Mr. Brandon Smee
Postulant for Priesthood
Episcopal Diocese of New Jersey
I’ve observed a pattern among Episcopalians: if you poll a room of us, you’ll likely find that the majority come from another tradition. I myself grew up in a church where the feast we’re celebrating tonight, the Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, was totally unknown. In that Wesleyan denomination, Mary was a bit of a problem. She was seen as a root of idolatry and all sorts of theological shenanigans. My disposition toward Mary only worsened in college when my non-denominational church took me to the streets to convert people away from traditions that lift up her name in prayer. Yet, in the years since taking my first steps into the broader Christian tradition here at St. Mary’s, I have come to know her not as something to avoid, but as a blessing to embrace.
Tonight we enter into Mary’s conception. In our church calendar one can find three kinds of feasts. Some celebrate holy people whose lives revealed and still reveal the person of Jesus. Others center ideas that ground our doctrine of who Jesus is and how he saves us. And still others recall key moments in salvation history and call us to participate in the reality of God’s saving work. This feast does all three. First, it remembers Mary, the Blessed Virgin, mother of Jesus our Savior. Second, for many Western Chrisitans, it celebrates a doctrine which explains how Mary was set apart to bear and raise the Christ. And third, it marks a key moment in salvation history and invites us to encounter it in holy time.
Despite popular misunderstandings, this feast does not commemorate the conception of Jesus, but instead it bends time back to the conception of Mary. Tradition holds that Mary’s conception was miraculous. St. Anne and St. Joachim, Mary’s parents, were unable to have children. Anne, like the Old Testament Hannah, mother of Samuel, cried out to the Lord for a child, promising to dedicate it to God. The Lord answered her prayer, and she miraculously conceived. With a silent and invisible hand, God gives life to all people, but, in Mary’s case, God openly intervened for a holy purpose. On one level, Mary’s conception manifests God’s mercy to Anne and Joachim. Yet God intervenes not just for Mary’s parents, but for all creation, as Mary’s conception marks the moment in the human story where the gloom of night begins to kindle with the light of a new, rising sun.
As Gabriel announces to Mary in our Gospel text, God favors her for a purpose. The Father’s will is for her to carry the eternal Son, and more than that, to raise the child Jesus into the person of Christ. And when the angel says: “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” he discloses a favor that precedes the Messiah’s presence in her womb, a reality that goes back to her beginning. From Mary’s conception, she is the condition for Jesus’ coming and messiahship, the occasion for God’s gracious action in history. In that moment, the Almighty set her apart as an ark for the Holy Spirit’s work. God’s purposes are from everlasting, and Mary’s conception is the manifestation in time of God’s eternal purpose to bring Christ into the world and to raise up a savior. In her beginning salvation and new creation draw near.
In the story of the original creation in Genesis, we read how our first parents became alienated from God and found enmity with the serpent who tempted them. The fall of Adam and Eve represents the state of all humanity, equipped with all the knowledge of good and evil but powerless to find our Creator, and, when the Lord of Life finds us, unable to bear the holy presence without fear. Hiding ourselves from the Hand that formed us, humankind adds sin to sin until it pervades our world like carbon suffusing the atmosphere. In this condition we groan for the world to be renewed. Mary, in the midst of this, is the beginning of a new creation. This is why the church has called her the new Eve. The original Eve sinned first and then Adam fell; the new Eve comes first and bears the new, sinless Adam. The first Eve was destined to be the mother of all living; the new Eve is the mother of Life itself. And while the first Eve was clothed with animal skins that suffered corruption, the new Eve is clothed with the sun and crowned with the stars of a new world. Mary’s conception reverses the subjugation of women in the name of Eve’s sin and elevates all womankind in the favor God pours out on her. In her the brokenness of all humanity is mended. Where in the story of our first parents and the serpent we hear the finality of God’s “NO” to sin and estrangement from humanity, in Mary’s conception we hear still and small God’s yes to holy love and intimacy, a “YES” that resounds in every people and nation in Christ.
