Wednesday, January 7, 2015

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).