Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Conveying the Treasure of God

Scripture for the 4th Sunday of Advent includes II Samuel 7:1-11,16; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

The angel Gabriel is a busy fellow. Chief messenger of God, legend also claims that he is guardian of the celestial treasury. As such, I expect we can say that Gabriel is the patron saint of parish treasurers; but I would have thought that God might be above needing a treasury, so let’s take this legend as reminding us that Gabriel got to announce the transfer of God’s greatest treasure from heaven to earth, Jesus, the very Word and will and way of God.

That we have two archangels side by side, Gabriel and Michael, in the windows of our east aisle is intentional and serves the purpose of memorializing Amos Lawrence Hopkins, a Williamstown native who fought in the civil war (hence Michael, captain-general of the hosts of heaven and patron saint of soldiers). After the war, Hopkins became Administrator of Railroads for the entire country, a trustee of Williams College and a member of this parish’s first building committee. (So we can blame him—or give him credit.)

If Michael stands guard as a man of action memorializing another man of action, why is he paired with Gabriel? Remember that Hopkins was in charge of getting the trains to run on time. That takes money and communication, and both are said to be Gabriel’s turf.

While Michael is vested in red of sovereign power, violet of passion and suffering, and gold of sacredness, Gabriel is done out in blue, the Virgin Mary’s color and the color associated with truth, and he’s holding lilies, Mary’s flower. It’s as if his gig in Nazareth left its mark on him forever.

Before he announces to Mary the news that made her weak in the knees, Gabriel the truth-teller makes sure Mary is grounded in truth by reminding her, “The Lord is with you.” This anchors in truth what is being asked of Mary. God does not require without making able. Responsibility is met by grace and exceeded by grace, transforming what feels like obligation into what is privilege.

But Mary is human, entirely human, and Mary is young, very young, and the timing is all out of joint. Gabriel speaks suddenly of conceiving and bearing and birthing and naming, but at that very moment Mary is engaged but not yet wed, and far from settled. She’s temporarily a displaced person, thanks to the new tax program of Emperor Augustus that put families on the road to return to their ancestral towns for a census. Parents hearing the news of pregnancy usually rejoice and start imagining what color to paint the nursery. “We haven’t even slept together,” protests Mary.

And then… and then. Gabriel reaches into the treasure of God and teaches Mary to recognize how in this moment of truth it is up to her whether to spend her heart and soul on the debit side of the ledger, dwelling on all the impossibilities and finding all the reasons to resist what is asked of her, or to invest her heart and soul in the receipts side of the book of life and recognize all that is positive: the favor of God, the power to conceive, a son already named by God, a throne on which he will sit, the Holy Spirit who will work intimate power within her… for nothing will be impossible with God.

She makes her choice: “Here am I,” she exclaims, diving into the deep end of the pool of God’s treasure, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be. Let it be… Let it be with me according to your word.” And with that assent the mystery of incarnation takes hold within her, and the history of redemption is written no more in the terms of law and its commands, but in the language of love unearned and undeserved, grace, the amazing movement of the treasure of God’s love through the womb of Mary.

The Christmas pageant we shall see this afternoon features a number of dwelling places: an inn where there is no room, another inn where Joseph and Mary hear of a poor substitute, the only vacancy remaining in Nazareth, a manger, a cattle shed (or, some would say, a cave). But the prime real estate at the heart of the pageant will be the place within Mary, the mansion her body makes for the Son of God. In her is fulfilled Nathan’s prophecy that we heard earlier, “…the LORD will make you a house…”

So our collect on this fourth and final Sunday of Advent asks God to wipe clean and sweep out and hose down our conscience, our ethical capacity, our moral vision, our reason for being, our mission purpose, that the real estate of our lives may become Jesus’s home.

May you and I and many be open, this Christmas, to the transforming love, the treasure, of God. And may this treasure free and spark our ethical energy, our moral vision, our faithful purpose, so that the earthen vessels of our lives convey divine treasure to this world.