Sunday, December 9, 2018

Making Room for Holy Mystery

Second Sunday of Advent
Sermon preached at the Cathedral Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem PA

How do you prepare to encounter holy mystery? I have to admit even as I ask this question I am not sure where I am going with this. Nevertheless, this is the question that has been haunting me lately.

Advent is resonate with particular words: expectation, beginning, the coming. Anticipation, light, adventure. If you are familiar with Advent, if you have been down this road before, you can anticipate being caught unawares (as if such a thing were possible) and having your breath taken away. If Advent is new to you, if you have not encountered this paradoxical Christian season before--where you expect to hear about Mary and angels and baby Jesus, but find instead John the Baptist and words like repentance and prophesies about end times--you're in the right place. Because we hold in tension these two things: the birth of a baby along with new beginnings and the coming of a heavenly King along the end of the world.

It's honestly not easy to wrap your mind around. And that's the point: it is mystery. And Holy Mystery is not a small thing. Nor would we want it to be.

This time, this season, this moment, encompasses the expansiveness of God (as if such a thing were possible) and warns us against making the gospel too small. So much in the world works against keeping us open to mystery--any mystery. Even stories about the coming of our savior can be reduced a kind of test, matching each prophecy to some fact about the man Jesus. As if proving Jesus is true is the only use for the scriptures. Advent gets flattened into a countdown to Christmas. As if getting there is all that matters.
But we don't get ready for the coming of Christ simply by counting the days, because we are getting ready for something much more. This kind of preparation takes nothing less than the prophets. Which is why we began to day thanking God for sending the prophets "to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation." It's why we heard from Malachi and Isaiah in our scriptures today, and also the irascible John.

Bear with me, because to touch some of the mystery that calls to us today, I would like to expand our thinking about John. I would like to take us back to John's birth and the story of his parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah. They wanted a child so much, but had been unable to conceive. Then one day when Zechariah is serving in God's sanctuary, the Angel Gabriel visits him and promises that he and his wife will have son. And because Zechariah does not believe Gabriel, he is struck mute. Well, Elizabeth conceives and sequesters herself, remaining in seclusion for five months. And in the sixth month, the Angel Gabriel makes another visit, this time to a young woman you may have heard about--her name is Mary. And Mary comes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and Elizabeth's baby leaps in her womb. But that is another story.
So John is born, and Zechariah still mute, until the moment he writes on a tablet, "His name is John. And then Zechariah's mouth is unstopped. And what a beautiful canticle comes forth.

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy...
You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
   for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
To give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.
In the tender compassion of our God
   the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
  and to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Luke 1:67,76-79

So much here: preparation, salvation, forgiveness. Compassion, tenderness, breaking dawn.
This is what we are preparing for: In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us. This is who Jesus is coming for: those who dwell in darkness, those who cower in the shadow of death, those who hearts are constricted with fear and anxiety. And Jesus comes for you when you are the one who is beaten down by illness or addiction or depression, when you are the one who puts a good face on things while trying to hold your broken life together, when you are the one who has failed the ones you love.

This is what John is doing in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of forgiveness, a cleansing ritual that is bigger than anything you can imagine. And this is how big the promise is, why John quotes Isaiah: all flesh shall see the salvation of God. All flesh shall see the salvation of God. God's promise of new life is not a limited gift for a few people. This is about redeeming all of creation. Just think about it

This is not a small thing that God is about. It is big. It is holy mystery. do we prepare for this? What spiritual discipline, or artistic endeavor, or mindful practice can possibly prepare us, or our hearts, for the coming of Jesus (as if such a thing were possible). Well, here's the thing. Here's the amazing thing about God. God does not leave us on our own. God does not set the impossible before us and then just walk away.

As artist and Methodist ministry Jan Richardson says, “We sometimes fall so easily into thinking that preparing is something we do. … I feel drawn to ask, How have I already been prepared? What way has been made within me, without my having been aware of it at the time? …And you? What road runs through your heart even now, ready for Christ to enter?” 

How do you prepare to encounter holy mystery? Perhaps we begin by trusting that God is already at work within us. And knowing this for the expansive, exquisite, astounding good news that it is.

Come, Lord Jesus

Preparing for mystery

Second Sunday of Advent

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, 
make straight in the desert a highway for our God."
Isaiah 40:3

I have almost finished the dishes when I realize there is one more pan to be washed. I fill it with soapy water, knowing it will come clean easily and then I can set it to dry and be done with this task.

I enjoy doing the dishes. It is a kind of work that I find satisfying, easing, even prayerful. My husband cooks most of the meals. He does all the preparation. The planning. The shopping. The cooking. He delights in this. Cleaning up afterwards is my contribution to our shared household undertaking of family dinner.

As I rinse the pan clean, and look out into the dark winter night, I realize this is also a kind of preparation. I have made way for what will come next. The dishes, pans, utensils clean and ready to be employed again tomorrow. Tools for the creativity that will once more bring a meal to the table, a celebration of flavors, a labor of love.

