Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Imagining Mary

Life is not always what you expect. Sometimes the most extraordinary of things happens in the midst of life’s ordinary moments. One minute you know exactly what’s supposed to happen and the next, well, the next you find the entire world seems to have turned upside down. At least that’s how it has been for me these past few months.

I was engaged to be married a year ago on my thirteenth birthday. It came as no surprise. I knew what was expected. Don’t we all know what is expected of us, after all?

I had watched one by one as my sisters were married off, sent to live with the new families. I watched as they each grew round with new life and gave birth, time and again. I visited them in their homes, brought news of mother and father and offered them a moment of rest by tending to their children or preparing the meal. I always loved visiting them, but things were different between us. The games of childhood were replaced for the daily tasks of life. Maintaining a household was not easy. Often as I sat in the homes of my sisters, I wondered which was harder, raising the children or taking care of the husband! Both seemed impossible! Mother laughed when I told her this, shaking her head she said, “Oh Mary, just wait till you get married.”

I knew the day would come, but I wished it hadn’t come so quickly. I wasn’t ready to leave my family…not yet and I surely wasn’t ready to care for a husband or a brood of children. I didn’t even know Joseph and yet in a year or two after the betrothal time was complete I was supposed to simply leave with him?

It didn’t seem fair. Not fair at all. How come he got to choose who he wanted to marry but I didn’t? How come he got to come and go as he pleased but I had to stay in the house? How come I was the one who had to be responsible for everything…for the house, for the children he expected me to bear, even for him? I knew this was what was expected. I had watched as my sisters married, leaving their childhood for the life of an adult, but I tell you, I was not ready for such a life. Not yet. I felt overwhelmed and utterly powerless. No one needed my consent. They just married me off whether I liked it or. But then again, what more could I expect? This was my place in the world.

I always secretly hoped there was more in life for me than just getting married. I wanted to travel, to see different places, visit new people. I wanted to learn more, do more, see more. When I was young I followed our rabbis around the village, following their shadows, listening to their every word. Before I knew better I told my mother I wanted to be a rabbi too. I wanted to learn to read the scrolls and tell the stories. I wanted to go inside the temple and pray for the people. My mother laughed and said that work was not for me. I was a girl.

But then again, what more could I expect? I am a girl after all…soon to be a woman, I suppose. This is the way life is. What more is there for me in life than to marry, bear children and be a faithful, obedient wife? I just needed to resign myself to my place in the world.

Shortly after my betrothal I was sewing in the courtyard. The day was nearly ended and I was hurrying to finish before evening fell and light left the landscape. Suddenly, there appeared before me a vision of light, dazzling and shimmering, like nothing I had ever seen before. The sun was setting but this light was brilliant. From the center of the light a form appeared. I pinched myself several times to make sure I was awake, truly awake. I looked around for others to confirm what I was seeing, but my family was no where to be found.

Fear swept over me. What was this? Who was this? Before I could move or cry out, a voice sounded from the figure of light. “Greetings, favored one! God is with you!”

I stared still unable to move. Favored one? Who were they speaking to? My father and brothers were still out working. Surely, this figure could not be speaking to me? A child? A girl? What did this figure have to do with me?

Before I could respond, the pillar of light spoke again. The voice was calm and soothing. Like my grandmother’s voice, it comforted me.

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

What had I done? I could not recall. I tried desperately to remember anything I might have done to please God…but all I could think of were my recent complaints and doubts and fears about getting married. What had I possibly done to find favor with God?

Again, the voice spoke, “And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a child and you will call him Jesus. Your child will be great and will be called the Child of the Most High and God will raise the infant to the throne of David to reign over the house of Israel for ever and ever.”

Without thinking I spoke back. Impudent perhaps, but I could not control myself. This didn’t make sense. Messenger of light or not, this seemed completely impossible.

“How can this be? I am still a child, betrothed but not yet married. I can’t yet have a child.”

I don’t know what possessed me but here I was talking back to what appeared to be a divine messenger from God. Looking back I can’t believe I was that bold. But it just didn’t make sense. This was not what I expected.

“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 and will be the Child of God. Look, now your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a child and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. Mary, nothing, nothing is impossible with God.”

I sat there stunned. I didn’t understand. None of this was to be expected.

Old Elizabeth? Pregnant? How could that be? Me? Bear the Child of God?

