Friday, January 30, 2015

The Form of This World Is Passing Away

Scripture for the 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany includes Jonah 3:1-5, 10; I Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20

“For the present form of this world is passing away.”

President Obama, in his State of the Union address, encouraged us to identify a number of ways in which our nation’s strengths can be recognized. I have an enduring trust in him and what he says, and if his purpose was to nudge us into a finer gratitude for the life we enjoy in this country, I’m all for it. Grateful hearts could serve us well at this time in our history, and I would by far prefer the future to be shaped by a union of grateful hearts than by a pack of ungrateful hearts.

But even our Encourager-in-Chief addresses the fact that the present form of this world is passing away when he turns to the subject of global warming and climate change. That’s because there’s really no other way as yet to address the profoundly disturbing state of the earth without dwelling on the diagnosis. The treatment, the remedy, remains elusive. We’d like a lot more success stories to tell, but as a nation the movement to invest sacrificially in order to achieve success is still in its infancy. And the gang in Washington isn’t leading us there.

Listening to news emanating from the Middle East, where a collapsed government in Yemen lies between our old pals in Saudi Arabia and a caliphate-in-the-making of the remains of Syria and Iraq, is enough to persuade us yet again that the present form of this world is passing away.

I’ll bet we could create a longer list yet of examples of this chilling observation. But how much chill can we stand all at once on a winter Sunday? And where is there good news to be found to encourage us?

Isn’t there a degree of good news in that this grim headline of transience comes to us from an apostle writing to one of his church plantings two thousand years ago? St. Paul’s examples of a disintegrating society would surely be different from those I’ve led off with, but clearly the Gospel of Jesus Christ as Paul knows it addresses the state of the union between God and humanity as a bond of redeeming love equal to the task of dealing with world orders that sooner or later, all of them, pass away.

Each of our three readings models an insight that will help us faithfully deal with potentially overwhelming times.

The first might be called revolutionary, even treasonous. It is to accept the startling fact that God loves the very people who stand on the opposite sides of our social, cultural, religious, political, and international divides. This lesson from the story of Jonah takes us to ancient Nineveh, one of the oldest and greatest cities of Mesopotamia. If the past twenty-four years of war in Iraq haven’t obliterated the site entirely, the city’s remains are on the east side of the Tigris River, directly across from present-day Mosul.

Jonah has been sent there to give the residents of Nineveh a chance to repent and so escape calamity. It is God who has called the Hebrew prophet Jonah to undertake this mission, requiring Jonah to enter Assyria, Israel’s sworn enemy, and in Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, to do open-air preaching of a message that made Jonah’s skin crawl. It felt like aiding and abetting the enemy, but he was told to warn those Ninevites that their great city would go under unless they relented from their long-standing oppression of Israel.

This might be like sending Benjamin Netanyahu to Tehran to persuade the Iranians to beat their swords into plowshares. Not that re-purposing swords wouldn’t be desirable; but neither Jonah nor Netanyahu would believe it possible, hardened as they are against their foes. It’s no wonder that Jonah tried his darnedest to avoid this mission, jumping onto a ship heading the opposite direction from Nineveh, only to have to jump from that ship into his famous encounter with a whale that knew more about obedience to God than Jonah did, spitting him back into active duty.

And the point of the little Book of Jonah, the reason for its inclusion in the Hebrew Bible (against sizeable odds), and the reason for it being cited in the New Testament, is to announce that God’s love is wide enough and deep enough to include one’s most hated enemies. For Israelites to boast of being God’s People and then to treat Gentiles as if they were despised by God, is unacceptable to God, says the Book of Jonah.

So there is one insight to help us deal with the overwhelming times we are in: Be wary of vilifying and dehumanizing people on the other sides of our social divisions.

A second appears in that letter from Paul. It boils down to this puzzle: Deal with the world as though you have no dealings with it. Right.

What I believe he means is suggested by his examples of havings. Each of them—having a spouse, mourning a loss, celebrating a gain, buying and owning—each of these most basic states could shut out the rest of the world, the rest of life. Each instance of me/my/mine may generate tunnel vision, exclusivity, preoccupation that prevents us from seeing choices worth considering, blocks the freedom that is our truer state, prevents a more generous sharing.

