December 18, 2011
Scripture: Luke 1:26-38
How Can It Be?
Rev. Leanne S. Walt preaching
There were no questions asked. There was no decision to be made. There was no choice set before her. The announcement came to Aimee Mullins early in her life, when she was not more than one year old. The decree went out from her doctors that this baby girl would need to have both of her legs amputated below the knee. For, although God had formed all of the delicate, innermost parts of her body and God had knit this child together in her mother’s womb, as the Psalmist writes, God had left out her fibula bones. “How can this be?” her parents asked, if not out loud, then surely within the silence of their hearts. But there was no decision to be made. There was no choice set before this infant child.
Aimee spent her childhood trying to make her difference invisible, trying to fit into normal in an effort to ease others’ discomfort with her disability. She says it was on the Jersey Shore where she first learned to run really fast, sprinting from her towel into the water as quickly as possible so as to minimize the amount of time the other beachgoers could catch a glimpse of her glaringly white and fake-looking prosthetic legs.
Her transformation came on Easter Sunday when she was in high school. She was so excited to wear a sleeveless safari dress that she had bought to wear for this special occasion, the first thing she had ever bought that wasn’t on sale. She had saved her paper route money for months to invest in this beautiful safari print dress that was, in the early 90s the pinnacle of teenage style, I’m sure. She put on the dress that morning and feeling utterly glamorous and sophisticated, she walked downstairs where her father was waiting to take her and her brothers to church. Her father took one look at her and said, “You have to change.”
“Why? What do you mean? This is my fabulous new safari print dress.”
“You can see the knee joint in your leg when you walk,” he told her, “It’s not appropriate.”
But Aimee refused to change. For the first time in her life, she defied her father. She refused to hide something about herself that was true. She refused to be embarrassed about something so that other people could feel more comfortable. And, her refusal got her very, very grounded.
This was a turning point for Aimee and several years later when she was a student at Georgetown University, she started to realize how she had been limiting herself just as much as others had been, she started to realize that she did have a choice after all. She started reaching out to engineers, wax museum designers, prosthetic Hollywood makeup artists, and sculptors in order to design and form prosthetic legs that would allow her to run track and field. She made the decision that she wanted to be the fastest woman in the world on prosthetic legs.
Through her work with these engineers and artists, Aimee received woven carbon fiber prosthetic legs that gave her cheetah-like speed and with those legs she ran track and field at Georgetown against others who had sets of legs that naturally attached to their bodies and with those legs she set three world records in the 1996 Paralympics.
In most artistic representations of the famous and revered scene of the Annunciation, the angel Gabriel is kneeling at the feet of Mary, who is usually seated on some lavish throne and adorned in a spectacular blue cloak. In many of these images, Mary has a book in her hand or on her lap, as if when the angel came she was deeply engrossed in her studies. The angel is kneeling and extends an olive branch her way, awaiting Mary’s answer to his pronouncement that she is to become the mother of God. The time in between Gabriel’s appearance and Mary’s “yes” seems to stand still, as if the fate of the world hangs in the very space between this human and celestial creature.
Yet, these colorful, bold, and extravagant images make it easy to forget that the girl there in the picture is from a small village in Nazareth and has little experience of the world - with angels or men. And although historic memory and artistic rendering clothe her in blue, the most costly of all pigments in the ancient world, made from lapis lazuli, a semiprecious stone signifying wealth and royalty, Mary quite assuredly was not wearing blue when Gabriel arrived. A poor girl from Nazareth, Mary would have been wearing brown, white, or black linen cloth, the color of the dry Palestinian landscape.
These artists have taken the liberty of painting the illusion of privilege and choice into the Annunciation when in reality there was no question asked. There was no choice set before Mary. Gabriel never asked this sheltered peasant girl if she would like to become the mother of God. He announced to her that she will conceive in her womb and bear a son, and that she will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and he will be the King of Israel forever. 
“How can this be?” Mary asks the angel.
To some extent, perhaps, we too, live our lives with the illusion of privilege and choice that images of the Annunciation convey, setting goals and laying out plans for ourselves, imagining that we are in control of our own destiny. While in the process of planning for our destiny, both the horrible and wonderful transpire. Unexpected announcements break into our lives, angels unawares, bearing news of job loss, sudden illness, early retirement, unplanned pregnancy, and amputated limbs. “How could this be?” We cry out to God, angry that we have had no say these matters.
And, yet, if we look to Mary at such times, we realize that held within these holy and unforeseen annunciations of our lives is a choice. Although Gabriel does not pose an explicit question to her, Mary does have a say in the matter – whether to embrace this new life forming inside of her or to protect herself against it. When God reached out to her, she answered in the affirmative, with a sort of hopeful abandon; she said yes to the journey of bearing God in the world. She possessed a crazy willingness to follow when she didn’t at all know the way.