I sat there staring at the light. None of this made sense. Not at all. I didn’t understand. I couldn’t understand. But what could I say? My mind was racing trying to figure it all out, trying to make sense of the impossible.

And then, suddenly, my mind quieted. Peace passed into me beyond my wildest imagination and something from within told me to say yes. I don’t know why I imagined God needed my permission, after all God was God. But something told me, the decision was up to me. Before now nothing had been up to me. I had no power as a child, a girl, and now even as a betrothed woman. I had no power in the world, but here in this courtyard, in this moment, something told me to expect the unexpected. Something from within prompted me to say yes, for without my permission, without my consent, this holy divine plan could go no further.

And then, I heard myself calmly proclaim, “Here am I, the servant of God; let it be with me according to your word.”

It was as if the voices of the prophets and ancestors of old that I had heard proclaimed so many times before rose up from within and answered.

And then, as suddenly as the figure of light appeared, it disappeared and I found myself alone once again in the courtyard of my family home.

What was I supposed to do now? The angel had told me what was going to happen, but not how? I knew it was true. I felt it was true. But how was I going to break the news to my family? Or to Joseph for that matter? It was up to me to figure out what I had to do. A story of a divine visitation was not an easy one to believe…especially from a young, poor girl as myself. What would people think of me growing fat with child before the end of my betrothal? No one would believe me.

Suddenly the assurance I felt in the presence of the angel disappeared and fear rose up inside of me again. This was not the way things were supposed to happen. I knew what happened to women who had children out of wedlock. This was serious. Joseph would surely leave me. He could never bear the scandal. And my family? My God, what would my father say? I would probably be kicked out of my house too? What would become of me? A single mother is never welcomed…not anywhere. Suddenly horrible images sprang up in my mind. I would have to beg or worse…Panic began to set in.

This was not the way things were supposed to go. Not at all. No one would believe. No one…except perhaps, Elizabeth. The angel said she too was miraculously pregnant. Perhaps she could help me.

Without explanation I ran and found my father in the fields. I begged him to let me go and visit our relative Elizabeth. “There is no need for me at home. Joseph will not come for me for some time. And news is, father, news is that Elizabeth is pregnant. Let me go to her.”

And miraculously he gave me permission.

I set out at dawn the next day, anxious to reach her, sure she would have an explanation. Part of me hoped that I would arrive and find that she was not pregnant, that this was all a figment of my imagination. If she was not pregnant, then perhaps I too was not pregnant.

I walked all day through the Judean countryside. My mind still raced, trying to make sense of what was happening. This was not how things were expected to go. There was no way I could be the bearer of God’s child. Me? A poor, peasant girl? Divine things were left for powerful men…for Moses, adopted son of the Pharaoh, for David and Saul and Solomon, Kings of Israel and for the One to come, the savior, the messiah. People have been talking now of One who is to come and bring liberation for us. This One will break the oppressive rule of the Romans and free our people once again. With fire and might, with violent rage and terrible recompense he will save. This is the bearer of the divine, not me, a small, weak, powerless young girl.

As I walked the words and stories I had heard for so many years began to come back to me. This time it was not just the stories of the men of God, but of the women I had forgotten. I remembered the song of Miriam…and the song of Hannah…I remembered Sarah’s miraculous pregnancy and Hagar’s courage in the desert. God called to these women and they sang God’s praises. God lifted up ordinary people, women even, and led them to do extraordinary things.

As I pondered all these things in my heart I suddenly saw the world in a new way. Come to think of it, God never has done what the world expected. In fact, throughout the ages God has surprised the people by turning the world upside down. When the world wars violently nation against nation, God proclaims peace. When the world oppresses the outcasts, God proclaims liberation. When the world shuns those at the margins, God proclaims welcome for all. When the world starves the poor, God fills them with abundance.

The world’s expectations are not God’s expectations. The vision God has given us throughout the ages has always been counter-cultural. God’s vision of the way the world ought to be defies our human expectations. Peace. Justice. Acceptance. Inclusion. Abundance. These are not what the world expects.

The more I pondered these things, the more certain I was that God had called me to this task because I could do it. Like Miriam, and Hannah, like Sarah and Hagar before me, I had been called from my ordinary life to do something extraordinary. God chose me to defy the world’s expectations and do a new thing.

