Dec 29

Aging Gracefully

When we hear that someone has aged gracefully, we nearly always think first of her or his appearance. We might say that someone who looks ten or twenty years younger than she actually is has aged gracefully, or that someone who has retained a certain nobility throughout his years has aged gracefully. If we’re not thinking about appearance, we might also say that someone who acts in a dignified way has aged gracefully. Continue reading

Dec 22

The Mother of God

“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?” (1 Corinthians 6:19). You won’t find Saint Paul’s poignant question to the Corinthians in our readings this morning, or in any Advent reading of any year. Yet many of us here this morning have spent our lives making our bodies temples of the Holy Spirit, seeking lives that conform to the weight of grace the Spirit brings. That our bodies—these frail, fleshy, figures—could become not just tents for the Spirit’s occasional visits but temples, sacred spaces set aside for the Spirit’s enduring presence, is, oh, it is an unspeakable mystery. How can this be?!

Advent is temple-building time, the season of waiting and preparation for the coming of the Lord. The temples we build are earthen vessels, made of simple dust and clay. No cedars of Lebanon here, no marble pillars or granite walls. And we do not adorn our temples with gold or silver; we do not fill them with incense or burnt offerings. The only gold that shines in them is of holy living; anything else is mere fool’s gold. The silver is the service we render to God and neighbor; the incense, our prayers rising to heaven. These things make for the beauty of holiness that is the heart of our temple worship.

David thought he would add on to his temple, that he would build an edifice worthy of the presence of the Lord, “a house of cedar” like his own royal palace. Nathan gets caught up in David’s enthusiasm and speaks a word not from the Lord: “Go, do all that you have in mind.” As it turns out, the word from the Lord is not what Nathan expected. “You are going to build me a house, David? No. My temple is where I set my presence. You will not build me a house. In fact, I will make you a house.” All the best intentions, all the right materials mean nothing unless God acts first, unless the Lord lays the foundation. And no matter how many temples we build, whether of brick or of body, the Lord’s presence will always make camp with the people he has chosen.

All of this leads us to Mary. In a way, everything in Scripture leads us to Mary. The faithfulness of generation upon generation of Israelites, servants of the Lord, builds up to this spectacular woman. Every person in the Old Testament who ever said yes to God, from Noah and Abraham to Ruth and Naomi, from Deborah and Gideon to Jeremiah and Esther, every one of them paved the way for Mary’s yes. Every prophet who faithfully brought to the people a word of the Lord, who put the flesh of his or her body, the mouth, the tongue, the voice, the hand, to the service of God’s word leads to this young Jewish girl, who makes room for the Lord of the universe in her innermost parts, in her womb. “It is no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me,” Paul tells the Galatians, but Mary can say those words in a way that even Saint Paul could not possibly imagine.

Mary’s body is truly a temple of the Holy Spirit. Gabriel tells her that she will give birth to a Son by the Holy Spirit, who will fill the core of her very being. The Spirit’s presence will be so total, so complete, that by the work of the Spirit Mary’s body will come to bear a child, her own son, a baby who is also the Son of God, the Word made flesh—Mary’s flesh, bone of her bone, blood of her blood, body of her body. He whom heaven could not hold found himself contained in Mary’s womb.

You who are mothers, who have given birth to children, know what it is like to have another person come to life within you. You know the joy, the mystery, the wonder that comes with a pregnancy. Others watch as your body is transformed by the body of the child within you, but you alone understand what your body knows during this nine-month transformation. It is something I, and so many others like me, can never begin to understand, because it is fleshly knowledge, and not the knowledge of ideas or sight or even relationships. And this knowledge never completely recedes; it does not disappear the moment the child is born. Many new mothers are familiar with the “baby blues” that follow a child’s birth; some even suffer from postpartum depression. To have such an intimate relationship change, really end, so suddenly can be catastrophic even in a moment that is otherwise full of joy at the life of the newborn baby.

