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Magnify the Lord

Here is the sermon for Dec. 18. My Christmas Eve and Christmas Day sermons were delivered without manuscript, and I don't have anything to post for them.

Magnify the Lord
Luke 1:26-38; 47-55
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – OKC
18 December 2005
Fourth Sunday of Advent

Angels in America begins with the funeral of Sarah Ironson. The funeral is conducted by the very elderly Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz. The rabbi says:

This woman. I did not know this woman. I cannot accurately describe her attributes, nor do justice to her dimensions. She was . . . not a person but a whole kind of person, the ones who crossed the ocean, who brought with us to America the villages of Russia and Lithuania – and how we struggled, and how we fought, for the family, for the Jewish home, so that you would not grow up here, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted. Descendants of this immigrant woman, you do not grow up in America, you and your children and their children with the goyische names. You do not live in America. No such place exists. Your clay is the clay of some Litvak shtetl, your air the air of the steppes – because she carried the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat, and she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue, or in Flatbush, and she worked that earth into your bones, and you pass it to your children, this ancient, ancient culture and home.
You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that journey is.

Dirt. Clay. Ground. For Rabbi Chemelwitz, there is something mystical about the ground that enters into the descendants of the Jewish immigrants. For something as simple as dirt, it has long had a rich meaning. It is from the ground that Adam was formed, molded by God in paradise. Throughout scripture, there is the image of God as potter and us as the clay. Even the concept of ground has a variety of meanings. It can be the physical ground, the earth. It can also be the bottom or lowest side of a body or structure. If you’ve ever done yoga, you know that the instructor will ask if you are grounded, meaning are your feet firmly planted. A third meaning of ground is origin, cause, or beginning. And, finally, it can also mean “what is inmost [or] hidden,” the essence of a thing. A rich concept indeed.

The Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart used the concept of ground as a central element in his spirituality. In doing so, he developed an image that had already been used by some female mystics, including Mechtild and Hadewijch. They all used the term ground as an image in order “to express a new view of how God becomes one with the human person.” For, as Eckhart said, “God’s ground and my ground is the same ground.”

The thought of Eckhart has been underneath the surface of my thinking and preaching this Advent season. Eckhart himself preached a series of Christmas sermons that expressed the basic tenets of his spirituality. My interpretation of Eckhart comes from University of Chicago professor Bernard McGinn.
What Eckhart taught is that we should view the birth of Christ not solely as a past historical event, but as an on-going event. For him, the “Word taking on flesh is not a past event we look back to in order to attain salvation, but rather is an everlasting present” event. God continues to become human and humanity continues to become God.

Eckhart wrote, “It would be of little value for me that ‘the Word was made flesh’ for man in Christ as a person distinct from me, unless he was also made flesh for me personally so that I too might be God’s son.” There is a sense in which God becomes flesh in the entire creation. As Eckhart said, “The Word universally and naturally becomes flesh in every work of nature and art.” But most importantly “God’s intention in sending his Son was that ‘[humanity] may become by the grace of adoption what the Son is by nature.’”

Eckhart teaches that the birth of Christ is on-going, that through the Holy Spirit Jesus is born anew in believers, because we share the same ground as God. He thought that the word becoming flesh was an on-going experience. God continually chooses to place divinity in the flesh, which elevates and exalts the body. In this way the incarnation is relevant to us as we seek to embody Christ in our lives.
Going back to St. Irenaeus the Christian doctrine of the incarnation has been expressed in the phrase “God became man so that man might become God.” This formulation continues through the development of orthodoxy in Athanasius and Augustine and was common in Medieval understandings of Christian theology.

What could this traditional understanding mean; it sounds so alien to our ears?

It does not mean that we can become the transcendent Creator. It does not mean that we become little gods. What it does mean is that God’s reign has invaded this world. That the divine image that each of us possesses is alight with the Light of the World, Jesus Christ. Our humanity is awakened. Whatever our state, we now are able to achieve our full potential as human beings. It doesn’t matter your race, your sex, your orientation, your economic status, your family history, your education, your physical beauty or lack thereof. You have received the right and the power to believe and become a child of God. You are the adopted sons and daughters of the Most High.

Because we are created in the divine image, we share the same ground, the same essence with God, according to Eckhart. In some sense all creation shares in the essence of God. Creation is the outflowing of God; sorta like a pot of water that boils over. Of all creation, humans come closest to God, because we share the divine image.

But what does this mean? It means that we can commune with God. The doctrine of the Trinity teaches us that the essence of God is a loving relationship. Because we are made in the image of God, we too are capable of a loving relationship with God. As McGinn says, “Eckhart invites his audience to live according to the inner image – that is: be God’s, not yours!” Each of us shares this connection with the divine, and sin is the obscuring of that connection.

So, how do we prepare ourselves for God to be born anew in us? It must be emphasized that there are many ways to commune with God. Different Christian mystics and thinkers have emphasized different ways to approach God. All of them remind us that the language we use to describe God, ourselves, and the relationship between us is rich with metaphor and symbol. That when we speak of such things we are in the realm of mystery, awe, and wonder.

