“Nothing more. But also, nothing less.”: Professor MacDougall’s Baccalaureate Sermon

Isaiah 43:9–13,19a
Psalm 34:1–8
Corinthians 1:26–31
Luke 1:42–55

To the bishops, clergy, supervisors, peers, friends, family, spouses and partners, and all others present here tonight to celebrate the accomplishments of this year’s graduating class, it is my great pleasure to welcome you to All Saints Chapel for this Baccalaureate eucharist. We are so glad you are here. The support you provided was invaluable in seeing to it that those graduating tomorrow received what they needed to make it to this point. Thank you for that and for being here to celebrate this milestone with them.

To the graduates: thank you. First, thank you from the bottom of my heart for asking me to be your preacher this evening. I was shocked, and honored, and truly moved by that invitation. And I hope I will do you proud. Second, thank you for being such wonderful members of this community. It has been my privilege to serve as your instructor. It has equally been my joy to watch you develop, in and out of the classroom, into the sensitive, thoughtful, perceptive, and highly committed servants of the gospel that each and every one of you are. You have been and will continue to be a great blessing to this place and to me personally. We will miss you, a whole lot, once you have moved to the next act in your life’s drama. But we look forward to celebrating the amazing things that every single one of you will do in your ministries, in whatever forms they take, in whatever places they unfold, as you live out your calling in and for the world.

And that’s what I’d like to focus on tonight. Your calling. Oh, everybody else is free to listen in, but I want to talk to you. Here at the end of your seminary training, I want to take you back to the beginning again. To calling, vocation. Your calling. To your summons into a particular way of living, which is what brought you here in the first place.

And, because, as you all know very well, there is almost nothing I like better than a crisp and direct thesis statement, I will now take my own medicine and begin with one. Here it is. You ready? Okay. In this sermon, I will show that… Kidding! Seriously, here’s my main point: When we take up Paul’s charge to the Corinthians to consider one’s call, using Mary’s Magnificat—and the Isaianic vision that undergirds it—as a model for such a consideration, we can remind ourselves what it is that we are truly called into and what our place in that larger work actually is. “Consider your calling, brothers and sisters,” Paul writes. Okay. Challenge accepted. So, let’s see how Mary considers hers and then read Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians through that.

What reason do we have for thinking of the Magnificat, the praise we hear Mary offer to God in tonight’s gospel reading, as a consideration of her calling? This outpouring comes from Mary’s heart because her cousin, Elizabeth, exclaims that Mary is blessed above all women because she is pregnant with the promised savior of God’s people and because she “believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Now, “what was spoken to her by the Lord” was the angel Gabriel’s announcement that she would miraculously conceive the deliverer of her people. But is that the only fulfillment of a divine promise in which Mary believed? In which she had faith?

If we look at the Magnificat itself, what we find is Mary’s conviction that what God has done in and through her has been a display of God’s power and might, a power that has resulted—spiritually, morally, and ethically, though not yet actually—in a reversal of the way things work. What God has done in sparking this life in her is to humble the proud, bring down the powerful, and provide no more benefit to the wealthy, and to raise up the lowly, feed the hungry, show mercy to the oppressed, and fulfill the promises made to Abraham. Mary is depicted as using images and language associated with the story of God’s choosing and liberation of her ancestors, the enslaved Hebrews, to declare once more that ours is a God of reversal, of the inversion of “the way things are,” especially when the way things are is a way of oppression and suffering. For Mary, as for the Psalmist, God is the One who delivers the people from distress. Tonight, we heard the Psalmist magnify and exult God, too, for coming to the aid of those who trust God’s promise to save. And the imagination of Mary’s heart, a heart that sings of the great reversal of the God whose justice makes the first last and the last first, is saturated with Isaianic vision, a vision of newness, and, as Isaiah proclaims elsewhere, of tremendous upheaval that changes everything for the better, leading from fallowness into fecundity, from futility into felicity, bringing liberation where now there is only imprisonment, providing safe and comfortable pasture where now there is only harsh barrenness, laying level roads where the terrain now is impassible, nurturing a thriving people where now there is only a devastated land.

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
   break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people,
   and will have compassion on his suffering ones. 

Mary is brim-full of this vision from Isaiah. So, she knows that, in her, God fulfills more than what Gabriel said would happen to her. God fulfills God’s promise to be who God has always said God is and will be. In her, God comforts the people. God has compassion on those who suffer. God liberates. God saves. God offers richness of life. She can’t keep from singing for joy any more than can the heavens or the mountains in Isaiah’s prophecy.

So how is this a consideration of her calling? The emphasis is on God’s agency, not her own. God is the sole actor in everything Mary praises God for doing and being. What has Mary’s role been? Sometimes, people attempt to preserve Mary’s agency in God’s salvific work by pointing to her fiat, her assent to everything Gabriel tells her she has been chosen for. There is certainly something important in her explicit assent and consent. But there is more.

