A spacious place | 21 December 2014 | Advent 4

Texts: 2 Samuel 7:1-11; Luke 1:26-38

On this final Sunday of Advent, we eavesdrop on conversations between a king and a prophet, a peasant girl and an angel.  After settling into his own royal house, the mighty King David wishes to build a house for the Lord, a temple.  The prophet Nathan initially affirms this move, but then has a dream in which he hears a message that David is not the one to build such a house.  Instead, the Lord will build David a house, a dynasty, and establish his kingdom forever.

As significant a conversation as this is, it is overshadowed by Gabriel’s visit to Mary, inviting her to be the one to give birth to one who will inherit the throne of his ancestor David.  If you’ve hung around the church for any length of time, this is a story you’ve heard before, and it seems there are two different ways we can encounter it.

The best analogy I can think of here is inspired by the fact that our family has been immersed in the Harry Potter series for the latter half of 2014.  One of the enchanted objects in this series is a tent that Harry and the Weasely family stay in during the Quidditch World Cup.   The tent is quite small on the outside, but after watching Weasely after Weasely walk into the tent, Harry enters and is amazed to discover that the tent is much bigger on the inside, with a kitchen and bunk beds and plenty of space for the whole family.

I thought this was something entirely out of the imagination of JK Rowling, but last week while skimming something completely unrelated came across a reference to the 1960’s science fiction series Dr. Who, which I know nothing about, except this one thing this book mentioned.  Apparently the Doctor travels through time in a space ship called a TARDIS, which is…much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.  So you baby boomers and millennials have more in common than you thought.  The pop culture of your youth is virtually identical.

One of the ways of approaching the story of Gabriel’s visit to Mary is to stand on the outside, looking at the tent; walking around it, observing its qualities, noticing what it’s made of; maybe even appreciating the details of its craftsmanship.  In doing this we might notice that this story has characteristics similar to other angelic visitations in the scriptures: Abraham, Moses, Jeremiah:  The angel has a message from God, a task to be carried out, and assures the chosen and favored recipient to not be afraid.  Mary, it seems, is being asked to do what the great David never could – provide a space, now within the temple of her body, for the Divine Presence.

We may note that this visit takes place far away from the centers of power, Jerusalem and Rome, in the rural village of Nazareth, in Galilee.  Our modern sensibilities may not quite know what to do with a conversation between a heavenly being and a human, much less a pregnancy promised to a virgin.  Some will hold this as a fundamental belief of the faith, while others will be comfortable with a more symbolic reading.  We take note of what is said of this child to be born: Son of the Most High, one who will reign in the place of David, a kingdom with no end, you will name him Jesus.  We listen to the silence as Mary, perplexed, ponders what sort of greeting this might be, finally giving her consent to God-knows-what will happen next.  We see that what happens next is that the angel departs, as quickly as it came, and that Mary gets no other instructions or words of assurance.

————————– STS 11 No wind at the window, verse 1

We approach this story from the outside, which is what we must do first.  There are many things to appreciate and treasure about it.  But there’s a second way to experience this story, which applies to how we experience the whole life of faith.  And that is, to open the tent flap and walk inside.  Over the centuries Mary has become a symbol of faithfulness, an icon of perfect receptivity to the will of God.  How else does one go about birthing Christ except by being perfectly willing – not necessarily perfect – but perfectly willing to allow one’s life to become a vessel for the Divine.  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary is an icon of receptivity, but the purpose of an icon is not to merely dazzle or impress, but to transform the one who sees it into the image of the icon.  If we dare look intently at Mary, if we dare ponder, as she ponders – then we step across the threshold into an area that suddenly, as if by magic, takes on a whole new spaciousness.  It’s bigger on the inside than it is on the outside.  Mary becomes the pattern that is extended and available to all of us.

And the pattern is, quite simply, to allow Christ to be birthed through our life.  To receive, as a gift full of grace, that small seed of the Spirit, which plants itself in us, grows, and takes on a life of its own.  Mary’s declared status of “favored one” is not intended to make her into a spiritual rock star, as much as communicate that those without status, those considered insignificant in the structure of things, those from Nazareth, are indeed gifted with favor and grace.

I love that we told that Mary is perplexed.  Maybe it gives us permission to list perplexed among the spiritual virtues.  We certainly live in perplexing times.  The icon of faithfulness is perplexed, and so she ponders.  She mulls it over.  She sits with the ambiguity, the lack of clarity, the confusion.  She does have one question: “How can this be?”  Good question.  How is this going to work out?  The answer she gets is an answer one can always count on getting when asking this question: “The Holy Spirit will overshadow you.”