At Vespers on Thursday, we observed the feast day of Phillips Brooks, late 19th-century preacher, poet, and bishop. I came upon a sermon he preached on the subject of humility. I expect it was given from one of the Philadelphia pulpits he occupied, or from his early years at Trinity Church, Boston. In any case, an upscale audience warming up to enjoying the Gilded Age.

He took aim. “It is the narrowness of our life that makes us proud. I should think one of you merchants would be proud of his successful business if he saw nothing beyond it. I should think you men and women would be proud of your splendid houses if you look no farther. But if you could only see God forever present in your life, and Jesus dying for your soul, and your soul worth Jesus’ dying for, and the souls of your brethren precious in His sight, and the whole universe teeming with work for Him, then must come the humility of the Christian. To that humility let us devote ourselves, for in a humility like that alone is peace.”

A second insight into dealing with the present form of this world passing away, say the saints Paul and Phillips, is to look farther, to look beyond what could narrow our hearts and to require of ourselves what God requires and causes: broad and open hearts.

And that brings us to the doorway of a third insight—more accurately, to the seashore, the Sea of Galilee. In this liminal thin place where earth and sea and sky touch, Jesus announces a parallel reality to the disintegrating world Paul names. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Both men are right. The present order is passing away; at the same time, God is doing a new thing. Entering human flesh, God is working great purpose out from within the human heart, broadening it, opening it.

On which side of the liminal divide will we choose to live?

To vilify our opponents and adversaries is to lock ourselves into the present form of this world.

To look no farther than our own business and not beyond our homes and belongings, our plans and feelings, is to be married to the present form of the world.

To obey when we hear Jesus say, “Follow me,” is to let him set our course in a parallel reality to a disintegrating world. To follow him there is to learn to practice a stewardship shaped by God’s fulfilment. To welcome the nearing Kingdom of God is to learn skills of repentance, humility, and belief that will cross the thin divide and bring to this world the grace it needs.

(Brooks’s sermon is found in his collection “The Purpose and Use of Comfort, and Other Sermons”, E. P. Dutton and Company, 1906, pp. 352-352.)

Monday, January 12, 2015

Humbled and Empowered

Scripture for the First Sunday after the Epiphany includes Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

The Arctic cold front that blew through midweek was a piece of work, wasn’t it? We’ve seen worse, and we’ve felt colder, and we yet may this winter—but it was humbling, sitting where I was right here, alone in this room, when the front edge of that air mass skimmed across this roof and shook the place.

It made me think of the Day of Pentecost, when the apostolic band, gathered in the loft where they’d kept the Passover meal with Jesus—this would be seven weeks after that wild night of intimacy, betrayal, arrest, terror—and on the fiftieth day post-Easter, felt the place rock when the Spirit, the Wind, in Hebrew the “ruach” of God, blew through.

The psalmist had experiences of God like that: “The voice of the LORD splits the flames of fire; the voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness… The voice of the LORD makes the oak trees writhe, and strips the forests bare.”

Back in the apostolic loft, those men and women were simultaneously humbled and empowered by their encounter with the Holy One of Israel whom they now clearly knew was also the Holy One of their futures.

Simultaneously humbled and empowered. If you would like to remember those words, feel free. I love it when people say to me thus-and-so, this-and-that, then add the tag “as you said in your sermon recently,” often proving my darkest suspicion that what people seem to recall from my sermons has perilously little to do with what I have tried to express. But that is okay—simultaneously humbling and empowering— okay to be reminded that what we try to name here in this room is elusive and in constant motion like the wind, and highly personal (therefore subject to subjective recall).

But if you were to remember the few words “simultaneously humbled and empowered”, and to quote them back to me in the next week or two, I will gladly recognize the subject I attempted to name today.

Thursday evening, when it was cold enough to make us think twice about going outside again, Diana and I went to see the film “Wild,” based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir of consciously becoming the woman her mother raised her to be.

