Sermon for Sunday, December 23, 2018 || Advent 4C || Luke 1:39-45
I told a brief story last Sunday to the folks attending the adult forum hour, and the story has been lodged in my heart since then, so I thought I would share it with everyone. This is a story about an intense moment with God, and I wrestled with whether or not to share it today because I do not want you to go home thinking you are any less a believer or a beloved child of God if you have never experienced what I’m about to describe.
So I begin this sermon with a disclaimer: what follows is one way among many that God encounters us. As followers of Jesus, we aspire to be transformed over the course of our lifetimes into people who more closely reflect the love, peace, and justice of God. God invites us to participate in our own transformation and thus the renewal of our broken world. What follows is the special moment in my life when God pushed me onto the path of that participation. I’m sharing this with you today because of our Gospel lesson when Mary rushes off to see her cousin Elizabeth, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
The moment happened half a lifetime ago. I was seventeen years old, a high school senior. My parents had kept their promise not to move again until I graduated, so for the first time in my life I had lived in a place longer than three years. That place was Tuscaloosa, Alabama (Roll Tide!), where my family had fled after our disastrous time at a church in Rhode Island. I’m not quite sure how my parents kept their faith following such betrayal by a church community, but I suppose they were able to separate God’s love from the church that was supposed to express that love. I was not able to do so. Whatever nascent faith I might have been exploring in my elementary school days was murdered by that betrayal. For those first few years in Alabama, every Sunday morning at St. Matthias’ Church held the potential for someone to stand up and tell my father what an awful person he was. So I was always on guard, always watchful.
Thanks be to God, the people at the church in Alabama were absolutely beautiful, loving, dedicated followers of Jesus. But at the time, I couldn’t trust them. Until then, I had only had one, extremely negative experience with the church, and I assumed eventually that experience would repeat itself. So five years went by, and I remained aloof even as I attended church every Sunday. It took me five years to let my guard down.
I preface my story like this because I need you to know how incredible it is that the moment with God I’m about to share happened during a worship service. In fact, it happened during my father’s sermon at an 8 a.m. worship service. This is material to the story because, years prior, at the church in Rhode Island, I was acolyting at an 8 a.m. service when my father was shouted down from the pews while he was preaching, thus introducing me to the ongoing problems dad was having with the church leadership. I have told that story in a sermon before, so I won’t repeat it now. Suffice to say, until working on this sermon this week, I had never made the connection between those two events. But I know God did. When I was ready, God encountered me in the preaching moment in order, I think, to renew my memory and my expectations of it. And wouldn’t you know, one of my favorite things to do now is preach. That’s God’s healing power at work.
But I still haven’t gotten to the moment itself! So here we go. It was October of the year 2000. I had just returned from my first visit to Sewanee, where I would attend college the next fall. Stepping on the grounds at Sewanee was the first time in my life I felt like I was right where I was supposed to be. With that feeling of clarity in my heart, I went to 8 a.m. church. And during my father’s sermon, God encountered me in a way I never thought possible.
I dug up something I wrote immediately after the experience, so I thought I’d let seventeen-year-old me describe it for you. Here’s my attempt at writing about the moment:*
Subtly, yet suddenly, I found that I could no longer hear the sermon being preached, but that I understood what my father was talking about. My eyes were open, but I couldn’t see anything. I was wrapped in a blanket of complete, utter silence. A silence so deep that I could not even hear the thoughts going through my head. They became muted, insignificant for one indefinite moment of stillness, peace. And in the silence, I heard God. I listened to his movement, and it was so delicately powerful that all my senses became overwhelmed. I was feeling something so intensely that none of my senses could classify the sensation. So they shut down, and I began listening, seeing, feeling with my heart, no—with the very core of my being. I let the folds of the blanket of this silence smother me, and although they were smothering me I discovered I could breathe. Not just an ordinary breath of air, but a breath of the Holy Spirit. The breath shot through me and my senses returned.
Beyond remembering that it happened, I can’t recall the details of this moment too well, but the notion of being enfolded by the fullness of silence rings true. What I can recall with better clarity is what happened a few days later. I hadn’t told anyone about the experience. I didn’t know how to tell anyone. I was sitting on the couch with my mom in the evening. We were home alone. And without conscious thought I said, “Mom, I need to tell you something.”
And then I broke down crying for a long time. My mom held me and waited in silence until I could speak again. But I didn’t need whatever inadequate words I said. She knew somehow what I was trying to communicate. Until that time of sharing, I wasn’t sure if what I had experienced actually happened. When I told my mother, the moment of silence with God became real for me. The act of sharing the encounter somehow deepened the encounter.
That’s why I think Mary hightails it to Judea to see her cousin Elizabeth. Mary has just encountered the Holy Spirit coming upon her and the power of the Most High overshadowing her. Was it real? Did she truly converse with the angel Gabriel? Mary’s bringing of this moment of encounter to Elizabeth induces Elizabeth to bear witness to God’s presence in both their lives: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
It is the sharing of God’s presence in our lives that helps others witness that presence in their own. We practice this sharing every Sunday morning when we offer one another the peace of the Lord and when we gather at the table to share the one bread and the one cup. The word for sharing your witness of God’s presence is “evangelism.” This is not a scary word. This word means “good news.” We have the good news of God to share: how God moves in our own lives, how God moves through us, transforming us and renewing our broken world. I wonder what story you have to share. And I wonder what stories God is yearning to share through you.
* I was still using the male pronoun for God back then. Also, adverbs. Lots and lots of adverbs. Ugh.