Tuesday, December 5, 2017

What Mary Knew (December 3, 2017)


Readings
This particular Sunday, the minister asked us to join hands and to slowly start chanting “Om.” The resonance of the chant and the joy of belonging once again to a spiritual community made me feel, just for a second or two, as if my body had disappeared and I was lifted from the earth. In that momentary state of utter nothingness, I had a very clear and complete realization. I totally understood one thing: that we are all one. In that instant I knew that the whole universe is a seamless tapestry of people, animals, vegetables, rocks, and more—all sustained and nurtured by the Great Mystery. In the midst of this knowing, a voice said clearly, “For a moment like this, it was worth having been born.” The power of that essential awareness ended my feelings of isolation. I knew I was one with the universe and with all that is and that I must use my gifts to contribute to the welfare of all.
—Rev. Lilia Cuervo, Cambridge, MA

It happened unexpectedly, unsought . . . on an ordinary “ho-hum” day. On that crisp Spring morning I sat, alone, pondering the immense power and timelessness of the sea. After a while, the roar of the crashing waves, the kiss of the salty breeze on my face, the coolness of the sand beneath me, and all else in my conscious awareness just floated away. An overwhelming peacefulness embraced my whole being. In that moment, an intense experience of Self merging profoundly with what I have come to name The Spirit of Life was the entirety of all I sensed.
Our Transcendentalist forefathers and foremothers, process theologians, and others affirm such experiences as genuine. I have never doubted the authenticity of this deeply intimate spiritual experience. I carry with me the truth that we are interwoven in one intricate fabric of existence. We are all good. We are One.
— Rev. Christine Riley,

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

46 And Mary[a] said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
-- Luke 1:39-55 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Sermon

Mary is a controversial figure in the Unitarian tradition For some rationalists, the idea of the virgin birth is an example of everything that is wrong with religion. Many sermons have been preached and essays written about whether you can have a religious faith without miracles. I grew up in a UU church, and this was literally the only thing we ever discussed about Mary.

As I became interested in feminist theology, Mary took on new importance because here are so few important women in the Christian Tradition, and she came to embody the divine feminine in many cultures. We can’t afford to silence any of the rare female voices in our Judeo-Christian Tradition. Fortunately, as we consider the Mary we meet in the Gospel of Luke, we do so in our UU tradition, which views scripture not as a literal accounting historical events, but as poetry, as story, so I invite you to enter into the text today with me with that spirit. Almost by definition religious experience defies description. So we resort to poetry to gesture evoke a numinous experience. The story of Mary, as told in the Gospel of Luke, is one such story.

When we imagine the journey toward the divine, there are many conflicting ideas about what we might find if we came close enough. Many conflicting ideas about where the spiritual path ultimately leads. We may think of the hermit on his mountain top, away from worldly things, who meditates for 40 days with only his acolytes to come wet his lips with water every so often. We think of our own peak moments, like those experiences described in this morning’s readings, and we imagine that folks who are close to the divine must feel that blissful content feeling all the time.

Consider the religious imagery we see in the great religious artists, the glow of the saints, surrounded by angels, draped in beauty. At this time of year are surrounded by such images.
Luke 2 “In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven”
Because most of us have never seen or heard an angel such as the artists portray them in beautiful paintings, we think religious experiences are things that happen to other people. We probably don’t think of comparing a moment of wholeness and peace staring at the ocean, or the profound bliss and connection to the cycle of life we might experience staring into the eyes of a newborn. but as Rev. Christine Riley Says: “Our Transcendentalist forefathers and foremothers, process theologians, and others affirm such experiences as genuine.” a “deeply intimate spiritual experience”

Anyone in the catholic tradition would affirm that Mary comes as close to God as just about any person could be. An angel visits Mary and says to her “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Her relative Elizabeth greets her cousin with the words, “Blessed are you among women” And when I listened to the words of this story while on a recent retreat, after a weekend of silence, worship, meditation, contemplation, prayer, I was struck by how Mary responds in what must be surely a peak religious experience of her life. It begins as one might imagine:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
In our UU community, we have many names for the divine (and Lord is not often a favorite, because it’s so patriarchal) but whatever name we would choose to speak in gratitude at one of those peak moments, I think our first thought might be the same- thank you for this beautiful gift of a moment, thank you Spirit of life, thank you random chance in the universe, I feel so blessed to have this moment. Gratitude is a common response to mystical experience

But then, as I listened to this poem, I heard something I’d never paid attention to before:
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

In her song of praise, a full ¼ is praising God as one who brings down the powerful and lifts the lowly, who fills the hungry and sends the rich away empty. We could easily understand if Mary got a little full of herself- she is called “blessed among women” after all. An angel appeared to her and spoke to her- and now, at least in metaphor, she is full of the spirit of God, she is gestating the divine. One interpretation of this passage is a reminder of the importance of humility in the Contemplative tradition. Just as UU minister Christine Riley “sat, alone, pondering the immense power and timelessness of the sea.” When we open ourselves to the vastness of all that is, we decentralize our own small self- the self-image that seems so important to us in our daily dramas loosens a bit and we are able to see a bigger picture. When put down our own self importance, we are more open to “that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life.”