  1. She does not wait to have it all figured out. Instead she arrives at a place of being OK with not knowing.  OK with the limitations of her own perceptions and abilities and OK with being overshadowed.  OK with perplexity.  If this is something the Spirit wants to do through her, the Spirit can step it up and carry it out.

Karl Rahner was one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, a leading voice during the Vatican II changes in the Roman Catholic Church.  He once said, “In the coming age, we must all become mystics – or be nothing at all.”  Rahner died 30 years ago, so we are, inescapably, in “the coming age” that he spoke of.  What he means by mystics is an openness to genuine God experience, to be transformed by Love, with a capital L.  That’s what this second kind of reading is all about.  It’s a mystical reading of Mary and all of scripture.  Inside the spacious tent Gabriel speaks to you, you are a favored one, and it is yours to be perplexed, and to ponder, and to say, if you so choose, “Here am I, a servant, let it be with me according to your word.”

————————- STS 11 No wind at the window, verse 2

“We must all become mystics, or be nothing at all,” but let’s be clear that all this is not just happening inside one’s head.  Mary isn’t simply having a deep spiritual experience here, consenting to some abstract notion of a force called Christ having a presence in her life.  When Mary agrees to receive this message, she is agreeing to bear, in and through her body, a human life.  She is agreeing to pregnancy, and mothering, and everything that goes with it.  She will experience the nausea of morning sickness, risks and certainly pain, and there will be loss of sleep, post-partum depression.  If I had any idea what it was like to actually be pregnant I might have more to say about it, but it is, I hear, a full body experience, multiple bodies.  This is a story of incarnation, carn means flesh, and the mystic is one who finds in the fleshiness of the world the very presence of God.

This is why, in our worship, we cannot merely speak of loving God but must always speak of loving our neighbor, because it is all a single act.  This is surely why this has felt like an especially heavy Advent season as we have been confronted with repeated headlines of bodies murdered, abused, massacred, and tortured.

Inevitably, we ponder our own bodies.  We are ever more aware that our national citizenship and the color of our skin is freighted with history.  For better or for worse we are far more than our individual life story.  The sins of our fathers and mothers are still with us, still awaiting redemption.  Inside the tent, sometimes there’s a little too much space for comfort, too many rooms for too many bodies, and it would be a whole lot easier to observe it from the outside and walk away when we feel like it.

Our bodies can be agents of healing.

Gabriel and Mary are having a discussion about bodies.  We celebrate and honor bodies and this season we especially marvel at the birth of Jesus, this inheritor of the throne of David who ended up rejecting all things that reeked of royal power.  This Jesus who lived in his body in such a way that his followers came to believe it was the very life of God come to them.  This one who redeemed the world, yet left it verifiably unredeemed.  Who left his followers not with a three point sermon, a five year plan, or a ten article doctrine of faith.  But left them with a meal.  A loaf of bread and cup of wine.  Something for the body.  That mystical and most practical of gifts we continue to live with.

To all who are hungry, God takes the form of bread and we receive it as a gift, full of grace.  Soon you will be invited to come forward and receive.  And as you receive, I encourage you to ponder this act as a way of sharing in Mary’s response to the angel.  By taking the bread into your body, we share as members of the body of the Christ, making ourselves available to being overshadowed by the Spirit. “Let it be to me according to your word.”  Christ is born, Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again.  Amen.

———————– No wind in the window, verse 3 (solo) and 4 (congregation)

“Truth In The Inward Being” – 3/29/09 – Psalm 51, John 12:20-33

There’s a story in 2 Samuel where King David is sitting in his palace and is visited by the prophet Nathan.  Nathan greets the king and begins telling about a situation, which David believes to be a current court case that the prophet is bringing before him to hear what his judgment might be.  Here’s what Nathan says:  There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor.  The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing – except for one little ewe lamb, which he had bought.  He tended it, and it grew up together with him and his children: it used to eat his morsel of bread, drink from his cup, and nestle in his lap.  It was like a daughter to him.  Well, there was a traveler who came to the rich man, needing hospitality, but the rich man didn’t want to take one of his own flock or herd to feed this wayfarer; so he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the person who had come to him. (2 Samuel 12:1-4)

David’s response is exactly the kind that Nathan was anticipating.  The king becomes furious, or in the literal Hebrew way of saying it, his nostrils burn hot.  He declares that this man deserves to die, and pay back four times what the lamb was worth, because he showed no pity.

After this tirade, the prophet Nathan breaks out the punch line.  Speaking directly to the king, he says, “YOU are that man.”   

