The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
17 December 2017
Those of us who come from an Episcopal background know this text well by its Latin name, the Magnificat, because it is part of the service of Evening Prayer every week, and the sung Evensong has some incredibly beautiful choral settings of this text.
Magnificat simply means “magnifies,” and it refers to Mary’s declaration that her soul magnifies the Lord. Think about that image for a moment: a magnifying glass that makes God even larger in our field of vision. Mary’s soul makes God come into clearer view for us.
[Pull out magnifying glass] Sometimes with a magnifying glass you need to pull it closer or draw it farther away for the object to come into focus. And not all of us have the same visual acuity…some people see really well up close, and people my age tend to want to extend their arms so things are clearer.
And some of us have different magnifying glasses that enable us to pull God into view. For some of us, the lens is nature, and for others it is working for justice and peace, and for yet other people it is contemplation and prayer, and for still others the optics of fellowship and hospitality provide the best view of God.
What is it that magnifies God for you? How do you catch a glimpse of the sacred?
Sometimes we have trouble bringing the Holy into focus. Our nation is in a time of deep anxiety, and it is more important than ever to keep the sacred in view. In a time when we’re not able to get away to the mountains, if that is our magnifying glass, it can be soul-killing. Or if we have an illness that prevents us from social contact, if that is our lens, it can make contact with God elusive. And at those times, we need to adjust the focus or even try switching to a new lens for awhile. For me, the ocean is one of the places in nature where it is easiest to sense the presence of the Holy…and beachfront access is somewhat limited in Colorado. And so, I changed my lens a few years back and started fly-fishing so that I could be out on the water. It isn’t the same as sea kayaking, which I dearly love, but it works.
And sometimes God is just plain hard to see, no matter how hard we seem to try.
That’s when faith (our relationship with God) and perseverance come into play.
[Bring out binoculars] Not everybody sees the Holy through the same lens, but all of us have access to multiple lenses. Perhaps even trying out a different way to see God would be a useful exercise. So, if you find God only in solitary moments, perhaps singing together in church or engaging someone at coffee hour or teaching Sunday school would open a new vista.
Has it ever occurred to you that perhaps someone sees God through you and your life? I’m not saying that any one of us is a carbon copy of God, but rather that there is a spark of the divine mixed in with all our human foibles and shortcomings that might just awaken the Spirit within another person. You might act as a lens through which someone can catch a glimpse of God!
Sometimes, at this time of the year when the nights are longest and the daylight is brief, we most need to find the bright spark of the holy. And then we need to find tinder and blow on the spark so that it illumines and shines all around.
By our standards, Mary was a “nobody.” She was a Judean peasant woman in backwater of the Roman Empire. She herself says that God “looks with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” So, how might God be looking at us this morning? How might God be looking at you? If God could favor Mary with being the bearer of Christ, why couldn’t God regard us similarly?
Meister Eckhart, the great14th century mystic, wrote, ”We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of God is begotten in us.”
So, what can we do to be the bearers of Christ? What can we do to carry Christ within us and help him to be reborn not just 2,000 years ago in a faraway land, but here, now, again and again?
We don’t know very much about Mary, neither from the gospel record, nor from first-hand historical accounts. But one of the things we must certainly realize about this woman from the child she bore and raised is that she must have been extraordinary. If Jesus reflected something of Mary, it may have been her faith and compassion. Whether you take the birth narratives literally or figuratively, Jesus definitely had some of Mary’s DNA and she had the opportunity to nurture and shape the boy who would become the messiah. In other words, her soul magnified God.
So, I was thinking about this: what is it that my soul magnifies? What is it that the core of my being as well as my daily activities amplifies and projects? Does my soul magnify God, or does it magnify my own needs and wants? Can someone ever see a reflection of the divine through something I do, or is it all so much “other stuff” that the Christ-light is obscured?