Eckhart spoke first of detachment. Silence and listening are emphasized. Retreat from the hectic pace of the world is important. It is hard to hear the Word of God if there is lots of noise around us. All prayer and meditation begin in silence, when we listen attentively for God to speak. It is us centering ourselves and being in touch with our own ground. When we do, we also make contact with the divine.
I must confess that I go through seasons when I am better at this. In Dallas I tried once a month to take a day of private retreat. I failed more than I succeeded, but when I did take a day and devote it completely to prayer and meditation, I could tell a difference in my life. It is the same with our new yoga circle; it helps to discipline me into remembering to take this time just to center myself.
You know, it can be done with just a few minutes every day. Take the time to go for a walk and really listen to the wind in the trees. Or sit beside the window and watch the squirrels play. Or while waiting in your car at a stoplight, take the time to focus on your breathing and rest in the peace of God.
To detach in this way is not to run off into the desert and become a hermit, though some people are called to that form of spirituality for a season or for life. What we must develop is the skill to rest in the peace of God as we go about our daily business. Brother Lawrence, who was the cook in a monastery, called it “the practice of the presence of God.” He viewed his work as his meditation.

Richard Foster, the Quaker minister, puts it this way,

We must come to see . . . how central our whole day is in preparing us for specific times of meditation. If we are constantly being swept off our feet with frantic activity, we will be unable to be attentive at the moment of inward silence. A mind that is harassed and fragmented by external affairs is hardly prepared for meditation. The church Fathers often spoke of . . . “holy leisure.” It refers to a sense of balance in the life, an ability to be at peace through the activities of the day, an ability to rest and take time to enjoy beauty, an ability to pace ourselves. With our tendency to define people in terms of what they produce, we would do well to cultivate “holy leisure.”

In our rush to do too much, we are really missing out. There is so much beauty and wonder in the world that we simply don’t take the time to see or fail to sit and listen. For example, Wendell Berry comes across a sycamore tree while out walking in the country. But he sees so much more than a sycamore tree. When he really looks at the tree, he learns a lesson about life:

In the place that is my own place, whose earth
I am shaped in and must bear, there is an old tree growing,
a great sycamore that is a wondrous healer of itself.
Fences have been tied to it, nails driven into it,
hacks and whittles cut in it, the lightning has burned it.
There is no year it has flourished in
that has not harmed it. There is a hollow in it
that is its death, though its living brims whitely
at the lip of the darkness and flows outward.
Over all its scars has come the seamless white
of the bark. It bears the gnarls of its history
healed over. It has risen to a strange perfection
in the warp and bending of its long growth.
It has gathered all accidents into its purpose.
It has become the intention and radiance of its dark fate.
It is a fact, sublime, mystical and unassailable.
In all the country there is no other like it.
I recognize in it a principle, an indwelling
the same as itself, and greater, that I would be ruled by.
I see that it stands in its place, and feeds upon it,
and is fed upon, and is native, and maker.

See how Wendell Berry takes the time to be attentive to his surroundings? When he does, he is centered, grounded. He can hear a word from God in the sycamore tree. He is connected with the divine.

When we detach like this, we open ourselves up for God to be conceived in us in a way that leads to action. Our detachment does not mean that we run from the problems of the world, that we are not active in the world. Quite the contrary. Once we have opened ourselves up to God, then God can work in us and through us. It is this process of bearing fruit that Eckhart referred to as birthing. Like a woman who opens herself to receive so that she might conceive and then birth. Opening ourselves to God results in the birth of Christ within us. We become more Christ-like and must live as Jesus did.

Wendell Berry’s contact with God through nature has led him to be an outspoken voice in American Christianity and politics. He writes and speaks about the environment, agriculture, economics, and war. He is an example of how being centered leads to action in the world that furthers the reign of God.
The full revelation of God in human form came in the incarnation of God as Jesus Christ. But the Word continues to become flesh. We each carry the Holy Spirit within our flesh. We each share the divine ground. We are God’s embodiment. Actually the totality of Christ’s Church is his Body. Have you ever realized that when the gospel says “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” that it wasn’t only speaking of an historical event but was speaking of the here and now? The Word is still flesh and is still among us. And we are it!

Eckhart felt that there was too much emphasis in Christian piety upon Jesus as a person in the past, that there needed to be more emphasis upon how those of us in the present should be living like Jesus. And the way we do that is by taking advantage of the ground we share, the divine image that connects us to God.

So, how do we magnify the Lord? By realizing that this Christmas story is true for us. The words of the angel Gabriel come to us, “Do not be afraid, for you will conceive.” The words of the prophet Mary are our words, “God has looked with favor on the lowliness of the servants. All generations will call us blessed.” Because we have a part to play in God’s rule. His mercy and strength will be revealed in us. The powerful will be brought down and the lowly lifted up, only if we learn to live like Jesus.
It is similar to the lesson learned by the characters in Angels in America; these characters who carry within themselves the long history and stories of their ancestors. At the conclusion, when they are standing at the Bethesda fountain, looking forward to the day when God will reign and all will be cleansed, Prior, who has learned that AIDS cannot defeat him, no matter what it does to his body, pronounces this benediction that I have used before, but will use again because it is so beautiful and reminds us of our part to play in this on-going story:

This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all, and the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come.
Bye now.
You are fabulous creatures, each and every one.
And I bless you: More Life.
The Great Work Begins.


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