This is the relationship Mary has to her son, Jesus. In her body is the body of her son, and so, like every other mother, Mary knows what it is like to have this child come to life inside her, to have her body grow around him as he progresses through the same stages of human development that every one of us went through in our own mothers’ wombs. Jesus is fully human, the son of Mary. Mary is Jesus’ mother. She is the mother of Christ.

But Jesus is also fully divine, the Son of God, so Mary is also the mother of God. Imagine! This frail, fleshy figure—the mother of God! Yet this is what we believe about Mary, what Christians have believed about her for nearly two thousand years. Mary is the mother of God. Just as my mother’s relationship to me is different from any other person’s, Mary’s relationship to her Lord and Savior is unique.

Speaking this way can make some Protestants uncomfortable. Shouldn’t the focus be on Christ? Might too much emphasis on Mary take away from the worship we owe her son? Such questions miss the point. In fact, they court saying something about Christ the church insists is simply wrong. God does not appear in human form [snap] like a shapeshifting magician. The Father, by the Holy Spirit, sends the Son fully into human existence. Downplaying Jesus’ mother risks downplaying Jesus’ humanity, risks saying that Jesus only appeared human. And denigrating Mary, as some Christians have done is—well, how could you sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” one moment and insult the mother of this great friend the next? You wouldn’t dare call yourself my friend and insult my mother. How much more should we praise and admire the mother of our Lord!

More than that: if Mary is the mother of Christ, the mother of God, and we share in Christ’s flesh, are members of his body, then Mary is our mother, too. The body and blood that he receives from his mother in the womb are the same body and blood given to us at Holy Communion. We who share everything in Christ, by the grace of God, also share in the benefits of Christ’s mother.

How, then, should we honor the Mother of God? First, foremost, and always by offering praise and worship to her son. Our Savior and Lord is her Savior and Lord. Second, by learning from her example how to make our own bodies temples of the Holy Spirit.

One way to do both of these things at the same time is to learn and memorize Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which Nancy read in the place of the Psalm this morning. Along with the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes, the Magnificat should be part of your regular private devotions. Make Mary’s words your words, just as God made his Word Mary’s. I learned it as a musician, so please forgive the archaic, but certainly beautiful, poetry: My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath magnified me, and holy is is name. He has shown strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away. He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel, Abraham and his seed forever. Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and will be forever, world without end. Amen.

Dec 08

Waiting for Holiness

            Advent is a season for waiting. Nobody likes to wait. We’re impatient; the things we want, we want now, not later. Waiting just gets in the way. In fact, waiting is more than an inconvenience, more than just one of life’s little annoyances. Being told to wait can feel like a punishment, like you’re being deprived of something someone else has now, sooner than you have it. You go to the doctor; she has some concerns about your symptoms and orders a test. You have to wait a week to get your lab work done. Then a month to see your doctor again, who now says you need to see a specialist. Getting an appointment with the specialist takes another three months. It’s like your life has been put on hold; it almost feels like you’ve been sentenced to a prison term while time passes between tests and appointments.  All along you wonder, “What do I have to do to be first in line?” “Why do I have to wait so long?”