What does your soul magnify in the ways you spend your time, and exert your power and influence? What does your soul magnify in your interactions with others? What does your soul magnify in what you pray about or for?
I imagine that when clients for the Homelessness Prevention Initiative come through Plymouth’s doors each Friday or when guests of Faith Family Hospitality Network enter our church tonight, they sometimes get to glimpse the sacred in the faces of the volunteers who are here to greet them and connect them with assistance. And when an ill or homebound parishioner receives a visit from Jake or Jane Anne or me or receives a meal from another member, I imagine that is a lens through which they experience God’s love is in a very human form. We all have that capacity.
As I was driving on College Avenue awhile back, a woman with a broad smile offered to let me go ahead of her when I was turning onto Drake Road. It was a simple act of kindness, but I read into it a sense of Christmas grace: a moment of unearned kindness given to me by someone I don’t know and may never see again.
And I thought to myself, what would the world be like if all of us allowed our lives to magnify the Lord – in greater or lesser ways, in simple acts or in mighty ones? What if we all acted from grace and faithfulness and compassion? Maybe we’d have fewer political tweets and a Congress to does something that isn’t in the interest of the wealthiest among us, but of people like Mary and Jesus.
We may not read about it on Facebook or see it in the headlines (especially those from Washington), but the world is populated by a portion of people who intentionally bring God into clearer view through prayer, action, compassion, investment, service, and helping others to find access to the sacred. It is almost as if there is seldom-visible queue of people who line up to help others see the divine more sharply. When was the last time you encountered someone who offered you a moment of grace or insight or inspiration? And did you take advantage of the opportunity to thank them or maybe even follow their example?
I have seen angels right here at Plymouth…and none of them has wings. Amen.
© 2017 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
Mark 1: 1-8
Second Sunday in Advent 12/10/17
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be good and pleasing to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Merry Christmas, Plymouth... at least according to the Gospel of Mark!
In today’s Scripture passage, we find the opening remarks of the Gospel According to Mark foretelling the birth of Jesus through the mixing of the story of John the Baptist and verses cited from Isaiah. This lectionary reading brings us Mark’s Christmas even though we are in Advent. What is particularly interesting is that, while it doesn’t sound like it on first reading, Mark 1: 1-8 is in fact this Gospel’s entire Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany Story combined in shorthand. Some like to simply ignore this Gospel by saying, “Oh Mark doesn’t have a Christmas story,” but that is simply because we don’t like what we find.
Yes, I know that sounds impossible, but it is true: Merry Christmas, and I bet many of you haven’t even finished your Christmas shopping. From this point where our reading left off in this Gospel, we jump right into the baptism of Jesus and the start of his ministry! Mark does Christmas a little differently: no angels, no manger, no magi, no star, no Mary, no Joseph, no shepherds, no Santa Claus, no presents, no cookies, no tinsel, no mother-in-laws visiting, no nothing! Nada! Right about now, my guess is that might sound good to many of you. This season is stressful and lonely for many. Mark is sort of the Grinch of the Gospel writers. Merry Christmas (early) today from the Gospel of Mark! Sort of feels like we all just got coal in our Christmas stockings, right? Where did the glamor go?
Mark is the oldest of the Canonical (or narrative) Gospels: Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Matthew and Luke were written later and were based, in part, on the outline and organization of Mark. This is uniformly accepted in Biblical Studies academic circles. Studying these distinctions is an entire field of Biblical study called “Gospel Parallels.” This is the study of the slight and significant differences between the four Gospels and the three canonical ones in particular! It is also the best topic to bring-up if you want to be the most awkward person at a cocktail party!
The Gospel of Mark allows us the opportunity to rethink Christmas because Mark offers us a stripped down version—A back to basics lesson. There are several important things that, if we take Mark seriously, we learn about the Christmas Season that we might forget once we read Matthew and Luke’s elaborate versions of the start of Jesus’ life.