In the Magnificat, Mary expresses lowliness and humility, but not out of shame or in a cringing way. She does not grovel or efface herself before the Lord in order to honor God. But neither does she exult herself or claim more for herself than is her due. Mary’s Magnificat is a consideration of her calling because it is a clear-eyed and faithful testimony to her actual role. She is the one who trusts completely in the character and promises of God. She is the one who discerns what God asks of her and responds accordingly. She is the one who lets God be God in and through her, without claiming on the one hand that God’s work is her own or on the other that she had nothing to do with it. Mary’s Magnificat shows that Mary does not think her calling is to “build the kingdom of God,” which is God’s work, not hers. Her song, like Isaiah’s and the Psalmist’s before hers, testifies to this. Her vocation is to live in the light of the God of mercy and of God’s promise to save and deliver, no matter what form responding to that might take. That is her calling. Deep trust and embodied response. Nothing more. But also, nothing less.

So, what can we learn from Paul’s exhortation to the Corinthians to consider their calling? He asks them to consider the condition they were each in when they were called, not the calling itself. But what if we were to expand his meaning to include the question of vocation, and what if we were to read it through Mary’s demonstration of what this calling actually is? Using language that echoes Mary’s own (and even further back, the election of the Hebrews), Paul tells the Corinthians that God chooses the supposedly foolish, weak, low, and despised to expose, shame, and humble the wise and strong. No one, Paul tells them, has reason to boast before God. The idea here, it seems to me, is that there is nothing inherently wrong with being either wise or strong. Where things go awry is when one’s wisdom or strength is taken to be one’s own rather than being sourced in Christ. It is Christ who is wisdom and strength. And true wisdom, Mary helps us see, consists of trusting in the character and promises of the saving God of mercy, while true strength lies in the humility required to recognize our weakness and in the commitment to respond to the vocation God lays upon us, even when that feels like a very risky thing to do.

Paul tells the Corinthians “God chose … things that are not to reduce to nothing things that are.” This is a pattern we see repeat throughout scripture. God chooses Hebrew slaves and lays waste to Pharaonic power. God chooses an unmarried Jewish girl from a marginal backwater to give birth to the Lord of creation. God chooses to be incarnate in a carpenter’s son and to be executed as a criminal to expose the ultimate impotence not only of imperial power but even of sin and death. God chooses what is not to reduce to nothing the things that are.

But notice who is acting in each of these cases: God. God is the active agent. Moses does not bring Pharaoh down. God does. Mary does not impregnate herself or cast down the mighty from their thrones or lift up the lowly. God does. Jesus does not raise himself from the dead. The fullness of the triune God does. In none of these cases are those involved the power by which the status quo is undermined. They know and proclaim—clearly and forcefully—that it is God who has acted, not them. What they do is respond to God’s action and God’s calling. What they do, to various degrees of perfection and in different ways, is trust in the character of promises of God and respond, actively, to God’s continuous invitation to live in light of those promises. That, says Mary, is your calling. That, says Paul, is your vocation. This is just what a Christian does. Nothing more. But also, nothing less.

As part of your journey to ordination or your pursuit of an academic degree in the seminary context, you have been asked repeatedly to reflect upon, talk about, and, in some cases, give evidence of your calling. This serves its purpose and I shouldn’t be heard as suggesting otherwise. But I would like to point you this evening toward Isaiah, the Psalmist, Mary, and Paul, who remind you—and all of us—that your calling is to leadership in Christ’s church only secondarily. First and foremost, your calling is to trust in the character and promises of God, to risk letting your life be the response to those promises, and to remain clear about what is your work and what is God’s. There will be times that you will forget. We all do. And sometimes, when you do, you will find this lapse of yours has been exposed by those you deemed foolish, weak, low, or despised. Thank God when that happens. It is for your own good. Let it turn you back to your original and only calling. Let it remind you to let God be God so that you don’t fool yourself into thinking you are the one who decides how things will go.

The only thing that is ever truly in your power—and I say this as a control freak—is where you place your trust and your commitment to act in accordance with the promise of the one in whom you have placed it. The effect this has, how it all turns out, its success or failure—this is not in your hands any more than the salvation of the world was ever in Mary’s. Consider your calling, brothers and sisters. Your calling, no matter what the form or scale that your service to Christ’s church or God’s world takes, is and always has been simply—ha! simply!—has been simply this: to burn with the fire of an unquenchable love for the new heaven and new earth of righteousness, love, and peace, the flourishing of life that God promises for all creation, and to offer your life as a humble, ardent, and trusting reply to that vision, so that God can use you, not as a vessel to fill, but as an active agent in the unfolding of salvation, a loving and trusting servant, whose life—no matter what its circumstances—is lived as a Magnificat. Nothing more. But also, nothing less.

Well done, good and faithful servants. And Godspeed.