"Accepting Our Role In Life’s Drama"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 21, 2008
Psalm 146; Luke 1:26-38
A woman was asked by her
branch manager to organize the office party and the “secret Santa” gift
exchange for their staff. She said she would take care of it even
though she had many tasks yet to accomplish. She had planned an open
house at her condo. She still had much Christmas shopping to do for her
nieces and nephews, and she needed to pick up an additional box of
Christmas cards to send to those must send people who had
waited until the last minute to send a card to her. For her, Peace
was a global idea, a desired state of affairs that happened between
nations. In terms of inner personal peace or stress reduction, peace had
no legs in her reality.
During her last minute shopping, she was in luck – she found one box of cards left that had a beautiful, wintry picture on the front. The other remaining boxes were unacceptable. That afternoon she hastily signed all but one of them at the office and dropped them into the mailbox while driving home. At the end of the day, she flopped into her favorite chair nearly exhausted from all the Christmas planning. As she sat there sipping a mug of decaffeinated green tea, she picked up that one remaining card left from the box she had bought.
She thought, “The picture on the front is, indeed, beautiful. This was a nice choice.” She wondered why the box had been overlooked by other shoppers. As she was experiencing her one fleeting moment of peace, she opened the card to see if the words on the inside matched the beauty that was on the front. When her eyes read the Christmas greeting, she did not know whether to burst into laughter or tears. The card read, “Merry Christmas! I am sending this card to simply say, that soon a little gift will be on its way.” Her peace vanished instantly.
As we all know, life is a non-ending series of mini-dramas. They never stop coming. Sometimes we wonder if peace is anything more than a dream, a hope for our future. There is always something that appears to block the blissful moments that we want to experience – a time when there are no problems or critical life-issues with which we have to cope.
Sometimes we pastors find ourselves helping others sort through their many feelings about God, particularly when something quite life-changing occurs in their lives. Recently, I was dealing with a young woman who came to me with news that her father had been diagnosed with cancer. The prognosis was not good. She said, “I have never asked God for anything in my life. My prayers have always been for others. Is it selfish for me to ask God to heal my Dad? I love Dad so much and I don’t know what I’d do without him. He’s been the hub of our family for as long as I can remember.” I told her that God always knows the spirit in which prayers are said and not to worry. God understands far more than most of us realize.
A good discussion starter for a study group is how we honestly feel about God’s role during very fragile, personal circumstances. There is a temptation to place our hopes and dreams into God’s hands, i.e., asking God to fix something in our external world that will preserve our faith, trust and peace. We reason, “If God loves us, God will be there for us.” We know the Scripture that teaches, “If we who miss the mark know how to give good things to our children, how much more does God know how to give good things to those who ask him? (Matt. 7:11) In this situation, however, her Dad died. I conducted his memorial service not long ago.
My point is that there is always enough going on in most of our lives that may cause some event, some episode or some one’s hasty, judgmental criticism of us to come like a thief in the night that wants to steal our peace of mind.
A death of a loved one may do that, a divorce may do that, an empty marriage may do that, losing our job may do that or receiving a challenging diagnosis may do that. How about a pregnancy when a teenage girl is not married?
This question brings us to our lesson today. Gabriel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, God has been gracious to you. You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and you will name him Jesus.” Was Mary peaceful with this news? Not at all! Our lesson says, “Mary was deeply troubled by the angel’s message and wondered what his words meant.”
Gabriel said, “Your life will be blessed, Mary. There is nothing that God can’t do. Remember your cousin, Elizabeth? Many people thought that she could not have children, but she is now in her sixth month of her pregnancy even though she is very old.”
The story of Mary and Joseph that has come to us is very beautiful, but it was not an event that Mary and Joseph would have broadcast to their friends and neighbors. Like today, everyone in Mary’s day knew very clearly how babies were conceived. This is why Joseph made hasty plans to marry her.
What makes this story so profound, however, is that the source of Joseph and Mary’s peace was not rooted in their experiences of the external world but in their trust of God. Think of the complications that confronted the couple. Mary’s long ride on a donkey near her due date would be like traveling on foot the 120 miles from Bowie, Maryland to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Because of the taxation being imposed by the Romans, Bethlehem, which normally had a population of 500 people, was impacted much like Washington, D.C. will be when our new President takes his oath of office. Living accommodations, bathroom facilities, and the supply of food were greatly affected. Jesus had to be born in a grotto, a place where animal feed was stored. Shortly after his birth, the three of them had to flee into Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath.
Even casual readers of the Gospel stories will not find one word of any judgment made by Mary and Joseph about their trials with living. In fact, in our lesson for this morning, the path to inner peace, the path that all of us want so desperately to find, can be found in Mary’s words to Gabriel. She said, “I am the Lord’s servant! May all this happen to me as you have said.” Mary let go of what had been troubling her.
For us to have inner peace, we need to focus on the five words from Mary, “I am the Lord’s servant.” When we personalize this part of God’s creative process, we may figure out that God needs us to make love visible in a form others will understand.
Once I participated in an ordination service for Noreen Seiler, a new Associate Pastor of Christ Episcopal Church in Washington. I was to represent Capital Hill Group Ministries. The evening was lovely so I decided to walk to the church. I was near 7th and G Streets S.E. when I was approached by two men.