Mark grounds the entire story of Jesus in Prophesy of Isaiah. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark’s entire Jesus narrative remains rooted squarely with the ancients as an outgrowth of older tradition. Verse 2: “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his path straight.’” Then in verses 4-8, Mark elaborates and says that John the Baptist was the one whose job, whose sacred mission it was to create a world that is ready for Jesus Christ—the Prince of Peace—to enter. “John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness [wham, voila, poof], proclaiming [screaming, yelling, preaching, extolling] a baptism of repentance and a forgiveness of sins [renewal, peace, restart, hope… hope]… He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming* [hey y’all… even as awesome as I am … just wait]; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals [which by the way is the most lowly, dirty, and stinky thing you could do for someone in the ancient world]. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
*This is interesting because why would God need any help from people, from humans, especially this mountain-man John who would fit in better with us rock climbers and backpackers of Colorado than the city dwellers of New York or Jerusalem? Why would God need to wait for the world to be ready for Jesus, and then why would God want someone who is verily an outcast from the places of power and culture to do it?
This raises the question: Who are we in this story? I think we are John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness—for crying out loud in a world that can’t seem to get it! Crying out loud—doesn’t that seem to be most of our work as Christians these days? We are John the Baptist in this Christmas Story as we enter Advent in 2017.
Plymouth, are you ready to get real with me? Let’s talk about our “crying out loud.” Because Mark’s Gospel offers us one heck of a Christmas Story in only a couple of verses that calls us to the mat—us powerful, comfortable, mainline old school Christians.
Church, Christianity, congregation is all about journeying through Scripture, tradition, and faith exploration together. Every single year in our liturgical context, we take a slow tour through the Bible, and that tour always begins with this weird thing called Advent. Advent is the first stop on a tour of wonders.
Have you ever been on a tour of the Avery House here in Fort Collins? It is a really cool place for weddings and part of the Poudre Landmarks Foundation. Where is the first place you go? You start in the lobby of the house, and what is the first thing they tell you in the Advent of your old house tour? First they will ask you nicely to please not touch anything… please do not break the Avery House collection and keep your kids close as you do the walk. “Fort Collins has Franklin Avery to thank for the wide streets in Fort Collins; he took advantage of the open spaces when he surveyed the town in 1873. Avery later founded First National Bank and was instrumental in developing water projects that enabled agriculture to flourish in northern Colorado. In 1879, he and his wife Sara built a family home on the corner of Mountain Avenue and Meldrum Street and raised their children, Edgar, Ethel, and Louise, there. The original two-story home consisted of two rooms on the first floor, now the entry area and dining room; three bedrooms upstairs; and a basement. Constructed of sandstone from local quarries, the house cost $3,000 when it was built. During the ensuing years, the Averys added to the house several times; the final addition included the distinctive Queen Anne tower…” [PLF website]
That is all well and good and exactly what a tour of an old house should be, but is this also how we experience our annual church tour through Scripture? “Hi I’m Jake and I will be your tour guide this year through Scripture. First Jesus was born in a manger to really cool young parents Mary and Joseph (you would have liked them), then he did a lot of miracles, made friends, told great stories, and had a tough death because of some political misunderstandings…but its all good, you see, cause there is Easter, resurrection, and ascension and potlucks… and endowments now in his honor.”
Is this also how we read the Bible…as a casual walk about tour through quaint old facts and anecdotes of ancient times: Queen Anne towers and dust collectors? If the lectionary cycle lulls us into an old house walking tour where we are scared to break things, something is wrong. I love the Avery House, but I think we mistake our annual tour through the Bible for an antique house tour. It is time to shake the dust off. Since Advent is like our lobby talk where we set our values for the coming year Bible tour, lay-out the rules, it is my job as your tour guide to inform you that this year… please PLEASE break some sh… stuff this year! For crying out loud!
