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    Dec 22, 2019

    4th Sunday of Advent

    Passage: Matthew 11:18-25

    Preacher: The Rev. Greg Farrand

    Series: Year C: 2019-2020

    Category: Advent

    Detail:

    Today is the 4th Sunday of Advent. We are in a liturgical season that invites us to hope. To wait with expectation. We wait for that well known scene of nativity… Jesus wrapped in swaddling cloth, Mary smiling and Joseph sitting by her side. The shepherds with awe on their faces and the three wise men reverently giving their gifts as the animals watch quietly… the star shining brightly above Bethlehem.

    It is familiar and warm and comforting.

    The famous hymn “Away in a Manger” attempts to articulate the beatific picture, “The stars in the sky look down where he lay the little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay. The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wake, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” I love that hymn but I think it is profoundly mistaken.

    This was not a warm and cozy setting. Sleeping in hay is not comfortable… it’s itchy. And when a baby is startled awake, they cry. If we turn the birth of Jesus into a beatific, Norman Rockwell painting we miss the whole point. We cannot and should not sanitize this scene.

    If we wash away the dust and grime and grit of this scene we will minimize the very heart of the incarnation. If God wanted Jesus to be born in a warm, perfect setting, then a royal princess virgin in a pristine palace would have been chosen as mom. But instead, God chose Mary, with her soon to be husband Joseph with little resources.

    It was a dark, cold stable, that probably stunk like manure, with crooked walls and the last place you would want to deliver a baby. God chose a dirty, messy stable as the birthplace of the Son of God and the implications of that are huge.

    When the infinite God of the universe entered into the space time continuum to reveal divine love to us, this fragile baby entered into the dark, messy reality of life.

    God is there, not just in the perfect, not in the beatific, but in the mess, in the cold, in the dark and scary. And this is critical to metabolize. Often times we think that when our lives are going smoothly, when things are happy and calm we are clearly being blessed by God. And if things are messy and disappointing and difficult, it can feel like God is far off. But the incarnation says something very different. God is with us all the time, particularly in the dark and difficult times. And the reality of that sings in our Gospel reading this morning.

    Let’s take an un-sanitized look at how this miracle unfolded. In this season where we anticipate the birth of Jesus, what was that season like for Mary and Joseph?

    What was it like for them as they waited for the birth of Jesus? What was the first Advent like?

    Pat preached about Mary last week… and what it must have been like for her to hear the angel Gabriel’s words and say OK, sounds good. According to many scholars, she was probably 12-14 years old. According to ancient Jewish custom, she could be betrothed at about 12 years old.[1]

    She was so young. And I’m sure she was nervous and excited about her upcoming wedding to Joseph. And then with the angel Gabriel, her world is turned upside down. You will be with child. And imagine that conversation with her betrothed Joseph. We don’t have that conversation recorded in the Bible but it clearly happened because our passage this morning describes Joseph’s reaction to the news.

    Imagine this young girl, now early in her pregnancy sharing the news… “Joseph, listen… an angel came to me. I’m pregnant but I’m still a virgin and I am carrying the son of God in my womb.” Imagine the heart break that Joseph felt. He’s not crazy. He knows what this means. His soon to be bride has been with another man and now is concocting this crazy story to get out of facing the consequences. He is heartbroken. And according to the law, he has the power to condemn her publicly and even have her stoned to death.

    If he were a shallow or insecure petty man, he could have done this to save face. To get revenge for his heart break. But he is a good man. He doesn’t want any harm to come to Mary so he plans to break their betrothal quietly.

    So let’s pause here and reflect on their experience… How is the first Advent going so far? Is this how we expect God to work? How we expect God to show up? Mary has to be terrified. Her betrothed thinks she is a liar and unfaithful. Joseph is heartbroken. Even if she is not executed everyone will think she’s been unfaithful. She will be a social exile. It certainly did not feel good and right and wonderful. At this point everything looks like a total mess. There isn’t any joyful anticipation… just pain and heart break and ugliness.

