Sunday, December 02, 2012

Pushed, Fallen or Flown Away?



Pushed, Fallen or Flown Away?
December 2, 2012
First Unitarian Church, Worcester
Tom Schade


Scripture:

The Birth of Jesus Foretold

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
(NRSV)

Second Reading: 

"A Journey" by Edward Field
http://tinyurl.com/cowt7wl


The Sermon

I like to watch police procedurals on TV -- shows like Law and Order, Southland, The Closer, Cold Case, and so forth, all the way back to the greatest of them all: NYPD Blue with Dennis Franz.  I don’t like any of the CSI shows because all the victims, witnesses and perpetrators are all very good-looking, and that rubs me the wrong way.  

I also like to read cop stories and detective mysteries, too.  The grittier the better. 

Crime fiction, on the screen or in print, are one of the few forms which try for social realism; they try to show you life as it really is, what really goes on on the streets and the seedy bars and the backrooms of police stations that you never see. 

And occasionally into these stories, a person like yourself appears, wanders in more or less, a good citizen, middle class, educated.  And they, in the story, are not just the victim of a crime, but are a suspect, a perp: they are being arrested.  For you see, somewhere, they went off track.  Perhaps it was an auto accident and they were under the influence of alcohol, maybe they took off after the accident and were now caught.  Maybe they had crossed an ethical line at work, and now were in over their head in a criminal case.  Maybe a sexual escapade had gotten out of hand. 

And at some point, somebody, a police officer, a detective, a prosecutor says to them: “That old life of yours, the one you had this morning, with your nice house and your nice job, your nice car -- that’s over.  You’re not going back there.  This is your new life, now.”

There are moments of such radical disjuncture, even in lives as ordinary as ours.  Everything goes up in the air and when it comes down, “that old life of yours -- that’s over.  This is your new life now.”

Last week, Jessica introduced us to the word “liminal” and “Liminality” -- the space in between, the threshold, the moments in life, and the experience by which a person passes from one state to another. “that old life of yours -- that’s over.  This is your new life now.”

Do you think Mary understood that as the unspoken part of the message of the angel?

No where in the story do we hear Mary’s misgivings, and I am sure that there would have been for any young woman in her position.  As she looked into the future, she must have felt herself tumbling over a cliff, falling and hurtling through the air.  Whatever life she had thought she was living -- whether you believe that she was a quiet and innocent girl from a small town or she was the jewel of a religiously activist family -- that was then, and this was now, and her life would never be the same. 

Falling into the future... 

Was she pushed?  

Did she fall?  

Or had she taken flight?

There are days now when I wonder the same about myself.  

Most of you don’t know that my younger daughter Ann had a baby girl on Thursday night -- a little granddaughter named Hannah.  My first grandchild.  So this is a new stage of life for me.

But that is not all, of course.  I am leaving here, this ministry, and starting a life in which I will not be a parish minister anymore.  And I am making this change in response to the changing conditions in my life -- Sue, my wife’s, new job.  It was not my plan, and not my desire, but a change in life pressed upon me from without.  

I talk a good game about what I intend to do in my new circumstances -- I have plans and projects and proposals in the works.  But really, I don’t know -- and I have always had more plans and projects and proposals than ever I actually done.  I have built more boats in my imagination than ever touched the water.  I have travelled further dreaming in my easy chair than ever have I walked.  I hold my plans and projects and proposals in the same dreamers easy grip.  


I methodically check off the tasks of moving a household half way across the country in several stages, trying to keep track of where that book and that file and that sweater is among all the places they could be.  That’s what’s going on on the surface, but really, I feel like I am falling into the future, hurtling headlong through time and will at some point land with a thud in Michigan into a new life, and this one will be gone, forever.  

I am not complaining, and I don’t feel sorry for myself.  I am a very lucky man, more so than I deserve, I suppose.  I am obligated to never forget it and to respond with gratitude. 

But I bring up my own situation because I don’t think that it is mine alone.  This Advent season finds many people in a situation like Mary of Nazareth, or even mine, in that they are looking into an unknown future.  That life they had, this morning, or yesterday, or last month, is gone and is not coming back.  A new life is coming, and they, me, you, Mary don’t know the shape of it, what it will feel like, whether it will be joy or sorrow, a bearable burden or unbearable suffering.  

Last week, Jessica Gray so very bravely and so steadily and so skillfully, taught the children and all of us about her cancer.  She talked about losing her hair and she bared her skull for us.  She drove away the weasel demons of distance and discomfort and euphemism.  She modeled faith -- she engaged in her work, the ministry of faith development.  