When I arrived at Elizabeth’s house, I could feel myself almost bursting with assurance, filled with great joy that God would choose me to do something so extraordinary. As Elizabeth welcomed me, she suddenly grabbed at her swollen belly. As the child lept in her womb she hailed me with an extraordinary greeting…

“Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

Suddenly all that I had been thinking on my way here was confirmed and the joy that had been building could no longer be contained. Like Miriam and Hannah before me, I broke into a song of praise for my God.

“My soul magnifies God and my Spirit rejoices in my Savior, for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of me, God’s servant…” I found myself singing all the wondrous acts of our God that defy the world’s expectations… “Our God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; Our God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. Our God has helped Israel according to the promise made to our ancestors to Abraham and to Sarah and their descendents forever and ever.”

The world’s expectations do not have to define or control us, for God has shown us more. What more can we expect? So much more.

God takes the poor, the powerless the oppressed and raises them up. Hasn’t this always been the message of our faith? Sometimes we forget under the weight of life’s expectations, but the message is still there waiting to be discovered and re-discovered over the ages. God has done wonderful things and continues to in every age. What more can we expect? So much more. For God promises a time when peace will usher forth, justice roll down like waters, and love will reign supreme.

The way things are, the way things are expected to be, doesn’t have to be. God has given us an alternative vision for the world, one that we can make happen if we just believe, if we just say yes, if we just give ourselves to the divine way of peace and justice. God can’t do it without us. We must say yes. We must concede. We must be the bearers of the Divine in the world. Not just me, but all of us. For each of us has a part to play in the unexpected good news of a God who turns the world’s expectations upside down. After all, all things are possible with our God.

And so, now these many months later, I am returning home. Joseph sent word that we are to travel to Bethlehem this week for the state census. This is not what I expected, to travel these last months of my pregnancy. But then again, what has been expected in my life lately? What more can I expect? So much more.

* The images in this post come from: " The Annunciation" by John Collier; "The Annunciation" by Henry Ossawa Tanner; "The Annunciation" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Sculpture by Karen Schmidt, "Mary and Elizabeth."

Finding Joy in the Chaos

Yesterday, I made the mistake of once again attempting the wilds of the Christmas Tree Shop. I know. I know. I should have known better. But I was honestly hopeful that it would not be that bad. It will be a quick stop. I’ll just run in and run out. Ten minutes top.


Between the throngs of shoppers, the endless lines, and the ransacked shelves it was far from the quick stop I imagined it would be. Add a tired, hungry baby with a dirty diaper and you have the recipe for disaster. After winding my way through the aisles, arms full of all I could carry (since there were no more carts to be had), scouring and scavenging the shelves for the last few boxes of lights, and standing in line for well and over 15 minutes, all the while listening to the inane, overly jolly Christmas music, I was about to lose it. And so when I walked out in the cold brisk winter wind to the sound of the Salvation Army guy wishing me a “Merry Christmas,” it was all I could do not to turn around and yell at the poor man. I was up to my limits of holly jolly frivolity and could feel myself about to snap. Merry Christmas, please!

Since Halloween we have been bombarded by the world’s shallow expressions of Christmas joy. Just turn on your TV. You can’t escape it. The constant loop of commercials advertising the happiness to be found in Gap sweaters, Folger’s coffee, or Kaye’s. The perennial parade of Christmas classics offering saccharine sweet stories of joy and hope. The images of happy families gathered around the Christmas tree arm in arm. TV this time of year is like the Hallmark channel on steroids.

And, yet, despite the onslaught of so-called joy, there remains the news ticker ever present scrolling across the screens of our lives with word of rising unemployment, increasing rates of poverty, escalating violence in the world, mounting costs of health care, intensifying harm done to environment, growing sense of dis-ease.

Despite the world’s celebrations going on all around us we know that just below the surface is a cauldron of fear, anxiety, and doubt. Our own lives are marked by these common fears and uncertainties…whether it is the anxious anticipation of having to spend the holidays feigning family bliss or the deep-seated fear of spending the days alone, whether it is the strain of buying gifts for everyone or the anxiety of not having enough to buy any gifts. Whether it is the pain of loved ones lost or the sting of friends estranged…the superficial holiday cheer seems only to heighten our own anxieties and leave feeling less than jolly this time of year.

It is in this chaotic and difficult context that we hear the dissonant words of Paul this evening. “Rejoice! Rejoice in God always, again I say rejoice.”