As I linger in this moment, I wonder in what unexpected ways I have been about preparing a place in my heart for the Holy Mystery who is coming. Or, better yet,  in what ways a path is being prepared within me.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Playfulness calling

Saturday of the First Week of Advent

Turn again to your rest, O my soul,
for the Lord has treated you well.
Psalm 116:4

There is really no help for it. I must leave my laptop behind with the tech people. I think through my plans for the day, work that I meant to accomplish, and how much of what I do is tied to this piece of technology. Can I let it go?

My mind begins to troubleshoot, looking for workarounds (is there another computer I can borrow?), but then I see the gift. Rest. I set aside what I thought was important for the day, and open myself to God's invitation. Invitation to creativity, invitation to relationship, invitation to play.

I walk out into the cold, bright day, already feeling lighter. The world opens wide before me, and God has given me the freedom to enjoy it. More than that, the Holy One who created laughter and merriment and glee calls me into delightful possibility.

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Friday, December 7, 2018

Recalling kindness

Friday of the First Week of Advent

But those who run after other gods
shall have their troubles multiplied.
Psalm 16:3

I don’t even notice. It is a stranger who catches my attention as I am about to step into my car. I have dropped my purse on the sidewalk. I pick it up, saying something along the lines of, “Oh my goodness,” and wave a thank you to the couple who called my awareness to my mishap.

I almost don’t take the time to be grateful. It happens so fast, and I am on my way again in no time with no negative consequences. It is only later that I remember the couple and think on their kindness and attentiveness.

How much do I miss in any given day? Of kindness, of goodness, of assistance? How often do I focus on getting things done, running after the god of accomplishment and forgetting that love is not made of achievement?

I remember the couple again. I recall them, try to really see them, wonder where else they have offered their goodness this day. I send up not only a prayer of gratitude, but also one that God will expand my heart…again.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Lost along the way

Thursday of the First Week of Advent

You, O Lord, are my lamp;
my God, you make my darkness bright.
Psalm 18:29

In the darkness, I drive along back roads wending my way home. This route is full of twists and turns and even though I have traveled it before I take care not to lose my way, my eyes open for deer and other unexpected obstacles as I drive through trees, past streams and farms, over hills, the road ahead visible only a few feet at a time.

As I come to the outskirts of the city, I ease my vigilance. The road is wider, better lit, more familiar. I am on home territory. As my mind reaches toward home and the welcome awaiting me there, I have a sudden feeling of disconnection, displacement. Where am I? All at once I find myself some place I have never been. In the darkness, nothing looks familiar or right. For a second, I am utterly lost. In the next moment, I know myself to still be on the right road, still on my way home, still safe. The distortion, an illusion only, takes my breath away.

I think of my journey with Jesus and how God unfolds the road ahead of me. Sometimes the route is familiar and even in the dark I know my way. Sometimes even what is known becomes alien. And yet, though I may feel lost, I have not been lost by the one who calls me to follow the Way. I am never beyond God’s reach.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Liquid grace

Wednesday of the First Week of Advent

The words of the Lord are pure words,
like silver refined from ore
and purified seven times in the fire.
Psalm 12:6

I awaken hungry. As I reach for glasses and slippers, I sense not so much want as anticipation. It is early, I have time, I do not need to rush. I am hungry for my prayer time with Jesus.

I feel as though I have awoken within an envelope of grace. Any troubles of the day before or ahead have dissipated like mist. I am grateful, because this is pure gift. It doesn’t always work this way.

But today I am aware of God’s word waiting for me like a treasured friend toward whom I move eagerly. The poetry of the psalms, the cry of the prophet, the appeal of the exhorter. I open my book to the sacred texts and myself to the holy Word.

I savor the loveliness, aware that a word or two, a line here and there, have dropped into my core, infusing me with grace-filled possibility that I can carry with me into the day.

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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Refuge of exultation

Tuesday of the First Week of Advent

But all who take refuge in you will be glad;
   they will sing out their joy for ever.
You will shelter them,
   so that those who love your name may exult in you.
Psalm 5:13-14

I do not consciously start out to invoke a litany, but this is what it becomes, a growing recitation of friends, colleagues, and loved ones. Their names dance off the page of my journal, their presence circling the space in which I have centered myself in prayer.

I came seeking refuge, a place apart, some respite from a world that seems so full of trouble and disappointment. I intended to ask for help and protection, for others and myself. But because I have learned this practice, I began with gratitude, thanking Jesus for the encounters that bring me delight and laughter and hope.

The list pours forth, one name running headlong into another, the connections surprising and lovely. And as I pray each name, I realize how many of them also pray for me. We shelter together under the wings of love and in this place find safety and camaraderie and strength.

I have so many companions walking the Advent way with me. We lift our voices in exultation and expectation of the glory already on its way.

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