Sermon preached December 18, 2011
Texts: Luke 1:26-38
Biblical interpretation is fascinating. Years ago, when my journey of faith included tuning in to radio evangelists, I recall a story Pat Robertson related about the use of the Bible. Someone had shared with him that they were looking for a new car and decided to open their Bible at random to see if there was any guidance for their decision. The text was open to a page where they found the word “ford” and considered this divine, Biblical guidance for their car buying decision. The word “ford” is found in Genesis 32:22 where it refers to a river crossing and not an automobile, unless Jacob was the original Henry Ford. Yet Pat Robertson celebrated the guidance of the Spirit in that way of using the Bible. The Bible obviously offers clear, unambiguous answers to all of life’s questions.
I don’t happen to care for that method of using the Bible or that way of understanding it, and in all honesty that story was part of my road to questioning some of my understandings of the Christian faith at that time. I mean what chance would Chevy or Buick or Toyota or Honda have?
But perhaps I have been too hasty. Last Sunday during confirmation, Moses was the focus of our discussion. As a pure aside, I mentioned that the first two books of the Bible were really quite interesting, filled with captivating stories. I mentioned that when you got to the third book, Leviticus, that was a different story. Don’t tackle Leviticus early on in your Bible reading. Just to make the point I opened my Bible to Leviticus and read a bit. It opened to chapter 13. “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean’.” Not exactly the most inspirational passage from Scripture you could find. But then this random opening became revelatory as my eyes wandered up the page. Could the Spirit be at work in this way? Just a few verses earlier were words that applied directly to me. Leviticus 13:40: If anyone loses the hair from his head, he is bald but he is clean. Wow – words for my life. I was inspired and even wondered if we might change some of our web site. (show slide)
For some it seems, Christian faith and life, following God through following Jesus, is always clear. There are no gray areas, little in life that is shadowed in mist and mystery. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said to his friend and fellow philosopher Bertrand Russell, “You think the world is what it looks like in fine weather and noon-day. I think it is what it seems like in the early morning when one first awakes from a deep sleep” (Paul Kuntz, “Whitehead and Russell” Process Studies, 1988. Also Jerome Kagan, An Argument for Mind, 247-248). For some Christians, the life of faith provides fine weather and noon day light for their lives.
My experience as a person of faith is much more like early morning when one first wakes from a deep sleep. I see the world as wonderfully, mysteriously, sometimes bafflingly complex. The world is sometimes as foggy as the view from my office was so often this week. While my faith helps me navigate life in this world, and sometimes simplifies, it often does just the opposite. Looking at the world with the eyes of faith helps me see more deeply the wonder, beauty, mystery, bafflement of the world. God often speaks not through a megaphone, loud and clear. God’s voice is most often a whispered word. As I shared last Sunday, I think God’s direction might often entail a range of options, not just a single choice, and that our relationship with God is like the back and forth, give and take of a dance. Perhaps that makes my Christian understanding of life midnight clear as mud.
The world is complex, and our faith helps us see more deeply into that complexity, sometimes offering the clear light of the noon day, but often deepening the mists and mysteries. If this is so, the perhaps in a complex world, even we people of faith can be perplexed. To affirm that God is up to something, as we do during Advent, and to affirm that God is still up to something as we have been exploring this Advent, does not mean we will not sometimes be perplexed in our life and journey of faith.
If we, even as people of faith sometimes feel perplexed in a complex world, we are not alone. An angel appears to Mary. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” You would think angels would bring a lot of light and clarity. So what is Mary’s response? “She was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” The angel continues on, announcing that she is going to conceive and bear a son, whom she should name Jesus. And her response? “How can this be?” Perplexity.
Reading this story again I am reminded of a short poem about Mary.
Nazareth Rosario Castellanos
Descending to the cave where the Archangel
made his announcement, I think
of Mary, chosen vase.
Like any cup, easily broken;
like all vessels, too small
for the destiny she must contain.
