Sunday, December 23, 2018

A Vision of Love (a sermon from Luke 1:39-55)

Elizabeth says of Mary, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” The mention of “fulfillment” anticipates a new kind of world. It looks forward to the time when the kingdom of God pervades the world fully or completely, when the will of God is actually done on earth as it is in heaven. As some theologians like to point out the kingdom of God is now, but not yet. It’s here, and always has been here, but not fully, though in Jesus it has come to us in a definitive way. The kingdom of God, like our own souls, is in the process of becoming. And it takes a lot of faith and hope and courage to trust that it will come in fullness, especially after you watch the evening news. Because there is still so much fear and hate and prejudice and greed and evil and injustice in the world, and even in our own souls.

Mary, of course, has a major role to play. She carries the one in her womb who will show the world what the kingdom of God looks like lived out in human flesh. She gives birth to Jesus, cares for him as an infant and teaches him as a child. Think of the calling given to Mary and Joseph. They taught Jesus right from wrong, they grounded him in the best of the Jewish scriptures and traditions, and when he went astray as all children do they corrected him. A major factor in Jesus becoming the person he became was the guidance and loving nurture of Mary and Joseph. All of us know how important it is to receive love and good instruction in those early formative years don’t we? Mary and Joseph did that.  

The song of praise by Mary that follows the greeting by Elizabeth is a litany that scholars believe was recited, sung, or chanted in the early Jewish Christian communities. It seems to have been composed based on the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2. It proclaims a message that is an important theme in Luke’s Gospel, namely, the kingdom of God will turn the kingdoms of the world upside down. The first will be last and the last will be first. The kingdoms of the world take pride in power and position and wealth. Not so in God’s realm.

Mary begins by rejoicing in God her Savior and the Savior of all who “fear” God, that is, all who reverence God and reverence the values and ways of God, which are the values and ways of mercy and justice. Then, the song celebrates how the proud will be scattered, the powerful brought down from their thrones, and the rich sent away empty. But the hungry will be filled with good things, and the lowly will be lifted up. Why does God scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, and send the rich away empty? I suspect it’s because they, unlike Mary, see no need for a Savior. They have everything they need – so they think. They are in control – so they think. Some people think faith is the entry point, the starting point. It’s not. The entry point into participation in the kingdom of God is humility. Faith that is not born out of humility is not faith. We cannot be faithful to the values and ways of God’s love in the world if we are proud and arrogant and think of ourselves as better than others and like to lord it over others. There’s no place in God’s new world for that sort of thing.

We all need God as Savior, though God doesn’t do the work of salvation alone. Jesus called disciples and sends them out to do the very works of salvation he was doing. Jesus models what God wants for all of us. The way we love God is by loving others. The invitation to trust in God as Savior is an invitation to be participants in God’s salvation.

One of the themes we sometimes highlight during the Advent season is the need to patiently wait for Christ’s coming – into our lives in new and fresh ways, and for the time of fulfillment. But make no mistake sisters and brothers, we do not wait in idleness. While we wait, we are to be busy praying, serving, and loving the world with the love of Christ. We don’t just dream of a world made whole, we are called to participate in making the world whole. That’s how God works. From the time of the Big Bang or whatever set the whole creative, evolutionary process in motion, that’s how it has always been. We are not pawns waiting to be moved, we are movers, players, and participants in the unfolding story of God’s loving relationship with humanity and all creation.

At times this can be a lot to bear, but there is no escaping it. To trust God as Savior is to heed God’s call to be God’s agents in the healing and liberation of the world. I have to admit it was a lot easier when I believed that Jesus would come back one day and take care of everything in one colossal move. I believed, and many Christians still believe, that in giant swoop Christ is going to make everything better. Paul and many of the early Christians seem to have believed this in the early stages of the Jesus movement. In Paul’s earliest letters he seems to think this could happen just any day. In his first letter to the Thessalonians he even suggests that he will be alive when this happens. We are left with a similar impression in his correspondence with the church at Corinth. But by the time we get to the final letters of Paul, Ephesians and Colossians, if Paul did indeed write those letters, he seems to have changed his tune a bit and also seems to imply that the body of Christ in the world will be instrumental in this process of gathering up all things in Christ. As much as I may wish it wasn’t so, I’m pretty much convinced at this stage in my spiritual journey that if this world is going to ever be made right, then a lot of us are going to have to learn how to be better conduits of God’s ‘Spirit, through whom God’s love can flow out into the world.  

If the prophetic vision of a transformed world is to ever become a reality, if God’s kingdom is to come on earth, then our kingdoms have to go. One way or another our kingdoms have to go. Our pride has to go, and we must allow the Spirit to grow roots of humility that sink deep into our hearts and lives. Our lust for position and power and prestige have to go, so the Spirit can nurture within us a love of neighbor and a passion for service. Our love of money and possessions have to go, and we must trust the Christ to ignite and foster a spirit of generosity in our lives and churches that is expressed in the way we use our material and immaterial resources to help others and serve God’s cause in the world.

