Sunday, December 14, 2014

SERMON: "From Contemplation to Communion" (12.14.14)

A Meditation on Luke 1:26-56


This time of year, there’s no story as thrilling for me, as thrilling and tender and human, as
"Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary"
the story of Mary’s dash into the hill country and the way she almost tumbles into the arms of her cousin Elizabeth.  What do you do when you’ve just made the biggest decision of your life?  Where do you go when you’re making sense of angels and voices and the unprecedented prompting of the Spirit in your heart?  Mary’s got to pray with somebody.  She’s got to sing with somebody.  And she knows in her heart that that somebody’s got to be Elizabeth.  So she runs for the hills, and she runs and runs until she’s in Elizabeth’s sweet, loving arms.  And there’s joy between them.  And there’s gratitude between them.  And there’s music in the way they speak to one another.  And this is scripture.  This is the holy word.  Does it get any better than this?

Sometimes prayer finds its most creative edge, its most transformative voice when we have no expectations at all.  When we let go of all the stuff we think prayer should be, all the rules we learned in Sunday School or watching TV—and we just pray.  We give ourselves over to the gratitude or the hurt or the deep desire of a moment.  This seems to be so for Mary and Elizabeth, one warm afternoon in the hill country, when Mary comes tumbling through the door and into Elizabeth’s arms.  And Mary’s pregnant.  And Elizabeth’s pregnant too.  And instead of thinking about prayer, instead of working out a liturgy, instead of showing off for one another—they just pray and sing and revel in their bodies and all that their bodies can do.  They pray out of their surprise.  They pray out of their gratitude.  And Elizabeth sings.  And Mary sings.  And together they surrender to God’s thrilling purposes and amazing grace.

So let this be the first lesson this morning, the first encouraging word in a wildly encouraging text.  We need one another.  We need one another.  If we’re to embrace life’s greatest surprises, if we’re to practice gratitude as a faith practice, if we’re to surrender at last to God’s thrilling purposes in our own lives.  We need one another.  Like Mary needs Elizabeth.  Like Elizabeth needs Mary.  Prayer is a lot of things, and many different things to many different people.  But here, in the hill country, it is most certainly about deep relationship, embodied gratitude, and two women getting real with one another.  We nurture God’s visions, we tend the life within us—as we go deep in relationship, as we get real with one another.


And two little details, one hidden, one shining in the text itself, add to the wonder and mystery and even the edginess of this moment.  The shining one we see.  The baby in Elizabeth’s belly leaps for joy.  When Mary rushes in, Elizabeth’s child (tucked deep in mama’s tummy) joins in the merriment, the praise, the exuberance of it all.  And the child in her tummy leaps for joy.  How about that for ecstasy and wonder?

The hidden detail requires just a bit of biblical backtracking.  You may remember, going back a bunch of verses, that Elizabeth’s got a husband, that his name is Zechariah, and that Zechariah’s a priest.  You may remember that Zechariah was so dumbfounded by the possibility of his elderly wife getting pregnant, so completely flabbergasted and wary of the promise, that God’s angel rendered him speechless until such time as Elizabeth might have the baby.

So Zechariah is around, this warm afternoon, as Mary tumbles in and Elizabeth gathers her in.  But Zechariah’s got nothing to say.  The priest of the temple, the patriarch of the family, Zechariah’s silent.  It’s hard, frankly, to tell that he’s there at all.  There’s something of a subversive feel, then, to this important story of Christian beginnings and Christmas tidings.  The babies are leaping, the women are praying and singing and surrendering.  But testosterone’s kind of absent here.  Power and privilege are turned upside down.  And the men in the story are mute.

So you can do with that what you will.  But notice it.  This is not a same-old, same-old story with the old reliable characters and voices doing all the ordinary things.  This is God’s new thing, this is the radically new intrusion of God’s grace and flesh and spirit in the world.  And right now, in the hill country, it’s about Mary and Elizabeth and their prayer life together.  Their willingness to sing to one another and leap a little.  The trust they have in one another and the courage they find together.  And all this praise! All the blessing and rejoicing and praising and magnifying.  If incarnation is the embodiment of God in human flesh, then incarnation begins right here.  Not in a manger in Bethlehem.  But in Elizabeth’s house in the hill country.  And two women: praying, touching, holding, singing, surrendering to God.


What’s always intrigued me in Mary’s story is the movement in her life, the movement she traces with her feet, and in her heart.  In the first of our two readings, she’s a contemplative soul.   Solitary and alone.  Open to the voices of angels.  Bewildered by the word of God.  And finally surrendering, turning her life over to the holiness and strange purposes of Eternity.  “Let it be, let it be,” she says to the angel.  “Let it be with me according to your word.”  As the story opens, as Mary’s story begins, she’s alone and quiet and radically receptive.