Despite how out of control we may feel at times, we, too, have a choice in the matters of our lives. We can decide to become angry and bitter with our situation or we can decide to be active and willing participants in a plan that we didn’t choose, giving ourselves up to God in hopeful abandon.
It is at these times we pray as my grandmother has taught me, for the serenity or sometimes even the sanity:
to accept the things we cannot change;
courage to change the things we can;
and the wisdom to know the difference.
Several years ago, Aimee Mullins was at a street fair in Times Square, NYC when she felt a tug on the back of her shirt. She turned around in the vast sea of people that only Times Square can accommodate and she recognized the 7 year old girl standing there, whom she had met at a speaking engagement a year prior. She remembered that this little girl had been born with a brittle bone disease that made her left leg 7 centimeters shorter than her right. She wore a brace and orthopedic shoes, which got her by but she wanted to be able to do more with her body.
After hearing Aimee share her story, she went home and googled “prosthetic legs” (as 6 year olds can now do) and she discovered hundreds of options for her new leg causing her to make the startling pronouncement to her parents and to her doctors that she wanted to get rid of her bad leg and wear a prosthetic.
Six months later, on this busy summer day in Times Square, time stood still as Aimee observed this little girl in all of her glory – glowing and unmistakably proud - adorned in red sequined Mary Jane shoes and showing off a bright pink left leg that she had hand picked.
As medieval theologian Meister Eckhart suggested, perhaps we are all meant to be mothers of God, allowing God to transform us from virgins who are unable to bear God in the world into creative agents for whom with God, “nothing is impossible.”
 Stories based on a segment of Moth Radio Hour 404 with Aimee Mullins: www.prx.org
 Dupre, Judith Full of Grace: Mary in art, faith, and life (82)
 Taylor, Barbara Brown, from The Minister’s Annual Manual For Preaching and Worship Planning 2011-2012 (St. Cloud, MN: Logos Productions Inc. 2011) 181
 Meditations with Meister Eckhart, Matthew Fox, ed. and trans. (Santa Fe, NM: Bear & Company, Inc. 1983) 74, 81
December 11, 2011
Scripture: John 1:6-8, 19-28
Who Are You?
Rev. Leanne S. Walt preaching
I’ll never know the name of the woman who made it. It came to me by way of bus route 217, Quincy Center via Beale Street. A woman I know rides this route to work and back each day and has for fifteen years. It’s not a lonely ride, she has told me. She has a riding buddy, a friend whom she met some years back on bus 217 through an impromptu conversation shared over a pair of knitting needles and a ball of yarn. They have a lot in common, my friend and her riding buddy, they’re both in their mid-70s, they ride the same bus to work everyday, and they share a mutual love for knitting. They have a lot in common, my friend and her riding buddy, except that her riding buddy is blind.
When this woman who I know called me last week to tell me that she had heard the news of my expecting through her church in Wollaston, she told me that her riding buddy had knit my baby a blanket.
It came to me wrapped in a colorful gift bag, pinks and greens and blues and whites. When I reached inside and pulled out the blanket the intricate and careful handiwork of a knitting master was revealed. The touch and feel and concentration required for a person with no sight to create something so detailed and beautiful is inconceivable to me.
I’ll never know the name of the woman who made it. She wishes to remain anonymous to me. My friend assures me that her riding buddy finds joy in knitting and joy in giving her creations away, particularly at the occasion of new life being brought into the world.
I wondered if I could ever toil over something so carefully for so many hours and create something so magnificent and not demand to be recognized for my labor, for my effort, for my skill, for my gift.
* * * *
Several Christmas’ ago, my parents neighbor gave them a copy of a beautiful book entitled Churches, by a relative of theirs named Judith Dupré. The book is quite large and its cover opens right down the middle, as do the doors of most churches. Inside are breathtaking images and descriptions of hundreds of the world’s greatest architectural creations, from the Pantheon in Rome to Trinity Episcopal Church in Copley Square.
As I began flipping through the pages of this book, I noticed that the names of most of the architects and builders of these prodigious works are not known. Page after page I read, Builder: unknown, Builder: unknown. The Gothic cathedrals of Europe took hundreds of years to build and yet, in large part the hands and minds responsible for their magnificent existence are not known. For the men who devoted their lives to climbing scaffolding and laying stone at what would be the site of Reims Cathedral, Notre-Dame, Westminster Abbey, or the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, Italy, they would not live to see the completion of their own life’s work and their names would not be credited as having contributed to its creation. For them, it was enough to know that perhaps their grandchildren or even their grandchildren’s children might one day walk into and worship God in the awe-inspiring structure that their mind envisioned and hands constructed.
In the book, Judith Dupré recalls a legend that one of the builders of a great cathedral was carving a tiny bird inside a beam that would eventually be covered up by a roof and someone came along and asked him, “Why are you spending so much time building something that no one will ever see?”