The film captures the 94 days and nights in which Strayed hiked the 1700-kilometer Pacific Crest Trail, walking into becoming the person she knew she could be. She chose a noble, harrowing, archetypal remedy to the awful state of being stuck in the aftermath of her own poor choices and the poor choices of many around her. She chose to hike the trail, to make a pilgrimage, though she wouldn’t have called it that at the outset, when she had no use for God who, she thought, had screwed things up badly in her wild life thusfar—her abusive father disappeared, her mother recently succumbed to cancer, Strayed’s addictions to heroin and to sex, an unwanted pregnancy, a failed marriage, no career path to speak of… A wild life in one sense of the word, to be tested now by wilderness, healed by the wild, her survival the result of her own wits, her encounters with people of good will and with people of bad will, and, ultimately, her encounters with the holy as her arduous trek lets her ultimately sing with the psalmist, “I was lifted out of the desolate pit, out of the mire and clay, my feet set upon a high cliff and my footing made sure.”

Those aren’t her words, to be sure; Strayed doesn’t emerge from this journey a believer in a traditional sense. But she does experience inner reconciliation in several senses. And she shows where she’s headed by using quotations from poets and authors who have spoken to her, leaving at each sign-in station on the trail a line or two from Emily Dickinson, James Michener, Robert Frost, Adrienne Rich. Rich’s poem “Power” is enough a compass to Strayed’s journey that I’ll read it in full:

Living in the earth-deposits of our history

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
her wounds came from the same source as her power

“Power”, by Adrienne Rich

“Denying her wounds came from the same source as her power.” Simultaneously humbled and empowered, you might say. In the film, before it’s known that her mother is terminally ill, Strayed faults the woman for not coming to terms with her own wounds (especially at the hands of that abusive husband, Strayed’s own father). The daughter finds her mother’s cheerfulness inconsistent with the reality the younger woman sees, and she accuses her of denial. In reply, the mother asks (approximately), “Would I re-write my story if I could? No. Because then I wouldn’t have you.”

The first Christian apostles discovered the intertwined nature of their woundedness and their readiness for being the people Jesus called them to be. Their terror on that wild night of intimate communion with him abruptly unwinding in betrayal and arrest, their losing him on that God-forsaken rubbish tip of Golgotha the next day—these wounds, his wounds, seemed to them the pathetic remains (and all that remained) of a promising movement. And so, for fifty days, they hung low, they pieced together the traumatic puzzle of what had befallen him and them, they grieved, they hiked the trail of their sorrows.

Until that fiftieth day, when their good sense in gathering, sabbath by sabbath, to continue searching his teaching and honoring their fellowship in the breaking of bread and prayer became the site of their empowerment. The shelf-life of this transforming dynamic reaches to our own day, as our own experience teaches us that to be the people Jesus raises us to be requires of us a humility born of our wounds and a power born of God. It is when we engage both that the Spirit engages us—or is it that the Spirit engages us first? We keep an open mind and heart. We just know that it takes this simultaneous humbling and empowering to live the life of repentance and pardon, bold witness, recognition of God present in all, justice-seeking, peace-making, dignity-respecting— the whole trek, the holy trail of the covenant love we and God have embarked on.

The apostles’ baptism in the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost appears to have shaped the early Church’s expectation of what it means to be initiated into the mysteries of Christ’s life and death and resurrection. So we get today a snapshot, a first-century selfie, of a dozen believers in the city of Ephesus, baptized with more than water for repentance: baptized also with Spirit for practicing and proclaiming covenant love. If we had to describe this baptism as being either for humbling or for empowering, we’d say empowering.

And if we had to choose between those two purposes in describing the baptism Jesus undergoes at the hand of John the Baptizer? That would be a tough call. The heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on Jesus like a dove: that’s the wild stuff of power, and if we need words to accompany action, John proclaims, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me, right here before you today; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the laces of his hiking boots.”

The humbling of John, you could say; and that would be a noteworthy thing, for if there’s one trait John didn’t have, he was not shy or reserved. No introverted Episcopalian, he.
No stranger to the Spirit.

But because this means he’s not the center of this story, we see the humbling all circling around Jesus. He begins his public ministry at a revival meeting where the price of admission is repentance of sins. He stands waist deep in the river Jordan not with his twelve selected buddies (if they’re there, they don’t yet know what he has in mind for them); no, he rubs shoulders with a great crowd of people, all sorts and conditions, city dwellers and villagers, poor rustic farmers and people of means. And the water of the river Jordan, say the commentators, was no sparkling crystal stream. We are talking mud, serious mud.