Being perplexed sometimes in a complex world is a reasonable response, even for people of faith. Sometimes we are simply unsure of God’s whispered word. The Bible isn’t really meant to be a sanctified Ouiju board. It stories are rich and complex and the lessons sometimes shrouded in the mystery and complexity of the human story. God is up to something in our lives, our church, our world. We know something of the general direction. When God is up to something, it is good news – freedom, justice, healing, release, light and life, comfort, repairing the world. Yet in any moment we may be perplexed by uncertainty. Mary sure seems to be, at least for a time. What kind of greeting is she receiving? How can it be that she should conceive a child? We do well as people of faith to keep near the center of our faith the virtue of humility, that sense that sometimes we may miss the whispered word of God in a complex world filled with numerous voices and noises. The heart of our faith is certainty about God’s love for the world and for us, God’s grace toward the world and toward us, but that leaves a lot of room for mists and mysteries and perplexity. The heart of religion is not certainty, but openness to the mystery of God whose nature is creative-responsive love.
Yet there may also be times when our perplexity is not lack of clarity, but lack of a sense that we have what we need to truly follow God’s direction. Knowing the right thing and doing the right thing are not the same. We may know pretty well where God wants us to go, and not really want to go there. “Freedom, justice, healing, release, light and life, comfort, repairing the world” can sound nice, but the road is not always an easy one. Mary felt this kind of perplexity, too, at least for a while. How can this be?
So if our faith does not necessarily make everything clear and easy in a complex world, if being a person of faith can also mean being perplexed, what good is faith? In a word – courage. “Don’t be afraid.” Don’t be afraid. Mary may be perplexed, but in the end she is courageous. Assured of God’s presence she responds in her perplexity “Let it be with me according to your word.” Courage.
Courage does not mean never being perplexed. Courage does not mean never feeling fear. I am particularly fond of Parker Palmer’s understanding of the biblical phrase, “do not be afraid.” As one who is no stranger to fear, I have had to read those words with care so as not to twist them into a discouraging counsel of perfection. “Do not be afraid” does not mean we cannot have fear…. Instead, the words say we do not need to be the fear we have…. We have place of fear inside us, but we have other places as well – places with names like trust and hope and faith. (Let Your Life Speak, 93-94). We have fear, we do not have to be fear. We experience fear inside, but as people of faith we also know trust and hope. And when we live from places of faith and trust and hope, we live with courage. Theologian Paul Tillich says that “faith is the experience of this power” called courage (The Courage To Be, 172).
Perplexed but courageous, the way of following Jesus, the way of Christian faith. Midnight clear as mud.
Sometimes that may entail extraordinary courage. I think of people of faith like Bishop Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I have told their stories before. I think of another German pastor whose story of courage is perhaps less well-known. Martin Niemoller was born in Germany in 1892. Born a pastor’s son, Niemoller was a proud German, a decorated World War I veteran. Like many Protestant pastors in Germany following World War I, Niemoller was a national conservative, and he welcomed Hitler’s initial political success, believing it would lead to a revival of the German state and people. But Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies eventually turned Niemoller against the regime. He was imprisoned in concentration camps from 1938-1945. A post-war visit to one of the camps where he was imprisoned, Dachau, inspired Niemoller to pen his most famous lines. First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me. Niemoller’s words can be found in the United States Holocaust Museum. Extraordinary courage. God is with us. Do not be afraid.
But just as important, maybe even more important, is the ordinary courage needed every day. It takes courage to get up some mornings when life is particularly perplexing or distressing. God is with us. Do not be afraid. It takes courage to live each day when the world is sometimes midnight clear as mud. God is with us. Do not be afraid. It takes courage care for those near to us who suffer. God is with us. Do not be afraid. It takes courage to parent. God is with us. Do not be afraid. It takes courage to speak truth lovingly. God is with us. Do not be afraid. It takes courage to try and be the church today, when we could simply do something different or when the name of Jesus is used to promote exclusion. God is with us. Do not be afraid. Following God’s direction of freedom, justice, healing, release, light and life, comfort, repairing the world takes courage, especially when the way forward may be perplexing. God is with us. Do not be afraid. It takes courage to hold within the fragility of our lives the very light and love of God, to nurture it, to give birth to Jesus in our own lives, like Mary. But it is what God is up to in us, too. God is with us. Do not be afraid. Amen.