Dignity: The Least Can Lead: Advent I, 2005
By Charles Rush
November 27, 2005
Lk. 1: 47-55
is Thanksgiving, I found an open notebook written by my niece Jessie, aged 10. It was a "To Do" List for Thanksgiving Day. Item #1 "Stuff myself" Item #2 "Gossip, Gossip, Gossip… Item #3 "Make random calls to people… and my favorite Item #4 "Hang with the Big Girls… Those are her college aged cousins. I hope you too were able to "Hang with the Big People"
Today we begin
the season of Advent, a story about how God takes very ordinary people and uses
them in extraordinary ways.
When I first
meet people, especially people that have some interest in Christ Church, I often get a line early on from
Men that goes something like, "Reverend, I'm not
very religious." I think part of what they mean is "I haven't found
institutional religion very interesting in the past and I haven't gotten a lot
of meaning out of it." But that is not what they say. "I'm not very
religious. I suspect another part of that is offensively defensive. It is a
subconscious calculated line that translates, "I might be willing to
attend worship from time to time but don't ask me to pray in public or
the fear on one level. I did a wedding a while ago and the Brides father was a
prominent Religious broadcaster. He worked for one of these Evangelists that
you can hear on practically any radio station or T.V. channel in any city in
our country. Not knowing the bride, I asked her if she would like her father to
pray during the wedding ceremony. She reached her hand across the table, put it
on mine, looked me straight in the eye and said, "NO". There is
"no and there is "NO". You can be overly pious or wear your
religion on your sleeve and that is really too much.
But there is
another level that I refuse to accept when I hear "Reverend, I'm not very
religious." That is the level that subtly pleads with me not to ask too
much from people spiritually like that request is an acceptable plea.
It is not
acceptable. It reminds me of the nerds in gym class in High School that told
coach they weren't athletic so they wouldn't have to run wind sprints too hard.
It sounds a little like grown men and women who are managers that say "I'm
not a computer person." It is possible to go through our life not being
computer savvy but that only means you will not be accessing this wide common
world we all share together and why you would want to opt out of that in
principle is not inherently obvious. It is nothing to brag about.
Spirituality is like that too. The
quest for transcendence and meaning is built into the very fabric of human
existence. Developing authentic meaning and purpose is a fundamental part of
living. It is constituitive of what it means to be
human. You can be a spiritual couch potato but that is nothing to be proud of…
And even certain
basic spiritual disciplines like prayer. There is nothing embarrassing about
prayer. There is nothing that undermines being a leader, a star, being manly
even. I remember Michael Jordan, after he won his third NBA title for the
Chicago Bulls with a clutch shot at the end of the game, just a classic turn
around fade away from Dr. Smooth. Shot goes down, team jumps each other, they are running through the crowd with the sea of
reporters. What is the first thing he does in that overwhelming moment of
victory at the height of his career? He bends down and takes a moment in
prayer. Everyone stepped back. The next day, I read a reporter who wrote
something that always stuck with me. He said, "The man who could fly never
looked so impressive as when he took a bended
To offer a
word of thanks in the midst of unbelievable success and good fortune seems
spiritually obvious. To focus yourself, to center yourself and draw upon the
transcendent forces of in your time of need, when a lot is on the line, seems
obvious, like Matt Leinart, the quarterback for U.S.C
that regularly pulls himself together in prayer alone before a big series.
nothing about spiritual focus that is corny or jive. Everybody has to do it. Like my friend, James Dunn used to say to people
who thought we had no prayer in schools if we didn't have the principal leading
the High School kids at the beginning of the day. "As long as we have
tests, we will have prayer in our public schools."
But on a
deeper level, I understand this plea, "I'm not very religious
Reverend." I use it all the time. We don't want people asking too much of
us. I once asked an older colleague of mine why he seemed so
content as he neared retirement. He said to me, "I have modest goals, high
achievement of them, great satisfaction." That is pretty good. And that is
especially true spiritually. Before God, I think all of us are tempted to
invoke the late Senator Sam Ervin, "I'm just a country lawyer." I
loved when Sam Ervin used that during the Watergate trials because you knew
someone was about to get bit by his incisive legal probing. He got away with
that line for a while until some reporter noted that the simple country lawyer
graduated #2 in his class at Harvard Law school.
the mentality that bargains with the Almighty. "If I just lay low, keep
out of the spotlight, the Reverend won't ask me to do much." That may work
with me. But I have bad news about life. It won't work with God, despite the
quality of the ruse.
told a parable about 3 men, one had been given $10 million dollars, the next $2
million dollars, the last $100. The first two invested
their money and made a 100% return on their investments and they were praised
for their efforts and given large bonuses. The third man appeared before his
Master and said, "I know you to be a tough manager and I was afraid, so I
hid your money under my mattress. Here take it back." The Master is
incredulous and says, "If you knew that I was a tough manager, why in the
world would you just hide the money and not invest it?" This ploy won't
is called the Parable of the Talents. In the Bible, one is given 10 talents,
one is given 5 talents, and the third man is given 1 talent. Bill Coffin once
said about this parable, "God must especially love 1 talent people… seeing
as how he has made so many of them." No you can't beg off as being of
little spiritual substance and expect that you can hide from God or that God
won't ask of you anything or God will just let you slide.
That is Mary's
story. She is no one in particular. She has no great virtue. She is not
educated, has no great skill set. For all we know, she is just an ordinary
teenager engaged to be married to a simple young man out in the heartland of a
very small country that is of no particular account.
chooses her to be part of God's conspiracy of goodness. She sets in motion this
whole chain of events that will prepare the way for the coming of the Good News
for all of us.
