Monday, December 19, 2011

Four Steps on Our Journey to the Baby

Sermon preached on the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2011, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Luke 1:26-38, 46-55 For many years during Advent I have been brushing aside people who say to me things like, “This must be a stressful time of year for you.” “No,” I blithely say, “I’ve done this long enough that there is very little stress anymore.” That is not true this year. This Advent has been chaos and I have been running around like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off. And guess what? Despite this fact, Advent for me is being a richer and deeper experience than it has for a long time. This year, I could see, in the big picture, what Advent is trying to say to us, what it is trying to do to us. It is about the nature of our relationship with God and how we grow in that relationship. It parallels the themes of the four Sundays. On the First Sunday of Advent we always read one of the apocalyptic sections of the Gospels: Jesus talking in foreboding terms about the future. My favorite story to get us to the place these stories want to take us is an Annie Dillard story. In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie writes about a Christmas Eve when she was a young girl. The family had all gone out to dinner—in itself this was a big deal. Dad and Mom, Annie, and her little sister eating in a restaurant. They got home much later than Annie or her sister were normally up and clearly it was time for bed. There came a knocking on the door, a strange and startling thing all on its own. Soon everyone was calling for Annie, “Look who’s here!” She peaked around the corner and she saw who was there: Santa Claus. “I never—ever—wanted to meet Santa Claus,” she writes. “I feared Santa Claus, thinking he was God…Santa Claus was an old man whom you never saw, but who nevertheless saw you; he knew when you’d been bad or good….And I had been bad.” Annie ran upstairs and refused to come down. She refused and refused and refused until the rest of her family—and Santa Claus—gave up. The Santa Claus at her door was Miss White, a neighbor lady. Annie didn’t know that until many years later, of course. She and Miss White were actually friends. Miss White liked to teach Annie things. Six months after the Santa Claus episode, Miss White and Annie were in Miss White’s backyard. Miss White had a magnifying glass and said she wanted to show something to Annie about the sun. Annie writes, “She focused a dab of sunshine on my palm….It burned….I ripped my hand away and ran home crying.” After some reflection, Annie ends her story this way: Miss White, God, I am sorry I ran from you. I am still running, running from that knowledge, that eye, that love from which there is no refuge. For you meant only love…and I felt only fear, and pain. So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were afraid. Fear is where we often begin in our journey with God. Sometimes we pick up that fear from the Bible text we’re reading. Sometimes other people trying to save us from hell induce that fear. Sometimes it’s just our own fear of the unknown, if nothing else, our fear of death. Mary herself first reacts with fear to the angel Gabriel and his message. Fear is where we often begin. And some of us get stuck there, and some of us just turn away and deny the whole thing because if it is about fear they don’t want to have any part of it. The latter is especially too bad because if they would just take a couple steps forward instead of turning away, they would find that fear is not where the story ends. If we hang in there and walk through our fear, we get to the place of awe and wonder, the place of John the Baptist in the wilderness, where we go on the Second Sunday of Advent ever year. John was reminding Israel, albeit in somewhat harsh terms, that something bigger was going on right under their noses. His command to “repent” was in many ways a plea for his people to open their eyes. Be ready, John was saying, for what I do not fully understand and what you do not and will not fully understand either. To be in awe is to have a keen sense of this mysterious other, another that you know is bigger than yourself. This is such an important step because so many of us suffer from a sense of self, and the world, and even God, that is simply too small. It might seem that those two steps are all that is necessary, but they are not. In one of our favorite hymns, we ask to be “lost in wonder, love and praise.” But we know we cannot stay there. We cannot stay “lost.” We have to be able to move toward this awesome Mystery and even embrace it. So we seek to know the Mystery more deeply, and perhaps more clearly, and that is the Third Sunday of Advent. On that Sunday we read some story about John the Baptist’s relationship with Jesus. The quintessential one we read last year from Matthew, where John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Seeking deeper relationship with the Mystery means asking questions, sometimes, oftentimes, questions that imply doubt or even disbelief. John had clearly come to doubt whether Jesus was the one for him to ask that question. Then there is that other great seeker from the Gospels, Thomas, whose feast day we celebrate this Wednesday. He was stubborn: “Unless I see him with his wounds, I will not believe.” You don’t have to move from awe and wonder to seeking. Again, you may decide that the Mystery will stay a mystery which means, rationally, that it isn’t real. Seeking and longing with the inherent questions they raise are a place we can stay for a long time. This is primarily because the Mystery does not answer our questions in a direct way. The two words that I think best sum up how the Mystery “answers” questions are “sacrament” and “parable.” In sacraments the Mystery uses things of the earth to be windows to itself. Bread and wine become more than they seem to be. Getting’s one’s questions answered does not mean leaving the awe and wonder behind. And the Mystery incarnate in Jesus rarely answered a question directly. Instead he told open-ended stories, parables. Mary went through this in her encounter with the angel. “How can this be since I am a virgin,” she asks? And Gabriel gives her a classic answer that circles around the question with something like poetry. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you…” Eventually we learn that there is only one answer to all our questions and that answer is love, what we call agapĂ© love, love that manifests itself in the desire to serve, to be compassionate, hospitable and generous. In this love, you, yourself, and your view of others and the world, and even God, become large. They break open. Four stages of spiritual growth: fear, awe and wonder, seeking and questioning, love. Of course they are not really linear. We cycle back through them again and again. And (this is important) we never leave any of them behind. Whenever we arrive at the “love terminal” we are carrying three bags with us: A suitcase full of fear, a garment bag of awe and wonder, and a laptop bag with every question we have ever asked and longing we have ever longed. Mary took all these things from her encounter with the angel, and she travelled with those bags, the same bags with which we travel, to visit her cousin Elizabeth, where she sang her song, a song about the God, the Mystery, that had come to her and, she certainly believed, was coming to the whole world. “You have mercy on those who fear you,” she sang. But she also sang in awe, “You, the Almighty have done great things for me, and holy is your Name.” There is not a question in the song, of course, but she does recall the promise and the longing. “You have remembered your promise of mercy, the promise [you] made to our forebears, to Abraham and his children for ever.” And the song is, of course, dominated by love, but, again, the kind of love that seeks to serve in compassion, hospitality and generosity, that has the consequences justice always has: “You have filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” We are all in different places on this wondrous journey, and it is not unkown for someone to be in more than one place at the same time. Fear, awe and wonder, seeking and questioning, agapĂ© love. Advent is a time to find where we are on that spectrum and bring who we are right now to the manger, where Mary and her baby will receive us as guests along with the shepherds and the magi. And we will find there in the baby a hint of our fear, a great deal of awe and wonder (if we allow it), the allowing of our questioning (Mary will not have forgotten that she, too, questioned), and ultimately the love that enlarges our world and sets us free to love in turn.

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