December 13, 2015 – A Message from Kathy Parsons, BUMC

Advent 3, December 13, 2015   Psalm 85, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 1:39-56

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My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices! So sings Mary.

Today in Luke’s gospel, we hear the first joyous Christmas carol, and on this third Sunday of Advent, we light the pink candle, the candle of joy.

Throughout Luke’s gospel the messages of inclusion, expectation and blessing are woven. Luke, a Gentile bridging the Jewish and early Christian cultures in the first century, stresses the universal scope of God’s work. He traces Jesus’ genealogy back beyond Abraham to Adam—the father of all humanity. Luke wrote passionately about God’s plan of salvation for all God’s children through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit of God—God’s presence and power, active and effective among the people; the source of life and blessing. People are empowered by the Holy Spirit and their lives are transformed to know and act upon this blessing. This is the good news message from Luke’s gospel. And so the blessedness of faith—shown so powerfully in Mary’s song—is a blessing for all. The Holy Spirit speaks to us all.

When I was a youngster, 10 or so, I had a first-time experience of what I have come to know as the Holy Spirit grabbing my soul by the shoulders and giving me a shake. A wake-up, look-at-me moment—a whole-body experience. I was outside, happened to gaze up at the blue sky overhead and was transfixed—the sky, the puffy clouds were in motion—not flitting across the sky but rocking in and out of focus—it was as if I were wearing three-d glasses and continually adjusting them. And the height of the sky was vast.

It seems funny to say that because of course the sky seems vast and high to some degree. But the sky is so familiar; you feel the familiar blueness or grayness as a comforting blanket almost, day after day. On this day and at times since, the sky seemed planets away from earth—vaulted to an impossible height.

Seeing the blue and white, vaulted mirage is one thing, but what is equally memorable is the exhilaration that instantaneously came over me as I gazed over head. Happiness, infinite possibility, joy—poof—these feelings overcame me with a gripping intensity. In the many years since then, these wonderful moments have returned more frequently in some years, less so during other seasons of my life. Sometimes when I am out of doors, but many times literally out of the blue—sudden feelings of blessedness, moments of intense almost wrenching gratitude, and sometimes of profound world grief.

This is what I experience and it is mysterious, but I am sure that these spiritual moments come to me as surprise visits from the Holy Spirit. There is strength and connectedness that can come only from God.

The theologian Marcus Borg says that the heart–a metaphor for the self at its deepest level– can be turned toward God or away from God, open to God or closed to God. He writes that the typical condition, the human condition, is for our hearts to be turned away from God, to be closed.

The Bible urges us:

“Return to the Lord with all your heart” from 1st Samuel

“Create in me a clean heart” says the psalmist

And from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “May you be strengthened in your inner being with power through God’s Spirit, that Christ may dwell in your hearts.”

There is good reason to ask this blessing—to have our hearts open to God. A closed heart means we do not see clearly, nor do we reason clearly. A closed heart lacks gratitude and is insensitive to wonder and awe. It forgets God and loses track of the mystery around us. A closed heart is estranged and in exile.

I think of my life especially during the time-starved years of working, family life, community life as being mostly in one of those hamster exercise balls. Do you know what I mean?   I had a hamster in high school. At one point, I got from the pet store, a transparent, hard plastic ball that’s used to give your hamster exercise outside its cage where it lives most of its life. It has a hole with a cap that fits in so it’s flush with the ball; you place the hamster in the ball, put on the cap and off it goes. The hamster ball is a chance to explore outside the cage in the safety of a self-propelled sphere—it’s hard to get lost. Or is it?

The world is out there and I am in here. The easiest way to close your heart to God, the way it happens without a whimper, is to be busy in the hamster ball.

It’s a sad and familiar regret—missing out for a day, a month, a year on close connection with God because of the pace of our everyday lives. But I think, starting with the sky-burst 50 years ago and many subsequent jolts and prods, I do stop and look out of the hamster ball, sometimes of my own volition.

And looking back, I realize that as a teenager I was blessed to become aware of a relationship that already existed.

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” God says to Jeremiah.

I had lived for most of my growing-up years in God’s prevenient grace—what a comforting thought—that God cares for and plans for our connectedness even before we are spiritually awake. And then at some point in our lives—he gives the soul a gentle shake and reveals the magnificence of his love. My soul magnifies the Lord!

And God’s love is not something that just happens to us. We are called to lead lives of service as Mary was, we are called to be in fellowship, to worship together and to love one another—blesssings all. We must be active participants with open hearts, turned toward God.

And yet, I think maybe some of us have spiritual lives that at times feel disconnected or untended. Do we become separated because we turn inward, waiting selfishly for the next rhapsodic moment as I have done? Or blindly placing one foot in front of the other as the hamster does?

Thomas Merton (20th century Trappist monk) Life is this simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time. This is not just a fable or a nice story. It is true. If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything—in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. It’s impossible. The only thing is that we don’t see it.

To see and feel God shining through us, we need to break out and enter into full life with God. To open reborn hearts.

How do we do this? The Spirit of God does it through special places, people, events, nature, music—through worship, discipleship and Christian practices—where we feel the sacred presence of God at work in our lives.

God opens our heart and we are filled with compassion and gratitude. And like Mary we enter into exultant life with God and join fully as his servants for justice and response to the world’s suffering.

In all things we are joyful and more than joyful.

As we gather with our families this Advent season, may we be like Elizabeth, like unborn John the Baptist and like Mary, the mother of our Lord. May we be infused by the Holy Spirit and may we be triumphal in God’s love.

With Paul we will: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say Rejoice!