The Son of God, the Son of Man, the King of kings and Lord of lords, is humbled not for a day but for the mission entrusted to him. What happens today in the Jordan River is of a piece with all that will unfold in Jerusalem in his final days, when he enters the city “humble, and mounted on a donkey,” drawing the attention and stirring the hope of all. And every step of those three years of his public ministry between his baptism and his passion brings him to fulfill his mission by approaching all sorts and conditions of people with, simultaneously, humility and power intertwined in their wounds, and his, and ours.

This past week, we have seen powerful evidence that we live in a deeply wounded, and wounding, world. Desperate power has lost its way without humility, bringing grim terror in France, in Nigeria, in Ukraine, in Gaza. Today, we have chosen to stand in the light of the Lord’s day. May the Spirit of God make us, and all who gather at tables of new life around the world, instruments of peace, compassion, and courage.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Unexpected Guests at the Manger

Scripture for the First Sunday after Christmas Day includes Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25 and 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: Four calling-birds, three French hens, two turtledoves, and a partridge in a pear tree. On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: Five gold rings… four calling-birds, three French hens, two turtledoves, and a partridge in a pear tree.

Happy fourth day of Christmas! To borrow the image of the fifth day, it’s a golden day today in the Neely and Montemayor families, as four-month-old Lena Luisa is baptized.

Powerful language lifts from our readings today in commentary on what holy baptism means. To paraphrase St. Paul writing to the Galatians, God is about to send into Lena’s heart the Spirit of his Son, teaching her how to approach God: “Abba! Father!” The commentators tell us that the Aramaic “Abba” is the intimate “Dad… Daddy”, and we trust that Lena will learn to address God through language of feminine endearment, too. As Paul makes clear, this is not the approach of a slave to a master, nor of a servant to an overseer, but of a child to a parent, a child who is also to inherit what the parent gives.

Our patron St. John the Evangelist proclaims the same in the famous Prologue to his Gospel: To all who receive him, who believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God, born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And from God Lena receives grace upon grace.

Which reminds us that our primary task as her parents, grandparents, godparents, and sisters and brothers in the household of faith, is to cultivate, shape, encourage, liberate, enlighten her ability to receive all the gifting God has for her, to perceive God in that giving, and to conceive how to share that giftedness for the good of the world so loved by God.

Now, I could end this sermon right there. But with time still running on the meter, I have to wonder with you about something.

There’s something going on at our altar crèche. You’ve seen already the progress of the three wise ones and their wise camel, who appears to be making the three dignitaries walk. We trust that by next Sunday they’ll take their places there in the barnyard at Bethlehem.

But what I’m asking you to notice is what’s already there. The non-human figures at the crèche include what we expect: a cow, a donkey, sheep (lots of sheep). And there are two additional species represented there.

One is a zebra. The other, a rat.

I am not making that up. This isn’t the first Christmas they’ve come, but when I saw them fresh this year, I did a double-take. How did they get there? I wondered.

The rat, we know, goes wherever human beings go. The rat lives along the margins of human settlement, in the dumpsters, along the loading docks; following, finding, food. The rat has become a global denizen because man has paved the way for the rodent, then littered the way with all a rat needs.

We have not called an exterminator. Even though this particular specimen is nearly twice the size of the Christ child, there appears to be no need to intervene. The crèche commands a reverence for life, at least a general amnesty for twelve days. Enough time to join Mary in taking into our hearts the whole puzzle of the Incarnation, pondering the full wonder of the nativity of Jesus Christ.

And if Z is for zebra, Z must also be for zany. If protective coloration is one way that evolution progresses, whatever is going on with the zebra? If the rat is surreptitious, the zebra is out there, one horn short of a unicorn, an extraverted yan to the secretive yin of the rat.

In one of his poems, Shel Silverstein tells us what the zebra asks about us.

I asked the Zebra,
are you black with white stripes?
Or white with black stripes?
And the zebra asked me,
Are you good with bad habits?
Or are you bad with good habits?
Are you noisy with quiet times?
Or are you quiet with noisy times?
Are you happy with some sad days?
Or are you sad with some happy days?
Are you neat with some sloppy ways?
Or are you sloppy with some neat ways?
And on and on and on and on and on and on he went.
I’ll never ask a zebra about stripes...again.”