And he responded, “Because God sees.”
* * * *
“Who are you?” is the question that the priests and Levites from Jerusalem ask John the Baptist when they hear his testimony of the coming of Christ.
Instead of answering in the affirmative, John responds, “I am not the Messiah.”
Still confused, these men ask him, “Who, then, are you Elijah?”
“I am not.” John answers.
They continue to question him, “Are you the prophet?”
“Who are you?” They ask him again.
John skirts their question and begins reciting a verse from the book of Isaiah,
“I am the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness,
Make straight the way of the Lord.”
These religious authorities want him to say who he is, but all he will say is who he is not, all he will do is quote some long ago prophet, all he will do is tell of the one who is coming far greater than he, all he will do is point to Jesus.
From 1921 until his death in 1968, Karl Barth kept a copy of Matthias Grunewald’s painting “The Crucifixion” hanging above his desk where he produced some of the greatest theological writings of the twentieth century, including Church Dogmatics and The Epistle to the Romans. In fact, to this day, a reproduction of Grunewald’s medieval masterpiece is kept over Barth’s desk where it is displayed on the main floor of the Barbour Library at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
The painting portrays a dark scene at the center of which is Jesus on the cross, his head, wrapped in a crown of thorns droops low, his bleeding hands and feet nailed to the cross. To the right of Jesus is his mother Mary, and with her Mary Magdalene. To his left is John the Baptist with a long brown beard and wrapped in red cloth. Of all that is depicted in this image, Barth’s interest was always with the figure of John. John whose arm, bent at the elbow, protrudes from his cloak and whose index finger is distinctly pointing toward the bleeding wound on Jesus’ side.
In Church Dogmatics Barth writes, “Could anyone point away from himself more impressively and completely?” (p.112). For Barth, this image was the visual expression of his faith and theology, a constant reminder that our life and our work is not in and of itself righteous, worthy, or credible. Our labors, our efforts, our skills, our gifts should be used to point toward God rather than to inflate our own sense of pride or self-importance. John exemplified such witness to Christ, devoting his life to pointing toward Christ.
As the gospel story goes, John the Baptist was arrested just as Jesus was beginning his ministry and ultimately beheaded so that his head could be served on a platter before King Herod’s wife. John the Baptist gave his life to building something that he would never see completed. Taking no credit for himself in the construction of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, but offering all the glory to Jesus.
Of all the lessons we can learn from John in this season of advent where he is so readily visible in the scriptures, how to serve as such a witness to Christ on this earth may be among the greatest. Utterly selfless, humble, and sincere.
For all of those times you’ve felt unappreciated, invisible, taken for granted - for those things that you have done for which you will never be thanked, for those of your works that will never be credited to you, for those creations made by your hands that will never bare your name - whether they be simple gestures of kindness toward a friend, care toward a child or grandchild, fixing something broken in this old, sacred building, knitting a prayer shawl, or giving a gift to a child in need at Christmas, rest assured that God has seen. And, rest assured that God revels in the fact that you have not done these things for the sake of your own glory or satisfaction but as witness to God’s kingdom on earth.
 Dupré, Judith, Churches (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2001) 32-33
 Davidson, James E., “Karl Barth and Mathias Grunewald: The Continuing Life of a Painting at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary,” in Panorama, vol. XLV, no.3 , Spring 2006
November 27, 2011
Scripture: Mark 13: 24-37
Rev. Leanne Walt preaching
Here we stand, once again, on the first Sunday of Advent at the beginning of our retelling of the Christian story. Themes of hope, joy, peace, and love woven throughout our telling, wrapped around the opposing reality of our world. We work from strands of memory and history that have encompassed the telling of the Christ story since the days of those who stood on the Palestinian hillside in the early shadows of the cross. We grab onto these strands of memory and history braided together and offered to us in the rope of our faith, running from Gethsemane to Golgotha, it having endured the torments of the cross and exile, slavery and famine, holocaust and war, segregation and poverty. We hold to a rope far stronger than all of these and through it we both receive and offer a Word of hope. Today we light a candle in opposition to the despair of the world and we begin to retell the Christian story.
It would seem that on such an occasion our retelling would begin from the beginning, that we would read a passage from Scripture in which John the Baptist foretells the coming of Christ or maybe we would hear the prophetic words from Isaiah of the one calling out, “Prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God” or that, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”
But while manger scenes, wreaths, and garland already adorn the streets and shopping malls with good tidings, we come to church this morning to hear the adult Jesus telling some crazy apocalyptic story about the end of the world and the second coming – about a time when heaven will quake and stars will fall out of the sky – and yelling at us to “Keep Awake!” lest we miss this disturbing doomsday scene. No sugarplums or candy canes for us fine church-going folk this morning…not yet at least.