On a typical day, this may not have been such a zinger.  A king like David had probably become accustomed to the critique of various prophets of his day – urging economic fairness, condemning injustice, always keeping the king’s feet to the fire to see that he carried out laws that protected the weak and held the powerful accountable.  But this was not a typical time for David.  Just before this encounter, after sending his army out to war, he had been lounging around on the roof of his house, spotted a beautiful woman bathing, and ordered her brought to the palace so he could sleep with her.  Bathsheba became pregnant.  In order to cover himself, David had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, who had been fighting for the king, brought back home on furlough so he could hopefully *spend some time* with his wife so it will appear that the baby is his own.  But Uriah wanted to stay in solidarity with the men on the battlefield and sleeps alone.  So David goes another step and sends a letter to his army commander Joab to place Uriah in a position where there is heavy fighting and to make sure that he doesn’t make it out alive.  Uriah is killed, David receives the news, waits for Bathsheba to go through the traditional seven days of mourning for the loss of her husband, and then takes her as his own wife, pleased with how things have worked out for him. 

The way these stories are told in 2 Samuel, we are presented with these two scenes right alongside each other.  King David is pleased that he has gotten away with murder, and taken the innocent man’s wife as his own….David is outraged that a powerful man would take as his own the much loved lamb of a man much poorer than himself.  There is an intentional incongruity going on that David can’t yet see that we are supposed to see.  It’s not that David can’t see injustice.  Apparently, he sees perfectly clear when gazing at the situations around him.  What others are doing.  It’s just that, in this case, he can’t see injustice in himself.  His vision is severely blinded by an inattention to his own reality.

 Today’s Psalm and gospel reading work with this incongruity, this disconnect.  They seek to remove the barrier that we often construct between what we look for outside of ourselves, and what we look for in ourselves.  They challenge our tendency to get caught up in double standards, to neglect the truth that is within us, whether that truth be ugly or beautiful.  And the gospel text offers that the cross is a central metaphor for bringing together the truth of the inner and the outer, uniting them in a way that breaks through our blindness and helps us to see more clearly.

Psalm 51 is a Psalm of penitence, a prayer of confession.  It begins by saying, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love: according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgression.”  Of note is the heading that appears before these words.  “A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba.”  It’s not certain when the final form of this Psalm was composed, but the editors of the Psalter want the reader to be aware that in our minds it should be linked with David’s response to Nathan’s parable, his shocking realization that he is the one in Nathan’s story that caused his nostrils to burn.  The Psalm is an intense confession of brokenness and the desire for wholeness.  We can picture that much of the righteous energy that was felt in David against the wrong that he saw in the wealthy man of the parable has now been focused on himself.  He is engaged in soul work.  One of the lines that stood out to me in reading it this week was v. 6, “You desire truth in the inward being.”  This is what is going on here.  The poet is not hiding from himself, but painfully looking, probing, uncovering whatever it is he might find in his own soul.  Even as this is happening, there is an acknowledgement that it is happening in the light of the steadfast love and abundant mercy of God.   

This kind of soul work, the inward journey, is something that I’ve heard talked about over the last number of years from the Islamic tradition.  Since 9/11 most of us in the West have come to associate Muslim jihad with the holy war that militant radicals have declared against the West and secularism.  But various Muslim leaders have spoken against this, reminding us, and reminding fellow Muslims, that the meaning of jihad is the struggle against evil, and that the place that this primarily happens is in one’s own soul.  There is a saying by the prophet Mohammed that goes, “The best jihad (struggle) is by the one who strives against his own self for Allah, the Mighty and Majestic.”  There was also an occasion when the prophet Mohammed was coming back from a battle when he said, “We return from the lesser jihad, to the greater jihad,” referring to the struggle to overcome the harmful forces within one’s own life.  (http://www.religioustolerance.org/isl_jihad.htm)  This notion of paying attention to the inward journey, and making connections between the inner and the outer, is something that is a common thread throughout different religious paths.

These last couple years there has been an interesting movement on college campuses (mostly non-church related schools, I believe) by some who are trying to do some creative work around what might happen if we are honest with ourselves and with the traditions that we represent.  It involves the creation of a reverse confession booth.  The idea is that a group sets up a booth in the middle of campus that looks like a traditional confession booth, only instead of inviting people to come and confess their sins, they invite people to come and hear them confess the sins of the church.  If a passerby were to enter into the reverse confession booth, they could hear a person confessing that the church has been too narrow-minded throughout its history, that it has not been fair to women, that it has too often condoned the evils of war and slavery and that it has not treated the poor the way Jesus taught.  From what I’ve read, the idea of the reverse confession booth has had mixed results.  Some groups have not been able to get many people to be curious enough to even enter the booth, while others have been welcomed and had the effect of changing people’s attitudes toward the church.  It’s an experiment about what might happen when we are honest about who we are and the stories that we carry with us.           