"The Contemplative" by Frank Benson
The great mystic Thomas Merton says “the true contemplative is not the one who prepares [her] mind for a particular message that [she] wants or expects to hear, but who remains empty because [she] knows that [she] can never expect or anticipate the word that will transform [her] darkness into light.”  The true contemplative remains empty.  Merton says that this is the real meaning in Mary’s virginity and that it extends to us as well.  It’s really about our becoming virgin.  And becoming virgin has something to do, everything to do with protecting an emptiness within, a radical receptivity that waits on the Word of God in silence and wonder and openness.  Before Mary runs into the hill country, before she tumbles into Elizabeth’s arms, before she dashes anywhere at all, she learns to sit and to wonder and to wait.  Protecting an emptiness within.

But then, the angel leaves, and Mary moves quickly to make this connection, to build a community, even to test her intuition with another.  So she hustles off to the hill country and finds Elizabeth at home.  Someone to pray with.  Someone to be pregnant with.  Someone to sing with.

And it’s this movement in Mary’s life: from contemplation to communion, from intuition to interaction, that interests me so much this morning.  I want to suggest that it’s a reflection of our own spiritual lives, the deep yearning in many of our hearts.  To open widely to the whispering spirit above and around and inside us.  To still our souls and sit with the wind and the sky and listen for whatever wild, bold, radically new thing God says there.

And then.  And then to share what we hear and test what we hear in a generous and loving community of friends.  Contemplation to communion, intuition to interaction, and then back again.  Back to reflection.  Back to the silence and the quiet and the place of stillness and receptivity.  Mary models a rich prayer life, a dynamic prayerfulness that waits, waits, waits on the spirit and honors waiting as practice, listening as spiritual practice.  And that prayer life is always reaching out for community, seeking a communion of sisters, brothers, disciples, allies.  And it’s in that communion of sisters and brothers that the gospel gets sung.  The magnificat gets magnified.  The liberation and healing of God’s people is ultimately articulated.


It seems to me that this is what church is all about; it’s what Christian community is all about.  It’s about building community, a deep and resilient communion, in which it’s somehow possible to sing the gospel to one another.  In which it’s somehow possible to imagine liberation and peace and justice together.  In which it’s somehow possible to magnify the Lord and scatter the proud and lift up the lowly.

Now if you have a chance this afternoon, I want you to check out a video I’ve posted on my blog, ‘Valley Rise Up.’  It’s a three-minute video of two women singing to one another in a nursing home.  One’s a caregiver, a dear and loving caregiver, and she’s Jewish.  And the other’s an old woman with Alzheimer’s, and she’s black and she’s frail and she’s speechless.

It’s one of those videos you really have to see to believe.  But let me say that it’s one of the sweetest, even one of the most inspiring things I’ve seen in a long, long time.  For the Jewish woman, the caregiver, decides to lean in early on, and to sing “Jesus Loves Me” to her friend.  Knowing that the old hymns often matter most at the end.  “Jesus loves me this I know / for the bible tells me so / Little ones to him belong / they are weak but he is strong.”

And as the Jewish woman sings, sweetly and brightly, the old black Christian starts in with the beat, tapping it out on her thigh.   And the tapping is rhythmic and lively and full of faith.  She can’t say a word, but she says so much with her hand.  “Yes Jesus loves me / Yes Jesus loves me / Yes Jesus loves me / The bible tells me so.”  And before you know it, the two women are holding one another and rocking left and right and left and right and left and right.

And the Jewish caregiver turns then to another old spiritual and starts singing, softly, “He’s got the whole world / In his hands / He’s got the whole world / In his hands / He’s got the whole world / In his hands / He’s got the whole world in his hands.”  And you can see the old black woman’s face brighten some more.  And for the first time her eyes open, they really open to see.  And the caregiver leans in and looks her in the eye, deeply, soul to soul.  And she takes the old woman’s lovely, frail face in her own two hands.

And when she sings the second verse (“He’s got the mothers and the fathers”), when she sings the second verse of the old spiritual, the old woman whispers in response.  “In his hands.”  And they do the verse that way.  The caregiver sings: “He’s got the mothers and the fathers.”  And the old black woman whispers back: “In his hands.”  And the caregiver sings again: “He’s got the mothers and the fathers.”  And the old black woman whispers back: “In his hands.”  I’m serious, it’s one of the most profound films I’ve ever seen.  How two women, two very different women, make music together and embrace life together and touch souls together.  It’s just three minutes long.  And the ending’s great!  So check it out after church today.

So here’s what I’m thinking this morning, what the Jewish caregiver and the old black woman find in that nursing home, what Mary and Elizabeth find in Elizabeth’s hill country kitchen, this is the flowering of a dynamic spiritual life.  And we’re all made for this.  We’re all made for communion and for tenderness and for the kind of praise that imagines a better, wiser, sweeter world.  The strange thing is that our capacity for communion is deepened in contemplation, and our commitment to community is awakened in solitude.

There are angels all around, after all.  Angels hovering over you and angels hovering over me.  They’re in this room.  They’re rising in every sunrise.  They’re shimmering in every raindrop and every tear.  And these angels bear news of joy and grace you can hardly imagine.  They bring greetings you can scarcely comprehend.  Mary’s not the only one.  Not by a long shot.  So listen carefully.  Open widely.  “The Lord, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, the Spirit of God is with you!”