This sermon draws on the Gospel reading assigned for the Fourth Sunday of Advent in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary
I wasn’t going to go. I knew that everyone else would, and that I would be home alone for a while, but I wasn’t going with them. After all, I had gone off to school. I had taken classes like: Intro to Logic, The Greek Mind, Existentialism, Plato and Aristotle, and Modern Philosophical questions, so I just didn’t see the need. To top it all off, while I had been away at school studying all of those esoteric subjects my parents had separated and divorced. The people at the parish where I grew up had responded very poorly, taking sides, telling stories, making it all much worse for me and for my family. So there was no way that I was going to go to church on Christmas Eve.
We were going to spend the night at my father’s house on Christmas Eve so we packed our bags, loaded presents into the car, and I put on my most comfortable pair of jeans and an old denim shirt. As usual, when we crossed the mountains just west of Frederick the pre sets on our car radio wouldn’t turn up anything but static so we began to run through the radio dial looking for something to listen to. What caught our attention was a radio drama. The voice actors were great, delivering their lines with emotion and enthusiasm. There were some well done sound effects that made you feel like you were present in the story. But the thing that drew us in, that captured us, was the story itself. We spent the second half of that drive listening to a radio play of The Annunciation, the story that we just read from Luke’s Gospel, about an angel’s amazing announcement to a young girl.
We were so caught up in the story that when we arrived at my father’s house before it was over we didn’t want to turn it off and go inside. So we sat in the driveway in our car and listened while my family, my father and my brother and sisters stood in the windows of the house and waved at us, flicking the outdoor lights on and off in an attempt to get us to come inside. We finally decided that they probably thought we were having a fight so we had better go in and let them know we were ok. We reluctantly turned off the radio and went in.
The evening proceeded in a very predictable way. We gathered in the living room for hors d’oeuvres and drinks, then moved to the dining room table for dinner. Some time later, after a wonderful meal and a delicious desert, people began to leave the table and get read for the walk to church. That was when something unexpected happened. I found myself saying to my father, “You know I wasn’t going to go to church so I didn’t dress up… do you have a tie that would go with this shirt?” With a twinkle in his eye he disappeared and came back with a tie that almost went with the denim shirt I had chosen for the evening. Then I did something really out of character. I asked him if he would tie the tie for me…
We walked the several blocks to the church there in Shepherdstown and about half way into the service I was shocked to find tears running down my face. I was surprised, and a little frightened to find myself responding to the liturgy in this way but somehow I didn’t really want the tears to stop and I wasn’t concerned about hiding them from anyone. My father must have noticed because as we were walking back to his house after the service he sidled up to me, elbowed me gently in the side and said, “Pretty powerful stuff there huh?” That was when I wanted to hide. I mumbled something affirmative and we walked the rest of the way home in silence.
It was about three months later that I found myself responding to the sign that I had passed, without notice, on my way to and from work every day for the last seven years: The Episcopal Church Welcomes You. It felt very much like a homecoming to me and it wasn’t long before I was there every Sunday, all morning, going to all of the services every week.
Now I wonder… If I were to ask you to trade places with me this morning, if you came up here and stood in this spot… what story would you tell? Now I wouldn’t be asking you to tell your favorite or most memorable Christmas Eve story and I wouldn’t be asking you to relate a conversion story. There was a different story that played a central role in the experience that I just recounted. And that is the story that I am wondering about.
We all have them, a story, a narrative that we tell to ourselves and to other people, a story or narrative that makes sense of all of the things that we have experienced and the things that we believe. That narrative takes all of our successes and failures, our joys and our pains, and creates a coherent, cohesive story that defines and describes who we are and what we believe. It was my narrative, my understanding of myself and the world around me that was being challenged that night and I think it was the story of The Annunciation that made that challenge possible. In fact, I think that it is the challenge to personal narrative that makes this story so important, so dear to us. It is in this story that we find hope that our narrative might be re written.