One of them announced that they were not going to hurt me or rob me. I couldn’t hide my smile as I thought about their attempt to put me at ease. All they wanted was one dollar. I told them that I never carried money when I walk the streets of Washington. I told them that I was on my way to an ordination service for an Episcopal priest. I unzipped the bag I was carrying to show them the robe I intended to wear.
“Are you a minister?” the one asked. I said, “Yes.” One of the men backed away and the other just looked at me as though searching for words to say. “At one time,” he said, “I was a Baptist. Now I think I have become an alcoholic and I use cocaine when I can get it.” Tears began to come down his face. He asked, “Do you think that God still loves me?” I said, “I happen to know that God does. I also know that God would like to hear from you from time to time.” The other man yelled, “Come on, man, we are going to make him late for church!” He asked if I would pray for him and I did. I held his hands and soon after that, we parted ways.
As I walked away, I kept thinking of all the signs that we see from others every day that communicate, “Please, somebody, won’t you love me? Won’t you help me make sense out of what I am feeling and experiencing.” It flashed across my mind that God understands our wants and needs better than we may believe. However, even for God, there are laws that must be observed. God is spirit and that establishes barriers. God is not in a good place to deal with our pain and suffering. God heard the cries from the Israelites for a considerable time, but God had to inspire Moses to go forth as their liberator.
God cannot hold people in physical arms like we can. God cannot give a word of encouragement as we can. God cannot show someone a better way to live like we can. For all of God’s vast power, God cannot enter the physical world and build colleges and universities, hospitals and medical schools, places of worship and become those who teach, preach and heal. Even for Jesus to enter our world, God needed a woman.
Mary recognized this privilege when she said to Gabriel, “I am the Lord’s servant!” Even when Jesus arrived, God could do very little to make the path for him smooth and straight as Isaiah had prophesized. His birth happened under very marginal conditions. Early traditions suggest that the untimely death of Joseph was what caused Jesus to wait until he was thirty to get started in his teaching ministry.
After three very short years, Jesus was killed for teaching his listeners how to direct their loving energy patterns toward others rather than staying with the disciplined life governed by the Laws of Moses. The life-experiences of Jesus were certainly not among the most ideal for changing how humanity perceives life.
While conducting a worship service at the Health Care Center of the Methodist Home on Connecticut Avenue, I experienced a woman who yelled out repeatedly during the service. That response was one of her normal patterns. When the service was over, my custom was to walk around and greet those who had attended. Many residents were in wheelchairs.
When I came to the lady who had been making the spontaneous sounds, she took my hand and said, “Thank you for coming. I have often wondered why God allows terrible things to happen to us. Now I have an answer for that. Thank you!” The nurse with her looked very shocked and puzzled. She whispered, “I have been caring for this woman for several years and those were the first completed sentences I have ever heard her speak. Miracles never cease, do they?” I said, “No, they don’t. They are all around us when we open our eyes to see them.”
When we honestly let go of thoughts that prevent us from perceiving with hope, love, joy and peace – the themes of our Advent candles -- and become channels for God’s spirit to become visible, we can live in peace. Our greatest gift while here is to sow our seeds with extreme patience while remaining confident that God will do the rest. That is what Mary did when she exclaimed, “I am the Lord’s servant!” When we understand our life’s role as Mary did, there is simply no need to complain about any chapter of it. Accepting our lives as they come while taking advantage of every opportunity to be a servant of the Lord is what produces peace.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We are grateful, O God, that you created us with the ability to experience peace. We confess, however, how quickly we surrender to our worst fears. We are quick to cry out “life is unfair!” when unwanted moments present us with detours. The mother of Jesus had the same thoughts and feelings when she heard the words of the angel, and yet she remembered, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it happen to me as you have said.” How grateful we are that you can change our worst nightmares into moments of great hope. You can change our experiences of deep hurt into opportunities for expressing love. You can change the moments we do not understand into being a source of infinite joy. Thank you, O God, for all the opportunities to make your presence visible. Our thoughts of gratitude and thanksgiving for your faithfulness give us peace. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Our days of Advent have passed quickly, O God, and we find ourselves entering the beauty of our sanctuary for the final Sunday before we celebrate Jesus’ birth. We count every moment a blessing if our walk through these four weeks has helped us perceive others as belonging to you. We thank you for all the angels in the flesh who have incorporated into their busy schedules time for our many mission projects as well as decorating our sanctuary.
We thank you, God, for your faithfulness to us. Thank you for the story of what happened in Bethlehem, a memory that helps us to remember that your love came in a form that people could recognize. Your spirit enters a world when each of us decides to become a channel for your presence. You brought to us a new awareness about life, a unique way of defining ourselves as your sons and daughters who have the potential to continue Jesus’ mission to change the consciousness of humanity.
Help us to bring peace to the troubled thoughts and feelings that flow through our minds and hearts. Awaken us from perceptions that prevent us from seeing miracles and from preoccupations that have made task masters out of past hurts and disappointments. You came to set all prisoners free, and we gladly accept with great joy the coming of Christmas. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .