3 West 65th St | New York, NY 10023 | 212.877.6815

“Carving Rotten Wood and Riding Lame Horses”

The Rev. Wilbert S. Miller
The Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Holy Trinity-New York City
Mary, Mother of Our Lord (August 14, 2016)
Luke 1: 46-55
“Carving Rotten Wood and Riding Lame Horses”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.
Alma Quigley went to Woodsdale Junior High School.  She lived in a shotgun shack in one of Wheeling’s tumble-down neighborhoods.  She wore stained skirts and threadbare blouses. The ornery boys mocked her; if any of their pals got too close to Alma, their stomach-churning taunt began instantly, “You have cooties.”

Then, one day a miracle occurred.  Colin Masterson, the handsomest and most athletic boy in our school, asked Alma to the spring dance.  As soon as we acne-faced teenagers heard the news, our view of Alma Quigley changed instantly: what exquisite beauty had Colin discovered that we had overlooked since we were in kindergarten?

Has it ever happened to you?  Out of the blue, someone looked straight into your eyes and said, “My, do you have a beautiful smile.”  Or at the Passing of the Peace, the person next to you said, “Did anyone ever tell you what a lovely voice you have?”  Simple words changed your life and for the better.

A similarly marvelous thing happened to Mary when God chose her to be the mother of Jesus.  Out of the blue, Mary became breathtakingly beautiful and she knew it.   Mary sang the song that the church has sung at Evening Prayer ever since, “My soul magnifies the Lord…for the Lord has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…the Mighty One has done great things for me…”  God invited Mary to the dance and that invitation changed the world forever.

Martin Luther said it this way: “God can carve the rotten wood and ride the lame horse.”  Mary was, after all, younger than gold medalist gymnast Simone Biles and her tiny Olympic gymnast cohorts and, like Alma Quigley, she had cooties.  If you think otherwise, recall how people wagged their tongues, wondering exactly who the father of her baby might be.

Mary was as an unlikely choice to be the Mother of God, as Luther called her, as unlikely as an undocumented Mexican immigrant or inner-city African American teenager in our day.

People often say to me, “Pastor, I am looking forward to hearing the Word of God proclaimed from the pulpit this morning,” I always wonder: Do you really want to hear the heart of Luke’s gospel or would you prefer a more appetizing gospel?  If you are clamoring for the Word of God this morning, see how this little nugget works for you: “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.”

I am always grateful to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters for their theological claims about Mary.  Beliefs such as the Immaculate Conception (the belief that Mary was conceived like us all except without original sin or its stain), the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (the claim that at the end of Mary’s life she was assumed, body and soul, into heaven, just as Enoch, Elijah had been before her), and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary are attempts to give deserved honor to Jesus’ mother, Mary.  And yet, I worry what, to my mind, are nonbiblical doctrines, may have the unintended consequence of making Mary more than she was when God chose her, more than you and I were when God chose us with “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  Such lofty theological sentiments may diminish the wonder of God stooping down and choosing Mary and you and me to aid in the heavenly plan of salvation.

You will learn that my favorite author is Annie Dillard; you may hear her name more than you ever wished!  She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for her book, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”   I adore Annie Dillard’s ability to discover the sacred amidst the mundane.  In her book, “Holy the Firm,” she writes of the little church she attends.  Listen: “On Sunday mornings I quit the house and wander down the hill to the white frame church in the firs. On a big Sunday there might be twenty of us there; often I am the only person under sixty, and feel as though I’m on an archaeological tour of Soviet Russia…the minister is a Congregationalist, and wears a white shirt. The man knows God. Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession for the whole world — for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving and pained, succor to the oppressed, and God’s grace to all — in the middle of this he stopped, and burst out, “Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week.” After a shocked pause, he continued reading the prayer. Because of this, I like him very much…We had a wretched singer once, a guest from a Canadian congregation, a hulking blond girl with chopped hair and big shoulders, who wore tinted spectacles and a long lacy dress, and sang, grinning, to faltering accompaniment, an entirely secular song about mountains. Nothing could have been more apparent than that God loved this girl; nothing could more surely convince me of God’s unending mercy than the continued existence on earth of the church.”

Aren’t we all bit like that tiny church in the firs with the pastor in the white shirt and the hulking girl with the chopped hair and big shoulders?  Where in the world did we ever get the quaint notion that God chooses our little ragtag gathering on this scorching humid August morning to be instruments of heavenly love?  Why, of course, because God carves rotten wood and rides lame horses. God chose a thirteen-year-old girl from Bethlehem to be the Mother of Lord.  And if God did that, God can also choose us to be servants of the most high.  That is why the choir sings today, the incense floats to the ceiling, and we sing, “Magnify, my soul, God’s greatness.”

God indeed has done great things for us, cooties and all.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.