How the story gets told

Ten years ago last April, I was in the labor and delivery room with my wife as she gave birth to our firstborn.  I was watching the monitor that recorded the contractions as they came and went.  I cut the umbilical cord.  I was generally supportive.  But in the way the story should be told about that day, I am little more than a bit player.  As the due date came near, I remember some of the older men in my congregation talking about their memories of their own children being born.  Fifty years earlier, it wasn’t just that men weren’t expected to be in the delivery room; they flat out weren’t allowed there.  One guy told me about the golf game he played while his first son was born.


I find it interesting then, that when Matthew begins a story with “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way,” the bulk of the story is focused on Joseph, the guy who had “had no marital relations” with Mary, whose family lineage required the very inconvenient journey to Bethlehem in the first place, and who almost certainly passed the birthing duties on to a midwife.  Matthew is keen in making sure that his readers know how Jesus fulfills all kinds of prophecies about the Messiah, but the one he selects from Isaiah 7 about a virgin who will bear a son seems to be much better handled in Luke’s account of the Nativity of our Lord.  This is especially interesting given that it is Matthew who includes the names of four female ancestors of Jesus in his genealogy, and Luke names none.

How stories get told is maybe more important than the story itself.  The gist of the narrative may not change – a Messiah is born under questionable circumstances – but the details matter.  Sure, it is helpful to understand the cultural pressures under which Mary and Joseph lived, but why only tell that part of the story and relegate the birth narrative, much expanded by Luke, who likely shared a common source, to a passing thought in a sentence more focused on whether or not Mary and Jospeh had sex while she was pregnant?  Matthew clearly has a design in mind as he three times highlights dreams that Joseph has as well as the vision of the Wise Men.  God’s hand is at work in the story, be it in fulfilling prophecy or orchestrated the movement of the key players, but still I wonder, what about Mary?

I don’t have any answers for you today, dear reader, just things to ponder as you approach some very familiar stories told in very intentional ways.  How will you tell the Good News of the Messiah’s birth?  Will it be in the lofty language of John?  Will it include the powerful image of Linus dropping his blanket when Luke’s angels say “be not afraid”?  Will it feature Joseph’s dreams and God’s handiwork?  Will all three make an appearance?  How the story gets told is important.  So, pay attention to the details.

The Power of Lazarus – Monday in Holy Week

There are any number of reasons why the religious powers-that-be wanted, and felt they needed, to get rid of Jesus.  He was preaching an apocalyptic message that the Kingdom of God was at hand.  Given the political pressure cooker that was Roman occupied Jerusalem during the Passover Festival at the start of the Common Era, the Pharisees were certainly not thrilled to have an apocalyptic messianic figure roaming around town.  He was challenging the status quo by healing on the sabbath, preaching a stringent ethic, and suggesting the Temple system was corrupt.  Nobody likes having their authority questioned, no least, religious leaders.  Perhaps most importantly, Jesus was drawing huge crowds – larger even than John the Baptist had – and popularity is a dangerous thing.

John tells us that despite all of these yellow flags, it wasn’t until a fateful day in Bethany that the Pharisees ultimately decided that Jesus had to go.  Lazarus, who had been dead four days, was brought back to life.  Not with laying on of hands or even really through prayer, but simply by way of three words, “Lazarus, come out.”  As a result of this miracle, many put their faith in Jesus.  Suddenly, all the yellow flags became red.  In their distress, the Pharisees exclaimed, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come destroy both our holy place and our nation.”

Thus was the power of Lazarus’ healing, which is why it is so important that in John, Holy Week begins at the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Martha and Mary.  This family, with whom Jesus had a long and beloved relationship, which had likely bank rolled much of his ministry, and which was often home base during his trips to Jerusalem, was so powerful that the raising of Lazarus from the dead couldn’t be explained away like Jesus’ other life-giving miracles.  No, this one was different.  This one required the death of not just Jesus, but of Lazarus [again], as well.


It is the raising of Lazarus from the dead that makes Mary’s anointing of Jesus so powerful.  All of the love that had been shared between Jesus and this family was poured out in 300 denarii worth of pure nard.  )If you’ve ever smelled spike nard, you’ll know that its aroma is strong, and not very pleasant to the modern olfactory senses, so that I feel comfortable saying the following.)  Not only that, but all the fear, misunderstanding, and anger that existed between the Pharisees and Jesus was poured out as well.

The Gospel lesson for today ends with these ominous words, “So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.”  By way of Lazarus’ resurrection, the tide had turned.  There was no going back to Jesus being a small-time Rabbi from a sleepy little fishing village.  He was the it thing – and it was out of fear of his popularity that the final plans went into motion.