In Mary, God purposes to come near to us in Jesus Christ. Her beginning is the penultimate step of Christ’s divine descent. Here at her conception is the promise of the New Testament in embryonic form. In her the stump of Jesse, King David’s line, buds and prepares to bloom. In her sounds the last gasp of a doomed world before the new breath of redemption. In her the running waters of prophecy join in one mighty stream. Divine favor pours into the world through this one woman.
Mary’s conception reveals that God’s grace and mercy are not locked up in heaven, but embodied here on earth. The Holy One sheds the light of grace on Anne’s womb so that grace itself might come to life in Mary’s. Mary’s conception is unlike any other. As Gabriel says, she is favored to be the life that brings the Savior into the world and to raise him into the full stature of his calling. The Holy and Living One comes through for us in a thing too small for our eyes to see, yet so great that its consequences thunder through the years. All our hopes flow through God’s gracious intervention in Mary’s beginning.
The Virgin Mary’s conception is unlike any other, and yet it is also just like all others. In the silent, unseen working of God’s hand we each find favor at our beginnings. The Holy One purposed for Mary to be the mother of Jesus, and there is a purpose for each of us in Christ which God foreknew even when we were conceived. The powers of this world presume to have their own ends for us, using us to realize their selfish ambitions, discarding us when we exhaust our utility. But there remains a purpose for us from on high, a calling we hear when the Word of God transforms our hearts, a favor that marks us in the waters of baptism. As Revelation 12 says, we all are Mary’s children. If we choose to receive our maternal inheritance, we also let our bodies become temples of the Holy Spirit, spaces where Jesus comes to dwell. God is working the new creation through each of us with a purpose that goes back to our beginning. And although we come from many roads and beginnings to this holy feast, we find here the mother of our favor, for we have found God’s favor in her. Amen.
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Mr. Brandon Smee
St. Mary's Episcopal Church
O send out thy light and thy truth that they may lead us and bring us to thy holy hill and to thy dwelling, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
With just a word, a glance, a fumble, or a gesture, any moment can quickly become awkward. Like many people, I try to avoid awkwardness, making sure I say the right thing and offer as little offense as possible. So it strikes me when some willingly sail straight into discomfort and say the awkward word that has to be said. There are moments when there is no other way to bring out the truth but through awkwardness. Jesus, it seems, knew this. In our Gospel passage today, Our Lord embraces the awkward to reveal the true humility of God and to reveal the Son who comes down from heaven for us.
Our passage in Luke starts with Jesus in the house of a leader of the Pharisees. It’s the sabbath meal, and all eyes are on him. Things quickly become awkward. As people are taking their seats around the table, Jesus begins to criticize them for where they choose to sit. In a parable, he warns them that those who take seats of honor will be brought low when someone higher comes. On the other hand, the host will recognize those who take the lowest seats and put them in places of honor for all to see. Then, Jesus turns to his host and blasts his choice of guests. In a second parable he charges the one throwing a feast not to invite friends, relatives, or rich neighbors who can offer repayment. Instead, he admonishes them to invite the poor and disabled, who in the economic realities of the first century can offer nothing in return. For inviting the poor, he says, one will be repaid at the “resurrection of the righteous.”
So Christ in parables chastises the guests for where they choose to sit and the host for whom he chooses to invite. Is Christ too proud not to steal the spotlight at the table? I don’t think so. Instead this awkward encounter reveals something of Christ’s humility. In the discomfort, Jesus entrusts himself to the host and his guests. The parables he tells them are more than practical advice about how to attend and host dinners, and they are also more than proverbs showing us how to perform humility. They reveal who Christ is, the very humility of God. Because of this they are deeper than their surface suggests.
