Text: Luke 1:26-38
Several months ago I took Nora to New York City. A budding photographer, she had been asking me for some time if I could take her to New York so that she could take pictures of the city. For two and a half days we walked, taking pictures. On Friday morning we strolled across the Brooklyn Bridge photographing the beautiful bridge and the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. Friday afternoon we went to a place called graffiti city where she took pictures of an old warehouse covered with some of the most amazing graffiti I have ever seen. Who knew that graffiti could actually be an art form? It was beautiful.
On Saturday, we walked some more and took more pictures, until my legs tingled and my feet were numb. We had planned our day so that we would be at the top of the Empire State Building at sundown – a great time of day, we were told, to take pictures of the city from on high. That, too, was an amazing sight that Nora captured in some incredible photos. As we began our decent from the top of the Empire State Building all I could think was, “Whew, now we get to go rest for the night. There’s hope for my feet after all.” But Nora had one last request. “Can we go to Times Square now so I can take some pictures there?” In my head I thought, “Are you kidding me. I can’t feel my feet.” But I couldn’t say no to my aspiring photographer. After all, we were there to capture in pictures the amazing sights of an incredibly beautiful city. And so we made our way to Times Square. By now it was almost 11:00 p.m.
As we approached Times Square I was delighted to see some tables and chairs in the middle of the Square for folks like me whose legs tingled and feet ached. I allowed Nora to walk around nearby and take her pictures while I rested a bit. As I settled in I realized there was a group of about 30 people very near me singing. I recognized the tune, an unexpected one for Times Square. And God as my witness, here is what I heard:
What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Oh precious is the flow, that makes me white as snow;
No other fount I know, nothing but the blood of Jesus.
It’s true. Right there in Times Square in New York City there was a group of Mennonites singing, “Nothing But the Blood of Jesus.” And they had quite a large group gathered around them. They followed “Nothing but the blood” with a stirring rendition of, “There’s Power in the Blood.” Their harmonizing was beautiful. And their presence was so out of context. People of all types, from all walks of life were standing listening, mesmerized like me, by the sound. For a moment, I will admit, I let go of all my theological issues with the words of that hymn and simply enjoyed the beauty of it.
What happened next, though, is why I am telling you this story. Sitting at the bistro table beside me was a Muslim family. They, too, had been enjoying the singing. When the group finished their last song, the Muslim man went up to some members of the group to thank them and to tell them that he had enjoyed their singing. Noticing that the conversation was becoming more intense, I walked over to listen in. As I had guessed, the exchange had taken a turn and some members of the singing group had edged the conversation in the direction of witnessing. The Muslim man was gracious in his response saying over and over again how much he admired their faith and that in reality we all worshiped the same God. This seemed to unsettle the Christians. They were not convinced by his generosity of spirit. They insisted that Jesus was the only way to God and repeatedly asked the man if he believed that Jesus died to save all people from their sin. Undeterred by their persistence, the Muslim pressed on trying to affirm their faith, “I think Jesus was a great prophet. And his mother Mary, too.” It was that comment, “And his mother Mary, too,” that finally pushed the Christians over the edge. Immediately, the leader of the singing group retorted, “Oh, we don’t worship Mary. We worship Jesus.” With that, they asked the Muslim man if they could pray with him. Gracious in spirit, he said yes. A prayer was said, the Muslim man thanked them again and we all walked away.
I sat back down at my bistro table wondering why the Mary comment had elicited such a strong reaction from the Protestants. As the mother of Jesus, Mary stands apart from all women in history. In art, music, and literature she has become the embodiment of all that is fine and noble in womanhood. Even to unbelievers she is the subject of adoration. No woman in the entire history of the world has been so honored and revered. The world’s most majestic poems, novels, and plays have had Mary and her son as their central figures. In the most magnificent cathedrals she is depicted on canvas, in stained-glass windows, in bronze, marble, and stone. Through the centuries the most triumphant hymns and the best-loved carols, lullabies, and folk songs have told of her story.
Many names of praise, such as “Mother of Mercy,” “Mother Most Blessed,” “Queen of Heaven,” “Mother Most Pure,” and “Spiritual Vessel,” have been bestowed upon her. The angel Gabriel and her cousin Elizabeth said of her, “Blessed are thou among all people.” Yet we know that her greatness had a humble beginning as an obscure peasant girl from Nazareth. Though Mary never wore fine clothes, the Madonnas through the ages have been draped in the most costly garments. Though she never exalted herself, literature has raised her to the highest pinnacle of any woman in history. Though she never entered a palace, her picture has graced the most magnificent palaces. And though she never traveled any farther than from Palestine to Egypt, and then by a donkey, her story still travels to the farthest corners of the earth. Why? And why have Protestants been so reluctant to honor, truly honor, Mary as a spiritual mentor?
There is a historical answer to that question. It has to do with how Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans, those who are Orthodox, and even Muslims understand Mary’s own divinity and her role within God’s purpose of salvation as “God-bearer.” Whereas Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox Christians have venerated Mary, honoring her as a person having a high degree of sanctity or holiness, Protestants typically hold that while Mary was the mother of Jesus, she was still an ordinary woman. At its core, Protestant theology denies that any real distinction between veneration and worship can be made, and claims that the practice of veneration distracts the Christian soul from its true object, the worship of God. Now all of that would be good theology if we as Protestants really followed it. But as you know, Protestants have simply substituted the idolatry of Mary with the idolatry of let’s pick – the Bible, the cross, the blood, the church.
I am not interested, this morning, in discerning, disputing, or defending the divinity of Mary. I would rather try to find meaning in her story. So, on this Peace Sunday, I want to suggest to you that Mary may very well be our fullest picture of what peace looks like. From the moment the angel came to her, Mary found a depth of peace within herself to say yes to God. I have wondered with you before about how many Marys the angel Gabriel must have visited before he found one who would say yes to his divine message. That act of saying yes to God, of going deep enough within her own heart and soul to find her place of peace, brought or birthed this incredible peace into the world.
The concept of peace, especially world peace, can overwhelm us, but as John F. Kennedy said, “There is no single, simple key to peace – no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts.” Mary is the embodiment of that kind of genuine peace that allows peace into the world one person at a time saying yes to God, to love, to hope, to joy. And when the sum of many acts – of many individual people saying yes to God – come together, then peace comes into our world.
The graciousness of the Muslim man in Times Square, choosing to engage with Christians who couldn’t really hear his truth, demonstrated one of these many acts of peace. And that is really all we are called to do – to find and live our own peace so that peace can live through us and beyond and into the world.
For now on, when you are searching for peace in your life and when you praying for peace in the world think of Mary and think of that Muslim man in Times Square and then offer your own yes to God. Peace is the sum of many acts – yours and mine. It is our best hope for world peace. So remember this: every time you say yes to God, to love, to hope, to joy – you are creating world peace.