Sermon for Sunday, December 20, 2015
Fourth Sunday of Advent
This morning I am going to talk about Mary and angels, and also about hopes and dreams. But I don’t want to begin there. I want to begin with a soccer game and the setting aside of hopes and dreams.
I knew, right then, that a mid-life crisis was in my future. There, at the edge of the field after Shaw’s soccer game was over (he was maybe in the fourth grade) … Well, let’s just say I was taken right back to my youth. To endless summer days in the rural Midwest, to the smell of the earth, the sound of the wind blowing through rows of corn, an achingly blue sky overhead, and that youthful yearning, awakening. That figure, those curves; I’d seen them somewhere before… “Dodge Challenger, 1972!” I thought. Only it wasn’t the ’72; it was the 2008, the first year in which Dodge reintroduced the model.
It looked every bit as “bad” as its predecessor. It was a two-door, low to the ground, with fat tires and chrome wheels. It had dual exhaust and a huge air scoop on the hood. It had a gaping, open-mouth grill at the front, a spoiler at the rear. Back in the ’70’s, the Challenger was one of those cars every bad boy in the rural Midwest wanted. Or, it’s what every boy wanted, and it could easily make you bad if you had one. With a sound like that, how could you not rev the engine in the parking lot? With horsepower like that, how could you not floor the gas when the light turned green? With miles of nothing out in the Midwest, how could you not at least sometimes take it out to the open road, give it some gas, and see what that baby could do?
After the game, I walked with Shaw off the field and to the parking lot — wistfully glancing over my back shoulder at that beast of a car. As the Challenger rumbled by with its menacing, 400 horsepower V-8, we got into our Toyota Camry, buckled our seat belts and meekly followed our four cylinders home.
We often consider hopes and dreams to be good things – and they are! But sometimes, it is necessary to set aside a hope and dreams to make room for something greater. I mean, I could get that car. I could get that car if I jeopardized my kids’ education, or if I didn’t save for retirement, or if we reneged on our church pledge. But… If I want to make sure to save something for my kids’ education, to save for retirement, and to make our church pledge, I need to set aside my hope and dream for a Dodge Challenger. Much like the car we might want versus the one we actually drive, the spiritual life is about making choices. In the spiritual life we are often called to set aside one thing in order to free us to receive another. And the spiritual life often involves setting aside even good things in order to free us to receive even better things.
As I consider the Virgin Mary, about whom we heard in today’s Gospel lesson, I imagine she was one who knew about setting aside good hopes and dreams to make room for even better hopes and dreams. For Mary to say “yes” to the angel, she had to set aside the good hope and dream of a child fathered by Joseph, to make room for the even better hope and dream of a child conceived by the Holy Spirit. For Mary to say “yes” to the angel, she had to set aside the good hope and dream of a quiet, normal family, to make room for the even better hope and dream of a child who “would be a light to enlighten the nations and the glory of his people Israel.” For Mary to say “yes” to the angel meant that she has to set aside the good hope and dream of Jesus someday settling down with his own family just down the street, in order to make room for the even better hope and dream of Jesus being the one who would travel Galilee bringing good news to the poor proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. Mary had to set aside the hopes and dreams that she had – the many good hopes and dreams – to make room for something even greater.
The key to choosing, not merely the good but the great, is to recognize the “angel” when he comes. Angels are often identified by an element of surprise; imagine Mary’s surprise when the angel came to announce. Angels are often identified by our own response of humility, or falling to the ground. Recall in Judges how Sampson’s parents “fell on their faces to the ground” after the angel departed from them. And angels are often identified when their “call” is affirmed by others, as in today’s Gospel when Mary’s pregnancy is praised by Elizabeth. (And, at least in my case, angels do not drive Dodge Challengers!) But notice how Elizabeth affirmed Mary’s call. Elizabeth did not merely say, “Yes, I know, you’re pregnant, too;” her response was not a mere imparting of information. Nor did Elizabeth say, “Yes, I felt something move within me when I heard your voice;” neither was Elizabeth’s response merely empathetic. Rather, Elizabeth said, “For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” One of the identifying marks of an angel is a leaping. There is a lightness when “angels” come to us; there is a springing, a leaping, a joy… There is playfulness.
For our new parish, we probably all have hopes and dreams. We probably have hopes and dreams for how we will be together, for the ways in which we can serve, for our worship, for new opportunities for formation or fellowship or growth. We often consider hopes and dreams to be good things – and they are! But sometimes the good hopes and dreams we have might be crowding out something even greater.
I hope and pray that, as we move forward in our life together, we look for signs of the angel visiting us, so that we do not simply “buy the Challenger.” I hope that we will be open to angels and the great hopes and dreams that God has for us. One of the signs of an angel’s visit – and the great hope that he brings – is playfulness: a leaping, a daring to spring from firm ground. Each Sunday here in the liturgy, we play. With color and music and symbols and “dance”, the liturgy is our playful response to having been visited by an angel. (Why else would we be here, had we not been visited by an angel, and were we not in some stage of “pregnancy” by the angel’s word?). I’m going to leave us with a poem about what it is like to have been visited by an “angel” and invited into something not merely good but great. It is by Joan Erickson, the late wife of the developmental psychologist Eric Erickson, and herself a researcher who studied play. Her poem is called “Hope:”
The word “hope” the learned say
Is derived from the shorter one “Hop”
And leads one onto “Leap.”
Plato, in his turn, says that the leaping
Of young creatures is the essence of play –
So be it!
To hope, then, means to take a playful leap
Into the future –
To dare to spring from firm ground –
To play trustingly – invest energy, laughter,
And one good leap encourages another –
On then with the dance.