But if we do read the parables at surface level, we might get a false sense of what humility is. On its face, the first parable could seem to teach us to lower ourselves artificially to seek validation from others. And taking the second at face value, we see an invitation to enter into relationship with the poor not for their inherent dignity but for the sake of a reward. There’s nothing artificial in true humility. In fact, true humility comes from God. Jesus' awkward interruption to the feast does not call attention to the false humility that comes from human striving, but the humility that comes from above.
The point of these parables isn’t to pressure us to work harder to be better people, but that we might see who Jesus is. In these parables, Christ himself is the dinner guest who comes down from the right hand of God, and instead of taking the seat of kings takes the place of a laborer. God in Christ shows us the definition of true humility: for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven. Jesus does not pretend at lowliness but truly takes his place among the poor and dispossessed. When the Father, the host that presides over all creation, beholds the humility of the Son, the One and Holy God lifts him up to the highest place. This Christ is not just a humble man, instead he embodies the very humility of God, and in him the Father sees divinity reflected and draws it heavenward.
The second parable also reveals divine humility. We see Jesus as the host of the great feast of the ages who refuses to invite those who can offer him anything in return. Instead, he invites the poor and those who cannot repay. Who are these poor ones whom Christ invites but us? We have nothing to offer that God does not possess. There is nothing we could do for the Almighty that would rise above our weakness. Yet Christ delights to invite us in. He has come down for us and for our salvation. He counts as his reward not only his own resurrection, but our rising to life with him. His reward is the resurrection of each person he calls. Christ is the humility of God that extends welcome to the lowest. He is the humility that breaks down the sinful dominion of pride with the power of a gracious invitation. He is God for us, God among us.
And his invitation remains to the poor and lowly. We find ourselves at the threshold of God’s supper in God’s house. Beyond the three meals in this story – the dinner with the Pharisees, and the two feasts in the parables – there is another from which all meals derive their name. It is the Holy Eucharist which overshadows Luke’s account and to which the Holy Spirit invites us today. Like the sabbath meal in our reading, this meal reveals Jesus in awkwardness. For in this house we find no seats of honor; those with much kneel beside those with little. At this table are none who can offer anything in return. And before this feast, we hunger and thirst alongside both friends and strangers, all whose lives run crosswise to ours. In the eucharist, the low become high and the high become low for all become one in Christ. In this awkward, intervening moment, Christ puts himself at the mercy of his body, the fellowship of the baptized. And in the presence of Christ we behold his humility: here is God come down for us.
And in our midst God does come down: Christ takes the most humble place, the holy food and drink to be consumed. He disrupts the rules of this present world and confronts us in such simple things as bread and wine. Here, where human beings experience suffering and sadness, he invites us to the feast. His body broken for us becomes by reversal the body exalted, raising the whole eucharistic fellowship with it. The cup of salvation poured out for us seeps into the low places of the earth, welling into waterfalls of grace. In these simple elements the glory of God touches our lives.
And in touching God’s glory we touch divine humility: the eucharist turns our gaze to the great feast being prepared in heaven for all creation, whose host and honored guest is God’s begotten Son, the Son who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven. For us he leaves majesty on high to take his place on earth below. For us he befriends the poor, giving, to those who can give him nothing, the very life of God. For us he lives, works, and intercedes so at the last, great feast we might rise from our graves with him. And when we draw near to his humility, it seeps into us, making us for the world as he is. In him we invite the migrant and the poor to the abundance of God’s table. In him we take our place with those who hunger for justice and long for rest from pain. In him we find fellowship with ones whose lives and bodies are cut off from bonds of family and ties of belonging. In all our life, Christ confronts us with the humility of God: God for us at table with the broken, at table with us.
This is the meal to which the Holy Spirit calls us, at which Christ takes the lowest seat for our sake, to lift up all humanity. It is Christ who gives the invitation to those who can in no way repay. And by this one gracious invitation given to us, we come. Amen.
The sermons preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!
To the Glory of God and in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary
St. Mary's is a parish of the Diocese of West Missouri, The Episcopal Church, and the Anglican Communion.
1307 Holmes Street
Kansas City, Missouri 64106