A long time ago, a young woman headed out, uphill, into the uplands, the highlands, the hill country. It is striking that we see her walking alone, given her condition, given the human condition, and given the conditional blessing she carries to us and to others. She is alone. There are many forms of solitude, including the joy of birth and the grief of death, and the power of dreams. You will picture her, in an awkward tunic, walking at dusk, up into the hills. We know (remember the Good Samaritan) that those roads harbored bandits. She goes quickly, perhaps for that reason, and with haste enters the home of the husband of a second cousin thrice removed.
One thing we learn from these two women, right away, is regard for a sense of self-mockery. You could say self- awareness, or you could speak of the centered self, but Elizabeth and Mary, like their forebears, Sarah and Hannah, have gone further and have learned to smile at their own fragile limitation. They model self-mockery. They can laugh at themselves. ‘Who am I that the mother of my Lord should visit me?’
It is possible that their self-abandon gives Elizabeth and Mary the ears to hear a divine promise. One of the interruptive intentions of Sunday worship is to offer you, and you, and you all, such an awareness. “Take yourself lightly, so that you can fly like the angels.” (W.S.Coffin). A little spiritual distance, a little self differentiation, a little non anxious presence—these go a long way when you are hungry and thirsty for a reassurance of meaning, a reassurance in the face of our deeply violent and violating culture, a reassurance that life yet bears meaning.
The Gospel According to St. Luke reverses our expectations. Those outside are on the inside, when the gospel comes. The commoner has the inside track in this monarchy. Who first hear resurrection news twenty four chapters and twenty four weeks later, come March and Easter? Women. Who follow unstintingly, across Galilee and into Jerusalem? Women. Who, today, first hear the plan for redemption, the coming birth of the Dream Child? Women. (In case you miss the point, Luke brings in the shepherds Monday at 7:30pm).
How could it be? How could these things be? Who am I?
Over time, you begin to project less, on the world, and see more. Projection only gets you so far. After three or so decades of seeing what you hope to see and want to see, you begin to stop and look and listen, and lessen projection–unless you are one of these women. Not of them the saying, ‘Too soon old too late smart”. They get it early, earlier. Schleiermacher would be proud. They have that sense. Some things only the women seem to get right. They have that feeling. Do you? Do you? However are you going to survive slaughter news without it? John the Baptist leaps in Elizabeth’s womb, at the sound of Mary’s voice, Mary the mother of Jesus. Good Greek mythology, and helpful to a church trying to keep the Baptists in the pew, at 90ce.
Mary is blessed. Why? Because she has believed, had faith. In what? Here, as in the verse identifying the singer of the psalm, there is some textual doubt. Is it that she has faith that she has been promised to deliver a child, and now sees that she will? Perhaps. I judge the stronger promise to be the stronger, though. She is blessed because she has faith that these promises WILL BE fulfilled (that is the verb, simple future, not conditional, not subjunctive). She trusts that a day will come: WHEN THE DREAM CHILD WILL COME AND HIS REIGN WILL NEVER END. And her faith is ours. Her faith is the gift of the Dream Child to us at Christmas. You have the gift of faith and love and hope that–in the teeth of slaughter–you can affirm that one day, one day, one getting up golden morning, one fine dawn day, one glistening day, the dream of the Dream Child will neither slumber nor sleep. Do you hope for that? Do you? Without it, however are you going to survive slaughter news? Mary’s blessing is not the birth of a child but the birth of the Dream Child.
Another more obvious thing we learn from Mary and Elizabeth and from birth in general is a respect, a healthy regard, for human vulnerability.
I learned this week that there are 120 ‘centers’ at Boston University. Each is the dream child of some professor, who has an idea about connecting ideas and money, and marrying them up in an academic center. I may open my own, someday, ‘The Robert Allan Hill Center for Wonder, Vulnerability and Self-Mockery’
I had my first real job, and first real boss. I ran the water front, under the stern eye of Koert Foster, who ran the campground. Koert never went to college, but he became President of his Rotary Club. He never went to college, but he flew and owned a Cessna 172. He never went to college but he talked theology nose to nose with those who did. He never went to college, but he was a scratch golfer and a prince of peace. Here: when one of the 250 campers per week was injured, he would slow down, as he walked toward the broken arm. He did not rush to calamity. He walked, and he walked more slowly than he usually did. ‘Take your own pulse first”, his slow, steady approach taught me.