In John’s gospel, Jesus makes a statement that the Psalmist would have surely welcomed, and that might cause us to re-evaluate how we think about our struggle with being caught up in harmful thoughts and actions.  He says, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” (John 12:31)  It’s an odd statement, something that should catch our attention, especially in light of the two thousand years that have followed it in which it appears that whatever ruler of this world Jesus was referring to still seems to have quite a grip on the course of history.  When Jesus said “Now,” he must have meant some “now” in the distant future, a time yet to be determined.  “Now,” as in “not now.”  The oddness continues in the statement from Jesus that follows that would seems to indicate that Jesus was indeed referring to Now-Now.  “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself,” after which John adds the commentary that Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

In John, Jesus is about the business of redefining the human perception of God and bringing us into communion with this creative Spirit of the cosmos.  Humanity is blinded to the truth about itself and the truth about God.  Jesus lives the truth, and teaches that we “will know the truth, and the truth will set us free.”  When Jesus says, “now is the judgment of this world,” we may have images of judgment that involves condemnation.  When Jesus says that he will be lifted up and draw all people to himself, we may have images of a glorious exaltation, where we are supposed to be dazzled by splendor.  But the story that Jesus tells with his life is a very different one.  Jesus does “judge the world”, and he is lifted up, but he does this through going to the cross, lifted up for all the world to see. 

It’s a process similar to the one that Nathan the prophet brought to David.  Rather than condemn David, Nathan shows him a picture of the truth that David was unable to see before, and David has the seed of truth within him that recognizes the truth when he sees it.  And it draws him toward the loving kindness of God.  One way of interpreting Jesus’ going to the cross is that Jesus death becomes a metaphor for what we were unable to see before.  Jesus externalizes and makes visible in his body what was before unseen.  He becomes a parable.  Our hidden violence and neglect of justice and inattention to what is good are lifted up right in front of our eyes.  Similar to Nathan’s parable it is held up to us like a mirror, revealing the shocking punch line that we are caught up in systems and attitudes and actions that lead to the harm of innocents. 

If we recognize ourselves in that story, and recognize that this is not told as a story of condemnation, but a story of reconciliation, then we are drawn into something that takes us beyond where we were before, beyond the incongruities of not knowing ourselves or God.  We’re drawn to God through Jesus not out of compulsion and force or fear, but out of a recognition that what we are looking at is true.  The cross is true.  It both reveals our own violence, even as it nonviolently welcomes us into a communion based on forgiveness and a renewed Spirit. 

It’s something that Jesus compares to the process of being cracked open, and undergoing death ourselves.  Speaking about himself, but also speaking about the process of coming into this new way of being, Jesus says, “I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

This is the journey with Jesus to the cross.  Allowing God to crack us open, and discovering, ultimately, not something horrible and ugly, but beneath that, further in, deeper within, something as holy as a seed, that grows and bears much fruit.

I want to close by sharing a reflection that Father John Foley has written on the growth of this seed.  Here is part of what he says:

“A tiny grain ensconces itself within the earth. It tucks itself into complete darkness, but fearlessly, because its tough, safe shell is home. The seed knows it belongs there. In quiet. In growth.
Then calamity.
The shell-shelter turns tight and encroaching and painful. The growing seed finds that its protector is opposing it, holding it back. Crushing it. Only one answer. As if planned from all eternity, the husky shell cracks right open. Wait, I need you, the seed shouts! Moisture trickles in, along with bits of dank, cold soil. Anything and everything can now march right into the heart of what was a quiet, pure place.
The seed goes to pieces. These pieces cope somehow, crazily extending their new, thin arm outward so it can slither through the shell’s cracks. It dares into the rough, cold mud. How foolish and shaming. Stay where safety is, you fool!
The transforming little self takes on an unexpected new life, a new home, but now in the slippery soil. Eking upwards, slowly and cautiously, it makes its way.

Such a journey. Now there are hard clods to press through, and pebbles aplenty. The higher soil gradually dries up and stops yielding to the growth. The top crust of ground forbids any more movement: an ultimate, intractable and stupefying barrier.
Give up, all voices say.
Except one, from within. Push. Push, it whispers. Find a weak spot. Push hard! The young sprout locates just a thinnest fracture in the tough skin. With certainty that might have been scratched directly onto its heart, the vine-to-be discovers it was made for what lay ahead, not for the darkness and blindness behind.
Light! Warmth! Tiny arms squirm out of new stems and they reach out for the sun’s astonishing light. They stretch and yawn in the wafting breezes of Spring.”
http://liturgy.slu.edu/5LentB032909/reflections_foley.html

 The spiritual life can be described as the rentless pursuit of that which is true.  It is the quest to tell the truth about ourselves.  And it is filled with the gift of discovering the truth about God, that welcomes us, even as we are mercifully judged and cracked open to embark on a journey of struggle and growth.