Some weeks after Mary’s mystical experience, she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. I imagine that if you had been visited by angels, it would be easy to become overwhelmed with your own self-importance, to see yourself as better, wiser, more important than other people after an experience of this kind, but humility reminds us of our place in the whole of things. Mary’s song illustrates that she is not only able to stay grounded but she remembers those who are hungry, and she remembers the imbalance of power. When we are called to bring forth the spirit of life into the world, justice is part of what we are called to bring forth. As Lillia Cuervo wrote: “The power of that essential awareness ended my feelings of isolation. I knew I was one with the universe and with all that is and that I must use my gifts to contribute to the welfare of all. “[i]

Sometimes the spiritual journey, the inward journey are criticized as being self-centered naval gazing, and indeed it can be. It’s easy to use it as an escape from the world. We walk in the woods to let go of the bad news both local and global. We sit on the meditation cushion as a sanctuary form the difficult part s of life. There’s a danger to this- it’s called “spiritual bypass”- this is a term I just learned recently the "tendency to use spiritual ideas and practices to sidestep or avoid facing unresolved emotional issues, psychological wounds, and unfinished developmental tasks".[1] It was first used by John Welwood, a Buddhist teacher and psychotherapist. This term usually refers to personal, psychological issues, but I think we can see examples of using spirituality to bypass dealing with unresolved issues, tasks and wounds in the larger world.

But ours is one of many traditions, many teachers who believe that the spiritual path, if it is true, leads us inward, leads us to the spirit, only to lead us outward again to the healing of the world. In this song, Mary has identified 2 things, as praiseworthy manifestations of divine power. One is an equalizing asymmetrical systems: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;” [You expect to see this kind of line in the books of the prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures- it is a major theme for them. So maybe the writer of Luke’s gospel is linking her back to the prophets, to say that Mary, and the child she is carrying, stand in that prophetic tradition. ] By attributing to the divine the quality of raising the lowly and bringing down the powerful, Mary is saying a pretty revolutionary thing. Christianity is used by so many of the ruling class to bolster their claim to power, to validate and enforce the status quo, that’s why it was so moving to me -- to hear the widely venerated Mary praise the revolutionary aspect of divine power made me stop and look again.

Some of you will remember that one of our current UU Study Action Issues is about escalating inequality. It says in part: “Our Unitarian Universalist (UU) tradition places its faith in people to create a more loving community for all, guided by ‘justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.’ Challenging extreme inequality has now become a moral imperative…”[ii] In our UU tradition we believe that if something is sacred, as Mary here is implying that rebalancing power is sacred, then our role as humans is to be co-creators with the spirit of life, to magnify the spirit of life. In this case, we are encouraged participate in raising up the “lowly” which each of us may feel called to do in many ways. You could say that in a culture based on white supremacy that working to dismantle white privilege is a way of bringing down the powerful from their thrones, and lifting up the lowly. Working for racial justice is a way of co-creating with the spirit of life. Or take this tax bill just passed by the senate- Every analyst agrees that this will mostly reduce taxes for the top 1%[iii] The only argument is about whether cutting taxes for the rich will lead to ballooning growth, or a ballooning deficit. So while most of our cultural images suggest that the best way to honor the nativity is to shop and decorate our homes, one way to interpret this passage of the bible is to celebrate the season is by calling your congress person to let them know how you feel about the tax bill, or by going out into the social hall after service and writing a postcard to your US Senators and telling them what it means to you to co-create a just world. [iv] And when your friends ask you want you’re doing for the holidays, you can say you are raising up the lowly and bringing down the powerful.

The other thing Mary lifts up is the needs of the hungry: “53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” In her poem of praise, she acknowledges our hunger. Many bible commentators flip immediately to spiritual hunger. Certainly all humans have experienced a yearning, a hunger in their hearts … for wholeness, for connection. As Augustine wrote “restless is the heart until it rests in thee.” This is a reasonable point for religion to make. Consider the tv commercials we see this time of year, the one suggesting that this electronic gadget, this toy, and definitely a luxury car can finally fill that emptiness, sooth that restlessness. The spiritual point of view, however, sees that no material status, no material gain will satisfy that deep soul hunger. A good message for all of us in the “holiday shopping season.”

At the same time, to talk about feeding spiritual hunger without acknowledging the true fact that there are millions of people hungry in the world right now shows a kind of willful blindness. That’s why this is such a natural time of year to give to foodbanks and charities that support folks who are struggling. I’m so grateful to Judy for setting up our congregational service tomorrow with Food For Thought - at Lynch Bustin Elementary to pack up “ nutritional meals to students in need of food over weekends and school vacations throughout the school year”. For those of us who don’t experience hunger on a regular basis, it’s easy to loose site of the fact that according to the United nations “Globally, one in nine people in the world today (795 million) are undernourished” [v]

This advent season is traditionally one where Christians are invited into a time of inward contemplation, In the Catholic tradition Advent is a time of emptiness, a time of waiting. For observant Catholics, this means waiting to welcome spiritual light of the Christ Child into the world. But whether or not we identify as Christian, whether we are theists, atheists or agnostics, this time of darkness invites us to turn inward, to let go of the constraints of our individual dramas and striving, opening ourselves to that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life; opening ourselves to the larger oneness of all that is, with gratitude, with humility. Not so that we can escape our troubles, but so that when we are drawn back out into the world we find our part in the divine work of lifting up the lowly; and filling the hungry with good things.

Endnotes
[i] http://www.uuabookstore.org/Assets/PDFs/3117.pdf
http://www.uuabookstore.org/UU-Mystical-Experiences-P18005.aspx
[ii] https://www.uua.org/economic/escalatinginequality/csai
[iii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BfHjzp0PxMI
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/11/26/senate-gop-tax-bill-hurts-the-poor-more-than-originally-thought-cbo-finds/?utm_term=.a08faf2de249
[iv] http://bit.ly/2jels7S UUs for Social Justice “Say no to fake tax reform”
[v] http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/hunger/http://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/hunger/

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