Friday, January 4, 2013

Getting Bigger

Sermon preached December 30, 2012

Texts: Luke 2:41-52

Are you expecting? That was our theme for Advent. To follow that up with “getting bigger” – well! If you are expecting to give birth to a child, you can expect to get bigger. These days, with the internet, one can be flooded with news, both significant and trivial. While looking for something else, I discovered the other day that the current director of the EPA will be resigning her post – before I heard it on the radio, or saw it on television, or read it in the newspaper. I also stumbled across this item, related to the theme of getting bigger. Apparently Jennifer Aniston is getting married soon and there was some speculation that she was expecting a baby. However, photographs of her in a bikini indicated that she was not getting bigger ending such speculation. Here, let me show you (“Photo deemed inappropriate for Sunday morning worship”).
Getting bigger. Let’s shift to another part of the body. An enlarged heart, or cardiomegaly, is a medical condition where the heart enlarges due to damage to the heart muscle. It is not a good thing.
If we view the heart as a metaphor, a symbol, for the human capacity to care, to engage with the world, to love, then an enlarged heart is our calling. Getting bigger is our task. “And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor. Jesus, as portrayed in Luke’s gospel is special from the beginning. “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11). Yet he is also someone who grows into his specialness. He pushes some limits along the way, but increases in wisdom along with years.
Getting bigger. Enlarging our hearts. Growth. These are our tasks. This is our calling as people of God, as followers of Jesus. In her book Called to Question: a spiritual memoir, Joan Chittister writes: Life either dwarfs us or grows us. There is no in-between. There is no standing still in the spiritual life. (225) Andrew Shanks, theologian and Anglican priest, writes: The truth that belongs to the poetry of faith is not exactly a matter of correctness. Far rather, it is the truth of a true challenge: to imagine more, to feel more, to think more – in short, to love more. And so to be inwardly changed. Changed in the sense of saved. (What is Truth?, 5)
Getting bigger. Enlarging our hearts. Growth. These are our tasks. This is our calling as people of God, as followers of Jesus.
Paradoxically, one of the ways we enlarge our hearts spiritually, grow spiritually, is by recapturing some of our youthful hopes, dreams, and passions. I have to admit, this idea struck me a little while back while listening to a Carole King song. It may seem odd to get spiritual advice from Carole King, but it was St. Augustine who once wrote: “every good and true Christian should understand that wherever he may find truth, it is his Lord’s” (On Christian Doctrine, 2.28.28, p. 54). So sometimes I find truth in popular culture, and I found it in the Carole King song, “Goin’ Back.”
The song is about the necessity of growing up, but of the value of taking some important things with us, goin’ back to get them if they get lost. I think I'm goin' back/
To the things I learned so well in my youth/ I think I'm returning to/ Those days when I was young enough to know the truth…. I can recall a time/ When I wasn't ashamed to reach out to a friend….
Carole King sums up some of her thoughts in singing:
Thinking young and growing older is no sin. She encourages her listeners:
A little bit of courage is all we lack/ So catch me if you can, I'm goin' back.

Goin' Back

I think about this dynamic in my own life. In my younger days, I wanted to help change the world. I wanted to develop myself. I saw the two as deeply connected. Growing older, I recognize how difficult change can be. We hear much too little about the common good in our political discussions. Religious language, which should be in the service of human growth, of compassion, of love, is often used to denigrate and divide, and, at its worst, to authorize suicide bombings and killings. Social change is difficult, and so is personal change. Inner issues don’t get resolved overnight. Old wounds can come back to bite. The temptation can be to forget youthful idealism and energy and dreams. Growing bigger, though, means reintegrating that energy and dreaming into our lives even now. Enlarging our hearts involves thinking young while growing older. Wisdom entails the courage to go back, when needed.
Jesus, in growing into his identity, continues to understand himself as a child of God, as someone at home in the household of God. Did he go back, from time to time to those days sitting with the teachers in the Temple, listening to them and asking questions?
Another way we enlarge our hearts spiritually is even more challenging and takes even more courage than being willing to go back. It is being open to suffering. It is learning to let our broken hearts be hearts broken open so that we grow in our capacities to imagine, to feel, to think, to love. Mary might be our model here more than the Jesus of this story.
When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety. Later: His mother treasured all these things in her heart. This was certainly not Mary’s first experience with pain. Giving birth is painful, even when there are shepherds telling stories of angels visiting them with good news about this baby. This would not be Mary’s last experience of pain. She was there when her son was crucified. Through it all, Mary treasured all these things in her heart. These experiences of pain and suffering seemed to enlarge Mary’s heart, making more room for profound thinking, deeper feeling, broader imagining, deeper loving.
In the Christmas issue of The New York Times, columnist Maureen Dowd asked a friend of hers, Father Kevin O’Neil, to offer a meditation on Christmas in light of the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.
Father O’Neil said the killings in Newtown reminded him of a thirty year-old memory from his first few months in parish ministry. I was awakened during the night and called to Brigham and Women’s Hospital because a girl of 3 had died. The family was from Peru. My Spanish was passable at best. When I arrived, the little girl’s mother was holding her lifeless body and family members encircled her. They looked to me as I entered. Truth be told, it was the last place I wanted to be. To parents who had just lost their child, I didn’t have any words, in English or Spanish, that wouldn’t seem cheap, empty. But I stayed. I prayed. I sat with them until after sunrise, sometimes in silence, sometimes speaking, to let them know that they were not alone in their suffering and grief.
Opening himself to suffering enlarged Father O’Neil’s heart, expanded his mind. I believe differently than 30 years ago…. I really do believe that God enters the world through us…. We are human and mortal. We will suffer and die. But how we are with one another in that suffering and dying makes all the difference as to whether God’s presence is felt or not and whether we are comforted or not.
Through the years I have been with the hurting and the dying and the grieving. It is not always an easy place to be. I have been there as families have dealt with the death of parents or spouses or children. I have talked with heartbroken teenagers. I have seen broken relationships. I have witnessed grinding poverty. Through it all, my broken heart has often been a heart broken open so that I could grow in my capacities to imagine, to feel, to think, to love.
If opening ourselves to suffering enlarges our hearts spiritually, so too does opening ourselves to wonder. Jesus asked wonderful questions of the teachers in the temple. Mary “treasured all these things in her heart.” I think of the words of the writer Annie Dillard. Unless all ages and races of men have been deluded by the same mass hypnotist, there seems to be such a thing as beauty, a grace wholly gratuitous…. Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there. (Annie Dillard, The Annie Dillard Reader, 286,287)
I can attest to this, too. I open myself to wonder through words – poetry, fiction, philosophy, theology. I open myself to wonder through music. I open myself to wonder seeing beauty in the world. When I open myself to wonder, my heart grows, my mind expands, my capacities for feeling and thinking and loving and joy get bigger.
One writer who has helped expand my heart and mind in recent years is a man named Michael Eigen. Eigen is a psychoanalyst who writes a lot about spirituality. In one place Eigen writes: To grow psychic taste buds and digestive capacity in the face of suffering is our true evolutionary challenge (Feeling Matters, 3). In another place he writes: How to use our capacities, all of our capacities, is a great evolutionary challenge (Contact With the Depths, 52).
What Eigen calls evolutionary challenges I see as invitations from God for our lives. The invitation from God’s Spirit is to grow, is to develop, is to get bigger, is to have an enlarged heart and an expanded mind. The challenge from God’s Spirit is to imagine more, to feel more, to think more, to love more.
Mary “treasured all these things in her heart.”
“Jesus increased in wisdom and in years.”
Are we getting bigger? As one year ends and another begins, let’s hope so. Amen.

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