Sunday, December 21, 2014

Greetings, Favored One! (A Sermon from Luke 1:26-38 about divine-human encounter)

Not every experience of the Divine, not every encounter with God is as momentous as Mary’s encounter with the angel in our text today, but Mary’s experience can be seen as a kind of archetypal representation of what a divine encounter can do in our lives.

Any authentic God experience generally gives us two things that are foundational to a heathy and transformative spiritual life. First, such experiences give us ground to stand on.

Luke says that when the angel appeared saying, “Greetings, favored one!” she “was much perplexed . . . and wondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Then the angel declared, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Isn’t interesting that almost every time God appears or an angel of God appears in the Bible, the first thing the angel says is, “Do not fear?” It would seem that fearing God, being afraid of God has been a problem throughout human history.

If Mary is to stand on solid ground with God, she must let go of her fear and know beyond question that she is loved by God. Twice the angel assures her that she has found favor with God. This was not based on anything she did. This was not based on merit or status or any accomplishment. Mary is just an ordinary Jewish girl trying to get by in a very patriarchal culture. It would have been quite normal, I think, for a young Jewish girl to feel devalued and inferior.  So Mary is assured, first of all, that she is loved.

If you spend any time reading the mystics in the Christian tradition, John of the Cross, Teresa of Avilla, and others (and this is true of the mystics of other religious traditions as well) they all attempt to describe an experience of feeling loved unconditionally whereby they fall in love with God. They encounter divine Love, and that encounter changes them.

They all depict God as the initiator, the aggressive lover, the protagonist who seduces them out of their fear and their feelings of unworthiness. And the greater the experience of God as an unconditional Lover, then the greater the sense of radical acceptance, and the more energetic and devoted they are to give back to the world, especially to the poor and disenfranchised. Love is repaid by love alone. Love is reciprocal. There is no sense of trying to acquire God’s favor or climb some sort of ladder of worthiness, there are no merit badges to earn. Love is experienced and love is given back to God by giving back to the world which God loves.

This is the first thing authentic God experience gives us: ground to stand on, namely, that we are accepted and loved by the greatest Lover of all.  

The second thing authentic God experience gives us is a vast Divine Mystery to explore. In 2 Samuel 7, David wants to build God a house, but God doesn’t want a house, because once a house is built then the temptation will forever be to limit and confine God to God’s house. And so often this is what we do with our doctrinal confessions and creeds and our particular religious traditions and practices isn’t it? We limit God to the house we build for our kind of people to worship in. But once we experience the Really Real, the vastness and Mystery that is God, we become open and receptive to so much more.

I certainly did. I grew up like so many of you in a particular tradition that taught certitudes about God. For a long time I never thought to question those certitudes. I was taught that these certitudes were absolute truth and nothing good could come from questioning the truth. So for a number of years I confined and limited God to a particular house.

Now, there is nothing wrong with worshiping and serving God in a particular house, in a particular tradition. In fact, it is important to be able to call someplace home. But when we think that our house is the only house where God can dwell, then we severely limit God and our experience of God.

Only the vastness of the love of God and awareness of the vastness of the Divine Mystery we call God can set us free from our confinement to the little houses we have built.

If we hope to be able to know and rest in God’s radical grace and acceptance, then Images of God that strike fear (like “I will torture you if you don’t love me”) or simply childish images (like the Santa Claus god who is making a list, checking it twice, in order to find out who is naughty and nice) – these fearful and childish images of God (the torturing God and the Santa Clause God) have to go. Generally, though, we do not abandon such images easily – not without a struggle – and we are often wounded in the process. Maybe that’s why so many Christians avoid thinking deeply about their understanding of God; they just don’t want engage in the struggle.

A part of the struggle is letting go any need to use God or manipulate God for our benefit. I am reminded of a small boy who was writing a letter to Santa about the Christmas presents he so much wanted. He began, “I’ve been good for six months now.” Then he paused, and crossed out the word six, and wrote three, “I’ve been good for three months now.” Well, after he wrote that, he stopped again, and marked out three months and wrote three weeks. Then, after some more deliberation, he marked that out too. He got up from the table, went over to the nativity scene that had the figures of Joseph and Mary, picked up Mary and stuffed her in his pocket. Then he went back over to the table. He started a new letter, “Dear God, he began. He decided to by-pass Santa and go to even a higher source. “Dear God, if you ever want to see your mother again . . . . “

Once we experience God as Unconditional Love and Lover and realize there is no reason to be afraid, then we also realize that it is a waste of time trying to manipulate others or use others for our advantage or to use God to manipulate others. And we no longer want to. That’s the real liberating reality. We are finally able to see how childish and silly all those manipulative games are. 

Mary found herself grasped by love, held on to, chosen by a greater Someone, and that gave her the courage to participate in a larger story. Standing firmly on that ground, held and gripped by loved, she found the courage to say “yes” to God’s call. She was willing to be led beyond her comfort zone, beyond her house of certitudes to a new place. She had to leave her safe place, but she found a better place (not as safe, but better) in God’s love and purpose.

