Monday, August 19, 2013

On the Virgin Mary

Mary, Mother of our Lord. 
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:1-7
St Luke’s Yea, 2014

Let’s start with a prayer by Thomas Ashe, an Irish poet, patriot, martyr of the early 20th century who wrote these words...

“Christ, look upon us.. 
and keep our pity fresh and our eyes heavenward, 
lest we grow hard”

I hold that prayer close to me lately because I am trying to relearn how to get a balance between human, having compassion and pity for what I do and see and how I live as a human being in my day to day world; and somehow holding onto a kind of holy and eternal hope. And that’s where I might be able to meet, to make sense of Mary. 

And so my question is, how might Mary matter, what does Mary mean for us today? Can she be in part an icon of that kind of balance she lives: in her innocence and her virginity, her discipleship and her work; does she witness a   deeply practiced and informed pity and hope that can inform us, keep us from getting hard?

Its been a few years since I saw the 1960s movie, “The Gospel according to Matthew.” and my memory may be faulty, but there are some scenes that I will never forget. It’s a bold and thoughtful film, directed by Paolo Pasolini; an atheist, marxist, murdered under mysterious circumstances, but he  came across a Gideon Bible in some hotel room one morning and put together one amazing movie. It’s filmed in Sicily, in glorious black and white, with amazing Italian faces, dry empty hills, moving crowds, wide sky, ancient ruins. Mary is almost a child; at that age where children start to show the the hope, beauty, potential they might bring forth as an adult if things go right. And she’s in this ruin of a garden, for some reason I think she’s reading, and suddenly there’s a sound and you see this angel. I don’t know if it’s a boy or girl but this beautiful long-haired delighted angelic kid is shining with hope, delight, almost audacity; and the angel looks at Mary and she looks back and they both smile, maybe because there’s nothing else you can do at a moment like that. And the angel starts to speak and says what is still almost unspeakable:

“Hail Mary full of grace, charity, love beyond deserving or measure...the lord is with you!”

And Mary says Yes!

And you can see why; partly because she's young, she knows no better than not to say Yes, and partly because she gets the full orchestra of something we might hear dimly, occasionally, but mainly because she is young enough to know thats what life is about; that there are times when you just have to say Yes. 

And I think that’s not true for us too, for each one of us gets an occasional look into the face of a loving eternity looking back at us right in the face, calling us to take the chance to be servants, messengers, to show pardon, mercy, hope, to be  birth-givers in new instance and occasion of love. The truth is that we, like Mary, are called to say yes, to be obedient, to some new unimaginable but always almost seen and always hoped for future. 

And in the end I believe  we are more faithful than we might first know or imagine:, we so often give our lives over to be open to a gift, to give a gift or to be a gift, to a future we cannot completely conceive; and we mutter, “I'll try,” and, when we do (even with the delay, the doubt, the evasive mutter) something does take birth within us, within the world. 

So Mary stands as a model to each of us as virgin and birth giver, to be pregnant with compassion and pity and heavenly hope, to be a sign, an instance of a loving eternity, happening just in time.

Mary models... what Isaiah says, the young and willing joy, “rejoicing in the Lord, exulting in God, ready to be clothed with salvation... willing to be covered with righteousness, as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up…” We might just try to say yes to a task, a troubled friend, someone in need, 
We might just say yes, To carry compassion, pity, hope, but it is the same
“Let it be to me according to your word.”

So remember this isn't just about her, this is for us. She opens the way for each of us to receive and give God's mysterious gifts, in so many ways, and I say this with some great respect: we are so many pregnant virgins. Because we know in our hearts that we also come here to say yes!

We cannot plan for this, but we can prepare: remember that we are born for advent, we too are born to be “theotokos” -- bearers of God, keeper of Christ! 

For, as Thomas Merton writes: 

"At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is, so to speak, His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence,"

And I would add, as our virginity; and Mary is the model for the way this intimate ministry takes place, gives birth, in all of us.