    Mary had to think… when the angel gave me this amazing news I didn’t think it would end up like this! Where are you God?

    And it is important that we don’t rush past this just because we know how the next few chapters of the story go. Because this moment in the story of the holy family articulates the reality of our messy lives. What happens when our expectations of how life should go don’t match with reality? When we pray and hope and things fall apart.

    What happens when our plans, our vision for how life should go doesn’t match with reality? When we get that diagnosis. When relationships are strained. When finances are tight. When we are misunderstood or experience heart break. Where are you God? Are you here? Do you care? It sure doesn’t look like it based on these circumstances.

    Just last week a HT pilgrimage group returned from France. It was an amazing experience and like all pilgrimages it was full of surprises… many good and some disruptive.

    One of the main reasons I wanted to take a group to France was to walk the labyrinth at Chartres cathedral. For years I’d heard stories of this incredible “Thin Space.” “Thin Space” was a term coined by Celtic Christians that describe particular locations where the boundary between heaven and earth was particularly thin and porous and you could experience the love and presence of God easily.

    The labyrinth in Chartres cathedral was built in the 12th century and for all these centuries, spiritual seekers and pilgrims would walk the labyrinth path as a spiritual practice. Many would even walk it on their knees. A labyrinth is not a maze… there are no dead ends… but a flowing path that leads you to the center.

    Our labyrinth just outside is modeled after the one at Chartres cathedral. I had heard stories for years about this sacred space and I was incredibly excited. The first hiccup occurred a few months before we left. I learned that they only uncover the labyrinth for walking on Fridays during certain liturgical seasons. We would be there on a Wednesday and the labyrinth would be covered with hundreds of chairs.

    But I learned that if I wrote a letter to the dean of the cathedral on church letter head explaining our reasons to walk… on rare occasions he would make a special exception.

    So I wrote a letter and poured our my heart… sent it off and waited and waited. Then we got the response… the Dean not only granted our request but invited our pilgrim team to walk the labyrinth before the cathedral was open to the public… It was a special, sacred time just for our group! Well, I almost started crying I was so happy.

    We were to be at the cathedral not later than 7:45 on Wednesday, Dec. 4. So we wake up early and meet in our hotel lobby which is just a ¼ mile from the beautiful cathedral. We walk in the dark and there is frost on the ground. It is chilly, and quiet, and beautiful… and my heart is beating faster and faster as we see the spires and the front gate. We are waiting at the cathedral door a little early because we didn’t want to be late. Well, its 7:45 and there is no movement. No doors opening.

    It’s 7:50. Now 7:55… nothing. I can feel my anxiety rising. What if they forgot? What if this isn’t going to happen? We start walking all around the huge cathedral making sure we are at the right entrance and nothing. It’s now 8:00 and I my anxiety is turning into anger.

    I am worried we won’t even get to walk it at all. I make one last pass with our guide around the cathedral and we find a door open and go inside. We find a security guard who says, with total nonchalance… with a shrug… yes, you have permission. You can walk it… and his passive nonchalance really irritated me. He then says, you can walk it but you will need to move the chairs.

    Well, I look over and realized it’s covered with hundreds of chairs… this is going to take some time. But I take a breath go to open the door to the pilgrimage team. As I walk out to invite them in, I slip on the frost and tweak my lower back. Now I’m getting really upset.

    As the pilgrims shuffle in over the frosty ramp, and see all the chairs covering the labyrinth I hear a few groans. I say, “Well y’all, we have to move all these chairs so let’s get busy”… and as we start to move the chairs the guard rushes over yelling at us in French that we are doing it wrong.

    This was not how I pictured this morning would unfold! As we’re moving chairs, the “right way”, I realized I had a crafted a beatific picture in my mind of how this was supposed to go… We would walk through the quiet morning and approach the cathedral before dawn. At 7:45 the small door would open and a monk, framed by candle light with a gentle, welcoming smile would invite us into the sacred space. Instead it’s this chaotic mess.

