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Monday, December 4, 2006

Grace Re-born - Luke 1:39-45

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by her Lord.”

By noon tomorrow, I’ll have landed at the Buffalo airport and arrived at my parents’ home in Niagara Falls. When I arrive, my three nephews and one niece will already be celebrating, and at this point in my life, I can’t imagine a Christmas celebration without them. You have often heard people express the notion that Christmas is best celebrated with children around. This is usually the point when some religious zealot says “Humbug,” and tells us that this association with children is nothing more than sugar-coated sentimentality.

While I agree that Jesus is the reason for the season, and that we need to put the Christ back in Christmas, I also think our celebrations are most complete when we celebrate with children. Children teach us something about expectation and hope, and they are a living reminder of the wonder with which we too might greet the coming king. May we pray.

The imagination of children
I spend more time shopping for my niece and nephews than anyone else on my list. For one thing, I only see them a few times a year, and I don’t want their only reminder of me to be a pair of socks or some boring educational game. However, I am also aware that my careful selection may be less interesting than the box my gift comes in. Don’t you long for a return to the days of innocent imaginative power? When whatever you imagined became your reality? A box on the floor looks an awful lot like a Formula-One racer, and for the child who sees it as one, it is. Last year, my niece Valerie, who is the very definition of girly-girl, received a beautiful frilly dress. She put it on, looked in the mirror, and said, “Oh, I a princess!” And she was.

We bring children to our holiday celebrations because they are able to tap into the world of imagination so easily. In fact, we need children, we need imagination, in order to even read this story. Take this morning’s biblical text – it is a text pregnant – no pun intended – with imagination. Mary and Elizabeth imagine something beyond the rational – beyond biology, beyond common sense, beyond the limited notions of what most of us take to be realistic – but the very things they imagine turn out to be their reality. Not only theirs, but ours as well.

How many of us have looked for a rational explanation to this text? How many of us have grown up and matured beyond our imagination, and tested this text against our notion of factuality? It makes perfect sense that these two women could imagine the events of this story. Mary, after all, was a teenager – fourteen or fifteen at best. She was poor, uneducated, and otherwise oblivious to the collective wisdom of the world. And Elizabeth – she was an old woman by this time – very well could have been senile or in the beginning stages of dementia.

The rationalist among us, or, perhaps within us, looks at these two women, and can easily dismiss them as na├»ve. They were living in their imaginations. They didn’t have an accurate grasp on the facts.

However, I wonder if we have too narrow a definition of facts. Thinking, rationalistic people like us, products of the modern age that we are, have allowed facts to be determined and tested by provable, repeatable, experimentation. Only those things that can be proved are real. Only those things that can be tested are true. Give us facts – raw, unadorned, uninterpreted, provable facts.

Neil Postman, in his book, Technopology, accuses us of being people with no imagination. Our fascination with computers – fact-churning, data-collecting machines that they are – is evidence of this. We have fooled ourselves into thinking there is a shortage of data in the world, and if we can just wrangle all the facts together, figure out how to sort them out, and line them up correctly, we’ll arrive at the answers to all of life’s problems. The UN sends envoys on fact-finding missions. Our government tells us they can’t decide anything until all the information comes in. Meanwhile, we have so many facts we’re crushed under their collective weight and drowning in a sea of ones and zeros. Postman says it flat out: “We don’t need more data. We have more facts than we can possibly consume. What we are dying of is lack of courage, lack of dreams, a failure of nerve.”

The imagination of Mary and Elizabeth
And yet, those things were exactly what Mary and Elizabeth had. They dared to believe that God would accomplish what He said He was going to do. They dared to dream their dreams into reality. They dared to believe in the irrational and the unreasonable, and lo, the mysteries of God were born within them.

