Year B Advent 4: Annunciation

The archangel had had a busy season. Nothing is heard of him for the greater part of the Bible, but now within six months he has visited Zechariah in the temple to announce the advent of John, who would become the baptizer; and now he is in Galilee, telling Mary that she, a young woman without the experience of a man, will bear a child, Jesus.

For Zechariah and Elizabeth, the announcement was the end of years, of decades of waiting. Elizabeth said, “Now the Lord has taken my shame from me.” And yet for Mary, the thing itself was shameful, or would be if anyone but God suggested it.

Zechariah must have prayed every time he entered the temple for his shift, to find favour with God, finally to complete his family; in those days, the choice to remain childless was not even dreamt of. Joseph, on the other hand, faced with the prospect of Mary’s pregnancy, would be hard pushed to find it as a sign of God’s favour. Gabriel ran one more mission there, to visit him in a dream, tying up loose ends.

This annunciation, then, was not the answer to a plea or persistent prayer, but the definitive and independent divine action of a God who was ready to act in love, and who was looking for a willing partner.

And she didn’t fall out laughing, like Sarah. She didn’t burst out singing, like Hannah, at least not right away. She didn’t say, “Pull the other one, it’s got bells on!” like poor dumb Zechariah, or hide herself away like Elizabeth. Instead, perplexed, she pondered the angel’s words, wondering what sort of a greeting this might be.

When we think about prayer, we often think in terms of our own words, our own desires, even if they are on behalf of another; we ask God for guidance, for help, for mercy; we seek reassurance, a response, a reply, even if it is no. We want, we wish, we pray.

How often do we stop to wonder what it is that God is actively seeking to do, out of the love of God, and seeking partners to accomplish, looking for the one who will stop to ponder the will of God, to wonder how they can bear God’s will into being?

We often talk about Advent as a season of waiting: how attentive are we, really, to waiting on the will of God, waiting for the annunciation, the announcement of the new thing that God wants to do, is waiting to do, if only we will allow ourselves to fall in with God’s love?

There’s a poem, “Annunciation” by Edwin Muir, that describes the meeting of the angel and Mary as a pause in the dischronicity between heaven and earth. It reads in part:

The angel and the girl are met.
Earth was the only meeting place.
For the embodied never yet
Travelled beyond the shore of space
The eternal spirits in freedom go.
See, they have come together, see,
While the destroying minutes flow,
Each reflects the other’s face
Till heaven in hers and earth in his
Shine steady there. He’s come to her
From far beyond the farthest star,
Feathered through time…

Chapters into Verse : Poetry in English Inspired by the Bible Volume II: Gospels to Revelation, assembled and edited by Robert Atwan Professor of English Seton Hall University, Laurance Wieder Poet and Instructor Dowling College (Oxford University Press, 1993)

Earth was the only meeting place, our mortal lives the only space into which God can speak and reach us, because we have not yet learnt to reach beyond the stars to the place where the archangels dwell. Only here can we wait, and listen, and reflect on the face of God borne to us by messengers of grace.

Only here can we wait and expect to meet God, incarnate, made and born of flesh and blood, one of us, Jesus, born of Mary, who didn’t fall out laughing or singing, or send the angel away with a flea in his ear, or hide herself away as though she were ashamed of the blessings God bestowed on her. We could learn a lot from Mary. Not that there’s anything wrong with song, or with laughter.

But the ability to sit, perplexed, to sit with the mystery of a sunlit afternoon broken open by an angel, a messenger of God, a plea for partnership with the Creator of all that is and will be, to do a new thing. The ability to ponder, and wonder, and wait.

Edwin Muir’s poem ends,

Outside the window footsteps fall
Into the ordinary day
And with the sun along the wall
Pursue their unreturning way
That was ordained in eternity.

But through the endless afternoon
These neither speak nor movement make
But stare into their deepening trance
As if their gaze would never break.

It is not too late, this Advent, this season; it is not too late to take some time to stare into eternity, to ponder what God might want to bring into being, if only we will agree to partner willingly, “Let it be to me,” as Mary said.

It is not too late to take some time to pray not for ourselves, but for God. If that seems odd, then consider that relationship is a two-way street, and if we claim our prayer as a conversation with a living and loving God, then the words and the wishes and the will cannot all be ours. We must leave something for our prayer partner to add, to tell us, to ask of us.

It is a challenge, in the dying days of Advent, to find the time to stare into eternity, but it is only on this earth and in this life that eternity can find us, waiting, because we have not yet found the way beyond the stars. Our time there will come; but what will we do in the meantime?

I wonder what words of grace each of us might hear, if we took a moment this afternoon, or tomorrow, to wait, be still, to stare into eternity. Would we hear the God who loves us send an angel to say,

“Hail, beloved, full of grace. God is with you.”