Koert was a deer hunter, as were most of the men around whom I grew up in the uplands, hills, hill country of upstate New York. I went my junior year to Spain—give me another such some lifetime!—to read Antonio Machado and Miguel de Unamuno, and prepare to teach college Spanish. One December day a tiny thin aerogram, in my mother’s hand, came to Segovia, to the Campos de Castilla. ‘Bob, Koert died in a hunting accident. He was shot by accident by his best friend, the town mailman, on the hairpin turn, halfway to the lake’.
I had not planned to go back to work the followings summer at the summer camp, but Koert was dead, and we all went back, and ran it. At age 20. Occasionally a busy Methodist minister would check in to see if things were OK. They were. 20 years olds can do a lot. We worked from 6am to 8pm and then, in the twilight went waterskiing up and down that long finger lake, across from the nudist colony. I was driving the boat, and throwing the ski rope. Peg, Koert’s widow was the spotter. ‘God called him home’, she said. ‘Did God call him home?’ she asked. Coiling the rope, I shrugged, and hurling the ski rope I said I didn’t think so. ‘If you go to seminary, figure it out’, she said.
Friends, we need to be clear about not going over the theological cliff, in horrific tragedy. You were here last week, when we said:
As we sing carols let us soberly remember. Faith does not exclude us from calamity, but faith prepares us to fight it. Faith does not give us the capacity to understand, but it does give us the courage to withstand. Faith is not an answer to every question, but it is a living daily question of ultimate concern. Faith in God is faith in God, not in another creaturely being. Our faith in God is cruciform, faith in the crucified God, who has chosen to make our vulnerable condition his own. I know the early church rejected patri-passionism. But barely. And developing the capacity to meditate on profoundly unanswerable questions is why three times a fall we go and listen to Elie Wiesel. Faith does not protect us from calamity. Gravity, bullets, floods and earthquakes respect nothing about faith, and faith from them offers no protection.
By apocalypse, evil shows us a part of who we are. We are revealed, this week, in Newtown, as a people, to be other people than we pretend and other people than we intend. We pretend to protect the weak, but we do not. We intend to protect the innocent, but we do not. That is, our penchant for acquisition, our desire to acquire rather than to be a choir, makes some other things expendable. As in a mirror, and not so dimly, a dark inner part of our common life is illumined. Not just one deranged killer, but a culture of guns and a culture of violence and a culture of acquisition, and a culture of apathy, these are brought to light, in this unfathomably tragic, unspeakably awful, sinfully evil crime. We are reluctant to give up even a slim measure of our power to purchase, to acquire, in order to protect children. Foolish we are, with a foolishness that brings tragedy. I think of the years I spent in Canada and the months in England, and I think we have some things to learn from both sibling cultures. Here in the USA, there is a cheapening and coarsening of life happening all around us, all the time, and we, though sometimes we find the temper to resist, are the worse for it. A decade of warfare has numbed us, made us tolerant of violence in ways we never were before. Take a walk with me some day on a college campus.
Over forty years, as a culture, as a people, we have more and more given ourselves over to acquisition. We no longer preach to the choir, we preach to acquire. To acquire one turns sometimes to violence. Our culture is drenched in violence. We from New England need to remember the stern hope in the New England theological tradition from Edwards to Emerson. Edwards: “Resolved, never to do anything which I should be afraid to do if it were the last hour of my life.” Emerson: “Men are ‘convertible’ and this is the work of education, to awake the slumbering soul from its habitual sleep.” Last week Night came, but unattended by repose. After a holocaust, there is no faith so whole as a broken faith. We need models of living with a broken faith. We need to become, one by one, and as the faith community of Marsh Chapel, a model of living with a broken faith. How?
To begin, in faith, we leave behind who were, and take up our cross, and follow. Our cross, in our time, as has been steadily acclaimed from this pulpit, includes the hard heavy lifting of ridding this country of gun violence and of protection that does not protect. Granted that foolish and harmful things are done all the time, we need not participate in them. Our cross, in our time, as has been steadily acclaimed from this pulpit, includes the hard heavy lifting of growing, improving attention to mental health. Our cross, in our time, as has been steadily acclaimed from this pulpit, includes the hard heavy lifting of setting aside some cyber-cultural influences. We shall not cease from mental fight, nor shall our sword sleep in our hand, til we have no guns, mental health and a clean culture, in this green and pleasant land. You have a voice, you have a wallet, and you have a vote. Do you know this? Do you? How else will we ever face slaughter news?