In 1991 Dr. Wayne Ward, who taught theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary back when it was still a credible institution, shared a story in a sermon he preached at Walnut Street Baptist Church in Louisville. I was doing a Doctoral seminar there at the time and somehow got hold of a copy of the sermon. In the sermon he shared this story. In the summer after his high school graduation his high school track coach who was Superintendent of Education in Northeast Arkansas entered his summer class at Arkansas State College with an urgent plea. He said, “We have got an emergency situation. Hundreds of little children in Black River Bottom and in the hills of Crowley’s Ridge in the Lemons School District have no one to teach them. The pay is low. Will you help us?” There was a long silence. Finally, Wayne Ward spoke up, “Coach, I’ll go.” He passed the test that gave him an emergency teaching certificate and off he went to Hickoria School in Black River Bottom.

Wayne Ward fell in love with the mostly poor, ragged, and usually dirty kids that made up his class. They looked to him with yearning eyes to learn and they soaked up his teaching like a sponge. The little boy that touched him most was “Eggie Eggenspieler—the most deprived child in the class. He wore the same patched bib overalls and same tattered shirt everyday. Mr. Ward would set him by the “pot-bellied stove” to dry out as he began class. He was so skinny he was concerned about Eggie having enough to eat. One day Mr. Ward slipped into the cloakroom and opened his little molasses bucket lunch pail, which probably was an invasion of privacy. He found one soggy biscuit with mold on it, covered in a sticky bob of molasses. Says Dr. Ward, “Emily Post, in all her etiquette books, never had instructions on how to meet a challenge like that.”

Most days of that cold, rainy fall during recess Mr. Ward was out with the kids sloshing through mud and water trying to play kickball or “capture the flag.” At lunchtime they opened their paper sacks or molasses buckets, climbed up on the woodpile and gulped down their soggy biscuit sandwiches. One kid though, whose father ran the country store, had a beautiful lunchbox with a thermos bottle. Mr. Ward often observed the other children looking longingly as Buddy Baker poured out his steaming hot chocolate. Buddy’s closest friend was, as you might guess, Eggie. He stuck with Buddy like his shadow. As Christmas approached, Buddy began to have an occasional orange in his lunchbox. Eggie had never seen an orange before. Buddy, sitting on the woodpile, would solemnly peal his orange and hand the peelings to Eggie, who gulped them down like they were some kind of delicacy.

Mr. Ward would silently pray that Buddy would give Eggie one section of a real orange; but he never did. Mr. Ward felt a resolve forming in his heart and decided to see to it that Eggie and all his little brothers and sisters got some real oranges for Christmas or he would die trying. On Friday, before Christmas, as Mr. Ward was dismissing school he told Eggie that he needed to see him. Eggie turned pale, “What have I done?” he asked. “Nothing,” said Mr. Ward, “I’m going home with you.” Eggie objected, “You’ll get drown-ded Mr. Ward!”

And he was about right. Mr. Ward drove down an abandoned railroad “dump,” trying to keep out of the flooded bottomland. He parked his old “free-wheeling” Plymouth on a built-out siding which railroad handcars had used. When he opened the trunk and began to load Eggie and himself down with bulging sacks of oranges, apples and toys Eggie’s eyes started flashing like strobe lights. On the first step off the railroad dump they went bobbing for apples. When they got going again Eggie said, “Follow me, Mr. Ward, I know where the high places are” and so he did.

When they got to his little shack that Eggie called home, raised a few feet out of the water, ragged kids came running out to meet them. Inside was a distraught mother with more kids than she knew what to do with and there was no Daddy to be seen (he was in prison). Mr. Ward took an orange and broke off a section and insisted Eggie try it and he watched as his face lit up like the sun. Dr. Ward said in the sermon that even though he has told that story many times and every time he retells it he gets a lump in his throat because it was that experience when he learned the blessing and joy that comes with being generous.

But not only did Wayne Ward learn this, Eggie learned this too. Shortly after Christmas Mr. Ward was asked to referee the Junior High Basketball games, but he didn’t have a whistle. One morning he arrived at school and there was a little package waiting for him, in paper that had been requisitioned from the wastebasket. As he opened the package he could sense two big blue eyes looking intently at him waiting for his reaction. Inside was a beautifully carved willow whistle. Mr. Ward shouted, “Beautiful!” and gave the whistle a blow that rattled the windows. Eggie’s face lit up the room. You see, he too had learned the joy and blessing that comes with giving. Blessing begets blessing. That’s how we spread the love of God.

I don’t know if this vision of love will ever be fulfilled (fully realized) in the world. But what I do know is that it has to start with me. I have to be the change I hope for and pray for. The kingdom of love has to pervade my heart, my soul, my thoughts, attitudes, actions, and relationships before it can ever pervade the world. My responsibility is to keep this vision alive as best I can by welcoming the Spirit of Christ into my life every day, so that my pride will give way to humility, so that my lust for power and position will give way to service, and so that my greed will give way to generosity. I readily admit I have a long ways to go before this vision is ever fully realized in my life. But I plan to keep at it, because I am convinced that our calling as disciples of Christ and as human beings who bear God’s image is to keep living and spreading this vision of love as best we can.

O God, help us to fan into a flame in our own lives this vision of love that Jesus so beautifully embodied. Let it grow inside of us and let it be manifested and expressed in all our relationships and in all that we say and do. Help us to realize that whatever any of us might believe about the future, it is our responsibility right now to be the change we pray for and hope for. There is a kind of waiting that is useless and a kind that is useful – may we wait not idly, but prayerfully and actively doing all we can to spread the vision of your love. Amen.  
 




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