Adventing is weird and highly dangerous walking tour of history where we are called to be the John the Baptists crying out in the wilderness for a new time declaring: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love to a world that doesn’t remember how to do these things and frankly is threatened by them for good reason! Being John the Baptists in Advent is more about being like Indiana Jones in a dangerous adventure of caves and mystery than being Hyacinth Bucket (Bouquet) keeping up appearances in an old British Castle. If you got that second reference, then there is a prize waiting for you in the gift shop.
Think about it—how dangerous are the Gospel truths of Advent: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love!
Love would mean giving-up hatred that maintains political order. Hate and fear is how the world works politically speaking. Do we really want love? Wouldn’t it be anarchy?
Peace would mean that weapons manufactures would lose countless sums of money and contracts and people might even lose their jobs. What about security firms and lawyers? Violence is how our economy works. Do we really want peace? Wouldn’t it be bad for the economy?
Joy would mean that the pharmaceutical companies would need to rethink their business models and the all the people who spend their days (some of you my friends) writing to the comments section in the Coloradoan about how mad they are at CSU would have to find something more productive to do with their time. A lack of joy and perspective on the miracle of life is how we know how to use our time. Do we really want joy? Wouldn’t we be bored?
Oh, and hope would mean that we might support affordable education or real healthcare, housing, and food for our world! Do we really want hope? Wouldn’t that be unfair for the nations and individuals who inherited so much blessing from a benevolent prosperity God? Wouldn’t the world be unjust or ungovernable with too much hope?
See how truly dangerous Advent is for the status quo! But then we say… again… with confidence and true belief—“World, hey you, you haven’t seen NOTHING yet! Just you wait until the love and the peace and joy and hope of God gets ahold of you through the Christ Child. Just you wait!”
How hard is that for us to do? Maybe the reason it hasn’t happened yet, is we (Christians) don’t really believe it anymore ourselves… it is just something we repeat because we were brought-up to come here on Sundays and pay ministers salaries. Do we believe what we proclaim in Advent on this Gospel of Mark Christmas? Maybe that is the only way to start inviting God back to this planet—if the Christians themselves learn to believe in these again: Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.
If we are honest with ourselves, can we overcome our despair and liberal pessimism long enough to even believe these things are possible for a split second? It is only by believing that they were possible that voting rights came for all, slavery was abolished, that apartheid was no more. If you don’t really believe we can do it together, humanity, then don’t take the Gospel in vain for crying out loud. Adventing is not just the lobby (opening intro) for an old house museum tour stroll through the Bible anymore.
Advent isn’t the lobby introduction to your grandmother’s old house museum tour. We are called to be the John the Baptists proclaiming that something new is coming—something bigger than ourselves or our imaginations. We are, as Mark implies in his Christmas story, called to be prophets. Now, while I am your tour guide, I am not your John the Baptist. I don’t even own a Subaru. You are John the Baptist in this Advent time of preparation. There is this myth, and I see it play out with the prayer tree that because you have paid professional clergy, we are the ones called to proclaim and you are the ones to follow. Plymouth, however, is a Calvinist-rooted Congregational Church, so you don’t get off that easy. :)
Today, Mark drops a lump of coal in our Christmas plans. He is the Grinch to Luke and Matthew’s idealist Santa Claus. Mark calls all us to the mat to advent with him. Advent in Mark consists solely of us crying out loud…wailing in the desert. In Mark our role is to reveal God’s reign, for maybe… I propose, the reason these things are not realized or realizable, the reason the world doesn’t change, the reason Jesus has yet to repeat radical transformation and return in our midst is because we think we are on an old house tour of the Bible (admiring knick knacks covered in dust) rather than a religion (that word has power) of belief and action! This year, for the sake of peace, it is time for us to break some stuff… and believe something again. This year, we need to be religious, and believe something ancient, brooding, and dangerous for a change. No more safe Christianity for 2018. We tried that already in 2017, and how did that work out for us?
Merry Christmas, for crying out loud, from the Gospel According to Mark!
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
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