This is one of those texts that appears frequently in the lectionary in both Advent and Ordinary time, yet it is a text nonetheless that I have never, ever preached. The simplicity of joy always seemed too, well, overly optimistic given the state of our lives and the world around us. As you know, I prefer to preach a prophecy of woe…the world is rough, but God loves you. Too much sunshine, lollipops and puppy dogs can ruin a good Christian, right?

And yet, the words of Paul remain. Rejoice in God always, again I say rejoice.

In order to engage this text this week, I had to get over all of my negative connotations of this text engraved on sappy Christian tchotskys and emblazoned on evangelical bumper stickers. I had to let go of the cheesy camp songs, and blithe advice doled out late at night by creepy televangelists and let the text speak for itself. Despite popular renditions of this verse as a Christian version of “don’t worry, be happy,” Paul has something much deeper in mind than a simple “letting go and letting God.” The joy about which Paul speaks is not devoid of pain. How could it be?

Paul is writing this letter to the Philippians from jail. Arrested for preaching the gospel and endangering the State, Paul writes in a dingy, crowded, dirty jail cell from which he may leave only to head to the executioner’s block. This is a person who understands the reality of pain and suffering in the world.

William Loader reminds us that:

“joy is never alone. Its companions are pain and fear. ..Paul's sense of joy is not the absence of pain or fear, but the presence of Christ, in whom Paul places his hope and trust. That unity [both] takes him into pain and death, and…leads him over and over again on a journey from death to life, from pain to joy. Sometimes Paul’s joy stays alight as a flickering flame amid an oppressive darkness of criticism and downright hate. But it remains and can flare into brightness at relief and change.”
You see, joy for Paul is not a simple emotion, but rather a committed attitude or orientation toward life. It is a fundamental way of seeing things, a new perspective that radically changes one’s experience of the world. In this way, it is not a negation or avoidance of struggle, but rather the very way in and through the pain and fear of life. Joy is not a mask to cover up the less pleasant times of life, but rather the underlying foundation of hope without which one cannot encounter life’s pain and survive. This type of deep joy is what keeps us sane, what buoys us up, what helps us get out of bed in the morning and enables us to simply put our feet on the floor despite the chaos of our lives.

And where, do we find such joy, such hope? What brings about such a radical reorientation in our lives? What force can effect such a change?

Huston Smith, renowned religious scholar, asserts that “The only power that can effect transformations of [that] order… is love.” Likening it to the immeasurable power contained in an atom, Smith writes,
“The 20th century discover[ed] that locked within the atom is the energy of the sun itself. For this energy to be released, however, the atom must be bombarded from without. So too, locked in every human being is a store of love that partakes of the divine -- the imago dei, the image of God that is within us. And it too can be activated only through bombardment -- in its case, love’s bombardment.”

We know this as we see it happen in our own lives. Smith writes, “A loving human being is not produced by exhortations, rules and threats. Love takes root in children only when it comes to them.”

Watching children and their parents one gets a glimpse of the mutual way in which love arises. Parent and child, loved and loving, call forth the best in one another as they exchange glances, glimpses, caresses, nudges of tenderness, gentleness, kindness, and compassion. It is this love that brings forth the ground of joy that sees both parent and child through the inevitable rough times of life.

During those long nights of waking, during those unexpected crying jags where nothing will soothe him, it is the memory of the tender caresses and wide, sly smiles from Grady that sees me through. The gentle touch of his hand on my cheek, the warm embrace of his tiny arm wrapped tightly around my neck, the silly laughter echoing in my ear...all tie me back to the ground of love and my source of joy that sees me through the hard, long sleepless nights.

Think about your own experiences of love and the way in which they transformed your life…perhaps it was the glow of your first love that sent waves of ecstatic joy through you, that colored the world around you in ways that highlighted the joy and brilliance of the world in new and unimaginable ways. Or perhaps it is the memory of a loving parent, a compassionate friend, a kind stranger that for a moment transformed your world from hues of dull grey and shadows to brilliant rays of glorious light. It is the experience of being loved that elicits that deep, satisfying sense of joy.

And so it is also with God. It is the mutual love affair between human and divine which helps us access that joy of which Paul speaks. Whereas our human love, no matter how joyful or well-intended, always fails, God’s love never fails.

As wonderful as the love is that exists between me and Grady, I am all too well aware that one day, perhaps at age 13 or 15 or 17, the memory of those gentle touches and silly laughter may seem all too far away. And as much as I dread it, there will also come a day when despite my best efforts and intentions, the love I have for Grady will simply not be enough to satisfy his soul. Our human love, no matter how well intended, is always finite, limited and imperfect. And because of that there will come a time when both Grady and I will disappoint one another.
That is why we must connect to and remain grounded in the love of God. It is only that deep and abiding love that can evoke the joy to carry us through the pain and despair of life.

