Monday, January 5, 2015

SERMON: "A Purpose Beyond Ourselves" (1.4.15)


New Year’s Eve’s always a funny day: not quite last year, but not yet next year.  And maybe that’s why I scheduled a quiet day this year: a day of reflection, a day for a long walk, a day to think ahead to challenges and opportunities in the new year.  2015.  Am I the only one who finds these numbers shockingly huge?  2015? 

So I take the twelve days of Christmas pretty seriously, and I try to spend some of this time pondering the new things, the new people, sometimes even the new troubles in my life.  The old mystic Meister Eckhart once said of Christians and Christmas, “The Eternal birth must take place in you, and in you, and in every one of us.”  I guess he was saying that every one of us is pregnant somehow, entrusted with visions and dreams and hopes even bigger than our own.  Mary’s not the only one.  “The Eternal birth must take place in you.”  And in me.  So I retreat just a bit, during these twelve days of Christmas, into the cave of my own heart; and I wonder what’s to be born in here, in my heart, in my life now. 

But this New Year’s Eve, this past Wednesday, I received a phone call early in the day, one of those day-changers, and I hurried off to Esther Rogoff’s house just a few blocks from here.  When I arrived and went to her bedside, I found that Esther had died just minutes before.  The bright sun, the holy sun, was leaking into Esther’s room through the shades in her windows.  There was a strange but familiar mix of peace and calm and sadness and gratitude in the air.  And around Esther’s body were family and friends she loved and adored: her daughter and her friend Helen Aylsworth and Helen’s daughter Nancy. 

We told Esther that we loved her.  And we wished her well on her sacred journey.  And we sang a bit.  And Helen reminded us all that she’d never heard her pal say a mean-spirited word or pick a fight.  “We had a lot of fun,” Helen said, caressing Esther’s quiet hand.  “We always had a lot of fun.”

I’d spent some time with Esther these last couple weeks.  We’d read some scripture.  And we’d sang a few Christmas carols.  And the day before she died, I sang to her “amazing grace how sweet the sound” and “swing low, sweet chariot comin’ for the carry me home.”  Esther was weak, to be sure, but her lively spirit was reaching out, stretching out, venturing out, beyond her frail 95-year-old frame.  She was looking for signposts on a journey that puzzled her some, but didn’t frighten her a bit.  All around were pictures she’d painted in her day, bright pictures and radiant, and books she’d read and loved, and sunlight.  Lots of bright winter sunlight.

In a sense, the twelve days of Esther’s Christmas were days of labor and grace, a bit of contraction here and there, and a good bit of expansion.  I may be pushing the metaphor hard here, but I think it works.  I think it fits.  In a sense, Esther did this Christmas what we all must do: she gave birth to the eternal, to a hope and dream even bigger than her own.  When I reached her bedside New Year’s Eve, when I touched her hand and kissed her forehead, when I looked at the love, the gratitude, in her good friend’s eyes, I felt something very much like what I’ve felt in labor and delivery rooms over the years.  Something like exhaustion and grace, something like mercy and newness and mystery.  And I wondered right then if our Christmas journeys (Esther’s and mine, Esther’s and yours) are really so different.  Every one of us, every one of us, is pregnant somehow, entrusted with visions and dreams and hopes even bigger than our own.  “The Eternal birth must take place in you and in me.” 


So what is it that’s waiting to be born in you this Christmas, this Epiphany, this new year?  What kinds of contractions are ripping their way through your life and revealing holy challenges and divine opportunities?  I think these are the questions we ask one another in the church; I think these are the very personal questions we risk posing during the Christmas season.  What is it that’s waiting to be born in you?

The gospel dares you and me to find Jesus in the ordinary aches, in the ordinary rhythms, in the ordinary opportunities of our lives.  “The Word becomes flesh,” says John.  “The Word becomes flesh and pitches a tent among us.”  Do you hear, can you hear how radical this is?  Do you hear, can you hear how bold and loving and close God is?  “The Word becomes flesh,” says John.  “The Word becomes flesh and pitches a tent among us.”

Somehow the love that was in God’s own heart at the very beginning has been planted in your flesh.  Somehow the light that first fired galaxies and stars is shining in your spirit.  You are not a meaningless cog in the empire’s machinery.  You are not an irrelevant number in the government’s statistics.  You are pregnant with God’s love.  You are burning with God’s light.  And your job, your calling, your privilege in this new year (and every new year) is to give birth to all that.  To give birth to the new thing God is doing in you and in your world.  In relationships.  In spiritual practice.  In public life.  Your calling is to give birth to the new thing God is doing in you. 


“From Christ’s fullness,” says John, “we have all received grace upon grace.”  Which is to say, I think, that the seeds planted in us are the very same seeds planted in Jesus and planted in the saints across all generations and cultures.  Just as Jesus cultivated a vision of a kin-dom of all beings, we cultivate a vision of a kin-dom of all beings.  Just as Jesus surrendered to communion and mercy as the essence of the Divine, we surrender to communion and mercy and worship God in loving one another.  Just as Jesus trusted in life beyond death, in the eternal dimension of love, so we trust in life beyond death, in the eternal dimension of love.  The seeds planted in him are planted in us now.  “From Christ’s fullness we have all received grace upon grace.”

The Anglo Catholic mystic Evelyn Underhill once put it this way: “The birth of Christ in our souls,” she said, “is for a purpose beyond ourselves.  It is because his manifestation in the world must be through us.  Every Christian, as it were, is part of the dust laden air which shall radiate the glowing Epiphany of God.”  Let that good news resonate in your soul, in your flesh this week.  Let that gospel grow in your deepest, darkest, sacred parts.  You are not a cog in the machine.  You are not a number in somebody else’s statistics.  You are the body of Christ, shining with original light.  You are the love of God, birthing new visions and hopes and verses of grace.  You are, we are “the dust laden air which shall radiate (forevermore) the Epiphany of God.”

Be dusty this year.  Radiate the Epiphany of God.  And give birth to something, someone, some dream so marvelous your own horizons can't contain it!