Friends, this is what we mean when we talk about grace. In us, and through us, and on our behalf, God does what we thought was impossible. God is working in ways we cannot explain or understand. He invites us to imagine a reality based upon his extravagant promises, and we find his promises pregnant with possibility. You have to read this text with an active imagination! How else do you explain babies who leap for joy in their mother’s womb? How else do you look your poor, pregnant, unwed, teenage relative in the face and tell her she is blessed among women? This is a world where truth resides beyond what we have come to define as facts, where we will believe that God can do whatever God wills to do.

I thank God for the witness of these two distant relatives. I am thankful for a world of hope and promise beyond the stark reality we have become so comfortable with. These women point to a world of possibility. At the conclusion of this Advent season, as we wait on these last few hours before Christmas bursts in upon us, the door to that world stands cracked open. We peek inside, and even if for only the briefest of moments, we see that world. Not only do we see it, we see ourselves in it. Mary and Elizabeth dared to imagine that world, and they dared to see themselves in it.

Re-birth of imagination as a means of grace
“Faith,” says theologian James Whitehead, “is the enduring ability to imagine life in a certain way” (“The Religious Imagination,” Liturgy 5, 1985, pp. 54-59). Peter Gomes, minister at Harvard’s Memorial Church, refers to the Bible as “A book of the imagination.”

I have to agree with these two and with Neil Postman that we don’t need more data. We already have more information that we could ever process. What we need is a re-birth of imagination. We need to see the world once again through innocent eyes. We need grace to be re-born in our midst.

If you turn to the Winston-Salem Journal, you won’t find this way of seeing the world. You’ll find more facts, lined up in neat columns, telling you what happened, and to whom, and when, and possibly how or why. CNN is no help; only more data there. Perhaps you’re like me, and you’re thinking there’s GOT to be more out there than this. Perhaps you’re like me, and are looking for hope. Perhaps you’re like me, and longing to imagine a different sort of world.

What richer ground is there for our imaginations than this Advent and Christmas season? While the world is obsessed with statistics, we appreciate the value of symbols. Come to the church in December, and we’ll load you down with metaphors, stir up the poet within you, and teach you to sing once again. We’ll shatter your preconceived notions of reality, and greatly expand your definition of what can and can’t be.

The children already get it; in fact, they’re the ones we need to teach us. Jesus taught us to have the faith of children, and we thought he was just being cute and offering us a ready-made text for Children’s Sunday. But he invites us to be born out of our proud sophistication, with our ideas about reality, and glimpse God’s reality. We see it is a reality full of grace, but we are invited to not only glimpse it, but to live into it.

As I say these things, I realize that many of us gather with the weight of the “real” world on our shoulders. You wonder if the fight with your spouse last night was the final straw. You wonder if you’ll ever get out from under your crushing consumer debt. You wonder if a donor will be found before it’s too late. You wonder if your grandmother will ever remember your name again. I wonder, now that my Mom’s cancer has returned, just how bad it’s going to be. What decision, what pain, what hurt have you put on the shelf to deal with after the holidays? You may recognize that a change needs to happen, but making that change is so risky you find yourself paralyzed by fear. This world, this real world dominated by facts and figures and statistics, comes to a place where it has nothing left to offer, and we find ourselves banging our heads against its wall. We are a people desperately in need of hope, and sooner or later, we all come to realize that this world simply can’t manufacture what we need.

So let’s face facts, but let’s operate in the possibility of God’s reality. We gather here in December, with stories of expectant virgins, and angelic choirs, and babies who leap in their mother’s wombs. We gather and listen to these stories, not because we’ve forgotten them, but because we need that hope to be born in us yet again. And sure enough, every time we open ourselves up to these new possibilities, grace is re-born. Will you, with Mary and Elizabeth, imagine for a moment that God is able to fulfill his promises? Imagine yourself open to the subtle incursions of God’s presence among us. Imagine a God who is not safely aloof from the world. Imagine a world of transformation: from the ordinary to the extraordinary, from the natural to the supernatural, from the expected to a world filled with surprise. Look upon that world, enter into it, and find yourself caught up in something bigger than you. Imagine that world, pregnant with the promise of God’s future. Imagine the possibilities.

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