Imagine the power of connecting to that first, primal, unimaginable source of Love from the divine. How would our lives be transformed if we were certain that we were totally loved by the ultimate power in the universe? Huston Smith puts it this way,
“If we too felt loved -- not abstractly or in principle but vividly and personally -- by one who unites all power and all goodness, the experience could dissolve fear, guilt and self-concern dramatically. If, as Kierkegard noted, we were at every moment certain that nothing has happened or can ever happen that would separate us from the infinite love of the Infinite, that would be clearest reason there is for joy."

Paul understood that to remain in contact with such a real sense of God’s love, we needed to practice it among one another and so, the passage in Philippians ends with concrete instructions for cultivating that sense of love through community.

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.

The joy and peace of God come most fully through the practice and cultivation of love…through gentleness, mercy, honor, truth and compassion. William Loader reminds us, “Paul is not just advocating the power of positive thinking. These concrete instructions to the community of faith are about filling one's mind with what Paul sees as the signs of God's life - not so that will feel good, but because this is another way of filling oneself with God's life and so allowing God's life to flow through us to the world around us.”

Truth be told, I went to the Christmas Tree Shop yesterday in search for lights for a tree…which I vowed I wouldn’t put up this year…there was simply too much to do to be bothered by Christmas! Yet, standing outside the store waiting for Josh to pick me up, something happened. Despite my own stoicism or perhaps even cynicism, the bell ringer kept talking.

“It sure is cold out here today. You should button up your coat. You don’t want to get sick.”

And, in the midst of his chatter I turned to look at him a man, in his 40s, dressed in not more than a fall jacket and a thin knit cap, ringing his bell and being concerned about my warmth, my health, my well-being. I was struck by his sincerity. The more he talked, the more I realized this was no schtick to get me to donate, this was simply a conversation from one cold person to another.

Suddenly the anxiety and worry that had nagged me as I shopped seemed to disappear in the light of this small conversation. Worries of finances, moving, transition, change, time, work, all melted for the moment and I let go of that which was keeping me not just from joy, but from real human interaction. And so, when the car pulled up and he said goodbye, wishing me a Merry Christmas, I turned and smiled, “Merry Christmas to you to.”

Despite my best intentions to keep Christmas at a distance this year, something in his words sunk in.

In this Advent, we are called not to bah humbug the superficial joy of the world that seems to negate the reality of pain in the world, but rather to cultivate and share a deeper sense of joy, a joy that reorients our vision and springs forth from the well of love the Divine has for us. Once we cultivate that experience of love in ourselves, we become able to openly share it with one another and move past the saccharine sentimentality to a true sharing of the Christmas spirit, that love and peace that passes all understanding.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Making a Path to the Water's Edge

This parable recounted on the blog Telling Secrets, is by the South African activist, Olive Schreiner,and it is one of my very favorite sacred texts for it evokes the collective ongoing journey of humanity. Schreiner, like that lonely woman on the path, had once searched for a passageway out of the narrow confinement of Victorian life. Growing up as a child of Wesleyan missionaries, Schreiner questioned her family’s beliefs about the propriety of South African society. While she never abandoned the vision of peace and justice she heard promised in scripture, she forged a different path, making a way to the waters’ edge for activists, feminists and pacifists after her.

Schreiner offers us an alternative Advent vision of the path through the wilderness. Her path through the South African wilderness mirrors the long journey through deserts of the ancient near east. Isolated and remote these two divergent paths through the wilderness both lead to a fabled river that forms the boundary between the way the world is and the way the world ought to be. A path to the water’s edge…

For the ancient Israelites that journey led to the Jordan, that ancient boundary between the exilic wilderness and the dwelling place of the Divine. That river, first crossed by Joshua and the people centuries earlier, is the symbolic threshold leading to the promised land. For the exiles in Babylon to which Baruch writes, the Jordan symbolized a homecoming, the heralded arrival of a people long displaced, coming back once again to the home which God promised.

Imagine the joy that this vision must have evoked for the people of Israel, long displaced and cut off from their families.