We keep our rat and our zebra in our crèche to remind us that there is a place for each which no other can fill, room for all which can be denied by none. They remind us what a mess we make of this world when we judge unworthy and reject any from the created order. And they remind us how short-sighted we are when we see the lovingkindness of God extended only to us, to our kind, our culture, our species.

Unexpected guests in the adoration of God in Jesus Christ help us do justice to the full wonder of the Incarnation.

Shel Silverstein’s poem appeared in his collection “A Light in the Attic”, 1985.

Full Wonder of the Incarnation

Scripture for Christmas includes Isaiah 9:2-7; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:1-20

Every year, it boils down to this puzzling state of affairs.

We knock ourselves out consuming, organizing, preparing, eating, drinking, decorating, partying on the premise that we’re observing the birthday of an itinerant preacher who never had two nickels in his pocket, or a traditional settled home life, or what you might call a natural instinct to avoid altercations with religious authorities claiming to know the mind of God.

Go figure. What we spend (and that is the correct verb), what we spend December doing (and November, for that matter) is more in keeping with the ancient sun worship that reached a fevered pitch at the winter solstice. Afraid of the dark, staving off the possibility that without the proper ceremonies and sacrifices, this time the sun might not return to lengthen the days and ensure the growing season, our hunter-gatherer forbears caught, cooked, consumed, offered gifts to the heavens—the prehistoric version of shopping ‘til they dropped. All to keep anxiety at bay.

How far have we evolved from that? Isn’t there some of that in our cultural Christmas?

What’s tricky about this puzzle of finding the right fit to celebrate Christmas is the fact that Christian faith honors and employs all that is tactile and sensory, physical and tangible. “Sacramental” is the name we give to that trait, using outward and visible signs to express and convey inward and spiritual grace, believing that love passes like a current through such media as bread and wine, water, music, language, art, food—when offered to God’s purpose and praise, and offered with open hand and heart to whoever welcomes such a gift.

That approach teaches us to recognize value not so much in the object, as in what is done with the object: the giving, the receiving, the sharing, the appreciating, the rejoicing, the gratitude, the building of relationship and the serving of worthy purpose, including sheer enjoyment.

So it isn’t just primitive hunting-gathering that’s at work in our cultural Christmas. Our Lord Jesus, born today, is first adored in a barnyard; and ever after, he keeps revealing how God’s sanctuary is to be found everywhere, on a grassy hillside where several thousand hungry people are fed, around countless tables where he eats with all sorts and conditions of people, and in village squares where he heals and teaches and honors and confronts all who come to him. He sets loose the power of sacrament to reach us spiritually through physical means.

And so we fill our liturgical Christmas celebration with crèche figures and candles, music and costumes, wreaths and banks of flowers, and of course bread and wine. But our Christmas ceremonies: Are they more about rocking us to sleep, or are they more about awakening and equipping us to face the changes that we know are happening (and those we don’t yet know and will happen nonetheless)? Are our Christmas services using the same-old-same-old to keep anxiety at bay?

Indulging religious nostalgia can make as puzzling a fit with Christmas as consumerism. This Jesus whose coming we celebrate is remembered for his disapproval of showy sanctuaries, and for his critique of automatic ceremonial and passionless theology that fails to reveal the sheer relentless pervasive love of God for the whole shimmering web of life. Jesus is as much about rocking the boat as he is rocking the cradle, remembered for his tendency to pound the table and demand raising the bar of personal integrity and community ethics.

So if our Christmas liturgies fail to win the hearts and spark the imagination and meet the yearnings of good people who will give this sort of thing a chance only once or twice a year, perhaps we’re not doing justice to the full wonder of the Incarnation.

But you know what? Just as Christianity’s high regard for sacrament and physicality reminds us that God has made us to enjoy creation (our capacity for joy being one mark of our being made in the divine image), meaning that we’re not on the wrong path in our giving and receiving gifts, our feasting, our decking the halls-- so keeping anxiety at bay may be valued as one of the timeless vocations of religion. If joy is one clear sign of the divine likeness within us, so is peace and serenity.

