We had our last night of Advent Evening Prayer tonight. It has been so lovely- very prayerful and contemplative, very intimate. We had more people in the chapel than I thought given that Christmas is 3 days away and it is so cold outside.
I was happy to see so many of my friends as I felt very nervous. A lot of my St. Edward’s friends were there and one of my friends from where I work attended too. So did my boss – that really touched me beyond words. He had a crazy and busy day – a priest 3 days away from Christmas does not really have time to go to another church, 20 minutes away, to hear his secretary peach. But there he was, God bless him.
My friend Chris gratefully agreed to proclaim the reading I had chosen, which was the Gospel from today (see link below photo), Luke 1:46-56, the Magnificat. So without further adieu, here is my sermon. These are my notes, I really did not read them word for word. Also – the bolding helped me to not read but to simply glance and pull out what I needed to pull out!
“How good of you, God” the journal entry began, “to make truth a relationship instead of an idea. Now there is room between you and me for growth, for conversation, for exception, for the infinite understandings created by intimacy, for the possibility to give back and to give something to You—as if I could give anything back to You.” (From a journal of priest and author Richard Rohr.)
As many of you know, I spend a lot of time at Catholic blogs and other online faith forums. One of the arguments that you frequently encounter in these places, launched in the comment sections of the blogs, is about who is following the rules or not, who is in or out, who is a good Catholic or a bad Catholic. It is a little crazy and actually upsetting. Hey – I’m not saying that rules are bad – we need rules. I am saying that without relationship, rules alone are just rules.
That is why the words I opened with, taken from Rohr’s journal, which remind us of something we often need reminding of… that the truth is relational and not simply an abstract idea or a set of rules alone. This – along with the Incarnation itself, are the ultimate game changers of Christianity. It is groundbreaking, nontraditional and filled with risk.
This notion of truth as a relationship is found in the words of The Magnificat from Luke’s Gospel that we just heard. The Magnificat is all about relationship – about what God has done for Mary, and subsequently has done for all of us and how Mary responds, how we are all invited to respond. Along with that, remember that Mary doesn’t just go spouting these words off into nowhere or writing them in a journal… They are relational – spoken directly to her cousin, and based on Elizabeth reaction to Mary’s pregnant presence. Pay attention because these words are essential – they are groundbreaking, nontraditional and filled with risk.
Of course the very notion of the Incarnation, the reality of the birth of Christ is – groundbreaking, nontraditional and filled with risk. And how very sad that in many ways we do everything humanly possible to make it anything but.
When God is a rule and not a relationship, when God is out there or up there or over there – and not in here, it is pretty easy to end up with a less-than-perfect situation. Then it becomes a relationship made of fear and exchange, a relationship that is transactional but not transforming, a relationship of paranoia, not metanoia. It creates a kind of distance between God and us – and that distance does not nurture or feed the intimacy required of our dealings with God and with how we are all asked to bring forth and give birth to the Word.
Of course, the intimate relationships we constantly seek and yet assiduously avoid, are often groundbreaking, nontraditional and filled with risk. So why should our dealings with God be any different?
I used to know a priest who frequently referred to “vending machine God.” We as humans tend to like that kind of God because the rules are pretty straightforward.
Seemingly all you have to do is have plenty of quarters and the desire to stand in front of the machine inserting them on a regular basis. The risk is low, the reward seems clear and in the end, it seems we can control our fate. After all, we can always get another roll of quarters.
But there we are – back at the Magnificat. It unfolds as a key element of the incarnation – relationship. This renders vending machine God as useless. God doesn’t want our quarters. God wants us – God actually wants relationship with us. Mary truly got that and this is how she continued the yes that began with the Annunciation:
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
Mary of the Magnificat does not cower and shake. She is not like some obsequious little lady dressed in blue, saying, “aw shucks you shouldn’t have and I’m not worthy.” No Mary stands in relationship with God in a way that one of the nuns of my childhood might have termed bold.
Real relationship and intimacy require boldness – boldness is just what is needed for things that are groundbreaking, nontraditional and filled with risk. Great risk offers great reward, but it is scary. No wonder that there is a well-worn path leading away from risk and straight to the vending machine.
God however, calls each one of us to this very sort of boldness, a boldness that is not arrogant, but is rather cooperation with grace. God initiates and we are invited to respond by participating and responding as the people that God has loved into being.
God has fallen in love with us and invites us to fall in love with God, over and over again. It makes me want to swoon… and to run. Talk about groundbreaking, nontraditional and filled with risk… Can’t we just have the vending machine God please?
I don’t know about you, but that might be more simple. I could bow out and walk away, claiming that I didn’t have quarters or that I didn’t want what was in the machine. Or – if I changed my mind, I could prepare for vending machine duty and start pumping the quarters into the slot.
To love and be loved, to stand in the greatness of what God has created in me, to accept the seed of the Word within and bring it to life, as Mary did, as we are invited to do… It is groundbreaking, nontraditional and filled with risk; it just might be too much.
If we do respond, we find ourselves on much more challenging terrain than we possibly imagined. That is when we have to remember Mary’s words and know that we are called to proclaim the same greatness of God… every day.
“How good of you, God” the journal entry began, “to make truth a relationship instead of an idea,” said Richard Rohr.
Can we remember that 3 days from now, when we celebrate the birth of that Truth as Jesus Christ?