 But there is more than birth, young people, the holy family.  That icon only lasts so long, even with Jesus and his family. There is a moment when Mary and her family go to be with Jesus, and his disciples say, “‘Your mother and your brothers, your sisters are here.’ And Jesus says, ‘My mother and brothers and sisters are those who do the will of God.’” It isn't always easy to be the mother of god,  Holy families can be icon, but icons can break, into a transition time when things get tender. It happens in relationships when a parent, model, mentor must become a fellow worker, simply another disciple sharing hope, caring, pity, being a friend.

And so Mary must become more than a mother, she is now a disciple doing the will of God. But perhaps she was the first disciple: listen to Matthew's gospel for an outline on discipleship and ministry.

“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

And she had been there at the start, giving food and drink, sharing substance and spirit, giving him body and blood, bound by love and born forward by grace to share his life. She had shared her confinement at the start, and she would witness his confinement as it all seemed to end.

For those disciplines once begun, abide, do not easily leave you. Again, that's why were here: to get those actions, that love, that dance, deep into our own heart, soul, mind, strength. The love of God and neighbor; even God as neighbor, even God as a neighbor we carry in our body, into the  deepest heart  of who we are.

And Mary was a witness at the end too. We all know there are dreadful days when eternity seems to die in time, we all have lived through those days when, no matter who or where we are, the hope we lived to love might come to fall and die. And yet I cannot imagine what it was for her. 

In the Pasolini movie, on that Good Friday, you see this old woman, wearing the weight of years, walking up the hill, hoping the stone might be moved so she can do deaths duties to the very body she embodied, the hope she held to tightly; so she shows up there too, a model for all of us at the times when love seems to die, 

And the stone is taken away, and the old woman looks, and the music comes up, and she sees the same angel! The beginning and the end are all held in the same love: eternity wins! And Mary  remembers all the moments when time turns and something new is born, and now she sees the time when death itself falls dead and she know love is bigger than death and love lives forever. And she holds that truth for us as well.

The tradition states that she did not die, was taken up to be near her son, some would say the Queen of Heaven. Given her record, I'd say that would not be surprising. She had said yes to so much: she had said yes to love living in her, yes to be the messenger, the vehicle bringing God's word of love and life into human being, God's body and blood into our kind, her assent enfleshed god, making us kin together. She also said yes to discipleship to watching, guarding, serving God's love in the very middle of all the art and pain and necessity we call life. She even said yes to witnessing the end of all that, looked at death and loss and and found a message: that love is one and that God's life will wins; that the love of Christ shall be all in all.

So, even if she didn't get a direct flight to heaven, I would think that woman could pass through death like "light through a window"; her love, obedience, discipleship, all bear witness to life larger than death, that would not, could not,  does not end, a love that is always beginning, even here and now.

And that's our task today. Today we are called like she was; to say yes to giving life to God's love, to being the birthplace, the bearer, of the body of Christ here and now and always, in the birth, the living, the dying, the rising up again of God’s love in human life. That’s what church is about: it is here in the stories we hear, the substance and spirit we share,  the body and blood of Christ we come to incorporate here  so that we might give it away on purpose everywhere.

And that's Gods own truth, that by here by grace we can see that the world is full of the most unlikely and wonderful pregnant virgins, that each of us is invited to share in giving birth to God’s word of love and grace; that, with our pity fresh and our eyes heavenward, we are called to take on holy.   enfleshed living, dying, rising in love, for we are highly favored and the Lord is with us..

“And Mary said, let it be to me according to your word.”

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Pentecost 11C

Jesus said to the crowd, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he told them about a rich man who decided to pull down his barns, build larger ones, store all his grain and goods and relax, eat, drink, be merry.’” But God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves  but are not rich towards God.’

That reminds me of a story about the easiest way to trap a monkey which is to take a coconut, punch a smallish hole in it, empty it, tie it to the ground and fill it with a few pieces of good food. I am not sure what qualifies as good monkey food, maybe straw, although I am inclined to go for pizza and chocolate, but am prepared to see that as pure projection. 

Anyway, when the monkey comes exploring, he sees the desired food inside the coconut, he puts his hand in, he finds he can’t grab hold of the food and get his hand out at the same time. And he won’t let go. He’s that greedy. Supposedly a monkey will hold onto the food even when the people with the nets come ‘round, even when he’s going to get trapped, lose everything, he’ll still try to hold on. 