“See your children gathered from west and east
at the word of the Holy One,
rejoicing that God has remembered them.
For they went out from you on foot,
led away by their enemies;
but God will bring them back to you”

An image of the lost found. Rejoice, O Israel, for God will bring your children back to you. Do not fret the journey, for God has already prepared the path.

"God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low
and the valleys filled up, to make level ground,
so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.
The woods and every fragrant tree
have shaded Israel at God’s command.
For God will lead Israel with joy,
in the light of Divine glory,
with the mercy and righteousness that come from the Holy One."

To those living in exile across the wild desert of the middle east, the image of a safe, straight path meant everything. The Divine preparation of the path, the lowering of the mountains, the raising of the valleys was more than a symbolic gesture of the coming dream of God that would radically shift the socio-political landscape. For those living far off across the desert, this meant a safe and speedy return home across the river Jordan. The wilderness between Babylon and Jerusalem was treacherous. A straight path without the obstacles of mountains and valleys signaled a sure way home for the children of Israel, a path to the water’s edge.

It is no coincidence then that in this text from Luke, we find John also standing at the water’s edge. There at the Jordan, in that liminal space between wilderness wandering and the promised land, John invites people into the rushing, wild waters in preparation for the coming kin-dom.

John understands that there is still more work to do. For while, it is true that the Israelites have literally crossed into the promised land from their wilderness wanderings, the journey is not yet complete. In fact, the promised land once attained was not at all what they expected. Not only did it come at the cost of those who lived in the land before them…through warfare, death and destruction…but it turned out not to be the place of tranquility, peace and justice they imagined. Centuries of violence, conquest and oppression proved that. In fact, from the time they crossed to perhaps the present day, it seems the occupation of this land brought more conflict and chaos than peace and prosperity.

Mere occupation of the promised land did not usher forth God’s dream of peace and justice. For that, the people had more work to do. That is why John called the people to a baptism of repentance of sins. For John, this was not merely a verbal act by which sins are confessed. But rather it was, in Greek, a metanoia, In the words of Herman Waetjen, it was

“a turning around, a 180-degree change of direction, and therefore a change of mind. It is a movement into transformation that involves the total person. Repentance, as a termination of participation in the old moral order and an entry into a new moral order, inaugurates the active construction of a life and a way of living that corresponds to God’s [dream] for human beings. In time Jesus will instruct the disciples on the ethics of this new road into life. This is how to make the paths straight for the coming ‘kin-dom of God.’"

In fact, Jesus’ ministry will be consumed with instructing the disciples on how to forge that path in the world…through love, compassion, non-violence, forgiveness, and mercy.

While in the passage from Baruch, the people are promised a divinely made path, here in Luke, it is the people themselves who must forge their way not just to the water’s edge but in and through it in order to prepare themselves and the world for coming kin-dom of God. For still there exist barriers to the fulfillment of God’s promise. Even in the city of Jerusalem, in the city of the holy of holies, still there is something lacking for the completion of God’s promise. These barriers are ones both imposed from without and constructed from within. The people themselves have been kept from God by the powers and principalities of the world, and by themselves.

We recognize these barriers and obstacles to the Divine, don’t we? We who have oft been kept at bay by the institutional church know what it is like to have our path blocked. And at the same time, we confess we recognize the barriers and obstacles of our own making… towering mountains of hesitation, uncertainty, apathy; dark valleys of fear, anxiety, doubt; chilly, churning rivers of self-loathing, internalized oppression and despair. We, too, know what it is like to wander lost in the wilderness of life, don’t we?

John reciting the well known words from the prophet Isaiah, calls the people to join with God in the construction of a highway back to the Divine, by preparing a path for themselves and for their community that will lead them home to God, to the dream God has for them, to the fulfillment of the promise of shalom, God’s vision of peace and justice for the world. This is the message of John. Tear down the barriers, make the road plain, for kin-dom is surely coming and we must be prepared to be met by the Holy.

You see, the preparation for this journey toward the completion of God’s promise is a mutual endeavor between humanity and the Divine. Both are required to work together for the realization of the kin-dom.

Often in our liturgy at CWM, we talk of this as the co-creation of the kin-dom…something that cannot be done by God alone, nor by sheer human effort. Human and Divine need each other if this dream is to become reality. And, this my friends, is good news.