The frustration all of us have at some point with waiting we share with Israel. God’s chosen people, Israel, is a people founded on a promise, in fact, on several promises, which is another way of saying that Israel is founded on waiting. God promises to make a great nation out of Abraham’s offspring, but Abraham sees only two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. God leads the people of Israel out of Egypt, headed for the Promised Land, but they have to wait 40 years before they enter. Hundreds of years later, when the prophet Isaiah lived, Israel again is waiting: to see if God will deliver her out of the hands of impending doom. Fast-forward another several hundred years, and we find John the Baptist declaring that it’s time to make the final preparations, that the time of Israel’s waiting is almost over.
            The waiting of Advent is not a punishment. When we wait during Advent, we are not denying ourselves the pleasures of the holiday season the rest of the world seems to be enjoying. Instead, Advent helps us to make a bold statement: “We are members of the people of God, grafted onto the promises given to Israel by the grace of God. Their story is our story. Our story is their story. Our story is not a story of instant gratification, of getting exactly what we want exactly when we want it. Our story is a story of learning how to wait patiently, of using the period of waiting God has given us. 2 Peter 3, which we heard at the lighting of our Advent wreath this morning, says it this way: “Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of the Lord as salvation.” Advent is the time when we remind ourselves and the world that we are a people who see waiting as a time of opportunity—the opportunity to grow in holiness.
            John Wesley taught the early Methodists that holiness is not something we can pursue on our own, as individuals, cut off from other Christians. What we need, Wesley said, is social holiness. Social holiness means that we seek holiness together, as a group, stopping to care for the least among us, never allowing a little one to stumble, never arrogantly assuming that Ihave reached a state of holiness while my brother or sister still needs to grow.
            We might well mistake John Wesley for the prophet Isaiah or John the Baptist this morning. “Comfort my people” and “Prepare the way of the Lord” are addressed to the whole people of Israel, not just to this or that individual. The words cry out for a response: make straight! Confess! Repent! Turn around! Israel’s pursuit of social holiness depends on responding faithfully to these demands.
            The problem was, in both Isaiah’s day and John the Baptist’s, there were people who thought waiting and holiness had nothing to do with them. In Isaiah 39, the chapter just before the one we read today, Isaiah warns King Hezekiah that the whole kingdom will be carried off to Babylon. Hezekiah shrugs his shoulders and says, “At least it won’t be on my watch!” In John the Baptist’s day, as we learn later in Mark’s gospel, King Herod has the same attitude. “Comfort—who needs that? Everything is fine. Prepare—for what?” Hezekiah and Herod are isolated, cut off and unable to learn from people who do need comfort, who long for the way of the Lord to be made ready.
 These same words today—Comfort! Prepare! Make straight! Confess! Repent!—are for the whole church, in every corner of the globe, and not just for me or for you. We need to be sure that we are not like Herod or Hezekiah, that we are never cut off from brothers and sisters who spend their lives waiting. So if we want to grow in holiness, if we want to respond faithfully to God’s call to us this morning, we need to be in fellowship, in solidarity, with people whose lives and needs are very different from our own. We need to listen to those in the church who are waiting.
Friends, right now, at this very moment, our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ are waiting. They are waiting in Ferguson, Missouri, for leaders brave enough to listen to concerns about police militarization. They are waiting in New York City for friends and neighbors to realize that justice system failures are not about liberal or conservative constituencies. They are waiting across the country for media personalities and reporters and bloggers to have even a shred of decency or an ounce of shame. They are waiting for their white brothers and sisters in Christ to listen to them instead of talking heads or loudmouth coworkers. They are waiting for the day of the Lord. Today our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ need to hear these words of reassurance and comfort and peace. And our holiness, our social holiness, depends upon our refusal to live in isolation from them and our willingness to stand in fellowship and solidarity with them.
You may be wondering why I’m talking about a problem that seems so far removed from Forest Hill, but that’s exactly why I cannot remain silent this morning, why I feel compelled by the Word of the Lord to speak out today. The very fact that this waiting that affects so many of our brothers and sisters in Christ could feel so distant is itself a symptom of the disease, a sign of the problem. And the problem is not nearly so far off as you might think. I wasn’t in Forest Hill a week this past summer before someone tried to tell me that black slaves should have been grateful to their white masters. I was speechless. And just last week a group in our community had the audacity to call me up and offer money to help out a local family in need—as long as it was a white family. This time, I had something to say, and when I asked why it needed to be a white family, the person on the other end of the line said frankly that some members of his group were prejudiced and some were even members of the KKK. I told him he should look for someone else to help him.
Advent is a season for waiting, a time to grow in holiness as members of the body of Christ. Holiness is what we will find in the manger on Christmas Day, what we will find in our Lord Jesus Christ when he returns: a word of love that listens to those who long for their waiting to end; a word of judgment for those who make the waiting painful and for those who live as if there were no pain to bear. To be holy as Christ is holy: that is our calling as Christians. If we are to be holy, we must walk with those, like our African-American sisters and brothers, who spend their lives waiting and do not want to wait any longer—just as Christ came to a waiting Israel and a waiting world. That is what Advent is for.
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.” Amen.