But I know that she, too, has fallen head over heels into an unknown future.  Last week’s life is over, and this is her new life, and what it contains has not yet been made clear to her.  

Has she fallen; was she pushed; will waving arms become beating wings?

I see you out there.
  
I know that some of you are suffering such uncertainty about your life.  I know that some of you must take deep breaths, slow steady breaths, to hold down the fear and the terror that threatens to consume you.  

I know that some of you have undertaken major changes in your life -- new jobs, moving to a new city, planning for an addition to your family.  You are in that Advent space of waiting expectantly for a new stage of life to begin, unsure of it.

And this church itself.  We are going through this Advent season in a state of great uncertainty and anticipation.  I have heard everything from “the place is going to fall apart” to “this ministerial transition is going to go very well.”  I even suspect that there are some saying “free at last, free at last” but they are polite enough to do it out of my hearing.  

A thick cloud of uncertainty settles over the church, and every thing that is unsettled, or in process, or in dispute, about the church seems to come to the fore.  Now is the time to change everything that we don’t like about the church.  And now is the time to protect and perserve everything that makes us special, unique and successful.  But in this period of waiting, and falling into the future, we are not sure which is which, and each person is beginning to get the picture that not everyone agrees what is the wheat and what is the chaff.  What is the baby and what is the bathwater.

Were we pushed?  Did we fall?  Are we learning to fly?

Our colleague in this congregation: Jay Lavelle, frequently reminds me that there are really just two basic stories:  Someone goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.  I would add to that most stories combine these elements in some way, in plots and subplots and scene settings. 

Overall, the story of Jesus, as told in the gospels, is one of the greatest  “stranger comes to town” stories ever told.  What a mysterious stranger !  He turns out to be a hidden prince of another kingdom and he changes everything before he leaves and promises to return.

But this “stranger comes to town” story contains many “someone goes on a journey” subplots.  The gospels are in the form of journey stories, following Jesus as he moves about the country, preaching and teaching and healing, and eventually making a final fateful journey to Jerusalem.  

And the Advent story contains some journeys.  Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth and ultimately, as the Advent story turns into the Nativity story, Mary and Joseph undertake the visit to Bethlehem where Jesus is born.  

So, the Advent story is more than waiting in the dark for the light to come.  Often the conventional spiritual message of Advent is the lesson of patience.  Our salvation is coming, but it is not here yet.  Be patient.  And somehow that slops into the whole story of children waiting for Christmas.

But I don’t think that this conventional story is the whole story.  Advent is the story of a journey from what is known and familiar but dead and dull, through the unknown and falling through that unknown space into an unknown future.  Not only waiting, but waiting without knowing, of sensing that everything is changing around you, that the old is falling away and the old forms and structures are twisting into new shapes, and nothing will be the same again.  

Like our country.

Like our church.

Like so many of our lives. 

The Advent season suggests to us, invites us to consider the possibility, asks us to believe that whether we have been pushed, or fallen, or tried to fly away, that we will land safely, that there is a power at work in the Universe that will catch us as we fall, that we are waiting for something better and that we will be ready and able for the next stage of the journey once we land. Advent is a journey through the dark and into the light, to use that metaphor.  It is a story that begins with “the people in darkness” and ends in Bethlehem, with angels and kings and a new baby.  

Oh, I am not saying that every story has a happy ending.  That every illness will be cured.  And that every transition is going to be a step forward.  There is a line in one of Paul’s letters in which he says that “everything works for the good for those who have faith.”  If you take that to mean that believers get only happy endings, its a pretty dumb statement, and one that has been disproven again and again and again.I think that it means that for some people, those who have great faith and trust in life and the universe and God, something good and useful and healthy can be found in almost any situation, no matter how dire.  

Edward Field’s poem this morning struck me as apropos to Advent, and our fall into the unknown liminal space:  we do not know the buried narrative of the poem, we just find a man on the way to the train station, fighting back to the tears of some great sadness all the way, and then he takes a journey on a train, and on that train, he, hemmed in by social expectations and his own emotional reticence, gives way to his grief, fully expressing it, and that when he arrives he has somehow transcended it.
“And at the end of the ride, he stood up and got off that train:
and through the streets and in all the places he lived in later on
He walked, himself at last, a man among men,
with such radiance that everyone looked up and wondered.”

That is us.  That man is me. That journey and that train are one dimension of the process we are going through.  

We will arrive at that far station, and we will be healed of the grief and anxieties of this unsettling period in life   For as Mary says in her Magnificat: He has helped his people in remembrance of the promise He made to our ancestors.


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