Consider the mantra in Luke’s story of Jesus’s birth. How many times do we hear the message, “Do not be afraid,”? Nine months ago, these words were said by the mysterious messenger Gabriel to a young girl in the working class cottage where she and her fiancé lived. Tonight in Bethlehem, the same words are said to calm the shepherds who don’t know what to make of the spectacle before them. The words will be said later to Joseph, anxious as he is about being a new father, anxious about this devilish journey they’ve had to make to enroll for the tax that will further drain Galilee of its resources; he is overwhelmed by the attention his son is getting from foreign dignitaries and from paranoid King Herod, and further anxious about the dangers of escaping to Egypt to keep this child out of Herod’s reach.

We’d be missing the most obvious puzzle piece of Christmas if we failed to see the holy nativity set as it is among discouraging, frightening, desperate, painful world problems. We look around our world this Christmas and wherever we look, the winds of madness are blowing, from the Islamic State’s execution of westerners to the Taliban’s massacre of Pakistani school children and teachers, to gun violence and racial discrimination in our own country, to government inaction to offset climate change. It is no small part of the mission of Jesus and his Church to keep anxiety at bay so that we may see and make our very best choices, and avoid our worst ones.

Mary treasures all the pieces of the Christmas puzzle, pondering them in her heart. So must we, if we are to take our part in that peace on earth for which the angels pray. We’d best renew our treasuring by valuing peace within ourselves, peace that the world cannot give, peace that is—like joy-- God’s gift to be welcomed.

Faith Makes Room

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

Metaphor alert: a house for God… a womb for Jesus… a mansion within us… and a poem with the line, “faith, responsive, making room…”

Oh, it just doesn’t get better than this! I am so tempted to pack it in, climb back down these steps, and leave the rest up to you.

But the fact is, it does get better than that. I noticed it first in our story from the Hebrew Bible, and then saw more in the Gospel.

King David got all settled in real cozy in his new custom-built house, cedar beams thank you, cedars of Lebanon no less; and David’s feeling, well, just a bit self-indulged. Grateful, mind you, but, well, getting kind of at-ease in Zion.

He also had fresh in his memory the astonishing demanding rewarding deeds of God, the valor of his men on many battlefields, the sacrificial dedication of Israel’s women and children and men too old to put on armor but all of them, united, pitching in to the one effort to establish the kingdom. And now the LORD had given them rest from all their enemies round about them. At least for a while.

And it was time to thank God. But a surprising thing happens. David has rolled out a plan for the prophet Nathan to vet (you may recall that Nathan and David did not have an easy relationship—Nathan famously confronted David for his self-indulgence in that grisly matter of sending one of his best soldiers, Uriah, to die on the front lines so that Uriah’s wife Bathsheba might be free to become a royal wife). David is wise to consult Nathan. Nathan blesses the plan, or at least the desire David has to build God a temple.

God, however, appears to be unimpressed by David’s plan. I wonder if God isn’t still peeved at David’s shameful despatching of Uriah to an unjust death. Would you want a dishonorable fellow designing your house? David might be the best candidate available to sit on Israel’s throne—but should he be designing God’s seat, God’s sanctuary?

But if that is the back-story, what’s up front is God’s pointed reminder to David that YHWH, Lord God of Hosts, is not a sitting God, but a moving force keeping true to his covenant promises to lead his people. Never before in the history of God’s relations with the tribes of Israel did God ever fault their leaders for not building him a house of cedar. “I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle,” declares God, and that has been fine by me. You want to make me a house? Here’s what’s more important: I want to make of you a house, a faithful dynasty I can count on to hear and obey my call to pursue peace and justice among the nations of the earth.”

To that end, says God, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep. Now we’re homing-in on how deep the Good News goes. This story is telling us something it could be easy to miss: that pasture, the one where young David had his first leadership lessons as a shepherd, his first music lessons as a strummer, his first conflict management training dealing with wolves and lions, his learning what to make of solitude on those silent hills, that pasture was all along God’s sanctuary, holy ground for encountering the Holy One.

This is not a minor detail in the broad sweep of God’s self-revelation to humankind. The God we meet in the Hebrew Bible is One who encounters people right where they are, as they are, because where they are is stragegically important to God in the divine campaign to form community that is faithful to God. And as they are—their strength, their weakness, their need, their yearning, their valor, their vulnerability—likewise fits the providence and purposes of God, the God who does not hesitate to enter and engage the human condition.