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Psalm for the fourth funeral

Good God, sometimes mortality
becomes too heavy for us
to bear under;
it piles up like bones.
We flood the valley floor
with grief; our footsteps
sink for want of solid ground.
How long, O Lord, will you wait
to part this salt sea?

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How it feels

When I imagine myself getting up to preach, I see an older middle-aged man of considerable girth sitting in my chair; wearing my robes, he grips either side with surprisingly small hands, and heaves. It takes a while and an effort to get the knees to lock into place, to locate a backbone strong enough to hold him erect. Everything, as he arrives at his vertical destination, quavers and quivers. Ponderous would be a kind word for his journey to the pulpit. At last, he mops his beaded brow, takes a gulp of water, begins to proclaim in my own voice…

The strangest thing is that it never happens that way. I have already wandered out into the middle of the church, in front of everyone, to read the Gospel, before I dogleg like a drunk into the pulpit on the way back to my seat.

I wonder who this geezer is, then, who races me there?

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Healing the holidays homily 2014 edition: holding out on hope

Six months before the Angel Gabriel to earth came down, as the story goes, he was hanging out in Jerusalem, visiting with Zechariah. Zechariah and Elizabeth were much older than Mary – which is not to say that the young don’t suffer – but Zechariah and Elizabeth had reached that point where a lifetime of small defeats had created a habit of disappointment. They weren’t even sure they wanted to hear good news: hope takes too much effort.
So Zechariah dissed and dismissed the angel, and Elizabeth went into hiding.
I think that most of us recognize that instinct to protect ourselves from further disappointment by closing ourselves off even to hope, even to good news, even to joy.
At the end of their story, the child is born, and Elizabeth is finally able to share her joy, her hope, herself with her neighbours, as they all gather to celebrate this new life. And Zechariah is restored, able to speak once more once he affirms the angel’s message: his name will be John.
It takes a while. It takes about nine months, but this is the miracle hidden within the miracle of the angel-announced child: that Zechariah and Elizabeth are restored to hope, to community, to risking sharing good news with their family and friends. It is an extraordinary turnaround for a couple so sunk in the habits of disappointment. It is a miracle.
It takes a while, and that’s ok. God doesn’t take away the miracle from Zechariah for disbelieving. The angel just makes him hold his tongue for a while until he has something positive to say. God doesn’t punish Elizabeth for hiding herself away. God the father and mother of us all knows the tenderness of expectation.
Most of us will not receive a visit from an archangel in our lifetimes (although some may). But that hidden miracle of hope is one that God extends to all of us, gently, tenderly, waiting as long as takes for us to find our way out of our dark seclusion and blinking, into the light.
It can be hard, it takes effort to break the habit of despondency, to risk investing in hope once more, to allow ourselves to feel connected to those around us, to share their joy.
But God is patient. God comes to us time and again, reaching out, understanding our helplessness, as an infant in the manger; our hurt, as he is rejected and betrayed; our grief, and our death. Christ reaches out, even after the cross is taken down, from the depths of hell, leading us out of that place into one of new life.
He will wait as long as it takes, nine months or ninety years, offering hope, offering to carry it with us, if only we will risk his loving touch.
And so we come together, to share the hope that we harbour in our hearts, to hold hope out to one another with our prayers; to lighten the season for one another with the love of God shared between us, offered time and again by Jesus.
Amen.

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Annunciation and assent

Ave

Accustomed to
many perplexing forms of greeting
from the ridiculous to the ribald,
when hailed by the sublime
she was only mildly bemused,
hardly struck dumb
at all.

Maria

Accustomed to
the music of her name on
the lips of suitors, whispering
in the marketplace, the feigned
deaf ears; but this one
harped on so, she stopped
to listen.

Gratia

Accustomed to
nothing for something, she heard
the word of grace as poetry,
something beyond itself, reserved
to strangers who sang
in the synagogues.

Plena

Accustomed to
hunger, the kind not sated
by any food but love, she wondered
what  might it mean
to be full: let it be
to me, said she.

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Year B Advent 3: Do not quench the Spirit

It really wasn’t the first time I’d spoken up at church. I mean, I’d been reading the Lessons since I was twelve; I’d been on the PCC, which is a rough English translation of Vestry. I’d taught Sunday School, participated in small groups; heck, I’d even led small groups. But this felt different. I was in a new congregation, one I’d known for just a few months. I had no standing, no authority, no reason to rise up from the safely anonymous middle row and address the whole gathered community, except that the Holy Spirit would not let me sit still.