The importance of proclamation


I wish there was a YouTube video I could share with you, but as of yet, there is not.  You’ll have to just trust me that the Betty Carr Pulkingham setting of the Mary’s Magnificat is legit and that if your congregation isn’t singing Mary’s Song this week, your worship will be sorely lacking.  If you have a hymnal handy, you should pull it out and open it to S247.  If you do, you’ll not that Pulkingham uses the opening verse of Mary’s famous hymn of joyful hope as an antiphon, which is just a fancy church word for a refrain.  It is set as a canon in two parts.  The way the setting is written, there is a certain highlight on the opening words of Mary in the ICET translation of the original Greek text.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

The focus of Pulkingham’s antiphon is on Mary’s proclamation, which is interesting, given that the title Magnificat is Latin for the Greek word that Luke’s gives Mary’s Song, that is better translated at “magnify.”  I haven’t been able to locate the ICET’s working documents on the Magnificat translation, so I cannot be sure why they made the switch from magnify to proclaim, but I’m certain they didn’t do it without careful consideration.

While I take great delight in the old version, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” there seems to be something important about this newer version’s attention to proclamation.  Mary’s intent, it seems, isn’t simply to shine a light on the greatness of God so that she and Elizabeth can experience it, but rather, her ministry as the God bearer is to show forth the greatness of God for all the world to see.  By proclaiming that God has looked with favor on an unwed mother and that God is already in the process of turning the world upside down: casting down the mighty, scattering the proud, lifting up the lowly, and filling the hungry with good things; Mary is shouting from the rooftops the Good News that will come to completion in the life, death, and resurrection of her Son.

As we read and/or sing the Song of Mary this Sunday, mere hours before we light the Christ candle and rejoice in the birth of our Lord and King, it might be worthwhile to spend a few moments pondering the importance of proclamation, both in Mary’s Magnificat and in our own lives as disciples of the soon-to-be newborn King.

A comfort in perplexity


The Annunciation by Liviu Dumitrescu

Among the many prayers that are said during The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage in the Episcopal tradition, this one came to mind as I read the familiar story of the Annunciation: “Give them wisdom and devotion in the ordering of their common life, that each may be to the other a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy.”  The word “perplex” is not one that gets a lot of use these days, and it is a word for which very few of us have a working definition.  It means something deeper than confusion.  To be perplexed is to be totally knocked off kilter by something; to be completely baffled, mystified, and thrown off balance.

In the marriage rite, this word makes sense because life will inevitably throw us off balance.  When entering into a covenant to share life with another human being, it must be assumed that there will be moments when one or the other or both of you will find yourself in a state of perplexity, needing desperately someone to come alongside and help you find your footing.  It might come in the doctor’s office, the boardroom, or by way of a phone call in the middle of the night, but it seems likely that for everyone, a moment of perplexity will come.  So, we pray that the couple might serve the other in those moments as a counselor, one who will offer wisdom beyond the immediate circumstances of life, in order to rebuild the foundations that are crumbling.

While I think that role of counselor is important, and I get that the author of this prayer needed comfort for the antithesis of sorrow, I really think the best role any of us can take on during someone else’s perplexing time is that of comforter, and I think the angel Gabriel is the archetype of a comforter in perplexity.  The Greek word translated as “perplexed” carries within it even deeper meanings of fear and upset.  Mary wasn’t just confused by the reality of an angel standing in her room telling her that she is favored and that the Lord is with her, but she is downright scared, anxious, confused, and totally taken aback.

Rather than working to counsel Mary by offering her suggestions as to how she might overcome her state of perplexity, Gabriel takes on the mantel of comforter with the words that angels always bring to those to whom they are made manifest, “Don’t be afraid.”  He then calls her by name, an uncommon occurrence for women in the Scriptures.  There is something reassuring about hearing one’s name be said aloud.  In calling her Mary, Gabriel assures this young bride-to-be that she is seen and valued.  Even as she feels the ground crumbling around her, Gabriel assured Mary that her core identity is secure.  She is, and will always be, even as she will soon become the Theotokos.  Gabriel then reiterates her state of blessedness, being favored by God. Literally, Gabriel says that she has been found in the grace of God.

Life can be perplexing at times.  It is good to have close companions who can serve as a source of God’s comfort in those moments, and it is a holy assignment to be asked to be a comforter in perplexity.

Our Mary Story – Saint Paul’s 90th Anniversary Sermon

You can listen to yesterday’s sermon over on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.