    By the time we clear the chairs, I am not in a good place. Anxious, agitated, angry…. I am in the opposite state I wanted to be in.

    But here we are so we might as well do this… I have a mix of sacred music on my iphone and pull out my little Bluetooth speaker and start playing. Our team begins walking and I am last in line trying to calm myself down… and it’s not going well.

    I am thinking what a disaster. All that hope and all that effort. And here we are, bleary eyed, cold, and frustrated. I bet no one is enjoying this. Did I pick the right music? I’m looking at the pilgrims walking and trying to figure out if they’re having a moving experience… and my anxiety is sky high. My disappointment growing. I thought, this doesn’t feel like a thin space… it feels like a disaster zone.

    And then it was my turn to step onto the labyrinth.. and as I took that first step something wild happened. Something I didn’t anticipate. It was this wild sensation of weight being lifted off of me. All that anger and disappointment and anxiety felt like it was slipping off of me and I felt incredibly light.. and tears came to my eyes. My brain was trying to catch up with what was happening to my body and heart. God was not far off but right with me… so close.. and deep inside I felt the invitation to let go. Let go of my expectation… let go of trying to manage other pilgrim’s experiences, let go of trying to control everything… This deep sense of God’s presence saying, “Let go… I’ve got you, I’ve got them.”

    In my gut I felt the invitation…trust your three sons into my care, trust your mom and dad as they age. Trust your wife. Trust Holy Trinity, trust Second Breath into my hands. Trust, let go, and abide… I’m with you, I’ve got this… and the tears came faster and my body grew lighter. By the time I got to the center of the labyrinth I was undone. I sat on one of the rosette petals at the center and let myself soak it all in like I was sun bathing.

    And there, in the center of the labyrinth, I was reminded in the depth of my being that God is with us, closer than our thoughts, closer than our breath. With us in the mess, in the disappointment, in the frustration and confusion. We are not alone, we are never alone. And that loving, divine presence makes all the difference. When I have lost this awareness of connection, I live in anxiety and attempt to control everything. When I realize God’s presence is with me, the weight lifts off my shoulders and I am able to simply be present. And I need that reminder not just once but every day.

    We are tempted to think we are on our own… and God is not with us… especially when life gets messy. You have probably heard me use the term cosmic orphans. The belief deep down that we are all alone in a vast, scary universe. But the heart of advent and Christmas is the antidote for the delusion of cosmic orphan-hood.

    Our passage says, “’Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ Which means God is with us.”

    God is with us. That is the stunning revelation of the incarnation… of advent, of Christmas. God is with us. Where was God when Joseph thought Mary was a liar and unfaithful? God was there with them in the mess. Where was God when a very pregnant Mary and her husband had to travel 98 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem? There with them in the dust and blisters. Where was God when they couldn’t find a room at the inn and were forced to deliver a baby in the cold dark of a stable… there with them.

    Where is God when you received that diagnosis that changed your life.. there in the confusion and fear with you. Where is God when you are lonely and this holiday season makes that pain all the more poignant? God is with you, you are never alone.

    Where is God in financial strain and marital struggle and all of the messiness of life? God is there in the muck and the mire. And this presence of God is not benign. God is inviting us to let go and trust. To allow our burdens to slide off our shoulders and open up to the possibility that God can take even the deepest darkness and flood it with light. That God can take the parts of us that are wounded and maybe even dying and resurrect new life. And not just in our individual lives, but God enters the darkness of our world to bring comfort, and healing love.

    And how do we know this? Because we follow a God who chose to enter our world not in a palace or with great fanfare…God chose a dark, smelly stable in an unknown corner of the world. What kind of God would choose to be born in a dark stable surrounded by animals and crumbling walls? The son of God laying in itchy hay? The same God who enters into the dark, strained corners of our hearts and says, “Yes, this is where the infinite God of love will be born.”[2]

     

     

     

    [1] Allison, Dale C, Matthew: A Shorter Commentary, p. 12, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004

    [2] Adapted from by Leslie Leyland Fields in her poem “Let the Stable Still Astonish”