In our text
today, Luke has put this wonderful poem in the mouth of Mary, "My soul
magnifies the Lord… for he has looked with favor on me his lowly servant."
This is one of the main themes of the Bible that God appears to go out of God's
way to lift up lowly people and befuddle the powerful and the rich. It reminds
us that the power of God's goodness cannot be stopped no matter who stands in the way. It reminds us that we have this
treasure in earthen vessels, as St. Paul, used to say, and that our job is
simply to let the goodness of God shine in our lives. We don't have to worry
too much about how it will grow or where it will grow. God appears to be taking
care of all of that. We just have to let it shine.
And there is a
spiritual profundity to this observation that we would do well to reflect on in
this season. For there is an important sense in which we are
all equal before God. We are all born pretty much the same way and we
all pretty much go out the way we came in, individually and without anything.
In between in
our lives, we spend most of our time differentiating ourselves from each other
through competition, achievement, and acquisition. We want to stand out, we
want to be different. I remember going to the Doctor's office in my early
twenties to have my knee operated on. I had a triple tear that ended my
competitive athletic career. The physician was trying to be helpful and
explained that there were still lots of ways to stay in shape: swimming,
biking, walking. But basketball and football were over. I was a pretty typical
young man at the time. I looked at him in all sincerity. "It's
not about being in shape; I want to win." Most of our early
careers is spent trying to win, to set our selves
apart from the pack, to do more, achieve more. It is just part of the way we
At some point,
it is important though, to remember that we are also all the same. This
spiritual theme is captured rather profoundly in the Hajj,
the pilgrimage that all Muslims are required to make once in their lives to Mecca. [Roll film or pictures] The trip is
important for Muslims in a couple of fundamental ways. For their entire lives,
wherever they are, when they stop to pray during the different times of the
day, they face towards Mecca. Now, for the one time in their life, they are
actually going to go there and actually see it for themselves.
And there are
so many tens of thousands of people doing the same thing. Imagine 20 Super
Bowls of people all doing the same thing together. The logistics of the Hajj are staggering. It is one thing to imagine it, quite another
to actually be part of it. You have a realistic sense of your own
insignificance, or rather, just how much you have in common and how little
really separates you from everyone else.
And this point
is made more dramatically by the dress that people are required to wear on the Hajj. Once you get to the Holy City, you shed your clothes that identify
you as Rich or poor, Eastern or Western, educated or ignorant. Everyone dons
the same simple tunic. It is chosen for its simplicity. For the next several
days all of the tens of thousands of people wear the same simple outfit.
the same walk and partakes of the same rituals and eats at the proscribed
times. There is something spiritually profound about doing this at mid-life.
After a few decades of trying your best to differentiate yourself from the
maddening crowd, to be back in the midst of it, without perquisites, without
prejudice against you, changes your perspective.
sameness looks forward. It looks forward to the spiritual reality of the
sameness with which we shall all die. It is a time of reckoning. It is a time
of reflection on how we have spent our time on this earth and what we have
done, what we have left undone. It is a time to reflect on our values and to
assess what we have been focused on up to this point. It is a time to take
stock of our future in light of the fact that we shall all die and stand
equally before God. It is a time to reflect on what we need to leave behind now
that we have a good focus on this spiritual reality.
end of the Hajj, all the pilgrims actually go to a
place where the patriarch Abraham was tempted by the Devil. They all pick up a
ceremonial stone and throw it at this pillar, rejecting the temptation of
Satan. It is a part of the Hajj that is often filled
with a great deal of emotion because consciously or subconsciously people are
rejecting some part of their previous life that has been limiting their
spiritual growth, some part of themselves that they know they need to stand
over against in order to become whole and healthy. And they throw that away.
They leave it behind. They cannot afford spiritually to carry this part of
themselves anymore, now that they have had this visceral vision of where they
are headed spiritually.
changed spiritually. Almost everyone who goes on the Hajj
comes back and reports that though they return home, they are not the same
person anymore. That is why at the very end of the Hajj,
pilgrims are invited to shave their heads. It is a visceral symbol of being
born anew spiritually. It is starting over, hairless like a baby. This is the
rest of my life, having had that grounded experience of being a pilgrim, aware
that we are all pilgrims in this world.
How does that
change you? On one level, we are all very much alike as pilgrims on this short
sojourn of life. We are all limited and quite similar compared to the Almighty,
the difference between the greatest and the least amongst us not so great as the dissimilarity between us and God. And, we
can all be of use to God. None of us gets to escape the Spiritual adventure of
life, even those of us that desperately try to put that dimension of existence
out of our mind, away from our focus.
friends, God comes for you, the ordinary. God wants as much out of you as
anyone else. And God will get more out of you than you ever imagined. That is
what the Almighty is about. You can try to lay low. You can beg off from
responsibility and limit your obligation but you cannot shake the God catching
you up in this conspiracy of Goodness anymore than you can avoid having to
develop a sense of meaning and purpose for your life. The good/bad news of this
season is that God has a place for you, especially for you.
And if the
witness of Mary is at all accurate, you don't need to worry too much about what
you bring to the table, God will find a way to make it
all come out okay. Whether you are religious or not, your life is a Spiritual
adventure that you cannot avoid. And we are on this trip together, all of us one
talent people. And that will be enough. Amen.
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