On December 20th, 1924, in the home of Mrs. J.H. Shepherd, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Foley, Alabama was founded.  We can assume that some prayers were offered, but in good Episcopalian fashion, we hear nothing about that in the official record.  Instead the two sentence account of that first gathering reads like the minutes of a short vestry meeting, listing only the officers elected: A.A. Rich, Warden; Dr. John Stark, Treasurer; E.D. Hanson, Secretary; W.W. Manning, and E.A. Smith, Trustees.  The Rev. Joseph R. Walker or Mr. Walker, as they called their priests in those days, was the priest in charge of mission outposts in Foley, Daphne, Robertsdale, Loxley, Bay Minette, Flomaton, Atmore, and Brewton.  As you might assume, clergy leadership in these early days was hard to come by, and the Episcopal Church in Baldwin and Escambia Counties was necessarily built on a foundation of strong lay leadership, which has sustained this congregation throughout the highs and lows of the last nine decades.

As the story goes, Saint Paul’s got its name from none other than Mr. John Burton Foley himself.  His children attended a boarding school in New Hampshire called Saint Paul’s, and Mr. Foley was so impressed with Saint Paul’s School that he suggested the newly founded mission in the town that bore his name should have Saint Paul as its patron saint as well.  As I read over the lessons for this week and thought about the history of this parish I began to realize that though Saint Paul’s is a good and appropriate name for this community, it could just as easily been named Saint Mary’s as for 90 years now, The Episcopal Church in Foley has lived into Mary’s model of faithfulness: seeking to share the love of God with the wider world.  Of course, the name Saint Mary’s would have never flown in low-church, Protestant, evangelical South Alabama.  Even hundreds of years after the Reformation, churches formed in response to the excesses of medieval Roman Catholicism aren’t quite sure how to handle the Mother of our Lord.

At times, the Blessed Virgin Mary has been elevated to near godlike status in Roman Catholicism.  In the peak of the Middle Ages some theologians began to speak not of the Trinity, but of a Quaternity of God: Father, Mother, Son, and Holy Ghost.  In response, we Protestants, and yes Anglicans are included in that broad title, have shied away from Mariology, which is unfortunate because there is much we can learn from the example of Mary, especially in Luke’s Gospel where she is lifted up as the pre-eminent example of what it looks like to be a faithful follower of God.  In her conversation with the Angel Gabriel, we see Mary coming to terms with what it means to trust in God fully: a struggle that anyone who decides to follow Jesus will encounter.

The story begins in the backwater, nothing town of Nazareth in Galilee.  Mary is a young woman of maybe twelve or thirteen, betrothed to a carpenter named Joseph.  As she awaits the return of the bridegroom who will take her to his father’s house, Mary finds herself face to face with the Archangel Gabriel.  He begins with words of comfort and blessing, “Greetings favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  Mary is perplexed and she debates within herself what sort of greeting this might be.  Mary is wise beyond her years here.  Clearly she is being buttered up for something by the divine-being standing before her.  “What’s going on here?” she must wonder, “What is about to happen?”

It is in that moment that Gabriel speaks the most common words that angels speak, “Be not afraid.”  Notice that all of this has happened before Mary has committed to anything, before even Gabriel as begun to share with her the good news of God’s plan for salvation.  Mary is favored by God just where she is, just how she is.  She has been offered the grace of God, and quite frankly, she’s not sure what to do with it. Often, we aren’t either.

Our story begins in the early days of what was once a backwater, nothing town called Foley in Baldwin County, Alabama.  By 1924, the city had been incorporated for almost a decade, the railroad had been transporting crops for nearly twenty years, and the city had a school, several churches, and even its own newspaper.  Yet for a small group of Episcopalians, there was still something missing.  There was already an Episcopal congregation in Bon Secour, but getting to worship at Saint Peter’s wasn’t easy, and because the priest came to Bon Secour from Mobile by boat, which was very much weather dependent, you could never be sure if there’d actually be services when you got there.  So Mrs. Shepherd along with the Holks, Wenzels, Mannings, Heltons, and several others petitioned Bishop McDowell for a missionary priest to serve them.  God had found favor with these faithful Episcopalians long before Saint Paul’s was founded, and in response to that grace, and despite some bouncing around, meeting in the Agricultural Building at Foley High School, the Odd Fellows Hall and the Masonic Temple, they found ways to be the Church in South Alabama and on May 22nd, 1928, the cornerstone of the current chapel building was laid.

Sensing Mary’s trepidation, the Archangel Gabriel implored her to not be afraid, and then laid out before her a plan for the salvation of the world that was as amazing as it was hard to believe.  “How can this be?” was Mary’s response.

“Nothing is impossible with God.”