It was the end of the Annual Meeting, my first experience of one in the Episcopal Church. After the usual business was done, the microphone was opened to the floor, and person after person lined up to gripe. They complained about things not being as they used to be – and they were probably right; I wouldn’t know, not having been there when they used to be. They described departmental disagreements in areas of the church I didn’t know existed. They used their opportunity fully to share their opinions on all that was wrong in that church, and I watched the leaders, the clergy and her companions, sit a little straighter, bearing up under greater and heavier heart-weight as the comments continued. At last, it was announced that the time for commentary was closing. I got up anyway, and walked on shaky shanks to the microphone. “Ok, one more, then that’s it,” sighed the presiding priest. I began, “I have heard all that has been said, and I’m sure it’s all valid. But I think that you need to know, too, that my family has not only been welcomed here, but embraced. That Sunday used to be my worst day, after we moved here, because it was the day that I would weep with homesickness, missing my church, missing my people. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept… How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137) Sundays were my worst days, until we came here, and from the first time I left this place singing, and from the first time my children came and said, “it’s just like coming home,” I have felt comforted, and I have stopped crying on Sundays, and instead my soul sings.”

That might not have been exactly what I said, but it was something like. And I do know that I told them, “thank you for being here. Thank you for being the church that you are. Thank you for letting us find you.”

And I sat down, my legs still shaking, and the people around me were murmuring amens, even the ones who had complained, because they loved that place, and for good reason; they complained because they cared; but they were also glad to be reminded to rejoice in it, to give thanks for it. Of course, it was also the start of a beautiful friendship with that priest!

That was what I remembered when I read Paul’s exhortation to the Thessalonians:

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances … Do not quench the Spirit!

Someone asked this week, more than one person asked this week, in the wake of another report, another indictment of our use of force, the force used on our behalf, “What are we becoming?” Another colleague, Ann Fontaine, commented that this is not what we are becoming but what we have come from. A nation built on genocide and slavery, she offered, cannot be surprised if racism and violence live there.

This is not what we are meant to become, not what we will become; not if the Spirit has anything to do with it.

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances … Do not quench the Spirit. Hold onto what is good, and avoid evil.

What we are becoming has yet to be decided. It depends on what we do with who we are now. Whether we are prepared to test everything, to listen to the prophets, to pray without ceasing, to hold onto whatever is good and to eschew evil.

What we are becoming personally has yet to be decided; many of us stand at the threshold of new beginnings, new ways of being in relationship, new understandings of what it is to be ourselves, in the wake of loss, or change, or joy.

We have something, in the church. We have something to offer those who live in darkness, waiting for the light. We have experience of repentance, and of forgiveness, for a start. We have experience of God’s inexplicable love for us who once thought ourselves unlovely. We have each other. We have the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Do not quench the Spirit.

We have something to offer our friends and our neighbours, our community and our country; something to offer ourselves, the remembrance of rejoicing, the Spirit of thanksgiving, to heal our hearts and soothe our souls.

The prophet describes the anointing of the Spirit, sending him out to preach good news to the afflicted, release to the prisoners, to bind up the brokenhearted, to comfort those who mourn.

It can start small. Sometimes, I know, that it has to start small; I have not forgotten how hard it was to stand on shaky knees simply to tell my church, “thank you.” And look where that got me. I know it’s scary. But we have the baptism of the Holy Spirit, the anointing of the prophet. It is our commission to bind up the brokenhearted, to release those held captive to despair, to lift up the poor and the lonely. It is our commission to offer hope to the hopeless, wherever and whenever we are able. Do not quench that Spirit.

Let them know, your friends and your neighbours, the afflicted, the brokenhearted, the captive to cynicism; or let him even know, the stranger in the store who wonders aloud what it is that we are becoming: let them know how you make sense of it all, how you test everything and find the good, eschew evil, by unceasing prayer, and by coming together to rejoice in the mercy that God has already shown us, and hope in the steadfast mercy with which God will continue to love us, and not let us fall away. Do not quench that Spirit.

Maybe it always feels this way in Advent, as the dark nights draw in and we wait for the light. Maybe it always feels, at this time of the year, in this time of our lives, as though we have a decision to make, about what we are becoming. Repentance is a repeatable event. Always, we have that choice to make, to walk towards the light. To lead the way for those struggling to find their way in the dark. Because we have the way. We are anointed by the Spirit to share it.

The first letter of John tells us, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; but it has yet to be seen what we will become.”

Rejoice always. Give thanks in all things. Pray without ceasing. Do not quench the Spirit.

Amen.

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Do not quench the spirit

From the Lectionary for Year B Advent 3: 1 Thessalonians 5:19

Do not quench the spirit,
pour cold water on its fervour;
be afraid of the passion
it inflames; that is only
the beginning of wisdom.
Let it burn. Do not turn
the water cannons on its cries.
Do not quench the spirit.

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