The Hebrew Bible and its stories like this one of David the house-builder, puts us on the road to Galilee. There, in the town of Nazareth, a working class home belonging to an engaged couple is revealed to be God’s sanctuary of holy encounter. “The Lord is with you,” announces the mysterious figure Gabriel, calling young Mary to welcome God within the house of her womb. “Here am I,” she replies to the angel. “Here I am,” come words from deeper in the universe than angels occupy, and yet it is there in her cottage that the divine name “I Am” is uttered. And there, her consent—as the poet puts it, her faith, responsive—makes room for God, a sanctuary made full during nine months of God’s fully entering and fully engaging the human condition.

And there, in Bethlehem, as Mary’s pregnancy comes full term, a barnyard is God’s sanctuary. And there, a road opens and shows itself a sanctuary as God prompts the holy family to escape King Herod’s clutches. Which means that there, in Egypt, there will be sanctuary as well. As King David is said to have sung in one of his psalms, “The earth is the LORD’S and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein.” (Psalm 24:1)

A house for God… a womb for Jesus… That pathway of metaphors takes us next to a mansion within us. How many preachers in how many Anglican churches are playing with this image in sermons today?

A mansion prepared for Jesus sounds like a grandiose project for the one who found no room at Bethlehem’s inn. It’s a good bet that the word “mansion” is an antique, perhaps deserving the same handling that has come to that verse in John’s Gospel, “In my Father’s house are many mansions,” now “many dwelling places”. That’s not modernism creeping in to dumb us down: the old and original meanings of “mansion” include abiding place, quarters, a large building divided into flats, a stopping place in a journey, the distance between two stopping places on a journey, and of course the house of the lord and lady of the manor, not to mention those honking big residences that make the New York Times real estate section feel like a cross-cultural experience.

The mansion that Advent calls us to prepare requires conscience, says the collect; moreover our preparation requires God’s purifying our conscience. Mercy, forgiveness, forebearance are the building blocks of this mansion. The purifying that is required to prepare a mansion for Jesus is the result of God’s daily visitation. It is not only Mary who has God’s sanctuary within: so do you and I. An Advent hymn has us sing the same message:

Then cleansed be every breast from sin;
make straight the way for God within,
and let each heart prepare a home
where such a mighty guest may come. (The Hymnal 1982, No. 76)

“Faith, responsive, making room…” writes the poet. Acceptance. Radical acceptance. The polar opposite of our “Whatever” culture. Mary’s “Let it be,” simple not because it was easy acceptance; simple because it was radical. Undistracted from what was happening at the very roots in the heart of God.

“The Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous offers teaching about acceptance. Acceptance is the power, the skill, the discipline that undergirds all twelve steps in spiritual awakening that gets called recovery.

I heard these words from The Big Book Wednesday night, at our Vestry meeting. Each month, a member will open the meeting with ten to fifteen minutes of what we call “feeding the spirit.” Here is what we heard:

“Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing, or situation—some fact of my life—unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing, or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment… Unless I accept life completely on life’s terms, I cannot be happy. I need to concentrate not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and in my attitude.”

We were then reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer. Its famous lines are, “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The Vestry member leading this time for reflection reminded us of the popular saying, “It is what it is…” To my ear, that attitude sounds more philosophical than the dismissive “Whatever” attitude that expresses helplessness, cynicism, resentment.

Thankfully we don’t hear Mary respond to Gabriel, “Whatever…” There isn’t enough acceptance in that attitude to yield nine minutes, let alone nine months, of collaboration. There’d be no incarnation, no Christmas, with “Whatever…”

And as our Vestry leader observed, the approach “It is what it is,” is only the first half of acceptance. The other half? “But it will become what we make it.”

Or, as the poet has it, “Faith, responsive, makes room…”

Wednesday night, we recited the whole of Niebuhr’s famous prayer. In full, it goes: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time—enjoying one moment at a time—accepting hardship as a pathway to peace—taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it, trusting that You will make all things right if I surrender to Your will—so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.”

The phrase “faith, responsive, making room…” comes from Michael Hudson’s poem “Meditation for Luke 1:26-38” published in his collection “Songs for the Cycle” (Church Publishing, 2004).