Advent IV – December 21, 2014
A sermon preached by Sue Cook at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA
- Can you feel the expectancy in the air? The last of our 4 Advent candles has now been lit. The time of waiting and preparing draws closer and closer to its end. For some of us there remains barely enough time to finish all that we feel me must complete before the first light of Christmas morning and for others, I’m guessing the 10 and under crowd, this same time period seems to drag on for e-v-e-r. “I can hardly wait”, chime the kids far and wide.
- As many may already know, mine was a Catholic upbringing. Along with brushing our teeth and laying out our uniforms for the next day, we all knelt and prayed a slew of ‘Hail Mary full of Grace’s and of course, a load of ‘God Blesses’ on behalf of my family, friends, and always our dog Nicky. There was no Protestant, “Now I lay me down to sleep in our litany!”
- While kneeling in a circle on our scratchy living room carpet with other like-minded 1950’s Catholics, I pulled a string of pretty little pearl beads through my fingers for what felt like eternity. During Advent we repeated 10 Hail Mary’s for each of the more Joyful Mysteries portion of Mary’s life as the Mother of Jesus.
- And of course, once a month you could spot me and my sisters scooting out of the dark confessional booth with the voice of the priest ringing in our ears, “Ego te absolve.” “Go now and sin no more.” While a very clear sense of peace descended on us once we were reconciled with the Lord, we almost always drew the same packet of penance to complete our end of the deal: 1 Our Father, 10 Hail Mary’s and one “Glory Be! was pretty much the deal.” But then my sins were all pretty much the same…fighting with my sisters, gossiping and not listening to my mother & teachers were the core issues there.
- But enough about me….for just a few moments, let’s step into another realm. One that I will call sacred time. It is that which has always been and will always be. Like a flowing river we can join it by simply taking in a quiet breath, releasing it and then perhaps imagining ourselves seated in our own sturdy little rowboat where all is balanced – all is safe. (longer pause)
- “At the center point of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point of spark which belongs entirely to God.”
- The Catholic mystic, Thomas Merton, is illuminating the deepest of sacred mysteries in this brief text. It caught me by such surprise. I’ve read and re-read it 100 times since then. (Repeat) “At the center point of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point of spark which belongs entirely to God.”
- I believe that Mary of Nazareth was communicating and interacting with God’s Angelic messenger, Gabriel, and the Holy Spirit – from that very I also trust that this sacred space is something each one of us has. Rather than being stained by original sin, I have come to understand that each of us has a spark of the Divine within our human nature.
- Mary was a flesh and blood girl – barely used to her new status as an engaged woman when Gabriel asked, on behalf of their God, that she become the vessel and bearer of the Christ child. While she was understandably confused by the way in which this would come to pass, there must have been something about the Angel’s voice and the peace that emanated from him, that allowed her to recognize her true destiny and trust that all would be well. She was able to fully commit to walk the path laid out by the Angel because it was lighted by her faith and inspired by the Holy Spirit. In that way she allowed her womb to become the life-giving nursery for the human body of Jesus which housed the great soul of Christ, the Jewish peoples’ long promised Messiah.
- Nadia Bolz-Weber, founder and pastor of The House for All Sinners and Saints, an Evangelical Lutheran Church, is a powerful force in the world of contemporary ministers. In 1996, well before she entered seminary, she was employed to cook meals and care for a Denver commmunity suffering from drug addiction and HIV. Each day she fed and cared for men and women who were both suffering from the deadly virus and who were also at the mercy of a heartless governmental system. She writes of the first time she attended Wednesday evening Vespers at a nearby chapel and heard the words of the Magnificat, the prayer offered by Elizabeth to her cousin Mary; “…you have cast the mighty down from their thrones and uplifted the humble of heart….you have filled the hungry with wondrous things and left the wealthy no part.”
- She thought that it was the “most radical and beautiful thing she had ever heard.” She did not know it was lifted straight from Luke’s gospel and not some Leftist songbook. She says simply, “I cried the first time I sang it.”
- And so by day she continued to care for the emaciated bodies and the wounded souls of this community and on Wednesday evenings she’d sing of a God who fills the hungry and uplifts the humble. “Singing that”, she says, “made the rest of my week make more sense.”
- Like me, with my years of repeating, ‘Hail Mary full of Grace’, Nadia and I were joining with ‘all who had come before, all the monks and nuns and faithful of every age’, as well as our own contemporary communities in honoring God’s presence not only in joy but also in the darkest of places, and in those times when all would seem lost.
- Almost 50 years ago, I stepped onto a Greyhound bus to visit my ailing mother. It was late & I had missed the last train or plane between NYC and Washington, DC. As I settled into my seat and opened my dog eared copy of Dr. Zhivago, I heard the driver begin to close the entry door. Just then two young men yelled out, “Wait, Wait!” Breathlessly they pushed their way inside and thrust their tickets into his outstretched hand. He directed them to hurry up and find their seats as we were going to be dealing with a snow storm and he needed to get going.
- I looked up as they neared my seat and caught the eye of the younger of the two, and as I did, a voice as clear and calm as I have ever heard said, “And this is the father of your children.” As quickly as that, I was given an introduction and a momentary glimpse into my own destiny. Trust me when I say, I did not walk around hearing voices, but like Mary I recognized something so truthful, so life-giving in those words that I never looked back.
- Neither of us could have known that along with the eventual glorious coming of our children, there would be pain and suffering beyond anything we might have imagined in our youth. 33 years after his birth, Mary stood at the foot of the cross, and no doubt cried out to the same God who once blessed her with Jesus’ life, that He now release their Son from his tortured body. For me, some children would be gone before they could live out a full life. My eldest came through the tears and grace of another mother’s terrible loss. The two later born from me, were each given very unique and challenging paths to trod. The blessings that flow from their hard earned compassionate selves now touch so many others in such life affirming ways.
- Earlier this week, I joined my son Ben, his wife Jesse and their year and a half old son, Max along with Ben’s dad, my former husband, Warren, for a holiday dinner at Ajax’s. Max was all over the place happily using his mother like his personal jungle gym. Jesse hardly had a chance to eat any of her dinner. She never once lost her look of patience and love for this beaming stream of light housed in his curly haired amazing roly-poly body. Ben finished his meal and offered to take the baby for a walk so she might eat her supper. In the middle of taking a bite of food and a sip of wine, she looked up at Warren & I, leaned very close in and whispered, “God bless you two for coming together and making Ben”.
- As Nadia says, “To celebrate the church liturgical year is to be sewn into the story of Jesus in a way that allows the fabric of our lives and our world to take on a holy texture.” It allowed Nadia to see Jesus in the ravaged bodies of the men and women she cared for because earlier in the week she had heard Jesus’ mom sing about how God fills the hungry and uplifts the holy.”
- And it allowed me in that moment, at the restaurant, to experience being at that center point, untouched by sin, pain or illusion, a spark belonging entirely to God, with my own Holy Family. I know – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that we were connected – all of us – throughout all time, by the courageous act of a simple young Jewish woman.