This story scares me more than a bit, because there is something like that greedy monkey in me that often wants to hold on, to an old idea, to an old idol, to an old pain or an old plan. Those things matter! I want to hold on; 

But as today’s Gospel puts it: “And the things you have prepared [the stuff you try to hold on to], whose will they be [when you die] ?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves  but are not rich towards God.” I believe that’s true, even good news, but I can understand the  frustration felt by the reading from Ecclesiastes we just heard.

“All is vanity [and] all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, [and] I must leave it to those who come after me – and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet…. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest.  This also is vanity. “

Don’t you hate nights like that? But it’s true! 

It also reminds me of the story of two men talking after a third man’s funeral: One said, Did he leave much? 
The second said, Well, yes, he left it all! 
In the end we leave it all. 

But maybe we get it all too. Maybe, if the Epistle to the Colossians is right, then, by God’s grace, we are stripping off “the old self with its practices and have clothed… ourselves with the new self… [and] being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. [then] … Christ is all and in all!”

That’s not a bad consolation prize!  And if that is true, what is more important than saying yes to life and to God in the present moment? 

What else are we trying to hold onto? Again, Is there an old idea of failure or success? Is there a worn out list somewhere of people we tried to impress when we were younger? Is it an old idea of our religion, of how to act it out and live it out? What do we hold onto today that can trap us, trip us up, keep us from turning around to say yes to the present reality of celebrating life and love right now, when that’s what might matter most? What keeps us away, if we are being called by God, as Jesus tells us, to be rich towards God, to mindfully walk with God in the openhearted possibilities of the present moment?

Part of it is that this openhearted process is not easy to get hold of, is not easily condensed into a book or a creed, a dogma or doctrine. And don’t get me wrong, none these things are bad; we need benchmarks and rest-stops, records, standards, starting points, places where we can remember, turn around and begin to live again. But they are not the way, and there is even a danger that they can turn into detours, get us out of God’s own way, keep from from being that new self-in-Christ … who is being “renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.”

And this is less like a bank account, a barn, or a lesson plan, more like a flower or a fresh breeze, or love: Maybe Jesus’ ministry is breathing the breath, singing the song of the intimacy of God breathed by the spirit in every moment of creation. Maybe that’s the gift that lasts, maybe that’s the way the way works in each of us as well as in all of us together. We can’t get hold of it easily, but that’s the way I believe we’re called to follow. 

And if God’s open-handed love, which we see in the life of Jesus, is the way to follow; then the greedy, self-directed documentary of who we want to be, where we ought to go, and what we want to hold on to; all those plots, hopes, fears, memories and desires, follies and forecasts that we cleave to: why, we can let all that go! 

For here we can be held in the free-gift of God’s true love, right here, right now in the middle of the way, willing to be filled with renewing acts of creativity, redemption, blessed mercy and surprise; when love lights us up with spirited,  surprising connections of compassion, wisdom, justice, love. 

But there is always something in us that wants to fight that light, keep our hand in, hold on to what we can, get what we want. That relates to what the letter to the Colossians is talking about with that earthy, dirty little list: “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)... [to say nothing of]  anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth” all of these are tight-fisted attempts to grip power, passion, grab control, make the world work our way, the places where sin is so often found. 

But that’s not where we are, as the writer of the epistle goes on to say: instead,  “you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”

So if Christ “is all and in all” risen, if we are renewed in knowledge according to the image of our creator, if we are invited to share in that resurrection life,  then we are all called to open our greedy hands, our grimy hearts, our grasping lives, and leave ourselves open to be companions, neighbours, lovers of the life God gives us, freely giving without the need for control or power. We can be something as light and lively as a bright dance, a procession from the heart of creation, from the deepest heart of love, to be found and offered in the fragile centre of the human journey.

So don’t let your hand be caught in holding on to what you wanted, or feared, or planned for your life, instead let yourself come home to Christ in the midst of the world of living and dying, in the hope of heaven. 

For we are called to  strip off the old self with its practices and clothe ...ourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”