As strange and out of context as this vision may seem it does remind us that the work of Christ in this world was not complete with his birth, or his ministry, or his death, or his resurrection. There’s more to come. The Christian story continues to unfold in this world and it doesn’t necessarily begin or end in the manger or the empty tomb.
Someone recently interviewed me for an academic paper they were writing on leadership. When we sat down together to talk he asked me if I believed in such a thing as utopia – or an ideal society. I said, “Well, I don’t know if I believe in utopia, per say, but I believe in the kingdom of God prevailing in this world. I believe those words that Jesus taught us to pray that, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy shall be done on earth as it is in heaven.’ If I didn’t believe that we are working toward bringing the hope, peace, joy, and love that Christ proclaimed and embodies into this world in the very realist of ways, my ministry would be in vain and my faith would be hollow.”
As we gather on this first Sunday of Advent to retell the Christian story, themes of hope, joy, peace, and love abound despite the opposing reality of our world. We do so with Jesus reminding us in this snippet from Mark’s Gospel, of the already/not yet quality of the divine drama in which we live. Already Jesus has established the means by which we are drawn into relationship with God through his incarnation, but not yet do we live in complete communion with God. Already the kingdom of God is evident in the person of Jesus, but it is not yet established in the world. Today we gather to light the Christmas candle of hope in opposition to the world’s despair, to offer this our prayer that, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
E.B. White voiced a similar prayer where he wrote, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
We know that the baby in the manger did not herald in utopia or world peace. Pain did not end nor did war or hate or exclusion. But we wait during these days and weeks because we hold to the hope that such a kingdom of our God who had the power to break into this world in flesh and bone indeed has the power to reign on earth.
Like ours, Jesus’ world was far from utopic – he lived in a tumultuous time. The Judeans had battled Babylonian, then Persian, Greek and now Roman oppressors. The vision of the end-times that he offers in Mark’s Gospel is one that is born out of a tradition of such prophetic pronouncements in the face of social and political unrest. And Jesus warns us, in the midst of suffering and oppression, keep awake to the presence of God in the world. And so we gather on this first Sunday of Advent to retell the Christian story, themes of hope, joy, peace, and love abound despite the opposing reality of our world. And we are tasked with the question - how will we be a part of rewriting the story of our world with such strokes of hope, joy, peace, and love?
Right now in this country and in this world of economic instability and inequality there are those who believe they are striving to bring about the kingdom in this world. Whether or not you agree that we are a part of the other 99% or whether or not you understand their objective or whether or not you believe they understand their objective. Whether it infuriates you that they are speaking up and camping out or it infuriates you that little is being done in response, it is, nonetheless, a movement that is taking hold in our country at this very moment among a people who sense deep deficiency in this world. They are, in a sense, keeping awake and working toward what they understand to be the establishment of the kingdom on earth; of a place and a time when justice will roll down like water, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:24).
Like the black preacher from Alabama who offered a dream amidst segregation, the Indian lawyer who offered a word of non-violent resistance amidst oppression, the German theologian who spoke justice amidst a holocaust, the Albanian nun who spoke a word of healing amidst the poor, sick, and dying. Jesus urges us to speak a word of hope in a world that offers a different story, to continue to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is to tell the Christian/Christmas story.
Right in the middle of the apocalyptic scene that Jesus paints in the gospel, he plants a tree. A fig tree. In a story about the end times, Jesus plants a tree and says that, “as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near” (Mark 13:28). In this doomsday story, Jesus plants a tree of beginnings, of new life, of hope.
The beautiful story, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, chronicles the difficult life of a young girl named Francie growing up in Brooklyn in the early 20th century. With an alcoholic father and a mother who never has enough money to make ends meet, Francie faces one obstacle after another and has little reason to believe there’s a way out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
In the middle of this despairing story, the author plants a tree. There is one tree in Francie’s yard that was neither a pine nor a hemlock. It has pointed leaves that radiated from the bough, making a tree t looked like a lot of opened green umbrellas. Some people in her neighborhood called it the Tree of Heaven. No matter where its seed fell, it made a tree that struggled to reach the sky. It grew in boarded-up lots and out of neglected rubbish heaps and it was the only tree that grew out of cement. It grew lushly, but only in the poor tenements districts.
Every Sunday afternoon in the summer Francie would sit on the fire escape of the tenement building where she lived and she would imagine that she was living in this Tree of Heaven.
We are a people in need of hope, planted right in the middle of the tenement districts of the world and of our lives. Hope so strong that it grows out of cement and boarded up lots and rubbish heaps. Hope so strong that it can turn a cross into resurrection and a baby in a manger into salvation for the world.
Advent is our tree of heaven, waking us up to the seeds of hope that we are to plant in this world. In the manger God plants a tree of new beginnings, of new life, of new hope amidst a world that otherwise tells a different story.
 Copenhaver, Martin in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 1, ed. David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, (25)