“How can this be?” has been a popular question in this congregation as well.  Finances have been an issue here since the very beginning.  It is only thanks to the generous donation of several lots at the corner of Pine and Orchid Streets by John Foley that Saint Paul’s was even able to consider building a place to call home, but it took raffles, the sale of homemade Easter baskets and even a quilt or two to raise enough money to actually build the church.  Even then, the building had to be built as inexpensively as possible.  The bricks, which were fired in Bon Secour, were thought to be of such poor quality that that many thought they simply would not hold up, and to keep the sewer bill paid, the Boller and Rich families sponsored card parties.  Through it all, and despite a few pretty crummy priests along the way, Saint Paul’s has faithfully lived out the Gospel call to love God and love our neighbor.  Like the Virgin Mary, there have often been doubts, but the steadfast love of God, through which nothing is impossible, has continued to sustain this Church for 90 years.

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Despite her fears and doubts, Mary responded with faithfulness.  Through Mary, God’s plan for salvation came to fulfillment.  In Mary we find an example of faithfulness despite the odds and a call to follow the Lord no matter the cost.

As we look forward to the next 90 years for Saint Paul’s in Foley, my prayer is for continued faithfulness.  There is a tendency in the church to look back on our past and think longingly about how things used to be, but instead, I hope that we will remember that God is continuing to call us forward, continuing to propel us out of these walls and into the world to share the good news of Jesus Christ in word and deed.  Let us never forget the faithfulness of Mary and the faithfulness of our founding mothers and fathers who followed God’s call, took risks, tried new things, and by the grace of God were able to accomplish infinitely more than they could have ever imagined.  Let it be with us as you have promised, O Lord, and bless us with faithfulness and grace in the years to come.  Amen.

How can this be?

If I had to pick the one place where my life intersects that of the Virgin Mary’s, it would be in her initial response to the prophecy of the Angel Gabriel, “How can this be?”  For those of us who strive to follow Jesus on an ongoing basis, there will be moments when it feels like God is pushing us in a new direction and often our initial response is to dig in our heels and say, “I’m not ready.”  Over the last 12 years, starting with my call to ordained ministry on a cold February weekend in Pittsburgh, I’ve had the opportunity to share and hear shared spiritual autobiographies of all shapes and sizes.  One constant in each of those stories is in that moment when God comes calling, the initial response is “Who me?” or “I’m not worthy.” or “How can it be?”

Scholars tell us that this is consistent with the pattern of Old Testament call narratives which include a greeting (1:28), a startled reaction (1:29), an exhortation not to fear (1:30), a divine commission (1:31-33), an objection (1:34), a reassurance (1:35), and the offer of a confirming sign (1:36-37). Moses objected to God in the burning bush, asking God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?”  Isaiah balked crying out, “I’m a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips.”  It is not uncommon for human beings to trust more in their own shortcoming than in the Lord’s ability to provide infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

Thankfully, the Lord is gracious, full of compassion, slow to anger, and of great kindness.  Mary’s hesitation doesn’t doom her and all humanity to the dustbin of our own sinfulness.  Instead, “nothing is impossible for God.”  God’s faithfulness outweighs even our deepest doubts and fears, if we’ll just let God in.  I should know, for it is through God’s faithfulness and despite my own objections that I’ve ended up an Episcopal Priest serving in Foley, Alabama.  Thanks be to God.

That Greeting

The Angel Gabriel said to Mary, “Greetings favored one!  The Lord is with you.”  And Mary was much perplexed by his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.  Mary may have been young, but she was wise beyond her years to be perplexed and full of wonder at the words of Gabriel.  As if seeing an Angel appear before you wouldn’t be frightening enough, this one begins with words of praise and comfort.  Clearly she was being buttered up for something, and so Mary was perplexed and full of wonder.

More than that, and perhaps more accurate to the Greek text, we might say she was troubled and argued within herself at what kind of greeting this might be.  Certainly Mary was asking herself, “What’s going on here?  What is about to happen?”  It is then that Gabriel speaks the classic greeting of the Angels, “Be not afraid,” and the rest, as they say, is history.  But I’m still struck by that greeting.  It is a powerful word from God to this young woman from Nowhere, Israel.

“Greetings favored one.”  Before any request is made of Mary.  Before she ascents to be the Mother of our Lord.  Before anything else, Mary is favored by God.  In all the hoopla over the Blessed Virgin Mary, it is easy to forget that what makes Mary the prototype of our faith isn’t that she gave birth to the Second Person of the Trinity – none of us will have that chance – but that she was a recipient of God’s grace, just like the rest of us.  She was offered the grace of God as “favored one” and everything that followed happened in response to that grace.

You might not see the Angel Gabriel standing in your living room, and you most likely won’t be asked to carry Jesus 2.0 in your womb, but every one of us has the opportunity to respond to God’s grace-filled greeting in loving service.