John’s call to us for transformation is at once individual and communal. We are called to turn our lives around, to begin a new on the path that leads toward God, while at the same time we are called to prepare the path for others. Like God who brings down the mountains and raises the valleys to cosmically break down the barriers for pilgrims on the path, we too are called to be preparers of the way. We participate with God in the preparation of the road that connects the wilderness and the world, that highway between our daily life and our encounters with the Holy.
Our Advent journeys are both about following and leading. Here at CWM, we have followed a path laid for us by members of our congregation who have since journeyed elsewhere. I am mindful of all those who have beaten the path to the water’s edge for us that we might be the queer church in Davis Square.

I remember David, co-founder, of CWM, who dreamed the dream and created space for the birth of a new type of church in the congregation he was serving. Without his vision and the hospitality of the people at Grace UMC in Cambridgeport, we would never have made it to the water’s edge. There on Magazine Street a dream was made reality and we took a step closer to who we are today.

I remember Tracy, a founding member of this congregation, who forged the path toward our communion table. Upon coming to worship the second Sunday in the month, Tracy, a former Roman Catholic was aghast to discover that we only served communion once a month. “But you can’t have church without the table? Do you think we could have it again next week?” Why not? And we took a step closer to who we are today.

I remember Joe and Craig, two other founding members of this congregation, who forged the path for our community meals. After a meager snack of store bought cookies and stale coffee, they suggested perhaps they could bring a light supper the next week. And what a meal it was complete with homemade apple turnovers and fresh pressed apple cider! And we took a step closer to who we are today.

I remember Dee Dee, our first intern, who suggested that perhaps the church become involved in local politics. She spent her first year making in roads into the greater Boston LGBT community for our congregation securing a feature in BayWindows, signing us as one of the first congregations to support marriage equality and creating name recognition for us throughout the community. Dee Dee initiated our commitment as a congregation to being active advocates for justice in the world. And we took a step closer to who we are today.

I remember Brian and Karen, Betty and Bill. I remember Jessica, Kirk, Terry, Jennifer, Susan, Jeff, and David. I remember Jen, Thi, Lucas, Jeremy and Chelsea. All of whom walked the path with us for a time.

These are just but a few of the faithful saints who have journeyed with us, helping to make a path to the water’s edge on which we now travel. While our paths have now diverged, their gifts remain with us as steps along the path, stones that built the bridge over which we now cross.
As many of you already know from our charge conference this past week, it has come time for paths to diverge again here at CWM. I have been invited to become the sixth Dean of Hendrick’s Chapel at Syracuse University beginning this March. My last Sunday with you will be February 14th. A new pastor will be appointed after the first of the year with whom you will travel further on the path. While we had anticipated that we might journey together a bit further to June, this invitation has sped our timeline up in unexpected ways…both for you as a congregation and for me as your pastor.

We have traveled this path together for nearly 8 years, forging the way forward together. It has been a mutual process in which together we made the path by walking. As I look back on our time together, I feel immensely blessed and privileged to have shared this journey with you for I myself have learned so much. Here I learned to be a pastor, here I found the meaning of community, here I discovered what it meant to truly be Church. As my faith home, you prepared the path for me. Thank you.

But now in the coming months our paths will diverge. The steps we have taken together, the path which we have tread, will remain. Only now God calls us forward to forge new ways of living and loving and being in different communities. While it is with real sadness and sorrow that we come to this unexpected turn in the road, we celebrate the path we have walked together and look forward in eager anticipation to the road that lay ahead.

Like that woman on the path, we, at CWM, find ourselves at the water’s edge, at the precipice of a new beginning. And, like John,we too exist in the liminal space of knowing the promise and yet not-yet living into its full realization. In this liminal, not-yet space, we are called to enter and cross over the river, to extend the highway, to forge ahead in new paths, navigating new territory so that we might wind our way closer to the Divine.

And while we confess that dwelling in this liminal space of already/not yet can be uncomfortable, raising our anxieties about our future, we have been called by God to make the way clear…not just for ourselves but for all those who will follow. Look around, the saints of CWM are not just those I have named. They are all around us. You are the ones who have made this path to the water’s edge…and now God is calling you forward into a new land, into a new space. God is calling all of us to enter the chilly waters that we might cross through to the other side and create new unimaginable paths that lead us and the world toward a greater realization of God’s kin-dom on earth.

Just as John has made the path to the water’s edge preparing the way for Jesus, so also, we too are called to prepare that path…and to extend it. The hope of Advent rests in us and in our courage to traverse the wilderness of our lives, making a path to and through the water’s edge for ourselves and for the world.