A digression: careful limitation of ammunition, requiring of its purchasers what we now require of those taking an airplane ride, full and personal and complete and discomfiting inspection, may be our best strategy. Buy your guns, if you must, but if you want ammunition for them, that is another story. If I can be groped at Logan airport to fly to Chicago, you can be checked and monitored, bullet by bullet. Yes, too, to : bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, tightening rules for sales at gun shows and re-examining care for the mentally ill. It is a collective self defense, fit for the 21st century, which we need, not an individual self defense, forged in the 18th.
A second digression: Fundamentalist readings, harmful and foolish they are, are not limited to readings of Holy Writ. Fundamentalist readings, equally harmful and foolish, and similar in scope and reasoning, are also given to national writ, constitution and bill of rights. What words meant in 90ad, in Luke, require current, contemporary, living interpretation. What words meant in 1800ad, in the bill of rights, require current, contemporary, living interpretation. What is most novel may oddly be truest to the tradition, and what is least traditional may be truest to the meaning of the tradition.
Our heroic women, Mary and Elizabeth, teach us something else, too. Every day is our last, until the next, and they live so. They sing so. They live on tip toe and sing on pitch. They magnify the Lord. The world does not lack for wonders, but only for a sense of wonder. How is it that Luke, 20 centuries ago, eclipsed the men and evoked the women? How is it that, come Christmas, people who sleep on Sunday will come to worship? How is it that in the candle lit dark of Christmas Eve, 7:30pm, there is a dim, palpable sense of the numinous, so easily forgotten all year? How is it that the beauty of the carols and anthems and hymns, even against the steady cold wind of the merely material, manages to get through, come December?
All this is true, because of the proper translation of Luke 1:45: Mary had faith that God’s promise will be fulfilled. You have that faith, have been given that faith, have been seized by the church’s confession of that faith. Down under, down deep in the American psyche, there is a surging heart felt generosity, unknown, untapped, uninvited, unbidden, unwelcomed by our ostensible leaders. Ernest Campbell: “To be mature is to: build schools in which you will not study; plant trees under which you will not sit; grow churches in which you will not worship”. Ah, to worship. Let me end with a little jeremiad about worship, for your consideration as look to 2013. Think of it as a recommended resolution.
If you do not have one hour, each week, in which to face your own mortality, your own fragility, your own dependence, what is any other hour worth? Luke alone tells these stories. Why? He is struggling, as we are, to build the church. Some, inside the church, whom he wants to hold onto, are followers of the Baptist. So Luke recalls a story that honors not only the Baptist, but also his holy birth. Others, outside the church, whom he wants to embrace, are Greeks who like their religions sprinkled with birth legends like those of the Greco Roman Gods. So Luke recalls a story that has an altogether Greek birth miracle, like the Virgin Birth story itself.
A culture of violence will not disappear on its own. A community of faith will need to erase it. That means coming to church on Sunday. A disregard for mental health will not disappear on its own. A community of faith will need to heal it. That means coming to church on Sunday. A homeland sized addiction to firearms will not disappear on its own. A community of faith will need to bring sobriety. That means coming to church on Sunday. To this hard work, you will bring the spirit gift of perseverance. My friend said: “90% of life is showing up. The other 10% is perseverance.” Show up on Sunday. Persevere on Monday.
If singing the hymns of faith is not worth doing, what is? If preaching the gospel of kindness is not worth doing, what is? If supporting friends in community is not worth doing, what is? If this one lone Sunday hour is not worth your time, your attention, your commitment, your devotion, just what is your time, attention, commitment and devotion really worth? If the love of the Dream Child is not worth dreaming about, what is?
A long time ago, a young woman headed out, uphill, into the uplands, the highlands, the hill country. It is striking that she is alone, given her condition, given the human condition, and given the conditional blessing she carries to us and to others. She is alone. There are many forms of solitude, including the joy of birth and the grief of death, and the power of dreams. You will picture her, in some awkward tunic, walking at dusk, up into the hills. We know, remember the Good Samaritan, that those roads hid bandits. She goes quickly, perhaps for that reason, and with haste enters the home of the husband of a second cousin thrice removed. We will remember her, as Christmas moves to Christmastide.
When the song of the angels is stilled
And the star in the sky is gone
And the kings and princes are home
And the shepherds are back with their flocks
Then the work of Christmas begins
To find the lost
To heal the broken
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner
To rebuild the nations
To bring peace among brothers
To make music in the heart
(Dean of Marsh Chapel, Howard Thurman)
~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel