The Garden and the Wasteland (updated)

Sermon for Sunday, January 3, 2021 || Christmas 2 || Luke 2:41-52

They say that every therapist should be in therapy. Likewise, every priest should participate in spiritual direction. Without trained professionals helping us pastors notice God’s movement in our lives, one of two things happens. We either forget to rely on God, thus emptying ourselves of all nourishment even though a feast is perpetually spread before us. Or we decide we don’t need to rely on God, because we are doing just fine on our own (thank you very much!) and the same starvation results. We pastors are a rather thick bunch, usually quite stubborn when faced with the Almighty, because the Creator-of-All-That-Is rarely seems to fit the predictions of our seminary studies.

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New Year’s Intentions

Sermon for Sunday, January 5, 2020 || Christmas 2

A few years ago, I read something my sister Melinda wrote on her website at the beginning of a new year. Melinda is something of a mystic: a writer and yoga teacher, who spends her days working at the YMCA to make sure as many kids as possible can benefit from the Y’s programs. Now, I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions, so I was glad to see she had put a different spin on the concept. As she looks at the horizon of a new year, Melinda discerns not a resolution, but an intention. Here’s what she wrote two years ago:

“In years past, I’ve written about and set an intention rather than a resolution. In yoga we call this a sankalpa – a word or small phrase in the present tense that represents where we want to go or what we want to cultivate.” She continues: “I hadn’t planned on designating a new sankulpa for this year either, but as I was lying down for a little rest the world community sprung to my awareness… I don’t know what community is asking of me, but I do know enough to let it be, and open to what this energy wants to create through me.”

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The Heart’s Square Footage

(Sermon for Sunday, January 1, 2012 || Feast of the Holy Name || Luke 2:15-21; Philippians 2:5-11)

At the end of this sermon, I’m going to invite you to make a New Year’s resolution, but don’t worry because you only have to fulfill the resolution for a week, which I think is the standard longevity of such things anyway.

But first I have a couple of wondering questions that this morning’s Gospel calls to mind. We read that the shepherds “made known what had been told them about this child.” I’m wondering to whom did they make this known? I’m really curious. Did they run through Bethlehem Paul Revere style (“The messiah is coming! The messiah is coming!”)? Did they go to the local census bureau and tell them to add another Israelite to the rolls? Did they go to the religious leaders and tell them that their hopes had been fulfilled?

In fine Godly Play style, I’m just going to let that first question hang in the air while I pose a second one. I’m wondering what kind of reaction the shepherds received. Luke tells us “all who heard [the shepherds’ testimony] were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” But “amazed” is neither a positive nor a negative word. As far as the shepherds are concerned, I suspect that they received quite a few responses that went along the lines of: “That’s amazing; ridiculous, but amazing.” Others probably said, “Get off my front stoop, you mangy shepherds.”

In the end, the narrative gives us single answers to both these wondering questions. While the shepherds surely told a wide array of people and received a wide array of amazed responses, we are privy to only one, and that is Mary’s. The shepherds burst in on the exhausted new parents with their witness to the angel’s words about the infant. The angel had said, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The shepherds proclaim this good news to Mary and Joseph. And “Mary treasure[s] all these words and ponder[s] them in her heart.”

Notice what is happening here with Mary’s response to the shepherds’ news. For nine months, since the angel appeared to her on that fateful day, Mary has carried within her the Incarnate Word. She has nurtured in her womb the physical embodiment of God’s good news to the world. She has felt the Son of God kick. Then, on the night we celebrated last week, she delivers him. Jesus is born to the rest of the world, and Mary’s womb is empty once again.

And yet, even though her womb is now empty, is her body void of the Word of God? Thanks to the shepherds: No. They bring the first message of the Gospel back to Mary, and she fills herself with the good news. She treasures their words in her heart as she had so recently treasured the Word in her womb.

Each of us bears the Gospel inside of us. The good news of Jesus Christ is treasure hidden in our hearts waiting to be shared. But our hearts are also home to all of the boxes and baggage and bulk that accumulate over lifetimes of focusing our attention away from the things that really matter, away from God and loving relationships. Our hearts are storage units for all of our misplaced priorities, inflated egos, broken promises, habituated distrust, forgotten loyalty, and shackling fears. These things clutter our hearts and leave less room for the good news of Jesus Christ to dwell.

Mary’s brave agreement to carry the Christ child makes a space within her, and God fills her emptiness with the embodiment of this good news. In today’s passage from the Letter to the Philippians, Paul tells us of another emptying, one that the Word made flesh accomplished in order to inhabit Mary’s womb. Paul says of Jesus: “Though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

The Greek word translated “something to be exploited” might be better translated as “something to be grasped” or even “something to be hoarded.” Even though he was in the form of God, Jesus let go of his station. Even though he was part of all the might and majesty and magnificence of God, he did not hoard them. Even though he shared the most precious thing in the universe — equality with God — he shared himself with us by emptying himself; by taking on the form of a slave; by filling Mary’s empty womb and being born in human likeness.

All this happened because Jesus was willing to let go of his grasp on his divine form. All this happened because Jesus refused to hoard the incomprehensible harmony of light and love and grace that is our God. All this happened because Jesus emptied himself. And Jesus emptied himself to fill Mary’s emptiness, to fill our emptiness.

So the question is: how empty are we? How much space within our hearts is left for the good news of Jesus Christ to fill?

If you’re anything like me, then the boxes and baggage and bulk take up a majority of your heart’s square footage. But we can begin to clear away this accumulation by resonating with Jesus’ own self-emptying and echoing Mary’s assent to be filled with God. The resulting emptiness is unlike any other instance of emptiness out there. This is not the emptiness of a bare pantry or a sock drawer on laundry day. This is purposeful emptiness, holy emptiness. This holy emptiness makes room for the grace of God to expand within us. Our internal storage units, once the depositories for those misplaced priorities and shackling fears, transform into the sanctuaries they were always meant to be. The emptier we become, the greater is our opportunity to discover true fullness.

This wonderful paradox is at the heart of our life of faith. As we begin the slow process of self-emptying, we realize that God has been at work in us all along: breaking down the boxes, removing the baggage, and shaving off the bulk. When we, like Mary and Jesus, empty ourselves, we find ourselves ready to respond to God. We are eager to serve others. We are prepared to give of ourselves because we know the fullness of God expanding within us has no bounds.

I invite you to join me in a New Year’s resolution this week. Each night before you go to sleep, focus your mind and heart in prayer. Identify something in your life that is taking up too much square footage within you, that is cluttering your heart. Perhaps this something is trouble at work or doubt about your financial future or concern for a loved one. Give this something to God in prayer. Ask God to inhabit the space vacated by this offering. Do this every night. Each time give something else to God. Practicing this holy emptiness will allow more space for the good news of Jesus Christ to breathe and move and dance within you. Soon you will empty yourself of enough clutter to notice that God has been at work in you from the beginning, and you will be able to dance along.