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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Empty and Full (Community Lenten Reflections): Psalm 51:1-12 and Luke 1:26-38

1Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
3For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
4Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
5Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
10Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
11Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.


26In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He 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. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The 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. 36And 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. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Then 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.

If you have consulted your calendar today, you’ll notice that it is March 25. Today is exactly nine months before Christmas, which makes today the Feast Day of the Annunciation. That is, today we celebrate the message given to Jesus’ mother Mary that she will bear a son who will save his people from their sin. To those among us who follow the liturgical calendar, this may mean more than it does to those among us who do not. Or, if you’re like us Methodists, who pick and choose when we follow the liturgical calendar and the lectionary as seems most fitting our needs, today may be a confusing time that perplexes worship planning.

In true Methodist fashion, we who like to find a middle way, I have cobbled together today’s service using one reading from the Lectionary for this coming Sunday – the Psalm, and another reading for the Feast Day of the Annunciation, our reading from St. Luke’s Gospel.

It seems a strange juxtaposition, does it not? On the one hand, the Psalmist cries out, “Create in me a clean heart, O God!” Cleanse me! Purge me! Empty me! Let all the things in my life I cling to be wiped away. On the other hand, the angel tells Mary that she will literally be filled with the things of God. The Psalmist acknowledges guilt, having been born a sinner when conceived. The child Mary will bear is without sin, the one who will become sin for the world. The Psalmist recognizes the inherent distance between God and humanity; Mary is told that through her, God plans to come and dwell among us.

In fact, the first part of the message Mary receives is this: “The Lord is with you.” In fact, these very words are ingrained in many of us with a rhythmic pattern. A friend of mine who is now a Lutheran pastor recalls going to see Star Wars with his family in the theater back in 1977 when he was growing up in the midwest. That part in the movie came up when, for the first time, one of the characters says to another, “The force be with you.” He said, “200 pious Lutherans in the theater immediately responded, ‘And also with you.’”

In many of our traditions, this is how worship begins – the presence of the Lord is invoked and wished upon the worshippers. “The Lord be with you.” (Wait for response). It’s a call to prayer, acknowledging that the grace of God is present even before we invoke God’s name. “The Lord be with you.” (Wait for response). It is a statement of blessing – that the Spirit of the Lord, a unifying Spirit, may remain between the two of us even while we are apart from one another.

The angel explains the details of the plot to Mary, and her only question is a good one: “How can this be?” Having been answered to her satisfaction, her only response from this point on is yes. “May it be to me as you have said,” she says.

I wonder what would happen if the people of God were to respond similarly. If God spoke, in whatever way that happens in our particular traditions, and we simply said yes. “May it be to me as you have said.”

And yet, that seems easier said than done. There are so many things that keep us from being able to say a clear, resounding solid “yes” to God. Distractions, ambition, pride, selfishness, disinterest all get in the way. And here is where the words of the Psalmist during this Lenten season do us good, as we ask God to create within us clean hearts, to restore us in our relationship with God and nurture our relationships with each other. Before we can be filled with the things of God, as Mary was, we first need to be emptied of the things of ourselves. Being part of the work of God means that we must surrender our wills to God’s, and I think that the exact intersection between this Lenten Psalm and the news given to Mary.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, gave us a covenant service by which we could strengthen this bond and continually give ourselves over to this work. The central prayer of the service is the thought upon which I wish to leave us today:

I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low by thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

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