Mary was probably only about thirteen years old. She didn’t have all of the experiences, the pain, the joy the successes and the hurts to tie up in her narrative that I had accumulated over thirty some years. But a girl of thirteen was old enough to get married in her day and I am sure that she had a narrative that she was very attached to. Mary was betrothed to a man named Joseph who was a carpenter. She was going to be married to a man with a trade, a man who was going to be able to provide for her and the children that she would bear to him. Mary had something very important, she had a sense of security, and her prospects were bright, and she had vision, a plan, a narrative for the future that stretched before her. Then it all changed in an instant.
It is fascinating the way our narrative describes us even as it begins to own us. As I look back I see that the narrative that I claimed for myself, the story that I would have told to describe who I was, what I believe, and what was important to me that Christmas Eve was not an especially attractive one. And I bet, at least I hope, that if I had been called upon to articulate that narrative twenty-one years ago I would have recognized its shortcomings. But I was sure working hard to defend that narrative from all challenges and distractions. We all do it. We have a story that we tell about ourselves, a narrative that makes sense of all that we have learned and experienced, all that we have done or left undone, and we work to protect that narrative. We don’t want that story called into question because that would undermine the way that we see ourselves and our actions and we might just be confronted with something we don’t like or would rather not see in ourselves. We defend that narrative because we don’t want to change.
And yet, it is the possibility that the narrative might be rewritten that draws us to this story. The angel comes to Mary and says, “Greetings favored one, the Lord is with you… You have found favor with God.” Now that right there is enough to challenge your narrative. Forget everything that you thought you knew about yourself. Let go of all of the things that you have done, the things that you work to hide from everyone, the ways that you feel inadequate and small because you are highly favored of God. No wonder she was afraid. The Gospel says that, “she was much perplexed by his words and wondered what sort of greeting this might be.” I’ll bet she was perplexed! She was terrified because her narrative was being challenged. Favored of God? That meant re thinking everything! But the angel didn’t stop there. He went on to say that everything that she thought she knew about her future, her plans, her dreams, they were wrong too. She was going to bear a child that would be a king and would change the world! Mary’s narrative, the story that she told about her past, who she was, and her future, what she might become, was all wrong and was going to have to be rewritten. There in that moment, with a light unlike any she had ever experienced filling the room, Mary bowed her head and said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
We all work very hard to defend our narrative. We have a story to tell, one that has been fashioned through years of living, and we quail at the possibility that it might be wrong, that we might have to learn to tell our story differently. At the same time we hear this story about a young girl whose life was changed, whose narrative was re written in a moment and we wonder, we wish, that the same thing could happen to us.
Someone gave me a gift this week. They brought me something that, as I thought about this gospel, helped to pull it all together. On Wednesday of this week someone brought me Kathleen Norris’s book Amazing Grace. In her chapter on Annunciation, Norris quotes Thomas Merton from his work, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Merton writes about the place that he seeks in his contemplative practice as a,
“’point vierge’ at the center of his being ‘a point untouched by illusion a point of pure truth, which belongs entirely to God, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point… of absolute poverty,’ he wrote, ‘is the pure glory of God within us.’” 1
A point within us which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will as we struggle to create a story, a narrative that makes sense of all that we have experienced, learned and done… Merton, and Kathleen Norris help us to see that is a virgin place, a place untouched, from which our story might be rewritten in a way that reveals us as the people whom God created us to be. We all sense that space within us. We all long to have our story spring from the glory of God, untainted by our own fantasies or the brutality of our own will. This story of a young girl who allowed God to be born in and from that virgin place within her gives us hope that the impoverished stories that we tell about ourselves might be rewritten in a way that will make us whole.
For the last couple of weeks we have talked a lot about the need to prepare a room, to make room for Christ to be born within us. In our collect today we prayed,
“Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself”
Perhaps the way to prepare that room in our hearts is to lower our defenses, to recognize out narrative as something that has changed in the past. It has had to change in order to accommodate and reconcile new learnings, new events, new successes, new failures. Preparing room for Christ to be born within and through us requires that we allow our narrative to be challenged by the reality that we are beloved, highly favored of God. Preparing room in our hearts requires that we allow our narrative of what is possible, what we can and cannot do be shaped by that reality, our own favor in God’s eyes, so that we might be changed and so that the world might be changed through us.
Listen! Can you hear it? We are being welcomed home, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
1 Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith (New York, Riverhead Books, 1998) 74.