Mary would indeed be wounded in her participation in the Love and Mystery of God. In saying yes to God she said yes to the struggle. She suffered a questionable reputation and gave birth to a son who would break her heart, who would be crucified by the Romans as an insurrectionist. Mary found no security in her circumstances. She found her security in God – in God’s choice of her, in God’s love and acceptance, not in her status, or name, or reputation, or place in the world.

Mary personifies the entire mystery of how salvation is received. She  functions as the ideal disciple in Luke’s Gospel. She epitomizes trust. She trusts God to lead her into the mystery. Can we?

I see the angel as a symbol for our own experience of God, which is almost always inner experience. It is the experience that tells us that we are loved. This was Jesus’ experience when he heard the Divine Voice say, “You are my Beloved Son, on whom my favor rests.” I suspect that the writer of 1 John was trusting his inner experience of the Divine, which he calls an anointing, when he spoke about God being love. He wrote: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love, does not know God, for God is love.” Obviously, the kind of “knowing” he is talking about is experiential knowing, not academic or informational knowing. He goes on to say that love casts out all fear and that to abide in love is to abide in God, for God is love. Wherever love is at work, God is at work.

This is the true ground of being. This gives Mary the courage and faith to surrender to a greater purpose and mystery that she does not fully and will never fully understand. Mary’s trust and surrender to this great Mystery and Love is beautifully expressed in 1:38: “Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Author Sue Monk Kid tells about finding an old bundle of Christmas cards while poking around in the attic looking for a picture frame. As she sifted through them she found a card that had meant a great deal to her one year when she seventh months pregnant. She was terribly tired of waiting and yearned to hold her baby in her arms. Then the card came. On the front was Mary, great with child, and inside were the words, “Let it be.”

Kidd felt a kinship with Mary; she felt as if Mary had come to show her how to wait through her pregnancy. She writes, “Don’t fret so, the card seemed to say. You can’t control the life in you. It grows and emerges in its own time. Be patient and nurture it with all your love and attentiveness. Be still and cooperate with the mystery God is unfolding in you. Let it be.”

The late Henri Nouwen wrote of his own experience with regard to the spirituality of Christmas: “I realized that songs, good feelings, beautiful liturgies, nice presents, big dinners, and many sweet words do not make Christmas. Christmas is saying “yes” to something beyond all emotions and feelings. Christmas is saying “yes” to a hope based on God’s initiative, which has nothing to do with what I think or feel. Christmas is believing that the salvation of the world is God’s work, not mine.”

Some context here is important: Nouwen wrote that personal word as a struggling workaholic. It is God’s work to redeem the world. Indeed, it is, but God works through incarnation. This is what the Christmas story primarily tells us. So Christmas is not only believing that the salvation of the world is God’s work, it is also accepting our part in God’s work to save the world. It is God’s work to save the world (to heal, transform the world), but it is our part to say “yes” to our participation in the salvation of the world, and we can start by saying yes to God’s work in our own hearts and lives right now. We can say “yes” to God’s love right now, and allow God’s endless flow of grace and goodness to wash over us, to immerse us in something much larger than ourselves, to fill us and overflow into all our relationships and all the other aspects of our lives. It is God’s work to save, to redeem, to heal, and reconcile; but it is our work to create space and opportunity for God to work both in us and through us.

God does this extraordinary work in and through ordinary people. Mary was so very ordinary. There was no special heroics or holiness that commended her for this task. That God would dwell in these flesh and blood bodies and in this material world (which is what incarnation teaches) is truly extraordinary isn’t it?

The great mystery is that we cannot not live in the presence of God. We are totally surrounded by God all the time and everywhere. The prayer attributed to Saint Patrick captures it well: God beneath you, God in front of you, God behind you, God above you, God within you. We do not earn this. It’s all a matter of being tuned in, being aware, being able to trust and surrender to this Greater Love and Mystery at work everywhere all the time.

Mary was willing to trust and surrender to this Great Love and Mystery that allowed the Christ child to be formed in her. What about us? Are we willing to trust and surrender to this Great Love and Mystery, to create the space and time and opportunity for the image of Christ to be formed in us?

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Our Good God, we are so distracted, so obsessed with other things – buying the right presents, decorating the house, entertaining, and so much more – that we hardly have time to think about the things we have talked about today. We thank you for this church, for this place and time where we can again be reminded of what is important, of what really matters, and how our small lives are part of a much bigger story. I pray that that each one us here will have an encounter, an experience of your love that will open our eyes to your vastness, to your abiding and surrounding presence, and to your unconditional love for each and every one. May we not be afraid to have our small, little houses come crashing down, so that we will be prodded to journey beyond our little world and see how you are present in so many ways, revealing your love and inviting us to share in it.  

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