situation. It may come from hearing about a person accomplishing things that makes you want to emulate him or her. It may come from a verse of scripture that jumps off the page at you and rings in your ears and burns in your heart.

And if it is God speaking to you, don't worry about whether you've earned it. You haven't. You can't. Don't ask why God chose you. That fact that he has means you are the person to do it. He will equip you. He will guide you. He will give you what you need to do it through his grace. All you need to do is say “I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me according to your word.”

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